Introduction And Planning
It was 2016 and in May of that year by hook or by crook Anne-So and I were about to celebrate a significant anniversary. It was also a round birthday for Anne-So’s now late mother. That meant that we’d have to combine the two events and as much as I was reluctant to do so at the time, I’m gladder and gladder we did with every passing year. That surprise party was probably the last time I saw my mother-in-law truly happy before she passed away, though of course at the time of the trip we didn’t know how little time she had left. It was also the last time we’d see Anne-So’s Godfather. We knew he was unwell and had planned to visit him as part of a trip to Paris and Orleans in the Autumn of 2016 knowing it might be the last time we’d see him. Sadly he passed away a matter of days before we had planned to arrive. Whilst the times that followed this trip were pretty tough, our trip from France to Italy was filled with overwhelming joy and happiness.
Anyway, back to the trip itself and our newly frugal life away from the chaos of the capital was now firmly set in stone. With our Avios collection about as cheerful as our bank balance a flight or two of fancy to the Far East was quickly ruled out so instead we decided on something closer to home, a romantic European adventure by train. Truth be told this was a more than adequate back up plan and something I’d been wanting to do for years. So whilst the locales may not have been as exotic as the sky scrapers, mountains and temples of Japan, we were determined that the getting there definitely would be! We fired up the always excellent Man in Seat 61 to look for inspiration and our original dream was to travel along the tracks made famous by the Orient Express from London all the way Istanbul, though as is often the case it didn’t feel like a particularly good time to visit Turkey. So instead we examined other options and came up with a few ideas:
- A romantic escapade through the mountains of Switzerland and out into Northern Italy.
- A Central European extravaganza passing through Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria.
- An Eastern European odyssey heading north and east through Belgium, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
After diving deep into the true logistics of each trip a few things quickly helped us narrow down our options. First off just passing through Switzerland added a frightening multiplier to a budget that we couldn’t afford to waste. The Eastern European odyssey was a bit depressing, through subsequently we did visit Brussels, Bruges and Prague and had already been to Hamburg and Berlin prior to planning this trip back in 2016. The Central European extravaganza ended up being incredibly complicated to book so sadly that also went out the window, though we did make it to Slovenia in 2019 at least! So we refocused and re-planned, skipping Switzerland and riding straight through from France to Italy on the TGV ending up with the following itinerary that promised a lot whilst being simple and relatively pocket friendly to execute:
- London to Lyon on the Eurostar.
- Taking the TGV from Lyon to Turin .
- Travelling from Turin to Milan to Venice and Florence on the most fantastic fast trains in Europe with a restful stop touring the Cinque Terre to round off the trip.
- We’d then use a few of our remaining Avios to fly home to London from Pisa.
- I’d also try and leverage my ill gotten status matched Hilton Diamond and AMEX acquired Accor Platinum statuses for some exciting upgrades along the way where we could.
I’d consulted friends and colleagues alongside our newly purchased Rough Guide to Italy and started fleshing out the trip a little bit further to make sure that we’d stay at the nicest lodgings and enjoy the finest food our budget would allow.
The Fast Train To France
It was the day before departure and it started with another night of not enough sleep and a horribly early start. I’m not proud of myself but somehow that morning my breakfast consisted of three Mr Kipling jam tarts. I’m still struggling with the idea of how many kinds of wrong this was and in fact reading this back now I’m actually shocked I thought this could ever be acceptable! Perhaps it was because I’d worked myself into the ground during the six weeks running up to this trip and with the May bank holiday weekend as well as the subsequent slower paced three day week of training and admin that followed it I was finally able to move towards full-on holiday mode. I’m still not sure that adequately explained the jam tarts though…
It seemed my train into London knew I was trying to get away when it decided it would be late again that morning and in a further irritating twist I somehow picked the door furthest from the luggage rack meaning I had to complete a walk of shame wheeling my case from one end of the carriage to the other. When I finally arrived into London my working day commenced perched outside the St Pancras Starbucks with a coffee in one hand and a conference call in the other before I jammed myself and my case onto the reassuringly unpleasant Piccadilly line morning crush.
