Feb 14 2008

From Lisbon to Paris on the Midnight Express

Published by at 10:04 pm under France,Lisbon,Paris,Portugal

We’re always writing about the deplorable travel conditions we’re willing to subject ourselves to in the name of saving a buck (or a euro, which is an unimaginable bounty of bucks). But the odyssey we endured getting from Lisbon to Paris may have been the most regrettable of all our almost-embarrassing-enough-to-not-do-it-again stingy decisions. We COULD have taken a delightfully convenient 2-hour plane ride from Lisbon directly into Paris, but we had the misfortune to discover an alternative option, involving 27 hours of travel, that was minimally cheaper. With visions of the one extra chocolate croissant we’d now be able to afford dancing in our heads, we foolishly booked our train tickets and started packing our bags.

As if one train ride from Lisbon to Paris weren’t bad enough, our itinerary required us to take one 14-hour overnight train to the French border city of Hendaye, where we would wait seven hours in the train station, and then board a different six-hour train for Paris. When one of our fellow hostelers in Lisbon heard us planning our route, he warned us that the overnight train to Hendaye is, in his own words, “the worst train in Europe.” But since I was, at that moment, in the middle of a recurring fantasy in which I swim backstroke laps inside Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, my ears were deaf to his warning.

It was only once we boarded the train for Hendaye that I remembered our friend’s words. Our train would travel overnight, but we discovered on board that our “seats” were not so much the individual reclining chairs you expect in lieu of beds on a cheap overnight train, but were, instead, numbered spaces on a dirty bench. Each toaster-sized compartment on the train was stuffed with two of these benches, situated so that they faced one another. And while the benches were obviously designed to accommodate two persons each, we noted that each bench was mysteriously numbered to seat four. Brittany and I took the “seats” next to the window, facing each other, and settled in for the ride. For the first hour of our 14-hour trip, we had the breadbox to ourselves. This was, of course, too good to last.

Sometime during the second hour, we were joined by two young French parents and their two-year old son. I should note here an inexplicable and recurring theme of this trip: American children are afraid of me, but European children love me. For every American toddler that has run away screaming after seeing what must look like pure evil in my eyes, there are two European children who I can’t seem to amputate from my ankles. So it was only to be expected when the little boy, upon entering our compartment, immediately decided that he preferred staring at me/scooting up next to me/lying as much of his body as possible across my lap to just about anything else his parents could suggest. Which was fine. What was NOT fine was that the kid’s parents smelled worse than I had previously thought possible for human beings. This coming from someone who just spent the last five months in the land that deodorant forgot.

Oh, and the kid’s screaming. That wasn’t fine either. Our claustrophobic compartment was not where you’d want to be trapped with a two-year old for fourteen hours, especially after two more occupants showed up in hour three, pushing us to three people over maximum occupancy. Still facing each other, but now more on the window than beside it, Brittany and I occupied ourselves by trying to remember exactly why we didn’t want to take the comfortable, spacious, and over-before-you-know-it plane ride. Luckily, my toddler attachment helped us all pass the time by throwing intermittent screaming fits that rendered sleep, conversation, and lucid thought impossible. He had several tantrums that would normally be very worthy of note, but they all paled in comparison to the one that was directly instigated by his own mother. Now, I’m the first to say that I know nada about parenting, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your two-year old is whining for juice, it’s NOT a good idea to cruelly pitch an obviously empty juice box at his head. And then, when he discovers that you’ve played a prank on him, and whines louder because the juice box is actually empty, it’s an even worse idea to scream in his face and SHOVE HIM DOWN onto the ground. Really, this isn’t even just a terrible idea; it’s what we non-stinky rational people might call “child abuse.” Over the (clearly warranted) ear-piercing screams, I exchanged uneasy glances with the other passengers in the compartment. AWKWARD. Personally, I am unable to sleep sitting up, but Junior eventually fell asleep with his head on my lap, so the decibel level did recede during the night. Not so, I’m sorry to report, for the smell.

