IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 6 > Poitiers


After such a relaxing night's sleep, I woke up feeling a weight upon my shoulders. Thankfully, these sensations hadn't materialized literally in the form of a barbell dropped by a bodybuilder in the upper bunk, but rather in the predicament which faced me regarding the prospective journey south. My first of two planned meetings with fellow Renault 4 owners was roughly arranged for some time in the next two days, but I was to meet them in San Sebastián on the northern coast of Spain, and I had a long way to travel to get there.

I had owned two of these cute, oddball French cars over previous years. They were the only vehicles I had ever owned, and the only ones I ever intended to drive in the future until I had the last one left on Earth. My passion for this immensely popular yet largely forgotten little car had resulted in my creating a website some years earlier, which had invited Renault 4 enthusiasts from all over the world to share their appreciation. Amongst the greatest contributors to this site and the friends I had made through it, were two fans in the Basque Country. I had suggested before departing from England that I would stop off in their home town, but there was now considerable doubt surrounding my hopes of reaching them by train.

Some information that I read at the rail station the previous evening suggested all services towards Bordeaux and beyond would be subject to severe disruption today, and I didn't feel like rushing off again so soon after arriving here in Poitiers, a town I hadn't yet had a chance to explore. I would have to pay for a bus to the station, perhaps only to find there were no trains running at all, and so I chose to take it easy and not become worried by such things. The hostel had bicycles available for hire at only 5 Euros per day, which was very reasonable, so a leisurely tootle around the countryside seemed like a nice idea.

The staff provided me with a map charting a popular cycle route in the region, nothing too taxing, about sixteen kilometres in all. I set off on an easy, downhill off-road run which took me all the way into town, hardly needing to pedal at all. The route passed by the station anyway, so I dropped in to check out the trains for the following day. Services heading south, or at least those that might actually be running, were solely TGV trains requiring compulsory reservations, so I wouldn't be able to just turn up and go. I found that my decision to take a day off had been a wise one, with all today's scheduled services to Bordeaux cancelled, making it impossible to travel to south-west France.

The ticket office was absolutely packed, and I waited for nearly an hour to be seen. During this time I rehearsed my lines in French over and over again, only to be totally flummoxed when I reached the counter and the assistant answered my first query with a string of eighteen rapidly spoken sentences. I made reservations for two trains which would hopefully take me to Biarritz the following day, although by the time I came to board I could find them to be non-existent, as the timetables were being completely redrawn each morning.

I followed my map back onto the cycle course, and set off down the path of a disused steam railway line into the hills. The route was marked by coloured notches on trees and poles, but often involved forks which bore no relation to my map at all and I had to simply hope for the best. The very pleasant ride took me uphill through a small town and onwards to an airfield high on the plains, where light aeroplanes swooped down on approach to landing, threatening to graze my head. I felt like Cary Grant in the famous crop duster scene from North by Northwest. It seemed that I may have unwittingly cut across a piece of airport land that was out of bounds, and one pilot was determined to let me know it.

Approaching the halfway point of the route, I descended to a picturesque cycle track in a valley running alongside a stream. The weather was beautiful, and I stopped for a breather beside the trickling water, the tranquility only being interrupted every couple of minutes by another pair of determined cyclists. They were all over the place, couples and singles pounding along at full pelt - not professional sports riders judging by their dress, just regular cyclists - but all seemingly incapable of pedalling at a leisurely pace and enjoying the ride. I just couldn't understand it myself, why anyone would want to take their bikes on a scenic ride, then go tearing along the country tracks until their legs dropped off. It certainly wasn't my idea of fun.

I found an obscure break in the bushes which led to a peaceful secluded spot by the water, and with the sun beating down I dipped my feet in for some relief. At that moment two elderly ladies - who had probably expected to discover a secret nook for themselves - caught sight of me wading through the stream, and with a look of utter shock and disgust panicked and headed off grumbling. How could I, a skinny bloke in a hat with shorts on, dare to remove my shoes and expose my bare lower legs in this rural paradise? I should have been ashamed of myself. Feeling that particular pleasing sensation common to schoolchildren of upsetting some old folk, I rode off again enjoying the freedom of the wild, the wind in my hair, and the sunburn on the back of my legs.

The necessity to dismount when ascending a steep hill on the final section of the route must have distracted me, and I completely lost my way. It was a good omen, because I was fortunate to stumble across Intermarché, my supermarket saviour for the day. What an indescribable joy it was to find such a grocery gem when travelling on a budget. I stuffed a fair feast of food into my bag for only a fiver, and found my way back to the hostel. Fresh salad, strawberries, cakes and beer for dinner, it couldn't be beaten.

During the evening I wandered out into the garden and met up with some fellow travellers. This was what I had so desperately needed after six days of near solitude, and I found delightful company in the female staff who worked at the hostel. After the frustrations of delays to my schedule and having to postpone my travel south, I realized that going to places a little off the beaten track and taking things easy, might well result in better experiences than charging on to major new destinations every day, and so this relaxed approach would become a bigger part of my plans for the rest of the trip.

Dusk fell, and we sat under the moonlight in the warm summer breeze, drinking what appeared to be the beverage of the moment - Desperado; a Spanish concoction of beer mixed with Tequila. It was my first opportunity to really practise some of my French, and it was surprising how far I'd come along in just a few days. My skills in the language had been rusty for many years, and the biggest problem was my lack of confidence in speaking it on the few occasions I'd been required to. The French were on the one hand quite proud and determined to speak nothing else but their own language, believing visitors should too, but were on the other hand rather arrogant and prepared to shun or laugh at foreigners who struggled to manage with it. In this sense they rather tended to shoot themselves in the foot, not helping to promote the idiom they so much wanted others to embrace.

French would always be a beautiful but exceptionally fussy language, I felt, and quite tricky to grasp for anybody not brought up with it, in contrast to the more straightforward scripts of something like Spanish. People who stuttered or didn't exhibit an air of confidence in their attempts to speak it would invariably fail, and could be ignored or pitied. So I realized how in just a few days, the obligation to speak the language in so many situations had forced a confidence upon me which never previously existed, and that for the first time French people were beginning to listen to me and take notice. Success seemed to lie very much in the projection, and not necessarily just the grammar and pronunciation.

The night drew to a close, and we had all become concerned by the activities of one hostel guest who was acting very strangely throughout his stay. Many of the girls were worried by his behaviour, and I was too upon discovering that he was in the room neighbouring my own. There had been all sorts of banging and thumping noises coming from next door, accompanied by shouting and strange screams, and I was thankful that I was the only guest in my dormitory and had a lock on the door.

There were few residents in this quiet hostel, and of an evening the man would loiter in the pitch black, unlocked rooms next to some of the female staff quarters. They were afraid to go to their beds at night, unable to see if he might leap out at them. We played games spooking each other until things started to get a bit silly, but we were bothered enough to accompany one another to our rooms. I slept well, no more screams were heard, and in the morning there were no bodies on the carpet in reception. We had all escaped for another night.

HOSTEL REPORT: Poitiers - Auberge de Jeunesse - see day 5

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