I’ve had more than my fair share of disastrous holidays. There was the time I ended up in hospital after crashing my bike into the only car I’d seen all day on back-roads in Ireland. Then there was the day I lost my passport in Moscow airport and had to spend most of my ‘holiday’ being quizzed in a back-room. But for the sheer number of things going wrong, our recent Easter break in Nice in the South of France takes the biscuit.
It started well. My son and I took the Eurostar to Paris, hopping on the bus from Hackney to London’s St Pancras International, queueing peacefully for 10 minutes, then sitting comfortably as the train whizzed through the Kent countryside. So relaxed and comfortable were we that we didn’t quite realise we’d passed through the Tunnel and spent a lot of time trying to work out if the fields were French or not.
Paris was magnifique – we whizzed about visiting galleries and restaurants and cruised slowly up the Seine. Arthur became slightly obsessed with Notre-Dame cathedral and took to throwing himself to his knees at the slightest opportunity ‘to talk to God’, which was fine except that he tended to do it in the supermarket or waiting for the Métro too.
Then everything took a turn for the worst. We’d booked the TGV down to Nice but found out, as we hurried to the station, that because of the recent train strike, all trains to Nice had been cancelled.
‘But please go on this one to Marseille and work your way over’, we were told.
I’d never been to Marseille, so I didn’t mind. The train, however, was packed to the hilt and we were crushed in all the way down. When we got to Marseille, we found that there were no trains to Nice that day.
Marseille turned out to be rather glorious, even in the feeble spring sunshine, and we wandered around for a while comparing it to a seaside Hackney – one with better buildings and fewer status dogs. Unfortunately, the only hotel we could find was a nasty, rent-by-the-hour type of place that smelt and had a lot of ‘activity’ at 2am, but Arthur somehow slept well and we set off for Nice in the morning, along with pretty much the whole of Marseille.
These crowds were much more aggressive than those on the TGV, and I found myself becoming very English about the whole thing, shouting at people to get back, sounding like someone from ‘The Archers’. With my face squashed into someone’s big belly for most of the way while Arthur was out of sight under someone else’s luggage, we got as far as Toulon, where we had to get off, spending the night in another uncharming railway hotel. After finally reaching Nice, I nearly decked someone who was trying to claim the only taxi.
Villefranche, where we actually stayed, is a charming but very built-up part of the Riviera coastline. Although it rained constantly, we did enjoy ourselves – or at least, we did for the first two days, before I developed an abscess, overdosed on painkillers to the point where I was delirious, and had to have an emergency tooth-extraction at the hospital. Then, as we walked back to our house, Arthur stood on the back of my flip flop and I fell over straight on to my face and twisted my knee. Decked out in all my new summer finery, I limped along the backstreets of Cap Ferrat with a cheek swollen like a hamster’s, dribbling gently, my face bruised and bleeding…
By now I was counting the days – just two more – until we could go home. It was at this point that some volcano in Iceland began pumping dangerous ash into the air, and that Arthur came down a stomach infection that confined him to the loo for most of our extended holiday. After long searching, the only Internet café I could find in Villefranche was in an expat bar that only opened sporadically and that was usually full of stag-doers or skiving builders from Reading. As I sat there trying to work out a way to get home, my son learnt lots of great new vocabulary and watched a lot of dubious TV with his new drunken friends (falling to his knees to pray had worn off by this point).
After hours of planning fantasy routes home, most of which involved our being picked up by a Navy vessel, I realised that it was easier and cheaper to just hang on and see what our airline, easyJet, would do. Five days later than planned, we lifted off from Nice airport, having been recompensed for our flight and hotel by the airline, with the swelling on my face reduced to a point where I wasn’t scaring small children anymore.
By the time we got home, I’d lost a week’s worth of work and missed a college paper deadline, our house had been invaded by clothes moths and mould, and there were five milk bottles mouldering on my doorstep, dead plants and an ant invasion. Boy, was I glad to see it, though. But all those hours on the Internet in Villefranche had showed me just how much we miss on our travels by flying. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about staying on the French Riviera is the fact that you can visit Cannes or St Tropez or even Italy for the morning. You can go for the weekend to the Italian Lakes or even further afield by just turning up at the station. The island mentality is strong with most Brits, and the fact that you can get to another country by hopping on a bus or a train is new and a bit disconcerting still.
I’d sat in Nice station one morning and chatted to some of those affected by the ash cloud. There was the family who had made it back from New Zealand, taking incredible journeys across Morocco on a night bus and then a ferry from Casablanca (it seems an odd route, but I just nodded along!). Or the couple who had travelled right across Europe from Slovenia in a succession of about 20 trains. I’d be lying to say they had enjoyed themselves in the process, but it does show just how far you can travel without the need for a plane.
Next summer I’m planning to take Arthur around Europe on a Europass. Long-distance trains are wonderful – they go through spectacular scenery, and allow you to jump on and off, to meet people, to keep your feet on the ground, and to avoid polluting the planet. And so my disastrous Easter holiday has had one very good outcome, which is to have opened my eyes to the pleasures and possibilities of train travel once again.