Interrail France

Many years had passed since my interrailing holidays in my twenties. What I remembered about them was the intense feeling of freedom at being able to travel at will across many of the countries of Western Europe. In some situations we had roughed it – like sleeping on the beach in Sardinia, or outside Barcelona station, and many of our overnights had been spent on long distance trains to keep costs down.

Tickets for interrailing had been limited to those aged 26 and younger, and once I’d gone over this age I’d taken holidays in different ways. But now in my thirties the rail companies had changed the rules. Older people could get interrail tickets, albeit at a higher cost. The rules for ticket locations had also changed. The tickets we had travelled on covered Western Europe, now tickets were banded across groups of countries. It was still possible to get a ticket to travel as broadly as we had, now into Eastern Europe, but these weren’t such good value. I had less than two weeks and one of the banded tickets with two or three countries looked like they would do the job. When I thought about it, why not just get a ticket for one country and travel across it. So I decided to get a ticket for the one and a half weeks in France where I had a smattering of the language. It wasn’t a big plan but France has a bit of everything and when asked what my plans were I replied I was going to see the cities, mountains and the sea.

By far the cheapest way to get to France was a budget flight into Paris from my local airport and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle never fails to impress with its different architecture and glass surrounded elevators to ride.

I’d arranged to meet a friend who was staying over the weekend in Paris with her girlfriend. We met at the Sacre Coeur church in the evening and wandered around the side streets at the top, coming to rest on the steps in front of the church looking down the hill at the city. A scruffy student was strumming a guitar for the ladies and tourists. It seemed quite good and was getting me in the mood for the trip. I was being asked where I was going to go, and the only answer I could give was ‘South’. I didn’t know. I knew my next destination was going to be the mountains.

Back in the hostel I had my first conversation with a French person. A girl who had come to Paris to find accommodation for a year in Paris where she would be studying. She was looking a bit lost in the city and couldn’t work the French computers. Neither could I but between us we got her surfing looking for cheap digs. For me I booked a night at Annecy youth hostel, and the next morning got on the TGV south.

The weather was cloudy when I arrived, but once I got through the town to the lake I started to see the draw of Annecy. The lake was beautiful even on a crappy day. The hostel was a bit out of town, and up a steep hill. Memories of interrail were coming back – staying in places that were difficult to get to, labouring with giant packs. This time I had a smaller pack, no tent or sleeping bag.

The hostel was sufficiently out of town that I didn’t feel like going back there that night so I hung around the kitchen with my packet soup. That night I went down to the bar, there was a large party of middle aged French people. They were partying big time. I got talking to one guy – they were Bretons and met up regularly for a party. They were dancing and really going for it. I sat at the bar with the barman managing a little French totally bemused by their antics, and they weren’t even all drinking.

The next morning I woke early and decided to move on. The lake was beautiful but I was sure there would be something else as good at my next stop. I had formed a rough plan. I would head for Chamonix – somewhere I’d been some years before with a friend and had fond memories of, but my first stop would St Gervais.

St Gervais is a winter ski resort, but in the summer I wasn’t sure what I would find. I had the idea I would do some walking there. The train into the alps was great; it was empty and I could switch from side to side to see the views. The mountains were getting bigger and much closer. The train changed directions a few times. Odd to pull into a station, a bit of jerking and then set off in the way you came from.

Everywhere was closed when I arrived. I  got there at 1pm and the hotels didn’t open till 5pm. I wandered up the main street and at 1.15pm found a hotel open till 1.30pm and got a room. The guy seemed a surprised to see me and went off coming back with a shower head which was missing in the room. There was a tram up the mountain, but next day when I got there it wasn’t running, so I set off for a walk up the valley. My map showed some tracks up the mountainside but I couldn’t find them and I ended up walking up the side of the road. The road was getting higher, it was busy, and I realised I needed to cross it to get into the valley. It was ascending onto bridges and looked like it was going up a pass. It was not a route for a walker. Eventually I found a crossing place and continued this rather strange walk.

Down a track, through a small power station, then past a river prone to flooding, then through an industrial area and a graveyard. The graveyard was beautifully kept with some amazing flowers and photos of the deceased on plaques. Finally a long straight road back to St Gervais. It had been a long odd walk in the hot sun through some strange surroundings but all around me the mountains were beautiful. I just wasn’t up there. That night I treated myself to a ham and cheese savoury crepe, dry cider and blackcurrant ice cream with liquor. The next day I took the cute red train into Chamonix.

The first time I’d been to Chamonix was also by train, but in the middle of winter. The line had taken me through gobsmacking amounts of snow. Now the weather was beautiful and I was able to gaze at the mountains through windows set high on the train sides for an unfettered view.

In Chamonix I searched around the hotels, and found a basic 2* hotel for 30 euroes a night. It was a bargain and not too scruffy. Not saving money by sleeping on trains and camping I was this time looking for a good deal, but this trip was only for 10 days so it was ok to hotel it now and then.

I intended to get up into the mountains, and over the next two days I did some serious walking. The first day I walked through the forests to the Mer de Glace glacier, and the second day to the Le Brevent peak.

