This is a retrospective account in diary form of a trip I took in 2013, based on memory and my notes from the time.
Thursday, 13 June 2013
Well it’s been a very long day. I arrived at St Pancras International this morning in good time, and went through the check-in and arrived in the departures lounge. I bought a coffee and croissant from Café Nero and settled down to wait for boarding to begin. Around this time, there was an announcement that due to strike action by French train drivers (groan…), there were delays and cancellations on all trains going to the south of France. You must be joking, right? Today of all days? Would it affect the overnight trains as well? What about the ones that went to Italy? Maybe the driver would be Italian and he wouldn’t be on strike?! Now I had no choice but to wait and see what would happen. Worst come to worst, I’d have to spend the night in Paris and try to get directly to Genoa the next day? Would I get a refund? Questions, questions.
Still, I decided not to worry about the problem for now and deal with it later. It might all be allright anyway.
In the meantime, a little recap of what I’m doing. The plan was to take the Eurostar from London to Paris, and spend a day in the French capital before taking an overnight train (first time for me!) all the way to Milan. After spending the day in Milan, I’ll take another train to Genoa and pass the remaining days there. A big item on the list is going intend to go from Genoa to Portofino, where I also went last year–though perhaps I’ll take a ferry this time. I’ve booked my accomodation in Genoa using Airbnb, so it isn’t a hotel, but an actual apartment. It’ll be fun to get a little taste of actually ‘living’ in Italy, even for a few days. Of all things, I’m looking forward to doing some shopping and cooking!
The train started boarding and I got to Paris Gare du Nord around 11am. The overnight train leaves from Gare du Lyon at 8pm, so I have a good chunk of the day to go exploring. Yes, I know Paris isn’t exactly within the scope of the blog (!), but hey, think of it as an aperitivo. 😉 The first thing I had to do was to find somewhere to deposit my luggage. Since I would be leaving from Gare du Lyon, I decided to head over there and leave my bag in the left luggage area there–this would make it easier in the evening. I also checked the departure screens nervously to see if there was any sign of those strikes.
Getting onto the dirty Paris Metro, I reached Gare du Lyon, and, after following the signs in vain, finally found the left luggage area. There was a large room full of lockers that you operated using a token. Safely locking away my bag, I headed out into the city.
My first destination was the cemetery of Père Lachaise. Maybe it wasn’t the most fun way to start the trip, and in any case, it started raining. Obviously, the one thing I hadn’t packed was an umbrella. An umbrella for the Italian Riviera? In June? Come on. I found myself having to shelter under trees in the cemetery whilst taking the opportunity to reflect on the passage of time and the fleetingness of life. The cemetery map I had bought from the lady at the entrance gave all the names of famous people buried in Père Lachaise, including none other than Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Chopin and Victor Hugo. As well as the burial plots, there was also the “Columbarium”, which housed the remains of people who had opted for cremation. I must say I found it incredibly bizarre. You passed hundreds of small boxes with pictures of people or names, knowing each one had the earthly remains of an individual in it. So, so surreal.
There were a few other people there–living that is. A family of four came up to me and asked in broken English if I knew where Oscar Wilde’s grave was. The children were speaking in, of all things, Italian. 🙂 Well it was great to be able to ask “Italiani?” and chat a bit in Italian to them. I always wonder at times like this if people realise I’m not Italian or if my accent is so good… 😉
After leaving the cemetery, I decided to pass by Lyon station again to check up on the strike situation. Everything seemed normal so I headed back out again and went straight to Notre Dame, wondering if I’d be able to get inside this time as there always seems to be a massive queue outside the famous cathedral. It was pretty much the same, and I decided the time would be better spent having a well-deserved late lunch. 🙂 With the rain still charging down on the city, I found a little restaurant that had some outside tables (yes, under covering) and sat down to a nice meal of a mixed grilled meat selection, with chips and beer. I know, I love French food…
There’s a souvenir shop near Note Dame that I’ve been to a couple of times. It has an opening to the cellar on the shop floor and if you’re not careful you could fall right through it while browsing. Amazing how it’s allowed! After browsing aimlessly for ages, wondering which tourist tat I ought to get, I settled a fridge magnet made of a small wicker basket and a plastic baguette, with “France” written on it.
Afterwards, I headed to the St Paul metro and the historical Jewish Quarter. I went to the Holocaust museum (seriously, I blame the rain) and passed a sombre hour or two amongst the exhibits. There was one that’s really stuck in my mind today. You go into a room that where the walls are covered from bottom to top with photographs of people who died during the Holocaust. Men, women, children. Many of the photographs seemed to have been taken in happier times. That was really what struck me–just how ordinary so many of them appeared. If it hadn’t been for the black and white or sepia tones, they could almost have been family photographs any one of us might have. So ordinary, and yet…
The rain had stopped a bit when I got back outside. I decided to go and have a coffee and a wander around the city before heading back to the station. I walked around the Latin Quarter, browsing the stalls along the bridges. At around 6pm, I decided to start heading back to Lyon–better to be early in case there were any changes of plan. I suddenly realised I had to collect my luggage, so it was a good idea in any case. Arriving at the station, there was a large crowd in front of the departures and arrivals screens. Oh no, surely not. Luckily, everything seemed OK and I saw my train number appear.
After ambling around the newsagents for the last half hour, I got onto the train and found my compartment, where I am now. It was empty, and I wondered if I would get it all to myself. It’s interesting the way it works–at first glance, it’s a normal train compartment. But, on closer inspection, there is a bed collapsed above each seat, letting up to four people sleep in here. I wasn’t left alone for long too, and I was pleasantly surprised to be joined by a young English couple. It’s been nice to chat to them a bit and swap stories. They’re travelling to Venice, where this train actually terminates (just writing this reminds of announcements on the London Underground–if you live in London, you’ll know what I’m talking about!).
Well it’ll soon be time to pull down the bed above me and climb into it using the ladder! We arrive at Milan at 5:48am. Let’s see if I manage to get any sleep…
Continued in Paris to Rome – Day 2.