Ride & Drive: Make the Most of Your French Experience

by Diane M. Covington

Vacation time is precious. It’s meant to be relaxing and pleasurable.

That’s why, on your next trip to Europe, you shouldn’t miss out on the trains. In France, the TGV, or high-speed train, flies through the countryside, while you sit back and relax. Once at your destination, if you want to poke around in little villages, you can rent a car for a few days. That way, you have the best of both worlds.

To travel from Paris to Marseilles, which equals approximately the distance from San Francisco to San Diego, now takes just three hours on the new, non-stop TGV Mediterranean, which clocks in at 186 miles per hour.

France train station interiorI took that trip recently. I read, worked on my laptop, and ate a picnic lunch. I chatted with some of the other American travelers in the restaurant car when I strolled down for a cup of tea.

Back at my seat, I stared out the window at the passing farms and sheep under a light dusting of snow. I snuggled under my warm wool coat and watched clouds change shape in the gray sky as I fell asleep.

I awoke, relaxed and refreshed, to see the bright sun sparkling on the Mediterranean as we pulled into Marseilles. I’d just traveled halfway across France in just a few pleasant hours.

In a tiny rental car, paying gas and toll road costs, it would have taken at least eight hours of tense driving, and that doesn’t count time for getting lost! Which sounds like more fun to you?

Sadly, in America, we don’t have the option of traveling by high-speed train, and Amtrack is fighting to stay alive. Most Americans, who are used to driving, assume that getting around on vacation means renting a car. Driving the long stretches in France means you miss out on the high-speed trains and the chance to enjoy the fun and ease they offer.

These trains are fast, efficient, on time, and provide transportation to most places. They are an extremely good value, especially for Americans, who are able to buy different sorts of rail passes, including “Rail’n Drive”, from Rail Europe.

A few years ago, I traveled with five other women who spanned three generations in age, on a rail and drive escapade through France. We had all purchased first-class France Rail’n Drive passes before we left the States for our trip through Paris, Normandy, and the Loire Valley.

On one leg, the TGV gave us the salon, or private car, that seats eight, at the head of the train. We picnicked, partied and giggled our way through the beauty of passing vineyards and castles. Once in the Loire Valley, we used our several days of pre-arranged rental cars to explore the chateaux of the Loire, even staying in one private castle for three days.

In this case, driving was a pleasure. Each day, we savored the few kilometers we drove and the treasures this time offered. We explored the castles of Chenonceau, Blois and Chaumont.

We wine-tasted in roadside tasting rooms, touched by the hospitality of the family-run wineries. We picnicked along the Loire. We had energy left over for cocktails on the terrace before the elegant dinners each evening in our own castle.

Last year, I spent eight months living in Aix-en-Provence, France, without a car. I toured all over France safely, economically, and with ease. Many of these times I traveled alone, using the trains and their connecting network of busses.

During this time, my sister and I traveled from the south of France to the Alps, near Briancon. As we left Aix-en-Provence, farmlands stretched out, their rows of fruit trees covered in white and pink blossoms. The train followed the Durance River, past fields of lavender, which in summer would be bright with purple flowers.

Farther on, the scenery became more rugged, with the craggy peaks of the Alps surrounding little hamlets tucked into the mountainsides. As we climbed in elevation, a late spring snowstorm turned everything white, with its fluffy, fat flakes. I was thrilled not to be driving in it. I could watch it all from inside the cozy train as we whizzed along.

Once in Briancon, a bus was waiting to take us the 30-minute drive up the mountain to the village of Moneteir-les Bains, known for its hot springs. Then it was back down the mountain on the bus and onto the train for the ride home.

I don’t know anywhere in America where such a scenario could happen and it was pure delight.

Unlike in America, France and most of Europe are set up for you to do just fine without a car, and the trains make it easy, economical, and fun. With the Rail’n Drive option, you don’t have to feel like you are missing out on the charming villages hidden down a winding back road.

Trains evoke adventure, romance, and excitement. They’re also a chance to kick back and let someone else be in charge. Isn’t that what vacations should be all about? If at the same time you’re actually saving money and time, well, why not?

You might even find yourself enjoying some cloud-watching time. Now that is a precious commodity.

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Diane M. Covington is a free-lance writer who lives in California. You can reach her
at  dianecov@iglide.ne

France train station