Thursday 22 June 2023

Exploring The French Riviera, Monaco and the Rhône Valley by Train, part 1

Great Rail Journeys Tour and Cruise in the South of France: Nice, Monaco and Cannes

When we briefly visited the French Riviera a few years ago we had a list of things for which we wished to return in due course. I was leafing through a Great Rail Journeys catalogue last year when I spotted and escorted tour by rail which covered a good number of those ("ticked most of the boxes") and included a cruise on the Rhône as well. We did not hesitate to book, including the upgrade to First Class rail travel. Fortunately we had several other tours of various sorts to occupy ourselves so the wait for this exciting rail tour was quite bearable!

The blindness of pure chance, the Casino at Monte Carlo

We packed our cases and then on a Saturday afternoon walked down to Stamford railway station to take the first of the trains of our rail adventure to France. It was a very hot and sunny day and so we were quite warm in the clothes we had kept back for travel, but it was a short downhill walk and we knew that the trains would be air-conditioned. Unfortunately our train from Stamford was running late, late enough to risk not making the connection we were intending to make in Peterborough for the next stage to London - we were in no particular hurry, and our international tour tickets were valid on any train, but I had chosen trains that I thought would be most comfortable and least crowded.

As it happened, though, the train to London was even more delayed. I did look into reserving seats on one that departed earlier than ours would, but no reservable seats were left and we decided it would be likely to be too crowded to be comfortable, so we waited for the train which we had first reserved and found that very few people had waited for it, so there was plenty of space, plenty of refreshments available, and the First Class hostess had plenty of time to serve us. A light meal from LNER's "Deli" First Class menu was served and we were soon in London where we checked in for a night at the Premier Inn in Euston Road which has been our "launch pad" for many a continental rail tour.

Our train to Paris was due to depart from London St Pancras International at 08:01 on the Sunday morning - hence the need to travel to London the day before - so with Eurostar check-in now being from 90 to 60 minutes before departure we were up early to meet our Tour Manager Kevin at the Great Rail Journeys office at the station at about 06:40. Down at the international departures area we went through the familiar routine of scanning out tickets, having our luggage scanned and showing our passport to both UK and French border police (now preceded by the familiar well-controlled queuing system which ensures that everyone gets through in a smooth and unhurried way without crushing at the barriers. The queue is partly a "Brexit benefit" owing to the longer time it takes to pass through French passport control but also arises from the sheer size of Eurostar trains which means that hundreds of people all want to arrive about the same time. As usual we had breakfast while waiting for the train, but this time I only needed to buy coffee as we still had pastries left over from the evening meal on LNER.

In Paris the tour group was gathered together and we had the usual Great Rail Journeys routine of walking to a coach which took us through the streets to Gare de Lyon for the next stage of the journey, the 14:08 TGV to Nice. There was time to eat a takeaway lunch from Monoprix outside the station before the group reconvened to go through the ticket barrier together and join the TGV: our seats were on the upper deck of this duplex train, a pair of side-by-side "airline" seats, comfortable enough for the five-hour run down to Nice. As usual on French trains, no refreshments were included in the fare but there was a decent buffet car and we were able at intervals to buy wine and snacks during the journey. It was possible to order for at-seat service but the bar was only two coaches away and it was nice to have a stroll and speak to a real human being to buy our refreshments.

A coach met us in Nice to take us to the hotel, the Malmaison Nice, a pleasant hotel with some art deco features, although we'd have been happy to walk this distance if we'd have been travelling independently. We went for a stroll looking for a light supper but on this Sunday evening we found nothing really suitable and returned to our room for the apples we had brought with us - I really did not miss having a meal: perhaps I had overdone the snacking on the train, but at least we did get a good night's sleep ready for the first full day in Nice.

