In the sea of foreign signage I spot one familiar word. ‘Darjeeling’! I brew up visions of tea bungalows, terraced plantations and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. But it’s early morning at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris — and the backlit advert that’s giving me ideas belongs to a high street lingerie and corsetry brand. Alas, the rakishly clad Parisian posterior on display belongs to no Himalayan hussy. No wonder our Tea Board is in a fume — it’s been fighting a legal battle to ensure that Darjeeling will forever be an Indian tea, and not a Parisian bloomer. But Paris and its perennial provocations must wait for another day. I have a train to catch. And it isn’t the DHR, it’s a TGV.
The acronym unspools into train à grande vitesse, what the French like to call their high-speed trains (and we could only come up with Shatabdi?). When industrial designer Jack Cooper set out to create the TGV prototype in 1968, his brief was to draw up a “train that didn’t look like a train”. And he did. The first commercial TGV service — trademark beak nose and all — left Paris to great fanfare on 27 September, 1981.
It’s a breezy ride. Suburban Paris slips away soon enough, filling me with remembrance of things Paris. The day before was hectic or eventful, depending on how you look at it. Fresh off the boat, I was stuck in the middle of a bomb scare at the Charles de Gaulle airport (Paris was burning, or at least the suburbs were, when I visited, reeling under the worst race riots France had ever seen). I had inspected (but not stayed at) perhaps the best address in town — the palace hotel Meurice’s Belle Etoile suite. At 10,000 euros, a night under the stars in the City of Lights is not for everyone. No, I hadn’t seen the Eiffel yet, on the bus tour I’d slept through it.
We’re in the country now, all farmsteads and pastures. The train rolls into Dijon, mise-en-scene of the world’s greatest sarson da saga, then rolls out. TGVs hold the Guinness record for the highest speed recorded on any national railroad: a zippy 515kmph in 1990 — but inside the compartment your breakfast glass of jus d’oranges will register barely a ripple and you’ll never know. And true to name, four hours later, the TGV Lyria rolls into Lausanne.
Lausanne I like. Here is a sprawling city on the shores of Lake Geneva, which still manages to exude a cosy charm, its business-like vibe belied by oddities. Like its bellman, who still blows a horn from the cathedral tower to mark the hours. Lausanne is the birthplace of the Olympic movement and home of the IOA, and I spend the better the part of an afternoon learning all about it at the Olympic Museum.
Next morning, there’s another TGV, to zip me to Martigny (where you can get off to see the remains of a Roman amphitheatre). At Martigny I hop on to the Mont Blanc Express. The pretty train plies a yet prettier route. Unlike many scenic trains, however, it does not serve tourists alone — it’s a necessary artery in these remote mountains. We trundle past tiny villages, and I’m soon sharing my coach with elderly villagers and children headed for school.
Switzerland has a boggling number of scenic train journeys to offer, of course — the Bernina Express, Golden Pass Line, Wilhelm Tell Express, Palm Express, Romantic Route Express, St Bernhard Express, Swiss Chocolate Train, the Jungfraubahnen, and more. Last year, I was on the most scenic of them all — the Glacier Express.
The Mont Blanc Express comes a close second. The uninterrupted view offered by the train’s panoramic windows is beautiful. We pass the village of Salvan, where Marconi conducted experiments in 1895 leading to the invention of the radio. Then the train crosses the border and we’re back in the French Alps, not that I can tell the difference.
When Chamonix comes, I get off. It was two Englishmen, Windham and Pococke, who discovered the ‘Chamouny’ valley and its glaciers in 1741. Tourism kicked off when a Madame Coutterand opened the first guesthouse in 1770. Developed as resort town in the 1800s, Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Today Chamonix is a typical alpine tourist trap, filled with skiers in the winter, its shops selling local artisanal products, made in China.
After a quick lunch (Indian) and before I can say gulab jamoune, there’s another train waiting. The Montenvers Railway is a funicular. It’s my favourite kind of train, and I admire its deceptively simple cogwheel mechanism that has helped the Europeans tame their mountains.
Setting off from the valley floor, the train rapidly gains altitude. The noisy bunch of tourists on board is stilled into silence. The slopes of the Aiguilles de Chamonix fall away swiftly, there’s only the crunch of pine needles and the reassuring boom of the train itself. I imagine a similar funicular running to Gangotri one day.
The Montenvers Railway was the first custom-built tourist attraction in the Chamonix valley, and began operations in 1908. At 1,913m it deposits us on a rocky ridge overlooking the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France. It’s the end of the line. The station has a café offering spectacular views of peaks like Les Drus (3,754m), Les Grands Jorasses (4,205m) and the Aiguille du Grepon (3,482m).
