IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 24 > Biarritz - Bordeaux - Lyon

Biarritz - Bordeaux

There was no choice this morning but to be the first one out the dormitory. I had eventually hit the sack at about 3am, and after just three and a half hours' sleep it was time to rise once more. My room-mates must have been reaching for their pocket knives when they heard me rustling things again so soon. It was about the only time I had really caused a nuisance in all my travels, and I'd had to accept far more vexing behaviour from others in return. The bags-within-bags idea had definitely been a bad one. It could sometimes take an eternity to unpack all the separately bagged groups of items from my rucksack, rummage noisily through them, and repack them in a way which enchanted onlookers with my deft ability to stuff thirty-five litres of bedroom on my back. And in the suffocating silence of this shared dormitory at night, where every suppressed sniff of the nose would be accompanied by great anguish and the disturbed sighs of the other room-mates, cheap filmy crinkled bags of belongings were the equivalent of a set of hyperactive Furbies in terms of the level of aural irritation they caused.

There was no take-away breakfast awaiting me here. The most I could expect to receive from this hostel was a note selotaped to my forehead warning me not to smile on the way out. In fact I was lucky even to have my passport returned since it had been mislaid, causing a considerable delay which almost made me miss the train.

The first journey was on board a TGV to Bordeaux, and it was surprisingly busy so early on a Sunday morning. I loved these trains, they glided so smoothly through the countryside but had none of the pretensions of the 'luxury' Spanish trains. The TGV was like many French things, it was elegant and stylish, simple in design but pleasing on the eye. And best of all, little smiley mobile phone stickers on the furnishings politely warned anybody thinking of using such a thing to sod off to the end of the carriage. They had learnt something here from the Biarritz hostel. It was reassuring, because there was little which bugged me more than being sat next to somebody tapping frantically on their tiny buttons, and constructing several needless misspelt messages to their friends and partners. I may have jumped on board with the computer generation, but I felt determined to forever miss the boat when it came to mobile phones. I hated the damned things. I knew that put me at odds with at least three-quarters of all other people my own age, but as far as I was concerned they could happily prattle amongst each other and leave me alone.

The random polite French guy sat next to me this time was again very outgoing in greeting me and striking up a conversation, although he did seem over-observant as I consumed my various cakes and a cup of coffee purchased from the buffet for breakfast. I got the impression that he wanted a bit of my Danish pastry, because he stared directly at my head for the four minutes it took me to finish it off. Aside from that, the ride into Gironde and the city of Bordeaux was as featureless as most of the scenery.

I had an hour to wait before my connecting train to Lyon, and I went for a short stroll around the bleak district outside the station. There was virtually nowhere open, and aside from the novel I was carrying, which I'd previously failed to finish reading in the country in which it was written, and another huge bottle of water that would last me all of four hours in these hot climes, I had little else with which to occupy myself for the long ride ahead. The rather dingy, dated train rolled in and potential passengers clustered manically around the doors at the coach ends, as if the train would callously leave without them if they couldn't climb on quickly enough. I waited for them to disperse, which they did with a noticeable degree of unevenness. I found the end carriage suspiciously empty, so I chose a seat on the shady side, having already figured out the directions of the cross-country route and where the shadows would fall throughout the day.

Bordeaux - Lyon

The other carriages of this unfashionably furnished train were full, and within seconds of departing Bordeaux it became immediately obvious why my own had so many spare seats. It was not just a smoking carriage, it appeared to have been exclusively reserved for hardened lung cancer enthusiasts. The windows were stained with thirty years of accumulated nicotine, and I was surrounded by serious puffers, ranging from Mr Mobile Pipe Shop in the corner, to the chain-cigar king and a lady with an unfeasibly long attachment. Her cigarette holder was at least seven times the length of her nose, ensuring that by the time she inhaled, the smoke had accelerated to the speed of Concorde and emitted a sonic boom. Hers wasn't the only booming noise which filled the carriage, as splutters, wheezes and coughs caused a repetitive avant-garde din that Steve Reich would have been proud of.

This minor aggravation was nothing, however, against the suffering caused by other factors. The air conditioning units underneath the windows were not functioning properly. A quick check on the opposite side of the coach confirmed that it was just a problem on my side. The train was clearly a 1970s design, and featured tan-orange coloured PVC seat covers which only made the sweltering, airless carriage feel more uncomfortable. There were matching orange curtains but although these permitted me to block out some of the sun, they hung in front of the air conditioning units and caused all the cool air to float up behind them.

The service between Bordeaux and Lyon zigzagged its way from west to east, using sections of several other branch lines. After we stopped at one of the first stations, I was peeved to find us reversing back out and onwards to the next destination. This meant that I was now in the sun, and with no noticeable supply of oxygen. The carriage had filled up a little, but I still had a chance to move to the opposite side. Half an hour later we switched direction again, and this pattern continued throughout the afternoon, as the train cheated by making use of a backwards-forwards route which would have been impossible in the days of steam. Somehow it seemed that every time we switched around, the route would continue in a new direction which resulted in me being permanently on the sunny side of the train. It appeared to defy the natural logic of the rotational bodies in our solar system.