Our bedroom at the Malmaison

The first day in Nice included a walking tour in the morning and an excellent local guide met us at the hotel and showed us around the city, which is divided by a large linear park along the course of a torrent - a stream which takes run-off from the mountains and hills overlooking the city - the original old city with its narrow streets and the markets, and the new city above with its tree-lined boulevards and expensive shops.  Both sides are very pleasant places to be, as is the park which separates them: we had enjoyed our previous visit here but this time we also learnt the history of the place and why it is the shade it is. From the Promenade des Anglais we were taken to a bus stop where a coach had been provided to take us to visit Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a charming village in the hills just below the town of Vence, which is the twin town of our home town of Stamford. Now that we have tracked down Vence's location we may have to see about visiting it on a future adventure, but we did not have the opportunity this time. Several of the party took the chance of a game of Pétanques at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but I opted simply to explore the village and take in the views, having played it quite lot in the past.

Back at Nice that evening we went to the old part of the city to find a restaurant that offered salad Nicoise, ending up, rather curiously, at Carpe Diem an Italian restaurant, run by Italian staff but among other things offering this local salad. Ordering in French, Italian and English led to a few misunderstandings but we got it all sorted out in the end and thoroughly enjoyed the salad, the wine and, in my case, a crème brulée. Although we would look around for other local dishes the following day, we kept Carpe Diem in mind since there was more on the menu that would be worth a try.

Tuesday  was a free day with nothing arranged by Great Rail Journeys except the hotel breakfast, and we had determined in advance that we would use this day to revisit Cannes and perhaps spend a little time on the beach. Our Great Rail Journeys tour manager suggested we might like to visit Antibes as well while we were out that way, so we kept in mind the possibility of stopping off there on the way back to Nice that afternoon or evening.

We were unsure about what rail tickets we might need to accomplish such a trip, needing some flexibility in ticket validity, and just as I reached the front of the short queue for the local ticket machines at Nice station and was staring at the screen working out where to start a member of the station staff came over and asked (in English - am I that obvious?) what we wanted. When we had told her, she said, "You need a pass," and poked a few buttons on the screen, invited me to present my credit card and then handed me the ticket which the machine had duly printed. "This is for both of you, all day, for two zones on the network," she said, smiling. How helpful it is to have enough staff at stations, I thought, the context of Britain's various disputes over staffing pinging into sharp focus in my mind! Strangers, especially foreigners, need help; we cannot know the ticket validity rules of every rail network across the world, or even across the UK with its fragmented system.

We looked at the departure boards and went to the platform for the next local train to Cannes and started our day out. We had never done this route on a stopping train before and, of course, we saw much more of the coastal scenery than we ever had on a fast train.

We walked straight down to the seafront at Cannes and walked along in what was fairly dull, although warm weather. Some rain was forecast, but predicting the weather is especially difficult here so we were prepared for anything. We each bought a souvenir t-shirt at the tourist office in Cannes and enjoyed a drink at a café we had visited on our previous visit, now trading with a new name. We explored the narrow old streets of Cannes and visited the market - we were seeking a traditional local food, socca, like a pancake but made with chickpea flour, but the only example we could find was at the market and that was soon closing but we were not yet hungry. We went to the public beach and walked along the shoreline as we so often do, and then decided we would move on and visit Antibes to see what we could find there. We found a pleasant seaside town with some nice shopping streets, and after a cool drink of beer at a pavement café began to explore. On our way to the sea some light rain began and we deployed our lightweight waterproof hooded jackets which we had bought for this eventuality before leaving home. The rain became heavier and there was lightning and thunder so most people around were sheltering under shop awnings or archways in the harbour wall and some, unafraid of electrocution, were using umbrellas. Never imagine that rain and thunder only affects UK holidays! We walked back to the station through varying degrees of rain and waited in the rain for a train back to Nice; it was by now the evening peak travel time and there were rather more frequent trains so even though there were some delays our journey was not really affected. We even had space on the train to spread out our jackets to dry!

Back at Nice we went to Carpe Diem again for supper, practising our English/French/Italian ordering skills ...

