‘The 214 London bus to Provence’
8:06 AM August 11, 2022
Into year three of car-free London living then, where the Highgate terminus of the 214 electric bus around the corner is a familiar staging post.
The 214, currently under threat of being re-routed as part of London-wide cuts, also conveys the eager eco-traveller to St Pancras station in 15 minutes and from there, the big wide world is wide open.
Admittedly, there are logistical challenges accessing Patagonia or locating the platform for the Maldives departure, but Eurostar represents the first step on a rail-bound journey capable of transporting travellers to Europe’s far-flung corners and even beyond.
Last winter I took the 214 to Taormina in Sicily, via Marseille and the Intercity Notte sleeper train that runs the entire length of Italy, its carriages still guided onto the ferry across to Messina. It took three days instead of three hours, but the scenery was jaw-droppingly spectacular and, thankfully, none of the calling points was called Stansted.
Train travel is basking in a renaissance, its sustainability credentials incontrovertible, with some, like reformed alcoholics, making public declarations of total abstinence from flying, though dependency runs too deep for most. Southern France, however, presents a more nuanced proposition.
Accessing Provence from St Pancras is particularly tantalising for those of us close to Britain’s European rail hub, with city centre to city centre travel rendering any airborne time savings negligible. Pre-pandemic, Eurostar ran a (currently discontinued) non-stop service to Marseille in six and a half hours. Avignon, one of the most atmospheric and charming towns anywhere in France (actually, make that just anywhere) via Paris with a station change, or via Lille without, is still only six hours away. Barrelling so far south so quickly, nudging 320kph, the welcome embrace of another 10 degrees centigrade feels curiously disorientating, stepping out of a station instead of an airport terminal.
The French rail operator, SNCF, proffers a plethora of initiatives and fare promotions to lure people out of skies, off motorways, and onto train tracks. Domestic flights of more than two and a half hours duration in France are banned where a viable rail alternative exists, and recently, SNCF made 150 parking spaces available to leading peer-to-peer car rental firm Getaround. Outside Avignon’s TGV (high-speed train) station, the Getaround app guides me towards the car, opens it, then helps me to take pictures, before, via NPR, allowing me out of the secure parking area. Soon after, I’m plunged into the timeless, perennially picture-perfect Provençal landscapes, that even our over-touristed times cannot taint.
After the arrow-like train trajectory and the high-tech car rental, it’s time to push the boat out.
The disarmingly quaint hotel Crillon Le Brave, lost in its bubble of solitude in the hilltop village of the same name, 40km from Avignon, is total immersion into French escape fantasyland. This ultra-cool stylish retreat, a three-decades-long amalgamation of village properties into a luxury hotel quite like no other, has recently undergone a renovation by acclaimed Parisian designer, Charles Zana.
Never-ending views under the shadow of Mont Ventoux sprawl across vineyards laid out below like an exotic multicoloured welcome mat, and that Oyster Card will have you down here and flopped around the pool, well before talented young chef Adrien Brunet begins his seductive assault on your gastronomic sensibilities.
To the other side of Avignon, a 15-minute train ride brings you to the art-infused town of Arles, gateway to the Camargue.
The name resonates as the place where Van Gogh famously sliced his ear off and produced incredible paintings worth humungous amounts of money that he’d never see. He lived very simply near the station, a little way off from the town centre, from where a bicycle eco-rickshaw will whisk you alongside the river Rhône, past the Roman amphitheatre, through the sleepy streets, and into this most beguiling of Provençal towns.
The long-established photography festival and recently opened vast Luma Arles contemporary art complex, with its domineering Frank Ghery-designed tower, underscore Arles continually evolving cultural credentials.
The famous Provençal fragrance house Fragonard recently opened a guest house above its shop near the buzzing Place du Forum, a few doors along from the café immortalised in Van Gogh’s painting, Café Terrace At Night. Tastefully presented in a traditional style, with fully fitted kitchens, it functions like a chic B&B, with sunny dispositioned Arles native, Camille, on hand to welcome and advise. Grab a basket, shop in the market, buy croissants in the bakery, and pretend to be locals whilst nursing a chilled rosé on the balcony.
Do I miss having the car to drive down to France? Non, je ne regrette rien. These days, I’d be more concerned about not having the 214.
Eurostar can be found at eurostar.com; the French rail operator is at sncf-connect.com; Crillon Le Brave is at crillonlebrave.com; and the famous Provençal fragrance house Fragonard is at fragonard.com.