Arrival at CDG airport north of Paris 05:50. We’d been flying for 11hrs including a short layover in Atlanta to switch planes. While not uncomfortable, it was difficult to get much rest (sleep was fitful). NEXT we had to get ourselves to Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) France (on the eastern side of the Pyrenees). Our first hiking day would see us crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. BUT for now we had to find the most efficient (and hopefully cheapest) way to get there. I can hear it now “Dummy – why didn’t you reserve ahead… and save yourself the headaches. After spending numerous hours on varied websites ( travel agents, French railroads, Airlines etc) I found it too complex… and had a sneaking suspicion that it was much easier than what I was seeing online… SO I opted for the ‘let’s just get there and then …’ approach. Having worked in the past, I had faith it would once again. Besides which, the approach has always led to spontaneous , interesting and exciting adventures… which have become some of our most cherished memories… me squatting along a roadside, map in hand trying to communicate with an Omani local about the best road around the desert… pointing at the map and scratching a better map in the sand he points to a road, then his truck – shakes his head YES, then points at my rental car and shakes his head NO. Til sits in the car and takes photos. We still laugh about how crazy we were.
Anyway… after securing our baggage we head off to the nearest train station. The representative was incredibly lovely. We could wait until 12:58 pm, take the train from the airport, make two changes and arrive in SJPP around 7-something pm that night. OR if we left right away we could catch the local train (“20 euros” she said, “but you will have leave immediately to make it”) into Paris then catch a Fast train from Montparnasse in the middle of the city… arriving at 2:50 pm OR we could “take a TAXI (“maybe 50 euros”, she said, “ would get you there faster – 30 minutes drive and is easier than making changes on the local trains”). Tired and starting to feel the weariness we opted for the more expensive BUT “easier” Taxi option and booked the Fast Train from Montparnasse, headed off to find the taxi. We realized that the taxis all use meters.. and the ‘50 Euros’ was an estimate with a reasonable range of variation (maybe 10%?). With confidence we boarded a taxi with a French-African lady driver … disdainful at first, she warmed to us as the trip progressed (and the meter climbed to new and higher amounts also).
It was 8 am. We had until 9:58 to reach our destination and board the train. Our driver got us immediately into the left, fastest lane… piece of cake. As we approached Paris, the traffic built and slowed … and slowed … and – shit! We did not think about RUSH HOUR… BUT what the hey!… we had almost an hour and a half to get there. Soon the white-lining motorcycles and scooters were whizzing by us on the right… THEN the first of a half dozen police cars lights and sirens blaring woo-ahh woo-ahh squeezed through the space between our lanes. I was thinking “ accident, be a little delay … BUT what the hey!… we still have an hour and 15 minutes to get there”. Traffic slowed again… people were jumping lanes… and our lady driver started to nervously pound on the steering wheel. She programed her GPS to find a way through. I could see that it was taking us to a very large roundabout… and suspected it was the Arc de Triomph – the quintessential TRAFFIC MESS and terrifying FRENCH TAXI RIDE – I’ve seen pictures and movies, AT THAT POINT we got the EXPERIENCE. AS the meter climbed past the 50 euros mark, I thought “what the hey we get a hell of a ride, too!”
With Til’s broken French and our drivers broken English we made jokes about her courageous driving and the stupidity of other drivers… She knew that we had a train to catch and as time counted down, her driving became more and more aggressive. We careened into the Arc de Triomph roundabout… slashed across five or six rows (although there are NO rows just a gaggle of drivers going every which way but, generally counter clockwise around the Arc) of cars to the center… drivers from other roads doing the same… (they don’t look at the oncoming traffic, as though what they don’’t see will avoid them) .. then at the 2nd or maybe 3rd road we slashed across traffic again to exit the roundabout onto a narrow street. A delivery truck was taking up almost 3/4’s of the street and our driver quickly slid alongside and passed. I wondered – what if the driver of the truck opened the door!
We were now down to 40 minutes to go and still 15km from the train station.
The GPS in the taxi not only told us how far but, also the eta… I saw 09:44 then 09:46 then 09:48… barely 10 minutes to find and board our south bound train… The next train would be the one we could have waited for at the airport. I was not the only one nervous about getting to the station on time. Our now HIGHLY motivated (evident by her driving & I am sure driven by a desire for a big “AMERICAN TIP”) driver was by this time whipping through small narrow side roads, cutting off other cars, taxis, and motorcycles/scooters. The eta began to fall… 09:45… then 09:42… then 09:40… then 09:38… twenty minutes to spare! We didn’t quite make it with 20 minutes but 17 was close. As we pulled up to the station, I checked the meter. As Tilly was congratulating our driver on an exciting and amazing ride, I quickly calculated a 10% tip then added 5 euros (she did get us there AND with enough time to find the train) and handed her 95 euros (so much for the “maybe 50 euros”) and bailout.
The train station at Montparnasse was not too crowded but we still floundered a bit until we asked an attendant for directions… Spur 5 she said … YES we found it … then we looked at the train – it didn’t say any thing about SJPP. Confused we asked another attendant nearer the train. Turns out there were two trains traveling together and they would split at a stop along the way. Our train was the first one. We hoofed it down to the first train, located the first car with a #1 on it… yes we bought “first class tickets” … more space, more comfort, less people, less noise – therefore what two weary, approaching grumpy travelers needed. We barely had enough time to get seated, put our backpacks away, sit down, and the train was moving.
As it accelerated, our ears would plug up and unplug as we entered and exited tunnels… I realized the speed of the train compressed the air in the tunnels… my phone boinged … a message from SNCF (French railroad – I had down loaded their app months before) “Congratulations you have broken the 300 km per hour barrier”.
The country side whizzed by … tired we settled in, read our iPads for a bit (1st class also includes inet – not great but, functional)… soon we became drowsy and set an alarm for 15 minutes before we were to arrive at our transfer station. We managed to grab a one hour catnap before the alarm awakened us. We are arrived at Bayonne and had about an hour to wait.
Perched track-side on a bench, we began to notice all these backpackers with hiking poles gathering on the siding. Seems, we were not the only ones starting a long walk. Soon we were engaged in conversation with a lady and her husband from Washington state. Having spent time traveling in Washington we were able to keep the conversation going almost until time for departure. As the train approached, backpackers started to appear from all directions. Luckily we were able to board quickly and secure seats. By the time we departed it was almost standing room only for the rest of the passengers.
There are three stops between Bayonne & SJPP… one person got off at each stop and a few more boarded the train. We arrived at SJPP with a full load. Departing the train, Tilly looked at me and said “which way?” Laughingly I responded, “follow the pilgrims.”