Or How to Get to Lanzarote by Train (as far as Madrid)

9 am on Saturday morning, and the Great Adventure started with a ride on the R68 bus that stops right outside our Teddington flat, en route to Richmond station.  It was a beautiful day in London, and wonderful to get up earlier, pull the curtains back, and see the mist rising off the Thames  (or was that volcanic ash?).  Never mind, it looked stunning.

The Challenge of Getting There

I had expected to fly to Lanzarote from Gatwick the previous day, but the news of the Iceland volcano that broke on Thursday had put paid to that.  Instead, I spent my planned travelling day searching around for the best alternative way to get to Lanzarote.  I thought first of all about the ferries, toyed with the Portsmouth to Santander or Bilbao routes, but thought they would take too long.  I knew that I had to get to Madrid, because it was pretty obvious from early on that Lanzarote flights from there were still operating normally, whilst anything to Northern Europe wasn’t.

I found out that there is an overnight train from Paris to Madrid that operates daily, taking 13 hours.  Eureka, I thought, that’s the answer! All I had to do now was get to Paris by hook or by crook.

From London, you can go to Dover and travel by ferry to Calais or Boulogne of course, and I looked at that, but was put off by the appalling connections at the French ports to the rail system these days.  Eurostar seems to be THE way to get to Paris now, so they have stopped the useful little shuttle buses that used to get people from the port to the railway station.  The result is that you now have to leave Charing Cross at 7 in the morning, in order to get to Paris by 7 at night, and there are 7 legs to the journey!  By comparison, Eurostar takes just 2 hours 40 minutes to get from St Pancras International to the heart of Paris.  No contest there, then.

The problem I had, of course, was that everyone else was trying to do the same, and Eurostar tickets were like gold dust.  I just managed to get one for Saturday afternoon, and then went online to the Rail Europe site, to look for the Paris-Madrid ticket.  If you haven’t discovered it, Rail Europe is a really helpful agency specialising in rail tickets across European and beyond.  From Paris, you can also get to Barcelona on an overnight train.

Unfortunately I couldn’t book online, as my departure was within 7 days, so I had to go to their shop in Regent Street. On arriving, there was already a long queue, so I picked up a queuing ticket, then walked the streets and cafes locally for 3 hours until it was my turn. I then found out that the earliest train with a seat available was on Monday night, two days after arriving in Paris, but as it was the only option, I went ahead.

So, I now had the truly dreadful prospect of spending 48 hours in Paris in the Springtime. It sounds idyllic, but unfortunately I was on my own, as my wife was already in Lanzarote. I would have loved for Sylvia to enjoy the trip with me.

Arriving back home in Teddington from London, I went online and booked an Easyjet flight from Madrid to Lanzarote for Tuesday afternoon, along with what looked to be a cheap and cheerful hotel in Paris for two nights.

ParisSaturday – Travelling to Paris

So, back to the start of my actual journey, and my R68 bus ride into Richmond, which was followed by a tube journey to St Pancras International.  I arrived far too early, as I always tend to. I take after my Dad a bit – he always had to allow at least 2 hours for unforeseen disasters when travelling.  I think it is a facet of personality that developed in many people as a result of the 2nd World War.

St Pancras International is quite a glitzy place these days.  Anyone who remembers the old Kings Cross and St Pancras area would not recognise the new terminal that now stands here. There’s an enormous range of designer food and shopping places, so plenty to do if you do take the precaution of arriving 2 hours early as my Dad would have done!

Checking in at the Eurostar terminal was very simple and painless, even allowing for the enormous crowds milling around still hoping to get themselves tickets that day (no chance!) .  Once through check-in,  there is plenty of lounge seating, plus a few cafe places and a WH Smith. Like an airport departure lounge, you just wait until your train is called, and then take an escalator upstairs to the platform.

My ticket came bundled with a very good quality 3 course lunch and complimentary drinks, and less than 3 hours later, I arrived feeling mellow at the Gare du Nord, Paris, where I bought some tickets for the Metro underground system, and then made my way to the hotel.

The hotel turned out to be in Montparnasse, an area known for its painters and artists past and present. I sussed out fairly early on that if I ate out over the two days, it would cost me a fortune in Paris, so I went out and bought bread, pate, cheese , tomatoes and fruit instead. It is some years since I was last in Paris, and I was staggered at the prices which make London look cheap by comparison.

A coffee or a small beer was costing anything between 3.50 and 5 euros, and I estimated that even a mid-priced dinner with starter, main course and two drinks would cost at least 25 euros per head.

So I simply didn’t bother.  I bought bread, deli meat and fruit from the best looking of the Montparnasse shops instead, and it was all delicious! An early night then beckoned….

