Yesterday it was Monday morning and we were off to Paris on Eurostar. This is, speaking as a railway fanatic, the best way to get between the capital cities of the UK and France. Sit back and relax – “Let the train take the strain”.
But I did say it was Monday morning and we had to cross London at the morning rush-hour. The bus was already full to “standing room only” as we squeezed on-board for the short journey to the combined tube and railway station. There were seats on the first tube train because we boarded at the terminus but on changing trains there was a seat for Margaret but not for your chivalrous blogger.
Kings Cross / St Pancras where we alighted is a step free station – excellent. This means that a series of escalators and passageways take you from the platform level deep in the bowels of the earth, ever upwards until you are well above street level and on the International platform beside the train. Along the way there are ticket checks, passport checks and security screening. All very simple until you actually have to get on the train. Then three steep steps have to be negotiated to get into the carriage.
Although the tickets were only booked a fortnight ago, there was a special deal on seats in Standard Premier class. For less than £20 extra each we get to sit in the part of the train where the seats are bigger – only three across the carriage – and there’s more leg room. And, a big plus, a complimentary continental breakfast with very drinkable coffee, is served at our seats. It all gives a feeling of near luxury. Sadly, this bargain was not available on the return journey so we’ll be in cattle class for the return. Enjoy it while it lasts.
The train pulled out slowly and smoothly bang on time. Announcements were in English and then in French. That was be reversed once we passed through the tunnel – le tunnel in French, what an easy language – and under the English Channel – la Manche, well maybe not so simple. Bang on cue the train entered the tunnel a mere 47 minutes after pulling out of St Pancras and that included two stops, one at Ebbsfleet and the other at Ashford in Kent. The journey under the sea took 21 minutes and we didn’t get the least bit wet. Actually I tell a lie, not about keeping dry but about the time. The change of time zone means it was now one hour later – it would soon be lunchtime.
This trip has become a bit of an occasional tradition, if that’s not an oxymoron. It’s the time of year when old father time pushes me on a year. I’m not going to reveal the number to be achieved on Wednesday but those who helped to celebrate my three score years and ten in Chillies restaurant in Kalkan, Turkey, may be able to work it out. The only specific things we have planned to do are to visit the new Frank Gehry designed Louis Vuitton Gallery in the Bois du Boulonge and to have a birthday dinner in La Coupole, a classic French brasserie that serves magnificent seafood. For the rest of the time we will walk the back street and discover new bits of Paris. By past experience Paris beats London, albeit by a narrow margin, when it comes to exploring without a guidebook or map. Let’s hope I’ll be saying the same when writing about our experiences during the return train journey.
In London it was a grey but dry day and fairly mild. Now, looking out of the window over the flat fields of Northern France, nothing has changed except that the forecast said it would be 4/5C degrees colder. I guess the proof of that will be felt when we get off the train at Gare du Nord.
Just after passing through Lille, the city where the Eurostar trains to Brussels turn northwards, the train is running parallel to an autoroute (motorway). Confusingly, the road signs indicate that Paris is in the opposite direction to the direction of travel of the train. Let’s hope that the Fat Controller (you must all know Thomas the Tank Engine) is on the ball and that this train will arrive in the city that we expect.
It’s great to soak up the atmosphere of France through the train windows. We’ve just passed a small trading estate where the biggest signs are for KFC and Ikea not even ‘le KFC’ or ‘le Ikea’. But I jest. The rows of tall poplar trees and the wide canals that we cross feel much more Gallic. And water towers serving the small towns and the agricultural industries are not features of rural England.
And then, at first almost imperceptibly, the train starts to gradually reduce speed. The first high-rise flats come into view, the train starts to pass through commuter stations and we pass double-decker trains. “Messieurs et Mesdames, dans quelleques instances le train est arrivé a Paris”. We’re there and at the scheduled time of 12.47. Now to practice my rusty French and buy a pack of tickets for the Metro – un carnet.
Apart from the queue, the purchase of metro tickets was easy but finding the platform was verging on a nightmare. The metro platforms and the suburban rail platforms share a multi-level concourse. No doubt very convenient for the regular commuters but very difficult for the occasional traveller to negotiate. The plan was to use Ligne 2 but, although we could see some signs, they were on different levels and we could find no way of getting there. Eventually we gave up, re-planned the route using Ligne 4 and all was well.
Along the route at Montparnasse Bienvenue we had to change onto Ligne 13. The signage was great but route between platforms involved numerous shortish staircases both up and down plus a travellator that was so long that when looking from the start the end was a speck in the distance. On arriving at our final station, Pernety, it was a relief to find that after a little bit of orientation the hotel was but a few paces away.
The 9Hotel Montparnasse is a new boutique hotel in a busy residential area close to the Gare Montparnasse, the gateway station for trains to the Atlantic Coast and Brittany. It’s obviously a smart place to live as the bakers directly across the road from the hotel is styled “Votre Artisan Boulanger Pâtissier”. No common and garden stuff here. However it did attract one of the many beggars who had positioned himself right at the door well wrapped up against the cold.
Also across the street is a less upmarket shop called Pernety Menager (a general household shop). It’s what we used to call as children an “a’ things shop”. Actually it’s not dissimilar to a Poundshop in terms of items for sale but the prices are more Ten-pound-and-above-shop.
Finally a word about the 9Hotel. It describes itself as a Boutique Hotel. It might have been more accurate to say Bijou Boutique Hotel as the rooms are a little compact. The first thing to look for in a French hotel room is the toilet arrangements. They will always have eccentric features. And this was no exception. The toilet is a small room just inside the main door. It has a sliding door that has a habit of opening itself while the little room is occupied. The rest of the bathroom facilities are literally in the bedroom. The shower has clear glass walls so privacy is not on the agenda. However on the definite plus side, the room is brand new with excellent fittings and everything works. In fact the whole hotel has the feel of newness so we might be amongst the first customers.
Anyway we didn’t come to Paris to play at hotel inspectors, it was time to get out and see what we could see.