Saturday, 11 August 2012

Back to Collioure

The only time that I'd ever travelled on a sleeper before, it was the Orient Express. They might still exist in the UK - London to Fort William and London to Cornwall - but I haven't had cause to contemplate such routes for many a year.

The last time I did, we were travelling back from Inverness to London, after a holiday on Skye with friends. It was during our time at The Morning Star, and the (frequently erratic) low pay meant that most staffers depended on goodwill from friends to be able to venture much beyond the capital.

It had been an intriguing break: my first ride on a horse had ended prematurely.

I had been doing rather well and was feeling a tad self-satisfied as we walked along, that I was managing to get to grips with the rise and fall of the animal's gait.

The The Other Half's mount, jogging behind, decided to bit the bum of mine. Somehow, I managed something like an elegant fall as I was thrown, clinging to the reins and breaking my fall - although I was still left nursing a spectacularly large bruise all down my left hip and thigh.

The woman who was leading our party was horrified. Complimenting me on my unplanned descent, she asked if I smoked - obviously a cure for such falls - and passed me a packet.

I was most certainly not getting back on. My head was spinning, although I wasn't seeing stars, but the 1991-'93 Arsenal away kit - an infamous, psychedelic abomination of yellow, with blue zig zags all over it.

The horse was tied to a gate post and I plumped myself down on a tuft of grass, fag packet grasped firmly, as the other trotted off for a canter around the Fairy Glen.

The holiday was also memorable because, quite amazingly, we saw the aurora borealis, a quite astonishing and beautiful sight.

And even though this was years before my foodie period started, I have two food memories too: of the discovery of haggis in the cafe/bar on the quay in Uig where we were staying - a dish I ate relentlessly, served by the buxom landlady who, rumour had it, also provided a different sort of service out of hours.

There were Staffin Bay prawns too, relished after a dreadful few hours clambering around in the Quiraing, which nearly defeated me as I struggled to get a foothold on the damned pea gravel.

And then there was the long, long train journey home. It was overnight. Our friends, god love them, told us, rather shamefacedly, that they'd managed to get a sleeper cabin. They left us with a tray of beer and fled to their cabin.

It was a pretty dismal night, the discomfort and the tiredness hardly assuaged by the beer. And it put us off lengthy train journeys for some time.

But in more recent years, we have enjoyed travelling through France by train and, after that Venice trip, we'd discovered that a number of sleeper services exist across the Continent.

So we came to this year and an idea started to take shape. Much as the journey from London to Collioure by train is one we enjoy, it eats up the first day of any holiday. Air travel doesn't shorten things much, if you take into account getting to airport, and doing so to face a two-hour check in.

The plan was simple: leave the office on Euston Road on our final Friday at work, walk the few hundred metres to St Pancras with our bags and get the Eurostar to Paris.

From there, we'd have a couple of hours to get across the French capital to Gare d'Austerlitz. From there, we'd board an overnight service to Portbou, the first stop in Spain  on the Mediterranean route. Collioure is just four stops before. And after Narbonne, the service stops everywhere, so we wouldn't even have to change.

The first leg of the journey went entirely as normal.

The second leg, across a quiet Paris marked by the traditional August desertion of its residents, was, as always, a pleasure.

Gare d'Austerlitz is undergoing serious renovation and is hardly the best of the city's stations at present, but taking a cab across town gave us the time to find a café just outside and sit down for a much-needed meal.

For the record, I chicken and chips. With gravy. We expected little more than fuel - and it served its purpose.

Boarding was easy enough, and we eventually found our carriage on the vast train. The compartment we were in had four bunks. In the height of the holiday season, you can't pay the extra to have a compartment to yourself, so having settled ourselves on our allotted lower bunks, we waited to see if we'd have company.

It's very simple. You have a pillow, a light sleeping bag, a bottle of water, earplugs, a wet wipe and a rubbish bag. That's it. Since it's communal, you do not undress fully.

Sure enough, shortly before departure, a French couple joined us. The most basic of polite pleasantries exchanged, they climbed up.

It was dark as we pulled out, a little before 10pm, French time. With nothing to see outside,  everyone seemed to agree, wordlessly, that it was time to get comfortable and turn out the main light.

There were little lights at the head of each bunk, but they didn't make reading easy. Within less than 30 minutes, we had all quietly bedded down.

If it was quiet in our cabin, it was less so elsewhere, as parents tried to calm down children delighted by the absolutely fantastic combination of bunks and a train.

It was warm - no, it was seriously sultry. The air conditioning only starts when the train does.

But it was still surprisingly restfully - even when the train banked and you felt yourself pulled, as though by a tide.

There are questions of etiquette to worry, though. After all, you're sleeping with complete strangers. What if you snore? What if they snore? What happens if you fart? Oh now come on - that wasn't me!

The cabin door opened, letting in light. Breaking from a half doze, I could see a large figure quietly tap the sleeper in the upper bunk opposite.

It was the guard with a wake-up call.

Our fellow travellers quickly and quietly disembarked, by which time The Other Half had stirred, and I'd flipped the light on to reveal that it was 6.15am.

Where were we?

Dawn was just about beginning. Straightening myself up a little, I stood in the corridor and tried to see a sign on the platform outside. Only as we drew out did I discover that, as I suspected, it was Narbonne.

With light coming up and less than two hours to go, we took advantage of the privacy and changed - me into a swimming costume, shorts and a t-shirt, ready for the beach. Frankly, even if we'd not been intending to hit the shore, the change would have been welcome: sleeping in a bra is not comfortable.

The route was familiar: past the lagoons and the salt marsh, with the sea tantalisingly in view on the horizon and then ducking away; a stretch I adore.

And this was seeing it differently, anew.

A red glowing dawn; mercury water, mirror still; a lone heron standing alert. Swifts on the first dart of the day; tufted grass and water; west Roussilon's garrigue, with clouds in perfect reflection.

My eyes were greedy, gobbling up everything I could set them on.

Port-la-Nouvelle gone; Leucate-la-Franqui a thing of the past; Rivesaltes behind us.

Outside, vineyards and olive trees and bougainvillea in purple majesty.

Then Perpignan - Dali's 'centre of the world'. Elne next, then Argeles sur Mer, the train gradually shedding more and more passengers, wiping sleep from their eyes as they stepped down into the Mediterranean light.

And then, mere moments and a tunnel later, Collioure.

We left the train and headed out, down the hill and into the village. I wanted to kiss the ground.

It was just 8am. First things first. Breakfast at Délices Catalans: coffee and croissants: flaky and buttery, light-as-a-feather and still-warm.

We were back.


  1. Amanda, your story reminded me of my own journey through France on a overnight sleeper. I travelled in 1989 with my now wife from Nice to Paris having spent three weeks in Nice and Cannes.

    I remember buying a couple of Pan Bagnat for the journey, we never ate them but the heat in the carriage seemed to slowly warm up the garlic, olives, tuna, oil and anchovies a rather pungent smell when waking in the morning, not sure if our companions on the upper bunks appreciated it.