When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.
A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.
Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.
The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train. Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east. And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.
Have you ever spent time visiting the must-sees of a city and then slowly realised that it’s the hidden corners and your observations of the people that stay with you over time, rather than what Tripadvisor tells you are The Ten Best Things to do in…?
Chatting to a casual acquaintance in Avignon, I happened to mention that I often use the city as a stopover as part of my slow travel to and from France, utilising the Eurostar direct service to London, but I’d never made a ‘proper’ visit to the town’s two crown jewels: the famous pont d’Avignon, and the Palais des Papes. His jaw dropped in horror and he hastily moved on, perhaps worried that such lack of culture was contagious.
Yet it’s true. Each time I contemplate the generous half-day to fill before the mid-afternoon departure back to King’s Cross, I simply continue the previous evening’s wandering around the city. I’ve resisted joining the flow of headset-clad tourists as they slouch around the historic half bridge. The Pont St-Bénézet dates from 1177 and is a symbol of the city, but the lofty gardens of the Rocher des Doms offer a wonderful aerial view of the bridge as it ends abruptly mid-stream in the Rhône, and a horizon stretching away to the Luberon. Following the steps down the steep rockface of the Rocher brings you to a free ferry across the Rhone for a different perspective of the bridge. Yet, to be frank, I was more taken with the long stretch of wildflowers growing parallel to the city walls, and the way that a set of shutters held out mirrors to the sky.
I’ve also resisted entering the Palais des Papes, which, with its buttresses and crenellations, is as much a fortress as a papal palace. Walking around its immense walls, I’m struck by how the facade changes as the day’s light moves on.
One balmy April evening in 2016, I watched as it became illuminated against the deep blue of the night sky, while in the shadows a small crowd gathered as part of the France-wide Nuit debout protests against labour reforms and calls for a society built on more than profit. The peaceful sit-in gradually evolved into an impromptu dance, with friends and strangers united towards a common cause.
My stopovers have unintentionally coincided with the July festival d’Avignon, a world-famous arts festival with performances. The streets of the old town become carnivalesque for a couple of weeks, swarming with visitors and studded with posters advertising performances; these often take place in improvised ‘theatres’ that pop up in all kinds of buildings. Tiny restaurants open up and chairs spill over onto the cobbles.
Local reaction is understandably mixed about the way that the old town – home to around 12,000 inhabitants – is taken over in this way. Wandering the backstreets, I came across a long line of placards affixed to buildings, detailing the history of the festival. The display didn’t gloss over the current depth of feeling expressed by some of the inhabitants. As I understood it, Avignon is no longer a town with a festival, but has become part of a festival that possesses a town.
All this talk of urban wandering in France brings to mind the concept of the flâneur, a strolling observer of city life who wanders, loiters and explores, observing people and places. The focus is on what’s happening in the crowd. The writer Walter Benjamin popularised the concept of the flâneur from the earlier work of the poet Baudelaire. Awareness of the flâneur has grown alongside interest in psychogeography, which studies the art of becoming lost in the city as a way into its soul. The act of flânerie, an aimless drift through urban landscapes, is at the heart of psychogeography.
Yet, as Lauren Elkin points out, the flâneur is a quintessentially male concept. Although women haven’t always had the same freedom to walk the city streets by night and day, the art of urban wandering is not confined to men, with Virginia Woolf being one notable flâneuse. Nevertheless, as Lauren argues, we perhaps shouldn’t see the flâneuse as a mere female equivalent of the flâneur, but as something distinct; often more defiant than the aimless and undoubtedly privileged flâneur of the literature.
I’m wary of drawing too deeply on the complex notion of the flâneur to describe the behaviour of the contemporary traveller, although it’s clear that it resonates with some travel bloggers. Yet, like many concepts, it can help us to make sense of what we do.
It’s certainly a privilege to be able to traipse the city streets, to wander and observe anonymously. But avoiding the tourist traps of The Ten Best Things in… can also save a small fortune, enough to indulge yourself among the used books in the delightful Camili Books and Tea. I’d never have found that little gem if I’d limited my footfall to the main sites.
How to travel overland to the Pyrenees: some ideas
Ok, so it’s not on a par with travelling overland to Asia, but today many of us are conscious of our environmental footprint and looking for ways to travel without flying (there’s some academic discussion on the Flying Less Movement here)
I recently chatted with a guy who owns a holiday home in Carcassonne, and he was full of enthusiasm about the low cost of the flights he was able to take from Scotland. Sometimes he paid as little as £10 – £20 each way, which meant he could afford to go on holiday every few weeks. When I explained that I much preferred to go by train to the Pyrenees, he looked aghast – ‘What about the cost?’
Of course it’s more expensive to travel around Europe by train compared with the low-cost airlines, and it’s hard to imagine that many people will make the switch while the price difference is so huge. Yet for me, travelling overland helps me to really feel that I’ve arrived somewhere, following the route from the ground rather than dropping down from the clouds. Being a digital nomad I can work from anywhere, and it’s much easier when sitting on a train compared with when I’m wedged into a budget airline cattle-truck.
Best of all is that travelling overland gives the option to break the journey with a stopover somewhere new each time. And unlike the Ryanair frequent flyers, I don’t go every few weeks, but instead I have fewer trips with longer stays, so the cost evens up a bit. Booking well in advance and outside the weekends can also make a huge difference to the price of the ticket.
In this first article I’ll talk about some of the travel options I’ve used.
It’s now possible to step from a damp and grey St Pancras onto the Eurostar and emerge less than six hours later into the heat and sun of Provence. Eurostar runs a service that takes you straight from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille. I’ve paid as little as £49 each way, which compares really favourably with the budget airlines. From Avignon TGV station it’s just a few minutes on a local train into Avignon Centre, from where you have the option of connections or an evening’s stopover.
From Avignon I usually take a local train going west via Nimes, Beziers, Sète, Montpellier and Narbonne to Carcassonne, the latter being my gateway to the Pyrenees, from where I hire a car to get me into the mountains. All of these places offer scope for appealing stopovers, and I’ll be writing about some of them in the next articles.
It’s also easy to get to lots of destinations via Eurostar by changing in Paris. Last year I did just that, taking a high speed TGV that shot me from the capital to Bordeaux in a few hours. That allowed me a long evening to look around the city and a not-too-early start for the train that took me via Toulouse to Carcassonne.
Planning and booking train travel in Europe is easy these days. I find the Loco2 system very user-friendly and I’ve used it for train travel all over Europe. The site connects to many national rail services and they don’t charge booking fees. Some tickets can be printed at home, whereas others need to be picked up at the station machines.
If you’re not yet aware of the wonderfully comprehensive website The Man in Seat 61 then take a look at it and bookmark it for future reference. It covers everything from an overview of a country’s trains and services, to individual route suggestions between major cities.