01 April 2014

Accidental Tourist

It's not every day you find yourself in a place you didn't expect to be.

It happened to me one summer when I was staying at college
with a friend in Oxford, England.

It started innocently enough.... a random conversation about travelling down to Canterbury for the day, to investigate the cathedral, enjoy a walk along the river, stop for a pub lunch somewhere and then travel home again by nightfall. It would require taking the Oxford coach into London and then boarding the train to Canterbury which left from Victoria Station.

The morning's journey was going quite well until we were just about to pull into the Canterbury Station.  My friend, who has a penchant for upending excursions with his spur-of-the-moment schemes, turned to me and said, "What if we stay on the train and go on to Folkstone?" Folkstone is just south of Dover, on the coast of eastern England.

"Why would we go to Folkstone?" I asked, a bit alarmed.

"Because then we could take the ferry to Boulogne," he replied, "have lunch and then come home.  You'll get your passport stamped and be able to say you'd been to France!"

He said this as if it was the most logical thing in the world and I'd be a fool not to agree.  By the time we hashed this out, the train had stopped in Cantebury, dropped people off, collected a few more passengers, and resumed it's journey. To Folkstone.  Paying the extra money to the conductor as he ambled down the aisle, and committed now to this whimsical plan, we settled back and discussed what we might have for lunch in France!  Oysters?  Mussels?  Pate?

When we arrived in Folkstone, we were told that the next Ferry was entirely booked and there would be an hour's wait for another one.  A bit disappointed to have our journey interrupted this way, I was starting to have second thoughts... imagining our walk throughout Canterbury which now wouldn't be taking place.  But within minutes the ferry master beckoned to us and said we could board after all.

Happy to have the extra hour on the other side of the Channel, we boarded with what seemed like at least 246 school children and travelled towards the continent. The journey wasn't as long as I'd imagined and soon the coast of France loomed and we landed at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Hoverport.

While the town of Boulogne-sur-Mer is incredibly picturesque, the terminal was decidedly not, being a veritable maze of counters and ticket agents, with options for taxi cabs, coaches, or trains, and it was difficult at first to know where to turn to find a conveyance into the little town. Motioning for me to wait, my friend dashed to up to an agent and used his best school-boy french to purchase some tickets for what I'd assumed would be a coach or commuter rail. 

"Hurry!" he said, grabbing my arm, "It's leaving now!"

I ran beside him, managing to mount the steps of a train mere seconds before it started its slow crawl out of the station.  Walking down through the cars he found an empty private carriage where he slid the door open and guided me inside. I collapsed next to him onto one of the seats and smiled with relief as the countryside started to pass us by.

"How long will it take?" I asked.

"A few hours," he smiled.
"Hours...??" I realized our train was picking up speed. Too much so for the brief journey into Boulogne. "Why? Where are we going?"


"PARIS????  Are you serious???"

I looked down at my clothes:  a black and white cotton print dress, white canvas flats, and a tapestry carry bag with my journal, a camera, a shawl and my wallet. Audrey Hepburn may have looked adorable in such a simple ensemble, but I looked like a charwoman.  And he was no better off, sporting jeans, a worn jersey, and heavy boots.

I then did the math in my head. We would arrive in Paris just before the dinner hour, which meant all of our day-return tickets for the ferry back to Folkstone, the train back to London, and the coach back to Oxford wouldn't be worth the paper they were printed on. It also meant we either had to stay up all night (not a difficult thing to do in Paris, I was certain) or find a hotel room.  Apparently, he was thinking the same thing.

"I think we should either find the grandest place we can, or the most seedy...." he mused,  "we need to see the city one way or the other."

Our penury notwithstanding, I was secretly opting for grandeur over bedbugs or being knifed in my sleep.

We arrived at Gard du Nord and after considering our options purchased Metro tickets for Place de l'Opera. Why we chose this arrondissement escapes me now, but it seemed like a good choice at the time.

When we climbed out of the Metro station into daylight, the Paris Opera loomed over us like a rococco dream, while the Paris traffic whizzed around us like a video game in which the objective was to annihilate as many pedestrians as you could.  (Pedestrians, I soon learned, never have the right of way in Paris. Ever.)

