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From Europe with Love: Part One
Joe Nicholson starts his interrailing trip with Paris' best offerings: early morning crepes and cheap sparkling wine
Joe Nicholson on Tuesday 30th August 2011
The interrail trip began when I met five other Pembrokians at Victoria coach station late on Saturday evening, the weather hot and close. Each of us was laden with a seemingly endless number of bags, yet we were all feeling somewhat unprepared for the three and a half weeks of travel around Europe stretching ahead. Our planned loop around the continent is incredible; so it was an anticipation that was mixed with trepidation that I felt seeing the night coach which awaited us. Blissfully ignorant of the realities of night travel, I´d been told nothing short of horror stories from sadistic friends in the days before our departure, and none of us were disappointed. After an hour of erratic air conditioning and what seemed like arbitrary turning on and off of the halogen lights on the coach by the driver, it was clear that sleep was going to have to wait until we reached the Paris hotel. However, no matter how tired and sweltering we were upon arrival at Paris Gallieni coach station on Sunday morning, there´s always an inescapable buzz about stepping into a new city, even more so in the French capital which has always held a particular magic for me. After the immense relief of being allowed to leave baggage at our accommodation before check-in, we set off into the sunrise (it still being horrendously early in the morning) to explore some of the city. We picked up a pack of 30 metro tickets to share between us at the nearest station to our hotel, situated at the edge of the Latin Quarter, a fantastic price for two days of easy travel around the city. Not only does the Paris Metro feel cleaner, airier and more charming than the London Underground (think Art Deco Metropolitan Signs straight from Amélie), but it seems to make access to anywhere in the centre of the city effortless- a good move, then, for the slightly hapless student traveller! Our first stop for the day was to Montmartre, home to the Sacré Coeur Cathedral and a priceless view of the city from the hill, as well as, of course, an array of extortionately-priced eating places. We made the most of all of these, starting with a much needed crepe breakfast after the night journey, to gazing in awe at the spread of the capital underneath us- I´d recommend the view from Montmartre to anyone. Our day continued with our check-in to the hotel (a compact and cosy place hidden in one of the tall streets, like many in Paris), and a shower, potentially the best part of the trip so far. Despite the luxury of warm weather, especially after the dismal summer that the UK has suffered this year, by midday the humidity was unbearable- especially after a night spent on a boiling night coach. After a quick lunch, though, we were refreshed, ready to take on the Montparnasse Tower, which we´d already booked (with the help of clubcard points: a really good way to save on the visit!). The tower is one of the tallest buildings in Paris, a wince-inducing height above you, but is advertised as the best view of the city, and definitely lives up to this accolade. 200m high, we were greeted with a phenomenal expanse of the capital, including the Eiffel Tower distantly below us. This is a real find for taking in the sights of Paris, and as yet fairly off the beaten track. We stayed to watch the sun set and the city lights turn on as night fell: such an amazing experience, if slightly surreal to see all of the landmarks from such a height. Our evening consisted of eating steak and burgers in a grill restaurant- french steak-frites is incomparable! There´s also a special feel to Paris at night, especially in the Montparnasse district which is fairly far from the main tourist routes. Every café or restaurant had exterior seating, with large crowds even on a Sunday evening enjoying the summer weather with drinks and cigarettes. It´s such a relaxing experience to be part of this nightlife. Retiring to our hotel, we cracked into a final astounding find of the day: sparkling wine for 1.34€ a bottle. Needless to say, that was a terrible idea! Monday was much cooler, allowing us to take in the Louvre museum leisurely, despite learning the fact that it would take a month to get through everything if you were to spend a minute on each work of art! Nevertheless, seeing some of the world-famous works of art at the museum is exciting, even if you start to lose the ability to take in what you´re seeing after half an hour or so! The Italian painting exhibit proving the most memorable, and La Joconde, as the Mona Lisa is called in France, is proudly on display, but it was surrounded by a mass of other tourists taking photos: almost like the paparazzi around a film premier, and, as many people have warned me, the picture was ever so slightly underwhelming. Our final activity in Paris was a Seine River Cruise, also paid for by the clubcard of the generous parents of one of the friends travelling with me. The boat tour is unmissable, despite the irritating commentary on everything that the boat passes, and was such a relaxing way to take in some of the best buildings that Paris had to offer. The Cathedrale Notre-Dame was one of the highlights of the cruise, the motion of which becoming highly soporific towards the end! It was sad, then, as we left the centre of Paris for la Gare d´Austerlitz: four of us arriving to board the night train to Madrid, the other half of our party heading on to Rome, to meet us again in Florence at the weekend. I was vaguely optimistic about the train, which promised a bed rather than the fixed seats of the night bus, and it transpired to be a comfortable cabin (not quite the budget travel option, though, which is frustrating to say the least!). Whether the rocking of the train was caused by the tracks or the time that we spent in the cabin bar is difficult to say, but the 15 hour journey sped past rapidly, and actually allowed a good night´s sleep. Waking up to a vista of Spanish countryside speeding by is quite an experience, and the night train felt like the beginning of the interrail experience proper. Madrid is what I expected it to be: hot. It´s a compact and bright city, with a relaxed feel so different from Paris: it´s really not the tourist centre of Spain in the same way the french capital is to France, which is so liberating. Moreover, the hostel from which I´m writing, Las Musas Residence, is comfortable and friendly for a cut price: finding places like this really makes the whole European travel experience, and it´s clear why people choose to Interrail! The heat of the city makes lounging around midday essential and sightseeing impossible: the Retiro Park, complete with a lake and lots of shade, was the perfect place to snooze the afternoon away. The week ahead is looking good, too, with Toledo tomorrow and a brief sojourn in Barcelona on Thursday, before we move on to Italy on Friday: but until then, tapas and the nightlife of Madrid it is.
Photograph: Al lanni