(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Trains

Over the past few days, the universe has been telling me loud and clear: “You should be on a bicycle, not on a train.”

You see, I had the temerity to use trains to go and visit my friend in Hamburg. But the universe didn’t like this and so the universe made things very expensive. Then, when that didn’t halt my progress, the universe made things highly inconvenient. Then, when that didn’t stop my passage, the universe decided to get radical. The universe struck down the entirety of Northern France’s rail network. The universe brought on soldiers with machine guns. The universe threw bodies onto train lines.

But still I prevail.

Firstly, I have a strong recommendation for anyone wishing to travel in Europe using any mode of transport other than their own. Make a plan. Book in advance. Be boring, or else expect to pay for your spontaneity. It would seem that modern train fares encourage the sort of constrained thinking that also dogs aviation as a mode of transport: advanced planning and point-to-point travel. I can bear witness to this.

I only decided that I wanted to go direct to Hamburg from Paris last Wednesday. It was a spur of the moment sort of decision. I wanted to go that day because I wanted to see my friend and there’s only so much you can spend on patisseries in Paris. So I went to the train station: a train that day would cost me 200 euros. One way.

I left the train station and went to an internet café. I calculated forty-seven different ways of transporting myself and my bike from Paris to Hamburg and thence to Marseille by train (I had also decided that France on the whole was overpriced and underheated). The cheapest option, it transpired, was to buy an Interrail pass for 267 euros, not including mandatory train reservations, which cost extra.

So I returned to the Gare du Nord and engaged in proxy combat with a computer booking system through the exhausted mouse of an SNCF employee. I could not travel on an Interrail pass that day. There are limited places available, you see, for people with Interrail passes. Normally, my SNCF told me, you should book months in advance. She clicks her teeth at this, as if I have personally put her out with my spontaneity.

But to her credit, she locks horns once more with the binary code on the other side of the silicon and comes back with a new plan: I can go tomorrow, changing at Brussels and Cologne. She winces: it will take over ten hours. I don’t care. Ten hours? I can swallow that. She leads me carefully through the itinerary and also books me onto trains back from Hamburg and to Marseille. I am now locked in to travel at specific times to specific places. Reservation supplements bring the total cost to well over 300 euros. I swallow it. She hands me my tickets. It would appear that I’m now French. She takes back the tickets and reprints me back into an Englishman.

I leave the poor SNCF employee shaking with effort (she actually closes her window) and roll my bike over to the information office. I make a half-hearted attempt to find out about how to transport my bike on the TGV train to Marseille. The information dude thinks I just have to pay a supplement. So whatever. I leave my bike at a friend’s place in the deuxieme and enjoy a last Parisian supper.

The universe has successfully made things expensive and inconvenient. These I can swallow. I even take it in good part when I confuse Hamburg-Hauptbahnhof and Hamburg-Altona, forcing my friend to travel across town, at risk of prosecution for fare evasion, to meet me. Over ten hours on a train, but aside from incipient piles, no permanent damage done. The trip back will be better: eight and a half hours and only the one change in Cologne.

One happy train.

Or so I thought. The universe was not done with me.

I caught the train from Hamburg to Cologne at about half eleven. At about half three I arrived in Cologne. At about half four I caught the train from Cologne direct to Paris. At about seven we made a scheduled stop in Brussels. We were about ten minutes late. I quietly accepted this fact.

Then we stayed stopped in Brussels.

An announcement declared that we would be here for at least an hour, due to an electrical fault. They made it sound like a light bulb had blown. In fact, the whole of the Northern France rail network was power-less. An hour and a half later, we still hadn’t moved, although I had bought several packets of biscuits.

An announcement told us to consider postponing our travel plans. Nobody, they portentously announced, is travelling into France. An odd announcement, that. It didn’t actually say that trains were cancelled, just that we might like to consider postponing. So I joined an exquisitely long queue of people trying to get tickets changed, vaguely wondering what this would mean for my onward travel to Marseille the next morning.

I happily stood in the queue for about half an hour (as an Englishman, I know my place). A film crew was interviewing an excited gaggle of American girls in front of me. I was just getting to the part where I could almost see the doors of the ticket office, when a casual voice announced in French: “Mesdames et messieurs. Le train pour Paris Gare du Nord partira a vingt-et-un-heure-quinze du quai six.”

Quoi? I look at my phone. That’s now! I don’t wait to hear the message repeated in Dutch, German and English: I run for the platform. There are four trains-worth of passengers who want this train. The French-speakers are rather unfairly placed first in the stampede. Security guards try to stop us. The Thalys train people flap their hands to slow us down. We hit the escalator. A film crew (how had they got there?) was blocking it from surging up, so a few people try running up the down escalator. The security guards drag them off, so they start to walk up the down escalator, getting nowhere. A priest breathless behind me raises his hands to heaven – Merci Thalys!

