France’s fastest train – the TGV

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There are several ways to get from Paris to the Mediterranean.  One can fly to Marseilles; one can drive – a good seven hours on the Autoroute, or a day and a half by the back roads; or one can take the train.  Not just any train – the TGV.

Pronounced Tay-jhay-vay, this is France’s answer to the Japanese Bullet Train, and it (they) hurtle around Europe at up to 200 miles per hour. (A test train reached 357.2 mph). Not that you would know it as a passenger.  At the advertised time of departure, passengers looking out the window will see the station start to move.  The train pulls out so smoothly that you are not aware it is moving.  Once clear of the city, it picks up speed, but the ride is so smooth that a shallow bowl of water on the table will not lose a drop.  If your wine glass wobbles, that is your fault, not the trains.

Aboard France’s high-speed train, the journey from Paris to Marseille takes 3 hours and twenty minutes.  This is three hours in which you can sleep, read or enjoy the gorgeous French countryside. It does not, as one might expect, pass in a blur, although there is little time to take in minor details.

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Travelling north instead ofsouth, you would leave from the Gare du Nord and head for Calais where there is a slight dip in the track and darkness falls.  Twenty minutes later, sunshine (if you’re lucky) returns and you are in England.  The TGV network is spreading throughout France and linking up with the high-speed systems of other countries, so that it is now possible to move round Europe more quickly than flying.  A contest between two journalists sent one to Charles de Gaulle airport and one to the Gare du Nord.  They arrived in London’s Trafalgar Square at the same time.

Why fly when you can travel in comfort on the TGV?

Scapa Flow, naval graveyard – Orkney

Back 1000 years ago, Viking ships found refuge in the 120 square-mile bay embraced about the islands of Orkney, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy.  This shallow-bottomed bay is one of the greatest natural anchorages in the world.  Why then should it be known as a naval graveyard?  That is what two world wars will do.

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The natural advantages of this huge, safe harbor and its location a long way from the action caused the Government of the United Kingdom to choose Scapa Flow as their main naval base during both World Wars. At the end of World War I, 74 ships of the German Fleet were kept at Scapa Flow until the Treaty of Versailles could decide their fate.  After nine months of waiting – and planning – the German commander gave the order to scuttle the ships so that they would not remain in British hands.

The British tried desperately to save the fleet, but the Kaiser’s men had prepared so carefully that 52 ships were lost, along with nine German sailors who died trying to prevent the British saving their ships.  What irony!

In World War II, Scapa Flow was once again pressed into service. However, the Navy had not prepared adequately for the danger posed by u-boats.  On 14 October 1939,   a U-boat torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak and 833 men were lost. Days later came one of the first Luftwaffe attacks on Britain.

As a result, Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa were sent to Orkney to construct a series of causeways linking the small islands around the bay. The so-called Churchill barriers effectively kept u-boats out, and by chance, gave access to the outer islands.  The Italians left a remarkable legacy in the form of a chapel, constructed out of two Nissen huts and whatever other materials they could lay their hands on, and decorated mainly by Domenico Chiocchetti, who stayed to finish the job after the others were released.

The chapel is a favorite stopping place for tourists on their way from the airport to the main town of Kirkwall, while Scapa Flow hides its hidden hulks under a blanket of blue.

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