Le Train Bleu
Last time we teased that we were arriving at a quayside in Ostend to connect with the Istanbul Express as if Graham Greene’s characters in Stamboul Train. My grandparents’ Ford Prefect was in the hold. Puffins will be relieved to hear we’re not setting off through the Warsaw Pact of the 1950s en route to derring-do in Belgarde and all points east. Instead, we head south. If we must follow the route of a famous train let it be Le Train Bleu. If we must be accompanied by a cast of characters let it be more simple souls than Greene’s, perhaps those described by Agatha Christie in the Mystery of the Blue Train.
The Train Bleu originated from Calais, ran all the way to the South of France and then along the Azure Coast to Menton and Ventimiglia, on the Italian side of the border. We shall assume that somewhere between Calais and Paris, after travelling westwards from the Belgian border, my grandfather and grandmother rendezvoused with the rail route on their 1958 road trip.
The Train Bleu first ran over seven decades earlier in 1883 shortly after operators, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, had begun their better-known Orient Express.
The new train was originally intended to link Calais with Rome via Nice. The route changed little over the following decades but the final stop became Ventimiglia, near Genoa, with connecting services to Rome. At the time, France was developing tourism along the Cote-d’Azor with the Blue Train becoming an ambassador for the new industry. According to the Midnight Trains website,
On board, the travel experience was incredibly luxurious, especially by the standards of the time: private bedrooms, spotless sheets, comfy mattresses, understated lighting, efficient heating, bathrooms, a ‘wagon-restaurant’ that was actually deserving of the name.
Success was immediate and over the following decades celebrity regulars included Sacha Guitry, Marlène Dietrich and the prince Aga Khan. Jean Cocteau composed a ballet in tribute, for which Coco Channel designed the costumes. In my grandparent’s day, Princess Grace of Monaco was not only a passenger but 24 years later was even booked to head north from Monte Carlo on the day she died.
In my day, the 1980s, the train was still running, albeit originating from Paris. Looking through my old tickets and maps it looks as though I preferred to start Le Weekend on the L’Esterel which left Paris Gare de Lyon at 22:13 and terminated in Nice at 09:03 the next morning. A more leisurely schedule, this allowed for a stroll along the seafront at Nice followed by excursions by local trains along the coast in either direction. Monte Carlo, Antibes and Cannes called like sirens.
Without maharajahs and millionaires, L’Esterel’s wagon-restaurant could get a bit rowdy. There was a lot of military down the South of France then as now, with the backs and forwards from the capital resulting in a Star Wars cafe of different uniforms on the move. There remains a big naval base at Toulon, the Foreign Legion is at Aubagne, near Marseille. To the other side of the notorious Mediterranean port lies an air force base at Istres. Put them in a confined space, keep them there for a long time, get them drunk and see what happens. If you really must kick it off a bit quicker, insist your fish is accompanied by red wine (in bad French and with an English accent) then lick the plate clean when you’ve finished.
Hopefully there was a better clientele on the Train Bleu which left Gare de Lyon half an hour earlier at 21:45 and ran non-stop to St Raphael arriving, 636 miles later, at 06:55 the next morning. Except on the days when L’Esterel didn’t run in which case the Blue stopped at Toulon. When I say ‘non-stop’ I mean not stopping for fare-paying passengers. There will have been stops to change train crew and locomotives. After St Raphael the timetable becomes as mouth-watering as a Compagnie Wagons-Lits menu; Cannes, Jaun-les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, Beaulieu, Monaco-Monte Carlo, Menton and Ventimiglia where the train terminated at 09:24, 21 minutes shy of a full 12 hours after leaving Paris. The capital now being near enough 700 miles away.
If a river must run through our family album then it should be the Rhone. Previously we visited its source at the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland’s Furka Pass. Not only were we travelling in my grandparents’ footsteps but in those of OO7 during his iconic Goldfinger hairpin car chase when pursuing Miss Tilly Masterson.
From that source, the Rhone flows southwestwards through a Swiss alpine valley past Brig (for the Simplon Tunnel) and on to Visp. From there we headed south to visit the Matterhorn and Zermatt. Prior to that, we had followed the Rhone as it headed eastwards past Sierre where Sepp Blatter played centre forward for the local football team. At Martingny the flow turns almost due north in the direction of Montreux where the glacial waters join Lake Geneva near Villeneuve.
