Bhai chaal mein koi baat honi chahiye!
Do you remember this old ad? Kabhi ruk, kabhi chal was how our plans on this trip were executed. French railway played its part, Bangalore rains and traffic did, and Belgian railway didn’t want to be left behind.
We were to take a flight to Paris overnight, land there on a Saturday morning and then the same day take a train to a place called Les Eyzies. Les Eyzies is a village in South West France which is an excellent place to stay to see a large number pre-historic sites and cave paintings. We had a booking to see the famous Lascaux cave the next morning. The day after we were to attempt another interesting cave called Font-de-Gaume. Then we were to travel back to Paris after spending a day each in Bordeaux and Tour.
A few days before the trip, I got a notification that the first train we had to take in France, which as you would recall was on the day of us landing there, could be disrupted due to the strikes. It looked like a generic warning message about the potential disruptions and I couldn’t figure out a way of determining if that specific train was disrupted or not. Strikes go on for months in France. Different unions or sets of employees go on strike on different days. From the “strike calendar”, I figured that they were going to be on strike on alternate days. So, every other day the trains would run normally. And since not everyone went on strike, it looked like you could mostly find alternatives even on the strike days. so we decided to stay hopeful. Now SNCF – the company that runs French railway – releases a definitive list of which trains are canceled and which will be running at 5 pm the day before. Which was about the time we were doing the last-minute packing and were about to leave for the airport to take our flight to Paris. To SNCF’s credit, they let you change the trains at no extra cost (even if the tickets were booked in advance at low, non-refundable fares, which ours was). But! This free exchange is not possible on their app or their website. Only at the train station or through a phone call. Afraid of being distracted and forgetting something important while leaving for the trip, I didn’t even try what would have been an international call from India and where I expected the language problem to make things difficult. What I did realize with my online attempts, however, was that there was no way we could reach our destination Les Eyzies by train on that day because ALL trains to that place had been canceled. If we didn’t reach Les Eyzies by that evening as planned, then our pre-booked Lascaux tickets would be wasted, as would be the money on the pre-booked hotel and on a last-minute hotel we would have to book elsewhere. Some desperate search for alternative places to reach by train threw up the name of Perigueux. But Les Eyzies is still almost forty-eight kilometers away from there. Although France and Europe supposedly have great public transport, this particular region is an exception. Reaching from anywhere to anywhere without a car is an ordeal. So, I searched for taxi companies in Perigueux and shot frantic e-mails to them to arrange for our transfer from the station at Perigueux. Given that most people in the hospitality industry in France had been rather laid back in replying to my emails earlier, I was sincerely doubtful of receiving a reply in time. Besides reaching Perigueux was also not guaranteed as of yet, because our tickets were not yet changed.
As we made our way to the airport, what to do after landing in Paris was not the only problem on our mind. It was raining heavily and Bangalore traffic obliged by creating a long jam on the road to the airport. At the suggestion of Google Maps, we took an alternative road. Still, for almost forty-five minutes it seemed like we would not make it in time. The problem of what to do after landing would be solved because we would never land there!
It is because the destined pattern was not just “ruk”, but also “chal”, that a few things fell in place. Even as we were wondering if we would ever take the flight to Paris and whether we would get a train from Paris to Perigueux, a taxi company responded and agreed to take us from Perigueux to our hotel in Les Eyzies for (gulp!) 100 Euros. Have you known what a bleeding heart feels like? Nope – you haven’t unless you had gone through this. Months of careful budgeting thrown out of the window. But given everything else that would be disrupted if we didn’t reach Les Eyzies, we swallowed the bitter pill and confirmed the taxi.
Because I am so careful a traveler that I normally spend inordinate amounts of time on the airports, on this fateful day we braved the traffic and managed to reach in time for our flight. The immigration at Paris wanted to see everything from our tickets and hotel bookings to cash and cards. But we had enough time in hand. So, we cleared all that, collected our luggage and reached the railway station well in time. As we had already figured out, there were no trains to be had to Les Eyzies. Thankful for my research, I requested them to change the ticket to Perigueux and they obliged. We didn’t get pickpocketed the entire time we were at the station in Paris. The driver at Perigueux station turned up in time and we reached Les Eyzies only about an hour and a half later than planned and a hundred Euros poorer.
