Brussels-Santander, 29-30 July

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I set off for Spain from the office in sunshine after work.

The Thalys, as usual, took no time at all between Brussels Midi and Paris Gare du Nord.

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There was no security check at Brussels, but they were checking bags at Gare du Nord going the other way.


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We were heading for the Gare du Lyon on the RER. After fifteen minutes standing on a hot train (the one on the left in the picture) we learned that trains there were suspended – security alert. We didn’t find it easy to find the taxi rank; when we were there we were “helped” into a taxi by a local woman who banged the door angrily when we wouldn’t give her a tip.

People call taxi drivers aggressive, said our taxi driver, but it is Madame Hidalgo the mayor who has changed the traffic layout at this station so we lose so much time. Is it true, then, that taxi drivers are aggressive in Paris?, I said. Yes it is true, but we have to be, when cars take our place, to which they are not entitled, in the bus lanes. Like that car ahead of us… oh, he has a Danish plate. If not I would have sounded my horn. The fare to cross Paris – €16 – was less than I’d feared.

We ate at the Européen, opposite the station. It has much in common with the Brasserie du Terminus Nord, opposite the Gare du Nord – except that the Terminus Nord is darker, folded in on itself with mirrors. They took our baggage out of the way when we arrived; asked if we had a train at a particular time; the food came quickly. I enjoyed tomato-mozzarella salad and cold lobster with mayonnaise.

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When it came time for cheese, though, they seemed to have an ‘everything must go’ mentality, and the cheese was cold; we ended up taking away a mousey bag.

We caught the 2152 night train to Irun from the Gare d’Austerlitz. I’ve caught night trains from there a few times before, to go walking in the Pyrenees. I always thought the station was in the west of Paris, but in fact it is 15 minutes walk, across the Seine, from the Gare de Lyon in the south-east.

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I liked this strangely shaped building as we crossed the bridge.

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The part of the station from which our train departed has been turned into a fairy tale space: subtle lighting, petrified tree columns and SNCF staff on segways. Sadly French night trains are the least fun that I have travelled on – no meals, no bar, no pretence that your compartment is for anything other than sleeping, no folding away of bunks, no table, no frilly doo dahs and biscuits and TV magazines on the table (but there I’m thinking of Russia). It was a pleasure even so to rattle out for a fair distance under the streets of Paris, to emerge by the Seine…

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and to wake up in time to see revellers’ tents at the Fêtes de Bayonne

tents and parking on outskirts fête de Bayonne night train Paris-Irun 716.JPG

(where I met up with my walking friends last time we walked together in the Pyrenees); to see the sea for the first time, after coming into Biarritz;

people at St Jean de Luz waiting for a bus to Bayonne for the fêtes night train Paris-Irun 716.JPG

and to see people in the red and white colours of the fêtes queuing for a bus at St Jean de Luz.

We were nostalgic for holidays past at St Jean de Luz, and happy as we arrived at Irun, just over the Spanish border, at 9.30. Even if we had croissant and coffee, it was different from France immediately. The orange juice was squeezed in front of us and the people in the station café talked enthusiastically. You feel more left out as a foreigner (but that’s also because I don’t speak this language).

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I’ve been reading a book (Agents of empire) by Noel Malcolm about the Venetian empire in Albania in the sixteenth century. In the siege of Ulcinj the commander, Sciarra Martinengo, is – according to accounts – hit by a falling bell. No danger of that in Irun: the church bells have useful screens to them.

We’d looked into going on to Santander by train, but it takes seven hours, so we caught a bus. The Spanish long distance bus network is a fine thing, I have to accept that, but it is still less fun to sit for hours on a bus than a train, all the more so if the bus has smoked windows so the worsening climate looks worse still, and if it turns from an express into a stopper half way through the journey.

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And why does a bus company show its passengers adverts for cars?

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We drove through a surfing town (Debo) and arrived in Santander at 3.30, hopped into another zippy taxi with a female driver (How has the weather been? Mixed – it depends… on the weather) and arrived at our late 19th century hotel on the Avenida de la Hotelas at 3.45. Glance at the beach and we ate pintxes on a café terrace as the rain came down.

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  km mode of transport kph €/km
Brussels-Paris, 29 July 263 train 87 0,34
Paris-Santander, 29-30 July 764 night train; bus 41 0,21









Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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