IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 1 > Hove - Newhaven - Dieppe - Rouen - Paris

Hove - Newhaven

Having finally escaped the clutches of my overly comfy bed, I peeked through the blind and embraced the clear dawn of this first Friday in June. The starting point of the journey could never have been anywhere else but my beloved home town; the beautiful, vibrant, fun-filled seaside resort of Brighton. Well, Hove actually. This place was slightly less glamorous, perhaps, but still pleasant enough provided I could wade past the throngs of pensioners on their way to the local Conservative Club. I should by now have conceded that technically, these twin towns had been unified as the City of Brighton and Hove, but this was nothing more than a trumped up title; a charade for council leaders and business executives to get all flustered over big money projects, and to try and attract investment. Brighton, and Hove, would always be a town to me.

After growing up and spending my first eighteen years in the vicinity, it had now become my home once more, since in the eleven intervening years I had resided in the sharply contrasting urban hell that was Salford, part of the sprawling industrial metropolis of Manchester in the north-west of England. This was originally due to reasons of attending college, at what was once the only establishment in the country running a course in popular music, but I lingered there for a decade more doing little of worth in the hope that some godly figure might take pity on the blighted city and its residents, and that miracles would occur and project me into a life of utopian dreams.

Thankfully I saw sense and eventually moved back to Hove in 2002, appreciating amongst other things the close proximity to France afforded to residents, and the more continental way of life this had always brought to the town. There was probably nowhere in Britain that I would rather be, yet this location on the south coast beside the crashing waves of the English Channel seemed to inject a strange energy into the people, whom it lured across the great watery divide to explore other lands. Hence, after all my adult life desperately wanting to discover more of Europe than the few fleeting glimpses I'd had thus far, summer 2003 finally brought me my first, and hopefully not last real chance to explore. I set off early in the morning to Newhaven, a fairly uneventful little place a few miles eastwards along the cliffs, but which served as a port for ferries to Dieppe.

Newhaven - Dieppe

standing ready to leave Newhaven, in front of the Transmanche ferry Rather than postpone the embarrassment of being framed looking highly unphotogenic until later, more exotic locations, I requested an early photo be taken to commemorate the beginning of my adventure (left). An image was snapped at the dock-side in Newhaven, with the ferry I was set to board moored behind me, although the ship itself was called the 'Dieppe'. Funnily enough, the ferry company, Transmanche, had decided not to label the other ship in its fleet after the sister port of Newhaven, forsaking any pride in this bleak British habitat for the glitzy title of 'Sardinia' instead. What a missed opportunity that was to appease Anglo-French relations.

I stood posing by the ferry, dressed at the top end with the latest in my long line of suspect haircuts, and aware that at the instant the camera had flashed, I had been caught appearing to hold my thumb up in a charisma-free fashion, like so many people would do in front of a camera when desperately trying to express some emotion. It was merely a momentary and coincidental effect of struggling to contain my freshly filled rucksack over my shoulder, which suddenly felt four times heavier than when I had packed it at home, but doubtless to anybody viewing the photograph in the future, I would just be a shaggy-haired scruffy bloke gesturing optimistically. Should I end up in the sea due to a sudden gust of wind on deck, my camera would be retrieved by divers and that image would be broadcast on the television news, bringing tears to the eyes of thousands who would view me as the innocent, blue-eyed boy looking so excited just moments before his untimely demise. There was one spoiling factor though, since my vision was masked behind some outmoded Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses. These had a habit of producing an unwanted effect in photos taken from any reasonable distance, whereby the resulting image would rather give the impression that my eyes had been gouged out like an unfortunate bit part actor in Hitchcock's The Birds.

I hadn't quite expected the scene which greeted me when I arrived at the Transmanche terminal. Previously when travelling on this route, I had opted for the fast Hoverspeed Seacat service which set sail from a little further down the dock. Despite running solely during the summer due to its small size and incapability of battling against ferocious winter tides, the Seacat always seemed packed out, and people would charge on board and immediately hog all the seats in the café for the rest of the trip.

