Escape into Europe – Part 2

So we had arrived in Lille and had spent the night in a hotel that did the job perfectly. We were all set for going into the French capital, not finding it to difficult to wake up at 7am for our 8.15 train from the huge station in the middle of Lille. For one, I was mega excited as I had never visited Paris before and it had been on my bucket list for a while. This time we found the walk to the train station a bit easier and arrived in plenty of time to find the platform we would be departing from.

When we got on the train I was reminded that my huge bag on my back made it difficult to navigate the tight corridors of the carriages, accidentally hitting people with the numerous straps hanging of my luggage as we tried to find a seat. We had booked tickets the night before but hadn’t been given seat numbers, leading us to sit in seats that had been pre booked by a poor French women with perfect English. She was very nice about it and I carried on whacking people with what I would soon label as my ‘big stupid bag’. Eventually we found our seats and I was able to reflect on the embarrassment of sitting in the wrong seat combined with our inability to communicate with native people in their own language. This would become a recurring theme throughout the countries we visited.

Amazingly it only took the TGV train just over an hour to reach Paris’ Nord (North) station, passing through the Northern French countryside at insane speeds. When we got of the train breakfast was on our minds first and we got some croissants at a café in the station. They definitely taste better in France. After we had been fed and watered we went to try and figure out the Paris subway system, which turned out to be a really effective way of getting across the large city. We decided that we wanted to see the Notre Dame Cathedral first, hopping on a underground train which left us only a five minute walk away from this historic building.

After admiring the impressive architecture and slightly spooky gargoyles of  Notre Dame, we wondered towards the Eiffel Tower, following the River Sienne. The sun was glaring and we realised that our Scottish eyes weren’t used to being exposed to that bright thing in the sky. Sunglasses were sought and then bought on our way to Paris’ main attraction. I went for some blue, red and white ones, (which I am proud to say aren’t broken yet) while my mate went for some black ones. They were both pretty cheap, though I reckon sunglasses can make any village idiot look cool. My friend disagreed and slagged me off endlessly for my choice of sunnies throughout the rest of the trip. You can’t please everyone.

As we got closer to the Eiffel Tower I realised that I needed the toilet. A new challenge had come about, finding a toilet in Paris. We kept wondering down the banks of the river, taking in the impressive sights of the French capital while becoming more and more desperate to find a rest room in some form. We went pass bridge after bridge until we eventually arrived at the bottom of the tower. Unfortunately we weren’t willingly to pay to go up the tower, but I was taken aback by how cool it was to be near such a famous landmark. We took some photos before setting off across the river to continue are mission which was now becoming a desperate state of affairs.

Up some stairs we went until eventually in a small square we had made it. Panic over. We realised that we were actually right next to the Trocadero, an area of beautiful architecture which provides visitors with a spectacular view of the tower. We sat there for a while, admiring the Paris skyline, while drinking some cokes. I never did get my hands on an ‘organia’! From there we travelled to the Champs Elyees and the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen the most famous piece of road in cycling being televised at the end of le Tour de France on many occasions, but it was something else to actually stand there and imagine the likes of Mark Cavendish whizzing past. The Arc de Triomphe was also massively impressive, it sheer size and width being a surprise.

By the time we had looked at these three attractions it was nearing the time that we had decided to book tickets for our next train. The aim was to save money by travelling to Mannheim on the German-French border, before boarding an overnight train to Berlin. These tickets would have to be reserved at Paris Est (East) station, a quick journey away by subway. After a quick discussion with the very French man at the ticket office we were informed that a collapsed bridge near Mannheim was causing issues for trains in that region. He carried on looking for options for us to travel to Mannheim, before suddenly he was buying us ticket for Strasbourg and handing as a schedule to get a train to the German town of Offenburg, before making our way north to Mannheim. Looking back it would have been sensible to have told him that our final destination was Berlin.

After this slightly complicated discussion we wondered around the streets surrounding the train station, getting a last sense of really fascinating city. It had been a short visit which had been enjoyed thoroughly and I hope I’m lucky enough to return Paris one day. I we wondered around with no agenda I was slightly pensive about the journey we were about to make. We now had to make an extra stop in Germany and I knew very little about Strasbourg. I had never heard of Offenburg and didn’t realise that it would become a major bug bear for us. As the afternoon rolled on we boarded another TGV, this time heading east, with no issues. The sun was lower in the sky and we were feeling more relaxed about the journey ahead. Berlin here we come….

