17-21 April, 23-27 April

Coming out of the tunnel, we looked for something to show that we'd arrived in La Belle France, but there was nothing obvious, so we just enjoyed the scenery and the train going faster.

We arrived at Gare du Nord, and considered getting the Metro to our hotel, but the taxi queue wasn't too daunting so that's how we did it.

Regent's Hotel in Rue Madame (*** - Recommended) is a comfortable little place a couple of blocks away from the Jardin du Luxembourg, and that's where we headed after we'd checked in. Our first impression of the Jardin was a lot of people sitting on chairs, taking advantage of any scrap of sun that they could find. We found later that many of the cafes have their outdoor seating similarly aligned.

People in the Jardin

Sun worshippers in the Jardin du Luxembourg

We then wandered along to Notre Dame (taking account of the flying buttresses) before going back to the alleyways of the Quartier Latin to choose a restaurant for dinner.

The next day we had our first experience of the Metro to head out to Montmartre, where due to not quite understanding the sign on the map, we found that the nearest station was not operating. This just meant that we had a slightly longer walk up to Sacre Coeur (passing the one-time house of H Berlioz on the way), where we admired the scenery before descending the steps, avoiding the entrepreneurs at the bottom and making our way to the sinful precinct of Pigalle.

Sacre Coeur - from the tradesmen's entrance

For the afternoon, we split up - Judith to the Music museum at Cité de la Musique and me to Les Invalides - agreeing to meet at the Eiffel Tower later in the day if we could make it. Les Invalides and the Musée de l'Armée was very impressive - M. Bonaparte definitely knew how to memorialise. I found the tribute plaques to all the regiments around the colonnade very moving, and to my delight, in an exhibition upstairs there was a model of the Vauban fortification at Perpignan!

Our rendezvous at the Tower didn't happen - Judith was enjoying her limited time at the Cité too much and it was way out of town. I did begin to notice the heavy security presence everywhere: paras patrolling beneath the Tower, busloads of CRS parked on the bridge nearby and similar concentrations at other places around the city.

So we met later at the hotel and walked around, finding a brasserie where we had a good dinner. (We did enjoy eating out but would have preferred the option of cooking our own meals some times. Ah well, maybe next time.)

We got up early on Wednesday to beat the queues at the Louvre, and we were successful - no delay and straight into it. Apart from the illiterate bozos who insisted on taking flash photos of every thing they saw, it was a wonderful experience. Except the time when Judith and I lost sight of each other, but then the Louvre isn't that big and we were soon reunited.

After we'd had our fill of the art, we headed off for the Trocadero where we checked out the Musée de la Marine, paid a small amount to use the loo and had a chat with the attendant, who'd love to come to Oz to study. Then we repaired to a nearby cafe (with a view of the Tower) to fortify us for a heavy afternoon of museuming.

The Musée is a marvellous place - and not only for the many large model sailing ships. It has figureheads, edged weapons, guns, models of iron ships and submarines and good displays on exploration and the merchant marine. My one complaint is that the shop does not sell decent t-shirts. It does though have replica bosun's calls and a marvellous little book that analyses all of Captain Haddock's curses. Some of us could have spent all day there.

That night, we discovered a lovely little restaurant called Sans Frontières in the Rue de Regard (at least it wasn't in the Rue de Remarque). One thing that we noticed from the window was that the building opposite had a small plaque stating the name of the architect. Classy! Back to the restaurant: it was a good meal and we had a chat to the waitress afterwards. Her English was very fluent and she said that she'd learned it at school in Iran in the time of the Shah.

Our last full day in Paris started with a long long queue at the Musée d'Orsay. Oh how we wished we'd booked in advance. When we got in though, all this frustration was forgotten. It's a marvellous collection of the Impressionists and early 20th century art, with occasional views through the window to Montmartre and other places.

We split up again after this and I went off looking for a CD for Honey. I eventually found the recommended shop and encountered the snottiest young Frenchmen that ever there were. I don't know what fnac is supposed to stand for, but I had a good idea of what the f represented.

That night we took the advice of the hotel staff and headed off for an area that had good restaurants, but on the way we tried out the chocolate shop of Christian Constant. I confess that his pot of chocolate defeated us. Wow!

The restaurant we went to was a good little one called l'Enfance du Lard, and we enjoyed it. Wandering around the area afterward we found a shop that sold comic character collectibles, closed for the day and not opening until after we were leaving the next day. Grrr.

The final morning we went for a walk after breakfast (one of us hoping that the collectibles shop might just choose that day for opening early, but no ...) and then caught a taxi up to Montparnasse to board the TGV, which we did with no dramas.

At this stage, we could reflect on our observations about Paris:

  • the women are stylish and wear scarves a lot
  • there is a lot of dog poop on the footpaths, and they are trying to clean this up (including quite graphic signs on the rubbish trucks)
  • the Metro is clean and efficient
  • people going to work often carry a baguette
  • most people can understand our simple French, but we have trouble with theirs
  • dining out is not too expensive

Judith had checked in advance with SNCF and determined that our seats were a pair of fore and aft ones, so we could share the experience. We watched the countryside go by quickly and noted with interest that most of the grape vines were quite low. The hours passed agreeably and we got off at Toulouse with a wait of two hours or so for the connection to Andorra, some of which time we spent sampling the good food at Café Paul at the station.

When we got on the train to l'Hospitalet, we found that we were the only passengers in the 1st Class section. This wasn't a problem until the train stopped at Foix and there was an announcement (in French) that sounded important and we had the wit to go to see what was happening. Just in time, we found that half the carriages (including ours) were to be left behind. A quick relocation ensued.

Settling back in the 2nd Class carriage, we started to notice the train climbing and the very picturesque countryside of the Pyrenées. And climb all the way it did until we reached l'Hospitalet près l'Andorre, the gateway to Andorra.

