Bordeaux to Bilbao by Train

Bordeaux’s Gare Saint Joan railway station is a fabulous structure with a spectacular 19th century glass-roofed concourse on 2 levels that features a wall-map of the area’s historic rail network – not only a work of art but a historical reference of long-gone railway lines. It’s not just the UK that has suffered major line closures in recent past.

The station’s platform areas are being rebuilt in readiness for the arrival of the extended Altantique LGV which will soon carry TGV services on dedicated tracks all the way from Paris. As a result of these works, many platforms are currently full of scaffolding, with small areas every few metres for passengers to stand and wait for trains away from the platform edge. When the 1051 TGV service to the French-Spanish border at Hendaye & Irun arrived, there were quite chaotic scenes as alighting passengers jostled for space with passengers trying to board and walking up and down the platform to find their carriage.

South of Bordeaux, progress was quite leisurely as the TGV services use slower-speed classic railway lines to reach the border. The journey is timetabled to take just over 2 hours, but an hour into the journey we rapidly slowed to a halt near Bayonne. My French isn’t good enough to understand all the announcements made, but the words I did snatch suggested the halt was due to a trespasser or blockage on the line. There was lots of tutting from some nearby passengers who were seasoned travellers on a tight schedule and I was glad that I had decided to stay overnight in Bordeaux to get an earlier train to the border than trying to travel all the way from La Rochelle in one day – if I’d got a later train I would have been far less relaxed about the delay. We were stationary for about 20 minutes before we pulled into Bayonne station shortly after.

On arrival at Hendaye, which is the station on the French side of the border, the train split into two. Although I got off at Hendaye, the TGV set I had been on, and which formed the front portion of the train, uncoupled from the rear set and carried onto Irun on the Spanish side, although this was a short journey. At Irun, there are direct connections to Pamplona and beyond using the national RENFE Spanish services. A few RENFE services seem to use Hendaye station too. Having previously done my research using the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website, I knew that I needed the Euskotren train which left from a small, separate station adjacent to the SNCF station.

Euskotren is a Basque train company which operates a narrow gauge rail network in northwest Spain using modern electric trains. The train from Hendaye crosses the La Bidassoa river into Irun and largely hugs the coastline for a 30 minute journey to San Sebastiân. From there, which is a key interchange on the network, it is necessary to change onto a separate train to Bilbao, a journey which takes around 2.5 hours. The single fare for the whole 3 hour journey to Bilbao was less than €6 – a real bargain.

As I had to change at San Sebastiân, I decided to break my journey there and spend an hour to take a quick look around. I was glad that I did. It is an attractive city with a spectacular cathedral and a large bay with an attractive sandy beach. I sat in the square outside the cathedral and ate the small quiche I had bought at Bordeaux and vowed to return someday for a longer stay.

When I returned to the station however, I found that my through ticket to Bilbao wouldn’t work on the ticket barriers. Although an irritation, I couldn’t really begrudge getting a new ticket even though it was only €0.10 less than the ticket I had bought in Hendaye. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to try and blag myself through the barriers.

The train journey from San Sebastiân to Bilbao was as scenic as I had hoped, with the railway line following river valleys through the mountains on the way. Some of the rustic views were spoiled by characteristic large Spanish apartment blocks but overall it was a pleasant journey. As the train got towards Bilbao, the railway surroundings became more urban until the train pulled into Axturo station beside Bilbao’s Ria river.

After leaving the station I made for the tram stop I had worked out would get me to the hotel. Unfortunately, it appeared that trams were not running and I continued walking – I was glad that I only had my small wheeled case. My sense of direction was assisted by checking Apple Maps on my phone before reaching the main square and a city map adjacent to the tourism office in the city centre. By this time it was clear that it would be easier to continue walking and I got to the hotel just before a light drizzle turned into heavier rain for the rest of the evening.