The following day, our last full day in Nice, included an excursion to the principality of Monaco, a country with no countryside and whose citizens are crammed into a space about 3km by 0.6km and yet who still seem to need cars priced in six figures... Much of the work in Monaco is done by people commuting in daily from France and Italy - these people may well live in houses, but almost every citizen of Monaco lives in an apartment: very, very few have a garden, although the public gardens and the streets are very beautiful. Our excursion included an opportunity to watch the changing of the guard at the royal palace and a quick visit to the casino at Monte Carlo - which doubles up as a museum in the daytime and whose first two rooms can be seen free of charge. in our free time we explored the narrow streets of the Monaco does have a rail station but for this trip we were taken by road coach with a local guide who taught us a lot about the way this miniature nation works.

After Monaco our coach took us to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its nine gardens. The villa was a gift to France from Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild (1864–1934) who was an avid collector and now her collection is available for all to see. For us the gardens were the most interesting feature, and the views over the sea from the house's prominent location on an isthmus.

Dinner that evening was at a local restaurant, Le Clocher, we had (finally) discovered in Nice we had the chickpea pancakes, with salad, that we had been looking for since our arrival there!

After our last night at the Malmaison Nice we packed and waited for a coach which was to take us to the station along with the rest of the party, but the coach did not turn up and our tour manager Kevin has the wisdom to set us off walking while there was till time too walk to the station. Travelling alone I'd have walked anyway, even with luggage, for it was not very far, but for a group the coach transfer does help to keep everyone together  and not all of the party found luggage as easy to handle as I did.

Our train from Nice was a regional express and took us to Marseille St Charles, with the usual brilliant views of the Mediterranean coast. At Marseille we changed to a TGV which took us to Lyon for the next exciting stage in our exploration of the south of France.

Monday 19 June 2023

Staying in The Jewellery Quarter

A trip by train to Britain's second city

I have visited the Jewellery Quarter twice before, but only for a day each time. This visit, staying over three nights, grew out of a casual conversation with a friend who expressed an interest in the Pen Museum. Having been there on one of my day trips I enthused about it and we agreed to go together, with our wives, and make a short holiday out of it.

The mural in our train's toilet compartment celebrates the Jewellery Quarter 

We did try to incorporate quite a lot more, including a third couple and a fourth night, but these did not fit in our diaries, and some of what we wanted to do was not available, so maybe next year there will be a post describing yet another visit to Birmingham! 

The continuing dispute between the railway workers' unions and the government-backed railway companies threatened to overshadow the trip with strikes and cancellations (those companies free to negotiate their own terms had already settled with the unions, but those subject to government intervention could not), but we were able to work around these very successfully, Cross Country running just enough trains to get us home on a strike day.

We travelled with minimal luggage and our train to Birmingham was more-or-less on time all the way, affording us good views of the High Speed Two construction sites on the approach to the city from the east. Contrary to popular belief, this line is not just about getting between London and Birmingham, but rather provides a relief line between the north and London, avoiding the congested bits south of Birmingham, with a branch into Birmingham city centre. This branch follows the same "gap in the urban fabric" as our line from the east as it makes its final approach to its Curzon Street terminus.

After arrival at Birmingham New Street we went straight to the Grand Central tram stop in Stephenson Street where we met our friends who had travelled from Warrington by car since their rail company had not been able to guarantee a train home on the strike day. We took the tram to the St Paul's stop, in the Jewellery Quarter and then walked to our hotel, St Paul's House, a former rope factory in St Paul's Square. We had a room at the front overlooking the square with St Paul's church in the middle among the trees and the gravestones.

After checking in and unpacking we booked a table in the hotel's restaurant for dinner and then took a walk into the city centre (actually, St Paul's House is more of a bar-restaurant with rooms than a hotel with dining room). I had hoped that we could attend Evensong at St Philip's Cathedral but it was too early, and probably not choral, with this being half-term week, and furthermore the cathedral was having a lot of building work done so we did not even bother to visit it. We walked down to New Street where we had a little shopping to do at the Apple Store and then to the Bull Ring area and back to the Jewellery Quarter for dinner, a drink and bed. Tomorrow the exploring would begin.

