There was a time when the journey was as much a part of the experience as the destination (writes Careena Bruen). With the advent of the jet-age however, that became, if not quite a thing of the past, very much the exception rather than the rule. Now we are entering a new phase though.
The jet-age hasn’t disappeared, but with more of us facing up to the environmental costs of plane journeys, we are getting back to older and slower forms of transport and realising that the time spent travelling doesn’t have to be something to be endured, a chore, or simply a means to an end; it can and should be a something that can be enjoyed for its own reasons. My non-jet holidays haven’t taken me very far – yet – but I have travelled by train up and down France and throughout northern Italy. In France, especially, it has transformed the way I holiday.
My most memorable trip to France started on a ferry and featured trains great and small. Dover to Calais, Calais to Paris, and from there the great TGV all the way to Bayonne. A small pension had been booked in Bayonne where we would stay for … well as long as Bayonne took our fancy. All we knew about it was that it was the home of the bayonet and some pretty fine ham, not necessarily enough to keep us there for a long time. We discovered the ham, but never did find out much about the origins of the bayonet, although truth be told we didn’t try very hard. Bayonne is a pretty enough town, with a friendly population and a better than expected art gallery, but it’s not a destination, merely somewhere to stop off along the way. Two days after arriving in town on a great train, we left on one that was far smaller. Our next stop was bigger, but whether it was better, well…
Pau is a town that might be said to have ideas above its station. If you search for photos you will find many that suggest a grand place and it is the capital of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques départemente, but that fact seems to have gone rather to its head. I have been to many places in France, from Paris in the north to Bidart in the south: Pau is without a doubt the most unfriendly town I’ve visited. We thought the château would make up for it: it did not. Beautiful on the outside, sadly lacking on the inside. There are some interesting tapestries, but the big selling point is a large turtle shell which was allegedly the cradle of the future Henri IV of France. The shell was not impressive, but, it was the most impressive thing in Pau. We had intended to spend nearly a week there, but after a day and a night of unfriendly locals, pretty awful food and a turtle shell we fled. The train was our friend and took us to the coast. Saint Jean de Luz was our destination.
I cannot recommend Saint Jean de Luz highly enough. Pretty, friendly, glorious beaches and wonderful food, if you don’t take the time to visit it just once, you are missing out on a very happy experience. Saint Jean de Luz hadn’t been on our rough itinerary, but that’s the joy of travelling rather than going on holiday. We decided to give it a go and ended up staying for a week.
The sea captivated us. It was clean, clear and even a little warm. You never swam alone, shoals of tiny fish would join you and at times, if you didn’t look back to see the undeniably French town behind you, you’d swear you’d been transported to an exotic location somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Our next stop was Biarritz, which is a must for those who seek the faded glamour of a once sophisticated resort and of course for those who fancy their luck in a casino – Biarritz has two – for those who want more, Biarritz may not be for you. I’m a sucker for faded glamour and stayed for two days, any longer and I knew I’d fall out of love with it.
By this time we’d had our fill of beaches and headed back inland and uphill to the town of Cauterets. I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere. Suffice to say, it is a town that I think of as a second home. While there we also took a trip even higher up into the mountains to the village of Gavarnie.
Please, if you do one thing in your life, see Gavarnie in the summer. The Cirque de Gavarnie is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
Surrounded by Pyrénéan peaks and featuring the Grande Cascade de Gavarnie, you approach it by a long path and then almost happen upon it - of course you don’t, you and quite a few others will be making your way to something, you just don’t know what until you see it - and it’s like walking into heaven. If heaven’s not your bag, it’s akin to the best dream you’ve ever had, except of course you can’t fly around it because you’re not asleep.
Cauterets and Gavarnie were the last ports of call for our sojourn in the Basque region of France. We headed back north – a few days late after being a little to captivated by more than one of our destinations – and took what little time we had left to enjoy a couple of days in Paris. From there… well you’ve heard the start of the journey, so you know the end.
Until this particular holiday, I’d always flown; I’d headed to a destination and stayed there apart from the odd day trip. Those three weeks in France changed the way I thought about travelling and showed me how much one could gain by making the journey part of the whole experience. I’ve flown long haul since with few qualms, but when I’m heading for Europe it rankles if I don’t get to do it by train – I’ve since discovered the joy of the sleeper – and so get to ease into the holiday ahead. A final note - Paris can be a little rude and unfriendly, but it has nothing on Pau!
About the author
Careena Bruen has worked as an academic researcher, undertaken research projects for a health trust, written a fashion blog which has been used in edited form in fashion magazines, and written a number of articles on environmental subjects.