Europe’s Regional Trains: Speed Isn’t Everything
In a world that moves ever faster, increases in speed and decreases in time are celebrated as major achievements. Part of the fun of a holiday, though, is slowing down from the rapid pace of daily life and savouring experiences without rushing off to the next one. And so it is on Europe’s regional trains, which may not match the continent’s TGV, ICE, or AVE services in speed but can certainly hold their own in taking travellers to interesting places.
The south of France is the perfect place to explore on slower trains. Many people will be surprised to know that France’s speedy TGV trains actually travel at normal velocity once they reach the southern region of the country; this is because TGV trains must travel on normal rail lines here rather than the specially welded tracks that permit higher speeds elsewhere in France. It is no loss of time, therefore, to explore some of the many attractive smaller destinations in the region. The city of Arles, for example, is a mere 20 minutes by train from Avignon but is definitely its own place with a separate identity. The city most famously associated with Vincent van Gogh is but one of the charming smaller cities in the south of France. Aix-en-Provence, which does have a TGV station, is a short ride from Marseille but moves at a more languid pace than the big city. Hyères, today overlooked by foreign visitors but still highly regarded as a balmy resort town by the French themselves, was a favourite destination for well-heeled British travellers in the last 1800s, including no less than Queen Victoria.
Even for travel between major cities such as Avignon and Nice, it is possible to take regional trains (in France, they are called TER trains for transport express régional) and make stops along the way to fit in an excursion along the way. Feel like lingering over lunch with a newfound friend, or take some extra time to visit a just-discovered museum? One of the pleasures of regional trains is the absence of seat reservations; aside from saving the cost of the reservation, the frequent service of regional trains allows you to simply take the next one if wanting to stay somewhere a little longer.
Travellers with the valuable Eurail Pass in hand will be glad to know that regional trains also have First Class carriages. Though the seats may sometimes be the same as those found in Second Class (depending on the train and the country), they do offer a less crowded and much quieter rail travel experience. Eurail Passes have been a staple of independent travel in Europe for decades, and their value as a transport tool cannot be overstated.