From Lille in the windy north to Perpignan, blushing in the sunny south, the French towns are easy to appreciate. Cobbled streets embroider the historic core, punctuated with pretty places flowery and flanked by cafes.
Add a grand cathedral, an impressive art museum, a bustling market and a Street or two of high fashion, and you have the essential ingredients for a weekend getaway.
Bordeaux excels, however, with dimensions beyond the city center. In the 1920s, an enlightened industrialist by the name of Henry FrugÃ¨s commissioned Le Corbusier to create a community of cubic houses in the southwestern suburb of Pessac. Nine decades later, the CitÃ© FrugÃ¨s is still a life project that offers space, light and order. The weather and the trees have softened the sharp edges, and Unesco has inscribed the district on the World Heritage List.
If, on the contrary, you venture north, the MÃ©doc vineyards start just beyond the town at Blanquefort.
Much to adore; you just need to make it happen. Which, for now, is far from simple.
Eurostar passengers and French rail travelers find themselves caught in an existential battle over working conditions between the state and the unions. Hostilities are scheduled two days out of five by the end of June. The victims: around half of French national trains, plus a handful of services connecting London to Paris and Brussels.
You could try to fly via the French capital, but Air France crews are taking industrial action over a wage dispute. Even if you reach Paris from Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle or Edinburgh, your problems are only beginning: just Thursday, 16 flights between the capital and Bordeaux were canceled.
Yet within a few years you could avoid the strife in the sky and speed up to Aquitaine on a train from London. This week, the four companies that own the tracks between St Pancras and St-Jean, Bordeaux’s main station, paved the way for a direct link.
The infrastructure quartet includes HS1 Ltd, owner of the High Speed ââ1 link from London St Pancras to Folkestone; Eurotunnel, owner of the submarine link and collecting payments from railway operators; SNCF RÃ©seau, the French version of Network Rail; and Lisea, owner of the new 188-mile high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux.
Mark Smith, the founder of Seat61.com and the man who knows more about international rail than you or I will ever know, told me: infrastructure company.
âIt’s like the Highways Agency is trying to launch a new National Express coach service.
Well, if the Highways Agency paid per mile traveled and realized that some of their very expensive assets could easily carry more traffic, they could just call bus companies to try and do business. An approach to widen the choice, increase competition and make the great southwest of France accessible by the most civilized means of transport deserves to be crowned with success.
The Man in Seat Sixty-One agrees: âThere is definitely a demand for travel beyond Paris and Brussels, with Italy and Spain as the main destinations from the UK. Bordeaux could be a gateway to San Sebastian and Spain, avoiding crossing Paris.
For another take on the link, I asked Kate Andrews – co-founder and COO of Loco2, a train reservation service for the UK and Europe – three questions – three questions.
How much could it cost? âThe journey from London to Bordeaux is about 500 miles, a similar distance from London to Lyon. So I think passengers can expect a rate comparable to the direct Lyon service currently offered by Eurostar, in the order of Â£ 51 one way, Â£ 90 round trip.
Would it stop along the way? âIf the objective is to attract British holidaymakers, the operator of any new service could consider intermediate stopovers in Tours to discover the region of the Loire Valley, Poitiers for connections to La Rochelle, or AngoulÃªme and the wine countryside around Cognac.
Who would run it? âThe most likely candidate is Eurostar, but HS1 has made it clear that it doesn’t have to be. The plan is to find an operator who can set up the route within a few years, so a pragmatic approach is needed. “
To persuade anyone to operate the service, developers will have to reduce their usual track access charges. And if they do it for Bordeaux, many other French cities, from Nantes to Strasbourg, will want a link with London.