France 2007 Day 8: To Paris
I hate it when I know I have to be up early the following morning. I hate it because it generally means I sleep really badly – waking up regularly and generally feeling rather rough the following morning.
And so it was for that particular night. Our taxi was due to pick us up at 07:15 on the dot in order to allow us to get a train at 08:04.
Our early departure meant we’d miss breakfast so the previous evening we’d picked up a tray of coffee, tea, bread, jams, butter, orange juice and stuff. Of course by the time we ate it at half six, the bread was a bit rubbery, and the coffee merely lukewarm rather than glorious piping hot, but beggars can’t be choosers…
Not long later we were being whisked around the dramatic roads of the Queyras region by our taxi driver – seeing some stunning views that we’d missed on our arrival thanks to everything being pitch black.
And before we knew it, we were standing once more on the platform of Montdauphin Guillestre railway station waiting for our train to arrive. In contrast to the rather elderly and scruffy carriages which had picked us up at Aix-en-Provence a few days earlier, our carriage this morning was a modern diesel train which would take us on an epic journey of 4 hours and 45 minutes to Marseille St Charles station, right on the south edge of France.
Heat, sun, and slamming doors
As is often the case with modern trains, you quickly begin to wish you were back on the old banger again. The train – being fully air-conditioned – had no windows you could stick your head out of to enjoy the breeze through your hair. It was also pretty clear as we moved through the French countryside that the air-conditioning on our train was nowhere near up to the job – the train began to get hotter and hotter – stuffier and stuffier. It’s infrequent stops with the doors open were not enough to help cool it down.
If it wasn’t the heat that got to you, the slamming of the toilet door at regular intervals certainly would. The curved door surrounding the disabled toilet seemed to have no way to keep it in place. Every time the train turned a corner, it slammed itself open, before slamming itself shut again a few moments later. It was enough to drive you crazy.
Oh and then there was the comfort of the train. Or distinct lack of. Clearly whoever had designed this particular vehicle hadn’t planned it to be running epic five hour journeys across the South East of France. It was blatantly designed as a commuter train, and had the seats packed in accordingly. Comfortable enough for about half an hour but after three you were aching like no ones business. Oh and there’s no buffet facilities… You’d think they could have afforded a coffee machine or something…
When we’d board everything had been pretty quiet, but as we passed through various stations along the route, it was getting busier and busier until Aix when the train pulled in and huge numbers of people headed straight off – most with suitcases, presumably heading for the airport. By that point, we’d sat sweltering in discomfort for about three hours and there was still 90 more minutes to go. Plus we’d got to Aix 20 minutes earlier than the timetable said we should there (despite being completely on time for the journey so far – clearly it was built in to the timetable, but not documented) meaning we got to sit on a sweltering train in a hot station. Bliss.
To Marseille and beyond
We couldn’t get to Marseille-St Charles soon enough for my liking. Sadly St Charles station wasn’t a utopia either. It was in the middle of what looked like a major refurbishment with about half the concourse area closed off – cramming the huge number of passengers milling around into a lovely tight spot.
I left Catherine with the luggage in the vain hope of finding a cash machine nearby (French banks don’t seem to be particularly keen on putting them in places which might actually be useful) before popping to a baguette stand to grab us some lunch to eat when we were finally seated on our TGV.
Our TGV was eventually called, and we endured one last joy of Marseille station – the wondrous people of SNCF deciding that an already cramped, overcrowded station with narrow platforms would be the best place to hold an impromptu ticket inspection.
To make up for that little downside though, they’d put a lot of thought into the train carriage numbering, by making sure our TGV duplex was sensibly numbered with carriages starting at 9 through to 18 before starting again at number 1 mid way through. Given the TGV had electronic carriage displays which are (presumably) easily changeable, you have to wonder what mind-boggling rules French railways have to obey when deciding what carriage number goes where. Mind you, in Norway I spotted one train which had carriages numbered 100, 101, 102, 103 and then restarted at 1. Must make sense to someone…
Before long we were back to zooming through France at breakneck speed but barely noticing it. Oh and the air-conditioning worked which was fantastic! Indeed in contrast to our earlier travels, this particular journey was completely uneventful, with the only things of note on that three hour trip being that I managed to say the extremely simple phrase “Deux Grande Cafe Creme, sil-vous-plait” in such a way that the bloke in the buffet car couldn’t understand it (goodness knows how); and the slightly weird way the train staff decided to check tickets (which seemed to consist of randomly walking round, picking a carriage, then storming off to the other end of the train to pick another, before whisking back into another, past through ours without even a glance.