Lascaux visit the next day should be a highlight of the trip, but compared to all this, the day felt uneventful.
The visit to Font de Gaume the next day was also supposed to be a great highlight of the trip because it is one the last remaining pre-historic caves in the region with polychrome paintings done almost 17000 years ago that is still open to the public. But my mind suffered so much excitement in what happened before, that I seem to have forgotten most of what was inside the cave!
As has been the case with most caves, they have reduced the number of people allowed per day into them every successive year. Right now at Font de Gaume, you can’t even book tickets in advance. You have to go there the morning of your visit, occupy one of the numbered seats outside the ticket counter and if you are among the first 52 people who occupy those seats, you get to go in. Else, better luck next day.
We had only one day left in Les Eyzies. It was then or never. The ticket counter opens at 9.30. We woke up before six and were there at the counter by 6.30. We weren’t the first ones to reach. A man was already there. I walked up to him and wished him Good Morning. He was surprised. “How did you know that I spoke English?” “I figured no local would be here this early,” I replied. He was trying to get access for the second time. The last time he had come, he was in a group of four. They had gotten three tickets. So, he had missed it. This time, he was the first in the line. Fair enough!
It started raining soon. We put our umbrellas over the chairs and stored our small bags under the umbrellas. That contraption would mark our place in the queue, while we took shelter under the small canopy hanging over the ticket window. After half an hour another small group came. Then more people trickled in. We figured we would have gotten a seat even if we had reached by 8.30. But we are not the people who take such risks! Remember the drive to Bangalore airport?
At 9.30, the employees started appearing. We witnessed what looked like some frantic activities inside the bookshop cum ticket office. Then a woman came out and spoke at length for 10 minutes. In French. I understood only one word she repeatedly used. Désolé. It means ‘Sorry’.
People who understood started getting agitated. This American before us in the queue understood some French, but he couldn’t quite decipher that monologue. Finally, she took pity on the rest of us. And summarized the situation in English. There can be no tour of the cave. There is no electricity.
What can we do?
Perhaps come back after two hours and check again.
Problem is, if we came back after two hours, what was the guarantee we will be among the first 52!
We hang around. The tickets for another cave Les Combarelles are also sold there. What about that one, we ask?
It will take her 10 minutes to find out.
So we hang around some more.
We see lights coming on inside the bookshop. Some anticipation. But no announcement is forthcoming.
Then the désolé lady is sitting behind the ticket counter. And she asks – who is number one. It will be much later that I would think of how that “number one” guy must have been feeling until then. It is his second attempt. And he has been there since BEFORE 6.30!
Well, we get into the first English tour at Font de Gaume. We get an afternoon tour at Les Combarelles too.
We feel victorious.
Despite some confusions, we managed fine with the trains in the next few days. From Les Eyzies to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux to Tours. And from Tours to Paris.
Then the strike struck again on the Paris-Luxembourg train. We had wrapped up the day early in Paris. We wanted to be rested well the night before the early morning train to Luxembourg. But the SNCF app and website informed us that our 7.40am train the next morning was canceled. Just before this, we had done a pushy negotiation with our Airbnb host in Luxembourg to allow us to drop the luggage before the check-in time. Assuming we got into the next 8.40am train, we would now have to request them to be available at a different time. Well – it was what it was. Changing tickets for free through the website or the app was again not possible. But now we were in France. In an Airbnb. With a super nice host, who could call and talk to them in French. Her spoken English was limited. We sometimes had to communicate by writing, because she understood written English pretty well. That’s what we did. Helpful as she was, she immediately called.
Surprise, surprise! Nobody picked up the call.
