Tracy’s MacBook waited until after we arrived in Carcassonne to start having difficulties, so a trip to the Apple Store was in order. That accelerated us making use of the French train system sooner than we anticipated. While we have taken trains in Europe before, it was never with a set appointment at the other end so we needed a bit more planning.
Some background first. France has three levels of train service run by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français), the French National Railway Company. That includes the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) high-speed “bullet trains,” Intercités for long distance express passenger trains, and the TER (Transport Express Régional) for urban and regional passenger rail travel.
Since we are now retired and on a fixed income, we are very aware that we need to save money where we can on everyday items to have more money to spend on the luxuries. Twenty of France’s twenty-seven regions (a region being roughly equivalent to a state in the US) with TER service has a discount plan that allows discounts train travel for residents within a region. Within our region of Languedoc-Roussillon, for 26€ a year you can purchase a Carte Via Liberte discount card for up to four people to receive a 25% discount on weekdays and 50% off all weekends and school holidays. There are some additional discount plans for outside the region too.
With my trusty Carte Via Liberte’ in hand, Tracy and I strolled over to the Carcassonne Train Station (Gare de Carcassonne) which is .6 miles away from the apartment. The train station was built in 1857 and has one of those classic clock tower passages . It is located next to the Canal du Midi, the canal connects the Garonne River to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranen Sea and along with the 120 mile long Canal de Garonne forms the Canal des Deux Mers joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in 1681. A barging canal like the Erie Canal in New York, it is kind of the French equivalent of the Panama Canal connecting two major bodies of water.
My French is very, very basic at this point. My old “police Spanglish,” high school-college German, and Italian are all better than my French. My “go to” method at this point is to anticipate what I need to request and to pre-write the questions that I translated using Google Translate into my handy pocket notebook (some police habits never go away). If the ticket agent doesn’t speak English (and we are finding very few people do speak English) I hand them my notebook so they can read my request. That and a friendly bonjour, big smiles, and many s’il vous plait and merci.
“S’il vous plait Madam, est‐ce que vous comprenez l’anglais?” Good Karma day for me. The very helpful ticket agent spoke English fairly well. She scheduled Tracy and I for our round-trip ticket from Carcassonne with a train change in Narbonne for final arrival in Montpellier. Since the trip was on a Saturday we received a 50% discount with our Carte Via Liberte‘.
The TER trains are modern, clean and very comfortable. They arrive and leave on the minute to their schedules. (Although there has been rail strikes in the past.) We travelled second class, the only real difference between first and second being reservations and seats three abreast in first class and “first come – first served” and seats that are four abreast in second class. There are large windows to watch the scenery go past with sunshades on all the windows. Arrival and departure times are indicted on electronic display boards throughout the stations, although in French but easy to puzzle out.
While no one checked our ticket outbound, on the return trip our tickets, along with my Carte Via Liberte’ was checked by friendly conductors. Apparently some people try to ride for free. They are escorted off the train by the conductor and met by Surveillance Générale, which I understand is SNCF’s private security that has limited police authority. My understanding is that riders without tickets are fined on the spot. There are also divisions of the Police Nationale that work on the train lines and metro in Paris and its suburbs (Police Regionale des transport) and major rail lines (Service National de Police Ferroviaire.)
The trip to Montpellier was a pleasant way to do some sight-seeing from the train, get Tracy’s MacBook repaired, and better understand the train system. And we get to do all again in a week or so when Tracy’s MacBook has been repaired.