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The overnight trains making France more accessible

Our writer travelled with her husband and son on one of the newest Intercités de Nuit routes
Our writer travelled with her husband and son (pictured) on one of the newest Intercités de Nuit routes - Sally Howard

It’s 6.30am in the countryside of la France profonde, and I’m woken by the screech of train wheels on track and – “Bonjour les voyageurs! Nous arrivons bientôt à Montpellier!” – the chipper intonations of the sleepless contrôleur on SNCF’s Paris-Cerbère Intercités de Nuit.

From a bottom bunk of our four-bunk couchette, my husband, Tim, groggily inquires into the availability of on-board pain au chocolat (none to be had, only brioche and strong coffee from a grumpy café worker in the second-class sleeper carriage), while my seven-year-old snores on like a metronome.

I can’t say the night has been blissfully slept, but it’s been full of character; from the occasional jolts awake in the inky depths of rural France, to the funny little two-tone sleeping bags, the “kit de voyage” with its designer eye mask, wet wipe and spongy ear-plugs, and the slanting ladder by which my son and I ascended to the top bunks, shined by besocked feet.

Ten more lost Intercités de Nuit routes are due to be relaunched by 2030
Ten more lost Intercités de Nuit routes are due to be relaunched by 2030 - Eric Pothier/SNCF

Best though was gingerly lifting the blind to track our progress as we departed the lights of Paris’ grand Gare d’Austerlitz for silent train stations and somnolent towns, and the ranks upon ranks of expensively manicured trees that characterise provincial France.

Perhaps you’re lulled to sleep by the susurrations of train on track, or perhaps the idea of a slow motion night-time ride through the heart of France fills you with horreur. Either way, French government agency the ministry of ecological transition is banking on the growing popularity of overnight rail routes from Paris into lesser-visited regions of southern and rural central France.

“[The new Intercités de Nuit] are part of Macron’s big push to rejuvenate the economy of deep provincial France,” Paul Melly, 66, a journalist who writes about French politics and took many trips on the old Lunéa routes in his youth, told Telegraph Travel. “It’s quite clever because French people have fond childhood memories of the routes – as do tourists. I remember them well as a student traveller in the late 1970s: rumbling south through the night, arriving on quiet provincial platforms in the dawn mist. It was all very evocative.”

Known as Corail Lunéa before 2009 and as Lunéa from 2010 to 2012, Intercités de Nuit is the brand name used by France’s national railway company, SNCF, to denote overnight passenger rail services within French territory. Between 2013 and 2017 many of the routes were cancelled due to budget cuts and dwindling popularity.

Now these lost lines are being brought back to life. Aurillac is the latest, with the route I travelled in January, from Paris to Cerbère, recently diverted to pass through the Rhône valley and serve new stations on the Mediterranean side of France.

The newest relaunched Intercités de Nuit line travels to Aurillac
The newest relaunched Intercités de Nuit line travels to Aurillac - Alamy Stock Photo

Ten additional lost Intercités de Nuit routes are due to be relaunched by 2030 by the environmentally minded French ministry, with all the overnight services departing from Gare d’Austerlitz, the regal old Left Bank terminus which is due to be fully reopened in 2024 after a five-year restoration of its fine 1867-built vaulted concourse.

With Gare d’Austerlitz a short taxi or metro hop from Gare du Nord (where Eurostar disembarks), and the bistros of the Marais in between, these new unveilings open up the happy prospect of flight-free travel into the depths of France with a Paris repast en route.

That said, you’ll need some savoir-faire. La France profonde in one sleep is all well and good, but there are downsides you may recall from interrailing of yore. Chief amongst these are: the need to tally late French dining hours with 8 and 9pm train departures, the slow demise of France’s once-numerous left-luggage spaces (consigne à bagages) and the prospect of early morning hours spent dragging bags about provincial towns before hotel check-in opens.

The beach of Hendaye will be easier to reach than ever this summer
The beach of Hendaye will be easier to reach than ever this summer - Alamy Stock Photo

Or – as my other half put it when we dined on crêpes at 6pm so we could get to Narbonne train station for the 9.15pm departure with (a terribly British) 90 minutes to kill – “we’ve forgotten two things – that French dinner hour is sacred and that French trains run on time.” In Tim’s view we should have chanced it and gone for the three-course bistro special at 8pm.

European rail travel expert Mark Smith, also known as the “Man in Seat 61”, says France’s in-country sleepers are a time- and cost-effective travel option, but advises first-time Intercités de Nuit travellers to pay keen attention at the point of booking. Unless you don’t mind sharing your sleeping compartment with a gaggle of voluble French backpackers, you need to ensure your space is private.

There are two ways of doing this, he says. “You can book a couchette fare for one person plus an Espace Privatif supplement, which ranges from €47 (£40) to €75 (£64), or you can book out all of a 2nd class six-berth couchette or first-class four-berth couchette by booking extra tickets to fill a compartment, adding phantom children travellers as they are cheaper than adults.” Smith also schools travellers to make sure berths are in sequence before they check out and avoid the second-class reclining seats “except in emergency”.

