Thursday, October 16, 2014

European Travel: It's an Omelette Thing (part two)

 This is the second installment of our recent European trip:

As I said, travel is marvelous. However, the transitions can often be exhausting and traumatic, especially as one gets older. Anita and I have some standing jokes about this. We often wish that we could be beamed to our destinations, as in “Beam me up, Scotty.” Also, do you remember Greyhound Bus’ old slogan “Getting there is half the fun”? What a crock! Anita says that getting there is often none of the fun. I agree.

Next, we had to go to Paris’ Gare Montparnasse to take the Toulouse TGV. Montparnasse is one of those gigantic Paris railroad stations with dozens of platforms crowded with thousands of passengers running in dozens of directions.

European travel is often nerve-racking: At railroad stations as well as at airports, the platform (or gate) of departure is not announced until mere minutes before departure. Hundreds of people all stand underneath an enormous board on which departure platform/gate numbers suddenly appear, often less than 10 minutes before departure time. When the information finally begins to flash, there is a stampede by hundreds of people towards the relevant platform/gate.

The situation is worse at railroad stations than at airports: You have reserved specific seats in a specific car. After you’ve finally figured out where each car’s number is posted, you discover that yours is at the very front of the train, a third of a mile away. So you run as fast as you can, pulling your suitcases, crashing into other passengers and rolling over their feet while they do the same things to you. This time, it almost came to blows. I accidentally bumped into a Frenchman who was running with a baby in his arms. He tried to kick me, but only managed to kick my suitcase. Afraid that we would miss the train, I didn’t pursue the issue.

I had planned our trip meticulously: The TGV was leaving Paris at noon, it was to arrive in Toulouse around 6 pm. There, we would pick up an Avis rental, drive to Albi, about an hour away, and check in at our hotel no later than 8 pm, still well before dark.

Alas, we encountered another omelette situation: after a smooth five hour ride across the scenic French countryside and miles of vineyards, the train came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. For the next several hours, it didn’t budge. The cause? Cattle had crossed the tracks, some were killed, there was a mess to clean up.

I fretted about our timetable. How late was the Avis office in Toulouse open? What would our hotel in Albi do if it got to be real late and we still hadn’t shown up? A friendly train employee called the hotel for us and we were told that we could arrive at any time all night.

Finally the train resumed its course. We reached the Avis car rental in Toulouse after dark, but they were still open. We got a fine little four-door Audi with standard shift. Now, our next challenge was to find our way to the town of Albi and our hotel there.

When driving a car, there are three ways to find your way around: Paper maps, road signs and GPS.

Maps are difficult to come by these days. Car rental companies don’t even give them out. Even though I absolutely love maps, I rarely carry them in my car anymore. Road signs are essential. Without them you are lost.

But today, it’s all about GPS - quaintly called a Tom Tom in Europe, after the Dutch company that manufactures most European GPS. Sometimes your rented car has GPS, sometimes they extort an extra 30 euros a day for it. Either way, I haven’t bothered figuring out how the rented car’s GPS works, nor do I use my iPhone’s GPS. Instead, we rely on a Garmin which we bought for $120 at Costco about five years ago. We always bring it to Europe with us, along with the eurochip.

After it acquires the satellites, it knows what it’s doing - SOMETIMES. The fact that the lady mispronounces foreign names is only amusing. But quite often the Garmin and the local road signs are at odds with each other. Usually, the Garmin tries to guide us to our destination by the SHORTEST route. And sometimes, she doesn’t know that this requires taking an impassable dirt mountain road or construction site. Sometimes, she tells us to turn right onto a road 20 feet below us which we are crossing on a freeway overpass. Sometimes she tells us to turn left just as a sign tells us to go straight ahead. So whenever our Garmin and a road sign disagree, we go with the sign.

We exit the Avis garage a little after 10 pm. It’s pitch dark and we are somewhere on the outskirts of Toulouse International Airport, in Blagnac. It is enormous and confusing, because this is where Airbus is located. The largest aircraft manufacturer in the world. We are utterly and totally lost. We are surrounded by gigantic hangars, construction sites, barriers and fences separating us from runways, one-way streets and dead-end streets. The Garmin cannot save us. It can only endlessly recalculate. We come by a lone, empty but still open eating joint. I barge in, in panic, and scream at the cook, a boyish young man: “Where are we? How do I get to the road to Albi?” The boy gives me some advice. After meandering in the dark for another ten minutes, a miracle: A road sign saying: To Albi!

We get to our hotel in Albi around 23:00. A nice reception lady is waiting for us. We are ravenous, and she suggests a Turkish eatery around the corner. Worth a try, even at this hour. When we get there, the owner is just shutting down, but he reopens the kitchen just for us. We eat some fine kebabs and salad with feta cheese. Besides us, there is also a drunken Frenchman finishing his ouzo. He insists on a conversation with us, or actually more a monologue: He slurs together something about the great Albigensian Heresy and the Catholic crusade against it, in which many were killed.

During the following week, we will learn more about this fascinating period of medieval history. The people of this region became adherents of Catharism, an alternative to Catholicism. The Pope declared this a heresy, there was a bloody crusade, which culminated in the massacre of dozens of thousands of Cathars in 1209. Anita and I learn all about this as we visit Carcassonne and other cities in this magnificent region at the foot of the snow capped Pyrenees.

A week later, we fly from Toulouse to Rome, for our final week in Europe. That becomes another exquisite week filled with Fabio’s cooking classes, outdoor concerts in the Teatro Marcello, picnics in Aqueduct Park, Trajan’s Marketplace and the Campo de Fiori fountain, visits to sights we have not previously seen, such as Cinecitta, Eataly, the newly opened houses of Augustus and Livia Drusilla, along with obligatory return visits to the Capitoline Museum, the Forum, and so forth. But I’ll stop right here, just to say that if Paris is Catherine Deneuve or Brigitte Bardot, Rome is Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida. How can you choose? (To be continued)  leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2014