Escape into Europe – Part 1

Late on August the 18th I sat in my friend’s kitchen attempting to formulate a last minute plan involving numerous  complications with transport and places to stay. Tomorrow we would set of on an interrail adventure using trains to go between cites. Our rough idea of where we would go included visiting Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Zurich before, all going to plan, we made our way back to sunny Scotland. We had a week to visit all these exciting places and wanted to sleep on overnight as much as possible, hoping to save as much money as we could.

However, we realised that on the majority of the days we were traveling this wouldn’t be possible, leading to us booking two places to stay in Lille and Berlin before we set off. The beauty of having an interrail ticket was that it provided us to jump on most trains without making a reservation. Although we did have to book tickets on the Eurostar for day 1 of our adventure to take us into continental Europe. This cost 60 euros and would take us from London to Lille, just inside Northern France. We had done this journey together from Stonehaven to Lille in 2013 on a visit to Northern France so knew this part of the journey reasonably well.

Our first port of call on our poorly organised but very exciting adventure was the small coastal town of Stonehaven on a pretty non descript (Scottish) summer morning. We awoke slightly late and just enough time to wolf down some breakfast before dashing over to Stonehaven just in time for our 8 am train to London Kings Cross. After a short wait on the platform we saw the first of the many trains we would be experiencing coming around the corner and then slowing. We found unreserved seats fairly easily and waited slightly nervously for the ticket officer to walk down the corridor and check our interrail passes.

To my relief they worked and were on our way to London! From Stonehaven we made our way down the east coast, through Edinburgh and into England-shire through Newcastle and York, which is inland. I even found this first part of the journey exciting as I figured I hadn’t actually left Scotland for over two years! If you ever travel this route you will discover that it is slow up until Edinburgh as the train stops at most of the stations north of the capital enroute. The trains on this route are also often overcrowded as we found out. We hadn’t been across the historic border for long when were informed that we would have to switch trains at York, as our train manager wouldn’t be carrying on with us. I thought you only needed a train driver! This was the first slight spanner in the works, though was child’s play compared to what was to come later on….

We were told to wait at York and catch the next train to London which had departed Edinburgh. Unfortunately this train was packed full  and we ended standing the next two and half hours to London, moving our bags every two minutes to let people through to the toilet. In fairness I felt more sorry for the couple with a baby who had also been forced to sit in the corridor. Thankfully time flew past and we arrived in London relieved to get a seat and some food.

From Kings Cross it was a short walk across the road to St Pancreas station to catch the Eurostar. Our train was at 7pm so we found ourselves with a  couple of hours to spare and to get food. We found a café in the station and complained about the prices of our wraps as two Scotsmen in London should. Then check in time rolled by and we went through passport control for the first of only two times on our trip. In no time we were on the Eurostar, speeding through the English countryside at amazing speeds. When it reached the English Channel the quiet and efficient electric train was plunged into darkness as it travelled the 50 kilometres under the narrow body of water to Calais. It is difficult to get a grasp of the amazing engineering feat which the channel tunnel is as it just felt like a long tunnel.

In no time we were pulling into Lille train station, only an hour and half after we had left London. In France the clock was an hour ahead, meaning that darkness had already fallen on the small city near the Belgian border. However, it was still pretty warm when we left the station, the smell of  a warm day still wafting in the air. It definitely felt like we were abroad! We left the huge train station and walked to the hotel with the help of google maps and the fact that my friend actually had data on his phone. We had managed to book the hotel for 30 euros between us so were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the room when we arrived. A bed, shower and television. I would only realise how lucky we were a couple of days later, but Ill tell you about that later….

Meanwhile we went to bed early after looking at train times on the TGV route to Paris the next morning. It is perhaps useful to know that on all of the main routes in France, operated by TG  high speed trains, it is compulsory to reserve a seat. In most of the other European countries it isn’t essential, though logic can be used when travelling on a busy route to determine whether it would be sensible to spend a little more to make sure you have a seat. We let France get away with it as their trains are generally fast, effective and clean, getting you from one side of the country to other in no time at all. We reserved a seat and fell asleep, pleased that we had at least got this far. Au revoir.

Part 2 to come…….


