Tag Archives: SNCF

Train angst and side trips…


The next morning in Bayeux marked the beginning of a whirlwind of activity that would take us to our last days in Europe, and that whirlwind started with a 3 hour train ride into Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare.

The train system in France is basically like spokes of a big wheel, with the center of that wheel being Paris. All of the main Paris train stations (Austerlitz, Bercy, Est, Lyon, Montparnasse, Nord, and Saint-Lazare)are termini and the spokes of the wheel go out from these stations. For example, all the trains coming from the northwestern parts of France like Brittany and Normandy end at Gare Saint-Lazare, and all the trains coming from the North Eastern parts like Calais and the chunnel to London end at Nord, (also known as Paris Nord, or Gare du Nord).

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So, if you are traveling from one section of France to a different section by train, you have to go through Paris, most of the time there is no other way, and some of these stations in Paris are quite far apart, however all of the stations are connected by the RER system and the Metro.

We were prepared for a three hour layover in Paris which would give us plenty of time to get from Gare Saint-Lazare to Gare du Nord using the RER E commuter train that travels between the two stations.

No problem.

Gare Saint-Lazare is basically a huge shopping mall that has a train station attached to it. Loads of shops, cafés, fast food kiosks, etc. and all of the crowds that go with it, so it was a little overwhelming trying to navigate through the crowds with large pieces of luggage during the lunch rush hour when we arrived, but we were armed with research and all we needed to do was follow the signs and get to the RER platform and we would be fine.

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When we got close to the platform at a junction in a hallway, there were two SCNF officials blocking the way to the RER E and a large crowd of people pointing to the metro map and waving their arms. I waded into the crowd to see what was what, and found out there was a problem with the train so they were giving instructions on a convoluted alternate route involving two Metro trains and a walk down a street that I couldn’t quite follow from the poor woman trying to explain it to me.

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SO, instead of taking the chance of getting lost and missing our train out of Nord to Calais, we decided to go to the taxi stand and cab it. I was a little nervous about taking a taxi because I had read how large Paris is in area (14th largest city in the world) and we didn’t know how far it was or whether we would encounter gridlock in a Parisian rush hour, or even what the rates were.

Ten minutes and seven Euros later, we arrived at Gare du Nord and I exclaimed out of surprise “That’s it!?”

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The lesson learned from this, for me, was that the area within the inner part of Paris isn’t nearly as large as I imagined it, and this trip gave me a scale in my head that I could apply when looking at a map, which would be helpful when we got back here in a few days.

We killed some time in Gare du Nord (wishing that we were killing time in Gare Saint-Lazare instead) where L found a great bakery for some bread and pastry and then it was off to Calais and a lovely beachside suburb called Sangatte. The Kerloan B&B where we were staying was right across from the beach and right beside a great restaurant called Le Relais de Sangatte (formerly called the Country Cottage Pub if you’re looking for it on Trip Advisor), so our first night was filled with great food and some fantastic scenery.

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The next morning, very early, we made a side trip.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, our original plans for the area wasn’t going to happen. L had noticed that the Eurostar stopped in Calais and it was only a 55 minute train ride into London (actually closer than Paris) and there was a Vikings exhibit on at the British Museum.

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So after some more confusing times with a French train (there are no machines to collect the Eurostar tickets in the Calais-Fréthun train station and you have to wait until the gates open 1/2 hour before the train leaves to collect your tickets and go through security and customs… which turns out is plenty of time, but there wasn’t a single indicator or instruction anywhere about it including the website) it was off to London for about 8 hours to see some wonderful exhibits…

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…and fantastic sculpture.

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After the museum, we had a lovely walk to St Pancras station where there was a Marks and Spencer and we loaded up on snacks and Welsh Cakes.

We took the Eurostar back to Calais, and repeated the previous night with some food at Le Relais de Sangatte and another sunset on the beach.

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The following morning, it was a first class train ride back to the final destination, Paris.

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Pressing all of the buttons in Mézidon…


After saying our goodbyes to Mark and his dog Oscar… “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? No, you can’t come with us, we don’t have a ticket for you on the train… HEY, come back with my shoe!” … we headed to the Mézidon train station which would take us to our next destination.

The train systems in Europe take a while to get used to, and with the exception of the mistaken platform in Westbury, so far we had been doing pretty well. There are nine separate train systems that we have to deal with on this trip, and it can get a little confusing.