We somehow managed to cross the road to the Cafe de la Paix, where we indulged in cup after cup of rich coffee and crunchy baguettes with creamery butter.

We people-watched for over an hour, trying to let the glorious reality of our situation sink in, and smiling at one another periodically with disbelief. We even found ourselves being serenaded by a busker who wandered from table to table playing his violin. Soon, however, we knew we had to seriously discuss our options for a hotel. Paying our bill, we arose and wandered around the corner, intending to investigate some of the hotels we'd been told were down the road; but within moments we discovered that the Cafe de la Paix was on the ground floor of Le Grand Hotel. In terms of grandeur, it fit the bill perfectly. The lobby alone was breathtaking.

"If we're going to spend the money, " I suggested, "then why not here?"

He agreed and we walked in and stood at the desk looking for all the world like we were applying for housekeeping jobs.  But once we'd proferred our credit cards, we found ourselves in a luxurious room, heartened that the exorbitant price would include supper in the cafe, a wake up call, and breakfast in their gorgeous palm-laden dining room.

Not knowing where we might end up for the night, we had stopped earlier at a pharmacie where we purchased soap and toothbrushes ... all of which we found in abundance in the elegant bath quarters of our hotel room, which were nearly as large as the ground floor of my cottage!

After freshening up we deciding the best plan was simply walking as much as we could and enjoying whatever we saw along the way. We rode the Metro to the Palais Royale and then gradually found our way to the Champs-Élysées, strolling the length of the magnificent avenue to the Arc de Triomph, all the while marvelling at our being there at all.

Eventually we ambled down a side street and crossed the river to le Tour Eiffel, where we paid a modest sum to travel up inside the iron masterwork to gaze out over Paris. The city sparkled like diamonds in the night and we could see the streets spidering outward from the Trocadero up to Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmatre.

Thoroughly elated but feeling a bit tired, we journeyed back to our hotel where we enjoyed a late supper in the Cafe's glassed in restaurant.

The next morning, we had a wonderful breakfast in the palm room, squirreling the extra croissants, pots of jam and pats of butter into my carry bag for an impromptu lunch afterwards along the Seine.  We then boarded the Metro for a brief but memorable day in Paris.

Despite a compressed schedule, we managed to wander through Notre Dame, pick our way through a labyrinth of market stalls, investigate the booksellers along the Seine, and ramble around the Louvre where my friend stood in front of the Mona Lisa for what seemed like hours, while I paid homage to Le Jeune Martyre on the other side of the gallery.  We enjoyed our makeshift lunch by the fountains at the glass pyramids, studying the Louvre's façade and grinning at one another.

Le Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche (1855) - Musée du Louvre

Sooner than we'd hoped it was time to return to the Gard du Nord rail station where we purchased one-way tickets for Boulogne. Settling down for the ride to the coast, we consulted the ferry schedule and realized, too late, that we would never get to Boulogne in time for the last ferry.  What to do?

There were really only two options. We could wait in the ferry station overnight until morning, which was hardly appealing. Or we could remain on the train and continue on to Calais where the ferries ran to Dover long after midnight. This was much more sensible, surely, but our ferry tickets were not good for the Calais to Dover run... and our London train ticket was only good if we left from Folkstone. Two more tickets to add to the unused pile!

We hesitated, not making the decision really but simply letting the train pull out of the Boulogne station. Too late now. We were bound for Calais. We waited for an agent to stride through and ask to see our tickets so we could pay for the extra journey.  No one came.  We watched the scenery flash by in the darkness.  "I'm fare hopping," I thought to myself with chagrin.  "I'm a grown person, and I'm fare hopping..."

When we arrived in Calais we detrained quickly and ran to purchase tickets so we could board the next ferry.  (Despite not having paid for the journey to Calais, there were no police sirens awaiting us and no handcuffs or jail sentence in a foreign cell, for which I was mightily grateful albeit feeling terribly guilty.)

