Allez les travailleurs

In recent months, the UK has seen a number of strikes by both public and private workers. Doctors, nurses and yes, railway workers have all withdrawn their labour in a series of industrial disputes. Yet nobody does it quite like the French. And without resorting to cultural stereotypes, it’s a fact that the country endures frequent walkouts, sometimes for days or weeks on end.

So I’m delighted, having checked into the Eurostar terminal at London St Pancras, to learn that today is indeed a day of strike by French railway workers. Having been on strike myself only the previous week, I can hardly complain. Various websites suggest that “two in three” high speed TGV services are operating, yet I have no idea whether one of those is the one I’m booked on from Paris to Lyon.

St Pancras International is its usual bustling self. The electronic passport gates check passengers leaving the UK, while a second manual inspection tracks those going into France. I fully expect a third check on arrival in Paris. But first, the inevitable wait. Despite having a First Class pass, I’m not special enough to enter the Business Premier lounge. A premium ticket does not always mean premium service.

At any one time, between two and four trains are boarding – but as each one is called the crowd gets smaller. And a short walk up the ramp brings me to Coach 1 of the 0931 to Paris Gare du Nord.

The train itself is pretty busy, but you wouldn’t know it from the respectful hush. The seating is cleverly designed, which means an air of privacy wherever you are. Another confusing moment – my reservation is for Standard Premier, but the carriage is Business Premier. Either way, it’s a comfortable way to travel – and NewsMutt is especially taken by the view inside the Channel Tunnel.

The vistas may be less than intresting but presently I’m served my second petit dejuner of the day. Actually, it’s my third, having briefly eaten at home. (Well, I did start the morning at 4am) A continental breakfast of fruit, pastry and yoghurt. Knowing how much my fellow passengers have paid for this extra, I’m more than happy.

Arrival into Paris is punctual – and there are no additional passport checks. I am desposited into the huge morass of the Gare Du Nord with a couple of hours to make my next connection. Part of me wants to throw away the timetable and explore the great sights. And part of me remembers that this will involve finding a secure luggage locker and having to come back here, only to make the connection to my next station.

Gare Du Nord, Paris

Gare De Lyon, Paris

So we descend, not to the Metro but the RER – a suburban train network that runs around Paris. Everything seems pretty straightforward; all I need to do is find the Green Line (D) and travel two stops. However, it seems that today, nobody in the long queue by the ticket machine can seem to work them out. Confused faces and words in several languages look back to the next person, there is much shrugging. I begin to wonder whether this is some sort of prank TV show with a hidden camera. And yet when I get to the machine, I purchase the single ticket in about 15 seconds. Still, it gives me enough time to see and hear the striking public workers, shouting and chanting by the toilets, which is yet another service that has closed for the day.

The RER is simple enough to use – once I figure out which direction to travel in. Unlike many other cities there are no convenient maps on the wall, only electronic displays that take a while to figure out. The double decker train is functional enough, though not as welcoming as my previous two today.

Fortunately, the rail workers on the TGV Oui are not on strike, and my onward connection i listed as running on time. Gare De Lyon seems even larger than Gard Du Nord, and still is the place to connect to the Alps and onward to Italy and Switzerland. It was also one of the starting points for The Blue Train – a luxury service to the French Riviera. Technically it ran from Calais, but Paris is where the real action started, Such luxury services were slowly phased out with the advent of the high speed TGV trains which run today. Still, it’s nice to see so many international destinations on today’s departure board.

And so to the day’s fourth train. The TGV Oui is the most modern version of France’s high speed services. And First Class here is almost as good as a long haul flight. Okay, the seat doesn’t convert into a flat bed – but there’s more than enough desk space to satisfy the most switched on of bloggers, including a reclining chair, a dimmable light and two power sockets.

Founded by the Romans, Lyon is steeped in history. Unless, that is, you arrive at Part Dieu railway station. The main feature here is the massive Westfield shopping mall that dominate the landscape. Add to that some major construction work and the whole place doesn’t exactly say “welcome”. My hotel – optimistically named Premiere Classe – does itself no favours either. Think an Ibis but without the mod cons.

But Lyon does have its charms. A short metro ride takes me to the heart of the Old Town and St John’s Cathedral. Just before sunset it has an air of tranquility about it, although NewsMutt is more interested in the nearby (dry) fountain.

While the fountain may have been dry, a quaint side street leads to that most typical of continental attractions. I only meant to stay for one (honest), but the James Joyce pub was full of the type of… erm.. characters that I always seem to meet on these trips. A collection of ex pats, tourists and actual Irish people make for an evening of interesting conversation. None of which can be repeated here.

It’s been a long day and I’m looking forward to a quick trip back to the hotel on the Metro. But there is more surprise on the way. Firstly, the underground is closed, and it’s barely 9.30pm. I put this down to the strikes. But then, as I cross the bridges over the Rivers Soane and Rhône, there are blue lights everywhere.

Police sirens wail although there is no sign that anything terrible has happened. A road by the river is closed off. But I can’t see what’s happened. A little further on and I can smell burning. On a side street, the aftermath of what looks like rubbish that’s been set on fire.

I later learn that this is the latest in a series of protests against plans by the French government to raise the state pension age. Just days earlier a large fire had been set outside Lyon’s town hall, mirroring similar demonstrations across the country.

The journalist in me wants to find out more. The traveller in me wants to go to bed.


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