The good thing about public transport, as an eco-warrior told me on the delayed train home last night, is that not only is it better for the planet, but you can just chill.  This is exactly what we strive to do on our trips to France…

Boat and Train

I’ve crossed from this island to the continent many times, from home to home (now Thanet to the Yonne).  With my husband and children, this journey has been done by train to Dover, then the ferry to Calais, then the train again all the way to Auxerre.

The only potential stress has been traversing the Paris metro to get from one overland station to another (usually Gare du Lyon to Bercy), which can be a headache if you’ve too much luggage and small children.  The doors of the underground trains are not forgiving, and neither are the ticket barriers, so pass through them with calm speed!  Once through the metro though, there’s a comfortable, if sometimes old, train to Auxerre or Laroche Migenne.  Time for baguettes, cheese and crosswords.  The last bit is a lift to the village from a kind relative.

This Time the Bus…

Aller

This October, wanting to keep costs down, we booked the Eurolines bus to Paris and then Flixbus to Auxerre. This meant that things could take an unpredictable turn…  I didn’t write much in my journal about the outward journey.  Yet, what I will mention is that our Eurolines bus from Dover to Calais was four hours late!  This was due to the original bus having broken down somewhere outside London.  So we sat at the badly signposted stop (In fact, signposting for international buses was non-existent.), read, looked at the cliffs and spotted a couple of Peregrine Falcons overhead.

Others at the stop told us that Eurolines buses were always late , but not this late…  Anyway, we missed our ferry, then the Flixbus connection at Paris which we thought we’d allowed ample time for (at least two hours).  So, my parents picked us up at 11pm from Paris Gallieni, another badly signposted place.

Retour

An interlude…  “Spending sometime at the Terrace, just listening to the cranes above and the fresh, vigorous water sound below.  Watching the flow sparkle as it bends.  A heron glides low across the pasture between the river’s fork.  There’s a haze close by the wall of the upper village, vapour from damp stone and earth.  Yet in the distance the forested hills stretch far and the sky is blue.”   That was the last morning in the village before heading back to England…

The return journey went smoothly on the French side.  It was still blue-skied but cold, as we left Auxerre on the almost on-time Flixbus.  Another signpost issue, as the destination on the sign at the bus stop had not matched that on the tickets.  No big issue though, as both destinations were in Paris.  It was the tickets that were right and we ended up at  Paris Bercy bus station.  The journey had been relaxing and the gougères filled with grated Emmental (Prepared by Granny) and the apples were good.

Paris

At Paris we had four hours before us!  Unsure what to do, we left Bercy bus station and went on foot to Bercy train station – not a lot there either, just harsh lighting, a noisy baby-foot game and waiting people.  So, we returned to a kebab shop that we’d passed on the way, an excellent choice.  By the time we’d ordered, eaten, bought more water etc., much time had passed.  There were plenty of transient types who’d obviously had the same idea.  The children had eaten ‘pain au chocolat’ before we went in, but still managed adult size portions of kebab and chips.  At 11 and 13, they get hungry.

Next the metro, which is quite easy to navigate.  Lines are coloured and numbered, and refer to their final destinations.  Six, 2 and 3 were our lines from Bercy to Gallieni.  You’ll find the Eurolines bus terminal at the latter,  a place which is somehow sombre, despite the bright lights of the ticket office.  Maybe it’s something to do with the imminent crossing of borders or perhaps the disappointing service.  Us bus travellers can feel like second class citizens in this part of the world.  In countries where I’ve bussed it before, often those not considered ‘first world’, the journeys are much more comfortable.  Seats can be reclined like beds or semi-beds,  bedding is handed out and drinks and cooked meals served.  All this included in the price of the ticket.  One of the best was in Argentina – a blanket, a brandy then a delicious hot meal.  Luxury on the bus, even if the road was bumpy.

