So why a No-Fly City Break
I’m married to a non-flyer. It’s not always been the case – he dragged me on to my first plane for our honeymoon in Kenya, but over the years for whatever reason a deep instinctual fear of flying has set in. And he’s not alone – apparently 30% of us suffer from aviophobia, in varying degrees from faintly worried to unspeakably terrified. Whilst Mr LittleStuff doesn’t say never, we’ve not set foot in a plane for 16 years, doing all our travelling attached to the ground.
Which is actually pretty easy; when you’re taking a family of six plus a dog to France for a couple of weeks, its so easy loading the car for the ferry. And of course our Grand Road Trip around Italy started with Margot the motorhome being loaded with supplies at our house before another 5 a.m. start for Poole harbour and the ferry to Cherbourg.
But whilst big trips are easy, I’ve always discounted anywhere a bit further for a short break – the sheer length of time spent travelling would make it a pretty non-existent break, really, wouldn’t it?
Or so I thought until a few weeks ago… When I had the pleasure of chatting to the lovely people at Voyages-SNCF about short breaks to France. Paris is the obvious place to go by Eurostar, of course – and indeed we have already done so with huge success (a couple of years ago I was whisked away on an amazing surprise trip for my 40th). But really we wanted new adventure… and I admit I was a bit dismissive when it was suggested that Bordeaux was completely fine for a two night break.
I mean, Bordeaux? We’ve been once, just for half a day while in the area on holiday. We fell in love and swore to return… but that’s two thirds of the way down France – and we can’t even skip some by crossing to Cherbourg, we have to go the long way round to use the channel tunnel.
But as I casually checked train availability, I noticed the journey times…
If we caught the 05.40 St Pancras Eurostar (6 a.m. Ebbsfleet, 6.30 from Ashford, take your pick of which is best for you – we chose Ashford), then we would be in Bordeaux just after lunch. We could be wandering the Place de la Bourse by half past two that afternoon.
Really? Is that possible?
Why yes. Yes it is.
We decided to not leave the children an extra night (yes, this was a grown-ups adventure just for us), and got up at 3a.m. to head for Ashford International (we’re in Dorset – that’s a 3hr drive..). We made it in good time, and sat down with a coffee and a celebratory Pain Au Chocolat while we waited to board. I checked the train times on the SNCF website, and found to our dismay that our connection train from Paris Montparnasse had been cancelled. Yoiks.
We weren’t put off though – there were trains an hour either side, and the SNCF site assured us our ticket was valid on any of them; we decided to head to Paris, and just see where we got to.
A top tip from The Man In Seat 61 (if you’re thinking of European train travel, I suggest you make friends with his site. He knows and has written the answer to every single question I googled. He’s my train hero…) was to buy the Metro tickets from the Eurostar restaurant car – there’s a tiny premium in price (€2 instead of €1.80), but totally worth it to save the ticket office queue when you arrive in Paris. I actually bought four, so that I had the return journey sorted as well!
The Eurostar trip to Paris was remarkably uneventful – the early train is simply filled with people sleeping quietly in the comfortable seats, and we gratefully joined in. Arrival at Gare du Nord was a quick disembark, and then armed with Man In Seat 61’s step-by-step directions (safely saved in my phone as we were headed underground) we headed for the Metro line M4 (direction Mairie de Montrouge). It’s easily signposted, and though it’s a bit of a walk through the subway (oh joy-of-joys there’s a fun travelator on the long straight stretch. Yes, I’m still six at heart.) we found the right Metro train easily, and in about 25 minutes we were entering Montparnasse mainline station.
Which was honestly a little daunting… it felt chaotic, presumably due to the strikes. But there were a lot of SNCF staff around in high-vis waistcoats, assisting all the passengers whose trains had been cancelled. It actually turned out to be ridiculously simple for us – the next train stopping at Bordeaux was already at the platform waiting to be boarded. We hopped on fast, and found seats (priority is given to those who have booked tickets, so we fully expected to be turfed out of them, but no one bothered us). As the train pulled out we relaxed – and couldn’t quite believe how simple it had been.
This journey had seemed so big in our heads – and yet it was e-e-e-asy!
It’s just over a 3hr trip from Paris to Bordeaux – and we napped for a while, but soon realised we’d been up for 9hrs and eaten just one pain au chocolat so far… I headed to the restaurant car just in time; I was 4th in the queue, and by the time I’d been served (Daily Malin meal deal of sandwich, crisps and water, €8.50 each) there were around 15 people waiting behind me! The food was fine, but around us lots of people were opening bags with supplies they’d brought on board – we duly took notes for the return trip!
Just an hour out from Paris we couldn’t believe we were already passing through Tours – that takes us four hours of driving once we’re off the ferry. And a few snoozes later (well, he snoozed, I caught up on the Archers and examined the inside of my eyelids in completely relaxed comfort…) we were approaching Bordeaux. We honestly couldn’t believe it – we stepped off the train into the warmth of Bordeaux St Jean at just after 1.20pm local time. It was astonishing – we were rested and relaxed, and yet we had loads of time to get tickets for the tram, head into the city and find our hotel, and we were totally ready to start our two day adventure in Bordeaux!
The Ashford-Bordeaux trip this week costs £202 a ticket, but book ahead and the same trip in August is just £87 (September is £63!). Clearly it pays to book ahead – and we’ve had our eyes completely opened to the possibilities of the whole of Europe.
The Oui.SNCF website is brilliant – easy to navigate, and has the answers to all your questions (and the app is properly handy when you’re actually travelling), and just fills you with confidence if you’re a novice at the whole European Train Travel thing. Well, it certainly did us. With flying off the cards, previously we were limited by where we wanted to drive to – a couple of years ago the South of France was an exhausting two-day adventure each way – but now? We’re planning on a quick Paris trip with the kids in September, and we’re already looking at villas in Tuscany for next summer. We can leave Paris early morning, and be in Milan just after lunch. Hire a car, head out to a villa in the Tuscan hills and we will be drinking a glass of something chilled and excellent on our own terrace by early evening. Fabulous.