The atmosphere on board is electric. The only electricity in Northern Europe, apparently. An announcement says that this is the Thalys service to Paris Gare du Nord and that we’ll be travelling on la route classique, which sounds lovely. He’ll tell us at Lille what time we’ll get to Paris.

We arrive in Lille at quarter past ten, but we’re last in the backed-up queue to France. The driver says we won’t move for forty-five minutes. Then we move and the driver says we’ll arrive in Paris at 00h45. This is shockingly late to stay at my friend’s flat. She’ll leave the key outside the door. Finally the announcement is that we’ll arrive at 01h30. Each new delay is greeted with something approaching glorious hysteria. I think everyone is just glad to be going somewhere, sometime.

When we arrive (and we do, finally, arrive), Thalys are handing out water and a box that contains magical coffee that gets hot when you shake it. I think they’re putting on taxis as well, but I’m glad to walk down Boulevard de Strasbourg to my friend’s place, ignoring the prostitutes sheltering in phone booths. I’m looking forward to a few hours couch kip before my next train south to Marseille – this time with my bike – at ten the next morning.

Or so I thought. The universe has one last desperate trick up its sleeve.

I get to the station the next morning and ask the information people about how to buy a ticket for my bike. They say go to the ticket office. I queue for the ticket office, arriving with about fifteen minutes to spare before my train departs. Perfect.

Then: they don’t take bikes unless they’re in bags. Bags? The woman looks at me angrily, like I’ve personally put her out with my poor planning. Tsk. I go to the train anyway. Maybe they’ll let me on after all. Maybe it’s not busy. Maybe I’ll get a kindly guard. Maybe.


But I do get helped by a kindly passenger, who directs me to a local branch of Go Sport, where I can buy a body bag for my bike. This is when the universe decides to really go for it. I leave my bike chained up outside the station, against an innocent-looking wall. I go for a pee. I come back and see three soldiers in full battle fatigue, nervously gripping semi-automatic rifles. One of them is looking at my bike. A couple of firemen stand around, smoking. I see the soldiers and think – oh that’s funny, they’re near my bike. I stand around, not wanting to get too close to men with guns. The soldiers storm past me into the station. I creep up to my bike. A fireman asks me if it’s mine. I admit responsibility. The alert is called off. The soldiers let me go, mysteriously explaining that it is all part of the “terrorist plan”. I hurry away to a boulangerie.

Then I cycle to the Go Sport shop. It is raining by this point, another part of the universe’s plan. I will pay anything to get out of here. I need the south: it won’t be raining in the south. Anyway, how much can a bag really cost? 10 euro? 20 euro?

Well, 75 euros, apparently. More than the cost of a ticket if you plan in advance, as I strongly recommend. I baulk at this robbery and try to cook up an alternative plan involving a friend’s flatmate, a scooter and Montpellier. It comes to nothing and I have to buy the bag. It is 80 euros by the time I get it to the register. I swallow it. The assistant sweetly informs me that there are bags available for 100 and 200 euros. I took their last cheap bag. Lucky me. At least the ticket office at Gare de Lyon allow me to change my ticket for free.

The bag necessitated collapse of my bike into component parts: wheels, frame and handlebar, but into the bag it eventually went. I was all set, following rules and feeling sick about it. I buy a book to boost morale. The universe, despite bringing in the military, will not win. I shall get to Marseille.

Spot the bicycle.

But still the universe was not done with me. At this stage, though, even the universe knows when it is beaten. So all it could muster were fate’s snide remarks, irony and mild inconvenience. The train was half-empty and could have accommodated an elephant, let alone a bike – with or without the world’s most expensive bag (which, incidentally, already had a hole in it). At Aix-en-Provence we heard an announcement that a man was on the line (it was unclear if he knew he was there or not) and there would be a delay of around ten minutes. Ten minutes? Is that all you’ve got left, universe? Ha!

So in Marseille I did finally arrive. It was a stunning entrance, all sun and sandstone. I dragged my bags into the sunset and busily reassembled my bike. Wrongly. A kindly man in hip-hop shades pointed out that my fourchette was back to front as I replaced the handlebars. The universe is kindly. I then cycled down a hill, only to realise that the hostel I wanted to stay at was up the hill. I pushed my bike up the one-way hill and looked into the hostel: complet, full. I kept on walking past, winking at the universe. Then I stopped. I turned around. It won’t hurt to ask. They’ll be able to direct me to another hostel, I’m sure. I ask at the desk. They are not complet. In fact, when I arrive, I am the only person in my room.

It does fill up later with three others, including the mandatory snorer, a mild woman of middle age with the respiratory system of a Harley Davidson.

Universe: let’s call it a draw, yeah?

Worth taking on the universe for: Marseille.

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