Mrs Ray and I took the train the other day. All the way from Ashford to Marseille – direct. And it was absolute bliss.
I booked it on a whim, Eurostar having recently launched their new direct route from St Pancras to the Côte d’Azur, just to see whether we could fall in love with train travel again after years of overcrowding, delays and downright misery on the London to Brighton line (among others).
We joined our train at Ashford International at 07.55 and were in Marseille 5 hours and 51 minutes later. We travelled Standard Premier (£112 each, one way) and had two seats and a table all to ourselves. We took a picnic and a bottle of fine vino (a 2010 Meursault Les Vireuils, JY Devevey, since you ask) and had a hoot. Breakfast and lunch were served at our table – augmented by said picnic. We chatted, snoozed, read the papers to each other, watched a movie on the iPad, played Scrabble and idly watched the wheat fields of northern France turn into the lavender fields of Provence.
At Ashford we sailed through security, waving our passports at a cheery French immigration officer, and that was the last time we were bothered by officialdom. Well, except for the equally chipper stewards on board asking whether we fancied a top up of coffee or another glass of wine. At Marseille we simply strolled straight from the train into the heart of the city without a queue in sight. It was about as stress-free a journey as I can remember. And here we were sur le continong, having come all the way from rain-soaked Kent to the sun-baked south of France!
We dumped our bags in our not-too-bad hotel by the Vieux Port (The New Hotel of Marseille: £94 a night) and set out with our free map from the tourist office, complete with four suggested walks. We visited the majestic Notre Dame de la Garde, the Abbaye Saint Victor and the Cathedrale de la Major down by the water’s edge. We dropped in at MuCEM (the brand-spanking new Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée), pottered around vibrant street markets and bought preserved lemons, Moroccan sweet meats and great bars of waxy lavender and fig-scented Marseille soaps. We walked for four hours solid – at no great pace, admittedly – stopping here and there for restorative glasses of chilled Provencal rosé.
That evening, we headed for Le Panier, the quirky and picturesque old town, for a delicious bowl of bouillabaisse. We sat outside in a leafy square as dusk fell, on our second bottle of the night, listening to live jazz from a neighbouring bar.
The following morning, we walked to the station via an excellent plate of scrambled eggs and cheese served by a gamine American in a retro café off the main drag. We picked up a cab and forty minutes later we were at the airport, in the first of many queues of the day. There was one for check-in, one for security, one for passport control and one for boarding the EasyJet flight to Gatwick. There was also one at the other end at immigration, natch.
But we still managed to get home in time for lunch with the kids, having had a micro-break par excellence.
St. Pancras to Marseille, direct with Eurostar, prices start at £49.50 one way or £99 return.