The one key factor in my decision to shun it this time around, was that it was a little more expensive. However, the slow ferry service, which was only relaunched in 2001 after the previous operator gave up on it, didn't appear to sell itself very much. Most people barely knew that it existed, and I subsequently found myself to be one of just four foot passengers embarking on this huge vessel. Shares in the company must have boomed after I walked through the check-in. Half a dozen lorries joined the party, and I was surprised that there was no requirement to walk through an x-ray scanner as I fully expected the company to attempt to clone me. They could almost double their trade overnight.

One of the bonuses of booking with this company, was that when telephoning them my call had been answered by a sweet, husky-voiced French girl who clearly had so little to deal with - aside from arranging for her small band of loyal customers what flavour of air freshener they would prefer and at what time they would like their eyebrows plucked - that she would greet me with a startled warmth. All of my attempts to actually book a place on board, however, were fended off - the procedure required presumably not being familiar enough to staff - and I had to wait until I reached the terminal before I could pay.

It was a bit of a lonely, eerie beginning to my adventure; was this the shape of things to come? It did cross my mind that I had set sail upon a doomed ship, the void of accompanying passengers being a deliberate ploy to keep casualty numbers down when they applied Titanic mode halfway across the Channel and put in their insurance claim. I later realized that fate played a kind hand in avoiding this catastrophe. It must have been the sight of me standing outside their terminal with my thumb up ready to set off; the poor, hapless English tourist who couldn't afford the Seacat, that had instilled some compassion. And so they had changed their minds and allowed this pitiful party of passengers to be steered safely to France.

Setting off was often the most exciting time of any holiday, although the buzzing atmosphere on board this boat didn't exactly set my heart racing. I watched the Seven Sisters along the white cliffs of the Sussex coast disappear over the horizon, and eventually the slightly grubby brown cliffs of Seine-Maritime appear on the other side.

The four-hour crossing took me to the mainland of Europe, from where I confidently strolled up to the railway station in Dieppe to board my first train. I knew that the time the ship arrived was exactly the point in the day when there was a two-hour break in departures from the rail station, no doubt a cunning security ploy to stop the rapid southerly advancement of British invaders. But I hadn't expected the substantial delays which followed, and I was about to discover the horrors which awaited any Interrailers arriving on French shores.

Dieppe - Rouen

The air traffic control strikes which had just begun to paralyse flights in and across France, had now extended to most other public transport in the country, and indeed I was probably lucky to have made the crossing over the Channel at all. So having reached the train station at 1.30pm, I was peeved to find that the next train to leave Dieppe wouldn't run until just before 6pm. Les grèves was a phrase I was to become accustomed to over coming days, with almost every audible French radio news report mentioning this term (meaning 'the strikes') in their first item. For somebody who had just splashed out a small fortune on a rail pass covering journeys around this country, it was not a good omen. My copy of the European Rail Timetable could virtually be thrown out of the window for the first week or so, until I escaped France and made it to Spain. But even getting out of France might prove difficult.

After an eternity sat around the station woefully contemplating whether another beer in the café would set me over budget after just one day, the lone, brave train driver arrived to jeers from the staff room, and the day's smatterings of loose wandering people formed into a newly motivated whole, adopting a cigar formation inside the carriages as we charged towards Rouen.

Rouen - Paris

Fortunately, one of the only trains to leave Dieppe all day, coincided beautifully with what was clearly one of very few to depart from Rouen. I stepped off the train onto a crowded platform full of confused people, some of whom looked bedraggled and had probably sat around for as long as I had previously. The connecting train rolled in almost immediately but was already heaving with passengers, whose faces drooped at the windows as they realized the mass invasion of their space which was about to occur. Eyeing the dense, airless carriages I opted to stand outside in the corridor, bouncing up and down on the articulated bogey that lay underneath, and asserting continuously to every passenger who emerged from the makeshift sauna that I wasn't queueing for the toilet.

