Bonne Route- Auto Train

Bonne Route: Bringing you the best of motoring in France. Want to take your car to the south of France but don’t want to drive? Climb aboard the Auto Train, says Gavin Bell

I don't like driving long distances. The thought of hours veering between monotony and mayhem on motorways fills me with loathing. I'd rather walk or stay at home. So when my wife and I decided to spend a couple of months in the south of France with our dog, we looked for ways of getting there by car without enduring a 700-mile slog from the Channel to the C�te d'Azur. One solution was the Motorail service from Calais to points south, on which motorists travel overnight with their vehicles. But a quick check revealed it operates only until the end of September, and we were planning to travel in October. Then a French friend told us about the Auto Train, which is how French motorists have been getting around their country since 1957. This is a year-round service linking Paris with a dozen destinations, and even more in summer. The difference is the vehicle travels alone, and you follow it when you like in the high-speed comfort of a TGV – or you can fly if you prefer. No traffic jams, no road works, no fatigue, no problem. Drop off the car in Paris, enjoy a night somewhere on the Left Bank, and hop on a TGV the next day. It seemed simple enough. First there was the Channel crossing. My wife Claire was adamant – no question of burrowing beneath it in a tunnel, she wanted the romance and adventure of watching the white cliffs recede from the deck of a ship. So we chose SeaFrance for the Gallic experience; a couple of steps from the Dover quayside and we were already in another country, surrounded by the accents of Paris and Picardy, with a tricolour on the aft deck snapping in the breeze. The drive to Paris was about as far as I wanted to go – less than 200 miles – and was fairly straightforward. The Auto Train terminus is at the Gare de Bercy in the east of the city, so we took the A26 to the A1, then the A3 (signposted Bobigny) to join the Boulevard P�riph�rique at Bagnolet. A few exits later we pulled off at the Porte de Bercy, followed signs for the Palais Omnisports de Bercy, then picked up signs for the Gare de Bercy. Then – bliss. Instead of the usual pandemonium around Parisian railway stations, there was the Zen-like calm of a huge empty space at the Auto Train terminal. No queues, no hassles. A staff member checked our tickets, inspected the car for dents and scratches, and fixed a sticker on the window indicating it was bound for Marseille. Speeding along

We handed over the keys and walked away. Minutes later we were relaxing in a pavement caf� and looking forward to an evening with pals living nearby. This was my kind of longdistance motoring. Anyone who has travelled by TGV in France knows the satisfaction of speeding in comfort through the heart of an absurdly beautiful country, enjoying occasional glimpses of motorists trapped in heavy traffic. A croque monsieur and a glass of wine from the buffet car kept body and soul together as France flashed by in an agreeable blur of fields, forests, and finally the limestone hills of Provence. The SNCF requires dogs to wear muzzles on TGVs. Our placid pooch submitted to this indignity briefly while an inspector checked our tickets, then the muzzle was removed and nobody bothered. In any case, dogs usually consider three hours on a train to Marseille preferable to being stuck in the back of the car for a couple of days. On arrival, we followed signs to the Auto Train terminal a few minutes' stroll away.There in a secure car park our trusty steed was waiting, ready for the short drive to our destination. We could have had a free car wash, which is part of the service, but we were keen to head off. Keys were handed over, along with a useful map to help us get out of the city, and an hour or so later we were sitting on the terrace of an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. Even in early October the sea was sparkling, and dotted with yachts cruising in light winds. It beat a motorway service station hands down. Francofile

Auto Train services can be booked up to 90 days in advance, the earlier the better for discounted fares. The lead fare from Paris to Marseille is �118.50 one way for a standard vehicle. TGV fares from Paris to Marseille start from �23 one way. Book both through Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk). Most vehicles can be transported, but it's best to telephone and check for restrictions, eg. Convertibles with soft roofs are not accepted.