Sunday 18 September 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 1:
“If It's Monday This Must Be Marseille”

When I used to buy the British Rail Timetable in the seventies it always came with an International section and I used to look though it in hope that one day I'd be able travel abroad on some the exotic sounding trains: the Orient Express, the Rome Express, etc.. I remember seeing the coaches in London Victoria for the Night Ferry train to Paris (the only through train between the two capitals before the Channel Tunnel opened) and hearing about the Golden Arrow all-Pullman day service to Paris. When I first visited Brugge by train via the Dover-Oostende jetfoil I was excited to see that the train next to mine at Oostende station was going to Moscow – and that was still in the days of the Soviet Union.

Our Eurostar train at Marseille St Charles, being prepared
for its journey back to London
With the frequent fast Eurostar services to Paris and Brussels now available via the Channel Tunnel, and the disappearance of the named Pullman trains, a bit of the excitement of continental travel has vanished. Long-distance trains are now more frequent and tend to have generic brand names rather than exotic names of their own – although our own dear Night Riviera (to Cornwall) and Highland Chieftain (to Inverness) are among the exceptions. A year ago Eurostar tried out an occasional direct train to the French Riviera, and this year the frequency of it was increased: daily in the summer, a few times a week in spring and autumn, once a week in the winter. Never more than daily and with facilities a little different from other Eurostar services it seems to me that this train is crying out for a name, but it has not been given one. Perhaps I should make one up: “the Direct Eurostar to Marseille” is a bit prosaic!

We had a holiday booked to Switzerland at the end of the summer, but that was cancelled by the tour operator and I decided to fill the time instead with a trip to the South of France on the direct Eurostar to Marseille. It was to be an exploration, a tour, and we would move about and see several places but with no real agenda so that we could also relax, for we needed a rest. The week was the last of the summer timetable with daily trains, so we had some choice of when to travel, and having looked at what we'd like to do I rang Great Rail Journeys to arrange it for us, for they offer independent holidays as well as their own packages and they'd given me a discount voucher in compensation for the cancellation of the Swiss tour. I could also trust them to find good hotels and good prices on train tickets. Slightly nail-biting, the tickets are sent only ten days before departure and meanwhile we bought our Euro currency (at greatly inflated price just after the referendum result shook the financial world) and checked our passports and insurance. A couple of short breaks in England meant that I was not just pacing the floor while waiting for the day to dawn!

So … on a Sunday afternoon we made our way to Stamford station. It was a slightly awkward start because the line between Stamford and Peterborough was closed for maintenance, but a good coach service was laid on and its timetable published so it did not affect us a great deal and when we arrived at Peterborough we went straight to a train to London and took our seats in First Class – a huge advantage of booking through a tour operator was that we had fully-flexible first class tickets at an affordable price which we could never have booked ourselves. We had to carry our itinerary with us so that we could prove we were on an inclusive tour if we were asked, although we never were. The usual Sunday tea with sandwiches and cake was served on the train to London.

The Eurostar leaves London at 07:19 in the morning, so we spent the first night of the tour in London. I had asked for good hotels, and our room at the Radisson Edwardian Grafton exceeded all our expectations: it was a pity we were only staying one night! Up early in the morning we were given take-away coffee and a muesli bar as we were too early for breakfast, although London was already waking up as we walked along Euston Road to St Pancras International to check in – we knew that there would be a proper breakfast on the train. The usual procedure at St Pancras: insert ticket in gateway, put luggage on conveyor along with pocket contents for searching, take it all back again, show passport to both UK and French border officers (this time stare at camera for an automated check of passport photo, too, with our EU electronic passports – I wonder what will happen to those now) and sit and wait for boarding to begin.

When we arrived on the platform I was delighted to see that our train was composed of one of the recently-refurbished Eurostar sets in a very smart white-and-dark-blue livery, and I looked forward to seeing how the interior would differ from the trains we had used before. Not only was it smarter, cleaner and more up-to-date in style, but there were handy new features such as USB sockets for charging our smartphones etc as well as standard UK and continental sockets and, handiest of all, free wireless internet (so our smartphones were well worth charging!). The train staff were dressed rather more informally than usual, in T shirts with seaside holiday symbols: this was clearly a train for the leisure market!

We had not been travelling long when the continental breakfast was served: fruit juice, croissant, optional yogurt and coffee, of course. These Eurostar trains are very fast indeed and as we ran beside the M2 and M20 through Kent we were more than twice as fast as anything on the motorways!

Cheers! Starting the wine while waiting for the main course
On our journey to Marseille I wrote quite a lot of of my preceding blogpost; iPhone plugged into USB port to provide our “where are we?” map, and MacBook plugged into the mains socket for typing the blog! Soon through the tunnel and into France we stopped briefly at Lille and then plunged on past Paris (no longer do trains crawl through the suburbs; there is now a high-speed line by-passing the city) and on to the Rhone valley. Lunch is served in time for those travelling to Lyon to eat before they arrive, and this was a new experience for us on a Eurostar train: the catering on Paris and Brussels services is either breakfast like the one we had already enjoyed on this trip, or a very light meal of bread and cheese, but this was a cooked meal with a choice of main dish. We opted for stewed beef. Bread rolls and individual bottles of red wine, and of water, accompanied the meal with a cold dessert. It was delicious and filling.

The weather had been gloomy most of the way, but began to be sunny by the time the train stopped at Avignon. Our stop was the last, Marseille St Charles, and donning our Panama hats and sunglasses we stepped off the train into blazing sunshine with a brilliance and heat that were breathtaking. This was to be our weather, with a small exception, for the rest of the week, and we had packed on the assumption that it would be. The train ride had been an exciting start to what would turn out to be a wonderful holiday.

Marseille is a very hilly city and the first task on leaving the station was to carry our baggage down the substantial flight of steps into the street below, our hotel being on the quayside at the Vieux Port, a walk of about fifteen minutes, plotting our way with maps downloaded to our smartphones before we left home. Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Beauvau, was extremely comfortable and our room overlooked the Vieux Port, which is now a very busy marina full of yachts and still a fishing port and the terminal for ferries and pleasure cruises out to the islands. We checked in, took our cases to our room and went for a walk along one side the Vieux Port, up to a park overlooking the whole port and the old part of the town – we passed a soap museum (yes, really) and discovered that soap is a significant part of the history of the region, along with the famous Provence lavender which scents much of it.

Back at the hotel we repaired to the bar, again overlooking the marina, fell for the advertised cocktail, and ordered a salad meal for supper. As we sat looking out over the quayside a dramatic electric storm began, with lightning spectacularly lighting up the sky and the hills and sea, and the people on the quayside hurried for cover – handily the new public artwork of a flat canopy with mirrored ceiling was right outside, near the steps from the metro, and there was space under it for everyone who wanted cover. And so to bed, and Tuesday is another day!

I'll be describing the rest of the week soon, and meanwhile all my Trip Advisor reviews are available via the link in the right-hand column, and my photographs are on my Flickr album.

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