I departed the tube in the West End as I was supposed to enjoy a celebratory lunch with my friend/colleague J to sign off her completed training pack later in the day, but instead it ended up with me buying cakes from Princi and a trip to the Kati Roll Company to bring back lunch for us to eat in the office. As per usual we both insisted on paying and almost came to blows before finally negotiating a 50/50 split allowing us both save face. It wasn’t a busy day in the end so we probably spent most of the afternoon chatting about food and enjoying a constructive conversation about our respective in-laws between customers, stock checks and e-mails. Luckily for me and unluckily for her J always won that battle! Still, it was a fun day and I even managed a quick chat with my buddy S for the first time in ages, who ironically was also J’s former boss. I then returned to the office for an hour or so to wrap up the last of my odds and ends.
After work I met up with Anne-So and our friend S (yes, far too many people in my life start with an S) at her place in Camden where we went out for a cheap and healthy fast food dinner and caught up on with each others news.
On our way back to S’s place we crossed paths with what could only have been an organised bar crawl, complete with fluorescent jacketed hosts trying to stop their eager beavers wandering off on their own into the night. I’d read about these gatherings but this was the first time seeing one in the flesh. I felt glad to be about ten years too old and twenty years too boring to partake in such organised fun. Back at S’s place we enjoyed a satisfying mug of coffee, a rich slice of chocolate tart and what we hoped would be a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our 05:00 start the next day, the horror!
It was finally time to depart and somehow we forced ourselves out of bed, into the shower and made it out of our friend’s flat alive, hoping the peaceful but litter strewn morning haze would propel us on to the tube. At least at that time in the morning the Northern line was only packed with orderly zombies staring into space and keeping well out of our way. A few stops later we arrived at St Pancras and after exiting the tube and climbing the escalators we arrived at the Eurostar check in to find it absolutely jam packed with tour groups as far as the eye could see. If the hundred yellow baseball capped ladies ever made it to Paris on time I promised Anne-So I’d eat their hats! In fact check in felt like some cruel reality show where the Eurostar had been transformed into a giant retirement home on wheels. Thankfully we quickly made it through security bringing the frustratingly amusing people-watching to an abrupt halt that had left me in a caffeine-deprived, heightened state of sarcasm.
Whilst I prefer to take the plane when it includes access to an excellent airport lounge where you can shower, enjoy a tasty beverage and a plate or two of complementary food it just wasn’t working out on this trip. Our favourite Cathay Pacific lounge was closed for refurbishment when we planned to travel and the wonderful Qantas Lounge was still over a year a way from opening its doors. So in the end our dwindling supply of Avios coupled with the rare ability of being able to book a reasonably priced Eurostar ticket made taking the train an incredibly simple choice.
Train: Eurostar 9084
Depart: London St Pancras International 07:19
Arrive: Lyon Part Dieu 13:00
Seats: Coach 4, Seats 31 & 32 (Standard Class)
Locomotive: Class 373 Eurostar e300 Top Speed 186mph
We took our place on the mobile retirement home and unlike our last trip on Eurostar at least this time our carriage was clean.
Since taking this trip I finally got to try both the new Eurostar e320 and the refurbished e300 and whilst they are definitely more modern I thought the e300s were not particularly comfortable. That said if I was to travel tomorrow and the choice was being stuck down the back in one of BA’s imitation low cost carrier Recaro seats with buy on board and no lounge access I’d be on the Eurostar without a second look.
Shortly after departure I stumbled down towards the buffet, or Café Metropole as it’s called to pick up some breakfast. I placed my order and paid with the cash Anne-So had given me. That morning I realised that earning Avios was not the real reason I liked to pay by card, it was more to limit my opportunity to be a complete and utter idiot. My eyes were more glazed over than a Krispy Kreme doughnut and my mind was just as fluffy inside. All I could think about was finding the sugar to stir in my little cup of happiness and the £15 change waiting for me at the counter seemed somewhat inconsequential until the nice lady called me over to collect it. Shuffling back through the train I at least managed to spot Anne-So again and so it was that breakfast began.
Such a masterpiece pastry needs that hit of bitter coffee and a sharp slurp of orange juice to restart your stuttering ticker. Unfortunately this croissant was anything but the masterpiece and my breakfast kind of spluttered along.
