Rail route of the month: the slow train from France to Spain | Travel by rail

Avignon is a natural stopover for travelers from Britain and Northern Europe to the Iberian Peninsula. It is a place of choice. Fast or slow?

Travelers in a hurry to reach Spain head to the TGV station, which opened in 2001. It’s a good drive south from the city center to Courtine, a new suburb that was once a watery wasteland between the Durance and Rhône rivers . From this rather sterile peripheral station, a high-speed train leaving at 8:40 a.m. arrives in the Spanish capital in the middle of the afternoon.

Those who are not in a hurry will find a much more interesting option for traveling to Spain. Slow trains depart from Avignon Centre, the historic station in the old city walls. The station itself is a gem, its facade an essay in neo-classical symmetry, with five elegant bays and a clock dominating the balustrade. The architect Jules Bouchot also designed a similar station in Valence, in the Rhone Valley from Avignon. The two stations are inspired by the architecture of the 7 Palace of Versailles.

Gare d’Avignon-Centre, inspired by the Petit Trianon in Versailles. Photograph: Jason Knott/Alamy

Avignon Center used to display a roll call of international destinations on its departure boards. Alas, direct trains to London, Berlin and Milan no longer exist. The only trains from Avignon Center that still venture beyond the French borders are the three times daily regional services to Portbou in Spain. This is an amazing 4 hour 15 minute journey made even better by being on a slower train, which makes 25 stops along the way. There is real drama in the changing landscapes of this route, which culminates in a final stretch along the Côte Vermeille south of Perpignan to the border. To the left is the Mediterranean and the steep slopes of the Pyrenees rise to the right. All in all, much better than plunging under the mountains in the long Perthus tunnel used by high-speed trains.

This slower option relies on regional trains (TER). Up to three direct trains a day connect Avignon to Portbou. These are supplemented by additional services which require changes, usually in Narbonne and Perpignan. It’s the perfect journey for travelers using Interrail passes: they can simply hop on and off at will without the tedious requirement, common in France, of reserving seats in advance. This is a route to be enjoyed on its own, but can be incorporated into longer Interrail routes.

Cruise in Occitania

The slow train to Spain threads its way through the southern suburbs of Avignon and crosses the Durance east of the TGV station. In a few minutes, it’s a real feeling of wild nature that you walk along the steep slopes of the Montagnette, with its twisted pines and its low maquis, a landscape shaped by the merciless mistral. There is a wonderful feeling of being immersed in a landscape, rather than rushing through at an uncomfortably high speed.

View of the coast near Sète, from the Avignon train.
View of the coast near Sète, from the Avignon train. Photography: Bernard Pichon/Getty Images

At Tarascon, the train turns sharply towards the west, crosses the Rhône and enters Occitania. We pass a pink farmhouse displaying the region’s distinctive red flag with a yellow cross. The train stops at a station called Nîmes Pont-du-Gard. It’s a bold piece of modern architecture and a curious affectation of French railway planners: the station is miles from Nîmes and even further from the famous roman aqueduct which forms the rest of his name. Later, we stop at the real Nîmes, then at a procession of distinctive Occitan communities: Montpellier, Sète, Agde, Béziers and Narbonne. Along the way, there are tantalizing views of flamingos, salt marshes, coastal fortresses and empty beaches.

I walked this course from one end to the other without interruption. It takes a little over four hours. But the spots along the way are just too tempting to miss. Narbonne is about the middle of the trip and the perfect place for lunch. Head to Les Halles, a historic indoor market that resembles a 19th-century train station, for a variety of culinary delights.

I also usually stop in Perpignan, where a sign at the station reminds travelers that Perpignan is the very center of the world. This is not a vain civic claim, but a beautiful reference to the extraordinary metaphysical experience of Salvador Dalí here in 1963. For Dalí, Perpignan was not only the center of the world, but the cosmic center of the universe.

beach, pretty town and green hills
The seafront of Collioure, south of Perpignan. Photography: Patrick Donovan/Getty Images

The other must-see spot on this trip is beautiful Collioure, a small port on the rocky coast south of Perpignan. The village is dominated by a beautiful 13th century castle used by the Templars, the monarchs of Majorca and the troops of Bourbon. Matisse, Picasso, Dufy and Braque discover Collioure. Anchovies, for so long a Collioure staple, are still as good as ever and the town still attracts many budding artists. From Collioure, the railway skirts headlands and bays, passing through the windswept vineyards of Banyuls.

Arrival in Spain

Portbou (sometimes rendered as Port Bou) is the first station on the Spanish side of the border and the end of the line for all regional trains from France. Portbou itself is only a village, much of its territory being taken up by the oversized railway station and railway marshalling yards.

nobody on the platform at Portbou station.
End of line at Portbou station. Photograph: David Bagnall/Alamy

The route along the coast from France to Spain was relegated to secondary status in 2010, when most international trains from Perpignan were rerouted through the Perthus tunnel. Portbou thus loses its place in the championship of European border stations. This is where express trains from France to Spain all had to stop to allow the change of axles from the standard European gauge to the wider Spanish gauge. Now it is the passengers who have to change, and most of those arriving on France’s TER service are walking to join the waiting Spanish train for the onward journey to Barcelona.

travel facts

Regional trains run hourly from Avignon to Portbou. In autumn, direct trains leave from Avignon Center at 11:35 a.m. (every day), 1:35 p.m. (no Saturdays) and 3:35 p.m. (no Saturdays or Sundays). The one-way fare is €45.70. Book on raileurope.com (with €6.95 processing fee). It is sometimes possible to travel for only €1 from Avignon Center to Portbou. Finding this promotional rate is like looking for a needle in a haystack and does not allow stopovers. For those who prefer to stop on the way, especially as part of a wider European rail route, an Interrail pass is the best option (from €246, with discounts for under 28s and over 60 years).

The 17th edition of Nicky Gardner’s book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian’s Library. She is co-editor of hidden europe magazine