Thursday 20 June 2019

Travelling to France

Sunday 26th May was a turning point for me because the build-up to the local elections had been making me feel stressed. So I decided to go away! And I always write about my travels here because so many things happen, quirky things, things that make me laugh... and cry (not literally!)
France is a one hour train journey for me and it costs me €3. Imagine the poor Brits living in the UK who have to embark on a sea voyage or a journey under the sea. Admittedly, my €3 only gets me as far as Cerbère but then an 8am train from Celrà connects to the French equivalent, the TER, which leaves Cerbère for Avignon at 9.37am with stops at Perpignan and Narbonne. I am bored with Perpignan and I wanted to escape the politics of independence for Catalonia, and Perpignan is very "catalan", with its name spelt in both languages on the station.
from El Punt Avui

This is the dream of Òmnium and Jordi Cuixart, the reunification of the old kingdom of Catalonia which includes what is now part of France, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Make no mistake, independence for Catalonia is only the start!

So I decided to go on to Narbonne which is, I think... I hope, outside the plans of Omnium! One thing that annoys me greatly about SNCF is that now they have made the tickets for the TER, non-refundable and non-changeable. But it is their basic train service, like Regionales in Spain. It is like Ryanair, but even they allow a period of grace to change mistakes. So I have to be sure that the Spanish train is on-time before I commit myself to buying the French rail ticket. But if I leave it too late, I may not get a signal for my phone. "Well, then, buy it in Cerbère station", I hear you say. Not possible. The ticket office is closed till 9.45am and the ticket machine has been removed. On this occasion, before 26th May, I waited till I could speak to the ticket collector before buying my ticket but, this being France, he charged me the penalty fare of €12. I tried to use my phone to buy the ticket but just as I was about to enter the CVV code, the train went into a tunnel. When I tried again, the app no longer recognised the journey because it had already started. Normally the fare, with my Carte Senior is €8. So this was not too big a sacrifice.

When I arrived in Narbonne, I discovered that the track to Toulouse, where I had considered going, was closed due to works. Then I received a message from my political group that there was a meeting next day. So I caught the next train back to Spain!

Next time in France, I decided to stay in Toulouse for one night. I really want to improve my French and visiting France is one great way to do it. This time I was smarter and bought my Cerbère to Toulouse ticket in advance. It was about €19 with my Carte Senior. It is much more expensive at €50 than my Spanish rail-card (€5) but well worth the price.

I stayed in Ibis Budget near to the station but it is very-budget! There was a noise from the lift which was very annoying. I thought it was furniture being moved and only realised in the morning the true cause. Although I take the slow train going to France, when it comes to late afternoon, the choice for the return is easy. The connection at Port Bou is not very good and there is a Spanish AVE from Lyon which stops at Narbonne. But Perpignan to Girona is expensive at €33 and there is no senior discount. So to take that AVE is expensive.... but very cool! I am back in Girona just before 7pm and I can take a train or bus to Celrà at 7pm.

I just got back from my third trip to France in 3 weeks, I spent 2 nights at Ibis very-Budget in Toulouse after they replied to my complaint about the noise from the lift and offered me a discount.

This time, I had a bigger disaster with my ticket for the TER on Monday 17th. (Really! One cannot describe €19 as a disaster. Ed.) I had to wait to see if the Spanish train was on time to Cerbère before buying it (remember, I cannot buy it at the station). It was early in the morning and I was hardly awake. The previous day, I had booked the AVE for Wednesday from Perpignan to Girona in advance - it was only €22. Unfortunately, the OUI website for SNCF defaults to the day after the previous booking so when I bought my ticket for the TER (Cerbère to Toulouse), I accidentally bought it for Thursday (today, as I write this, back home). No refund, no change!! I had to write off the €19 and start again when I realised my mistake. Aha, this is a useful source of revenue for SNCF I think. French rail-travellers also must be angry with SNCF for making the rules so draconian for their basic means of rail transport.

Narbonne is very interesting historically. So I spent a lot of time browsing the streets between trains. I found a butcher and bought a tranche d'agneau, almost a complete leg of lamb and took it back on the train. I found another butcher, a halal butcher. I had to check what "halal" means. I knew that it meant that the animal is not stunned before being killed. I learnt that a prayer is said, which made me feel a little better about it. I feel slight unease about eating meat in general, especially beef but I will never go vegetarian. It is how things are. Many animals eats other animals! But obviously I am happier if I know that the animals haven't been cooped up in cages for their short lives.

Yesterday, on my way home, I bought some lamb chops and a couple of bottles of wine.

So, my final part of this post is about my most recent visit to Toulouse. Having lost €19 on my way there, I checked into the Ibis very-Budget and then took a walk around town. I have a bus and rail card from last time but one can walk to many places. On my first night, I was disturbed by neighbours arriving back in their room at 12.30am. I cursed and finally got back to sleep. The second night, I was not disturbed by neighbours but unfortunately I had left the TV remote control on the bed and as it hit the floor after sliding off the bed at 4am, I woke with a start. It took me almost an hour to get back to sleep!

I could tell you about the places I visited, the parks, the long tree-lined avenues but my motive for writing a blog is to write about the strange and quirky things that happened. So this post is all about train journeys and disturbed sleep! 

SNCF has a greater confidence in the punctuality of its trains than I do! Twice now, I have caught an earlier train from Toulouse to Narbonne in order to wait for the Spanish AVE. That leaves me with an hour in Narbonne which is no great hardship. But if I were to buy a single ticket from Toulouse to Barcelona on the SNCF website, I would be given a later train to Narbonne which arrives 5 minutes before the AVE. I thought this was rather tight but twice, I sat on Narbonne station and watched the TER arrive from Toulouse and about 100 people took the tunnel under the platform to take the AVE which arrived almost instantly! For sure it would wait, I thought. But for how long?

On my way back on Wednesday, I received my answer. The TER was 10 minutes late and the AVE was on time. And it did not wait! I watched for the TER coming down the track from Toulouse but never saw it. I am glad I was not the person to explain to the passengers that they just missed their connection. There was another AVE to Barcelona an hour later, so providing there were seats, I suppose that was offered as a substitute. And maybe there were not so many people making the connection. But, really! A connection of 5 minutes?

On 6th June, the very first day of the swimming pool in Celrà, my bike was stolen. This is my old steel-frame Peugeot bike, not my modern carbon fibre bike. But all the same! It was parked outside the pool reception, locked but not attached to anything. As I have done for the past 4 years.  I was very annoyed as you can imagine but I only use it to commute to the pool in the summer so I replaced it with a scooter - €100 from Decathlon. It is not powered, of course. But I can whizz along to the pool more rapidly than walking which would be rather boring for the whole of the summer. The Peugeot bike was worth very little, but to me it had a great sentimental value. I bought it in London very many years ago.