Take the slow train
Those Amtrak schedulers are killjoys. At least, that’s our first thought as we tumble out of our beds in Memphis in the pre-dawn to make the City of New Orleans train. The overnight service snakes over 1500km, joining the dots on the country’s musical heritage, chugging out of Chicago, the home of the blues, bound for New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. The entire journey takes 19 hours but even a relatively short segment, like the one we’re taking, is a pleasure, meandering as it does through the hazy, lazy landscapes of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana that are dotted with simple shacks with porches out the front. If you’ve been out and about in Memphis enjoying late-night blues in clubs along Beale Street, it might be wise to book sleeping accommodation to catch up on rest for the first few hours before enjoying a meal, which is included in the price of a sleeper ticket. The dining car offers regional specialties such as red beans and rice, a typical Creole dish. In New Orleans, get stuck into other waist-expanding fare, such as beignets and deep-fried catfish, explore the fabled French Quarter and Bourbon Street, and pause to enjoy the street-corner buskers who keep the city’s musical history humming.
Before jumping on the TGV for the almost six-hour journey from Paris to Nice, treat yourself to lunch at €49 ($77) for two courses in Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon’s magnificent belle epoque restaurant. Soon you’ll be whizzing south through the vineyards of Burgundy and past the skyscrapers of Lyons, following the route of the Rhone River. You’ll know you’ve arrived in Provence when the landscape becomes yellower; broken up, in June, with the odd lavender field. On arrival into Avignon TGV station, look to the east and there’s the impressive sight of the walled city surrounding the Popes’ Palace in the distance. Then it’s Marseilles, France’s gritty second city, where the fast TGV tracks end. From here the journey takes a more leisurely pace, allowing travellers to savour the views as the train travels (mostly) along the coast. If the sun’s out, you’ll see why artists flocked to this area for the light. Stopping at workaday Toulon, France’s second-largest naval port, the train heads inland through the wooded Massif des Maures and red rocks of the Massif de l’Esterel. Tanned bodies on the beaches of the French Riviera may provoke envy as you glide towards Nice Ville via Cannes.