Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Europe - Lonely Planet Style...?

The manic frenzy began a few days ago when our fervent wish for a white winter in the UK had been fulfilled by a scenic snowy sight outside our window during our stay in The Glevdon on Oystermouth Road, Swansea. Apparently, about 15 years had passed since the last time it snowed in this neck of the British Isles. The snow was so thick that it rendered the public transportation to a quiet halt! Even Ann, my dear Welsh mom, couldn’t get her car out and down the Townhill to see me off as we left Swansea yesterday afternoon.

Arriving late afternoon in Paddington Station, we were greeted with more snow and our chances of getting a train to Paris on the next day looked bleak. The weather forecast confirmed our worst fears. All flights and trains had been cancelled. Many travelers were stranded at Heathrow and all train stations. 

After an early breakfast at The London Guards Hotel in Lancaster Gate, we took our chances, packed our bags and headed to Victoria station. Upon reaching there, we found a long snaking queue leading up to the ticket counter. Our hearts fell to our stomachs. However, as from the beginning of our travels, we were fortunate enough to have met some of the nicest and most helpful people in the world who, not only assisted us through with our travel challenges but also did it with warm hearts and sincere smiles. 

The lady at the ticketing counter informed us that all buses from London to Paris were sold out. However, she was quick to point out to us that the best option we have was to take a coach to Dover and try our luck at getting a ferry across the English Channel and catching a train from Lille to Paris.  We decided to go along with her suggestion and bought a coach ticket to Dover. The bus ride was smooth and pleasant. It also gave us an opportunity to nap a while before reaching our destination.

The White Cliffs of Dover greeted us like a warm host, as we neared the ferry port. We quickly fell into the long line of people who were queuing up for ferry tickets. Meanwhile, we befriended some sturdy Bobbies who were on duty at the port. They were sweet enough to make sure we boarded the shuttle bus without having to go the end of the very, very long queue line.

The outside temperature was steadily dropping to a sub zero level. The wind, snow and rain did not help either. We were very grateful and let out a sigh of relief when we boarded the well heated ferry. As we crossed the English Channel, the green coloured decks slowly turned white from the falling snow.

When we arrived in Calais, we were slapped by the horridly cold wind, as we disembarked from the ferry. And then it began to rain. There were no buses. No taxis. Luckily enough, we met some more nice people there who were also on the same ferry and faced the same challenges: a Bulgarian man named Orlin and two French boys from Bordeaux named Vincent and Thiboult. They helped us find a private car owner who could drive us to the nearby hotel before taking them to Lille train station for their next transfer.

By the time we walked in through the hotel door, almost 4 hours had passed since we arrived in Calais. And although our bed looked somewhat broken, by the shape of it, my mind conjured up several sordid explanations as to how that bed could end up looking like it did, I was deeply thankful to be able to climb into a warm bed and fell asleep like a baby.

I awakened at 8am, feeling rested and ready for another day of travelling adventure. Breakfast consists of two cups of café au lait and tons of delicious croissants with salted butter. My ideal morning spread. Fed to the max, we braved the chilling weather and walked most of the way to the train station with our heavy luggage in tow. Thank heavens for casters! And then the free shuttle bus drove us for the remainder of the way.

The Calais train station was relatively quiet, considering yesterday’s fracas. We calmly lined up to buy our train tickets and pretty soon we were set to embark on our French journey. Our first stop was Lille Flanders and we had to walk to Lille Europe train station to catch our connecting train to Paris. Lugging heavy luggage through the traffic and cold weather was not easy. But the moment we arrived in Paris and checked into a hotel near Gare du Nord’s train station, we felt an overwhelming sense of relief that we managed to survive through such an ordeal just to get to our destination despite all the challenges we faced. And having a nice dinner at the Ma Maison around the corner of the hotel was a nice closing to an adventurous day.

Now, its time for me to hit the sack because tomorrow promises a fun filled day of Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral and Champs Elysees before we head back to Malaysia… our true home.

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