Visiting Disneyland was just the start of it. Our next trip after that was a much more ambitious one, involving a few nights in Paris followed by a lengthy train journey across France and all the way to Barcelona and back. By that time we were seasoned Eurostar travellers. While in Paris we sampled various other forms of transport, including the batobus, the Metro and, best of all, a trip boat on the Canal Saint Martin.
Coincidentally it was just outside the Musée d’Orsay, housed in a former railway station, that we had a family row started by me and probably caused by trying to visit too many museums in one day. The museum still looks just like a station.
Luckily by the time we boarded our TGV at the Gare de Lyon for the next part of our journey, that was all forgotten. You can book right through from Paris to Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’s always necessary to change trains at Montpellier, where there were some rather pretty trams and a useful bag shop inside the station for people whose travel bags had fallen apart on the way. We enjoyed the section on the TGV better than the rest, but later I became fascinated by the lagoons and flamingos we caught sight of during the trip along the southern French coast, and I began to wonder if we should have got off the train there to investigate instead of carrying on with a journey that became particularly tortuous at the Spanish border at Portbou, where I think the wheels were changed over to a different gauge and armed soldiers came through the carriages.
But of course it is always worthwhile going to Barcelona! I even managed to visit some more museums, and I thoroughly recommend the Picasso Museum and the Barcelona Museum, where there are real Roman ruins in the lower levels and you can walk round them.
We had decided to travel back on the night train or Trenhotel from Barcelona to Paris. One tip for Barcelona (though this may well have changed by now) is that there weren’t any left luggage facilities at the Estacio Franca, and we had to go over to the other station, Barcelona-Sants, to deposit our bags for the day so that we could spend some more time sight-seeing, and then go back to collect them later.
As we spent all night and then all day travelling constantly, it turned out to be one of those times when we really enjoyed going first class from London to Edinburgh. I think all we were fit for by then was drinking coffee and eating whatever the train staff brought us.
I’m jumping forward in time in this post, although I will probably return to the distant past in due course. The sunshine this week in our grim northern outpost (Edinburgh) has made me think fondly of warm southern holidays and travelling across Europe to distant and different places.
I thoroughly recommend The Man in Seat Sixty-One for planning this kind of journey, particularly if it’s at all complicated. I’ve always found his advice on routes to be excellent, even although the details may change slightly over time. For instance Rail Europe, which we used to use for European train bookings, has now been replaced by the SNCF website.
It’s also best to be flexible about through bookings. So for instance it’s theoretically possible to book from Edinburgh to Paris or Brussels or some other European destination via the Eurostar website, but I usually find there’s some reason to make the bookings separately. For instance you might want to travel first class from Edinburgh to London – I quite often do, to avoid the fall-out from random occurrences such as the passengers from two trains being shoehorned into one train, and to take advantage of the ‘free’ food that appears regularly in first class. There’s nothing like an apparently endless supply of free coffee to help you forget you’ve been travelling for over 24 hours. Sometimes first class isn’t all that much more expensive than standard class on the East Coast main line either.
Our first foray into Europe by train as a family took place only a few years ago, when I wanted to visit Disneyland Paris to mark a special birthday. This is an ideal destination to reach by train as you can go straight out of the station into the park. You can also travel into Paris by train for the day from the same station. My tip for this trip is to make sure you learn the French phrase for ‘my ticket won’t work in the exit gates’ in case you get stuck inside Les Halles station as we did!
Once we had successfully completed that first trip, Europe was our oyster (not a reference to the London transport card). More on all that later.
When we lived in Wormit, we had a very good view of the local station, from which the booking office and waiting room building has now been moved to the steam railway at Bo’ness in West Lothian, and of the main Aberdeen to London railway line. There was a water tower across the road from our house where engines would take on water in the middle of the night and then let off steam, something that was almost guaranteed to wake up anyone who was staying with us and give them a terrible fright.
At times we would become trainspotters and spend ages at the window with little books full of train numbers to tick off – no draughty station platforms for us! We saw all the well-known steam engines of the time, such as ‘The Flying Scotsman’ and ‘The Mallard’ from our front windows.
On one occasion there was a bad railway accident in the station. My brother and I had just gone to bed when there was a tremendous crash outside. We rushed to the front windows to have a look, and saw a steam engine lying on its side in the station, having crashed just as it came out of the tunnel – there was a bend in the track at that point. My father went over to the station to help and returned with some people from the train who were quite shaken up and waited in our house until they could get transport back to Dundee, where the train was supposed to be going. It was quite upsetting to find out later that there had been some fatalities.
We used the train a lot – my father went to work on it every day, and for several years in a row when we were children we went on holiday either to St Andrews or Elie, in each case travelling the whole way by train round the coast of Fife. All these lines are now closed. I’m not sure that it’s progress being able to drive the whole way instead!
Thinking about the title of this post, I have a deep background in railways and trains. My great-grandfather worked on the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge, and my grandfather as a railway track fitter in Fife for a while.
As a child I lived in a house that overlooked the station at Wormit and the Tay Rail Bridge. Crossing the bridge by train on stormy nights, I used to look down at the remains of the previous Tay Bridge and worry that we would also plunge into the icy depths of the river underneath. This fear was only heightened by going to see the salvaged pieces of carriages and parts of the old bridge that were on display in the museum in Dundee.