This was a bad idea.
With that thought pulsing through my addled brain, I stand staring at the wrought-iron structure of the Victorian-era Newcastle station at 6:30 in the morning. I’ve been awake for an hour or so. Sometime tonight, barring any surprises, I’ll be in Spain. Between here and there, over 1,000 miles, three high-speed trains, a subway, and a bus. Adding in time waiting or transferring between stations, and the next 14 hours are spoken for.
Why do I keep doing this to myself? The simple answer is that I’d spent the weekend with a friend in Newcastle, in northeast England (really, to eat at the incredible Allard’s, but let’s say it was to see my friend). I’d planned on heading to northern Spain afterward, but it turned out to be more difficult than I expected. The flight options were either expensive, terrible or a perfect blend of expensive and terrible.
Staring down the barrel of spending the better part of a day on planes and in airports anyway, I had the crazy idea to take the train instead. And write an article about it.
07:05 ‘The Flying Scotsman’ — Newcastle to London
After losing £2 per second for 3 years, Virgin Trains East Coast had its franchise contract terminated by the British government, nationalizing the East Coast Main Line route for the third time in 12 years. The resulting government-owned London North Eastern Railway, barely a week old, still use Virgin’s InterCity 225s. These aging-but-comfortable high-speed electrics cruise at around 125mph. The “Flying Scotsman” route, southbound to London King’s Cross station, arrives on time. I step aboard with a bevvy of Geordie commuters and Southerners gannin yem.
I settle into my window seat. Delightfully, no one sits beside me. With no stops between here and London, I relax, write these words, and enjoy the passing of the early morning English countryside.
Thirteeen and a half hours to go…
11:31 Eurostar — London to Paris
We arrive at King’s Cross in London at 09:40, just 10 minutes late, or “on time” by National Rail standards. King’s Cross has 11 platforms, but no 9 ¾. There is a tourist trap in the waiting area where you can get a photo with a luggage trolley half-embedded in a wall and hey, if that’s your thing, go for it. I did it once at 4:30 in the morning. I’d been with friends since 7 p.m. and we had, shall we say, imbibed with significant enthusiasm. No, you can’t see the photo.
My next train leaves in a little over an hour and half from St. Pancras station, conveniently, right next door. If you make a list of the most beautiful train stations in the world, St. Pancras has got to be at the top. Soaring glass ceilings, intricate and grand designs inside and out. It imparts beauty with a sense of the grand adventure train travel once held. Public space architecture at its finest. It’s a look and feel the designers of New York’s Penn Station must have studied in the ’60s and said “we like the zoom-zoom trainy bits, but for the rest, how about the opposite?”
The Eurostar is the high-speed train line connecting, among other places, London and Paris, via the Channel Tunnel. If you’d told someone 200 years ago there’d be a 2-hour connection between these two cities, they’d have called you crazy. Also, probably, tall and having a weird accent.
Being international, the Eurostar is like a train station within a train station, completely separate from the other platforms and ticket counters. Unlike most train journeys, you have to have your baggage x-rayed, then clear UK immigration. Take a few steps, and then clear EU immigration.
The British Rail Class 374, also called the Eurostar e320, is a serious piece of tech. Over 1,300 feet or 400 meters long, and capable of transporting over 900 people at 200 mph/320 kph, they’re an updated version of the original Eurostar trains, which in turn were based on the French TGV. While other high-speed trains have surpassed these for speed, the e320s are still among the best in the world.
The seats, however, are crap. Barely any cushion, and the kind of legroom that makes my tall friends murderous.
The journey out of England goes smoothly, and after a few unceremonious minutes in darkness, we emerge in France. So far so good.
Then we stop northeast of Amiens, and I start to get nervous. This is the only section I can’t afford a delay. I’ve got only one hour to get across Paris to make my next train. Every minute counts. And we waste 15 of them sitting in the farmland north of Paris. Tick, tock. Tick…
This is going to be tricky.
15:48 TGV Atlantique – Paris Montparnasse to Hendaye
I’m already sweating as I bolt from the Eurostar, literally the first one onto the platform. I pack light, but with two cameras, four lenses, laptop, batteries, all my hair products, plus clothes and stuff, my backpack weighs 37 pounds. Running is not an option, but I do a sort of awkward jog down the platform into the station proper.
The Paris subway from above resembles cooked spaghetti dropped on an Art Nouveau floor. It’s one of the largest and densest metro systems in the world. It’s also, inconveniently, in Paris. Now I’ve spent a lot of time in France, and in every corner that I’ve visited, the people are lovely. Parisians, even to other French people, are… let’s say impatient. Since my French barely goes beyond the “Je m’appele, Robert” I remember from high school, that goes double for me. Not least because my name isn’t Robert.
Fortunately, the signs are easy to read: “M” for Metro. I get a ticket from the closest machine and hoof it down the corridor to the platform.