Maciej Bodnar, take a bow

You would likely have to search far and wide to find a somebody, even a keen cycling fan outside Poland who has the name Maciej Bodnar on their radar. As a casual cycling fan I had no prior knowledge of the three time Polish national time trial champion. I am writing this after a stage of the 2017 Tour de France that was almost uncanny in its dullness and lack of energy. Won by Marcel Kittel, it ended in a bunch sprint, a sight which has become the most noticeable image of this tour so far.

In past editions of the 104 year old Tour de France the sprint stages have provided excitement and tension with the world’s fastest on two wheels going hammer and tongs in a 30-45 second period of madness. The issue at this year’s editions of the bunch sprints is that we have lost two of the most talented riders of recent years, as they exited the race in dramatic style over a week ago.

As the sprinters thrashed their way into the final metres of the stage 4 sprint into  Vittel, the current world champion, Peter Sagan was very much in contention for his second stage victory of this years tour. Meanwhile, the 2011 world champion, Mark Cavendish was struggling to make his way to the front. Though often this is the way he launches his winning sprints, coming from far back before leaving his rivals for dust. As Cavendish made his way up the left side of the road he attempted to squeeze through a gap almost fully taken up by his Slovakian rival.

As Cavendish navigated his way into the small gap, Sagan stuck his elbow into the Manx’s side, sending Cavendish spiralling into the barriers, ending his three week job in France early to the tune of breaking bones. Sagan stayed upright, but was unable to defeat Arnaud Demare in the remaining bunch. However, an hour later the world champion’s tour was also over, the commissars not taking kindly to his apparent over reaction to Cavendish’s search for a gap that perhaps wasn’t there.

Due to this highly debated incident, the sprints have become almost too predictable, it being unforeseeable that Marcel Kittel wouldn’t add to his impressive tally in Pau today. In sprinting terms, the German’s other main competitors weren’t really on the same wavelength, with Edvald Boasson Hagan a and the brutish Andre Greipel being his nearest rivals. This also being after Nacer Bouhanni’s antics and Demare’s exclusion from the tour due to finishing stage 9 outside the given time limit. However, there was one man who wanted to upset the German’s procession.

Maciej Bodnar was part of a breakaway that worked hard to gain time over the peleton for the majority of the 203 kilometre stage. It was within the last 25 kilometres that the two weaker riders, Fredrick Backaret and Marco Marcato started to fall of the pace. As realisation dawned on Bodnar that staying at the same pace would mean getting caught by the main group, he decided to make a daring move to attempt to win the stage. He slowly gained time, almost reaching a lead of 50 seconds as his time trialled his way through rolling French countryside and quaint village squares.

Likely this move was not expected by the peloton, the sprinter friendly teams started to up the pace with powerhouses like Tony Martin making fleeting appearances at the front of the main bunch. This also injected a bit more excitement into preceding’s as overall contenders Alberto Contador, Jakob Fuglsang and Romain Bardet all suffered falls which fortunately didn’t result into too much physical damage. With most in the peloton avoiding these incidents, the chase continued with the gap coming down to almost 20 seconds with 10 kilometres remaining. It looked almost unconceivable that Bodnar would stay away and I toyed the idea of an epic victory with my grandfather, who I had convinced to watch the cycling over the tennis.

As the riders entered the last few kilometres I insisted that he was about to be caught, the time at the top of the screen indicating that his lead was barely in double figures by this point. Four kilometres, three kilometres, two kilometres, one…As Bodnar went under the one kilometre maker with 150 cyclists baring down on him I couldn’t believe he was still riding on his own. We began cheering him on, willing him to achieve the impossible.

Then Kittel and 53 riders passed him. I hadn’t felt so gutted since Scotland’s game against England in the Six Nations. This man had put in a titanic shift, with his reward being 54th place. Having turned himself inside out for the last eighth of a 200km ride ridden in no less than 4 hours and 34 minutes, perhaps the only silver lining was that he had ridden a time trial that could likely beat his three victories as Polish time trial champion in terms of sheer effort.

For me he instantly became one of my favourite pro cyclists. As a Scotsman I have an almost detrimental obsession with the underdog when it comes to sporting occasions. I backed a rider who I had never heard off with every bone in my body in those last few miles, his effort inspiring me to post a new best time in my local 20 kilometre route earlier this evening, comparing in peanuts to the ride that the brave Pole put in today.

Lets hope for more racing like it and with the high mountains of the Pyrenees coming tomorrow I’ll be misbehaved and back the rider who can finally knock Chris Froome off his seemingly untouchable perch. Not even national pride stands in the way of underdog blasphemy.