Getting to Toulouse from Amsterdam is easy if you’ve planned your trip at least two months ahead. Just get a Thalys to Paris and a TGV from Paris to Toulouse.
Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t planned my trip two months ahead, so when I went to the ticket office, I was told that the Thalys and TGV were both sold out, so I need to catch 5 trains, the metro and a tram from 6am from Amsterdam, to get to Paris at 7pm, and then ask at Paris if there’s any other way I can get to Toulouse.
This was not the most comforting advice I’d been given ever, and waking up at 4:30am so I can shower, pack, eat and then travel to Centraal to catch the first of my marathon series of trains was not an appealing course of action. I asked the lady at the counter if I had other options but she must have been having a bad day because she insisted this was the only one. Luckily for me, it was not. Some furious googling showed that while I definitely did still have to catch 6 trains to Paris, I could do this later in the day – and also I could get an overnight train to Toulouse.
The timetables at the station allowed me about 2 minutes between connecting trains – which anyone who’s tried to rail around Europe knows is nowhere near enough, given huge confusing train stations and the fact that trains arrive late and leave early but rarely go the other way round. So I decided to give myself longer gaps between journeys, and armed with a full season of Nikita on my tablet (thanks to darling Matt, whose idea it had been) I set off at 8 to Centraal and got on my first train to Rotterdam.
People say train journeys are lovely and captivating – the scenery around the European countryside is truly spectacular. But seriously, how long can that captivate you? Train journeys are best with company, which makes them amazing, or a good book or movie, which makes them the same as any other time/place you’d be reading a book or watching a movie. The ad campaigns for trains are amazing however – featuring an attractive man with no baggage but who seems to constantly have food and hot coffee, sitting comfortably and enjoying the scenery. The reality is a little less romantic.
My route for the day took me from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, switch, train to Antwerp, switch, train to Lille-Flanders, switch, train to St Quentain, switch, train to Paris Nord, switch, métro to Paris Austerlitz. Making that many changes with a rucksack and handbag makes the journey a little less carefree than the ads would have you believe. Having said that though, some stations are amazing – the station at Antwerp was this huge multi-storey building with platforms one on top of the other, and you could see the trains stacked up along the side – I have no idea how that works (too busy watching Nikita to pay attention as we got in/out) but it looked impressive!
Some trains are cool too – my connection from Lille-Flanders to St Quentain had these strange bike racks going along the wall and ceiling so that there were bikes stacked hanging from the ceiling. The overnight train to Toulouse was definitely an experience – couchettes six to a compartment, with pillows and blankets and sheets and a bottle of water made for a really comfortable night’s sleep actually but a few things about the couchettes confused me. There was, for one, no place to put your bags, and the woman on the berth above me slept with her suitcase. I was fortunately enough on the lowest one and moved my bag to the floor once everyone else had settled in. Couchettes also do not leave any space to sit up, so you have to kind of climb in awkwardly, and there are no powerpoints or internet, although I guess on an overnight train they assume you don’t need either of those.
I was, however, incredibly relieved when I finally made it to Toulouse. My German sim card for some reason refused to work here at all – so after wandering around Matabiau searching for internet I messaged Nick over Facebook to ask for directions to where he lived. Nick, darling that he is, woke up at that ungodly hour to pick me up at the metro station at St-Agne even after I’d assured him I could find my own way to his place. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see another person as I was when I saw him coming down the escalator. I was starving and tired and lonely and as we stopped at a bakery on the way back to his place and he bought me a pain au lait I could have cried from happiness.
‘What does one do in Toulouse?’, I asked Nick. ‘There isn’t much of a partying scene here in terms of going out and dancing the night away’, he said, well aware of my penchant for getting my groove on. ‘But you come to Toulouse to relax, to eat cheese and sausage and ham and croissants and drink wine and read books and take in the countryside and the gorgeous architecture’. You come to Toulouse to take it easy and just enjoy living.
And that’s what we did. We spent the morning wandering through the charming streets of the town, Nick getting into enthusiastic conversations in French with everyone we came into contact with. We meandered through the town hall and other buildings in the main part of town, getting suitably awed by the architecture and doing a lot of window shopping (and some real shopping) along the way. We went to the markets and spent ages wandering around, tasting things, trying Frog’s Legs and ultimately coming out with a selection of meats, cheeses and wines for our lunch.
And we also chilled on the couch watching Pulp Fiction after Nick realised I’d never watched it and decided that had to be remedied. Then, in typical French fashion we played the soundtrack over a record player and danced along, ascertaining along the way that we could definitely have beaten Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist competition.
I definitely want to live in a French speaking country for a while – both to improve on my French, and also because it’s just a very different pace. In Toulouse especially, they just did things differently – the stereotype of the French taking ages to get anything done held true, but the one of them being snobby and stuck up definitely did not. We had many an animated conversation with shopkeepers and stall holders, and every one of them was so lovely and obliging and genuinely happy to just chat. Plus I got my Frog’s legs for less than the actual price, and Nick, when we went to a bar that night, got a free drink! That had, he’d told me, been happening a lot at that bar, and we couldn’t figure out if the bartender (male, perhaps gay) was trying to hit on him or was just being nice.
We finished up our day heading back to his place, playing Kimito with his housemates and classmates and then turning his living room into a dance floor until finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I collapsed on the couch and succumbed to the sweet allure of sleep.