The sun was setting over the rooftops of Parisian suburbs as we trundled into St. Lazare, a grimy series of sheds which opened out into a pleasant concourse and square, teeming with tourists, pigeons - and roller bladers. Initially, I just presumed this to be a display of the everyday, trendy cosmopolitan nature of the city, but I later found out that it had become a huge Friday night ritual attended by thousands, in which energetic residents would whip out their skates and go off on a mobile party around the streets. They followed a different route every week as determined by the organizers, who managed to have traffic diverted to accommodate them. It had become a giant weekly party, and having missed it this time around, I hoped that I might get a chance to partake another day, if and when I returned to Paris. I had only just arrived, but I was already determined that I would visit again, having spent a brief afternoon here many years previous. The French capital was such an atmospheric place and had so much to offer everybody, although it was notoriously pricey.

Unfortunately, my next experience was going to display one of the less attractive sides of Paris. The Metro, just like the trains, was suffering from the strikes and services were intermittent. To make matters worse, the weather was beautiful but stiflingly hot down in the tunnels which were, unsurprisingly, chaotic and bursting with passengers. When the underground train rattled in to the platform, the people on board were packed like pilchards.

This was not unfamiliar to me, having experienced similar scenes many times on the London tube, and the infamous commuter trains operating on the southern region in England during rush hour, but I had never seen such a squash as this. The crowd had to charge like an army to push themselves on board, and deep breaths were inhaled and stomachs squeezed as doors struggled to slide shut. I found myself wedged up the armpit of a very attractive girl in a crop top, which aided my journey experience somewhat, but the air was so thick with sweat I was almost drowning. It was a sure-fire way of getting to know people, perhaps a little more personally than would be common.

Several stops later into the outskirts of the city, I arrived at Mairie de Clichy, my ultimate destination for day one and location of the first youth hostel. Shunning all the snazzy restaurants and seedy take-away joints, I found salvation in a late night ethnic grocers across the road, from where I bought some provisions. This was a mealtime tactic which would become a necessity throughout my travels for keeping to my budget.

Friday night, by some tradition for which I had never held the greatest fondness, was the big night out, and here I was in one of the world's liveliest cities. But today I had seen the sun rise and I had seen it set, enduring a fair degree of tiring tedium inbetween. There was no enthusiasm within me that couldn't contain itself and wait until morning. It was the end of a long day, and the start of an adventure, and I glanced out of the dormitory window at the illuminated Sacré-Coeur sitting on the horizon, finishing off part of the dubious dinner I had retrieved from the grocers - a tin of coffee-coated peanuts. I knew that at least on the food front, things could only go up from here.

HOSTEL REPORT: Paris Clichy - Auberge Léo Lagrange, 107 Rue Martre, 92110 Clichy (Hauts de Seine)
This was an enormous hostel situated a few miles north-west of the city centre, close to Mairie de Clichy Metro station. There were many shops, bars and places to eat close by, and the hostel facilities were reasonable. The entrance floor had a small bar, kitchen and seating area, which could be very busy and noisy. From my own experience as an observer, and the personal accounts of girls I later met who had visited the place, it was clear that men loitering around the reception area wasted no time in moving in on any single females present, although for female tourists this experience was apparently quite common throughout Paris in general. The staff were reasonably friendly but usually very busy dealing with guests, some of whom invariably behaved like children in these large city hostels and left the place in a mess. My room was clean and had a washbasin, and being on the fifth floor afforded a view which just took in the Sacré-Coeur on the hilltop. Showers and toilets located off the corridors were of an acceptable standard. The main problem with this hostel, perhaps aggravated by it being a warm Friday night, was the amount of noise and shouting that emanated from other hostel residents at their windows and in the street below, lasting almost all night long. The breakfast was disappointing, perhaps the worst I was to find in all my travels, and consisted of very stale rolls, jam and orange juice; nothing else, not even margarine. No coffee or fruit was found, although other hostellers who I met later on said they did have these luxuries. Overall the place was satisfactory but nothing special, and was as expensive as most other Parisian hostels. Score: 6/10

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