Homage to Catalonia: The Flan & Anchovy Train Tour

I’ve just returned from a short holiday in Catalonia. My walking trip plans fell through when it transpired that I was the only person who had signed up for a week’s hiking in the Massif Central in mid-November. Wimps, the lot of you!

So Plan B was hurriedly assembled to make best use of the non refundable train tickets I had already booked: two days in Paris visiting a friend, three days in Barcelona, two days in Collioure (the St Ives of France, if you will), and half a day in Narbonne en route for home.

I did the whole thing by train, which I found more civilised, less hassle, and – from where I live – no more expensive and considerably more convenient than the misery of departure lounges, no-frill airlines, baggage carousels, hand luggage restrictions and extra charges for pretty much everything.

This was the Flan & Anchovy Train Tour, and the trains were as consistently good as the food and drink. Barcelona was surprisingly mild (I dined outside, admittedly in my winter coat). France was colder – the Tramontane blew in 60mph gusts from the north, and even rocked the train carriage as we waited at Port Bou on the Spanish border – but the skies were a deep cloudless blue and the quality of light by the Mediterranean was magical. After two lousy British summers, the strong seaside sunshine was profoundly uplifting.


The train journey from Collioure to Narbonne was an unexpected treat. The little stop at Rivesaltes was a feast for the eyes, a blue sky above snow-capped mountains rising behind vines that had turned a brilliant autumn yellow and were growing out of the terracotta red earth. We crossed salt marshes south of Narbonne where the track narrowed until it seemed the train was flying over the sea. The marshes were full of flamingos, fishing with their upside-down pink heads. They were not enjoying the wind, which was kicking up white horses even in the lagoon, any more than the sparrows that had been tossed about by it in Collioure.

In Narbonne, I stood on an excavated section of the Via Domitia, a roman road extending through southern France and Catalonia into Spain. My holiday reading had been well chosen: Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France. Robb offers a fascinating domestic, rural and socio-economic history of the varied, inhospitable and often unknown territories of France before the 20th Century and how people travelled across them, whether on journeys of discovery, flight, communication or economic migration. It’s an immensely enjoyable book full of remarkable details, offering an alternative history of a France far removed from Paris, kings and emperors, revolutions and grands projets.

People have travelled this route for the past 2,000 years – probably long before that – and now I was travelling it too: the thought made me shiver. You don’t get that with Easyjet.


~ by jobes on December 18, 2008.

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