Monday, October 13, 2003

Ferries in Marseilles, late trains, Dover, Calais, French motorway bypasses, yobs, irritating immigration procedures, and a dreamy evening in Canterbury

As I am sitting here in London thinking about the fact that I am not in Copengagen, I can at least recount the story of my not entirely successful trip to France last week, which somehow ended up being deeply satisfying anyway, except for the English yobs who I could in fact have done without, but more on them later. But first, ferries.

One thing about Europe is there are large numbers of reasonably wide bodies of water that separate pieces of land and over which substantial numbers of people wish to cross and take their cars, but which do not have bridges or tunnels. There are the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the English Channel, the Irish sea etc. (The English Channel does of course have a tunnel, but the tunnel is so incompetently run that a lot of the traffic still goes by ferry). I have been recently reading Paul Theroux's The Pillars of Hercules, in which he travels around the Mediterranean, catching enormous numbers of ferries as he (amongst other things) visits every island of significance in the sea. And I was a little jealous, partly because of the islands - none of which I have visited, and also partly because of the ferry trips, which sound like kind of fun in themselves. When I went to Marseilles, I walked into the ferry port, and saw ferries departing for Corsica, Algeria, and Tunisia.

The ferry terminal for going to Corsica was clean and modern, the terminal for ferries to Algeria and Tunisia was full of North Africans, and was run down and clearly had had no money spent on it recently. A ferry to Algiers was about to depart, and there was a long queue of enormously overloaded cars preparing to board it.

The next day, when I went out on the water to the islands off the Marseilles coast, another international ferry departed, this one to Tunisia.

While there was a certain temptation to jump onto a ferry to Tunis, I managed to resist it. But the network of huge car ferries in Europe is very extensive, and if I had driven to some of these places I would have no doubt used some of these ferries. However, I have normally travelled around Europe by train and plane, as these ways are easier for a solo traveller without a car.

Huge car ferries are largely an alien thing to Australians, as Australia has few bodies of water over which large numbers of people regularly cross. (There are car ferries between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, but that is all, and I have never been on those ferries. In nearby countries, there are lots of ferries between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. This voyage across Cook Strait and through the long sounds (technically fjords) of the northern south island is a beautiful journey in good weather and a fairly hideous one in bad weather). Australia itself does not even have any long bridges - the longest in the country is still the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is absolutely piffling by international standards. There must also be lots and lots of ferries connecting the immense number of Islands in Indonesia.

I think that such ferries are less common in America due to the fact that America contains fewer bodies of water to cross and the Americans have been more avid about actually building bridges and tunnels than have the Europeans (although the Europeans are now catching up, which was why I was going to Denmark this weekend, but I digress). There must be ferries on the great lakes, and lots of them in the Carribean, though.

As I said, I have made very few ferry journeys in Europe. A few years ago, I got a ferry from Helsinki to Tallin and back across the Baltic. Late last year I realised that I had never crossed the English channel by ferry, although I had been under it in a train, and across it by air many times, and I therefore went to Normandy and back by ferry. This involved going from Portsmouth, which was fine. However, it still wasn't the canonical England/France ferry experience, which involves sailing from Dover as you look at the white cliffs and and get all teart eyed as you contemplate

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

or similar. (I have to give it to Mr Shakespeare. The man could certainly write). I had never done this, and, somehow, thinking about it last week it seemed essential.

Now, of course, actually going on this ferry journey from where I live in Croydon in south London is not especially difficult or expensive. I can go by train to Dover, go on a very inexpensive daytrip to Calais and back, and the cat won't even know I have gone. Or such was the idea. I thought of doing it last Saturday, but to tell the truth I slept in, and in any event when I checked things on the P&O ferries website, I discovered that the ferry trip cost more on the weekend, which was annoying.

So, I thought, why not do it on a weekday. The problem with this is that the cheapest train tickets only apply from 1000 on a weekday, whereas they are available all day on weekends. Still, I could get a train just after 1000, arrive in Dover a little after midday, get the 1315 ferry to Calais at about 1530 French time, have about five hours in Calais, get the 2100 Ferry back to Dover, arrive at Dover around 2130, and get one of the last trains back to London. No problem.