10 Days on Île de Ré

Île de Ré s a smallish island off the west coast of France in the Charante-Maritime Department. It is close to La Rochelle, with a modern toll bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Île de Ré is one of several islands around La Rochelle, with the other main island, Île de Ôléron being to the south and visible from parts of Ré on clear days.

Ré is a popular tourist spot with the French, as it is a viable weekend destination from Paris and other large cities such as Bordeaux. La Rochelle is connected to Paris by a regular TGV railway service and has an airport with regular flights to Paris; Easyjet also serve La Rochelle from several UK airports and hence the area remains popular with British tourists. Ré has some great beaches, with wide expanses of sand and generally safe swimming.

We have been staying in the pretty harbour town of La Flotte, which is the largest town on the island; La Flotte is also close to the fortified harbour town of Saint-Martin. Saint-Martin de Ré is probably the more popular and attractive town, and also the more expensive in terms of accommodation and restaurant prices. The town’s fortifications are by the famed French engineer Vauban and part of the old fortress is still used as a prison. Saint-Martin is a World Heritage site.

Another pretty harbour is to be found at Ars en Ré, which has a prominent church steeple painted in black and white to serve as a navigation aid for boats entering the harbour.

There are some fantastic beaches on Ré, many of which still have German WW2 concrete bunkers that were built to protect key military assets, including large guns protecting the U-boat pens in La Rochelle from naval attack, although these bunkers have been slowly slipping down the dunes onto the beach in the past few decades. A small number of these bunkers have even been converted into holiday homes. Beaches on the island were used in the filming of the classic WW2 film The Longest Day.

Another notable feature of the island is the preponderance of hollyhocks. These distinctive flowers are all over the island and a feature of many quiet alleyways and streets across the island.

A holiday on the island is very relaxing and is great for cycling. Cyclists abound wherever you look. It is a popular yachting destination and has been a favourite destination of celebrities, including Johnny Depp. For seafood lovers, the area is a perfect location to visit as the island has a thriving fishing fleet. For wine lovers, Ré’s wine is a local speciality and bottles of eminently quaffable wine can be had from supermarkets for around €3. Pineau, a fortified wine, is another speciality – Cognac eau-de-vie mixed with lightly fermented grape juice.

As this is my second visit to the region (we had a 5 day holiday on nearby Ôléron in 2014), I have become as fond of the area as my brother and his family. Sadly, this year, weather has been quite mixed (as it has across Europe this summer), however it is normally dependably hot and sunny in July & August.

Paris to Île de Ré via an Orange Boutique

After a quick breakfast, I had a morning free before catching the TGV to La Rochelle. No time to relax though as I had an assignment.

Prior to arriving in France, we had bought a wifi dongle device as experience last year was that using our phones for Internet while in France was not really viable. I had established the night before that while Orange had several shops in central Paris, few were open on Sundays. The only viable store, timing wise, was at La Defense. This store opened at 11 and even with some time to buy the required mobile data sim, would allow me time to get back to Montparnasse station to catch the TGV south. The RATP website told me that it would take 30 minutes to get to La Defense from the Metro station close to my hotel.

Paris Metro Ligne 6 was a surprise as, soon after leaving Montparnasse station, it emerges from tunnel and passes through Paris on viaducts through the streets. In fact, you get a great view of Paris architecture and of the Eiffel Tower. The Seine is crossed on a bridge before the line descends back into tunnel as it gets close to its terminus around the Arc de Triomphe.

When I reached the shopping centre at La Defense, I soon found the Orange shop. Unfortunately the shop was closed. Despite the Orange website’s information, it clearly didn’t open on a Sunday – there were no signs of life inside. This was a major blow as there was no chance to get to any other Orange store and back to Montparnasse before my train left some 2 hours later. So, after using my new camera to take some picures of La Defense, which I’d last visited around 19 years ago, it was time to retrace my steps back to Montparnasse.