It’s a cold and cheerless but nevertheless breathtaking landscape. Staring at the river of liquid snow, I’m tempted to put forward a literary thesis: we can trace the origins of English romanticism to a chance encounter between this land-locked sea of ice and a few loonies. The Shelleys were here, as was their buddy Byron, and Coleridge (who penned the syrupy ‘Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni’ in 1802). The Shelleys visited in 1816. Percy experienced an “undisciplined overflowing of the soul” in the presence of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain, and a “sentiment of ecstatic wonder not unallied to madness”.
Mary Shelley had her great monstrous epiphany here. Her admittedly over-the-top descriptions can be found in letters written at the time (published a year later in History of a Six Weeks’ Tour) and her Gothic classic, where she engineered Frankenstein’s notorious encounter with his monster on this very sea of ice. From Frankenstein: “The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy.”
The cable car ride up to the Aiguille du Midi the next morning is much less exciting. Actually, it’s bloody cold. When I’m ejected on to the observation deck, at an altitude of 3,842m, the sub-zero chill is rather more sobering than I’d expected. Byron’s ‘monarch of the mountains’, Mont Blanc emerges from the mists. But I’m in no mood to enjoy the show. Instead, I’m seized by a sudden bout of homesickness — I just want to be back in a hot, wet country. Cable cars are splendid things, I concede, but I like my trains more — they take me to nicer places.
Like Paris. When I head back, I shake off my mountain ways — I smoke Gauloises, sip coffee at streetside cafés, shop at Lafayette, bite into baguettes, take the Metro (it’s a train).
It’s an evening in Paris. The Eiffel and I are finally face to face. It’s not awful as friends had promised, but luminous, and, well, towering. I’ve taken too many trains, I surrender instead to the gentler rhythms of a boat on the Seine. In this case, the very luxurious Bateaux-Mouches. The dinner cruise is a moveable feast — the choice ranges from spiny lobsters and frog legs (à la Provençale) to crayfish casserole, roasted quails in grape juice and fillet of beef dressed in truffle sauce. My finest meal on the trip, and, cruelly, my last.
As I disembark into a shimmery Paris night and go looking for a taxi, I’m reminded that while travel is usually about being transported, often enough the reward is the act of travelling itself. I have spent more time on the move than at any of my destinations, and I have enjoyed it. Next morning, there’s a flight to catch.
Epilogue: A couple of days after I flew back home, the French railway workers’ union went on strike to protest my subitaneous departure
Air France flies Delhi to Paris.
Where to stay
Paris: Paris offers every kind of accommodation, from charming B&Bs to luxurious palace hotels. The centrally-located Meurice is a coveted address (www.meuricehotel.com). The Citadines Apartments ( www.citadines.com), which have spread their tentacles all over the city, are another nice option, suitable for long stays (it gets cheaper if you stay longer).
Lausanne: For luxury choose between the Beau-Rivage Palace ( www.brp.ch) and Lausanne Palace & Spa
(www.lausanne-palace.ch). Near the train station, the Lausanne Guesthouse is basic and cheap (6018000; www.lausanne-guesthouse.ch).
Chamonix: The Grand Hotel des Alpes ( www.grandhoteldesalpes.com) is centrally located and has an excellent restaurant. The Montenvers Hotel, overlooking the Mer de Glace, was built in 1880. This rustic yet comfortable refuge is still receiving guests (450-53-1254).
What to see & do
Paris: Two recommendations in this city of infinite possibilities: on your first day, get your bearings with a Cityrama bus tour, which takes in all the major sights (1hr30min; www.graylineparis.com). The Compagnie des Bateaux-Mouches plies cruises on the Seine all day. At night there’s a dinner cruise (traditional menu; dress code: formal; www.bateauxmouches.com). See www.parisinfo.com.
Lausanne: Sports junkies will end up at the Olympic Museum. For the rest here is one of Europe’s most happening cities, set in a region of incredible natural beauty. A Chaplin Museum will open in end-2006 in nearby Vevey. See www.lausanne-tourisme.ch.
Chamonix: Chamonix is big on alpine sports. Choose from mountain biking, paragliding, rafting, trekking, canyoning and climbing. There’s evena golf course. In winter, of course, there’s skiing. Evolution 2 is an excellent adventure outfit (450-559022; www.evolution2.com). Activities include visits to the Mer de Glace glacier, the Aiguille du Midi for unmatched views of Mont Blanc, and the Alpine Museum. See www.chamonix.com.