Friday, October 2, 2009

France on $70 a Day - On to the Dordogne

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

Sundays have travel disadvantages because most shops, restaurants, and car rental agencies are closed, but one advantage is that there is little traffic on usually busy city streets. Instead of taking forty-five minutes to get to the Montparnasse Rail Station, the taxi took only twenty and cost just 20 euros, not the expected 25-30.

David and I were there early, but that did not prove to be an advantage. While you can find your platform number ahead of time in the smaller train stations,--at least an hour in advance--in the larger stations, the voie, or platform number, is not listed until twenty minutes before boarding. Then there's a mad scramble to validate your ticket in one of the machines (Don't forget to do this as an unstamped ticket results in a fine.), find your coach number, and heft the suitcases into the train. We sat around for an hour, bored and restless, and then rushed to get on the train.

The train system in France is impressive, but one area ripe for improvement is the system of numbering coaches. The coaches do not progress in an orderly numerical fashion, so finding your coach can be confusing. Number five might be followed by twelve. You must find the right coach, though, because often a train "splits" by leaving some cars behind. If you're not in the right car, you might find yourself in Poitiers instead of Bordeaux!

So, use the coding system you will find on the platform itself. This electronic bar organizes the coach numbers and groups them with letters so you can find the general area of your coach. For example, coaches 10, 11, 12 and 13 will be in section "C." Once you know what area you need, consult the letters you see posted alongside the train platform and go to that section. (In this example, the corresponding letter C.) Once you're in that section, and looking only at three or four coach numbers instead of forty coach numbers in the train, it becomes much easier to find the one you need.

The TGV, fast train, is a joy to ride. There's ample seating in second class, especially when compared to airline seating, and there's a club car with a bar and restaurant. Of course, we had our own sandwiches (croissants with ham and Emmentaler cheese), but it was a pleasure to "picnic" while watching the countryside speed by.

Our Peugeot 207 was ready and waiting for us in Bordeaux, and after getting a map and checking out the car for dings, we set off. I hadn't driven a stick for five years, but the car shifted so effortlessly, I had no problem driving.

I did have problems, though, with heavy rain (Note that the speed limit on toll highways is twenty miles slower during inclement weather. 110 k instead of 130)and toll booths. I didn't realize that when I approached the toll booths, I should have entered one of the ones on the left. I went to the far right one which turned out to be an exit. After ten miles, with David constantly consulting the map and saying, "I think we're on the wrong road." we realized our mistake and backtracked to get on the toll road again. It was supposed to be a two-hour drive to Sarlat, but it took us three.

Entering Sarlat at dusk was also frustrating. This beautiful, medieval city is lovely to look at and amazingly easy to get lost in! We finally gave up trying to find the Toulemon Gite and parked near the center of town at a hotel. The hotel let me borrow the phone and Pierre-Henri was quick to walk over to find us. Turns out we were only a block away, but it might as well have been a dozen. We would never have found the place on our own.

Pierre-Henri graciously led us to the apartment and flipped on lights and the refrigerator, explaining the door locks as he went. When he left, though, and David and I were alone in the apartment, we were disappointed. The Toulemon gites in the center of town were highly recommended, but this apartment just 300 meters away was not what we expected. The "living room" had two single beds with one wicker chair and a table. Low wattage lights dangled precariously from the ceiling. The bathroom doorway was so low, 6'5" David hit his head every time he went through it. The window blind in the "living room" fell down if you tried to raise or lower it, and the rest of the rooms (only a kitchen and a bedroom) had lacy curtains that would not shield us from the sun or prying eyes.

The Living Room

We put sheets on the bed and knew, when we discovered the pillows, that this place would not work for us. The pillows seemed to be a hundred cotton balls gathered in a cloth covering. Neither one of us felt like punching our pillows into some semblance of normalcy every night.

We walked into town where, at 9:00 at night, we could not find a single open restaurant. We sat on the plaza sharing a beer to discuss our situation. Pierre-Henri had been kind to us, every e-mail had confirmed his pleasant disposition, and he'd even offered to fetch us from the train station in Sarlat for free before our plans changed. He hadn't even asked for a deposit for our eight-day stay. Still, as nice as he'd been, we knew we could not stay in that apartment. After just having come from Paris, where we had every amenity that made us feel so at home, this place in Sarlat was an especially disappointing place.

We slowly climbed the cobblestone street back to the apartment worrying the questions over and over again. Would we have to stay in a hotel that would destroy our budget for the trip? Would it be possible to find an apartment on such short notice? How would we explain to Pierre-Henri that we could not stay in his gite? If he demanded a significant penalty for cancelling our reservation, would we be stuck in that awful place?

Maybe tomorrow, when we're fresher, we'll find some answers.

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