My trip to La Rochelle was a repeat of one I’d made almost exactly a year previously when joining my brother and family on Ile d’Oleron, so I knew my way around Montparnasse and knew that it was worth getting food before boarding. British railway catering may have a bad image but it beats TGV catering hands-down. In fact First Class travel on TGV is just more comfortable than 2nd class – there are none of the benefits like wifi, free food or at-seat service that you get on East Coast etc. that said, the First Class fares are generally only slightly higher than in Standard.

The countryside south of Paris is fairly flat and mostly arable farming. A few industrial sites are noticeable and Poitiers is an interesting sight – the biggest station that is served by the La Rochelle service. The train was busy, even in First Class, my seat was an aisle seat so the ability to window-gaze was limited.

At La Rochelle, I knew that an express bus met the TGV to take passengers to île de Ré and sure enough there was a crowd milling around by some bus stops in the station car park. Shortly after, two smart buses arrived and passengers placed their luggage in the side lockers before boarding. The journey was quite short and so within 40 minutes or so (after some confusion with my brother about exactly where I had got off the bus), I was enjoying a cold beer with him, his partner and my nephew in their holiday apartment.

Travelling to Paris (mostly) in Style Part 3: Arrival in Paris

The flight time to Paris from Heathrow is short; a significant portion of quoted flight times is actually just an allowance for congestion at Eitger airports (mostly Heathrow) – this is clear from our almost-on-time arrival at Charles de Gaulle despite a 20 minute wait at the terminal and 10 minute taxi to the runway when leaving Heathrow.

It has to be said that, while Terminal 5 is probably Britain’s finest airport terminal, Terminal 2 at Paris CDG is not the country’s finest entry point. The terminal is tired and tatty and, while we complain that Terminal 5 is just a glorified shopping mall, the retail offering is pretty poor (though admittedly I only saw the arrivals hall). Luggage took around 15 minutes to arrive on the belt – one of the disadvantages of being at the front of the aircraft, and of having checked-in luggage is the wait for bags on arrival. Passport control was thankfully brief with only a minute’s wait and then there was a lengthy walk to the railway station to catch the RER to central Paris.

There was a lengthy wait for a train (I must have just missed one I think) and the RER was full for much of the way into Paris. We passed a few Eurostars stabled in the depot north of Gare du Nord before plunging into a tunnel to cross under Paris.

The hotel I chose for my 1 night stay was close to Gare Montparnasse on the south side of the city, and so a quick change onto Ligne 6 was required and then a short walk to find the hotel right next door to the Mercure hotel I stayed at last year. The M Hotel Paris was a decent choice for a quick stopover and, although I didn’t venture out, the Montparnasse area is busting in the evening. It’s close to the Paris Catacombes too, should guests have a spare few hours to visit them.

Travelling to Paris (mostly) in Style Part 2: Sojourn at Terminal 5

Terminal 5 at Heathrow is still one of the better terminals I’ve used in my sporadic world travel. Light & airy, fairly good signage and a damn sight better than the old Terminal 3. I’ll see the new Terminal 3 on my return from Bilbao in 2 weeks’ time and will be interested to see how it compares.

A benefit of arriving at T5 from a UK domestic flight is that, once you’ve had your boarding pass checked, you walk straight into the terminal. No need for another security check and all the hassle that entails.

Last time I came through T5 in March, my change in frequent flyer status hadn’t been completed, despite BA’s assurances that it would be, so I wasn’t able to use the lounge, so this is my first time in many years that I could use it. There are lounges at either end of the terminal but I went to the south end; a good choice as it turned out, since it overlooks the southern runway which was being used by planes taking off towards the west and so was a good vantage point for some impromptu plane watching. We had in fact landed on the same runway a short time before, so the daily switch to alleviate noise for those living under the flight paths had already taken place.

The lounge is extensive and has plenty of seating but was nevertheless pretty busy. I’m reliably informed that the food on offer in the lounge isn’t what it used to be, so was intrigued to see what was on the menu. I could have had pasta, curry, chilli or a baked potato but started with a coffee and then moved onto a bowl of tomato, potato & paprika soup – which wasn’t bad at all. I then had a couple of small glasses of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which went down very well. It was while sipping the wine and watching planes take off that I finally started to relax. Admittedly, this may have been due to the alcohol.