At the other end of the lake the Rhone cuts Geneva in two, enters France and loops its way to Lyon where it is joined by the River Soane and heads south towards the Mediterranean along the Rhone Valley. Given the topography, the railway and road must follow.
Valence sur Rhone
En route, in the middle of the night, both the Train Bleu and L’Esterel thunder through Valence sur Rhone. But my grandparents travelled by day, lingered and took a photograph.
At Valence, the Rhone is wide and fast flowing. The crossing is difficult. Even in modern times there is only one bridge across the river in the centre of the town. The first fixed crossing wasn’t established until a Seguin-type bridge was constructed between 1827 and 1830. It was replaced by stone arches in 1905. They were partially destroyed in June 1940 by French engineers trying to slow the advance of the German Army. By August of the same year, a temporary structure bridged the downed section but this was in turn flattened by Allied bombing in 1944.
A temporary suspended walkway was installed in 1949 which remained in use until 1967. Then, the Frédéric Mistral Bridge was completed and is still in use today to connect Guilherand-Granges (in the department of Ardèche) to the city centre of Valence (in the department of Drôme). The 1967 improvements included the building of the Autoroute du Soleil. This artery is a mega highway running from Lyon to the South of France. Through Valence this is six lanes wide and cuts off the town centre from its riverside.
In the photo, the buildings to the right will now be under the autoroute with the image impossible to replicate via Street View. We shall say what we see. The road and riverfront are in much better condition than the buildings that line them. The dwellings are four or five stories in height and are higgledy-piggledy rather than part of a planned grand design. There are balconies, some drying washing or airing clothes and mats. Shutters guard the windows. Chimney stacks interrupt the skyline in anticipation of winter.
The road is asphalt and looks brand new as do the concrete posts along the riverside and the railings connecting them. One assumes, given this is the decade after the war, that this is war damage repair to a vital transport link.
Given the changes, and after first suspecting there’s no way of telling where the photo was taken, the eye is drawn to the immortal hills in the background and the bend in the river. It is of little help. On the satellite mapping, the hills are on the side of the river opposite the highway south and there isn’t a convenient bend accompanied by a riverside wall. We must assume that the riverside wall was altered outwards as the highway was extended and that the buildings were demolished as the road simultaneously spread inwards.
As for the buildings themselves, there’s no sign of them in old photos or postcards. Rather a sloped waterfront with a mishmash of separate older structures between the Rhone and the city’s cathedral and museum. We must assume the buildings shown, given they are slab-sided, concrete and somewhat improvised, were thrown up to house the civilian population temporarily at the end of the war. I may be wrong.
Nor is there any sign of the post-war bridge. Therefore we must be slightly north of it. An old map from 1926 shows the bridge leads to the Avenue Gambetta. Along this runs a tramway taking a very sharp right turn along the quayside in one direction and, in the other direction, splitting at the Place de Republic with one branch going south towards the mainline Gare and the other heading northwards. Old photographs show a steam engine on this line chugging through the streets. Sadly none of this has survived.
As we thunder south we will make one more stop before Nice. While bidding farewell to the Rhone we shall kill two birds with one stone. The Puffin is a resourceful bird and if, in among the mayhem of a Le Weekend Bar Car militaire, he has the chance to make new friends and accept an invitation, he will. If this involves playing aeroplanes, so much the better.
The Rhone meets the Mediterranean at Port Saint-Louis-du-Rhone, 25 miles from Marseille. There are docks slightly to the north of the township and to the northeast sits Istres airforce base. These days, among many other things, it is home to the French Space Force. Presently the view is blurred out on satellite mapping. Not a concern decades ago if you were standing on the tarmac. Well, concrete sets. In the background sits the conning tower, in the middle ground a Rafale – like a French Typhoon, except with a naval version.
Cleverer Puffins than myself will be able to say exactly which variant is pictured. Given the proximity to the seaside, this might be such a naval version which, presumably, has bigger wings and an arrester hook below the fuselage. Inside, and continuing the nautical theme, we see a Breguet Atlantique, a maritime patrol aircraft which the French liked to compare to a Nimrod but was really more like a Shackleton.
Apologies for the big black blobs but, at my level of expertise with photobox, blurring can be unblurred. We wouldn’t want Macron to find out that many years ago strangers were shown around la base secrète by a much, much younger Général de Dorps Aérien … oops, nearly.
© Always Worth Saying 2023