Well, not exactly none. The first problem arrived pretty much the moment I arrived at the train station. Kent has some of the worst and slowest trains in the United Kingdom. The train was initially 15 minutes late.

The intention was to get a train from Croydon to Tonbridge, and then change to a train from Tonbridge to Dover. That one was late, too, a little over 30 minutes so. I did get to go on an old train line parallel to the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link (that has been open for a couple of weeks) from Ashford for a few kilometres, and I hoped to see the novel attraction of a train going through Kent at 220km/h, but sadly none came while I was watching. I ended up arriving in Dover at around 1300, and I just missed arriving at the ferry terminal in time to make the 1345 ferry.The next one was 1430, which was annoying.

Still, I hung around in the ferry terminal for a bit. It was for some reason full of Americans. I am capable of switching dialect to talk to Americans if I need to, so I did. Oddly enough, the joke phrase used to refer to trivial conversation with Americans, "How about them Cubs", actually applied, as the Chicago Cubs had won their first playoff series since the Reformation the night before. So I had a chat with a couple of American guys from Pittsburgh, about baseball, Pittsburgh, and their lightning trip to Europe. (Paris yesterday, London today, Brussels tomorrow, and then Amsterdam). That kind of thing. A very nice, friendly couple of chaps. Very typical for travelling Americans, in my experience.

So, the ferry to France. We sailed, the white cliffs receded in the distance.

This was the way in which people departing England departed England for a very long time indeed. I thought about this precious stone set in the silver sea as I drank my pint of beer in the ferry bar. Things weren't actually so bad after all.

But of course the ferry was late getting into Calais. I observed that although it is the white cliffs of Dover that are famous, there are also a few less famous white cliffs on the other side. The ferry docked in Calais. A little after five. If I was going to be back in time to check in for the 9pm ferry at 8.30pm, I was going to only have about three hours.

And well, not very much there. A French high street. Various bits of minor port stuff. A few okay restaurants. (Finding a nice little brasserie in which to have dinner was no trouble). One or two liquor stores.

However, a truly extraordinary building as the town hall. I don't know quite where this came from. (The photo is a bit fuzzy. I'm not sure if that was because I am only using 1.3 megapixels, or because the light was fading. Of course, analogue photography looks gorgeous in failing light like this).

But anyway, I was in France. However, like Le Havre and Cherbourg, the two French channel points I had seen before, Calais was really not very interesting. At least, the town itself wasn't. As people know, I am an infrastructure buff, and there is lots of interesting infrastructure things near Calais. For one thing, there is the France end of the Channel Tunnel, and all the associated works and infrastructure. And for another there are some deeply intriguing retail businesses, warped by the difference in tax rates (particularly on alcohol and tobacco) between England and France. In particular, both Sainsbury's and Tesco have stores from which English people can buy the sorts of stuff that English people about to depart France want to buy. I was quite interested to see what the combination of these factors and Sainsbury and Tesco's impressive logistics and computer systems would create.

But of course, these things had nothing to do with the actual town of Calais. The ferry port is on the north of Calais, but if you drive your car off the ferry and want to go south, you go straight onto a motorway bypass that circles the town before heading south. All the modern developments are designed with the motorist in mind, and are thus just off the motorway exits on the far side of town from the ferry terminals. They are not designed for walking from Calais at all. I knew this, but I thought I would seek them out just the same.

But is was not to be. I didn't find Sainsbury's or Tesco. I did however, get a good picture of how the motorway and related infrastructure was laid out, so this was productive anyway. Sadly I only had three hours. If I had had five, no problem.

But I used up my alloted time. I had decided to forsake the 2100 ferry and instead get the 2130 ferry. This required me to be at the ferry port by 2100. From the motorway exist on the other side of town, I found myself in a position where I was pushing it. This was fine, though. I have a great sense of direction, and I find it fun to push myself to make things like ferry departures in time, even if it looks unlikely. Therefore, I crossed Calais with a mixture of running and walking briskly for 45 minutes or so, and got back to the ferry terminal just in time. I went through check-in, and I got on the little shuttle bus that goes from the terminal to the ferry.