All too soon, it was time to leave the lounge and head to the departure gate, which was (predictably) at the other end of the terminal. This time, all the boarding was at the front but I was able to use the fast track boarding. BA Club Europe is essentially the normal 6 abreast Airbus 321 seating but with the middle seat of each 3 used for a demountable side table. It works quite well but is probably not worth paying too much for – on this occasion, the difference in cost for the upgrade to Club while booking had been quite easy to justify!

The aircraft was held at the terminal gate after final boarding for about 20 minutes as advised from the flight deck; this is a function of the very frequent congestion at Heathrow. The wait is improved by being able to use mobile phones etc now. Finally, we started taxiing alongside the southern runway, past construction works to repair parts of the main taxiway, before queuing to join the runway.

Take-off was to the west and over Basingstoke with Gatwick visible far below us after a few minutes. Afternoon tea consisted of sandwiches and a scone with clotted cream & jam. I washed this down with more Sauvignon Blanc … from Chile this time!

Travelling to Paris (mostly) in Style – Part 1: Leaving the North East

The first leg of my summer holiday journey has been from Newcastle to Paris via London Heathrow with British Airways. After a slow start due to engineering works on the Tyne & Wear Metro requiring a poorly-organised bus replacement from South Gosforth, the journey has been relaxing & uneventful.

While I understand that the modernisation of the Metro is much-needed, the bus replacement service put on by the T&W Metro was disappointing. It’s never enjoyable having to decamp onto a bus for rail engineering works, but Metro seemed not to have given any consideration to customer service, despite this being a regular occurrence over the past few years. The trains and platform displays still showed trains as going to the airport (although a secondary message on the screen mentioned bus service replacement). A group of German passengers clearly hadn’t got the message as they remained on the train when we terminated at South Gosforth. If it had been a National Rail disruption, my experience is that it would have been much better publicised and organised. A member of Metro staff on the platform directed passengers to the bus stop but there was little guidance after that. When the bus turned up (an Arriva bus as that company shares Deutsche Bahn parentage with Metro) it had little or no luggage space, which is rather surprising given that it was on a route to the Airport with passengers encumbered with lots of luggage. The bus then proceeded to serve every single of the Metro stops to the Airport. Again, there didn’t seem to be much signage or Metro presence and some bus stops were several hundred metres from the Metro stop – hardly suitable for any mobility impaired.

It was a slow and tortuous route to the Airport through various northern Newcastle housing estates. As we got further from the city, however, we passed some huge modern houses with elaborate porticos and even porte cocheres in some cases. Some really looked quite ludicrous!

On arrival at the Airport, check-in was quick and easy – though this was mainly due to being able to fast track as a frequent flyer. The departures lounge is now reached by a new, tortuous route through Duty Free but the retail & catering units are much better than they were before the terminal refurbishment.

The BA lounge at Newcastle was fairly quiet but the gate lounge was full when the flight was called. To speed up turnaround, the aircraft was boarded by the air bridge and also by steps from the apron to the rear passenger doors. As a result, take-off was almost on time.

We took off towards the west and flew over Corbridge as we turned south. The A69’s origins as a Roman road along Hadrian’s Wall were clearly evident. Cloud cover soon made it difficult to see much else as we headed south towards Heathrow.

Barcelona!

Barcelona is a great city.

Its very European and has a great vibe. Its 10 years since I was last there and it didn’t take me long to get my bearings and for the memories of my previous trip to come flooding back. The city’s Metro system is very comprehensive and I paid €20 for a four day ticket. As well as the main sights such as La Ramblas, Gaudi and Sagrada Familia, the waterfront is very well developed and it is refreshing that its is still so busy with ferries and freight ships so close to the city centre.

