Slow Travel By Train: Getting There Is Part of the Journey

A charming street in Collioure

The Slow Travel movement (an offshoot of the Slow Food Movement) began in Italy, but the approach is growing in appeal. Rather than focusing on speed, travelers want opportunities to connect with locals and experience their food, culture and traditions.

In this guest post, my colleague Tim Albert, a British journalist and author, recounts his trip between London and Barcelona, slow travel by train, with stops in France along the way. The trip was facilitated by Byway, a company that creates individual travel packages by train, boat, bus, and bicycle.

We had done our share of travelling. In the year before the COVID pandemic, for instance, I spent the summer of my 73rd year going 6,000 miles around America on Greyhound buses while my wife Barbara flew with a cousin to Belarus to see the land their grandparents had left behind.

But the pandemic clipped our wings. So, when two years into it, the son of a family friend invited us to his wedding in Barcelona, we were not sure we could face the notion of taking a flight from London. 

Flying was not an attractive option partly because of the risk of contracting COVID, but also because of the many horror stories surrounding airports – over-crowded lounges, long queues, last-minute cancellations and general chaos. 

Opting for trains over planes

TGV High-speed train in France
A TGV high-speed train in France (credit: Adobe Stock photos)

We came up with a compromise: As the British Rail slogan suggested, Let the train take the strain

There would be fewer travellers, more personal space, a gentler pace and an unfolding view. In terms of COVID, there was still risk but the odds looked better.

We turned to Google, and soon found ourselves on a website facing a never-ending loop of a youthful traveller gazing at spectacular views out of an open train window. The site belonged to Byway, a young company whose stated aim is to tempt travellers away from planes and cars towards slower and greener journeys by train.

We e-mailed them for suggestions, and after various discussions by e-mail and phone we agreed on a plan: a fast train down to the wedding, then slow trains back through the western part of the French Mediterranean coast that stretches from the Pyrenees to Montpellier. 

Fourteen weeks later, our phones primed with Byway’s detailed instructions and Interrail’s ticketing app (both backed up in hard copy, of course) we boarded a morning Eurostar in London. 

Collioure, an old fishing village, would be one of our stops
Collioure, an old fishing village, would be one of our stops

Slow travel on the fast train

Four hours later we were wheeling our bags through busy Parisian streets, and then along a quiet canal that we never knew existed. We had opted for the three-mile walk over a short Metro trip and that night, suitably exercised, we ate next door in a recommended bistro. The food was as quirky as the name: Dame Nation.

Next morning, on the upper deck of the TGV (the French high-speed train operated by SNCF), we whooshed at 150 mph through pastures and vineyards, past terracotta-roofed houses and even saw (at a distance) the foothills of the Alps down to the Mediterranean. 

The train then wound its way sedately between crowded beaches and empty lagoons, past the foothills of the Pyrenees and into Spain. The journey to Barcelona took just under seven hours and the time passed quickly.

The big event and raison d’etre for the trip

The wedding was wonderful: two days of renewing friendships and tasting tapas, culminating in a church service in English and Catalan, then a raucous celebration in an 800-year-old castle.

Sadly, we had to slip away early ready for our train next morning.

Slow trains home from Spain

Platform of the Portbou, Spain Railway Station; the town has a population of 1077
Platform of the Portbou, Spain Railway Station; the town has a population of 1077

We needn’t have bothered hurrying off. When we turned up for our train it wasn’t there. Nor were several others. During the night the entire regional railway network had been thrown into disarray by a rockfall in a tunnel. 

Thanks to local help, plus advice from Byway on our designated WhatsApp helpline, we zigzagged our way along local lines to the Spanish border. And there we stayed, stuck in the midday sun on the platform at Portbou (a town in the Spanish province of Girona) waiting for a train to take us across the border to France. 

Waiting with us in the heat of the midday sun were several dozen backpackers, young enough to be our grandchildren. Adversity helped us all to come together, and we swapped hats, foraged for food and water, told cheerful tales of our journeys so far, and discussed how our travel plans could be salvaged. We parted on the best of terms, some thanking us graciously for our support.

Slow travel by train in southern France

The scenic port of Collioure, France
The scenic port of Collioure, France

We rolled into Collioure (a small commune in the Pyrenees) four hours behind schedule. Even worse, it was one hour after our booking for a much-praised seafood restaurant. Thanks to our good lines of communication, they were expecting us, and welcomed us warmly before taking us to a prime table overlooking the port and its 17th century bell tower. And yes, the sun was slowly setting.

Our hotel, La Casa Païral, was part of a small family-run group, housed in an 1880s villa with breakfast served to the gurgle of a fountain in a tree-shaded garden. Outside the door a Sunday market was in full swing, and a little further away, on the port, a festival of wine was uncorking.

The wine festival in Collioure
The wine festival in Collioure

We had a gentle day exploring the town, admiring the cascades of bougainvillea and understanding why the place had been so well loved by Matisse, Picasso and other painters.

Slow travel: Sitting in the garden of our hotel in Collioure
Garden of our hotel in Collioure
Collioure market
Collioure Market

Our next stop was along the coast in Sète, a much larger port and industrial centre in the Occitane region. We stayed in a smart and welcoming chambre d’hôte, La Singulière, perched high on a steep hill with views of the sea on one side and the Etang de Thau (lagoon) on the other. 

Cemetery at Sete
Cemetery at Sete

We found plenty to do: watching young men get dunked as they practised their canal jousting skills, marvelling at the curious museum containing thousands of everyday objects, tasting seafood in the cool of the covered market, and deciphering the names of dead fishermen in the dramatic seafarers’ cemetery.

In the evenings we gorged without guilt on sardines in garlic and Languedoc wine.

Slow travel by Train: the covered market in Sete
Covered market in Sete

The last leg of a slow journey by train

The author relaxing at his hotel in Collioure
The author relaxing at his hotel in Collioure

Our journey home was fast and easy. We left Sète at noon and were home in our beds by midnight. 

The bill from Byway was a little over £1,500 each (about $1,800), which we thought was good value for 2,000 miles of travel, six nights’ bed and breakfast, support at our fingertips – and the skills needed to find hotels that suited our taste and train journeys that (rock falls excepted) fitted together seamlessly.  

We didn’t get COVID from the trains, nor did the wedding turn out to be a super spreader. And we are planning another Byway trip this year, through northern France and southern Belgium to catch up with the friends we haven’t seen for five years. This time we didn’t need the pull of a wedding.

All photos: credit Tim and Barbara Albert (unless otherwise noted)


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Slow Travel by Train


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