The next morning (or the same day… I didn’t sleep a wink, so who really knows?) our train arrived in Hendaye. I don’t feel bad saying that European border cities are the modern equivalent of old port towns, where everyone with any ambition/character/appeal fled for greener pastures long ago, and all that’s left are the few jerks who hang around in hopes of swindling the travelers who pass through. This may be a generalization based on limited experience, but I don’t feel bad saying it. Blame it on the bar owner in Hendaye who charged us SEVEN euros ($10+) for two plain donuts and a water at 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and the lady working the ticket counter at the train station. Once we realized the unscrupulous nature of Hendaye’s native vagrants, we tried to exchange our tickets for ones that might let us spend fewer than seven hours in the hellhole. The ticket lady was only too happy to explain that there were several trains heading for Paris between now and our scheduled departure, and that each one had “many, many available seats” but that she simply couldn’t exchange our tickets. Sorry! Actually, no, she didn’t even say sorry. She did try to suppress a laugh, with limited success. I guess I had hoped that she might not be a Hendaye native, and therefore had the possibility of a human soul, but I should have been thinking more clearly: no one would ever move TO Hendaye, North Korea, or Newark. The idea is to get OUT.

Like all non-criminals before us, we did manage to get out of Hendaye. It took sitting/unsuccessfully trying to nap in the train station’s waiting room for seven hours, but we did it. And after the first two torture sessions of our journey, stepping aboard one of France’s fast, comfortable, and modern TGV trains was a relief. Speaking of TGV, it was a good thing we spent time in Nice and Aix-en-Provence before booking our tickets to Paris. When we first tried to buy tickets in Lisbon, the ticket office told us that the train tickets from Hendaye to Paris would cost 75 euros each. We balked at this, and went online ourselves to the TGV website that we had used to travel through southern France. There we purchased our tickets ourselves for 25 euros each, saving about $150 in the process. Portugal’s station probably figures they can get away with this fleecing because the TGV website is difficult to find, and is entirely in French. If you’re planning to travel by train in France, everything you read will say that the TGV website is www.sncf.com. Don’t believe any of it! The locals view timetables and book their tickets through www.voyages-sncf.com, and so should you.

So we finally made it Paris, the last stop on our European tour. First impression: the city is HUGE. I thought we’d been to some big cities, but I’d seen nothing. Where Barcelona is serviced by a few dozen metro stops, Paris boasts an incredible 384. And this was really my first and only impression of Paris on arrival day, because we got into town after dark, took the metro straight to the apartment we’d booked for the coming week, and immediately proceeded to sleep like never before. Brittany’s family would be flying into Paris the next morning, and we would spend the next week exploring the city together. But for now, sleep, and sweet dreams of the chocolate croissant.

NEXT: Paris Day 1 »



9 responses so far

9 Responses to “From Lisbon to Paris on the Midnight Express”

  1. Ryan L.on 15 Feb 2008 at 9:54 am

    Double check that link: http://www.journeys-snfc.fr i didnt come up with anything on it and need all the help I can get! Awesome that you all are in Asia, we won’t be making that jump but keep it up!

  2. Benon 15 Feb 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Ooh, good call Ryan. That old link was wrong indeed. Just fixed it in the text… thanks for lookin out!

  3. Brittanyon 15 Feb 2008 at 9:57 pm

    Hey Ryan –

    To add to Ben’s info, on the voyages-sncf site, click on anything that says “idTGV” for good deals on train trips in France. They also have a “promotions” link that (mysteriously) disappears when you click the button to view the site in English. Those Frenchies are sly. Unfortunately you’ll have to fumble through the site in French for the truly good deals.

  4. Ryan L.on 18 Feb 2008 at 11:45 am

    Thanks to you both you’re the best. I’ll reintroduce you to the American micro-brew, my treat, when you return and before I take off.

  5. sumithon 13 Jan 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I enjoy to read your article.we need to try out journeys .our life also the same..its always be a adventure,cannot predicted….
    .thanks …
    sumith dias

  6. Republic Polytechnicon 01 Dec 2010 at 10:47 pm

    You’ve made a very good story.
    If it’s fine with you, I would like to ask permission to use your article as it fits to my obstruction. I will be glad to negotiate to pay you or hire you for this.

    With Regards from
    Republic Polytechnic

  7. steveon 10 Aug 2011 at 9:45 am

    If you are still out there in cyberspace, my wife and I are planning on going from Lisbon to Paris in a month. It looks like your trip was a couple of years ago. Have things improved or should we go to school on you and just fly there? Thanks for your input.

  8. cocoon 23 Nov 2011 at 1:56 am

    I was about 2 mins off from booking this exact ticket, then decided to quickly get a few opinions. After I spat out my milkshake laughing at this I decided the pricier plane might be for me. Nice gags, nice karma.

  9. Laurenon 10 Dec 2011 at 6:45 am

    Very funny article, and yet I’m still tempted by the travelling across Europe idea, rather than flying direct from London to Lisbon. Even though it’s probably cheaper. Has anyone done this more recently? We want to go to France, Spain and Portugal next summer. Steve: what did you and your wife go for in the end?

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