We are speeding down the darkened, empty, 4am streets of London towards St Pancras and the Eurostar, our cabbie telling us how, despite being no fan of driving in Paris, he is "becoming more of a Francophile".
It is the prelude to a three-week rail journey that will take me and wife Deborah from Paris to Chartres and Bordeaux, through San Sebastian and Madrid to Cordoba, Seville and Granada in Spain's south, and then up to Barcelona before returning to Paris. Our trip is organised by Railbookers, which offers such tailor-made rail holidays throughout Europe.
After the French capital, we stay in Chartres at the hotel Le Grande Monarque. It started life as an inn in the late 17th century and is where the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand once stayed. We freshen up before walking through the city's narrow streets towards the cathedral and the restaurant Le Pichet 3. While we enjoy our assiettes vegetariennes and local beer, owner Xavier Jouffrieau serenades us with his hurdy-gurdy, pausing only to exchange pleasantries with a group of monks on their way to Vespers.
Here in Chartres we visit that modest monument to naive art, the Maison Picassiette, and that great monument to God, Chartres Cathedral - two very different examples of the art of manipulating fragments of coloured glass.
The next morning we are on a TGV high-speed train bound for Bordeaux. As the open fields, stretches of dense woods and clusters of buildings give way to vineyards resembling vast cemeteries, I dip in and out of Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, where I read this sentence: "I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking, quite passive."
How could we find Bordeaux, whose beauty Victor Hugo praised and whose spacious boulevards Haussmann used as models for the renovation of Paris, anything but beautiful? And yet when you mention the Aquitaine capital one word usually springs to mind . . . and thus we feel obliged to trade the outrageous "opulence" of the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux for a mini-bus to Saint-Emilion. Impressive though the numerous wines we taste are, the picture- postcard scenery - especially the views afforded by the medieval town of Saint-Emilion itself with its monolithic church and Chateau de Pressac with its vines and free- ranging chickens - impresses even more.
Our San Sebastian sojourn being but overnight, we just have time to enjoy the unusual ambience of the film-themed Astoria 7 hotel before retiring to our Tippi Hedren room. All too soon, morning brings the high-speed RENFE train that will take us past snow-capped mountains and houses huddled around ancient churches to Madrid.
The massive, ornate buildings lining the wide streets of Spain's capital seem carved by giants. As we check into the Catalonia Puerta del Sol hotel in Calle de Atocha, we notice statues of lions guarding the staircase. The days and nights in Madrid bring a mixture of rain and sunshine, of parks and the Prado, of chatting to Julia, who works in a small bookshop by a theatre, and feeding small birds as we eat paella while listening to a flamenco guitarist in a square by the Royal Palace. As we wait in the elegant Atocha station for our Cordoba train on our last morning, we lament having to leave quite so soon.
But we find sufficient recompense in the hypnotic effects of the countless olive groves en route and, later, the ancient columns and arches of the Mezquita, Cordoba's famous former mosque, as well as the imposing beauty of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, not far from our hotel, Las Casas de Juderia Cordova. It is here that we are privileged to witness an intimate flamenco concert in the small courtyard of the Casa de Sefarad, right opposite an ancient synagogue.
In Seville we check into the Hospes las Casas del Rey de Baeza before meeting up, beneath the Torre del Oro by the Canal de Alfonso XIII, with our Australian friend Marjorie. After many years living and working in Madrid she has recently moved to the Andalusian capital which, as a tour guide later informs us, was the centre of the universe in the 16th century.
Here, we enjoy the serene gardens and Moorish architecture of the Real Alcazar - and one of the city's Holy Week processions. Imagine hooded, cross-carrying Nazarenos, marching bands and ornate floats bearing sacred effigies and festooned with flowers and candles wending their way through streets lined with thousands of people as flamenco singers fill the night air with plaintive saetas, and you'll get the picture.
On the train between Seville and Granada: hills and valleys with orange groves, sheep and cattle grazing in the fields, rustic villages with tiled roofs like corn cobs, church steeples and dilapidated stone cottages now homes for flocks of birds.
To wander through the gardens of the Generalife in early spring, a light breeze bearing birdsong and the scent of orange blossom, the red walls of the Alhambra, the white walls of Granada and the snow of the Sierra Nevada shining in the distance, is probably as close as you'll get to paradise on earth. In Granada itself we are able to explore the steep, narrow streets of the historic Albaicin, as delighted by the views of the Alhambra as we are by occasional encounters with small domestic pets.
We arrive in Barcelona to find a city awash with red roses and books. It is La Diada de Sant Jordi, or St George's Day, the Catalan equivalent of our St Valentine's Day. So - books for boys and roses for girls.
It is in the cosmopolitan Catalonian capital that our minds are stretched by Gaudi's fantastical Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Joan Miro's playful, surrealist art and the astonishing Romanesque frescoes in the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, housed in the Palau Nacional de Montjuic which offers such spectacular views of the city. To relax, we enjoy a seaside stroll, a ramble down La Rambla and a classical guitar recital in the Palau de la Musica Catalana, considered by many to be the most beautiful concert hall in the world.
After three packed days in Barcelona - not nearly enough - we catch the 9.20am train to Paris, where, with the charming 17th century Saint Paul Rive Gauche hotel in the city's Latin Quarter as our base, we gorge on such tourist fare as Shakespeare & Co, the Musee de Cluny, the Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes, and Les Puces flea markets.
Railbookers offers tailor-made rail holidays throughout Europe. Its 13-night Paris to Barcelona holiday includes Bordeaux, Madrid, Cordoba, Seville and Granada. Prices start from $2470 per person and include accommodation in central hotels with breakfast daily and all train connections with seat reservations. Book before June 30 and receive a $100 per person discount. railbookers.com.au or 1300 971 578.
William Yeoman was a guest of Railbookers.