Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/34 posted by hidden europe on

The French TGV train is nothing new, but the afternoon service from Strasbourg to Paris last Thursday happened to feature the very engines that two years ago broke the world rail speed record. Back in April 2007, the specially modified train reached a remarkable 574 kilometres per hour west of the Meuse river viaduct. We swept along the same stretch of line at a much more sedate 315 kilometres per hour.

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Dear fellow travellers

A little over two hours. Just the right length for a feature film, is it not? Exactly the time we needed for the train journey last Thursday from Strasbourg to Paris. That afternoon trip across eastern France was every bit as dramatic as the best feature film. In truth, we are really aficionados of slow travel, but we made an exception last week and found that high speed rail at its best is pure cinema.

Strasbourg train station is a magnificent overture for the journey to Paris. The station's street-side facade has been transformed by a giant glass armadillo, a dash of modernity that embellishes what is actually an engagingly old-fashioned station. The Salon Grand Voyageur is as grand as its name implies, with its rich ochre walls, delicate inlaid ceiling and impressive chandeliers.

The French TGV train is nothing new, but the afternoon service from Strasbourg to Paris last Thursday happened to feature the very engines that two years ago broke the world rail speed record. Back in April 2007, the specially modified train reached a remarkable 574 kilometres per hour west of the Meuse river viaduct. We swept along the same stretch of line at a much more sedate 315 kilometres per hour.

Yet the trip from Strasbourg to Paris was not one mad dash, and therein was the beauty of the journey. The first part of the journey from Strasbourg is quite unhurried, with the train following a pleasantly rural route across the Rhine flood plain before cutting through the Vosges. The train line twists and turns through a narrow valley, with beech and oak giving way to fir at higher levels. Old and new are nicely juxtaposed with the rail route closely following the nineteenth-century canal that links the Rhine and the Marne rivers. Timber framed mills beside fast flowing streams show that happy provinciality that makes rural France so appealing.

West of the Vosges and now well into Lorraine our TGV trundled lazily across the landscape, stopping here and there at signals and even pausing at a country station where surely no fast train ever has a scheduled stop. An Adlestrop moment, but instead of the willow herb and meadowsweet in Edward Thomas' poem, that lonely railway platform in Lorraine offered bilberry, boxwood and the last of the season's sage. Later there was a glimpse of Sarrebourg, the small town with a church boasting a celebrated essay in stained glass by Marc Chagall.

Only with Sarrebourg behind us did the real action start, with the train speeding up for a dramatic dash to Paris. The railway defied the warp and weft of the landscape, sweeping over rivers like the Moselle and the Meuse, diving into tunnels, streaking past the vineyards of Champagne and then braking gently on the approach to Paris. Screen shots from Fernand Pinal's paintings gave way to the city with its shunting yards and abandoned factories. Empty suburban railway platforms lashed by late afternoon rain and then the edgy wilderness of Pantin, with its crowded apartment blocks.

Bang on time our train pulled into Paris Est and less than forty minutes later we were on a Eurostar train threading its way through Paris' northern suburbs en route to London. Lunch in Strasbourg, dinner in London. And between the two 942 kilometres of high speed train travel. Just for the record, we left Strasbourg at 2.17 pm and arrived at London St Pancras at 6.34 pm after a run on Eurostar that was every bit as dramatic as the journey by TGV from Strasbourg to Paris. We wonder sometimes why anyone still bothers to travel by plane.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.