We walked down to Centenary Square via the canalside path and Fleet Street and were going to call at the Library of Birmingham, but this did not open until 11:00, so we continued our walk via Broad Street - taking in the pavement star of Jasper Carrott whose show in Stamford we were missing, ironically, by being in Birmingham - and the canalside to Gas Street Basin and the Mailbox, where we had coffee at one of the coffee shops before returning to the Library. 

After visiting the Shakespeare Collection and the roof garden we made our way through Victoria Square and Colmore Row to Snow Hill station where we took a bus to Aston. This had been going to be a train trip but there was a strike by Aslef and no trains were running in Birmingham; the upside was that as three of us were pensioners this did not cost us anything! From the bus stop we walked past Villa Park and then visited the villa after which it is named, Aston Hall, a Jacobean manor house well worth the trip. I had been there once before, fifty years earlier when I was studying in Birmingham, and I remembered hardly anything! We began with a light lunch at the café, then took the self-guided tour of the house before rounding off with a cup of tea back in the café. Touring the house included quite a lot of learning about the social history of England, notably the Civil War, as well as about the house itself and domestic architecture in general. The parkland around is open free of charge to the public at all times.

We travelled back to the city centre on the same bus route and from the stop at Snow Hill station walked through the Great Western Arcade and down Corporation Street before taking the tram to the Jewellery Quarter stop from where we walked through one of the two cemeteries and then past the (now closed for the evening) craft jewellery shops of Vyse Street before returning to the hotel for dinner again, having seen things on the menu the previous evening that some of us had been keen to try! 

The second full day was dedicated to the Jewellery Quarter and the industrial heritage of Birmingham. There was nothing here that I had not done before, some of it twice, but displays change and in different company it's a different experience. We began by walking to the Pen Museum which had been the starting point of the conversation which led to this tour. It had changed markedly from my previous visit but still included the chance to undertake part of the process of making a pen nib. In the days before ball-point (Biro) pens took over the world, 75% of the world's writing was done with nibs made in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter! 

We learnt a lot about the small metal-working industries that made Birmingham the City of a Thousand Trades and put it, by the efforts of the early industrial pioneers (not forgetting their workers!), at the heart of the world's industrial revolution. We'd learn more about the workers at the next visit and on the following day. We thought we might have lunch at the pub called A Thousand Trades but it looked a bit more than the snack we needed and we ended up at Costa Coffee - we needed our coffee break as well in any case - and then had time for a swift pint in the splendid interior of the Rose Villa Tavern before striding on to the Coffin Works!

We walked past the historic Birmingham Assay Office (along with Sheffield, Birmingham successfully campaigned for an assay office to save valuable metal goods having to go to London for hallmarking) and then along the canalside to the Coffin Works, the former premises of Newman Brothers, a typical Birmingham small metalworking company. When we arrived and clocked on I was delighted to find that we were to be shown round by Cornelius who had demonstrated the equipment to me several years before on my first visit to the Jewellery Quarter. A former professional die-stamper, he knows all about the techniques for producing metal coffin fittings, now in very little demand because of the almost universal trend for cremation which requires destructible fittings. 

From the coffin works it was a pleasant stroll along the canalside, past several locks, to the wharf by the International Convention Centre where we awaited and boarded a public tour run by the Sherborne Wharf company. Once we were under way I bought a bottle of wine for the four of us to share as we explored more of the history of Birmingham's industry and the transport systems which kept it all working and provided markets for its products. As far as raw materials were concerned, most was local, with coal and ore being mined in the black country and in other places nearby - when I studied here in the 1970s there were still coal mines working along my route into the city from home and still plenty of steel works and gas and coke works and other "dirty" industries in and around Birmingham. London Underground trains were made in Birmingham!

