I will post a second part of this, also a parallel diary inspired by BruceMcF collecting only light-rail observations, and then a non-rail-oriented diary on the second leg of my trip (Frankfurt).
I left Budapest with a regular EC for Vienna, where I had time for a late afternoon walk.
The Sun shines into the Stephansdom, Vienna's main church
The U2 subway emerges to cross Vienna's name-sake creek on a bridge under a walk-bridge
Some more Vienna transport in the light rail diary.
From Vienna to Strasbourg, I took a night train, the heir to the Orient Express, which was discontinued with the opening of the TGV Est. This was a first for me – and didn't work out: noise, jerks, too high room temperature, boarding passengers kept me awake. At least the service was good, probably even better once the dissident Hungarian stewardess saw my passport.
My ticket-included breakfast in the dawn somewhere in the Rhine Valley before Strasbourg
In Strasbourg, I had time for a short walk. Even if it was a Sunday morning in August, I never saw a city this size this deserted: I met only drunkards and travellers with wheeled suitcases like me. But it was a beautiful morning.
Morning sunshine breaks through at flowers above the Strasbourg sightseeing riverboat ship port, around 8h. I won't see much sunshine thereafter
More Strasbourg in the light rail diary.
Almost finished when I was there, Strasbourg's grand old railway station got a just as grandiose new front. Above-ground, it has an all-glass curved surface along its entire length that looks like a UFO. Below ground, the only few years old tunnel station of Strasbourg's tram got a more spacious opening, and there is a now compulsory shopping level.
Later that day, I saw how light rail construction is taken as occasion to overhaul complete streets in Le Mans (more in light rail diary), and they just began to rebuild the railway station, last modernised barely two decades ago for the TGV Atlantique opening. In Paris, I glimpsed new tram construction and was an unlucky victim of the RER C reconstruction, and there is of course the refurbished Gare l'Est and the new LGV Est high-speed line.
So even in the Chirac/Sarko era, the French state and municipalities spend visibly much on public infrastructure. As I expected, I saw much less of this in Germany, towards and in Frankfurt.
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I couldn't reserve from abroad for the Strasbourg–Le Mans TGV ride, but when I went to the counter in Strasbourg, there were still free places (more below on the purchase). My train wasn't of the newest 320 km/h TGV POS batch, 'only' a refurbished 300 km/h TGV Réseau set:
My TGV to Le Mans before departure in Strasbourg, under a sky turning grey
After the crossing of the beautiful Vosges mountains, we reached the LGV Est, and the long acceleration for 300 km/h began. My first high-speed travel on a TGV! I was impressed by the smooth ride vertically, both at full speed and earlier on the conventional line; though laterally, carbody yaw was sometimes strong.
Two successive shots looking out of the TGV window about halfway between Metz and Reims
After nearly 600 km in 4 hours, passing Paris to the east and south, the train arrived in Le Mans.
My TGV in light drizzle in Le Mans. The slightly rusting platform roof reflects the futurism of the eighties. I will learn the value of that glass around the banks: when the wind blows, roofs are no defence against rain...
Le Mans is a city of 140,000, but as I walked up the hill on the main road, towards my hotel near the main square, I saw a dead city. Even more empty than Strasbourg in the early morning.
Yet, it is a lovely city. It has a large middle-age walled old town (Cité Plantagenêt). I guess as Le Mans is encircled by more prestigious tourist destinations (Loire valley, Chartres, Mont St. Michel, Normandy), it fell out of focus, but just that all the middle-age buildings aren't in a polished-up gleaming state gives it a more authentic middle-age feel.
In the nave of Cathédrale St-Julien, a church whose conversion from Romanesque to Gothic was never finished. Most major gothic cathedrals weren't finished by the end of the Middle Age, so this adds to the feeling too
My first serious attempt at using French was a catastrophe.
I mean, apart from the purchase of my TGV ticket in Strasbourg, when I thought I said "fenêtre" (window), but found my place at the aisle, between two windows and opposite a suitcase holder...
So in the evening in Le Mans, I thought I can't go wrong with a Turkish kebab restaurant, it's simple and they're all the same everywhere...
Trouble started with the choice: instead of the simple pita-or-dish choice I expected, there were half a dozen! Then I figured assiette is some dish form, and uttered my first sentence.
I got a question in return I couldn't decipher, even after repeat. I resorted to English, but the accent was so thick I understood even less. Then he passed me off to a second guy who spoke English a bit better – the question was just: take-away or at a table?...
I sat down, later the waitress came, and asked me: "Pa.., monsieur?" She had to show me bread before I realised I know the word pain, but I was too used to also see it written while I hear it...
...and I was never offered bread in advance in a kebab restaurant before. Also, once my meal came, they brought no drink, nor was there a fridge behind (for the personnel to pick) or on the side of the counter (for me to pick when I order). So back to the counter, where they point me to a fridge behind my back (and out of their direct sight too!) where I shall pick what I want. Wow! That's trust in the customers.
But if I didn't feel like an idiot enough, came the moment I had to pay. The guy sez, I'm trying to transcribe it in French, "Huj Euros!" Huh!? After wondering for a while, I gave him a ten. From the change I figured that he must have said huit (eight) in some accent...
