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Grèvely mistaken: a slow train journey to Chamonix


January 29, 2011 by Jools Stone

Gare Austerlitz, Paris

Gare Austerlitz, Paris

Guest poster John Williams of Travel Crunch relays an eventful European train journey combining two of his passions: snowboarding and slow travel.

This was a journey I was really looking forward to. To catch a train out of Brussels at 8pm and arrive at my apartment in Chamonix by 10:30 am next morning, having slept overnight on the Lunea sleeper train. Riding a snowboard in the mountains by noon. The next part of this post was a travelogue of my journey, but after several attempts at making it interesting I gave in.

So instead I will pick up the story at Gare Austerlitz after leaving Brussels on Sunday 23rd March and enjoying a fast Thalys train ride followed by a slower journey on a slightly disrupted Paris Metro.

Gare d’Austerlitz, Paris

Deep inside me, I sensed something was wrong. The departures board looked sparse and there were only two trains in the station. A queue of disheartened passengers was trialling out from the Information Desks. I queued patiently. The cheerful man on the desk took my ticket and initiated a computer search. He handed me an itinerary, informing me that he had good news for me? I read it and disagreed, the printed A4 paper read: 24 March 2010: Depart Gare de Lyon, 10h50, arrival Chamonix, 19h12.

He spoke of a “pertubation” (disruption). “Where am I going to sleep”, I asked. He pointed to one of the sleeper trains at the platform. An official checked my ticket and allocated a couchette. All of the toilets were locked on the train and I was directed to a smelly SNCF employees’ toilet about 600 metres from my train compartment. I slept fitfully, until woken at 6am. I sprinted to the workers’ toilet and washed with cold water.

French train

The “pertubation” turned out to be a “grève” (strike). I had purchased my ticket from Chamonix station, if I had booked online I would have received an e-mail warning. I also missed the TV programmes announcing the strike, as I was out of France when they had been aired. With just over 4 hours to kill in Paris, I found a small café and ate breakfast. Afterwards I walked across the river and explored a little of the Arrondissement, taking a few photos and carrying out some people watching, as the clerical workers arrived in the city. One man in a pin-striped suit stood out. He was riding a child’s scooter to work, I supposed it was faster than walking.

A stop off at Annecy

Annecy, France

The rest of my journey involved a ride on a TGV Duplex train to Annecy, where timetabled wait was just under 2 hours, so I took the opportunity to see if the town lived up to the hype as being picture postcard perfect. I wandered off to the Lake edge passing the canal and the Palais de l’Isle. I was not disappointed. Two more local trains and I was heading up into the Chamonix valley.

By the time we reached Les Houches it was too dark to experience the thrill of seeing the trees, glaciers and jagged peaks of the Chamonix Valley appear before me. The train arrived just after 7pm and a few minutes later I was back at my apartment ready for a meal, a drink at the Couleur Café and then good night’s sleep. At least the neighbours were quiet that night.


Snowboarding at Chamonix

I was disappointed, but not enough to stop me attempting this journey again!

If I had purchased online, this would have been a much shorter account, along the lines of “went to sleep in Paris, woke up at Cluses…”

On the positive side I enjoyed a journey in daylight. I visited a little more of Paris, saw lots of French countryside and fell a little in love with Annecy.

On the negative side, I missed half a day’s shredding! At least it wasn’t a powder day! All of the other inconveniences or should I say lack of conveniences and washing facilities, were just another adventure.

Welsh powder fiend John Williams lives in Brussels. His main blog Travel Crunch looks at budget travel done in a sustainable way. He’s an active and fun travel tweeter too. Follow him there as @eurapart.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Williams and Lisa E, Jools Stone. Jools Stone said: Slow train journey to Chamonix. New guest post by @eurapart #trains […]

  2. Enjoyed the post, John. So glad it turned out to be a positive experience after a rough start — that’s how it happens sometimes. Love the pics of Annecy and the snow. Happy to say that I’m already a follower on Twitter!

  3. When it comes to travel disruptions in France, there are many stories, all based aounrd “Strikes”!! Then once when I took this train from Paris to the Alps we got over half way and got caught in the snow and couldn’t get any further, so you got there quicker than me!!!

  4. Jim says:

    There’s something about trains- always an interesting story to tell.

