The City of Light lies at her knees. It’s eight o’clock on an autumn Friday, and the streets of Paris are grid-locked. Frozen.
Emerging up the ramp and out of the Earth at the Gare du Nord, there’s chaos all around us. Sporadic, half-hearted toots echo from the crossing streets, but it makes no difference.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. A family celebration in Burgundy had called us here, and we’d tried to do it properly. Ecologically.
To take the train from London, bundle an exciting metro ride across the city to the Gare de Lyon and board a southbound TGV. To travel serenely, and greenly, across the evening and arrive in Dijon as sharp as mustard.
So much for plans and good intentions.
Because tonight, SNCF, French railways are on strike. The metro isn’t running. The transport workers have cynically extended their stoppage to inconvenience all the smiling English rugby fans heading to this weekend’s World Cup Final.The mood at Waterloo is cheerfully jubilant and quietly resigned. About the trip, or the game ahead ? It’s hard to say. The England team was never expected to reach the Stade de France tomorrow, and as long as they can get to Paris, these fans will crawl to reach the stadium. And as long as there’s beer in the tap, they’ll conquer even in defeat.
Our onward train is cancelled, but it’s not too late to hire a car. That’s lucky, because thousands have come here to watch the match, and there’s not a single hotel room to spare in this town tonight.
Stepping off the Eurostar is always disorienting. The experience of international travel feels so different from travelling by sea or air. You board the train in London, and scarcely two hours later you walk off a platform into the heart of Paris. It’s like travelling to Manchester, only with much more garlic.
But today, I’m not so sure. At the end of the platform, there’s a final bastion of Little England. Rugby fans holding ample stomachs and half-drained cans of Kronenbourg. Flags and banners waving.
Beside them stand the men with nasty grins and wad-filled wallets. The touts. ‘Tickets. Tickets bought and tickets sold.’ At 2,000 Euros, those I Was There moments are more expensive than they ever used to be.
So we sit there, in the traffic. An hour for the first hundred metres. ‘Are we nearly there yet ?’ comes that question, and the answer’s frustratingly and frankly, no.
Eventually, around nine o’clock, something happens. We don’t know where. But somehow, we start edging forwards.
And now is when I feel it – that sense of tension from driving on the other side of the road, on the other side of the car. Despite my years abroad, there’s always this uncertain moment, hiding in those first few minutes.
It passes, and then reappears as we arrive at one of those huge cobbled plazas which Paris does so well. Twelve lanes of traffic rotating terrifyingly round a national monument. No road markings, or readily identifiable rules of conduct. Just put your foot down, keep your eyes open, and go.
I’ve no idea which arrondissement this is, which street, or even which piazza until I see the sign. Place de la République. Another sight crossed off my list.
We carry on, dodging motovélos in the bus lane. Delivery vans and bus drivers, showing the same consideration as in London. ‘lument rien. We round the shining column at La Bastille. Vive la révolution.
Finally, we pass the Gare de Lyon. But with eyes tight shut it’s hard to find the way. Far too late, I glimpse a sign to Austerlitz. I ran past there once, on another visit. Somewhere along the rive gauche. That’ll do. We burst out of traffic across a bridge, although I couldn’t tell you which. Notre Dame lies lit up behind the chestnut trees across the Seine. Paris immutable in the evening.
A long street I vaguely recognise, a battle with foot-floored taxis, and finally we emerge into another vast cobbled wasteland. The Place d’Italie, it says, but there’s no chance of pasta here. The flavour’s French, and firmly frozen with the traffic. We sit and wait another hour, almost.
Enfin, ça roule … and then a slip road to the Paris périphérique opens up – surely another scary ride ahead. But tonight the captured cars within the city have left the Boulevard completely clear. There’s some weaving for a mile or two, pas trop grave, and it seems just a moment before we reach the Autoroute.
It’s ten thirty, on the A6 south. Three hundred and fifty kilometres still to go.
The road ahead is dark at last. Another evening in the ville de lumière, and it’s one I won’t forget. But she gives so much, this city, that I’m certain to forgive.