Writer Sally Howard and her son on board
Writer Sally Howard and her son on board - Sally Howard

Rail enthusiast Davey Munroe, 63, from Boldon Colliery, recently took the sleeper train from Gare d’Austerlitz to the charming Spanish border town of La Tour de Carol as a change from flying. “It was very nice indeed,” he said. “I caught an inter-city train in the UK from Newcastle to London, then Eurostar to Paris, then the sleeper. The cabin, bedding and bunk were all nice and clean. There was no food car on the train, which could catch people out, but you could order from an app to be delivered to the train at a specific station.” Munroe says that he prefers a sleeper over a faster few-hour TGV train during the day as he “arrive[s] refreshed”.

Stella Patrick, 47, from Swansea, recently took the Paris to Cerbère sleeper with her two daughters aged eight and 11 and found the experience initially quite stressful. “The lack of sockets in the carriages had me in a bit of a panic about showing our digital pass and the guard who went to get an additional rail so that my daughter couldn’t fall out of her bunk disappeared without a trace so I didn’t sleep that well…”

But by all accounts, the arrival at the pretty Pyrénées-Orientales border town of Cerbère made up for it. “We lifted the blind in the morning to views of flamingos dotted about the Cap Cerbère wetlands,” she recalls. “It was just magical.”

The train from Paris to Briancon runs four times a week in each direction
The train from Paris to Briancon runs four times a week in each direction - Getty

There’s adventure to be had riding the French rails by night, and there’s also much to be said in our era of over-tourism in exploring less visited regions of France: such as the underrated former Gaulish Roman capital Narbonne, with its glamorous new Foster + Partners designed museum of Roman antiquities, Narbo Via, and pristine little Pyrenean communes such as La Tour de Carol.

But if you don’t want to be that miserable Briton sitting on your bags in a neon-lit worker’s café at an early hour you’ll need to plan ahead. As we boarded back to Paris and another night of sashaying voitures, dark platforms and spectral tooting horns, I decided that I would book a French sleeper again, but only on one leg in the future, taking the less glamorous but nippier SNCF (which takes travellers from Narbonne back to Paris in 4 hours 40 on the fastest route) back instead.

“Bonne nuit les voyageurs!”

How to do it

You can buy tickets on French Intercités de Nuit from €29 (£25) each way: sncf-connect.com; raileurope.com; thetrainline.com.

Stay over in Paris

If you’re adding a leg in Paris, book a hotel that allows arranged early check-in and late check-outs, such as the Orso Hotels, who have station-handy properties including Hotel Rochechouart (doubles from £147) near to Gare du Nord, or Hotel Orphée (doubles from £154) a few minutes’ walk from Gare d’Austerlitz (orsohotels.com).


Four of the best Intercités de Nuit routes

Paris-Aurillac

The journey: The Pyrénéen Intercités de Nuit departs Paris-Austerlitz station on Fridays and Sundays at 9.45pm and arrives in Aurillac at 8.12am.

The destination: Famous for its Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne cheeses, Aurillac is a charming south central French town full of handsome Mediaeval architecture. Natural attractions include Volcan du Puy Mary, a dormant volcano, which you can hike for panoramic vistas of the Cantal Massif.

Stay: Set in a 15th century castle, Hôtel-Restaurant du Château de Salles is a regal pile with views of the Cantals in a village just outside Aurillac. High points include a large outdoor heated pool, generous breakfast and a spa with hammam. Doubles from £92 B&B (00 33 5 63 33 60 60; chateausalles.com).

Paris-Narbonne-Cerbère

The journey: The 5737 (Paris-Cerbère) and 5738 (Cerbère-Paris) run daily in summer (June–September) and on Fridays and Sundays in winter (October–May). The train departs from Paris-Austerlitz station at 9.22pm and arrives in Cerbère at 9.27am the following morning.

Your destination: On the French-Spanish border, Mediterranean beach town Cerbère is known for its glorious scenery, including the Cerbère-Banyuls National Nature Reserve, a protected marine area. Its cuisine is a pleasing Franco-Catalan hybrid, washed down with local Banyuls vineyards’ fruity grenaches.

Stay: A five-minute walk from the beach and perched on a vertiginous rock L’Hôtel La Vigie comes up with the goods with sea views and old-time charm. Doubles cost from £96 B&B (04 68 88 41 84; hotel-lavigie.com).

Paris-Biarritz-Hendaye

The journey: Intercités de Nuit trains 3741 (Paris-Hendaye) and 3742 (Hendaye-Paris) run daily from July–August. The train departs from Paris-Austerlitz station at 9.45pm and arrives in Hendaye at 8.10am the next morning.

Your destination: A charming seaside town in French Basque Country, Hendaye has 3.5km of fine sand, gentle waves, and stunning views of the Pyrenees mountains on its Grande Plage, as well as top-notch pintxos.

Stay: With doubles from £141, Relais Thalasso Hendaye is a casual resort with beach views and a top-of-the-range spa (00 33 5 59 51 35 35; hendaye.relaisthalasso.com).

Paris-Briançon

The journey: Departing Paris at 8.51pm and arriving in Briancon at 08.39am, the ICN 5789 Intercités de Nuit runs four times a week in each direction (train 5790 on the return route).

Your destination: The highest city in France at an altitude of 1,326 metres, the French-Italian border town of Briançon is a popular destination for winter sports and has year-round attractions including a charming old town and the walkable Unesco world heritage Vauban fortifications.

Stay: A ski favourite, Hotel Vauban is five-minute walk from the railway station and less than 200 metres from the lifts Prorel for the Serre Chevalier ski slopes. Doubles cost from £119 B&B (hotel-vauban-briancon.com).