I'd never been a particularly sweaty person until now (a statement which I was saving up for an opening line at a speed dating night). I had always been fair-haired and very thin, and there was certainly little of me to exude and evaporate. In fact, I could fairly state that in the heat I rarely dissipated enough bodily fluid to fill a thimble. But there was no escaping it today, I was a mobile perspiration vending machine. The lack of rest from the previous night was taking its toll, and in such conditions I felt utterly exhausted. I fell asleep many times, only to be continually reawoken by a parade of over-zealous ticket inspectors who always poked me at the same location on my shoulder, presumably having been taught in training classes which part of the anatomy was an acceptable prodding zone. Why couldn't they leave the same conductor on board the train and leave me alone? Each time I awoke dripping in sweat, as the sun beamed through the thin curtains and smothered me with unkindly warmth.

It was a huge relief when finally, after nearly eight hours on board, the train rolled through the suburbs of Lyon, a city which looked instantly impressive. I hadn't expected much of this, France's second biggest city, believing reports I'd heard years ago that it was a grimy industrial heap. But au contraire, it was a gem of a place, like a smaller version of Paris but still very sizeable, and without the throngs of tourists. I arrived at Part-Dieu station, and was in a rush to reach the youth hostel having not reserved a place. I took the very modern and efficient Metro, and journeyed across the city to the district of Vieux Lyon.

The hostel was situated halfway up a steep hill, and I took a tired walk up hoping that I hadn't arrived too late. I was pursuing another backpacker who was initially one hundred yards ahead, but who clearly had less leg strength remaining than myself. It kept crossing my mind that there may only be one vacancy left, and he was going to nab it before me. This spurred me on, and by the time I reached the hostel I had nearly caught up with him. He made a fatal mistake of turning to glance up at the sign above the door, just to confirm he had arrived at the right place. It added a delay of two seconds in which, with boyish excitement, I nipped in ahead of him victoriously. As I enquired about a space at reception, the girl at the counter scoured pages of bookings, and squeezed me into the only empty slot she could find. I felt terrible, I had stolen the last place from the hapless Japanese traveller standing behind me who had toiled up the hill in vain. But it was dog-eat-dog in the hostel booking world, and I couldn't afford any more sympathies.

I took a shower and revelled in cleansing myself of the stickiness that had uncommonly saturated my skin and clothes. I bought a light take-away meal from a convenient little café further up the hill, and was relieved when I returned to the hostel to eat it, and saw the Japanese guy settled in and happily chatting at the bar. My conscience was clear.

The hostel contained a reasonably priced bar with a garden and patio at the back, overlooking the entire city from its position on the hillside, and it was a great place to while away the evening at dusk in the gentle breeze as all of Lyon lit up. I gatecrashed a table full of mainly English speaking people, although they represented a diverse selection of nationalities, and spent a thoroughly pleasant evening in what was perhaps the most fantastic hostel I had visited. I could have happily spent a week sitting on the terrace over drinks, casting my eyes across the vast sprawling metropolis below. I was sure that Lyon was one of the super surprise discoveries of my trip, and I had to stop another night here if only to soak up the view once more at sunset.

The group at my table was composed solely of other single travellers who had all explored the city already, and they filled me in on the details of its many attractions. The distance I had covered today was admirable, and I now stood a reasonable chance of succeeding in my quest to reach Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium before the end of the week. Most pleasingly though, I was now looking forward to a train-free Monday where I could relax and find out what delights Lyon had to offer. Today had offered little except a railway endurance test, but it had reached a satisfying conclusion which gave me renewed vigour to face the final week ahead.

HOSTEL REPORT: Lyon - Auberge de Jeunesse du Vieux Lyon, 41-45 Montée du Chemin Neuf, 69005 Lyon (Rhône)
There was little doubt that this hostel had the potential to be the best of all those I visited, but it was disappointingly let down by the extremely nasty and unnecessary attitude of one member of staff. This incident alone had to knock at least one mark off its score, and the shabby breakfast arrangements one morning accounted for another lost point. With none of the hostels I had visited achieving more than an eight out of ten, it would have been so nice to have given this place an otherwise worthy maximum. The main plus point was the location which offered supreme views across the city, and the design of the building provided for a terrace at the rear which was a beautiful spot from which to appreciate the scenery. The bar was a welcome addition, often manned by a freaky but friendly French guy, and there was a civilized, relaxed atmosphere around the place. A small, busy and cramped kitchen provided an opportunity for preparing quick meals, which could be desirable as the items on the snack menu at the bar were largely unavailable when I enquired. Rooms were decent, and my own included a sink and shower. Laundry and Internet facilities were also available, although the latter was expensive. The location did require a walk up a steep hill, but for the lazy there was a funicular railway which could drop passengers off further up it at Minimes. It was not too far to walk to many of the city's major attractions, but it was definitely worth taking the underground to either Perrache or Part-Dieu stations. Score: 8/10

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