Paris has changed quite a lot since my last visit x years ago. For one thing, there’s no dog poo – hoorah! The traffic is calmer, mostly routed now in one-way systems, and this arrangement has miraculously calmed the drivers down, so it all moves along very smoothly and efficiently. There are masses and masses of cyclists, lots of them on Boris bikes but they tack around like sailing dinghies with the flows of traffic and across the interchanges, and along the pavements and it all seems so easy and proper. Why can’t we have this in London and our other cities? OK – Paris has more space – in some of the quartiers – but wherever you are, in narrow cobbled lanes or along beside the Seine or in the avenues, the space and movement has all been designed – arranged, so that people are free to bowl along. Some are on skate-boards, some are on push-along scooters. There is also a great variety of motorised biking – big, car-like motorbikes, three-wheelers, tuk-tuks, things I would call Vespas but that’s not the word.
We’ve seen lots of babes in arms – young mothers or dads toting their miniscule infants inside wraps or shawls, or in smart buggies.
There’s so much to describe. Yesterday was our last in Paris, walking about, taking up the suggestions of our various friends back home who kindly prompted us about interesting things to do, so we went (for instance) to Shakespeare and Co, which is a fantastic second-hand and new bookshop on the Left Bank, more or less facing Notre Dame. Incidentally, we saw the huge queues for N-D and for Sainte Chapelle and decided to visit them another day. Instead we got our fix of ancient Paris church stuff by going into St Severin (no queues at all). This is a pretty amazing place, with not one but five naves.
Lunch was 100% terrific in a tourist trap in rue de la Huchette.
Because of our travel troubles earlier in the week we were determined to be in good time at Austerlitz – got there early with all our luggage – were first in the queue to get on the train, showed the man our tickets and he said ‘Sorry, there are no first class cabins on the train, we are full!’ I explained the ticket-lady had swapped our de luxe booking from strike-ridden Tuesday to Thursday and said it would all be ok – but he was adamant. I cannot describe what I felt like. After two days delay in Paris – with not enough clothes, the wrong shoes, and staying in that grotty hotel – looking forward to our long-planned ‘Orient Express’ style journey across France, to be told we had only an Economy cabin, no wash room, no dinner, … and being so tired, and with this being a special birthday present from me to Andrew booked back in June…. AAAAGGHGHGHGHGHGHGGH!!!!!!! I actually cried. We sat in our cramped little cabin, didn’t know what to do. The train filled up. We saw other people filing into the grand cabins. The man ignored us. It was horrible. The train left the station, on time.
After about twenty minutes, another man came and rather grim-faced said to follow him. In fact, they had found a first-class cabin for us… WC, shower, gourmet dinner, the works… I nearly kissed him. My shower, in that tiny cubicle, was the best shower have ever had. I washed my hair, changed into my specially-bought silk dinner dress, and rested. The evening was really wonderful from then on, once that Slough of Despond had been traversed. We had a drink in the bar, went into the beautiful dining car, revelled in our meal, watched the countryside fade into darkness with the odd flash of sunshine (What’s that?!??) and even a rainbow. Having taken our meal at the first sitting (8pm) we had to move off to leave them to re-set for the 10pm service. We went back to our dinky cabin and found the beds all made up… very comfortable. Settled into sleep…….
This was like being a pebble in a stone-polishing machine, or a particle in the Large Hadron Collider, or a grain of corn in the stomach of cow….. OMG! Rattle, shake, bang, shriek, stop, start, screech, lurch, sway, rattle, clatter… I swear there was no movement, no sound, which this terrible train ignored in its attempt to recreate the history of the world in its own mad ballet. I doubt either of us caught more than half a wink all night. Really, it was like a street rebellion, a determined effort by the train and its driver to show what the blasted thing could do in a son-et-mouvement animation…. And we had some sort of irate Frenchman in the cubicle next door, shouting at someone – surely not his poor wife? – ‘Non! Non! Non!!!!!’ and other expletives…. Andrew put paid to him by bashing on the wall between our spaces, four loud knocks. The man instantly shut up. And the train ground to a total halt. My huband is a powerfully influential man, you see.
We got up at 5am, dressed in a Laurel-and-Hardy manner in the very confined space, ate a ‘de luxe’ breakfast of one soggy slice of white toast, one cold croissant, one lukewarm coffee and a small glass of packet orange juice. Hmmmn.
Then we lurched out onto the platform at Burgos, into the cold, cold, dark morning. It was 5.45 and we had six and a half hours to wait for our connection to A Coruna to meet our friends. We dozed on hard chairs. The man in the ‘Customer Service’ office finally arrived and said ‘No, he did not speak any English, No, there is no Left Luggage office at the Station, No he did not have a map, No, he could not tell us how to get to the Bus Station where there IS a Left Luggage Office, but it is a half-hour walk to get there, and No, in general.’ Thanks.
Not surprisingly, we decided to hire a car and drive to Galicia. While we waited for the excellent car-hire office to open, we chatted with a lively Canadian woman who’d come over to accompany her cousin walk part of the Compostella pilgrimage route. She said – all along the way, there is nowhere really for people to do their business, so the whole route is lined with human doings, dog doings, horse doings and the rest. Put us right off.
I cannot speak highly enough of the young woman running the car-hire office. She was kind, quick, efficient and gave us a discount for being over 55. We set off to the West in our white charger….. through the most extraordinary, beautiful, empty, mountainous landscape, on a perfect smooth motorway. We had lunch in the sunny square at Astorga where Gaudi built a weird churchy thing next to the medieval cathedral. You can’t go into the cathedral without paying to go into the museum. You can, however, see the postcard images of what’s in the cathedral – confirming my old opinions – that the Spanish churches are full of images of pain, suffering, torture, agony, and the like. (Portuguese churches, on the other hand, are full of images of beautiful young people, love and adoration).
We drove 500k today, towards sunshine, light, heat, and peace. We left behind us an extraordinary pot-pourri called ‘trying to get to Galicia by public transport’. Here at Pontedeume, the sea floods into the bay. The air is rich with the smell of pines and eucalyptus. Our friends are cooking supper, pouring wine. The temperature is 28 degrees. We are content.---
Today - Saturday - the weather has changed to a soft misty grey. We slept in. We went to the local weekly market which was full of local foods - I'll describe all this later for you, as it was marvellous. We walked four or five miles along a coastal path to the little fishing village of Redes - had hake for lunch, drove back, slept some more. We are acquiring Spanish hours. Now we're in a café - under a huge awning, drinking hot chocolate while the rain swishes down.... It's warm enough to be in teeshirts. We're laughing a lot. It's wonderful.