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The food of France by rail
The food of France by rail

My first experience of a croque monsieur comes on the French fast train the TGV from Antibes to Lyon.

My long-forgotten schoolgirl French doesn't register exactly what it is that I'll be eating, but others are getting it and it sounds exotic.

We crack open a bottle of wine, sipped from plastic cups in the train's first-class section, and tuck into our lunch selections as we happily while away the four hours.

So the croque monsieur? Well, all I'll tell you for now is that it's a popular cafe classic and it's the start of my gastronomic journey from one end of France to the other.

I had no idea when we set out that the 10-day trip to discover France "off the beaten tracks" would also be something of an awakening for a non-foodie like me.

Our journey takes us from Nice, the queen of the French Riviera, to Paris, the love capital of the world. In between: many charming cities and surrounding areas, from Nice to Antibes to Lyons to Moulins to Vichy to Amboise to Nantes to Vannes to Paris; and more than a few sumptuous three-course meals.

We fly into Nice and after that it's trains all the way, apart from a few van drives here and there.

The initial rail journey, on which I discover the joys of a croque monsieur, takes us to Lyons.

It is here, in the gastronomic capital of France, that I face my first real challenge with French food.

Lyons boasts 2000 restaurants, 14 with Michelin stars.

Many call themselves bouchons, the traditional Lyonnaise restaurants.

But, says our guide Christine Barniaud, there's only 10 that you would call authentic bouchons.

"There's no classification," the promotion officer with the Lyons Tourist Office says, "but we know the good ones - it's the atmosphere, it's the food and the welcome."

We end up at Cafe des Federations, where the menu boasts black pudding with apple, calf head with ravigote sauce, cake of chicken livers and stew of pork cheeks.

What does the non-foodie choose? Chicken with vinegar. A nice meal but a fail when it comes to living up to the challenge to be adventurous.

Gradually, however, as we travel through France, this boring eater starts sampling more out-there fare: gizzard in Clermont-Ferrand (barely enough to register what I'd eaten) and steak tartare in Moulins (surprisingly pleasing, but I prefer my meat to be cooked).

I've discovered I'm particularly partial to the Auvergne region's potato-and-cheese dish truffade: creamy, rich and filling.

By the time we leave behind the red-tile roofs of the south of France and cross further north, where blue slate abounds, I'm even trying eel (a very fishy taste, one bit was enough for me) in the fishing village of Trentemoult, opposite the port of Nantes.

Somewhere along the way, I've acquired the habit of drinking an aperitif before dinner. It seems imperative now.

And I've also picked up a few tips about travelling by train:

• Pack light. It's not like a plane trip. There's no checking in your luggage and collecting it at the other end. You need to lift your suitcase on and off the train and find somewhere to store it. (There are storage areas but they vary.) If you can't carry your own suitcase you've packed too much - unless there's someone with you who will help you lift it.

• The TGV has assigned seats, so you must book. There are no seat reservations with the regional TERs.

• There's not much difference between first and second class on the regional trains, except for the leg-room. On the TGV, the difference is a bit more obvious (for example, larger reclining seats).

• Rail Europe says the France Rail Pass is the best option for non-European residents. It provides unlimited travel on the 31,000km national rail network, for three to nine days' travel within a one-month period. Regular France Rail Passes start at $263 for a three-day pass and $340 for a five-day pass.

• Rail Europe also offers a France Rail Pass Premium, which includes access to a private concierge to help with planning your holiday. Once you book you receive an email with contact details. You can use the concierge service for the whole time your pass is valid. Prices start from $300 for a three-day pass and $375 for a five-day pass.

• Most train stations have good facilities. The only hiccup we had was at Clermont-Ferrand, when we had to navigate stairs to get to our van driver. Taxis were on the same level as the rail platform.

• Take a book or work on your laptop (there's no internet on the trains, however), but don't forget to enjoy the postcard-perfect countryside.

• The TGV has a food car but the regional trains do not.

It was while waiting to board a TER at Moulins that I enjoyed my second croque monsieur, from a cafe opposite the station.

I plan to make a croque monsieur for my friends and family, impressing them with my knowledge of a French recipe before unveiling ... a ham and cheese grilled sandwich, topped with some bechamel sauce.

FAST FACTS

<b>GETTING THERE:</b> Etihad Airways flies 24 times weekly from Australia (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) to Abu Dhabi, with seamless connections to Europe. More: <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.etihad.com">www.etihad.com </a>.

<b> TOURING THERE:</b> Rail Europe is the exclusive distributor of the France Rail Pass in the world. For more information visit <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.raileurope.com.au">www.raileurope.com.au </a>.

Rail Europe distributes through Rail Plus, Rail Tickets (Stella), CIT Holidays or Infinity in Australia and Rail Plus and Go Holidays in New Zealand. For contact details see <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.raileurope.fr/wheretobuy">www.raileurope.fr/wheretobuy </a> and click on Australasia.

<i>The writer was a guest of Rail Europe and Etihad Airways.</i>