- - - - -

On the Sunday afternoon, Jordi and Ester drove us to Perpignan, through Spain and southern France, down the steep valleys past Prades and Villefranche de Conflent. We arrived late in the afternoon and searched in vain for a decent cafe that was open. No luck, so they headed back to Andorra, hungry and tired, but with our heartfelt thanks.

We checked into Croque la Lune (**** - highly recommended) and met Amélie and Ruby, two delightful Belgians who did so much to make our stay enjoyable. The B&B is a building that used to be part of a convent, just an arrow's flight from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, which overlooks the town. Downtown Perp is only a five minute walk away. (If this sounds like an advertisement, so be it. They deserve all the recognition they can get.)

Our dinner on the first night was in a "touristy" place - lots of bustle and photos of famous people on the walls - that had good food. And so we went back to our huge comfortable bed.

Our intention in Perp was to relax, have a good time and just see what it had to offer. So, the next morning, we strolled down the hill into the town centre to look at the Castillet, which houses a folk museum of Catalan life, including a fair bit about the sardana. From the top of the building (after a moderate climb) you get a good 360 degree view of the town.

The view from the Castillet, across the Perp rooftops to the Palace of the Kings

After lunch, we proceeded to the Palace, and spent an hour and a half strolling through it, admiring the building itself and some small exhibitions. Oh, and we also repelled some Goths who had invaded the chapel.

The Palace is within a military area, so we could see various Foreign Legion troops going through training exercises where their predecessors had been doing the same thing for several hundred years.

At our hosts' suggestion, we ate that night in La Serra, a small family restaurant nearby with authentic Catalan food.

The next day was one for a white stone - we went to Collioure, the former home of Patrick O'Brian. It began with one of our two Perp railway stories, but first a bit of background: Geordie and Amy told us when we said we were going there that it was a terrible place and you had to wait for hours at the station for any connection. Honey also said much the same thing, so we were determined to prove them wrong.

We should have been warned by our first encounter with SNCF. When we got to the station, we saw that the train to Collioure was delayed by an hour, so we decided to use the time by going to the Booking Office to check on the train we'd be catching on Thursday night. It was a sleeper from Barcelona to Milan and we'd had to buy tickets for the whole journey, not just from Perp. We wanted to be sure that we could still board at Perp and that we'd be expected - ie the conductor wouldn't sell our berths when we didn't get on at Barcelona. Well, the SNCF people weren't interested (or couldn't understand what we were asking) and told us that we'd have to make another booking. Wonderful! We decided not to worry about this for the moment and went for a walk around the suburb until the train arrived.

We got back 15 minutes before the (delayed) departure time to find that the train had disappeared from the indicator board - a mystery that is unsolved to this day. No matter - the next one was only 25 minutes away, so we sat down and waited.

We got to Collioure about 90 minutes after we'd expected, and from then on we were charmed by the place. We walked down the street from the station, past the bullring and the wine-tasting places and soon came to the central square. It was by now lunch time, so we had a light meal and a beer and then proceeded to spend the next four hours poking around the place - not particularly looking for POB's home or burial plot or vineyard, just enjoying the town.

The main beach at Collioure - if you look really hard you can see the topless bathers

The fort at Collioure - with Special Forces exercising on the water

Over the next couple of days, we pottered about Perp, doing a little shopping, seeing more of the sights and the small museums, eating and drinking and relaxing. We noticed that the town is not immune to the ever-present dog poop, and they have a council officer on a motor scooter with a vacuum cleaner to remove it from the footpaths.

We were due to leave late at night on Thursday, so we'd negotiated with our hosts to check out late (in the meantime, Ruby had made a long phone call to SNCF to ensure that we could indeed board the train), which gave us a full last day to enjoy the town.

So there we found ourselves at 11pm at la Gare du Perp, to see from the board that the train was only 30 minutes late. On this occasion, we decided not to go for a walk, but waited at the station. We were entertained there by the military presence - a sergeant and two soldiers (all armed) who walked around the place, keeping an eye on the occasional vagrant.

Our tickets showed that we were in Car 62, which caused a bit of concern. Obviously the train wasn't going to have that many carriages, and we weren't sure at which end of the platform to stand. And of course there were no station staff around to guide us.

As the train began to pull in, one SNCF person emerged and I asked his opinion on where Car 62 would be. He motioned to the front end of the train. We set off in that direction, only to have another official point to the rear of the train. I won't say that I panicked, not quite. We decided to hop on where we were and trust to being able to move easily between carriages. As I struggled with the door, the guard blew his whistle. Then I panicked.

With a cry of "M'SIEUR!" I tried to get his attention. The door flew open and we struggled in. As the train started off, we were inside but clearly a long way from our carriage. A helpful Spanish conductor guided us through about twelve carriages (and the spare engine in the middle of the train) to the elusive Car 62, where we found our compartment - locked. "Gracias".

OK, off to find the conductor for our part of the train. I headed on, passing no-one except for a passenger sitting up in his compartment reading a newspaper, and eventually arrived in the dining car - which was pretty full even at this time of night. I asked the steward there how I would get into the compartment, and he asked me if I had seen his colleague. I said that I hadn't.

He guided me back through one carriage until we found the "passenger" reading the paper, who was introduced as the conductor, and clearly was not expecting us. He was quite friendly though, and opened the compartment, let down the beds and explained how everything worked.

At this stage, one other bright spot appeared. We had believed that we'd be sharing with two other passengers, but it was clearly just a two-person compartment. Fantastic!

We relaxed on the bunk and celebrated our success. La Gare de Perp had continued the Curse of the Webbs, but we'd survived.

We went to sleep with the rocking of the train and woke up in Italy.