Friday, April 01, 2016

On the fast train, from one country to the next

I love train travel. In my opinion it’s a crying shame that I can’t get on a high speed train in Albuquerque and take it to Tucson to visit Cousin Barbara. Or to Denver to visit The Kids. My train options are so archaic and so uninspiring, that every time I get on a train in Europe or Asia, I feel deprived.
Our hired taxi driver picked us up promptly at 8:15 and we were at the Gare de Lyon 15 minutes later, in spite of the Paris traffic. Yes, it was early, but I had no idea how the place worked so I wanted to have some time to get my bearings. That turned out not to be necessary since this Gare is just a giant barn for trains, totally freezing inside and very simple to understand. We made a beeline for a coffee shop that featured heat lamps and blankets for our laps.



We joined the boarding queue about 20 minutes before our 10:07 departure time. There was no security, there was no checking of tickets. It appears that train service in France is on the honor system. The lack of control was surprising, and it brought to mind the story from a few months ago of the American GIs on a train subduing some guy who had a rifle. At the time I wondered how someone could smuggle an AK-47 onto a train, but my curiosity was based on riding trains in Spain where the security is just below that of an airport. Baggage is screened, tickets are checked, long before you get anywhere near the boarding gates - where the tickets are checked again. Elka made a comment the other day, observing that Spain has not had another attack since those horrible train bombings in Madrid’s Atocha station, 10 or more years ago. It didn’t sink in at the time, but now I get it – anyone could pretty much do anything here in France with nothing to stop them.
The platform letter came up on the board and we joined the throng making their way to the trains. Getting on board was a trial between the people rushing past yelling “Perdon” to those standing outside the door smoking that one last cigarette. The platform was narrow, made more so by the occasional construction kiosk and by people wandering aimlessly, apparently unable to comprehend their ticket and the clearly marked cars. Our coach was number 12, at the very end of a long train. We entered and chose to go upstairs only realizing after a discussion with a passenger that we were supposed to be downstairs. The seats were numbered in the 100s, and ours were in the 10s. Didn’t make much sense to me until I remembered that the second floor in Europe is always the first. So I dragged our cases the length of the car and went down only to get stuck behind a German family who felt it was important to put their extremely heavy and oversized bags on the top shelf of the luggage rack instead of the more convenient lower berth. That choice was made more ironic when they realized that they were in the wrong car and had to undo all of their work.
So now we’re cruising along at 290 kph (180 mph) and watching a gray and dreary French countryside roll by. As far as the trees are concerned, it’s not yet spring. But many of the fields are a luscious Irish green. It’s so strange to be traveling in a place where the irrigation comes from the sky, unlike our sunny landscape back home. I told the Churro vendor yesterday that we lived in the desert, and he laughed as I stood there with the rain running down my neck.


The landscape is rolling and punctuated by thick weedy copses studded with mysterious stacks of firewood - literally in the middle of nowhere. Instead of stone walls, the fields are divided by short hedgerows, not yet in leaf. Every once in a while there is a herd of dirty white cows, standing or sleeping in the wet green fields. Or some sheep. I even saw one horse. A farm here and there – gray stone buildings in an “L” or “U” around some central courtyard. A town or village full of whitewashed houses with red tile roofs. Like Spain but not quite as cheery. The sky remains the same as the one we left in Paris, gray and low and threatening.
I tried for a while to catch a video of a passing train, but they only seem to come when I put the camera down. Probably the biggest difference between here and the grand plains of Spain is that these are sandy-brown and muddy while those are red and dry. The vagaries of ancient geology, when the Iberian Peninsula sailed in from parts unknown, crashing into Europe and throwing up the Pyrenees in the ensuing collision. 
Two hours into the ride the conductor came along and scanned our ticket. This train is a cooperative effort between the Spanish rail company Renfe and their French counterpart and the announcements are in French and Catalan Spanish, which always sounds weird to me because of the softened consonants. Completely unlike my Latin American version, the conductor here responded with “grathiaths.”
According to the map, we’re just outside Lyon, almost all the way across France. There we will make a broad turn to the west, heading southwest towards Barcelona and the coast, taking a route that avoids the mountains. It looks as though there is a series of stops after Valence, no doubt the reason we make the first half of the trip in 2 hours and the second half in 4. We arrived on time and lost a few passengers and were on our way after only a few minutes. 