The Mer de Glace was a bit dirty looking in the summer and when I got there it was quite touristy, but the walks through the forests had been beautiful with outlooks across the valley to the mountains on the other side. You could go down to the edge of the glacier, and climb onto it using some iron ladders. There were kitted out people walking up it and you could see the little red helmets disappearing off into the distance.

For Le Brevent I wanted to get up high. I took the cable car to the first stop on the mountain and walked the  remaining 3000 feet to the top. The track to the top was quite wide – probably a ski piste in winter and at the top was a cafe for the skiers where the tourists had gotten the cable car right up. It was curious to see old men with walking sticks at the top of a 2000 metre peak gazing across at Mt Blanc.

Walking back down seemed easy to the cable car I’d come from, and I thought I’d walk down to the valley. The track was probably a piste again, but it was endless zig zags all the way. It was exhausting on the legs and at the bottom I was finished. I’d listened to some walkers on the mountain and had learned the best way to walk was to get a cable car up the mountain but then walk across the mountain along the sides of the valley to a cable car further on at roughly the same height.

The next day my feet, legs and trainers were knackered and I got the train along the valley to Argentiere. I didn’t do much there but replaced my shorts which had split up the arse. At the end of the day I knew I had done with the alps and it was time to head south again.

Charming Chambery seemed quite overrated. The old town didn’t seem that old, the chateau not that great, the hotels very expensive, and the quaint streets not as good as the hype. Even the elephant fountain didn’t seem worth a photo. At 7.25 am next morning I was leaving for Grenoble.

The train down from Paris had been a TGV but the brill trains in the alps had made me realize that I wasn’t happy on them. Everyone seemed miserable and they seemed quite soulless. People faffing about with laptops and gadgets, this wasn’t travel, it was more like a long commute. So at Valence I got on one of the old style TER trains. No need for a reservation and I started to feel happier.

Through to Marseille on an empty train with the compartments I remembered from interrailing days – I wallowed in nostalgia. Marseille station had some interesting characters and some pretty dodgy ones. You shouldn’t really judge a town by its railway station, but I decided to keep going and boarded another slow train, this time towards Nice. The slow train sat in the station. And sat. After a while it became clear that it wasn’t going anywhere. So it was back onto the platform and look for a TGV. No reservation and no supplement paid – I had difficulty getting the female attendant to stamp my ticket so I wouldn’t end up paying a fine on the train.

This train was totally overloaded. I figured as I would be standing all the way to Nice that I might as well stand in the bar. We waited to set off. A girl lit a cigarette and the fire alarm went off. A female guard came down and an argument ensued. We waited. Then we heard an incident had occurred. We didn’t see it, but we saw a man being led away in handcuffs. Then there was an announcement; we were all going to have to disembark as a security precaution. There was a huge outcry!

I realised a guy in a pale blue t-shirt was English and started chatting to him. He had been a dancer but was too old now – his joints were knackered. He was going to see a friend Sasha and it seemed likely he was gay. We had a long chat on the endless journey along the Mediterrean coast. The train was going very slowly, and it passed the time. I decided to get off before Nice at St Raphael. This was next to Frejus where I had my first lads holiday at 18. Five of us staying in a caravan together – a riot. The gay dancer shook my hand and I headed off to find a hotel. On the way out of the station a French woman in front of me on the escalator fell. I picked her up off it, she wasn’t in good shape.

I found a reasonable hotel, had a welcome shower and headed out to catch the sunset over the sea. It was very beautiful and I took loads of photos on the promenade.

I stayed two nights in St Raphael, just moseying around, it seemed a relaxed place to laze around and not do an awful lot in the sunshine. Then I went on to Antibes. Antibes was a great old town with good views over the coast. The problem I had was finding a hotel. Any hotel. I walked with pack for a long time, getting hotter and hotter and in the end settled for a fairly depressing place in the new town a long way from the beach.

The next day I went down to the beach. The one close to town had a lot of garbage in the water. I walked to the next beach – the same. The next one was ok – time for a swim.

I decided to go on to the party town Juan Les Pins. No party and no pines. The beach was good though, but after finding myself a nice spot and having a swim, a crowd of German teenagers came and sat all around me. How rude! Did they think they owned the beach? Clearly they did – they cavorted in the waves noisily with a ball and lilo. They were both entertaining and slightly offensive – but not enough to give up my patch. I stayed there till 4.30 and got a bit burnt. In the evening. the sun getting lower gave the promenade a gorgeous golden light and I hung around taking photos before heading off to bed, the pipes in the hotel talking to me as I dropped off.

I’d reached the furthest point of my trip and it was time to head back towards Paris. Once again I wasn’t tempted to stop off in Marseille. I broke the journey at Avignon, famous for its bridge. It was a well mannered town, not exciting but pleasant enough.

I’d enjoyed the interrail experience again – doing it a little differently from my teenage years. Travelling alone had changed things, but I’d found plenty to keep me amused … so where next by train?

See my page about interrailing today

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