Europe: Trans Europe Express

By Gavin Bertram

Europe’s rail network has long enabled travellers to piece together unique itineraries. A new high-speed connection from London to Barcelona will be a welcome addition. Gavin Bertram reports.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Over the weekend German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk performed at Barcelona's Sónar Festival.

Few shows over Sónar's 20-year history would have been as thrilling as the 3D extravaganza Kraftwerk presented.

Amongst the austere, man machine classics they performed was 1977's Trans-Europe Express, a paean to the romance of Continental rail travel.

The song was named for the majestic Trans Europ Express, an international rail service inaugurated in 1957, which once connected 130 Western European cities.

Its last service ran in 1995, having been superseded by the likes of EuroCity and InterCity, and the French TGV network.

There's a resonance to Kraftwerk referencing the TEE in Barcelona at this time, as TGV are planning a high-speed service from Paris to Barcelona. The link will allow travel from London to Barcelona in less than 10 hours.

As the Guardian's Robin McKie wrote, it will enable passengers to breakfast in London, lunch in Paris, and dine in Barcelona.

For someone who journeyed along the same route several years ago, that's an enticing prospect. At that time the high-speed service ended in Montpellier, but in 2012 TGV extended the high-speed line to Figueres, just across the Spanish border.

The Figueres-Barcelona line opened in January, but technical issues stopped the TGV direct service from opening in April. When those problems are eventually ironed out the London-Barcelona connection will prove very popular.

The first leg from London to Paris is on Eurostar, departing from the gothic magnificence of St Pancras International station, with its broad array of cafés for breakfast.

The Eurostar offers a very pleasant trip, taking around two-and-a-quarter hours to get to Paris at speeds well over 230 kilometres an hour.

It's a perfect way to get a unique view on parts of the London generally hidden from view - back yards and tracts of urban real estate locked away from the public.

After following the M20 through Kent, the Eurostar disappears into the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone, remaining underground for 50 kilometres - 38 of them undersea.

The experience is more underwhelming than the tunnel's status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World suggests.

Still, it's an amazing feeling to re-emerge into the French daylight near Calais, and onto the LGV Nord line which connects Paris to both London and Brussels.

Paris Gare du Nord is Europe's busiest railway station, with more than 190 million travellers passing through each year. This hive of humanity is an outstanding tribute to the glory days of rail travel on the Continent.

The station is a kilometre from the hill district of Montmartre, once the heart of bohemian Paris, and home to artists including Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The latter designed early posters for the Moulin Rouge, and the legendary cabaret is still operating on Boulevard de Clichy.

There are a number of Paris Métro stations nearby, including Place de Clichy, Blanche, Pigalle, and Abbesses, with its art nouveau entranceway still intact from 1899.

For lunch, try the Café des 2 Moulins on Rue Lepic - the café featured in the film Amelie.

The direct high-speed service from Paris to Figueres departs from the Gare de Lyon station, while longer services leave from Paris Austerlitz.

Again, rail affords ever changing vignettes of the city's suburbs, before the French countryside materialises for the enjoyable journey south.

On the LGV Sud-Est line to Lyon the true wonder of the TGV can be appreciated. The trains operate at some of the highest speeds of any passenger service, averaging almost 280 kilometres an hour.

First class travel is luxurious, but second class is nothing to be sniffed at, with comfortable seats, air-conditioning, and great views.

The new TGV Duplex trains on the five-and-a-half hour Paris-Figueres service feature double deck carriages offering an even better viewing experience.

Despite the speed, there is plenty to see and ample time to see it. A seemingly endless array of medieval castles and villages on hilltops advance and recede from view, as the train arrows through the Bourgogne and into the Rhone Alpes province.

The countryside gradually changes past Lyon, as the train heads into the warmer coastal regions of Languedoc-Roussillon. Past Montpellier the Mediterranean bursts into view - a magnificent sight.

Following the coast south is a visual treat - lagoons populated by pink flamingos, lush wine country, and cypress groves.

Roussillon was a county of the Principality of Catalonia until 1659. When the Pyrenees mountain range appears to the west the Spanish border is not far off.

The train weaves along the rugged coast towards Figueres, the birthplace of surrealist painter Salvador Dali. From there it's an easy run through Girona, inland from the Costa Brava.

Sants Estacio is the terminus in Barcelona, another huge and bustling station, near the city's most famous thoroughfares, La Rambla and Avenue Diagonale.

After a long day, Gimlet in Sant Gervasi offers some of the best cocktails anywhere, and quality tapas. And when it's time to finally collapse, there are hotels including Hotel Rekord nearby.

Three very different European cities in a single day. The London to Barcelona high-speed connection will be a modern realisation of the Trans Europe Express depicted by Kraftwerk decades ago.

* For European rail travel, raileurope.com offers a comprehensive service

- nzherald.co.nz

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