Back to Paris…  We made our time waiting at the bus terminal better… 11 year old son suggested that he set us drawing tasks.  The first one to design then compare dragons and the next, walking men with flowers as heads.

Borders

The bus travelled overnight.  The movement on the smooth French roads and the blackness (in the absence of cats’ eyes) lulled us into a dozing state.  The children stayed asleep, but Fred and I woke for the fifteen minute break at a well-stocked service station.  I was glad for the cold, fresh air and lemonade.

It wasn’t long after that we got to the border and ferry port at Calais.  Unlike the journey out, it was not the tunnel this time (it’s pot luck with the Eurolines bus, you don’t know which it’ll be until you’re there).  Fred and I talked about the structures at the border and how they make us uneasy;  high posts, lights, cameras and we didn’t know what…  “inquietant”.  Borders are not my favourite places, partly because of my belief in free movement, but also because of their feel.  Dover is like that.  It has dazzlingly beautiful white cliffs and an often clear sky.  It has an element of excitement, you’re about to get on a boat to see friends or family, to change your scene or to discover…  Yet away from the bustle of the ferries, it feels like it’s not really there.  I’m reminded of Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series  where he writes about places where the world “thins”, that’s how it feels.

ferry, Calais

Ferry port at Calais. Photo by Peter Stone

On the ferry, I joined the #5amwritingclub that I follow on Twitter for the first time.  Fred and I had coffee, one child had hot chocolate and the other tea.  More stuff to do while travelling; writing and drinking…  We’d looked out on deck before, it was dark yet some white horses were visible as was a white sliver of a moon.  Too cold to stay out for long.

Odd mechanical grinding sounds and an announcement told us that we’d arrived at Dover. The prone blanket-covered figures stretched out on the best sofas began to stir.

Off the ferry now and walking towards the centre of Dover on our way to the station.  A large torn Union Flag sits on top of a pole in a small garden of a terraced house, down a side street. There is indeed a weirdness here.  Something’s not right, something’s “thin”.  I look up at the still night sky.  The moon still has beauty and stars twinkle around it.

The sting in the tail

Of course!  We arrived at Dover train station early on a Sunday morning…  Around three hours to wait for the first train home.  Thanks to warm clothes, food, crosswords, books and a friendly stranger who used to captain cross-channel ferries and who entertained the boy with boat-talk (and vice-versa), it was OK.  There’s also the fact that we were nice to each other (nothing was anyone’s fault).

Pros and Cons

There are disadvantages to travelling to France and back by bus.  There’s the unpredictability (the ferry or the tunnel?), the lateness (though we were especially unlucky) and the length in time.

The biggest advantage is that it’s cheaper than the train (especially if travelling overnight and saving on accommodation).  The second advantage is that the views can be more interesting when you’re high up in a bus seat.  As with the train, you can sit back and relax.

Tips to Make it Fun (or at least bearable)

Here’s a recap what you can do to make the journey more fun (and tolerable when problems arise).

  • Take plenty of food and drink (more than you imagine you’ll need).  Note:  If you go through the tunnel when on the bus, you can’t buy anything (It’s not like the Eurostar.) and supplies at the Eurolines Gallieni terminal are not great either.
  • Bring extra layers (you feel colder when waiting around and tired).
  • Definitely use rucksacks or suitcases on wheels as luggage (as you’ll need to do some walking).
  • Make sure mobile phones are charged for important calls (bring adaptors), i.e. if stuck somewhere.  Note:  Some buses have plug points.
  • Bring books and puzzles
  • Pencils to draw.  Why not draw on a theme together or play a drawing game (i.e. draw a little, fold paper to hide most of your drawing, pass to next person, they draw something linked to drawing, fold again and continue)?
  • Pens to write (perhaps about your journey)
  • Take pictures to record your journey.
  • Get fresh air when the bus stops.
  • Talk with each other, or just appreciate the time you’re spending together.
  • Travel with kind people.

I’m sure that there’s great advice missing from the list.  Please feel free to comment and add it.