Yet visitors often think places like Carcassonne and Albi are too distant or too difficult and time-consuming to discover. Without the trains they may well be. But think of the trains as a high-speed shuttle that extends your flight to Paris to virtually every corner of the country. The French TGV system and a web of smoothly functioning regional lines constitute a railroad network of nearly 20,000 miles in a country smaller than Texas. France's train service ranks right up there with bread and bistros as part of the national patrimoine, the country's heritage. In addition to the handy TGV terminal at the airport, there are a half-dozen major train stations in Paris, most of which are not only functionally easy, but eye-pleasing giant walk-in sculptures of iron and glass. The French appreciate their stations; many have been held for posterity by painters such as Monet, Manet, and Caillebotte. But amid all this adoration, this is perhaps a good time to point out to the baggage-laden that while French train technology is 21st century, the availability of escalators is several steps behind, and many train stations present stairways to be overcome. However, once you're on board, a relaxing train ride away from your arrival at CDG leads to all kinds of inviting outposts.

Think about Tours and the châteaux-studded Loire Valley, or Avignon and southern France, the Bordeaux wine country, or Montpellier, gateway to the Languedoc's hilltop souvenirs of centuries of religious wars. The TGV urges you to "take the time to go fast." And the speed, comfort, and quiet of the trains, combined with frequent departures, indeed make getting around the country easy and stress-free. Let's take a tour.

Massive as they are, the TGVs leave the station politely, on time, and with barely a shrug or a sigh. They are soon rushing through France at 186 miles an hour, but you are gliding. Vineyards, farmhouses, green pastures dotted with smudges of sheep or snowflakes of white Charolais cattle slip quietly past the large picture windows. Everywhere are tiny hillside villages, church steeples, and, always, more vineyards.