For a responsible family holiday to the Catalan coast, Alice Grahame takes the new Paris-Barcelona train, and doesn’t compromise on her principles
“Ooh, we’ re going upstairs – I’ve never been on a double-decker train before!” my six-year-old declares excitedly. After a brisk march through the dark streets of Paris, the sight of our TGV Duplex at Gare de Lyon causes instant delight. So do the tri-lingual announcements as the train moves off into a tunnel. Gradually the sun rises over the Paris suburbs and everyone reaches for a camera to try and capture the spectacle. Next we are hurtling through cloud as mist rises, like dry ice, over rapeseed fields. At a maximum speed of 170 miles per hour, this journey is faster than any we’ve experienced in the UK.
We race from Paris to Nimes – a distance of nearly 450 miles – in just a couple of hours. Later, the snow-capped Pyrenees appears in the distance, and shortly after we are treated to a view of mountains, and sea, at the same time. We arrive into the warm bright sunshine of Barcelona energised and ready for adventure.
The reason for our journey is to see if the new high-speed train from Paris to Barcelona, launched earlier this year, opens up new summer holiday options for those of us who want to travel responsibly. An independent study, commissioned by Eurostar in 2013, found that a journey on their train emits 80% less carbon than the equivalent short-haul flight. I believe that avoiding flying is an easy way of cutting my carbon footprint, and limiting my impact on the environment, and so have not taken a plane for ten years. However, I do sometimes worry that my family (two adults and children aged 17 and six) might miss out on opportunities that our airport-happy friends take for granted. With the new Paris-Barcelona journey reduced to only six hours and 25 minutes, I wanted to see if it would be possible to replicate a typical family summer holiday to Spain, but using eco-friendly trains instead of carbon heavy planes.
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Once arrived, we set off to explore the city. Barcelona is designed with people in mind. But there are a lot of them: 7.2 million tourists a year to be precise. The Antoni Gaudi mosaic work in Park Guell and his unfinished masterpiece cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, delighted us with its columns, and windows, inspired by nature. But the crowds did not. Seeking calm we retreated to the Parc de la Ciutadella to picnic on olive bread and tomatoes while admiring giant yucca plants and other exotic trees. Groups of young people practised juggling, acrobatics and dancing nearby. The next day, on the advice of the Barcelona’s For Free website, we caught the tail end of a carnival – huddling on the pavement as dragons were carried above our heads to the sound of samba drums and fireworks exploding haphazardly in the street.
Barcelona was wonderful, but after a few days in the city we were keen to experience some nature too and so headed to a nearby campsite in the pine forests south of Tossa de Mar. Each day we walked down to the sea through blooms of orange blossom, pine needles, rosemary, lavender and thyme. Cork trees, bamboo and pampas grass grew wild. There are around 200 beaches on the Costa Brava. Many are small, undeveloped bays– the kind of paradise you would imagine to be in a much more exotic location. The children threw pebbles into the waves and listened to the sounds they made. At dusk we watched bats dancing between the trees.
On our last morning we discovered a tiny, natural harbour while taking an early morning stroll. The turquoise water was so still and clear that we could see the seabed about six metres below. As the sun got brighter and stronger, and I soaked up the unexpected luxury of a deserted sandy cove, I felt perfectly content, alive and energised. All the better, in the knowledge that this Mediterranean paradise is now accessible responsibly, without the need to get on a plane.
We travelled to Paris on Eurostar. Tickets start at £69. The Paris to Barcelona journey was booked with Voyages SNCF. Fares start at £101 return. For the best fares book early. LoCo2 also sell rail tickets to European destinations. Barcelona accommodation was booked via Airbnb and was about £73 per night for a family of four. We stayed at two coastal campsites www.campingsantpol.cat and www.calallevado.com.
Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.