Driving 800 miles nonstop for 12 hours carries little appeal, but for me the allure of a high-speed TGV to south west France does, particularly when the only real alternative is Ryanair.
On one occasion my passport was thrown back at me because I hadn’t held it open at the correct page: I was sent to the end of the queue
Ryanair have done everything in their power to offend me, and I don’t forgive easily. Cancelled flights, closed desks, lateness, rudeness, graffiti inside the plane, diversions to other airports: take your pic. On one occasion my passport was thrown back at me because I hadn’t held it open at the correct page: I was sent to the end of the queue.
And don’t start me on baggage and extra charges.
“But they’re cheap and they don’t crash,” I was told. “And haven’t they gone all cuddly?” Well yes, apparently. CEO Michael O’Leary’s boorishness has been shelved after a few focus groups expressed dismay at his tone. The staff have been asked to play nice, and the website’s no longer quite the assault course of old. (“YOU WANT INSURANCE WITH THAT?? YOU BETTER HAVE INSURANCE WITH THAT!!”)
But you never really know where you are with Ryanair – literally. “Paris”? “Dusseldorf”? “Venice”? Ha! You’re joking, matey – get the bus over there. For a long time their “Glasgow” was Prestwick, a full 30 miles from the city. They even depart, mostly, from “London” Stansted. Bollocks. If Stansted is in London, then why does it cost nearly £20 one way to or from the nearest tube, at London Tottenham Hale? The answer is that, like Luton, it’s not in London at all. The name’s a ploy to fool the gullible. It’s in the middle of bloody Essex, 50km from Central London, and a 75 mile drive from my home.
The Piccadilly Line got me from house in (real) London to St Pancras International in under fifteen minutes, where we boarded the 07.55am Eurostar to Paris. It’s a fast one, which stops only at Ebbsfleet to pick up a few commuters, then shoots through the tunnel France-wards. The coffee’s disgusting, but in the carriages of the new rolling stock there’s a little screen that tells you what speed you’re doing, as well as intermittent wifi. Two out of three isn’t bad. We seemed to cruise for most of the way at 291kph.
The sun was shining on arrival at 11.15am, so we meandered down rue La Fayette and were seated for lunch at noon, proper Paris time, in Aux Lyonnais, one of four old school city bistros rescued by Alain Ducasse. It’s the nearest of the group to Gare du Nord, and appears unchanged since opening in 1890 – all dark wood and contrasting bright ceramic tile borders, nicotine-yellow walls and zinc moldings. The space is small, but with super staff and a prix fixe lunch menu at €34 from which I chose fresh Provence asparagus, veal kidneys and Saint-Marcellin cheese – items I would select from any menu, anywhere. All three were superb, and although we were tempted to linger over the house red, a muscular but fruity burgundy (Chambolle Musigny), we left early at 2.30pm, in plenty of time to reach Gare de Lyon by 4pm. Oui?
Non, as it happened.
I could have touched it, I was so close. You probably know the French for “Bugger”
We wandered off, in and out of little shops and unexpectedly bumping into friends, as you do. Then, at 3.30pm, we caught a cab at Sentier, for what should have been a relaxed 15 minutes to the station. Instead, our intrepid driver headed off in the opposite direction. You can’t force a Parisian cab driver to make an illegal U-turn so we sat mostly stationary in solid traffic, facing north instead of south. The heat inside the cab went from warm to hot to boiling. Pulling up outside Gare de Lyon with just seconds to go, we sprinted to the platform and, breathless, watched as the mighty 16.07 TGV to Narbonne slowly pulled out without us. I could have touched it, I was so close. You probably know the French for “Bugger”.
After some negotiation, we took the next one, an hour later. It was technically “full”, but we managed to get window seats upstairs for our second superfast streak of the day through French countryside (another little screen in front of me displayed 291 kph too). The sun set slowly to our right as we raided the bar, sipping the first rosé of spring and opening the first bag of, um, salted cashews. There’s something terribly civilized about racing through fields and forests at nearly 300 kph, city centre to city centre, with nobody trying to sell you lottery tickets from a trolley or confiscating your liquids.
This later journey wasn’t quite as swift as the one that had been planned: we’d intended to take one TGV to Narbonne, then a second to Carcassonne, where we were to be picked up and whisked to a party out in the countryside. That would have had us sat down with everyone else at 9pm.
Not only did we now have an extra connection to a slower train (or two) but the party had started without us and, as a consequence, the lift was now impossible.
A €70 taxi out into the darkness of l’Aude rather took the shine off things, but at least it was nothing to do with the trains.
It was that damn cabbie in Paris. Connard. C