Three Men on a Train: 13 – Paris and Versailles

Paris (France)

We had chosen to spend the last few days of our month-long European tour in Paris. On the first morning, we disembarked the express train from Switzerland and climbed up the steps of the Sacre Couer for an early breakfast.

Unfortunately, as soon as we sat down, we were plagued by endless streams of apparently healthy and well-dressed tramps, who assured us in English that they were “starving”. Going through our back-packs, we palmed them off with ageing bread and sausage from goodness only knows where, and then settled down round the corner to enjoy our soft cheese sandwiches in peace and quiet.

We had a very pleasant day of more-or-less aimless wandering, popping up underneath the Arc de Triomphe for views down the Champs Elysee (obscured by mist!), and then on down to the Place de la Concorde, where we ran into a great number of rifle-carrying gendarmes, apparently waiting for something. We hung around to see what was happening, but they all packed themselves into armoured vans and went away.

We did have a particularly fine time in the Louvre, where we had to cherry-pick of course, but packed in a good number of famous and fantastic pieces of art. It was great to see some of the standards in the flesh, memorably the Mona Lisa (small!) and the Venus de Milo (beautiful).

After an afternoon of classic art, we hung out at the chemical-factory weirdness of the Pompidou Centre, which famously has all its physical infrastructure, pipes and so on, mounted outside the walls. Outside are some quite weird moving fountains, Heath-Robinson-like contraptions constructed apparently from fire hoses and topped by psychedelic art, and on the Inside were some really interesting photographic exhibitions, with the additional advantage of being completely free.

There was also a great view of sunset over the Eiffel Tower from the roof, but then it was time to move on, because naturally we couldn’t afford to stay in the city. After poring over the timetable, we worked out that we could board the train to Angers, sleep for half the night, disembark, and sleep the other half of the night on the train back.

Overnight to Angers and back

Unfortunately we only had forty minutes to run from the Pompidou Centre to Gare du Nord, get our packs out of storage, negotiate the Metro clear across Paris to Montparnasse, and board our chosen train. We set off at a pedestrian-scattering pace, rucksacks bouncing, heroically sprinting across multi-lane roads, and generally bathing ourselves in sweat, to arrive at the correct platform which was disconcertingly bare of any kind of train. There was a similar-looking train on a neighbouring platform, so we rushed aboard, discovering that all the compartments were packed solid.

There was a bit of space in the corridor, so we hunkered down and dined on baguettes and cheese before lying down to sleep on the floor.

The corridor was nice and warm, and it was a bit of a shock to stumble out in the small wee hours onto the cold of the Angers platform. Our connection back to Paris wasn’t due for several hours, but we were hungry and thirsty and searched for something to eat. We found a chocolate vending machine, which was useful but which made us more thirsty, but there didn’t seem to be any potable water. Eventually, David discovered a workmen’s drinks vending machine on a construction site, but it required coins and we’d used all of ours up in the chocolate machine. Andrew went out on the streets and found a taxi driver who changed a bank note, and then we drank the machine dry.

Back on the Paris train, we scored an empty compartment and stretched out on the seats for a comfortable and warm sleep back to our starting point.

Versailles (France)

Andrew and I wanted to visit Versailles, and the Paris-Angers train stops there, so by now we had already passed through the town a couple of times when it was closed for the night. On our arrival in Paris, Andrew and I checked the timetable and boarded the Versailles train once again, while David went off to hang out at the Pompidou Centre.

When the conductor came to check our tickets, it emerged that the train – even though we had boarded it at a regular platform – was technically a Metro and thus our Interrail tickets were not valid, but he just waved us on. I guess it must happen all the time.

One disadvantage of it being a Metro was that it had no toilets, so first order of the day in Versailles was to locate a loo, which we found in a nearby cafeteria. We also figured that since it was a Sunday, we should track down something to eat, so grabbed some baguette and Camembert from a local shop. The food in France is so cheap!

Andrew and I couldn’t afford the ticket to get into the Palace itself, but for ten francs we had a lovely relaxing morning wandering through the parks and gardens. They are beautifully planted with well-spaced trees and decorative flower-beds, interspersed with a great many lakes and ponds, each sporting their own sculptures and fountains.

Paris (France)

We repeated the overnight sleepover on the train to Angers and back, and arrived back in Paris suitably refreshed for the final day of our trip. Dropping our rucksacks at Left Luggage, we breakfasted on tinned rice and then made our way to the Eiffel Tower. Impressive from afar (especially at sunset!), it was a disappointingly rusted mess close-up, which is probably why the lower levels were shrouded in scaffolding.

Moving on to the cathedral of Notre Dame, we found ourselves in a stunning and heavily gothic interior, whose powerful atmosphere was not even slightly dented by the big yellow fork-lift truck that was rooting around inside.

I was particularly impressed by the carvings and frescoes, which tended to emphasise the macabre and gory parts of Catholic history.

We had a little time to spare before our final train journey, and we needed to confirm the trip because our printed Thomas Cook timetable had just expired. It was just as well that we did, because the direct train to the port of Calais wasn’t running any more, but we discovered a great overnight route to Strasbourg and back which would enable us to get a good night’s sleep before disembarking in Calais in time for the crossing.

For our final hours in Paris, we watched a busker by the Pompidou centre, an American raising the money for his air-fare home. He was an exceptional guitarist, and played mainly acoustic favourites until the gendarmes arrived to move him on. He obviously recognised them, because he asked if he could play just one more; they nodded, and he launched into a beautiful rendition of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The song over, he swiftly packed up his equipment and disappeared into the surrounding crowds. Taking his cue, we hefted our backpacks for the last time, and made our way to the waiting train.

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