Being the careful people we are, we didn’t want to wait until morning to change the tickets. We decided to go to the train station then itself. Wrapping up the day early be damned. We had only a day in Luxembourg and we didn’t want to lose it. It was raining heavily by then. We braved the rain. Since Abhaya forgot his transport pass, we also spent four Euros extra on the bus ticket to the station (what was that after a hundred Euros for the earlier strike, eh?). While buying the ticket on the bus, he also got a lesson from the driver that it was Gare de l’est that he wanted to go to. Not Gare l’est.
We reach the station. We stand in the line. Only to be told that change requests were being entertained only for the trains leaving that day. We should come tomorrow. In desperation, we seek help at another “info” counter that isn’t so busy. They give us a printout of the page showing 8.40 train, write something down on our e-ticket and ask us to board the 8.40 train and stand our ground if somebody asks. With that signature on the e-ticket, we have the right to board the train. That is not quite comfortable. It would be a TGV train that needs a reservation. You get a seat number there. But no point banging our heads. We come back.
The next day, the original counter issues us a new ticket. With seat numbers.
The train that was scheduled an hour later than our originally booked one, decided to get delayed from its own schedule too. We had negotiated the new timing with the Airbnb host. But now it looked like we would reach not before noon, which was when they wanted us to check-in originally. So much for benefitting from our negotiation skills.
We reached a little earlier than noon. The host was cool about all the confusion. Given the timings of the walking tour and late opening hours of Bock Casemates, we had enough time to see most of what we intended to see. The only gripe was that it was raining the entire day – just like in Les Eyzies, Bordeaux, and Tours! Just like the last day in France. When we finished the day, however, and returned to our accommodations at around 7pm, it was bright and sunny again! Arghh!
The next day it is the turn on Belgian railway to add spice to our trip (the company is conveniently called SNCB). These SNCB trains have no assigned seat numbers or reservations. We could basically take any train on that route on the day the ticket was booked for. We had a plan though. We had planned to catch a 5.10 am train to make the maximum of the day in Brussels.
But “Houston, we have a problem”. The displays at the station are showing no 5.10 train to Brussels. There are some for later. But we are at the railway station at 4.30 in the morning. What for? For the 5.10 train.
There is a train at 5.10, but it is to a destination we don’t recognize. After some complicated online search, we realize that the destination of that train is a place in Belgium which is a stop even for the train we had planned to take. The planned train was supposed to leave that unfamiliar station at 5.37 am. And that unfamiliar station indeed has a train to Brussels at 5.37 am. Neither the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station nor the 5.37 train from the unfamiliar station has the same number as the planned train. There is absolutely no info about the planned train number on the displays. It does show up in printed timetables posted on various noticeboards. But that printed schedule was supposedly only valid till February. So now? Take a later train to Brussels? Or take the 5.10 train to this unfamiliar station and a 5.37 train from there to Brussels to reach at the planned time. Will these two turn out to be the same train? But if they are different trains, will we have the time to change to the other one at the unfamiliar station? We don’t know. The information counters won’t open until 6!
Armed with the info that our ticket allows us to travel to Brussels on any SNCB train, we take the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station. Unlike the SNCF trains, ticket checking is frequent in SNCB trains. A ticket checker comes. I hand him the tickets. Hopefully, he will not shout at us for boarding the wrong train. He doesn’t. I am emboldened. I ask him if the same train will go to Brussels.
No, it will be a different train, he tells me. He isn’t surprised that we are on this train though. Good for us! The other train usually leaves from the same platform, he adds. We sigh in relief. As the train reaches the unfamiliar station, the helpful ticket checker has info on the next train. It is going to leave from a different platform. How can it not? It has to play its role in creating travel memories for us. We rush with all our luggage. We are panting, but we make it into the 5.37 train.
We reached Brussels at the planned time. If you need proof, here it is.
After all, Bhai chaal mein koi baat honi chahiye.
From here on, it is uneventful as far as the trains are concerned. There are only day trips to other cities until we take the flight back home. The trains are frequent, we have the train pass figured out, no reservations are needed and there are no strikes!