It was me in the bus by myself, as presumably passengers who had arrived with more time to spare had gone on an earlier trip. I sat on the bus for a couple of minutes, and then a couple of twentysomething Englishmen got on too. They said hello, observed that I was Australian, complained that they had not been able to find any "good pubs" in Calais - they were none the less drunk, and steadily started smirking as the conversation went on. After it got a little further, they observed that I was sweating a bit. I said that I had had to run a bit to make the ferry.

At that point, these two arseholes started laughing. An extremely loud, mocking, nasty bullying laugh that went on for about five minutes. I am a bit nerdy, I will admit, and this is not the first time in history that people have responded to me like this. But this was I think the genuine English yob in its natural habitat. Not nice.
Comparing with the enormously friendly and nice Americans I encountered waiting for the ferry out earlier in the day, I have to say, USA 1 - Britain 0.

I then sat on the ferry for an hour and a half, and prepared to get off. As I was walking to the shuttle bus, I somehow managed to encounter the same yobs again, and they again decided there was something hilarious about me and that they should laugh at me at the top of their lungs. Great. I like the English on the whole, but the country has the worst yobs in the world. The worst of the two of them was stopped by a ferry crewmember, who started saying something sternly to him. I didn't catch much of the conversation other than "That constitutes theft", so at least I wasn't the only person he had pissed off.

Anyway, I eventually got to immigration. I was seemingly the only non-EU national on the ferry, and I thus had to fill out a form, and answer a few questions, whereas if I had been an EU national I could just walk through. This took time, and as I walked out of the terminal, I saw the shuttle bus to the railway station heading off into the distance. As I was half an hour later than I had intended, this was the last one for the evening, and by the time I had walked to the railway station, I had missed the last train back to London. This was irritating.

There was however, a train to Canterbury. I had been to Canterbury once before, in about 1994 with some Cambridge friends, and we had seen the Cathedral and then gone to a restaurant selling crepes, where we had sat for several hours while reading the Sunday newspapers and being served by a particularly nice waitress. It was a very pleasing memory, so I hopped on the train to Canterbury. I also thought that Canterbury was my best hope of finding somewhere that would be open where I could sit inside until the first train came along the next morning.

As it happened, I was right. I arrived in Canterbury and had a walk around. It is a beautiful city, and I looked at the buildings, in the windows of interesting shops, walked along the river, and admired the gorgeous buldings. Some towns just have a nice feel about them, and Canterbury is one of them. I hadn't been too upset about the yobs, because they were so self-evidently just innately nasty people, so my mood was still fine. I found a shop selling chicken, chips, burgers and stuff that was open. I bought some chicken and sat down at about 1am. The place was open late, and I ate my chicken and stayed sitting at the table until the shop closed at about 4am. In that time, a score of customers came in and bought food too. Many seemed studenty - the University of Kent at Canterbury is a good university - some were people who had worked late - most seemed regular customers. They all walked in, had lengthy chats with the proprieters (one of who was English and the other Turkish), wished me a good evening as they were waiting and walking past. One or two of these people had had a few drinks too, but somehow they were just having a good evening.

So that was Canterbury, as nice a place as I remembered. This cheered me up considerably and I must go back sometime during the day. Eventually, I was kicked out of the chicken shop (although I walked past it again a few minutes later and the proprieter who was just locking up gave me a friendly wave) and I walked to the railway station to catch the first train back to London. Sadly, I had to pay another train fare, which more than made up for the saving I made by going to Calais on a weekday. Oh well. I had that dreamy middle of the night Canterbury experience, and somehow this was worth it. Although I could have done without the yobs.

Somehow, I managed to have a fun day despite (or perhaps because of) the various things that went wrong. And I learned enough to make sure they don't happen next time. For instance, next time I will go on a weekend, and I shall take the hovercraft, which doesn't cost much more and crosses the channel in half the time.

1 comment:

Admin said...

Good one.. People living around the UK do come across ferries more often than others. I too love traveling on cross channel ferries to france. Its so relaxing and convenient too.

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