MEAILLES, France — On a recent rail trek through France, I rode with Aesop figuratively at my elbow--though in this case his hare and tortoise were not competitive but complementary, with one taking me to the other.
The hare was the much-admired TGV, or Train a Grande Vitesse--"high-speed train," and the world's most prominent one at that. The tortoise was a modest railcar of the narrow-gauge Chemins de Fer de Provence, a homey little line that climbs from the southern resort city of Nice on France's Riviera to Digne-les-Bains, in the Provencal Alps.
High in those mountains, Meailles, a remote, deserted and windblown depot, was the ultima Thule of my journey--about as far in style and spirit as you can get from the modern station at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, where our trip had begun last March.
As an American used to exiting airports on traffic-choked highways, I'm exhilarated every time I fly into a European city and find I can trundle my luggage cart from baggage claim right to the platform of a train heading my way. From Charles de Gaulle's bright, airy station, my wife, Laurel, and I stepped aboard a sleek blue-and-silver TGV, settled into our first-class seats and sped to Marseille over the TGV Mediterranee line, which began service in June 2001.
Since its first route opened two decades ago, the TGV has epitomized high-speed railroading, a healthy contagion that has spread throughout Western Europe as Germany fielded its ICE, Belgium its Thalys, Italy and Switzerland their Cisalpino, Sweden its X2000 and Spain its AVE. But the TGV remains the fastest, reaching speeds of 186 mph over long stretches of dedicated fast track. France's 932-mile network of high-speed lines is the world's most extensive.
And it keeps expanding, most recently with the 156-mile "TGV Med" from Valence to Marseille. The Med's completion has cut travel time from Paris' Gare de Lyon to Marseille to three hours flat, trimming 1 1/4 hours off the previous best. To my mind, the TGV is the best way to travel to southern France; by car, the 550-mile trip would take about seven hours.
The train was heavily booked, so we were glad we had reserved our seats in the States through Rail Europe--though we had paid $11 each for this convenience. (Reservations, always required on TGVs, cost about $1.50 apiece when booked in France.) Seating in first class is two and one across, lending a spacious feel. And legroom is generous. But it's best not to travel at mealtimes because the cafe car offers only rudimentary service for beverages, sandwiches and snacks.
Launched from Charles de Gaulle, we bypassed Paris, stopping only at Marne la Vallee-Chessy (for Disneyland Paris) on the way to Lyon. We sped through rolling countryside--cultivated fields and pastures dotted with sheep and cows. When we met Paris-bound TGVs, they snapped past in an instant.
As we entered Lyon, the train switched to conventional track, dropping down from a hill that offered expansive views of the city. The platforms here were busy with TGVs and conventional trains--a reminder of a central tenet of the TGV concept: Build dedicated high-speed lines where practical, and use upgraded conventional tracks where not, particularly in and out of cities.
Racing south again, we spotted snowcapped mountains in the eastern distance. Before long we were on the new TGV Med line, crossing the graceful concrete trestles for which it's known. The Med required nearly 500 new structures, seven of which have been noted by the French government as "Monuments d'Art."
Three new TGV-dedicated stations--called gares de soleil, or "stations of sun," for their use of glass--were built at Valence, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. All this, along with the extraordinary environmental sensitivity required in the line's construction, helps explain why it took 12 years and $3.5 billion to construct.
The Monuments d'Art blew by in a blur, I have to admit, which was reinforced by jet-lag-induced naps. Laurel and I agreed that speeding south on a TGV was the perfect way to recover from the rigors of a transatlantic flight.
We entered the once-gritty port city of Marseille through a new 3.4-mile-long tunnel, the longest in France. The 550-mile run from Charles de Gaulle had taken the scheduled three hours and 35 minutes. After a short taxi ride we were standing on our balcony at the comfortable Hotel Residence du Vieux Port, watching the afternoon sun die among the sailboat masts that bristled in the harbor.
Marseille was a revelation. A decade ago it would have been on few tourist itineraries. Although the city retains a bracingly blue-collar feel, the steep, narrow, winding streets of "Le Panier," or Old Town, and the many fine seafood restaurants that cluster around the old port are a tourist draw--yet it struck us that more of our fellow visitors spoke French than English.