Jennifer was selected to be a “tester” and to travel around Europe with a Global InterRail pass, keeping a diary of her travel and thoughts. She has shared these for Silver Travel Advisor.
The journey, days 1 and 2
Tuesday Dec 9: Barcelona to Bordeaux (1st day using Pass)
My first day was … nothing if not eventful! The day started well. I was dropped off at Barcelona Sants railway station at 8.00, with plenty of time to enjoy the facilities of the First Class Lounge: orange juice, coffee, pastries and the day’s newspapers, before my 9.20 train to Narbonne. Note that in Spain there is a brief X-ray luggage scan before accessing the departure area for AVE, Alvia, Altaria and other high-speed trains. Tickets are then checked before boarding. My train arrived in Narbonne on time and without incident at 11.27.
My connecting train was supposed to leave Narbonne at 12.53, arriving in Bordeaux at 16.29. However, the announcement board stated that there was a problem affecting trains arriving from Nimes and Montpelier and that all trains were delayed. First the board said 30 mins delay, then 1 hour, then 2 hours.
At that point I spoke to a member of staff in the ticket office, who confirmed that the delay would be between 3 and 4 hours at least. She suggested changing my ticket to another train starting out from Narbonne at 15.58, arriving in Toulouse at 17.45, with a change to a train departing at 18.04 and arriving in Bordeaux at 20.13.
The Narbonne to Toulouse stretch was fine. However, 20 minutes after leaving Toulouse the train came to an abrupt halt. The guard announced that there had been an accident involving the train in front of ours: a collision on an unmanned level crossing between the train and a large vehicle. The train had been derailed and the track damaged. Our train would return to Toulouse where we would receive further information.
At Toulouse, confusion reigned. There was no loudspeaker system, just a few guards rushing around telling small groups first one thing, then another. At first, we were told that they were arranging for an empty sleeper train to accommodate everyone overnight; then that this would be only for those travelling to the final destination (Paris), and finally that two buses would transport those travelling to Bordeaux first to Montauban, then from there to Bordeaux by train. In the meantime, they handed out snack boxes, and there was a lot of hanging about. I rang my hotel (Campanile) in Bordeaux and the receptionist confirmed that there would be a night porter on duty, whenever I arrived. So I passed the time people watching, observing the reactions of the French to what was happening and thinking about how other nationalities might have responded. That was interesting!
We arrived in Montauban at 23.00, left at 23.30 and arrived in Bordeaux at 02.40. I was glad that I had booked a hotel near the station. The night porter was awake, helpful, and said she would alert the day staff to the fact that I would appreciate a lie in/late breakfast!
Wednesday Dec 10: Bordeaux to San Sebastian (2nd day using Pass)
After breakfast, I stretched my legs with a walk alongside the River Garonne. I last visited Bordeaux almost 50 years ago and hardly recognised this area now. The transformation has been profound. Where the quays used to be littered with derelict warehouses and the detritus of dead port activity, the riverfront is now tailored open space, gardens, restored warehouses and merchants’ homes, shops and cafes. Viewed from the Pont de Pierre, there’s arguably no finer city riverscape in Europe.
Unfortunately, my late start to the day meant that I had to cut short my sightseeing plans. Also, it was raining. On checking in at the station, I found that some train services were still disrupted, including those I had planned to take; so I spent some time in the station exploring alternatives. It proved straightforward to alter tickets. Instead of changing at Irun, I arranged to travel as far as Hendaye, then by Euskotren to San Sebastian.
Note: the Pass doesn’t cover some small private train operators such as the Euskotren narrow gauge local trains in northern Spain. That incurred an additional cost, albeit a small one.
Bordeaux Saint Jean station opened in 1898 and sits on the high speed TGV line from Paris and Lille in the north down to Biarritz on the border with Spain. Located 4km from the city centre, it’s a bit far to walk. There are trams, which I had planned to use, but lack of time meant that I opted to stay local.
The station itself is very down at heel. According to the publicity billboards, it will be amazing by 2017. Today though, nothing seemed to work. The automatic coffee dispenser gobbled up euro but failed to deliver. The automatic ‘point d’accueil’ was out of order. Also the escalators.
On the plus side, the waiting room has an interesting history. Formerly the “Salon d’Honneur”, where visiting dignitaries were entertained, a wall tapestry was uncovered during restoration work. The M refers to the former name of Bordeaux St. Jean: la gare du Midi. There’s also a cafe/restaurant which provides free internet access for the price of a cup of coffee, so I caught up with emails. And there’s a piano in the station with an invitation to sit and play. A nice/thoughtful touch. I listened to one man playing excellent jazz for a good half hour, watched the armed police and security guards patrolling the place, and relaxed with the daily paper until my train was due. It’s always interesting to see the world through the eyes of another country’s news.
Fortunately, the revised train journey proved uneventful, although the driving rain meant that views of the Basque countryside were disappointing. In San Sebastian, I stayed at Hotel Astoria 7 (following Michael Portillo’s advice). A good choice and interesting for film buffs like myself. The hotel features contemporary decor individually dedicated to personalities, actors, actresses or directors who have attended the San Sebastian International Film Festival ever since it began in 1953. I was in the Vanessa Redgrave suite. As it was late, and still raining, I ate in the hotel. It was good.
Note to Readers
Please see the information at the end of Part 1 regarding this ‘test travel’ project.
• Read European travels with a Global InterRail pass – Part 1
• Read European travels with a Global InterRail pass – Part 3
• Read European travels with a Global InterRail pass – Part 4
• Read European travels with a Global InterRail pass – Part 5
• Read European travels with a Global InterRail pass – Part 6