From the beginning of our trip we knew we wanted to visit Chamonix in the French Alps, and from there take gondolas and cable cars over the mountain into Italy. (We first learned of this option from watching Rick Steves’ TV show). Unfortunately, we were in Chenonceaux, which was a long way from Chamonix. To get there we got up and worked out a rail route using the Deutsch Bahn website, then started hoping on and off trains all day long. Here is what we did:
Train #1: Chenonceaux to Tours. This was a regional train and fairly uneventful. It was a pleasant 25 minute ride through the French countryside.
Train #2: Tours to Paris. Oddly, the fastest route to Chamonix required us to return to Paris (which was in the opposite direction), where we could get a high speed TGV train south. We only had four minutes from when we arrived in Tours to when we needed to get the train to Paris, but also thought we needed to reserve specific seat (which costs a few euros and is obligatory for TGV trains, but not for others). We ran over to the help desk, but the two guys working there seemed to think we didn’t need a reservation. So we just got on the train and sat down. It wasn’t long, however, before a couple of people came by with reservations for our seats. After that, we weren’t sure what to do; we didn’t want to seat hop for the hour-long ride as people kept coming with reservations, but we also didn’t want to hang out in the hallway and get busted by the conductor for not having reservations. In the end, we stood around for a while, then sat in some fold-down, jump seat type things by the door and, luckily, the conductor never found us.
Train #3: The Paris Metro. Luckily we became pretty familiar with the Paris metro when we were there (and we had some left over metro passes), because we arrived in one train station but had to leave from another. That wasn’t a big deal, but we also had to buy reservations for our train out of Paris, which meant we also had to wait in a long, slow-moving line. When we got to the front of the line and told the ticket-selling woman where we wanted to go, she told us it was impossible because all the trains were already full. We kept proposing alternate routes, and eventually she found a way for us to get to Chamomix around midnight. I knew that might mean we’d end up sleeping in the train station, but we bought the reservation anyway (€6 for both of us, for the first leg of the trip out of Paris). We figured once we got to the next city where we no longer needed reservations we could try to work out a faster route.
Train #4: Paris Bellegarde. This train was another TGV train and was the one we needed the reservation for. Because we managed to ride a TGV train without a reservation before, we had considered trying to just get on this one (or another one that might have ultimately allowed us to get to Chamonix sooner) without a reservation. However we couldn’t figure out what the penalty for not having a reservation was, so ultimately made one and got to Bellegarde.
The Bus: Bellegarde to Annemasse. As we pulled into Bellegarde we realized we were either in or near the Alps. The town is built up on steep green hills that reveal sharp peaks just beyond them. At the futuristic, domed station, Laura asked how to get to Chamonix because we didn’t want to follow our itinerary and arrive at midnight. Though the ticket woman didn’t speak English, she and Laura somehow communicated well enough for us to discover that a bus was leaving soon to a city a little bit closer to Chamonix called Annemasse. From there we’d be able to get a couple of trains and arrive by 9 pm. Even better, the bus was covered by our eurail pass. The only negative part was that it was a bus and, while the ride was uneventful, it was still a lot less comfortable than a train.
Train #5: Annemasse to Saint Gervis. Our bus dropped us off right at the Annemasse train station, but we were hungry and we had about an hour until our train left, so we ventured out into the city to see if there were any stores open. Unfortunately (and oddly) everything was closed. However it did give us a glimpse of a French city that was neither ancient nor touristy. Walking around, we were surprised at how it felt like it could be any city, anywhere. In other words, without the tourist crowds, the city felt a lot like the places we’ve lived in. After we walked around (unsuccessfully) looking for food, we headed back to the train station only to discover that our train was delayed by an hour. That was bad because it meant we’d miss our connection and be stuck in a city called Saint Gervais for the night. While we were waiting, however, we began to meet other stuck or delayed travelers. We talked to a young married couple who live in Michigan, an older American man who now lives in southern France, and a young guy from northern Wales. The older man and the Welsh guy ended up going with us on our delayed train.
The Taxi: Saint Gervais to Chamonix. For us, getting stuck in Saint Gervais would be annoying, but because we didn’t have hotel reservations anywhere it wasn’t nessecarily going to cost us anything. However there were several other people also going to Chamonix who had paid for tickets to get there that night (as opposed to having a eurail pass) and who would miss reservations if they didn’t make it. Because of that, the train company decided that it would pay for taxis to take all of us from Saint Gervais to Chamonix. Thus, when we got into town we said goodbye to our new Welsh friend and took a cab higher up into the Alps. The ride was actually pretty dramatic: the sun was just setting and it lit up the mountain spindles high above us. Leaving Saint Gervais we also crossed a high bridge that gave us panoramic views of the valley behind and the mountains in front. When we got into town it was about 10 pm and the older American man we’d met suggested we ask at his hotel to see if there were vacancies. We agreed to go along but unfortunately he asked the taxi driver to drop us off at the hotel. The driver knew we were all tourists and decided to charge us €10 for the favor. We had already agreed to split the cost with the older man, so we didn’t feel like we could back out, but we later discovered that the driver basically drove us in a big loop around the town and then dropped us off about 15 feet from where he originally was paid to stop by the rail company.
In the end, this was a long day spent traveling. It was both exciting and stressful because we never really knew how we were going to get to our final destination, or if we would even make it there at all. And while we didn’t see any big sites or visit anything touristy, the day was one of the more interesting ones we’ve had because we met a lot of new people.