Parting Potpourri

Basil Howitt welcomes the inauguration, at last, of the trans-frontier TGV link between Perpignan and Figueres. He also ties up a few loose ends left dangling from one or two of his earlier stories.

Basil will be taking a break for a while from writing regular articles – but he definitely hopes to be back!

By the time you read this, the TGV link between Perpignan and the new temporary station at Figueres-Vilafant will have been in scheduled operation since 19th December. (Or at least I hope so!) Two trains are time-tabled daily in each direction with a journey time of 23 minutes: southbound from Perpignan to Figueres-Vilafant at 12h24 and 20h25; northbound from Figueres-Vilafant at 11h06 and 15h02. The link is 44.4 kilometres long – 19.8 km in Spain and 24.6 km in France – and the maximum permissible speed is 160 km per hour.


The new link isn’t simply a high-speed each-way dash between Perpignan and Figueres. The train is flagged as a new daytime service between Paris and Barcelona. For a while yet, however, you will not be able to sit in the same TGV train all the way between the two capital cities. For another year and more you will have to change at Figueres-Vilafant and get onto a conventional RENFE connecting service to Barcelona. However, the journey time between the two cities will be reduced by 1h 15m to 7h 25m.


The latest information from the director of Spanish railways, Teofilio Serrano, is that the TGV continuation from Figueres to Barcelona via Girona is expected to be in operation in early 2013 – the latest of several postponements!

You can read the story to date [here->] of this grand project, and [here->] – including the awesome construction of the 8.3 km trans-frontier tunnel under the Albères mountains.

A historic moment for techies: no gauge break!

As many seasoned rail travellers know, the track gauge on Spain’s conventional lines is wider (1668-m) than those of most of the rest of Europe (1435-m). Passengers crossing the border hitherto either had to change trains at the Spanish border stations (Irun or Portbou), or travel on trains with variable-gauge systems. The dear old Talgo is one such and has been running every day since 1968 from Montpellier to Barcelona. You can hear the system clanking away beneath your feet in the gauge-change shed at Portbou. Such innocent fun!

For the first time ever, the new link between Perpignan and Figuères will allow trains to speed across the frontier without break of gauge – this because all high-speed lines in Spain are laid to the standard European gauge.

Will I live long enough?

I asked myself this question [in these columns->] about 2 years ago. Now aged 70, will I be able to travel high speed all the way from Paris to Barcelona?

Well, we’re getting closer, but the outlook doesn’t look too good. Paris (and Brussels and Lille) to Nîmes has long been operating, and funding for the projected “bypass routes” as far as Montpellier is now assured. The mooted completion date is 2016 – though don’t hold your breath.

This leaves the thorny question of the 129 kilometres between Montpellier and Perpignan. The latest news I have read is that funding for this section “doesn’t form part of the state’s priorities”.

Nevertheless, the Languedoc-Roussillon’s Conseil Régional isn’t giving up without a fight. It has committed itself to contributing more than 10.5 million euros “in order that the Montpellier-Perpignan section might see the light of day” by 2020.

We shall see. My father made 90, so if I am still healthy enough in my 80s, I just might take the TGV all the way from Paris to Barcelona

Georges Frêche

I have very few political heroes, but one of them is Georges Frêche. At age 72 he died of a heart attack at his desk on 24th October, after what must have been an exhausting official trip to Shanghai.

In spite of being thrown out of the Socialist party, he had been resoundingly re-elected only seven months earlier as president of the Languedoc-Roussillon’s Conseil Régional.

You can read my portrait of him [here->]

Although extremely gaff prone, his life was a triumph of deeds over dogma. He was a charismatic visionary whose achievements for the région since his first election as president in 2004 included:

– the building of 5 lycées, with 3 more planned
– free school books
– the renovation of the TER regional rail network
– decisive action to develop Montpellier University as a “pole of international excellence”
– financial aid to launch the TGV section Nîmes-Montpellier
– the success of the “Sud de France” identity brand for wine and other regional products.
– setting up promotional Houses of the Languedoc-Roussillon/Sud de France in London, Shanghai, Milan and New York.

Christian Bourquin – a more tarnished record

Frêche’s anointed successor is Christian Bourquin, duly elected as the région’s new president on 11th November. A through-and-through Catalan born in St Féliu d’Amont, Bourquin was president of the P.-O.’s conseil général from March 1998 until his recent promotion. Also thrown out of the Socialist party (for supporting Frêche), his high-achieving career is more tarnished by judicial prosecutions. In November this year he was fined 5,000 euros, after umpteen appeals, for “minoration des comptes de campagne” in 2001. This roughly means fiddling his election expenses to make them look less than they were.

Additionally, on 1st December this year he was recalled to Perpignan’s criminal court for “favouritism in awarding a public contract” going back to 1999. The outcome is yet to be decided.

Smelly socks

Finally, spare a thought for poor Georges Garcia. He was found stuffing his socks and shoes with voting papers – in the polling station for which he was responsible! – in Perpignan’s municipal elections of March 2008. He is still waiting to learn his fate at the hands of the judiciary.

You can read the entire smelly socks saga [here->] and [here->]

My thanks to anglophone readers for many kind comments passed on to me by Kate.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année à toutes et à tous!

Basil Howitt

Editor’s note
Basil will be sadly missed. I know that I for one have learnt a great deal about the region from some of his fascinating and fastidiously researched articles. I suspect that he will not be able to resist putting pen to paper sometimes when he comes across local gossip, characters or news which just HAS to be written. I doubt (and hope) that we have not heard the last of Basil. Once an author……☺


Various articles in L’Indépendant, [www.laclau->] and [Wikipedia->]

© Basil Howitt 2010

Basil Howitt has also written
[Life in a Penguin Suit->Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
[Love Lives of the Great Composers->Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
[Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Lives and Lusts of the Great Composers->Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
[More Love Lives of the Great Composers->More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005)

[(You can contact Basil by email: [>])]

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