DC has the Tourist Trolley. Boston has the Duck Boat. France (and many countries in Western Europe) has the Petit Train.
These are two- or three-car tiny trains that would fit in at an amusement park or an especially large zoo, meant to drive tourists past notable attractions in any given city.Walk around the city center anywhere in France, no matter the size of the town, and you are likely to hear the clang of the little train’s bell beckoning tourists far and wide to climb aboard.
Chambéry has one of these “Petits Trains Touristiques“and from my arrival, I was dying to take a ride on it. Yes, it’s overpriced. Yes, it’s a ridiculous tourist attraction. But, c’mon! It’s just so darn cute! Not too long after I arrived, the train sadly went on haitus, making way for the Christmas market and waiting for the snow to clear up.
It is very difficult to understand why and how these trains became such a weird obsession for me. Any time one passed, it gave me a little burst of joy. I think the thing that I especially loved about Chambéry’s train, is that there really isn’t much to see! So it’s like this big tourist attraction to go see about 4 things that you could walk to faster than the train would get you there. Everything about it is so quaint and hysterical.
Chambéry’s train reappeared in Place St-Leger sometime in March or April, to much celebration (mostly by me). And on the eve of my two best friends’ departure, we finally answered the clang of its bell.
“I can put the audioguide in English, but if another group comes and doesn’t speak English then we will have to put it in French,” the train’s ‘conductor’ told us. He looked remarkably like Barack Obama and seemed very excited/nervous to have a bunch of Americans riding his train. Unfortunately for us, another couple arrived seconds before departure, so French it was. Not that we can’t understand French, but it seems like when doing the most hyper-touristic activity in your small French town, you might as well play up your foreign-ness as much as possible.
It turns out, it didn’t matter what language the audioguide was in, because the speakers were so old and shoddy that we were straining to hear it anyway. The tour brought us past the main highlights of Chambéry: the castle, the hôtel de ville, the elephant fountain, and that’s when things got a little interesting.
As an old medieval city, Chambéry has a network of small pedestrian alleyways which is mainly where the train was exploring. Most of these passages are barely wide enough for you to walk four people abreast, let alone drive a three-car train. Barack Obama slowly turned us onto rue Basse du Chateau, a 14th century street with the last remaining covered passage in the city. We slowly made it under the (relatively) famous bridge walkway; a pedestrian walked past us as we navigated the tricky curves. And then the train came to a complete stop. A car was parked in the middle of the road to make a delivery to one of the shops, completely barring our passage.
Mr. Obama got out of the engine car, looking nervous and slightly bemused while we laughed our heads off. A full five or six minutes later, the owner of the car returned, and backed itself all the way back down the tiny twisty road to let us out. Better him than us.
Perhaps fearing another tiny alley disaster, Mr. Obama took his chances on the main road. We watched with equal measures of terror and glee as the the train left the charming mostly pedestrian area and forged ahead into full traffic. The train impressively kept up a good pace with the real cars for a few blocks, but then tragedy struck again. This truly seemed to be the worst ride of Obama’s life.
As the train turned off the main road, our conductor lowered the metal bollards that stop non-authorized vehicles from entering the semi-pedestrian zone. The tight turn was already causing a bit of a traffic jam, which became worse when the automatic bollards began to rise again, with the train on top! Luckily nothing was damaged, but it did take us a fair few minutes to get up and rolling again, and in the meantime actual cars with people trying to go places were stuck behind a dinky yellow train.
I cannot think of a more perfect way for this train ride to have played out. Had it gone off without a hitch, had we actually been able to hear the audioguide and its bizarre accompanying baroque soundtrack, I would have been pleased, sure. I may even have learned some fun trivia about the town I didn’t know before. But that it was instead so uproariously shambolic in ways you just cannot make up, was the perfect culmination of a months long obsession.
Our train ride may have been a train wreck, but the only thing hurt afterwards was our sides from all the laughter. ❂