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Cycle around Paris

29 September 2008

We've survived one night on the chipboard planks of the Clichy youth hostel. The heat is suffocating and I'm sweating more than I have done after any day of cycling this trip. I take a very quick shower, though it's not clear whether I'm any cleaner afterwards than I was before.

In a rare move, we decide to forgo our free breakfast, a testament to just how little faith we have in this place. Mark spends a little while on the internet and then we're off, heading south, back towards central Paris. Back towards normality.

We're meeting Elsa and some other friends for lunch near l'Opéra and our Eurostar back to London departs in the afternoon. So we make the most of the little time we have and go for a pleasant ride around Montmartre.

The area is a maze of one-way streets and, bizarrely, we seem to want to head down each one in the opposite direction. Apart from one, which we get all the way to the end of, then realise we were wrong and have to backtrack. We see the Moulin Rouge, then head to the top of Montmartre and observe the view of Paris from the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur

On our way back down we drop in to the Café des Deux Moulins, the café featured in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (UK title: Amélie). Unfortunately we do not have time for a drink in this delightful establishment as we're already running late for lunch.

We quickly discover that, compared to last night, the roads aren't quite so enjoyable on a Monday morning. In fact, it's a free-for-all and drivers keep surprising us with unexpected manoeuvres. On a couple of occasions, parked drivers swing their doors wide open in front of both Mark and I, but we battle on undeterred, down the wide boulevards.

Eventually, we meet up with Elsa and two accompanying Sams, and sit down to a leisurely meal on a terrace near l'Opéra. It's very enjoyable and, as we leave, the girls take photos of us, prompting strange glares from passing Parisians. We feel the celebrity vibe.

We then rush over to the Gare du Nord, our ultimate destination, from where our Eurostar will depart. Our tickets are for the 19:13 service but this has been cancelled following the Channel Tunnel fire a few weeks ago. We have been told to arrive for check-in early and we should then be able to board the next available train.

In addition, we have also been advised that we will need to box-up our bikes in order to send them through Eurostar's registered baggage service. I'm not looking forward to searching Paris for a bike-shaped box so it is a relief when we're told that this won't be necessary.

Next, we need to queue to check ourselves in. I've never seen anything like it. The mass of passengers, which can barely be called a queue, runs the width of the Gare du Nord and includes people with all kinds of ticket and a multitude of departure times. Tempers begin to fray when staff ask all passengers with certain tickets to skip the queue. Realising this is unachievable, the request is retracted just too late to prevent a mini riot.

Eventually extra security staff are called and check-in is suspended, with threats that the police may be called to move us all back a few metres. One businessman steps forward and announces to the cheering crowd, "sorry, there has been a total breakdown of Eurostar public relations". It's a farce. Eventually, after a lot of shouting and fist-waving, check-in is reopened and we progress to the departure lounge, where we can join another queue to board our train.

Having arrived at the Gare du Nord at 15:00, we end up on the 18:13 train, arriving in London three hours later. We both sleep well on the journey. Upon arrival at St Pancras, we're told that our bikes will be on a later train. Coincidentally, it looks like all the bike space on this train was occupied by a bunch of cyclists we first met on our ferry from Newhaven, on Friday.

I will collect the bikes tomorrow, for I feel I've spent enough time in railway stations today. Mark and I therefore part company, taking the tube towards our respective homes. It's been a great trip, but it's nice to be back, and not on a saddle.


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Front entrance of Moulin Rouge

Red carpet of Moulin Rouge

Café des Deux Moulins, as featured in Amélie

Café des Deux Moulins

Mark and Paul at lunch

Leisurely lunch

Paul and Mark waiting

Waiting at Gare du Nord