A train's-eye view of the C^ote d'Azur

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF a trip across the C^ote d'Azur by train seems uneventful at first, hang in there. ``Who's idea was this?'' I asked my wife, sitting across the first-class compartment next to a cigar-stuffed Spaniard in jeans. Fields of French poppies and the backs of motels with names like Le Richelieu were soaring past at 60 m.p.h.

``Yours, dear,'' she said, noisily unwrapping some roquefort and a baguette we'd grabbed before boarding. ``Look across the beautiful bay.''

As I turned quickly to my left, the landscape outside St. Tropez turned black as night.

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``Trop tard (too late),'' said the girl next to me, looking up from her book, ``Le Choix de Sophie'' (``Sophie's Choice''). ``Tunnel.''

Yes, it's true. It was my idea to go from Paris to Barcelona by way of Cannes. The idea was to make good time while we slept (on the overnight south from Paris), then take a nice, scenic rail cruise along the entire French Mediterranean coast -- all the while leaving the driving to someone else.

I was contemplating this decision as a Michelin truck 20 yards to the left drag-raced our train on one of the French p'eages (pay highways). I don't know what I expected from a train ride across the south of France, but minutes into the trip I remembered that training, in addition to being full of surprises -- is a communal experience. Someone else's cigar becomes your traveling companion -- and the smell of your roquefort becomes his.

But part of what makes it all interesting is the kaleidoscope of changing scenery, seen through not only your eyes, but others' as well. In the south of France and throughout Europe, of course, that means encountering many languages, many cultures.

``Is beautiful, no?'' said the Spaniard's pal, awakened from his sleep by the racket of unfolding luncheon paper. ``First hills, then plains. One minute a view of the water, the next nothing but farms.'' ``Have a fig,'' I replied, apologizing for intruding upon his reverie.

I'll admit to being slightly disgruntled that nothing of great import happened -- until I realized that's part of the point. I had to remember that the Riviera landscape of subtropical vegetation -- orange trees, oleander, eucalyptus, mimosa, and bougainvillea -- is one of the prime reasons for making this trip. Not to mention an aquatic conjugation of the color blue from near white to deep cobalt (the latter which led to the coined term c^ote d'azur to distinguish the whole of the Alpes-Maritimes coastline from the Riviera in Italy).

Having driven the entire coast in the other direction two years previously, I wanted to see it all again from a different, less harried angle. The train's-eye view was significantly different, taking in more geology in a faster, more panoramic sweep. Vineyards, farms -- both terraced and in fields -- come fast and furious. While auto routes follow every curve of the coast, the train cuts a more direct slice, leaving water behind for great stretches. I was amazed to see high rock peaks and valleys just inland. The tracks also hug the side of steep hills high above some towns.

Those towns come fast and furious as well. St. Tropez, Toulon, Marseille, Arles, Montpelier, Narbonne, Perpignan. I have to warn you that from the train you see the backsides of these towns. Much of the terrain includes junkyards, oil refineries, train yards, and suburbia: both quaint (tiled roofs) and not-so-quaint (monolithic apartment projects).

But if you don't like the view, wait a minute. You'll find yourself racing between golf course fairways and pine forests, or rocky hillsides with aloe and cactus. The weather can change just as abruptly. We boarded in a rainstorm with no sun in sight. Ninety minutes later, a sunny day.

After I got used to the cinematic spectacle spliced with regular stops, I enjoyed the quiet ride totally. From 8:30 a.m. (Cannes) until about 4 p.m. (Perpignan), we saw every kind of terrain from lush to arid, steep to flat, rugged to smooth. The longest stop (Marseille) was 20 minutes. Not bad for 426 francs (about $42) for a first-class ticket. (The first-class sleeper, 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., had been $144.)

First-class accommodations put you in one of three wide, plush, and comfortable seats (that don't recline, however) facing three others in air-conditioned comfort. A ceiling-high window is on one side, a small corridor and waist-to-ceiling windows on the other -- shut out by sliding glass doors. Second-class offered eight smaller chairs per compartment and a tinier corridor. The food car had all manner of glac'es (ice creams), yogurts, nuts, pastries, and cheese for reasonable prices.

Eventually the terrain began to look less French and more Spanish. Moorish battlements appeared on the hillside, and there was more low-lying marsh stretching into a shrouded horizon. Silver poplars still glistened in the lower light of afternoon. Before we changed trains in Narbonne -- to a much cruder, stuffier, and less-clean Spanish train -- the girl reading ``Sophie's Choice'' in French leaned toward me. She told me to use this neat foreign word to tell my friends about training through France: ``Magnifique!''

``We'll see,'' I said. ``But I'll have to check it in the dictionary first.''

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