The most forlorn major railway station on the planet? Surely it must be Aix-en-Provence TGV.
A guiding principle of the outstanding high-speed rail network created by the French has long been that the alignment of the track has been paramount. Unlike 19th-century railway engineers, the designers of the lines for trains a grande vitesse (TGVs) locate stations where it suits the network rather than in the centres of towns and cities.
In the case of the high-speed station serving the Provencal birthplace of Paul Cézanne, that turns out to be 16km southwest of the centre of Aix-en-Provence: the bleak intersection where the D9 highway passes beneath the main line linking Marseille with Paris.
A bus connects Aix centre with the station every 15 minutes, and the same route extends each half-hour to Marseille airport, 10km away. It stops directly beneath the concrete box housing the station, which is handy for those of us seeking a cut-price journey rail journey to the north.
I am carefully conserving the battery life on my mobile because it contains the precious barcode entitling me to almost 500km of rail travel for just €13 (£11).
Within a minute I am in the station. Having arrived at the stipulated time (no more than 40 minutes and no less than five minutes before the train is due to depart), I could join the short queue of people at the gate to the platform. But as part of the dossier accompanying the ticket I had been warned that no food or drink was on sale, and therefore I might want to prepare a picnic for the evening journey.
With the train due to depart in 20 minutes, I join the straggle of people queuing up at the station’s only catering option, Paul. Ten minutes later, I am the proud owner of a tuna baguette and a can of Heineken – surely the very definition of living the dream? Both proved tasty and enhanced the journey, but together nearly doubled the cost of my journey. I passed the barrier without a problem, being in possession of Ryanair-sized cabin baggage. Larger and more numerous pieces of baggage are charged for, just like on budget airlines.
The sun has long departed before the 6.40pm arrives, a couple of minutes late. I am at waiting area Z, the very rear of the double-deck train, which is about half-full when it draws in. It looks like a standard TGV from the outside, but inside it has a distinct…
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