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The french connection

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If you're a less-experienced traveller like me, you might book a train ride from Paris to Chamonix with no regard for the route, pausing only to examine the price.

You might notice, days before your trip and weeks after your refund expiry, that you're capping off two days of flights with an enervating train ride riddled with more stopovers than a Wright brothers' flight.

And if you're unilingual, also like me, you might make a feeble attempt at conversation in French, which is so poor that people start to stare at you. The "local" you're talking to might snort, shake his head and walk to the other side of the train.

But even if you share these qualities, I think the train trip is an essential part of a journey in France. It's a fitting mode of travel somehow, because everything feels older over here. Most of the landscapes I saw from Paris to Lyon were rural farmland with villages that looked like they hadn't been touched by the last century. It was strange passing them in such a modern train.

You gaze at about 10 minutes of uninterrupted farmland and woods, then villages composed of two dozen buildings, where the highest one would inevitably be a church, come into view — over and over. Anachronistic architecture and building materials make it easy to imagine simple peasant lives from ages ago continuing untainted by modern influences. (Confession: I also spent the time super-imposing medieval battle scenes from my head onto the passing fields.)

I was looking forward to watching the land gradually rise, but the jet lag and travel fatigue were too thick... I couldn't do it... the rhythmic beat of the track lulled me to sleep. Five hours later, I was stunned when I awoke to mountains — massive eruptions of earth with their huge rock-daggers jutting up randomly like endless rows of shark's teeth in a maw. I had arrived at the Alps.

It's in the Alps, specifically from Chamonix Mont-Blanc, that I took another train to explore the mountains — the Mont-Blanc Express. This train seems to be designed for sightseeing as much as it is for transportation.

The train from Paris lends itself to "snake" words: It's sleek, it's slender, it writhes, slithers, and snipes its way across France. The Mont-Blanc Express bears more resemblance to a cow, trundling leisurely through sleepy mountain towns in the Chamonix Valley. It's a lot more humble and quaint. It is even painted it bright trolley-red.

This journey gives you time to examine the mountains from different angles, like a jeweller inspecting a prized gem. You see the glacier running down from the Aiguille du Midi and sense the weight of the ice suspended over the highway below, one of the many disturbing moments I've had in the Alps so far. You know the mountains are letting you stay here — you are a guest in their domain, and not a respected one for the most part.

There are about a dozen stops, all in docile, pretty mountain towns with hikes to take, waterfalls to admire and myriad other adventures. Make sure you have one of these activities lined up because the train comes through about every two hours, and doing nothing in one of these towns is the closest I've come to purgatory.

It happened to me because my Carte d'Hote, the pass given to you by hostels and hotels for free transportation, doesn't include the last two stops, and I was forced to stop off at Servoz. Population? Six plus a cat, and the cat spoke the most English.

But it's worth mentioning that the Mont-Blanc Express is mostly free with accommodation in the valley. Because if you're a young traveller, like me, then much of France's famed culture — the wine, the cheese, the baked goods — may be a little beyond your budget, making the train a great way to experience the country.

Deryk Fallon is a Whistler Secondary School graduate who is taking a gap year from university to live in France and ski, work, and improve his French!

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