À Paris: le grand départ
It's a fairly bonkers thing to do, I'll admit. A day out in Paris, that's there and back again, cramming as much as possible into the hours inbetween. But when it's your birthday, hell why not? And Eurostar makes it possible, even convenient, to make a day trip, so long as you don't mind keeping unsociable hours. The first train out of St Pancras on a Saturday leaves just after 6am, and the last train back arrives just before 10pm. That leaves ten hours to explore the French capital, which is more than long enough to do a heck of a lot, so long as you don't restrict yourself too much. I last tried this stunt back in 2005, and crammed in tons, which I'd urge you to go back and read if you're interested. This time I didn't whizz around quite so très vite as then, and picked a trio of places to explore in a little more depth, as well as nipping about widely on the Metro inbetween.
Getting to St Pancras for 0545 requires dedication, or an overnight hotel room, or one of the very first tube trains of the day. Alas Bow Road's doors were still firmly bolted when I needed to depart, so I took the nightbus instead and shared the early part of my birthday with inebriated folk stuffing kebabs down their gullet. Whilst most were heading home, a select group of travellers descended on the check-in beneath St Pancras's platforms. I had a proper ticket, but most were attempting to gain entry by waving a home-printed sheet or a mobile phone QR code at the barriers. Then the metal detector shuffle, then smile for French passport control, and into the lounge where hundreds of pairs of bleary eyes were waiting. I wanted a newspaper but it was too early - WH Smith had only empty shelves. And I wanted a Metro pass for later but held off - it's apparently cheaper if you buy it aboard the Eurostar.
I settled into my window seat with a smile, then had to withdraw when a couple arrived waving tickets saying it was theirs. Damn, they were right, I'd misread one badly printed digit under inadequate illumination - either that or my eyesight's failing, and had chosen my 48th birthday to announce the fact. The train was packed with couples off to spend a day, or more likely the weekend, in la belle Paris. They had overnight bags and pink wheelie suitcases, and that look in their eyes which said "this is going to be très spécial." Meanwhile I had an empty seat next to me all the way, which was a result, and suggests the early train always has room for a last-minute booking.
After 20 minutes beneath the Channel we hurtled out into France, which was temporarily invisible thanks to something the deep recesses of my schoolboy brain reminded me was brouillard. Eventually the fog thinned and lifted, revealing arurallandscape that was somehow definitely not Kent. The hedgerows looked different, and the farmhouses, but it was the electricity pylons which were the true giveaway. Occasionally a town appeared, with unfamiliar takeaway drive-thrus and warehouses on its outskirts, but mostly the view was of ploughed fields, distant villages and the occasional water tower. That is until we pierced the edge of Paris, first les banlieues with their highrise flats, and finally the commercial mix of the metropolitan arrondisements. From St Pancras to Gare du Nord in two and a half hours flat, plus an extra hour for entering the Central European timezone, and it still wasn't 10am. I had the entire day ahead - best make the most of it.