  5. Marlys says:

    Ahh la maladie francaise…. not for long if Sarko gets his way, which looks more likely. Next time you get stranded in Paris, we’ll have a nice cuppa and some danish waiting for you 😉

  6. inka says:

    Ohhh, all is well that ends well. Train disruptions in France are not as bad as train disruptions in the UK. Ever heard the ‘leaves on the rails’stories?

  7. rt @jools_octavius Snow and slow travel to Chamonix & Annecy by train: by @eurapart Win the holiday of a lifetime #travel #holiday RT @Zak_Bagans: […]

  8. Jade says:

    Sounds like it turned out fine- maybe (like you mentioned) better than if all had gone well! Love the snow photo, too!

  9. Chrisotpher says:

    Good post. Thanks for teaching us the French word for strike. grèv I try to learn a French word every day, and this is mine today.

  10. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Europe. Your photos bring back so many memories. I think anyone who’s traveled through Europe has their fair share of long train rides. I certainly do!

  11. sadly, la grève can be a way of life at times for the French. As frustrating as it was, I’m pleased there were positives to the experience. Annecy is supposed to be beautiful!

  12. I love a good train ride and when things go wrong. But the two together and it is heaven 🙂

  13. Adam says:

    Gotta love transportation strikes. We had the same problem several times when in Peru. Glad everything worked out well for you.

  14. John says:

    @Cathy I think to enjoy travel or life for that matter, you must always look for the opportunities in any setback. They are there, but you have to look for them
    @John Stopped by snow and they say you can’t have too much of a good thing!
    @Jim Trains make some of the very best travel experiences and stories.
    @Marlys La maladie francaise était la maladie anglaise hier… Thank you for the kind offer. Paris is a good place to get stranded in, but I enjoyed being stranded in Chamonix the previous winter.
    @inka Not from my personal experience. The “leaves on the line” problem came about because the accountants thought they could save some serious money by not cutting back the saplings that grow in railway cuttings. Worked well for a few years, until the trees grew. Come the autumn…

  15. John says:

    @Jade Look at the reply, I posted for @Cathy. Snow is great in, photos but nothing can compare to riding it on a powder day.
    @Christopher An E got lost somewhere. It’s in the blog title but not in the post. Not sure if it was me or Jools. @Corrine has the correct spelling in her comment.
    @Todd I like the challenge presented when things go wrong. What do you get out of events like these?
    @Adam Sometimes strikes can keep you in a destination, when you should be back at work. What an inconvenience? ;o)

  16. John says:

    I am currently travelling around the Jungfrau Ski Area in Switzerland using excellent Swiss trains and don’t have easy internet access. Hence slow responses and three separate replies. A huge thank you to Jools for all the publishing my guest post and promoting it it like mad!
    Thank you all for taking the time to comment on this post.

    • Jools Stone says:

      Thank you John for a great post and for these replies. The spelling mishap was my grevious error I think, now fixed!

  17. Andrea says:

    Ah the French strikes…certainly don’t miss these. When we lived in Paris they did get John out of a workday or two due to the metro being out of service.

  18. robin says:

    I never knew that about the leaves on the line!

    Another entertaining post.

  19. Matt Hope says:

    Last summer the airline I was flying home on from Guatemala went on strike right before I was supposed to fly back. I fly home on a Friday and had to work on the next Monday. Luckily the strike cleared two days before my flight and they got me home on time! Would have realllllly sucked if that hadn’t worked out.

  20. You had me at “train” 🙂 Great post Jools & John. I love traveling by train and fortunately I have yet to be stranded by a strike. I can’t wait until we have high speed trains here in California…even though it will still be many years from now.

  21. Amy says:

    Recently I took a train from Bangkok to Cha-am thinking it would be faster than the bus – slow train indeed! What would have taken about 2.5 hours by car took about 5.5 hours in a train that stopped at every little town along the way.

    I’m used to train travel in Europe and was also surprised to find that the train wasn’t air conditioned, was one of those old wooden trains with big open windows to let in the air. It was all very strange and kind of fun – at least for the first few hours.

    Next time I even think of getting on a train I’m going to email you for advice first!

    • Jools Stone says:

      Cheers Amy, yes train travel is maybe less vanilla and blandly standard than air travel in certain parts of the world, which is all part of the fun I agree!

  22. […] Discovering Annecy, when my sleeper train to Chamonix was cancelled due to a strike. The rescheduled itinerary […]

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