Rail route of the month: the gradual prepare from France to Spain | Rail journey

Avignon is a pure means station for travellers from Britain and northern Europe certain for the Iberian peninsula. It’s a spot for selections. Quick or gradual?

Travellers in a rush to achieve Spain head for the Gare TGV, which opened in 2001. It’s a great way south of town centre in Courtine, a brand new suburb that was as soon as a watery wasteland between the Durance and Rhône rivers. From that reasonably sterile out-of-town station, a high-speed prepare leaving at 8.40am will get to the Spanish capital by mid-afternoon.

These not in a rush will discover a much more fascinating choice for journey to Spain. The gradual trains depart from Avignon Centre, the historic station by the partitions of the previous metropolis. The station itself is a gem, its facade an essay in neo-classical symmetry, with 5 elegant bays and a clock dominating the balustrade. Architect Jules Bouchot additionally designed an identical station at Valence, down the Rhône Valley from Avignon. Each stations take architectural cues from the 7 chateau at Versailles.

Avignon-Centre station facade
Gare d’Avignon-Centre, was impressed by Versailles’ Petit Trianon. {Photograph}: Jason Knott/Alamy

Avignon Centre as soon as boasted a roll name of worldwide locations on its departure boards. Alas, the direct trains to London, Berlin and Milan aren’t any extra. The one trains from Avignon Centre that also enterprise past French borders are the thrice-daily regional providers to Portbou in Spain. That is a rare 4hr 15min journey made all the higher by being on a slower prepare, which makes 25 stops en route. There’s actual drama within the altering landscapes on this route, culminating in a closing stretch alongside the Côte Vermeille south of Perpignan to the border. On the left is the Mediterranean, and the rugged slopes of the Pyrenees stand up away to the proper. All in all it’s much better than diving beneath the mountains within the lengthy Perthus tunnel utilized by the high-speed trains.

This slower choice depends on regional trains (TERs) . As much as three direct trains a day run from Avignon to Portbou. These are augmented by extra providers which require adjustments, generally at Narbonne and Perpignan. That is the right journey for travellers utilizing Interrail passes: they will simply hop on and off at will with out the tiresome requirement, frequent in France, to order seats upfront. It’s a path to be loved in its personal proper, however could be constructed into longer Interrail itineraries.

Cruising via Occitanie

The gradual prepare to Spain slips via Avignon’s southern suburbs and crosses the Durance east of the TGV station. Inside only a few minutes there’s an actual sense of wilderness as we skirt the steep slopes of La Montagnette, with their twisted pines and low maquis, a panorama formed by the unforgiving mistral wind. There’s a fantastic sense of being immersed in a panorama, reasonably than dashing via it at an uncomfortably excessive velocity.

View of the coast near Sète, from the Avignon train.
View of the coast close to Sète, from the Avignon prepare. {Photograph}: Bernard Pichon/Getty Photographs

At Tarascon the prepare turns decisively west, crossing the Rhône and coming into Occitanie. We go a rose-coloured farmhouse flying the area’s distinctive pink flag with a yellow cross. The prepare stops at a station known as Nîmes Pont-du-Gard. It’s a daring piece of recent structure and a curious affectation of French rail planners: the station is miles from Nîmes and even farther from the celebrated Roman aqueduct that varieties the remainder of its identify. Later we cease at actual Nîmes, then at a procession of distinctive Occitan communities: Montpellier, Sète, Agde, Béziers and Narbonne. Alongside the way in which, there are tantalising views of flamingos, salt pans, coastal fortresses and empty seashores.

I’ve ridden this route from finish to finish and not using a break. It takes simply over 4 hours. However the locations alongside the way in which are simply too tempting to overlook. Narbonne is roughly the midpoint of the journey and the right spot for lunch. Make for Les Halles, a historic lined market that appears like a Nineteenth-century railway station, for quite a lot of culinary treats.

I additionally often cease at Perpignan, the place an indication on the station reminds travellers that Perpignan is the very centre of the world. This isn’t an idle piece of civic pretension, however a pleasant reference to Salvador Dalí’s extraordinary metaphysical expertise right here in 1963. For Dalí, Perpignan was not merely the centre of the world, however the centre cosmique de l’univers.

beach, pretty town and green hills
The seafront at Collioure, south of Perpignan. {Photograph}: Patrick Donovan/Getty Photographs

The opposite unmissable spot on this journey is beautiful Collioure, a small port on the rocky coast south of Perpignan. The village is ignored by a high quality Thirteenth-century fortress utilized by Knights Templar, Mallorcan monarchs and Bourbon troops. Matisse, Picasso, Dufy and Braque all found Collioure. The anchovies, for thus lengthy a Collioure staple, are pretty much as good as ever and the city nonetheless attracts many aspiring artists. From Collioure, the railway skirts capes and bays, passing the windswept vineyards at Banyuls alongside the way in which.

Arriving in Spain

Portbou (typically rendered as Port Bou) is the primary station on the Spanish aspect of the frontier and the top of the road for all regional trains arriving from France. Portbou itself is not more than a village, a lot of its territory taken up by the outsized station and railway shunting yards.

person on platform at Portbou station.
Finish of the road at Portbou station. {Photograph}: David Bagnall/Alamy

The route across the coast from France to Spain was relegated to secondary standing in 2010, when most worldwide trains from Perpignan had been rerouted by way of the Perthus Tunnel. Portbou thus misplaced its spot within the premier league of European frontier stations. It was right here that the specific trains from France to Spain all needed to cease to permit for axles to be modified from the usual European gauge to the broader Spanish gauge. Now it’s the passengers who should change, and most of these arriving on the TER service from France stroll over to hitch the ready Spanish prepare for the onward journey to Barcelona.

Journey info

Hourly regional trains run from Avignon to Portbou. In autumn, direct trains depart Avignon Centre at 11.35 (day by day), 13.35 (not Sat) and 15.35 (not Sat or Solar). The one-way fare is €45.70. Ebook on raileurope.com (with a €6.95 reserving payment). It’s often attainable to journey for simply €1 from Avignon Centre to Portbou. Discovering this promotional fare is like looking for a needle in a haystack – and doesn’t enable stopovers. For individuals who desire to cease off alongside the way in which, significantly as a part of a wider European rail itinerary, an Interrail go is the best choice (from €246, with reductions for under-28s and over-60s).

The seventeenth version of Nicky Gardner’s e book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Information is obtainable from the Guardian Bookshop. She is co-editor of hidden europe journal

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