the slow train from France to Spain

the slow train from France to Spain

the slow train from France to Spain

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Avignon is a natural passage station for travelers from Great Britain and Northern Europe to the Iberian Peninsula. It is a place for choices. Fast or slow?

Travelers in a hurry to get to Spain head to the Gare TGV, which opened in 2001. It’s a good road south of the city center in Courtine, a new suburb that was once a watery wasteland between the Durance and Rhone rivers. From that rather barren station outside the city, a high-speed train departing at 8:40 am arrives in the Spanish capital in mid-afternoon.

Those not in a hurry will find a much more attractive option for traveling to Spain. Slow trains leave from Avignon Center, the historic station near the old city walls. The station itself is a jewel, its facade a test of neoclassical symmetry, with five elegant bays and a clock dominating the balustrade. Architect Jules Bouchot also designed a similar station in Valence, along the Rhone valley from Avignon. Both stations take architectural cues from Versailles Castle 7.

Facade of the Avignon-Center station

Gare d’Avignon-Center, was inspired by the Petit Trianon of Versailles. Photograph: Jason Knott / Alamy

The Avignon Center once boasted an appeal of international destinations on its starting boards. Unfortunately there are no longer direct trains to London, Berlin and Milan. The only trains from Avignon Center that still venture beyond French borders are the regional services three times a day to Portbou in Spain. This is an amazing 4-hour and 15-minute journey made even better by being on a slower train, which makes 25 stops along the way. There is real drama in the changing landscapes of this route, culminating in a final stretch along the Côte Vermeille south of Perpignan to the border. On the left is the Mediterranean, and the rugged slopes of the Pyrenees rise to the right. All in all it’s much better than diving under the mountains in the long Perthus tunnel used by high-speed trains.

This slower option is based on regional trains (TER). Up to three direct trains a day connect Avignon to Portbou. These are augmented by additional services requiring changes, commonly in Narbonne and Perpignan. This is the perfect trip for travelers using Interrail passes – they can simply hop on and off as they please without the tedious need, common in France, to reserve seats in advance. It is a route to enjoy in its own right, but can be integrated into longer Interrail itineraries.

Cruise to Occitania

The slow train to Spain runs through the southern outskirts of Avignon and crosses the Durance east of the TGV station. Within minutes there is a real sense of wilderness as we skirt the steep slopes of La Montagnette, with their twisted pines and low Mediterranean scrub, a landscape shaped by the merciless mistral wind. There is a wonderful feeling of being immersed in a landscape, rather than a fiery one through at an uncomfortably high speed.

View of the coast near Sète, from the Avignon train.

View of the coast near Sète, from the Avignon train. Photograph: Bernard Pichon / Getty Images

In Tarascon the train turns sharply west, crossing the Rhone and entering Occitania. We pass a rose-colored farmhouse that flies the region’s distinctive red flag with a yellow cross. The train stops at a station called Nîmes Pont-du-Gard. It’s a bold piece of modern architecture and a curious affectation of French rail planners: the station is miles away from Nîmes and even farther from the famous Roman aqueduct that forms the rest of its name. Next we stop at the real Nîmes, then at a procession of distinctive Occitan communities: Montpellier, Sète, Agde, Béziers and Narbonne. Along the way, there are tantalizing views of flamingos, salt flats, coastal forts, and deserted beaches.

I have walked this path from end to end without stopping. It takes just over four hours. But the places along the way are too tempting to miss. Narbonne is more or less the central point of the trip and the perfect place for lunch. Head to Les Halles, a historic covered market that looks like a 19th-century train station, for a variety of culinary delights.

I also usually stop in Perpignan, where a sign at the station reminds travelers that Perpignan is the true center of the world. This is not an idle piece of civic claim, but a nice reference to Salvador Dalí’s extraordinary metaphysical experience here in 1963. For Dalí, Perpignan was not only the center of the world, but the cosmique center of the univers.

beach, pretty town and green hills

The Collioure seafront, south of Perpignan. Photograph: Patrick Donovan / Getty Images

The other must-see on this trip is lovely Collioure, a small port on the rocky coast south of Perpignan. The village is dominated by a beautiful 13th century castle used by the Knights Templar, Majorcan monarchs and Bourbon troops. Matisse, Picasso, Dufy and Braque all discovered Collioure. Anchovies, long a staple of Collioure, are as good as ever and the city still attracts many aspiring artists. From Collioure, the railway runs alongside headlands and bays, passing along the route through the windswept vineyards at Banyuls.

Arrival in Spain

Portbou (sometimes rendered as Port Bou) is the first station on the Spanish side of the border and the terminus for all regional trains arriving from France. Portbou itself is nothing more than a village, much of its territory is occupied by the large station and railway yards.

person on the platform of Portbou station.

Terminus at Portbou station. Photograph: David Bagnall / Alamy

The coastal route from France to Spain was relegated to secondary status in 2010, when most of the international trains from Perpignan were diverted through the Perthus tunnel. Portbou thus lost its place in the first league of European border stations. It was here that all express trains from France to Spain had to stop to allow the axles to be changed from the European standard to the wider Spanish gauge. Now it’s the passengers who have to change, and most of those arriving on the TER service from France join the Spanish train waiting for the journey to Barcelona.

Travel facts

Hourly regional trains run from Avignon to Portbou. In autumn, direct trains depart from Avignon Center at 11:35 am (daily), 1:35 pm (not Saturday) and 3:35 pm (not Saturday and Sunday). The one-way fare is € 45.70. Book on raileurope.com (with a booking fee of € 6.95). Occasionally it is possible to travel for as little as € 1 from Avignon Center to Portbou. Finding this promotional rate is like looking for a needle in a haystack and does not allow stopovers. For those who prefer to stop along the way, particularly as part of a wider European rail itinerary, an Interrail pass is the best option (starting at € 246, with discounts for under 28 and over 60).

The seventeenth edition of Nicky Gardner’s book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available at the Guardian Bookshop. He is co-editor of the hidden europe magazine

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