Getting there: From Paris to Marseille

19 April 2011

Each time I  field the question, “do you think you’ll move back to the States?”, I hesitate.  I feel tremendous guilty about my answer and verbalizing it only gives it more weight; makes it more real.  No, I don’t think we will.  My reasons are numerous but one of the factors, aside from wanting to stay where I can speak French at all times, is transportation. The only time I ever get behind the wheel these days is during annual trips stateside but surprisingly the skill (along with parallel parking-induced anxiety) returns the instant my key enters the ignition. My hands and feet know just what to do despite months of inactivity.

While I enjoy a good drive with the windows down, the music turned up and a fresh smoothie positioned snuggly in the cup holder, I’d much rather take public transportation for its ease, efficiency and eco-friendliness (note: did you know that body heat generated in the Paris metro will to be used to warm a public housing project near Beaubourg this year?). Excluding cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and D.C. which boast widely used subway systems, most of America is behind when it comes to accessible, affordable and well maintained public transportation. After five years of getting around by foot, metro, bus, train or bike, owning or being forced to rely on a car does not fall into my life plan.

Despite frequent strikes and time displays that occasionally malfunction, the Paris metro and bus systems are undeniably efficient and reliable for navigating the city and its surroundings. For travel within France and much of Europe, high-speed trains, like the revolutionary TGV, offer a greener, relatively hassle-free way to travel in record time. It would appear that we’ll have more than just France’s SNCF trains to choose from in the near future with a Europe-wide network in development. The EU challenged France’s railway monopoly, forcing them to open existing lines to competition, primarily from Germany and China.

European train travel is lucrative business which dwarfs the American equivalent Amtrak in comparison. It baffled us that our trip from Boston to Philadelphia took 6.5 hours by train when the distance is shorter than between Paris and Marseille. Cars remain the dominant transportation of choice in the States but I hope we start to see the public’s demand for improved transportation evolve.

It’s already been over a week since my last train experience and save for my return trip seat across from an elderly man who repeatedly mistook my shins for a foot rest, the journey was seamless and comfortable. I thought it might be fun to take you along for the journey…

Start: Gare de Lyon

Paris Gare de Lyon Train Station

Gare de Lyon is by far one of my favorite train stations and I love the clock tower (1st photo). This is also where Mr. C picks up his suburban train to go bouldering in Fontainebleau.

Gare de Lyon arrivals and departures board

Checking the board for my train… a judiciously placed palm tree to prepare me for the South.

passengers waiting at Gare de Lyon

Impatiently waiting to board in the section of Gare de Lyon currently undergoing massive renovations.

On the train

When I saw that a first class ticket was a mere 10€ more, you better believe that’s where I booked a seat. More leg room, a food and beverage cart that passes through the car and outlets to plug in your computer or cell phone. Definitely worth the extra few euros.

travel essentials: iphone, notebook, This Is Where I Leave You book

Equipped with travel essentials: Iphone for music, notebook for ideas that tend to come when I’m traveling, and my read of the moment which I have since finished and highly recommend. The pages literally turned themselves. {available here}

Marseille Saint-Charles

Marseille Saint-Charles Metro

After a painless 3.5 hour train ride, I arrived at Marseille’s Saint-Charles station where I hopped on the metro to join Mr. C and our friends. They picked me up having spent the day rock climbing in the sweltering sun and gave me a rather fragrant welcome. All I cared about was spending a few days with a view of the ocean. I never realized how much proximity to water made a difference in my overall state of happiness.

Marseille train station
Marseille Saint-Charles Train Station

Then it was back to Saint-Charles station to return to Paris. Our next trip within France will be to Toulouse in the beginning of June and the countdown has already begun.

{click HERE for more photos from my trip down South}

Have you always had positive experiences traveling by train within Europe? Any horror stories?