We started off with the Eurostar which is an international bullet train with customs and expensive tickets, then the Underground (or tube) in London, then some British Rail trains with a company called North Western, a different British Rail company called Cross Country, an RER train in Paris that is a commuter train kind of like the Go-Train in Ontario, the Paris Metropolitan (or Metro) which is Paris’ subway system, and some of the different types of trains under France’s SNCF system which includes the TGV trains which are the high-speed trains used all over France, an Intercities train which are trains that go direct between major cities, and various TER trains that service every other town in France.

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Mézidon was one of those “every other towns” so we would be taking a TER train. This was also the only leg of the entire trip where we didn’t have specific boarding passes, only a confirmation number that we needed to enter into a ticket machine, or redeem at a ticket booth. We had used the machines at various stations on the trip, and used a ticket booth in Roscoff, so we were confident that we knew what we were doing.

Our train was due to leave at 11:59am, so we got to the station at about 11:15, plenty of time to get the tickets and get to the train in the tiny three platform station…

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When we arrived, there was no machine… and the ticket office didn’t open until noon.

We were screwed.

All we had was a confirmation number in an email showing our destination. We found a different machine that wasn’t a yellow SNCF machine, and we pressed buttons on it, hoping to glean some information. When that didn’t work… we tried again… and then a third time, staring blankly and looking at all of the menus that couldn’t help us because it was a machine for a different system.

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It was getting close to our train time, and there wasn’t anybody around to help us except for the heavily armed police that had wandered into the station and looked like they were itching for a chance to use their assault rifles and machine guns. I’m sure that not having a valid ticket and just a confirmation number wasn’t considered an egregious enough offense to warrant the use of ordinance, but I didn’t feel like taking the chance.

We decided to wait on the platform and board the train travel the 10 minutes to Caen (where we were due to transfer trains), validate our confirmation at that much larger station, and continue on our journey to Bayeux. If we were asked for our tickets during that 10 minute trip, we would try to explain what happened and hope that they chalked it up to dumb foreigners syndrome and not shoot us.

Just before the train arrived, I spotted a yellow vested SNCF official, and I ran to him to try and communicate our problem.

“Bonjour monsieur! parlez-vous anglais?”

“Non”

“oh….. merde…. uhhhhhhh…… I…. can’t get a ticket” *hand gestures and flailing*

“Ticket?” and he pointed to the closed ticket counter.

“No, I have a confirmation number, but can’t get a ticket…” and I showed him the email on my phone.

He looked at my phone, and then looked at me in bewilderment…

I sighed, not knowing what to do, and then I spied the Google Translate button. I hit that, translated the email, and showed him again.

“Ahhh, oui” he said, and then pointed to the ticket booth… looked at the display for trains, looked at my phone again, looked at his watch, and then stared at me for a moment and said… “ohhhhh. Merde!”

Then he motioned towards the station and said something to the effect that he would talk to the train manager, which he did when the train arrived and they let us ride to Caen without a proper ticket, which was very nice.

We were able to find a machine at the Caen station and withdraw our tickets, and when we arrived in Bayeux, the first thing we did was withdraw all of the remaining tickets for SNCF trains so we wouldn’t be caught again.

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We then got a taxi and went to check in early at the Château de Damigny which was a large, lovely building…

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…with the remains of a castle wall behind it, complete with battlements and embrasures in the crenellation (arrow openings).

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The first night we had a lovely dinner cooked by the proprietor and shared with his wife and some of the other guests in the B&B. We all talked about our trips so far, and we got some good advice on some of the places that we were going to see in the next couple of days.

The next morning we went into the city and stopped at the museum that held the Bayeux Tapestry, and followed the very fast audio tour of the thousand year old embroidery that told the story of William the Conquerer.

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Then it was to the Bayeux Cathedral and the expansive vestibule that houses a giant pipe organ

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many murals and stained glass depictions of the saints…

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… and a brand new church bell that is to be installed on June 6th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the landings at D-Day.

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We then wandered the streets of the town looking into shops and cafés and bought some souvenirs and some foodstuffs for an evening meal before heading back to the Chateau to consume cheese, breads, and pâte with some Breton cider I brought from Méry Corbon.

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The next morning at breakfast there was a new couple who had just arrived the night before… from Winnipeg! The conversation was a lively one with many comparisons of experiences and some advice about some of the sights and where to eat.

That morning I had hired a car to take me around the countryside to Juno and Omaha beaches and to the cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer in order to visit some relatives.

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