At least I had finally woken up and was now in the position to appreciate some hilarious people-watching. Everyone loves a seat shifter and this group were classics. At Ashford International a couple got rumbled for stealing one of the two sets of four seats. This led to the usual dance of awkward shuffling, lack of apologising and delaying everyone else from sitting down. The new occupants had finally made themselves at home when they also found themselves getting the boot! They had muddled their inbound and outbound tickets and subsequently faced an epic twelve carriage trek of shame to their proper seats. They were however polite enough to laugh it off. There are still some good people in this world at least!
We sped along quite happily, including the usual phantom service stops at Lille and Disney Land and before we knew it we were arriving into Lyon Part Dieu.
We had an hour to spare before our onward journey so that meant it was time for lunch from Paul.
In what would be a taste of things to come, we had treated ourselves to first class for about two Euros extra and whilst there is no complementary catering on the TGV, you do get a much more comfortable seat, plenty more personal space and usually no need to play Tetris to find somewhere to put your case, unlike in standard class. So I suppose it the end it was money well spent! There was just time to take a few snaps of one of the waiting local trains before our Duplex TGV pulled into the station.
Train: TGV 5164
Depart: Lyon Part Dieu 14:06
Arrive: Valence TGV 14:40
Seats: Coach 3, Seats 103 & 104 (First Class, Upper Deck)
Locomotive: TGV Duplex (Top Speed 320 km/h)
During our half hour hop we enjoyed a chorus of crying children and the company of a sweet little girl sat in front of us who really, really wanted to play Hello Kitty. In a further frustrating development it seemed the French had also taken best practice from the British by ensuring that our train arrived into Valence five minutes late.
Our in-laws were a little late too, but thankfully the surprise party was still going according to plan. Yes, the surprise: as mentioned in the introduction my mother-in-law had a rather big birthday coming up and the entire extended family had all been pretending they couldn’t make it whilst secretly inviting more and more family members. An aunt and uncle were already at the house and we met with the other uncle, his partner and N&G – my brother & sister-in-law, their baby, Little N and dog, Tamam at the station. We then drove to the in-laws house where we caught them out completely as they were already celebrating with an unavoidable pre-birthday apéritif instigated by the unaware birthday woman.
The remaining friends and relatives arrived the following morning, taking our gang to just shy of twenty and we started the proceedings with a grand apéritif of champagne and snacks. Whilst everyone mingled, I tried my best to find a corner to hide. To say I enjoy this kind of thing would be a lie, to say I enjoy it in a language I’m not fully comfortable speaking would be treason. However, my mother-in-law was having a great time and that was all that mattered.
After an hour or so we bundled into the car and went to a restaurant where it was everybody’s birthday! Our table was celebrating two birthdays, the one across the way three birthdays and judging by the frequent applause and cries of, “joyeux anniversaire” there were many more birthdays being celebrated throughout the restaurant.
The mains looked really good with either confit duck, chicken with a mushroom sauce or a tasty-sounding beef kebab, the latter of which I chose. However, starters felt a little harder as it was either tête de veau which I’d tried once before at the well rated Maison Chabran and even then it reminded me of a jellied steak and the second option was something which apparently translated as gizzard. With most things being preferred over jellied steak, gizzard it was…
I quickly forgot what I was eating as I found my starter rather enjoyable from my first bite to the last.
Then began what could only be described as “France’s got talent”. One of the younger members of our group, egged on by her family, allegedly had a talent for belting out a few tunes made famous by One Direction and Taylor Swift, who I became familiar with thanks to the man who runs the popular miles and points focused OMAAT blog. Anyway, let’s just say her attempt at knocking out a tune was significantly more pleasant than the boy next door who was playing what sounded like a funeral march on the piano for his cheering relatives. I could have sworn they’d been singing happy birthday not a moment before and handing out cake… Somehow my odd ball family back in the UK felt disappointingly normal.
We headed outside for a quick photo-shoot before returning home to the in-laws for a quiz and some drinks, before another round of apéritif and dinner. G had cooked up some delicious onion soup and another cake had been procured, this time a scrumptious Millefeuille which was so good I didn’t even manage to pull out even my phone for a picture, so you’ll just have to salivate whilst imagining it. This birthday cake was for the uncle who was nicknamed “Le Guru”, though he reminded me more of an interesting James Bond villain.
It was good to go to bed and have a nice long sleep. With Italy only a day away, a restful Sunday was just what the doctor ordered.