Travel fiasco; Naples to Milan; Sleeping with the junkies and the homeless; Milan to Cannes with a brief stop in Monaco; Cannes to Aix-en-Provence

We thought it would be a relatively straightforward trip from Naples to Dijon. It was only two trains, after all - we’d change in Milan to a sleeper train and wake up in Dijon. We didn’t especially want to be in Dijon, mind you - we wanted to be somewhere in Provence. Marseilles, maybe. But the trains were easiest to Dijon so we thought we’d just settle for it.

The actual events were so far from the plan its almost funny. When we went to get our reservations in Naples we were told that the train to Dijon was full. It had honestly never occurred to me that a train might be completely full! This was a serious problem. There didn’t seem to be any trains to anywhere else in France either - even German destinations didn’t work. With only seconds to make up our minds we decided to get the train to Milan - a high-speed train which cost us €20 each, took six hours and arrived at 10pm - and try and find somewhere to stay in Milan when we got there. We knew it would be very touch-and-go, since our awful guidebook listed no hostels and only four impossibly expensive hotels, but we decided to try.

The train to Milan was very nice - first-class on the Eurostar trains is impressive. They even gave us tea twice during the trip! When we got to Milan, though, it was immediately clear that there was going to be trouble. The only internet cafe around was just closing (even though the sign on the door said it closed at midnight, the bastards) so we had no way of checking for a hostel. I took a walk around trying to find a hotel. The only one-star was full, and everything else started at three stars and €120. That was clearly absurd and just not going to happen. I finally found an internet connection and checked for hostels and cheap hotels, and there was nothing No vacancies anywhere for less than €100. By this time it was midnight anyway, and the next useful train (we thought) in to France was at 5am, so we decided to take our chances and spend the night in the station. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds - I’d imagined a night spent fighting off junkies and shivering on a cold concrete floor. But Milan’s station is big and grand with marble carvings (although currently under renovation like all of Europe) and there’s a huge waiting room with benches and a heavy police presence. I wouldn’t call it comfortable or fun - we were still sleeping on camping mattresses on the hard floor in a cold, brightly-lit room, after all - but we were safe enough. We still slept in shifts and watched our bags like hawks though.

The 5:00 train turned out to to be useful after all, and we had to wait until 7 when we could catch the train to a place called Ventimiglia on the French border. It was meant to be a four-hour trip (we slept through most of it) but it was very badly delayed so we missed our connecting train to Nice, which had been the plan. There was, in a stroke of luck, a train to Cannes, which we took without a second thought - anything to get to France at this point. Ironically, this train passed through Nice as well. We were very happy, too, that the train passed through Monaco - so we could add one more country to the list. It only counts if you set foot in the country, though, so we ran out on e door of the train, along the platform adn back in the next door, laughing like idiots the whole time. Now we can say we’ve been for a walk in Monaco.

We had only one hour in Cannes before catching the next train to Aix-en-Provence, but I wanted to keep a low profile there - since Cannes lost its pre-eminence in the film festival world to Toronto, who knows how the natives might have reacted if they’d found out where we were from? They might have tarred and feathered us and paraded us through the streets in humiliation! Or perhaps they might only have pointedly sniffed and snubbed us in the French fashion. Happily we were stealthy enough to escape town untarred, unfeathered, unparaded and unsnubbed. I nearly managed to humiliate myself, though. One of our first stops in Cannes was a supermarket to find something to eat. The tourist office lady was nice enough to direct us to a store called Monoprix. Now, ever since we left Hungary back in early August, we’ve been having to scrounge food in tiny corner markets. Real supermarkets have been so few and far between all through Romania, Croatia, Slovenia and especially in Italy, that we’d just become used to it and forgotten that better ways existed. French readers will have seen the joke coming, but for everyone else I’ll explain - when I walked into Monoprix I nearly wept like a baby. It might not have been the size of some of the gigantic supermarkets at home, but by our current standards it was huge. The thought of all that food, that I could just buy and walk out with, overwhelmed me like a tsunami in Holland. Fortunately for my dignity and reputation I maintained my poker face.

In contrast to the chaotic mess it had been getting this far, the trip from Cannes to Aix-en-Provence was quick and easy. Only in contrast, though - we had a TGV train (train à grande vitesse) to the Aix TGV station, which like most TGV stations is rather far out of town. This required us to take a €4 shuttle bus to the town centre - a fifteen or twenty-minute trip. Then walk a bit to the municipal bus stop, take the number 4 bus and find the hostel. It was quite an epic trip but we did have a stoke of luck - we asked someone where to buy bus tickets and he told us the buses were free that weekend for a holiday. We thought he was having us on, but it turned out to be true.

It all went a bit sour when we finally reached the hostel, though. It was a Hostelling International hostel, and that means bad facilities , segregated dorms, and lockouts during the day. This particular hostel had a midnight curfew as well. Curfews and segregated dorms - honestly! In 2008. I’m not joking. The last straw came when we decided that being separated wasn’t an option that night and to pay extra for a private room. Though it had a private toilet and shower, the so-called “double room” turned out to be a tiny cubicle containing - you guessed it - one set of bunk beds. After travelling for thirty hours and fighting so hard to get here, only to be insulted with such a ridiculous hostel - well, we weren’t happy, let’s say. It’s not as if HI hostel are cheap enough to excuse their contempt for travellers either - this one was €19 per person, per night. It’s a good thing we have membership cards or the price would have been €2 higher as well. I’ve written before on this topic, but hostelling in Europe resembles one of those juicing appliances - it’s a huge machine with the sole purpose of separating young backpackers from as much of their money as possible. Us old backpackers are stuck with it because - short of staying with friends - it’s still the cheapest option. Not by much though. I honestly don’t think I could stand to stay much longer in Europe. I’m tired of being fleeced.

After that we were done. Four trains, two buses, thirty hours and one night in a train station had left us with no energy or interest in making the trek back into town even if there had been time before the curfew. We grabbed a (surprisingly good) pizza from a roadside truck, played a bit on the jungle gym at the park, and went to bed worn out.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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