Line 4 connects the two stations I need: Gare de Nord (literally “North Station,” where I am) and Montparnasse (Parnasse Mountain? Hey, this French stuff isn’t too hard. Tres bon, Robert). Only a handful of metro lines in the world have what this one does: rubber tires. With the car’s windows open, it’s eerily quiet. Instead of the usual metal-on-metal squeal, there’s just a high-pitched whir. Rubber train tires offer several other benefits, including faster acceleration and deceleration, which is quite noticeable as standing occupants jostle to and fro, grasping for the nearest handle. It’s the Corvette of the subway world. Except they cost millions of euros each, so maybe Bugatti Veyron of the subway world is more accurate. The downside is dust. Black rubber dust, which gives the Paris Metro its distinct odor and grime.
Checking the time every 30 seconds doesn’t seem to help. I’m telling myself it will be fine. It will be fine. It will be fine. Shockingly, that’s not helping either.
Google says Montparnasse is 20 minutes from Gare du Nord, but this is adorably misleading. That’s platform to platform. You need to get to the platform, then from the platform. It’s several minutes’ walk from the main Gare du Nord Eurostar arrivals, so I don’t get on the subway until 15:08. Sure enough, 20 minutes later I eject myself into Montparnasse-Bienvenüe station and do my waddle-jog, dodging Parisians and tourists who seem intent on walking as slow as possible, eight abreast.
Then there’s a flight of stairs. And an escalator. And — oh come on — a moving walkway at least 1,000 meters long, then another flight of stars and three more escalators. By this time, I’m pretty sure I’m going to blow out another artery. Why not? — I seem to have them to spare. I stare longingly at the passing pâtisseries, but I only have enough time to glance at the board to find of course my train is at the other end of the station. Finally getting there, I pause for some photos at the rear of the train, and then start walking. And walking. And walking. My train is actually two TGVs coupled together, and my car is second from the last. Of the other half.
Sweating, wheezing, and cursing my ridiculous ideas, I arrive in my seat with less than 4 minutes to spare. That’s it. Had the Eurostar been just a minute or two later, had I missed the Metro by even one train, I’d have missed the TGV to Hendaye. Everyone is staring at me, but in my head I’m swearing in French at their judgement. Those words I remember, at least.
I splurged a bit, $57 on top of the $143 ticket, to get first class. I assumed, rightly, that by this point in my journey I’d want as much comfort as possible. There’s only one seat on this side of the cabin, and it’s all mine. Comfy, too. Within minutes we’re thundering across the green and gold French countryside.
With a cruising speed of 200 mph/320 kph, the TGV Duplex Dasye, aka the 700-series, might not be any faster than the Eurostar, but it’s quieter and far smoother. That could be down to better tracks, in addition to the train itself. It’s far easier to walk around, without the rocking and jarring of the previous two trains. And this is while being higher up, farther from the center of gravity, as the Duplex trains are double-decked. Noise-canceling headphones are completely optional, and the view from the upper deck is superlative.
The average speed to Hendaye, in the southwest corner of the country, is much slower than the max. South of Bordeaux, the high-speed trains travel on low-speed tracks. While France is always expanding its TGV network, it hasn’t made it down this far yet. It had been even slower, since it’s only been a year since the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique opened, allowing high-speed travel to Bordeaux from Paris.
Not sure the added cost for first class was necessary, but the seat was good. Since I was sitting in it for over 4 hours, I can’t say I regretted the money.
We arrive in Hendaye at 20:30, 5 minutes early. It’s a short walk to the bus stop in the slowly setting summer sun.
There is a train that connects Hendaye to San Sebastian, but it doesn’t run this late. Fortunately, there’s a cheap bus. Perhaps not as grand as train travel, but efficient and comfortable. We cross the Spanish border within minutes, and 30 later we’re in San Sebastian. My hotel is next to the train station, which is next to the bus station. That seemed like a good idea at the time, but my room looks out onto the approach track. And there’s no air conditioning.
In the morning I wake to the warm Spanish sun. OK, technically I’m awoken by a diesel-electric idling on the tracks below my window, but no worries. Today will be filled with beaches, tapas and the remarkably flavorful Spanish Coca-cola (seriously, it’s bizarrely delicious).
So, was my oddball adventure worth it? I love flying, and I’d still say yes. Budget airlines have become incredibly popular in Europe, and you can get just about everywhere, from everywhere, for very little money. Usually. In this case, the cheapest option was to fly into Bilbao, for around $200 and taking 16 hours. Or, for $422, only 4.25h. However, add in the time to get to the airport, waiting at the airport, and getting into the Bilbao from their airport, you’re still looking at around 8h.
Instead of the hassle of air travel, and other than the stressful sprint through Paris, I was able to relax, nap, eat a bit, and enjoy the beautiful scenery passing by at a few hundred miles per hour.
But this mode of travel did come at quite a price. All told, I spent $676 on train tickets: $200 each for England and France, and $276 for the Eurostar. The TGV leg, even in first class, was about half the cost of the others on a per-mile basis. As heavily subsidized as it is, train travel is not cheap. Flying is almost always cheaper.
But that’s not the moral of the story. The moral of the story is that travel is fun, regardless of how you do it. Even bizarre little adventures like this.
Except running through the Paris Metro. That’s not fun. That’s brutal. Aïe ça fait mal.
There’s a lot more photos in the gallery above, plus I live-blogged the trip on Instagram and saved the story.
In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, iconic music studios and more.
You can follow his exploits on Twitter, Instagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.