Nothing gave me greater joy, all throughout the 1990s, than to climb aboard a sleeper at Paris’s Austerlitz station at around 10:30 p.m., crawl into my little berth and wake up the next morning on the Riviera. Popular and cheaper than day trains, they were, in fact, hotels on wheels when you think about it. But I liked them for the romantic notion. I was in Europe, after all, and wanted to experience European train travel. Oh, not the grand and legendary Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway or the Danube Express, but rather snuggled in a sleeper aboard one of the French trains: the Océan-Riviera (Nantes to Nice), the Rhône-Océan (Quimper to Lyon), the Flandres-Riviera (Lille to Nice), the Blue Paloma (Paris to Toulouse to Hendaye) or the ever-popular Blue Train (Le Train Bleu), named so because of its dark blue sleeping cars. (I thought it was named after the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, its final destination.)
Nothing was more exciting than to wake early, lie on your berth and glimpse the sea and the characteristic umbrella pines and palm trees through the window. Upon arrival on the coast, the stations the train passed through were Marseille, Toulon, Saint-Raphaël, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, Monaco, Monte-Carlo and Menton, the terminus. Further along was the Italian border and Ventimiglia.
In these photos below: First class on the left, only four couchettes, and Second class on the right with six couchettes. The best bunks were the ones up top. In the early 2000s, the train company, SNCF, introduced cabins reserved exclusively for women.
But why am I talking about this in the past tense? With the arrival of the high-speed TGV (train à grande vitesse) trains and the new low-cost airlines, those reliable yet clunky night trains began to lose their lustre. No longer profitable, the entire night-train network in France (except for two lines) was slowly phased out then dismantled, leaving behind a whole slew of train orphans, myself included.
In the 1980s, more than 500 cities in France were served by a night train. In the early 2000s, sixty-seven were still in circulation daily. Today, only two lines are still operating: Paris-Briançon and Paris-Toulouse.
But guess what? They’ve become fashionable again! Anxious about our ecological future, who would have thought that instead of looking forward for solutions, the government is looking backward. Suddenly, those night trains don’t seem to be such a bad idea after all.
Slow travel is in, flying short distances in Europe is out. The train’s carbon footprint is fifteen times lower than that of the airplane. In June 2019, I travelled by train all the way from Puglia (the heel of Italy) to Paris, stopping off in Bologna, Milan and Nice. It was great. I was ready to do it all over again this year, but then COVID came.
I’m thinking of taking the night train to Venice this Christmas.
Tous à bord! All aboard!
Here’s an extract from my memoir relative to the night train:
I don’t know who said ‘living well is the best revenge’, but as I savored a mouthful of grilled fish served with fennel and artichoke and washed it down with a swirl of chilled Puligny-Montrachet ’92, I felt inclined to agree with this maxim. I was lunching on the beach in Nice where only the French can turn this otherwise commonplace act into a sybaritic event.
The waiter removed my empty plate and brought a crème caramel for dessert, a tiny cup of espresso at its side. I sat contentedly in my chair and observed the sight before me. The listless sea lapped twenty yards from my table. The sun shone from an azure sky. Parasols as white as ship sails fluttered in the gentle breeze. Shading my eyes, I peered across the Mediterranean for a glimpse of North Africa beyond. All was right with the world. I felt sated and at peace.
Every June I’d steal away on Le train bleu, the night train that leaves Paris’s Gare d’Austerlitz for the Riviera. I had explored other towns along the coast: Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Cap Ferrat and Menton near the Italian border, but Nice was my pleasure station, my secret destination, my sybaritic delight. In the sleeping compartment, I’d climb the little ladder to the top berth and, mindful not to bump my head against the ceiling, fold myself into the narrow space under the thin SNCF-stamped train sheets. There was something simultaneously romantic, dangerous and thrilling about those night trains. You never knew who you were going to meet in the corridor at two a.m.; you never knew with whom you were going to share your sleeping compartment; you never knew if you were actually going to arrive at your destination.
I loved the idea of leaving Paris at midnight and waking up the next morning on the Côte d’Azur. I loved the rocking motion of the carriage and the rhythmic clacking of wheels on rails as we sliced through the blackness, past sleeping towns and hamlets, across fields and vineyards. From time to time a blur of electric lights would whip past the window and, peering through the glass, I’d glimpse empty stations: Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, Dijon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Mâcon – their lonely platforms lit up like stage sets. Then dark again as we sped on towards the south.
Swaying gently in my bunk, the soft glow of the little night light above my head, I could smell and hear the five sleeping strangers around me. I felt alone and crowded at the same time.