Long journeys can be daunting. I am in agreement however, with the cheesy saying that its’ all about the journey, not just the destination’.
A train isn’t like a plane where you are strapped in and magically deposited in a different world. My favourite thing about trains is that you can see the world you are going through and move slowly into the new space. People get on and off at each stop and on really long journeys the culture of the train slowly morphs into your destination. This is true of buses too but I have always got travel sick, so they are less fun.
On a train you can get up and move around. You can listen to everyone else’s conversations (or not if you have earplugs). You can sleep, you can read, write, browse the internet. Also, and this is a great one, if you are really bored, you can just get off.
Train travel has changed since having a small person. There is less reading quietly and gazing out the window composing poetry. It’s more about walking up and down pressing all the button. Or making mice out of playdough. Or pretending to be Father Christmas. Our time proven strategy is to plan journeys around mealtimes and to travel over mealtimes so a good proportion of the time is filled with picnic. This strategy works well for adults too by the way.
If you want to see how we got from Bristol to Paris via the eurostar, read the previous installment of this blog.
For now, the scene opens in a run down hotel in Paris near the Gare de Lyon. Our main protagonists little T, A, Baby Teddy and myself wake early. I am grumpy because it’s the morning time and that’s how I am. We pack our bags and head to the train station.
We scout for a boulangerie, a bakery, on route but can’t find one so croissants and coffee are acquired from the station. At 8:54 am we board a high speed ‘In Oui’ TGV to Toulon. The journey to the south coast is just 4 hours 20 minutes.
Paris to Toulon
We picked an early train for the journey south as it was the cheapest and gave us a whole afternoon to wander Toulon before heading on to a night ferry. You can in fact easily get from London onto a ferry to Sardinia all in one day. We preferred not to set ourselves tight connections, both for child cooperation and wanting to explore reasons.
We got a direct train for this leg but the Paris to Toulon route goes through loads of other places you could stop off and break the journey up more. Or carry on along the coast a bit to Nice
TGVs are nice. They are usually modern and are fast. Sometimes they are double decker which is very exciting for 3 year olds (yeah ok, and their parents).
You have to book and you need to travel on the train you reserved rather than just hopping on any going the right way. Booking can be done on the day at the station from one of the easy to use multi-language machines. It is much much cheaper however, done in advance.
Train travel with smalls
The initial struggle when traveling with a child is working out if they need a ticket and if so what type. Whether you need one or not depends on the route and the age of the child (official guide for kids on french trains here). Older kids usually need a kids ticket but keep a look out for family options too. Usually smaller children travel free but don’t get a seat. Fine for half an hour but if you are travlling further you might want to splash out. The TGVs have a great value ‘forfait bambino which is a flat fare of 9 euros to get an under 4 their own seat. I find the SNCF official site a bit clunky so we used Trainline EU again. Interestingly, rail europe didnt seem to give the farfait bambino option. The trainline called it “Billet Bambin enfant – de 4 ans”.
I was anxious about this trip as Little T was in one of his tantrumy phases. Like a, could scream for over an hour, tantrumy phase. We’d traveled on trains loads before but children change week by week and you can’t tell what they will or won’t be ok with. Luckily ours is a reader and a snacker. So books and picnics are great entertainers. I’d spent a few months before our journey scouring charity shops for tiny books and toys so we have a great and cheap backpacking size picture book library and toy bag. I also bought a couple of things new in a last minute ‘what if he’s really bored’ panic. I felt guilty as he seldom gets new stuff but they were actually really successful: some rolls of masking tape with trains and road tracks printed on, a couple of usbourne mini activity books and a pack of wipe clean cards called “100 things for little children to do on a journey”.
His toys and books packed down into two tiny bags that fit into the bottom of our back carrier.
The Train station in Toulon is pretty central and due north of the Corsica ferry terminal. It doesn’t have any tourist information or luggage storage. Luckily we had google maps and not too heavy backpacks.
We had hoped to go on the famous Mount Faron cable car but this is closed in winter. At the advice of some locals we met on the train we headed towards the port. It should have been a 20 minute walk but we meandered through some of Toulon’s history first. From the grand 19th Century buildings and fountains of the new town surrounding the Place de la Liberté and into the smaller alleyways of the old town. These were pleasantly grimy, crumbling and maze like. It was early February but warm and sunny. There were little fountains for T to look at and at one point we stumbled across a large ship emerging from a building. Little T wants one for our house.
At the advice of our train friends we headed to the Port de Plaisance on the water front. From there a local boat bus shuttles back and forth across the harbour. It gives lovely, across the water views of the big ships and city industry. All at local bus, rather than tourist boat, prices.
Having several hours to spare we sailed over to La Seyne-sur-Mer, on the opposite side of the bay where we found a park with a playground (Park de la Navale), a merry go round and shops in which to buy snacks and the next days breakfast.
As the sun began to set into a red haze we got back on the boat bus and headed back to the port. The seafront was lit up with pretty twinkling lights and we stopped for galettes (thin buckwheat pancakes) in a suprisingly good restaurant near the ferry terminal. It had both vegetarian and gluten free options. Unusual in my experience of French food.
Ferry to Sardinia
It was getting to little T’s bedtime and, hoping to board the ship as early as possible, we walked through the warm evening to the Corsica Ferries Terminal. It wasn’t far to the ferry terminal. Being a foot passenger is usually a bit weird. It always feels like they are surprised to see you, looking round, wondering where you sprang up from. Anyway, we checked in and were directed to a footpath. We wended around car parks and buildings until we came to a cross roads. Left to Sardinia.
We were on board and had found our cozy cabin by 7pm. A 3 bed outside cabin, booked in the January sales, which I was very excited about. Now we have a toddler, gone are the days of dossing in the soft play area. We had actual beds and a window. The beds were bunks and as I’d hoped the mattresses came off. We moved a top mattress onto the floor between our beds to make a child sized nest. The en suite shower felt like an indulgent treat in the middle of the ocean so we kept that activity brief.
After the small was asleep I had just enough signal to book an apartment in Sassari for the next evening before the boat left land behind.
The next morning we woke up just past Corsica feeling a bit rough. We were sailing side to the waves and the ferry rolled up and down, up and down. Me and little T turned slightly green and we all went for a walk on the decks to get some air. A younger couple were sleeping on the deck. Corsica was far behind and it was sea as far as you could see.
Eventually the swell subsided and our minds turned to our picnic breakfast supplemented by ships coffee. Then we explored the boat, spending a lot of time in the excellent play area.
At 11.15 am, around 48 hours and 1100 miles after leaving our house in Bristol, we arrived in Porto Torres on Sardinia.