The French Connection: Day 14 and Home – Back to Blighty

I still haven’t managed breakfast or lunch at the Gare du Nord Terminus restaurant. On this and my last trip through Paris there just wasn’t sufficient time between connecting trains.

(Well there was, if you didn’t have to worry about Brexit passport checks).

Fortunately, there are other restaurants around Gare du Nord so a swift ‘Petit Dejeuner Parisienne’ was demolished fairly quickly.

‘Le Petit Dejeuner Londres’ (poached eggs) didn’t happen because the chef was off.

After a lazy last day in Toulouse, I’d caught the overnight train to Austerlitz. I’d used the last day for exploring the Left Bank (the St Cyprien district) and mostly calling in at tea salons I hadn’t already visited.

I’ve never been anywhere in Europe where tea is more common than coffee. I think this is remarkable. Other than that one place that charged me for having milk in my tea, I’ve thought this was a very refreshing (no pun intended) change.

And while it’s generally been around 23-25°C, I’ve indulged in a LOT of hot chocolate too. The French, like the Italians and the Spanish, make hot chocolate properly. It’s thick – you could probably paint walls with it, it’s so thick. It’s creamy and at the Swedish-French cafe (Cafe Fika for anyone in the area) I called into yesterday, you could have a sizeable mug of dark, milk or white chocolate. I went with dark and it was incredibly rich.

I followed this up with a very tall mug of tea. It was already winning in terms of great cafes – proper mugs, not dainty cups where two sips and the liquid is gone.

“Be careful. The liquid is PIPING hot,” said the woman who served me. “That means you can take your time.”

Before spending the late afternoon drinking (and it wasn’t wine) my way around Toulouse, I been to a couple of the Left Bank’s art galleries: Les Abbatoirs and the Château d’Eau.

The wonderfully named Castle of the Water looks like a red brick lighthouse and apparently specialises in photography exhibitions. It’s a very small gallery so unless an exhibit particularly grabs you, it’s not going to take long to visit.

I enjoyed it but I spent hours at Les Abbatoirs and not only because I had a three course lunch at the table-service musuem cafe. I really rather like this approach. (No pictures but: mushroom and red onion tart with a pomegranate salad for starters, fish and three types of quinoa with a pesto dressing for the main followed after a short break by chocolate cheesecake for dessert).

‘Les Abbatoirs’ was exactly what it sounds like…From 1823 until 1981, it was a slaughterhouse. It opened as a modern art gallery in 2000.

The major exhibition at Les Abbatoirs today was focused on the work of Niki de Saint Phalle. I’d never heard of her before this afternoon but I loved the exhibition – it was like walking into a real life version of “Yellow Submarine”. Bizarre and strange creatures painted vivid colours. Giant figures of women dancing and generally having a good time. Totem piles and a silver mosaic dragon (or something like that). It was an uplifting and fun space to wander around – looking at the sculptures from different angles.

She’s, I read, barely known in the UK and the US (and yet a number of her statues are there along with her writing on key issues affecting North America) but well loved throughout Europe.

She seems to have been interested in everything – about life, people and society – and she wanted to represent it or challenge it in her work. Throughout her career, Saint Phalle was outspoken in addressing important religious conflict, political, pandemic health, race, gender, reproductive rights, food security, climate change, and cultural issues of the time – through the 1960s to the 1990s.

The huge female figures that she appears to be very well known for, the Nanas, she descibed as celebrating women as pagan carvings of gods. She was one of the earliest artistic champions of AIDS awareness, creating artworks and a widely distributed educational book, and during her time in the US a proponent of gun control asking: “Why are guns more important than children?”

Once more for the overnight train and once more into a cabin of six.

I was the second to arrive and with a bottom bunk. This made life eminently easier as I could quickly put my stuff on my bunk and I was here early enough to avoid playing Human Tetris.

The bloke who got here ahead of me, and appeared to assume that the entire cabin was for for his use and his belongings, was awfully put out when I put his trainers on his bunk beside him. He’d left them in the middle of the floor for the next people to trip over as they tried to manouvre their way up to the top bunks.

The train pulled out of Matabiau on time and it was a pretty peaceful night sleep until we reached Austerlitz just before 7am.

Unlike other overnight trains I’ve travelled on, if the two I’ve travelled on are representative for night travel in France, everyone seems to switch all of the lights off as soon as people are in their bunks. There was no conversation coming from any of the other cabins.

I wonder if this is just because there is so little room. With six bunks there isnt space to sit up in the bunk. So people just lie down and read their phones or got to sleep.

As I type, I’m riding my third train since midnight – from Toulouse to Paris; Paris to London; and London to Manchester. The weather is much worse here. I’ve been wandering around in summer frocks for a fortnight. There’s a girl in front of me where a woolly hat with a pompom on it.

Categories: France, Public Transport, The French Connection, Toulouse, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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