It was midnight as we slipped away from Calais towards Dover. Unlike the hovercraft that runs between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Folkstone, this was a proper ferry, its bottom securely anchored in the choppy waters as it plied the Channel waters with a lumbering grace.  It was misting slightly so I wrapped a shawl around my hair and shoulders, standing by the railing and looking out as the lights of France faded to a mere glimmer in the night. So many people had taken this journey over time: Historical figures who had either escaped to France or were returning to England, in secret or in glory; literary icons who'd found their way to the continent; artists who sought the inspiration of Paris for their canvases. Mary Queen of Scots, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles II, John Singer Sargent, Gertrude Stein. All had travelled over these same waters, and perhaps all had stood as I was now standing, peering out at the distant lights that grew smaller and smaller.

Soon all was darkness and while it didn't last long, it was strangely peaceful to be adrift in the black middle-night on the deep waters of the English Channel. And then, like magic, the chalk cliffs of Dover appeared in the night, and the lights of England beckoned us home.

We had to wait at the ferry landing for nearly 2 hours for the next coach into London.  (The trains weren't running until much later and we couldn't bear the thought of staying longer than we had to in the ferry station.)  Sleeping for much of the journey, we arrived in London quite early in the morning, catching the first coach to Oxford and barely able to speak for exhaustion and lack of sleep.  As we rolled into the City Centre, we stumbled to the nearest cafe on St. Giles street and tucked into an enormous breakfast, smiling at one another idiotically over our bacon, sausage, fried toast and eggs.

Were we just in Paris? Was that possible?  Had it all really happened?

A pocket full of useless rail, coach and ferry tickets in my pocket told me it had.
And they were worth every penny.

The three hotel photos are from Le Grand Hotel site; all others by the author.


  1. What a memorable way to see Paris! The Grand Hotel! Oh lala! A true adventure. (I'm guessing you have all the details from your journal.) We visited Amsterdam for one day in much the same way (we were trying to get a flight back home from Nairobi and all the flights through London were full. I saw a plane outside the window and asked the agent "where's that one going?) I hope things start springing for you soon!

    1. It certainly was memorable, Jacqueline! And yes, I made sure to jot down everything in a journal. I love accidental journeys like that, and the one you took yourself to Amsterdam sounds wonderful. That's a place I've always wanted to see. I think that kind of spontaneity keeps you young and helps you to not worry so much about petty things you might otherwise stress over on a holiday. (Of course we were paying for that hotel rooms for quite awhile!)

  2. Magnificent tour! Thank you so much for sharing. I love the red chairs in that hotel!

    1. Oh, Linda, the hotel was so beautiful! It was like Dorothy stepping into Oz when we walked in. (And we felt just as out of place as she did! Hah!)

  3. Oh Rowan I'm so glad I didn't miss this charming post!
    Wonderful writing, I just wanted your story to go on forever!
    Spur of the moment occasions are rare in life - you have a good friend there with his sense of adventure!
    We did Dover to Calais but we travelled in the morning.
    It happened to be the day the french fishermen go on strike every year and hold up all the ferries!! The ferry station in Calais was hopeless, we had booked our car in New Zealand to pick up from the ferry station - that turned into a total fiasco too!
    Boulogne-sur-Mer looked lovely so maybe we should do that trip next time!
    My husband is a history buff so I trudged after him day after day along the beaches of Normandy. Our daughter had just produced our first granddaughter and this wasn't the time for history lessons for me!!
    I just wanted to get on the road to Burgundy as quickly as possible to meet her!
    You could write a book Rowan!
    Shane xox

    1. Although I was less enthusiastic than he was at first, I wouldn't have changed a thing about our unexpected journey to Paris. The Dover-Calais ferry is wonderful, isn't it, Shane? (Strikes notwithstanding...) I would love to wander through the beaches at Normandy. So much history, so much sadness, so much nobility. How lucky you are to have been there and trod those sands. Thank you so much for stopping by. Hoping you had a lovely Easter.

  4. Oh, I loved this post! What an unforgettable, fairytale way to visit Paris, a city I love because it can so easily be explored on foot. I'm glad you followed your impulses. :-)

    1. It was a fairy tale, Perpetua! There were moments where, admittedly, I wasn't so sure, but in the end I was so happy we did what we did!