Though I have been taken for a stoopid visitor from across the Channel a few more times (for some reason, everyone assumed I'm a Briton even before muttering anything non-French), in the following days, my ears got more used to real-life spoken French. I could even master half-assed conversations while hitch-hiking. Already the very next day, I went to another kebab restaurant, and knew my way from table/take-away to finding the fridge with drinks :-)
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View from the Grand Rue into the Rue Dorée, the most polished part of the old town at its lower end, with a rare tourist group
The next day, I took a limited-stop TER train to Versailles, then a suburban to St.-Quentin-en-Yvelines.
Of races, immigrants and assimilation
France's ethnic mixing is definitely well-progressed.
The dissipation of the 'visibly' immigrant population goes well down into small towns (say, the stationmaster in one Breton village was of Arab descent). I didn't saw much of the banlieues, but where I was, cultural assimilation was stronger than in Germany (I mean the presence of visible stuff like head-scarves, use of Arabic/Chinese etc., clientèle of restaurants). I also saw noticeably more mixed couples than in Frankfurt, and people with non-obvious origins.
However, while on TGVs and regional fast trains, travellers seemed to show the statistical mix, in the off-peak-hour period Banlieue and RER trains, there were almost no 'whites'. I wondered if that was the symptom of some less obvious race-and/or-class issue.
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St. Quentin is near the starting point of the Paris–Brest–Paris race in Guyancourt, and I met the friend who participates there.
After a walk around a town filled chock-full with the 5,300 race participants and their just as many companions, among whom my friend managed to find someone he knew from Sydney, I walked back to the suburban railway station. While trying to figure out where all the trains with their various four-letter codes go, I managed to just miss my chosen connection to Le Mans. Panic!
But just five minutes later, another train for Le Mans rolled into Versailles-Chantiers. It turned out to be a zoned train (a few stops until Chartres, all-stopper from there). It was a TER2N double-deck electric multiple unit.
The emptied top floor minutes before arrival in Le Mans. Airline-style fold-able tables and drink holders on the backs of seats is now SNCF standard
Trains and schedules
The regional trains of French state railways SNCF west of Paris definitely win in the general level of style and comfort, against other railways I travelled on. Maintenance and cleanliness is also top. This is valid for the now widespread new stock, but also for the (refurbished) old stock. Ride quality is also high, higher than nineties German stock; though the now all-prevalent AGC family of articulated trains shows a rather strong and constant 'snaking' at high speed that should be damped. (This is a general 'disease' of new articulated trains, BTW.)
This is less true for older TGV sets (the interior of Atlantique sets is ripe for renovation) and older trains around Paris. I once debunked a Financial Times attack on Paris trains, but all is not well: there were rusty spots on many Z2N sets, and all the windows were attacked by the scratchers, though trains were generally clean (super-clean by Hungarian Railways standards, but even cleaner than some new S-Bahn trains in Frankfurt).
But the one thing that got me cursing was schedule. Not keeping schedule, as the only late train I was on was a 100% full TGV, delayed by boarding school classes on excursions, but the lack of a regular-interval schedule west of Paris. This I knew in advance, when I put together a personal timeplan, but to live it made it an annoyance even more glaring.
What the French state railways implemented there is the 'rationalised service' dream of all fucking managers imported from the private economy into railways elsewhere:
- concentrate on longer distances and cut back stops in smaller villages (up to only one train stopping in the morning and one in the evening);
- concentrate on commuters (trains in quick succession in peak hours, then maybe once in 3 hours) and advance bookers (zero flexibility if you don't know in advance when you'd want to leave);
- spend on bright new trains, but rather switch branchlines to buses.
Even the express services between my major stops Versailles-Chantiers, Le Mans, Rennes and Brest were too thinned out around midday. All the places between Paris and Brest where I could meet on the cycle race were ones with 2–4 stops a day, even though three of them were on mainlines. So I already planned with walking/hitch-hiking to the next larger town at least one way. But even those towns didn't had that many trains stopping, so multiple times I had to leave for the last train before my friend arrived.
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Staying in Le Mans was a good idea for two reasons: one, the bikers already took most hotel rooms around Guyancourt; two, the race started in the late evening, and I could catch my friend in daylight with the first train from Le Mans to the small village of La Hutte-Coulombiers. (See photo on top and in my Open Thread comment).
After diverse troubles, I arrived back in Le Mans under-cooled, and rode on after a hot soup. In a town north of Rennes, it rained so much that even hitch-hiking was out of question, I had to call a taxi (driver: nice 50-year-old rural lady) to reach Dingé station. Where I froze for two hours in the rain, in totally inadequate clothing: I only brought a pullover (wet from rain & sweat) and an umbrella (useless against the wind-spray), no raincoat or cap (what I missed most; it was maybe 10°C).
No stop here: an electric AGC for Rennes raced through Dingé in a brief period without rain. Previously, I broke into the abandoned station building on the right
The bikers came in endless succession, and they had at least raincoats, and warmed themselves with motion. But, from this stop on, there were always abandons boarding the train with me...
That night in Rennes, in a hotel room with barely working heating, I reeeeeally enjoyed the hot shower, too...
To be continued
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