We were now traveling down the valley of the Rhone, past towns with names steeped in history – Orange, Avignon, and Arles where we were once again crossing paths with our old friend Van Gogh.
The weather had degraded, even more miserable with roving sheets of rain driven ahead of a strong wind. I was glad to be watching it from the inside, unlike yesterday’s soaking adventure. The fields looked the same but the architecture was changing. Farm houses here are constructed of blond limestone blocks unlike the grayer stone materials we’d passed on our way south. The sights were quickly becoming Provençal. The woman in the seat in front of me had made a big show of constructing a sandwich out of a baguette and a pile of meat she’d produced from her handbag. To counteract the creeping deli smell, we peeled a couple of tangerines and opened a bar of Lindt. Out the window, the landscape was changing too – scrubby plains punctuated with some yellow plant in bloom and small rocky hillocks. MLW observed that the south of everywhere has a tendency to look ratty. Now groves of olive trees and vineyards started to appear, announcing that we were moving closer to the Mediterranean.
Beyond Montpelier the route followed a barrier island between the Mediterranean and a large estuarine bay called the Étang de Thau. Google Maps sort of lost it here, thinking we were either still on the mainland or out in the middle of the water. The cottage housing looked like that in beach communities the world over, only with a local twist - orange stone, red tile roofs, side by each and boarded up for the cold season. It reminded me a lot of the train ride we took last year into Cadiz, and I suppose that all train rides down to the same look about the same. The sea was too far to our left to be seen, but the sky was finally brightening up. The sun was finally making an appearance in a sky now partially blue. Far off to the right, the blue foothills of the Pyrenees were now visible.
The train passed along a causeway through the Parc Naturel Régional de la Narbonnaise. In this part of the world I am always on the lookout for Flamingoes, because they breed here, and today I was rewarded with two flying parallel to the tracks and seven more feeding in some ponds.  Sadly, we were traveling too fast for a photo, but just seeing them is rewarding enough.



A short way outside of Perpignan, the Pyrenees came up on the horizon. Pic de Canigou, 25 miles off, rocky and snow-capped. I’m always fascinated by places where big mountains come down close to the ocean. Like Oregon or Washington, and now here. The contrast is so stark. In my mind, mountains always seem to be in the middle of continents, not at their fringes. I wasn’t even sure we were going to see mountains on this route – it seemed to dip down to coast to avoid their southern reach. But once well past Perpignan, we picked the speed back to 280 kph and entered a tunnel that lasted a full 90 seconds – 7 kilometers or about 4 ¼ miles by my quick calculation. One the far side, rolling hills and no more snowy peaks – the mountains were behind us.
The weather was once again not encouraging, very windy and gray but not obviously raining. At 4PM we pulled into Girona, the professional cycling mecca and wonderful old Roman-Medieval town. On our first trip here we had our all-time best paella. Chunks of chicken, fish and fresh mussels in the creamiest bed of rice.
We arrived on time and caught a cab and had a great conversation with the driver about everything from the Spanish Conquistadores to Donald Trump. While we had planned to not admit to being Americans on this trip, we messed up and told the cabbie where we were from. He expressed his dismay that Trump could even be considered for the job of president, and frankly we did not try to dissuade him of his opinion. Interesting to hear firsthand how a regular person in another country feels about our politics and their potential to mess up the rest of the world.
The apartment rental turned out to be a bit of a challenge. On every single previous trip, some agent has met us at our apartment to collect a deposit, hand us the key and answer questions. Here, we were expected to go to their office for that service. Well, it might have been nice if it was in a building with a number on it, and not up 3 flights of narrow marble stairs, and if there had been enough people on duty to handle the customers. Lots of “ifs” in this situation. The most interesting part of the transaction was the agent seeing that we were from Albuquerque and wanting to talk about Breaking Bad. Once the business was done, we were handed an envelope and told to go on our way. I understand the idea of lowering overhead by not providing any hands-on service, but this tested even my kindly nature.

The apartment was easy enough to find and is pretty nice. A very modern conversion of a very old building. Lots of metal, ceramics and formica bumping up against walls of exposed ancient stone. No amenities whatsoever, another surprise considering the price. That fact pretty much forced us to go looking for a grocery store for some basics like a roll of paper towels and dish soap. Using Google Maps to find the closest Carrefour made things even more interesting, leading us past where we though the store was into the seedy Raval neighborhood to a Carrefour Express, essentially nothing more than a neighborhood bodega. We found some of what we wanted there, got some fresh fruit at the wonderful Boqueria fresh market and then went home, unloaded the stuff and went out for a leveling tapas dinner of fried potatoes, cod fritters and croquettes. Again fortified, we went and found the Carrefour we knew, which was a madhouse, but not too crazy, to get our pack of paper towels. Our transitional day from France to Spain was thus concluded. 


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