Sunday in Paris

Since I knew I had work to do on Monday, I set out early on Sunday, determined to make the best of the day. I started with a walk around a flea market that takes place every Saturday and Sunday at Puces de Vanves, about a 15 minute walk South from the hotel.  There is every kind of bric a brac to be seen here – furniture, ornaments, kitchen equipment, antique postcards, posters, signs, comics, records.  I’ve never seen so much variety – it took me over an hour to wander past all of the stalls, and I would hardly describe myself as an enthusiast for such markets.

After travelling back through several decades of home furnishings, I rejoined the 21st Century and moved on with the intention of heading North to the Seine to do some sightseeing.  On the way, I came across a wonderful food market doing brisk trade.  I think many French people go shopping on Sunday mornings before going home to enjoy a day of gourmet home-cooked fresh food.  Zat is ze French way, n’est pas?

My day was going to be different, of course. So I bought and stuffed a long baguette into my back pack, with the result that from the front, I must have looked as if I had a slightly odd-looking  aerial coming out of the back of my head.  I breakfasted on 80 cents’ worth of strawberries, plus the bread, both of which I munched on happily as I walked north, occasionally reaching over the back of my head to break off a lump of baguette as it poked skywards.

There is no doubt that Paris is a beautiful place at this time of year, and this became more and more clear as I got to the River Seine, with the glass-topped Batobuses gleaming in the morning sunshine, as I looked down from the Pont de la Concorde.  The gardens were stunningly colourful with a combination of tulips, crocuses and other Spring flowers.

On up the Champs Elysees I went, and around the Arc de Triomphe.  By this time, the strawberries had not only turned my fingers bright red, but were also having an effect on my bladder, so I succumbed to a cafe where I have coffee and a croissant, used the facilities, and emerged a mere 7 euros worse off (!).

Mind you, when you are desperate to go after traversing a number of miles in a big town, even 7 euros seems cheap – just ask Paula Radcliffe.

Heading for the Pompidou Centre, I came across yet another food market, this time in a street near Les Halles, once famously referred to by writer Emile Zola as “le ventre (stomach) de Paris”. Another mouth-watering stroll down the stalls resulted in the purchase of some absolutely yummy stuffed olives and two hot garlicky sausages that I ate with the remains of the baguette that by now had retreated into the bottom corner of my backpack. Another 20 euros saved on a restaurant lunch , I thought, to set against the monstrous costs of the overall trip!.

I spent the rest of the day visiting the Pompidou Centre, Bastille and walking along the Seine for a while on my way back to the hotel.  The streets were absolutely packed with Parisiens enjoying the first Spring weekend – the parks were full, the cafes and bars were full, and it all made for a terrific atmosphere in what must be one of the best capital cities in Europe at this time of year. My day ended with more bread, cheese and tomatoes in my hotel room which, by now, was starting to smell rather strongly of the cheese!

Monday-Onwards to Madrid

After a day spent working in my hotel room, I set off for the Gare d’Austerlitz at about 6 pm on Monday. From there, a subsidiary of the French state-owned SNCF Railway runs trains called ‘Trenhotels’ to Madrid and Barcelona, both of which leave at a similar time, and travel overnight to their destinations.

I was a bit lucky that the train to Madrid was running that night – it had been cancelled for the previous 3 nights due to industrial action, and bearing in mind that there were no flights going anywhere in Northern Europe either, the result had been mayhem.

Tickets on the Trenhotel to Madrid are advertised from 89 euros one way, which gets you a reclining seat, aeroplane-style in an open carriage.  I decided when booking that if I was going to do this journey and be able to work en route and in one piece when I arrived in Lanzarote that I needed a decent night’s sleep.  As a result, I invested in a personal sleeper cabin, which came complete with bathroom and shower, and all inclusive meals and drinks.

The cabin cost considerably more at  around 450 euros, but what a stylish way to travel!  After a good meal, I staggered off to bed and managed to get about 6 hours’ sleep.  When I woke up it was starting to get light, and I was treated to the most spectacular sunrise and breathtaking scenery as we crossed the border from the South of France into Northern Spain.

The bad news was that the train had lost time during the night, and we were scheduled to arrive 2 hours late into Madrid.  This meant that it was touch and go as to whether I would make the onward flight to Lanzarote in time.  I almost sprinted down the platform at Madrid, and hurled myself into a taxi –amazingly, there was no queue.  We quickly covered the ground from Madrid Chambertin station to the airport, and I checked in with 30 minutes to spare.

From then on, it was familiar terrain.  My Easyjet flight took off and landed on time, and I was met by my wife Sylvia at an eerily quiet Arrecife airport.

So…would I do it all again?  Probably only if I had to.  But there was real satisfaction in doing it just once, it WAS a new experience, I had a wonderful day in Paris, and I saw some fabulous scenery in the early morning sunshine of Northern Spain.

Now, where’s the application form for that second mortgage ….

This travel feature was written by Miles Couchman, Editor of All Things Lanzarote,  an information site about Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.