Cross the Channel, Swing a Right and Follow the Sun.
It was hardly an auspicious start, tromping through the deserted streets at midnight to catch the budget rated MegaBus to London, but that couldn’t dampen our spirits. Me and my boyfriend (from now on I will refer to him as BF) were off to begin the adventure at long last.
I KNOW that my rucksack was too heavy as it finally weighed in at 14.5kgs and my daysack was a hefty 7.5kgs, but if nothing else, I knew before we even got to the bus station that I would be taking substantially less items to Peru!! The MegaBus toilets were rank and the Polish woman four seats ahead of us snored like a hibernating bear but the amazing colours in the sky as the sun rose above the M4 near Reading more than made up for those irritants. The new morning sun – an intense burnt orange – ponderously dragged itself up over the horizon and colour-washed the sky first with a delicate shade of blue, then added a sniff of rose pink to the palette which increased in richness until the misty fields were bathed in golden rays. Arriving on time at Victoria bus station and thanks to several snatched cat-naps, we were actually not too tired at all, but rather excited like kids who had waited so long for Christmas and had finally been given permission to check out their stockings.
An uneventful tube journey deposited us at St Pancras station where we spent a happy hour people watching and inventing lives for the constant stream of commuters who scurried past, oblivious to our attentions.
There was the couple who had argued the previous evening when the husband had somehow managed to delete the entire second series of Homeland which she had been saving to watch and they continued to snipe at each other as they walked across the concourse and we saw the high class hooker off to the continent to service her ever-so-wealthy clientele. There was the lady who continuously checked her watch. She was concerned that she had been stood up by her lover not knowing that he had been knocked over by a bus on the way to meet her and so would not be running away to Paris any time soon with her. There was the man smiling to himself as he listened to his iPod. He had borrowed his wife’s audible book 50 Shades of Grey and was already planning how they would act out the latest chapter which he had been listening to on the Tube and there were numerous men wearing basques, stockings and lacy knickers under their conservative business suits.
The Eurostar journey itself was uneventful with no leaks or drippage to report, or at least none from the Channel seabed. The train was smooth, very fast and clean and they served a tasty croquet monsieur. We decided to cross Paris immediately and get to our onward station so we took the metro. An English man started up a conversation with us after we unintentionally nearly swept him off the train whilst manoeuvring our rucksacs around – it only turned out that he will be driving Biffy Clyro to the Optimus festival in Lisbon and was in Paris doing a quick recce before meeting the band. He and the BF then got into an animated discussion about bands, Glastonbury and music in general before he waved goodbye and popped off the train at another station. Too late, BF realised that he should have asked him for a lift to Lisbon with the band, although I do have to confess at this stage to being VERY excited at the prospect of our journey down through Europe on trains.
Anyhow, we got turfed off the metro – but it wasn’t just us and our rucksacs – all the passengers had to leave due to engineering works – and we were directed onto a bus to complete our journey. Around the corner from the Gare de Austerlitz was the inevitable queue of bars and bistros along the pavement so we selected our bar and prepared to settle in for a couple of hours until our train was due. But then there was ANOTHER treat in store for us. What seemed to be the entire French air force proceeded to display in the skies above us with their equivalent of our Red Arrows, jets, big fat transport planes and helicopters. Nobody else on the street or in the bar batted an eyelid, keeping heads resolutely down despite the terrific noise. I was quite proud that I was understood with my schoolgirl French when I questioned our waiter and even prouder to understand the majority of his response. Eyes were being kept firmly down so as not to spoil the surprise when it would all happen for real on Sunday the 14th July – Bastille Day. They were just practicing, but I like to believe BF when he told me that he had arranged the entertainment for us whilst waiting for the train.
A little later, at fifteen minutes to six, the station board clicked over to announce our platform and we set off to find our berth. Carriage number sixty four of the TrenHotel (no, there were not that many carriages, but there were a lot) and our reclining seat for the night which actually proved very comfortable. We settled ourselves in and ate our picnic tea, and following BFs successful tussle with the cork we shared a cheeky bottle of red wine – well in France one must do what the French do best. At 7.30 pm some guests settled in for the night, blankets tucked in and eye masks firmly on. Despite no sleep for 34 hours, BF wanted to play and successfully rounded up anybody in our carriage who admitted to speaking English or who had not got their eye mask on quickly enough, and like the Pied Piper he led a pack of us along the train. Out of cattle class, through the posh restaurant where waiters in penguin suits wrestled with corks on behalf of guests too posh to pop for themselves, and down endless swaying corridors past the couchettes which we had been unable to book as they were too full to….the bar. And there BF orchestrated a party.
I have previously partied on a plane on the way home from Turkey and now I have partied on a train. There was me and BF and four other intrepid travellers at varying stages of their journey. A young Aussie lady from Perth, a student returning to his home town of Madrid from his university in Canada, a Canadian (not connected to the Spanish student) and a very articulate, young German. They were all travelling solo so we swapped travel tales and got into a very earnest discussion with the very lovely German who it transpired carries the guilt of Hitler upon his young shoulders and was concerned that we should not view him or his nation in a bad light. Before you jump to any conclusions I am well aware that politics and religion should not be discussed whilst travelling but the German himself opened the conversation and I am happy to report that following an intelligent and sympathetic discussion despite or perhaps because of the amount of beer consumed, our young German was happy. Our impromptu party eventually had to end because the bar ran out of recognisable beer so leaving behind an artistic display of our used cans on the ledge we successfully negotiated the swaying corridors and unsuccessfully attempted not to wake our other carriage occupants whilst we adjusted and played with our electronic seats, unwrapped our blankets which were wrapped in the most crinkly plastic know to man and hissed Walton-style goodnights at each other.
We were rocked gently to sleep in what must be one of the most romantic ways; lulled gently by the clicketty click of the train tracks and amazingly only one of the twenty people in our carriage snored and as that was me I was perfectly happy.
I did wake briefly at about 4am as the train negotiated the Pyrenees, twisting slowly through the mountains with wheels and joints screeching and creaking on the bends and then I woke again at 7.30 to another stunning sunrise and massive Spanish plains which stretched on forever outside the window of our TrenHotel.
Next stop – Madrid