From the canal trip we returned to our hotel and then went out to a local Italian restaurant for dinner: even after such a busy day I found my favourite pizza margherita too much to finish!

And so to the last day. This time the RMT union was on strike, but there were some trains running and we were able to travel home. We took the precaution of planning to leave two hours earlier than originally planned, which simply meant ditching a final lunch together, allowing our friends to get on the road before the evening peak and giving us one more opportunity in case of a last-minute hitch with our train. Before then, though, the final visit of the tour was the National Trust's Birmingham Back-to-Backs which have to be visited by guided tour. 

The site was originally on the edge of Birmingham and was developed as a single dwelling as the village began to grow in the industrial era. The owner then split his house in two (back-to-back) and rented it out to two families, then built several more until many families could be fitted onto the site. People flocked into the growing city to escape rural poverty and to work in the new industries. Some were highly skilled craftspeople and some worked from home here in the courtyard - the large bay windows of two houses were ideal for small-scale crafts. One street frontage was small shops and in my days as a student the upper floors were used as workshops and storage for a tailor whose shopfront is now preserved by the National Trust. It was he and his family who had effectively preserved this little corner of England for posterity by using it and preventing it falling into decay and demolition. It is less than five minutes' walk from New Street station, right on the edge of the city centre and surrounded by theatres, bars and restaurants. An usual NT property and well worth booking a visit.

Back to the hotel to collect our luggage and then onto the station to take our train home. All went very smoothly in the end: we had a picnic lunch, bought at the station, on the way home and arrived in good time to pack our things away and prepare for the next trip, in just a few days' time!

Sunday 11 June 2023

Day Trip in the East Midlands

Not Quite the Hogwarts Express

A recent need to attend a convention near Nottingham gave me the chance to try a route I'd never used before, the "Robin Hood Line" in Nottingham. The line goes all the way to Worksop where it reaches the route between Sheffield and Lincoln, but I only needed to travel one stop to Bulwell, where the station was just around the corner from the church where my meeting was being held.

The overall journey from my home in Stamford was not a particularly quick one, involving a change at Leicester where the online journey planner specified a 59-minute wait - a potential connection an hour earlier was clearly missed here by the timetable - as well as a more reasonable change at Nottingham. When I arrived, though, and heard everyone else complaining about an enormous queue on the M1 motorway and trying devise routes home to avoid it I was glad that I had come by train! Again, as I have said before, the time taken travelling by train is not really that important, because it is time that can be used, whereas driving requires concentration on the driving itself.

In the event my train from Stamford arrived at Leicester a couple of minutes early and I was able to take an earlier train to Nottingham than planned, a whole hour earlier! This was fine: I was planning a coffee-and-croissant break and would now have it at Nottingham rather than Leicester ... Eventually the time came to take the train to Bulwell, and I found it a very comfortable and convenient train for a local journey. Had I been needing to travel further, I'd happily have used this train right to the end of the line.

When I left the train at Bulwell I realised that as well as a Train Manager on board there were two security guards in each coach. I wondered why, never having seen that anywhere else. I still wonder why! 

Bulwell station is an interchange with the city's tram system and with a number of bus routes, too, and I was surprised to see that there was quite a thriving town centre right by the station.

After my day conference at the nearby church I returned to the station for my ride home and this time there were also two police officers on board! I asked why this line needed their presence and they said that it was simply a routine patrol; they go out every day on a number of train services simply to deter and reassure. They seemed unaware of the security guards. Very odd.

And so to another change at Nottingham and at Leicester and back home, not an especially quick way to undertake this particular journey, but quick enough and I had been able to use the time to catch up and various little jobs.

The allusion to Harry Potter in my heading arises from the reason for my travel: the day included a lecture and some exercises on the psychology of illusion and our speaker was a member of the Magic Circle whose lecture was entitled "Defence Against the Dark Arts"!