Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the road: Take (the) A Train, or A lesson in French geography and history

There are six train stations in Paris, and each dispatches passengers off in a different direction. Today my station is Montparnasse and the direction is southwest. Destination: Bordeaux, to visit friends who used to have a restaurant around the corner from me in Montmartre.

     Montparnasse is a modern station that replaced the one pictured in this photo (one of my favorite old photos of Paris). It dates from the reign of President Pompidou, a man besotted with all things modern. And as do all French presidents, he put his stamp on Paris with modern buildings such as the Centre Pompidou museum for contemporary art - otherwise known as La Raffinerie because of its resemblance to a refinery tarted out in bright colored tubing on the exterior. He also bequeathed to Paris those parts of the city that are high-rises: Chinatown in the 13è arrondissement, the La Défense business center at the west gate to Paris, and the skyscraper in front of the Montparnasse station, which put a definitive kibosh on any other skyscrapers in the center of Paris.

But back to trains. They’re one of the wonderful things about France. Once upon a time, it might have made sense to take the plane. But since 9/11, security has added layer upon layer upon layer of time-consuming formalities for passengers, taking all the fun out of air travel. France being the size of Texas, it makes more sense to travel from city center to city center, eliminating travel time to and from an airport in the suburbs, as well as time spent running the rat maze of security checks. By train, it used to take five hours to go from Paris to Bordeaux; now, with the TGV bullet train, it takes only 3 hrs. And that’s with the top speed - 300 km/hr (187 mph) - only for the section from Paris to Tours... although the non-bullet speed is still a rollicking 180 km (112 mph). Within four or five years, the entire line will be TGV-ized and the trip will take a mere hour and 50 minutes! And the prices are reasonable as well. What’s not to like?
     The platform is announced on the big departure board and a horde surges forward. The train is complet - full to the last seat, including two priests who are probably headed for Lourdes, which is where half of the train heads after Bordeaux. The other half will continue on to the Spanish border.
     We leave on time and glide through the suburbs and into an ear-popping tunnel. When we emerge at the other end, we’re already in the country. Flat, fertile country called La Beauce - the breadbasket of France - which grows most of the wheat for all those warm, crunchy French baguettes. The first harvest - such as it was in this year of drought - was in June but the second-harvest bales are now rolled up and waiting to be shipped to flour mills.
     Also out the window are wind farms, huge modern windmills that have replaced their humble ancestors and now provide almost 10% of France’s energy needs. That’s not a lot, compared to nuclear energy at 80%, more than any other country in the world. Perhaps someday some modern Gallic Don Quixote will tilt at these towering windmills, but he’d need a very long lance.
     A man appears at the empty seat next to me. He must have almost missed the train and been forced to make his way through all the cars. Then he asks, "Is this seat free?" and it becomes obvious he doesn’t have a reservation; just hopped aboard. So no more double seat for me. He starts making calls on his cell, trying to book a car at his arrival down the line. The rule in French Train Travel is that, if you have to use your phone, you do so in the areas between the cars, where it won’t disturb anyone. He seems not to have gotten the memo. At the nth call, I glare at him. He stares back, oblivious that he’s being a nuisance. Suddenly my nose itches, so I scratch it. He misinterprets the message. Instead of "Hang the damn phone up, fool" he thinks "You have something on your nose" and rubs away an imaginary smudge. At least that makes me smile.
     All the way to Tours, tilled fields - some freshly-seeded with a winter crop - alternate with forests, of which there are many in France. And then we slip into a tunnel running under the valuable Vouvray vineyards. The tunnel was built in spite of the protests of these influential wine-growers who still claim the TGV disturbs their bottles every time it runs below their centuries-old wine cellars.
     Then we cross the Loire, into the "Garden of France", and the landscape changes to orchards and vegetables. I’m always struck by the number of trees farmers leave in their fields. Is it to provide shelter for the birds that they love to hunt and turn into yummy pâté? Or is it for shade after lunch as they work the fields? Or is it just the last remnants of ancient boundaries between neighbors who have moved away or been bought out?
     The train has slowed now, but we’re still traveling at twice the speed of the cars racing us down the road next to the tracks. We cross rolling hills until we reach the narrow gorge (a French word meaning "neck") that announces Poitiers. It was here that the French stopped the Moorish invasion, almost two-thirds of their way across France up the road to conquer Paris. A river crisscrosses back and forth below us, dotted with kayakers.