Actually I did get asked for my ticket in the buffet car – of course I’d left it at my seat, which through some neat sign language (basically nodding, shrugging and pointing back towards my seat) I managed to tell the ticket collector. Not that he ever bothered to chase me up on the five occasions later on that he walked past me… In fact our carriage didn’t get checked at all.
In contrast to the hot sun and blue skies of the south of the country, Paris was grey. Warm, but grey. It was strange being back in a major city again.
Our hotel was in the Latin Quarter which meant a quick metro ride away to Odéon station. We’d arrived at Gare de Lyon station and our simplest Metro journey involved walking across the river to the nearby Austerlitz station and picking up line 10 from there.
The first mistake was to follow the directional signs in Gare de Lyon too literally as we soon found ourselves stuck at a dead end in a shopping precinct. Although there was a bank there, so it was quite a handy diversion – by this point I hadn’t many Euros left.
One quick cross of the Seine (and several hours of wandering around Austerlitz metro station’s endless corridors and platforms) later, we were on Line 10 being whisked across to Odéon, and from there it was a simple walk up the street to our hotel – the pleasent Hôtel Saint Paul which came complete with a dozing cat on the reception desk.
We’d been travelling all day, but finally we’d arrived.
I must have been about seven when I was last in Paris properly, when I visited with my parents. I confess that I remember next to nothing about that holiday, bar not going to the top of the Eiffel tower (my mother proclaims this is because – apparently – no one was that bothered about going to the top, which seems rather odd).
Bar a quick train transfer in 2001, and a plane transfer at Charles de Gaulle in 2003, my experience of France’s capital city is therefore rather limited, so in the holiday planning stages I’d suggested we pop in for a visit. The plan was to spend two nights there – just enough time to wizz around the city and see the sites.
Our explorations began in earnest, taking in the lovely park surrounding the Palais du Luxembourg – home of the French Senate. On this warm Saturday evening, it was full of tourists and locals taking a stroll, and enjoying the various art work on display – which seemed to consist of various ways of enveloping a statue (including one example where the statue was wearing a cloak).
From there it was a walk to the banks of the Seine – Paris is a fantastic city for walking in, and it was an activity that we spent most of our time doing, walking up from the Palais, past the Panthéon and down towards the banks of the Seine.
Having expected Catherine to have eaten nothing but omelettes for the last few days, I’d suggested we take in some of Paris’s vegetarian options, and we picked an organic restaurant called Phytobar on the boulevard St Germain. With a name like that, I’d expected some trendy looking place full of steel and chrome, but instead we found a pleasant, unimposing little bistro place. Catherine partook in a course which seemed to be various legumes presented in various ways, whilst I found myself eating a piece of fish. All very tasty.
We skipped desert, and headed off towards the sights of Notre-Dame. A large queue was tailing round the side of the cathedral full of people wanting to take in the night view from the top of its tower. Meanwhile inside the cathedral itself, a film about the architecture was being projected onto a large cloth screen.
Not really being in the mood for watching a screen, I went outside and took the air. The square in front of Notre-Dame was heaving on this summer Saturday night – in one corner, jugglers were tossing flaming torches in the air, and occasionally swallowing them.
It was a lovely evening and the city was out in force. Groups of tourists stood and chatted next to groups of locals. It all felt like what a city should feel like in the evening. Friendly. Inviting. Welcoming. Homely. Compare that to some cities in the UK which feel like no go zones if you’re not a member of a drunken crowd moving swiftly between one stand-up drinking chain bar, to another.
The night was still relatively early, but the hours of travelling had taken their toll and for me, it was time for bed. There was plenty more time to explore Paris tomorrow…
|Number of different cheeses eaten on day 8|
For more photographs of this holiday, have a look at my France 2007 photo set on Flickr