I spent the first day I was there exploring and taking photos of the architecture. having been before, I wasn’t so interested in doing all the standard ttourist things but still found myself admiring the Gaudi architecture and the everlasting building work at Sagrada. On the second day, I took the funicular train to Montjuic which has spectacular views across the city. The old Fort at the top of Montjuic is also pretty impressive and I enjoyed the view sat looking out over the city as I sipped a beer.

I walked down, having taken the cable car to the top, and enjoyed wandering through the gardens on my way back to the funicular railway.

Montserrat

My third day in Barcelona was a Sunday and I decided to take the train to Montserrat – a monastery and pilgrimage site in the hills outside the city. The trains take about an hour from the city centre (Plaça d’Espanya) and there is a choice of how you connect from the train to the mountain. The original, and most spectacular, way is to get off at Montserrat Aeri and get the cable car to the monastery. the laternative is to stay on the train and get off at the next station to get the rack and pinion (Cremallera) train which was built in the last 10 years or so. I waited a while when I left the train as there was a queue for the cable car – there was no rush and I was able to get some photos of the river and of the cable cars from the ground before joining the much-shorter queue and managing to get to the front of the cable car so I could take unimpeded photos through the gaps in the safety glass. The cable car journey is jaw droppingly spectacular, with only one cable support between the base station and the top.

On arrival at the main site, I found it pretty busy (it was a hot Sunday, so that’s not surprising) and headed towards the Basilica. There was a queue to enter the crypt but I was happy to go into the main building and take in the rather opulent interior. After I had taken my fill of statues and gold, I went to one of the cafes and purchased a bacon and cheese baguette with a beer.

After my lunch, I headed up towards the path at the rear of the monastery and started the long climb up the mountain above. I quickly found out how unfit I was but the effort was worth it for the incredible views across the valley and beyond. About halfway up, there was a choice of route with the longer route taking an hour and a shorter route towards the Saint Joan funicular back down to the monastery. I decided that the longer route would take too long but was annoyed to find that the funicular wasn’t operating so walked back along a track back down to my starting point.

As a transport geek, I had already decided to take the rack and pinion train down rather than returning on the cable car (required buying two single tickets from and to Barcelona but not that much more expensive).

There was a bit of a wait, so I quenched my thirst with a very welcome beer before managing to get a seat on the train right next to the driver (told you I was a geek). While not as spectacular as the cable car route, the train is stil an impressive journey and the added benefit was that I got a decent seat on the train to Barcelona prior to the cable car hordes joining at the next station.

Montpellier to Barcelona

After some checking, I decided to get a mid-morning train from Montpellier to Barcelona. The train from Montpellier was a TGV Duplex terminating at Figueres, from where there was a train to Barcelona operated by RENFE (Spanish railways).While the journey from Montepellier was predominantly on classic rail lines, the approach to the Figueres TGV station makes use of the new high speed lineë_including impressive tunnels through the foothills of the Pyrennes.

The new TGV station at Figueres is a fairly typical TGV station on the edge of the town. Theë_Barcelona train was in the adjacent platform so there was an easy platform change.

The existing line to Barcelona passes through Girona, with the well-advanced RENFE high speed line from France to Barcelona and Madrid taking shape alongside in many places.

On the approaches to Barcelona, there were some impressive civil engineering works which were presumably associated with the construction of the new tunnel to take high speed trains out of the city and towards France.

The final approach to Barcelona Sants station is inë_tunnel and the train passed through a number of surburban underground stations before reaching Sants.

Montpellier

Montpellier is an attractive French city with a thriving university. The Place de Comedie is the main town square although new business dsitricts have also sprung up around the centre and near the university. Montpellier has some impressive centrally-located sights, including two cathedrals and a Roman aqueduct. Although located near the Mediterranean, there is no easy tourist-friendly way of getting to the coast yet (a future Metro line will correct this).

I spent two nights in Montpellier and this was enough to get a taste of the city but I could quite happily return for another longer visit.