     There are pockets of industry here all along the tracks, including a car plant with trainloads of automobiles waiting to be shipped to market somewhere. There’s also a faded sign on an apparently abandoned building that says manufacture de chaussures. I doubt if any shoes are still made there, but the factory was ideally located next to the tracks to make shipping to Paris more convenient. It’s a sign of the way things used to be throughout France: goods made in the provinces and then shipped to the capital for sale.
     By noon we’re in Angoulême, with its recognizable citadel on the hill. I once came to this region as interpreter for a Philadelphia journalist covering the extradition of Ira Einhorn, who murdered his girlfriend and then jumped bail to flee the U.S. After barely missing him in Dublin and then Sweden, Interpol tracked him down 17 years later, living the life of a country squire in a tiny village in France. His long trial was held in Bordeaux and I helped cover it, but I haven’t been back to either city since.
     One of the traveling priests heads down the aisle of the train, the cross around his neck brandished high in one hand like a flashlight, as if to say, "Make way for the Lord!" They’re definitely headed for Lourdes, the place of miracles.
     Gradually, as the train rushes farther southward, the landscape changes. Now firmly in the méridionial part of the country, elm and chestnut have given way to scrub oak. The homely houses of the Paris region that first morphed into the lovely white-stone houses of the Loire Valley have now changed again into one-story houses with ruddy Spanish tile roofs. Even the church steeples change as you cross the regions of France. In the Bordeaux region they’re very tall and pencil-sharpener pointed. Each detail of landscape and architecture is a clue to where you are in the country.
     Half an hour out of Bordeaux, my neighbor starts with the cell phone again, this time booking tickets for a winter holiday. He’s becoming quite a bore. I don’t really need to know any more about him, and find him extremely foolish to be giving out his credit card number aloud in a crowded train car. Between these calls and his hogging the armrest between our seats, he has turned out to be a very inconsiderate voyager indeed. I’m glad I’m almost at my destination.
     There’s a long tunnel that smells of centuries of coal dust and diesel from generations of trains. Now all is powered by electricity, which means this could be deemed an atomic train (see above). Then there’s an old section of track that makes the familiar old kaCHUNK-kaCHUNK sound. It’s the last section where track hasn’t been seamlessly welded together on-site, creating a continuous ribbon running from one end of France to the other. It’s a process I know well, having had to translate it back in my professional days. There’s not one single seam to jostle passengers and let cars wiggle back and forth. Which is probably wise, because when a train traveling at 300 km per hour passes another traveling in the opposite direction at 300 km an hour and there’s only about 3 feet between them, the margin of error is extremely narrow.
     After the tunnel, it’s vineyards to the horizon. Then comes a small station with "Pomerol" marked on it. Pomerol is one of the very best Bordeaux wines, and the most expensive of them is the fabled Petrus - $3,000 a bottle. After that, we cross the Dordogne, brown with soil washed down by rainstorms in the mountains. Then the plains all around Bordeaux, created by alluvium from those mountains when the ice of the Ice Age melted.
     Soon comes the Garonne, which starts high up on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and empties into the Atlantic. By the time it reaches Bordeaux, it’s an impressive 500 m wide - five and a half football fields - and deep enough to accommodate sea-going vessels.
The TGV pulls into the station on time and disgorges a stream of passengers while rail workers disconnect the four front cars - destined for the Spanish border - from the other four, off to deliver my two priests to their place of miracles. I walk out into the sun shining benevolently on Bordeaux to find the shiny, sleek new tram waiting. The last leg of my train trip to lunch in the new restaurant of my old Montmartre friends.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is train travel in France.
Gare Saint-Jean, Bordeaux

1 comment:

  1. Excellent ! Was that the tiny little bistro with Madame cooking at the teensy little stove in the teensier little corner kitchen, her husband holding forth, and the one (gay) waiter ? Fabulous Lotte, fabulous fries ? I loved that place. What? maybe 6 or 7 small tables ? One evening, in walks Emmanuelle Béart in incredible blue jeans, with some guy, almost as cute as she. One of my favorite spots in Paris ... or (duh) maybe you are referring to another place (l'Angelus ? par exemple)... Ah, Sandilein, I miss those days.