Mike Strachan’s e-mail journal — Entry #11, from France
Received 4 May 2008
Hello fellow travellers and history buffs. It struck me yesterday that these travel diaries are sounding a bit like Samuel Pepys diaries ("Up forthwith and to the office to see my Lord Chalmondely for the accounts whilst my wife is to Lady Crumbley's lying in.") — that sort of thing. But I type it the way I wrote it in my journal, mostly in the present tense, sort of how I speak French.
May 1, in Tours: I'm up and out of the hotel by 8:20 PM, so I'm at the gare well ahead of the 9:05 departure. There are only about 15 people there and three wickets open. There is a big bike rack in the station and it's jammed with bikes. I use my Eurrail pass for the first time as this is a longish trip, so now it expires on July 1. I have a 10-day-in-two-months pass, and since some of my future trips are long ones it will come in handy.
When the train pulls out I'm the only person in the first class car (the Eurail pass has a category Senior First Class). My trip today will be to Paris to Austerlitz station, then a max of an hour to get to St. Lazare station to catch the Rouen train. The train will go up the Loire valley. It's not a TGV, it's Corail Intercités, with older cars. I feel an urge to put on my seat belt. The Tours rail yards are huge — about one kilometer long and at least 20 tracks wide at one point. It is filled with rail cars, and would have been a tempting target in WW2.
Soon Amboise then Onzain and we travel alongside the Loire into Blois. Now there are about a dozen people in my car, and we pass Mer. We pass a cemetery with the typical raised crypts at ground level; no wonder there are so many pompes funebres (literally, displays funeral) shops everywhere.
Next Beaugency, Moung sur Loire, then Orleans where we reverse out of the station when we depart, to Les Aubres d'Orleans, and keep going in the backwards direction. The trains can go just as fast in either direction.
We pass ranks of electrical towers running through a field of wind generators, and more colza - agriculture is everywhere in France. We zip right through Etampe, Etrechy where I notice a long, long fence topped with barbed wire (forest reserve or prison?), Marpolles, Bretigny, and there are high rises and shopping malls — 15 minutes to Austerlitz station. Then through a huge rail yard at Juvisy, Athis Mons, Ablon, Villeneuve Le Roi, then Les Ardennes and the train is slowing down, through Vitry-sur-Seine, Ivry-sur-Seine, and I notice the closer we get to Paris the more graffiti is on everything, even on rows of rail cars), then Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, and we arrive at 11:43 AM. I notice that the trains don't slow gradually into the stations. One minute the train is doing 60, and the next it's stopped and people are getting off. If I'm not ready I have to push my way through the crowd getting on.
I follow the signs to the taxi rank and first up is a woman driver in a Skoda. She says they are common as taxis, ambulances, etc. and more efficient. I tell her my destination and departure time, and she says no problem.
We drive down the left bank in the bus lane past Notre Dame and all the flea market stalls with used books, paintings and posters, even miniature Effel towers. Everyone is out to promenade. We have a nice conversation about the cost of cars and gas (a common topic in France where it's $2.25 Cdn. a litre), and soon we are at Gare St. Lazare. Only 15 minutes, cost €11.90.
In the gare I don't see my train listed on the display board and a platform conductor tells me I'm at the platform section for banlieu (suburbs) and I should go to the other end of the platform for les trains grandes lignes (main line trains), and I find it at voie (platform) 24 and ready to board. But it leaves in 25 minutes, so I have time for a sandwich province (ham and cheese), and I buy a sprig of lillies of the valley in a plastic water container to sniff on the train. I eat and watch the crowd — women in African dress, people with bikes and dogs, soldiers on leave with huge backpacks, even three soldiers with machine guns patrolling the platform. I get on the train, first class car, and pick my favourite seat, a two-seat desk unit, and soon we are racing through stations again — a bumpy ride, making this entry hard to write legibly.
All down the Seine are large industrial complexes, unlike the Loire at Amboise. The Seine here is broad and deep, and it would have been difficult for the allied armies to cross it in 1944 with the regular bridges down. A train going fast in the opposite direction on the next track rattles the windows suddenly and startles me. I doze off and we pull into Rouen on time — 13h49, or 1:49 PM. There is a power boat race on the river as we cross the Seine.
Finally I find the Avis car rental office and it's closed, and since there is only one gare in Rouen, I take a cab to the hotel about 3 km away. The clerk speaks English so I can explain things to her in English, and she calls the main Avis number — the keys for the car are at the SNCF office at the gare — so after checking in I take a cab back to the gare — so far €20 for cabs. After I find the SNCF Lost and Found office, I have quite a lengthly search finding the car in P2 Level 2 — a separate building. It's still the holiday period and lots of shops are closed. So out of there and back to the hotel where I spend some time planning my trip in some detail.
The Canadian army was moving fast in late August/early September 1944, and the places I want to visit are spread out from here to Abbeville — a long distance — and I have about 37 days left, so I have to time it right. Should I go to Elboeuf or go for a walk? It is very gray and raining out, not good for photos, so down to the hotel lobby where I noticed an internet cubicle. It's €12.50 ($20.00 CDN) for 90 minutes, and I decline. The lillies of the valley are still fresh but wilting a little.
At 6:30 PM I finally go out for a walk, the rain having stopped, to see the old market and the cathedral, and the camera batteries die half way round the cathedral, and the spares are at the hotel. I carry on sightseeing, then back I go to the hotel to change the camera batteries, and it rains again, so down I go to the hotel restaurant for dinner — duck breast with green beans, very good, plus a big tasty raspberry coulis — YUM! Later I find I have a sense of having to hurry on my trip, so I check my draft schedule, and discover that I am almost two weeks ahead, which nicely offsets the the ten days I had to reduce the draft schedule to make it to London by June 8. So I can relax, and I read myself to sleep. It's been a long day.