I finished my week of night shifts and had the weekend off. Since we had not been out of Sheffield in a month, we thought it would be a good opportunity to spend a weekend abroad. A short drive to East Midlands Airport, an hour on the bright yellow seats of Ryanair and we were in France. The flight to Dinard, in the north of France, had cost us £89 return, all inclusive, for both of us, so effectively it was cheaper than getting the train to London!
Dinard Airport is a tiny place with a single runway and a small two-storey building roughly about the same size as a three-bedroom house. Some of the bigger Tesco stores have longer conveyor belts than the Baggage Reclaim section here and the lone immigration/customs/security officer greets everyone with a fixed smite and 'Bonjour'. Three steps later, one is out in the taxi stand.
A 20 minute taxi ride took us to the Ibis at Saint Malo, in an area with big warehouse-style shops all around. It was only after we had settled in and gone out on a ramble that we realised we were miles away from anywhere. At first we were quite enjoying it — walking along little lanes named after sorcière's, greenery all around, little Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots speeding by on the dual carriageway... but an hour-and-a-half later, when we had failed to see any signs of city life, we started to get worried. Another hour later, we reached the glass and steel train station but could not find anything else that was vaguely touristy. The walk had exhausted us and made us very hungry and thirsty but apart from a few cafés with one or two locals in them, we had found nothing. And so, swallowing our pride as seasoned travellers, we got a taxi.
The taxi took us to the walled city in the most obvious part of town — the harbourside! Once on the cobbled roads of the old town we felt that the stories on the net had been true after all: Saint Malo was a quiet, charming town perfect for a relaxing evening out. By this time our rumbling stomachs had taken absolute control of our brains, so we settled for the first attractive looking restaurant we came across. Thankfully we did not have to regret it. The food was sumptuous, the wine divine. We spent a leisurely couple of hours in the town watching the sun set over the boats in the harbour and enjoying a walk along the waterfront. Then, exhausted, we went back to a well deserved night of rest.
One good thing that came out of our long trek across Saint Malo yesterday was that we got the train timetable from the station. The next we knew exactly where and when we were going, so we were able to take our time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and saunter across to the train station in time to catch the 1340 TGV to Rennes.
I had never been on the TGV before and that had been one of the greatest regrets in my life. 6 years ago, when I visited France for the first time, I had wanted to do it; instead I had taken the Trenhotel for an overnight journey from Paris to Barcelona. Although a far superior train, with luxurious sleeping accommodation that did the journey in less than 8 hours, it was NOT the TGV. I had visions of the super-mighty TGV roaring through the French countryside faster than a speeding bullet and had imagined the ride to be something like a roller coaster with purpose. A ride on board what has been, for the last 26 years, unbeaten as the fastest wheeled train in the world, was going to be my ultimate experience in commercial travel!
It was a big disappointment. The TGV might reach 357 miles/hr somewhere on its route, but definitely not between Saint Malo and Rennes! The 50 mile distance took the greater part of an hour to cover and our first class coach offered nothing above the standard apart from slightly wider seats and curtains on the windows. I was not a happy bunny!
The town itself made up for the disappointment of the journey. The weather was great and the shopping district was crowded, but we found ourselves a nice little place to have lunch and a bottle of wine, then set about exploring the town on foot. Old buildings looked over bustling market squares and in one of these I picked up a little children's story book about the adventures of three little hippopotami. With the pictures to help and a line of text on each page, I read and actually understood the story (with a bit of prompting from Andrew, who speaks fluent French). It was the first time ever I read an entire book in a foreign language and I was almost as excited as the little hippopotami were on their quest for a diving board!
Our ramble through the town centre took us past roadside cafés, bars and shops. It was a leisurely Saturday afternoon and everyone seemed relaxed and enjoying themselves, but then the French are laid back even on the busiest of days. We shopped a bit, walked around, then a couple of hours later, sat for another hour on the TGV as it made its leisurely way back to Saint Malo. We got a glass of wine each on the train, watching the countryside floating past the windows, desperately trying to divert our attention from the couple in the seat opposite who spent the whole hour demonstrating the country's greatest gift to mankind: the French kiss.
We were back in the walled town of Saint Malo in the evening, sharing a bottle of wine in an Irish pub, entertaining ourselves eavesdropping on a wide variety of Guiness-induced banter. As has been my common experience in many parts of France, we had to wait for more than 2 hours for a taxi home, but then, hey, when you're on holiday, what's the hurry?
Our last day in France, and all we wanted was some cash for the plane and a packet of cigarettes.
We set off from the hotel after breakfast and reached Dinard airport three-and-a-half hours before check-in started. The only two check-in counters were empty and we saw a total of three people in the airport: the security guard, who would shortly take on the role of the immigration officer, a cleaner and a guy at the coffee shop. The airport had neither a cash machine nor a cigarette shop, so we thought we would take a walk and find one. The slight drizzle outside seemed manageable and as we got out of the airport we saw two roads, one leading to Saint Malo and one to Dinard, so we thought since the airport is named after Dinard, it would be closer. We turned left and started walking.
We must have walked about a mile along the narrow road through the wilderness before we realised that it was a bad decision. There was no petrol station in sight, nor a cash machine and the rain was gaining in strength. We still had over an hour to spare and the road signs continued to point towards Dinard without any distance indication, so we decided to continue nevertheless. 15 minutes later, we came to a junction with a big road and our hopes went a bit higher.
Half-an-hour later, walking along the central reservation and getting splashed by cars from both sides, we were a miserable sight: dripping wet, cold and thoroughly uncomfortable. I suddenly became aware of the bag, which seemed a lot heavier now than it had ever been. By now time was running out and check-in had started at the airport two and a half miles away but the mere thought of walking back the way we had come filled us with dread, so we continued.
I learnt later that the distance we walked before we saw the first signs of human habitation was more than 5 miles. I must emphasize on the word 'signs' as we had not seen any humans yet. Arrows now pointed to the Dinard town centre but every shop, every institution we saw, was closed. I tried to keep up spirits with well-meant bicker but we were both aware that we were in deep trouble. I thought what it might be like to live in Dinard in case we were stuck there forever. Maybe in six months, I could learn enough of the language to start treating people at the local hospital (if we managed to find it). Andrew could probably put up flyers to inspire the inhabitants of the dead town to learn dancing or musical theatre. We would still survive. Then I thought of our home in Sheffield and the heating and the stocked kitchen and it made me sad once again.
Well into the town, close to the centre, we found a petrol station. It had neither a cash machine, nor cigarettes. Our hearts sank. Without a cash machine, we could not even get a taxi back to the airport. As we were about to leave, however, the girl behind the counter had a brainstorm. She knew where we could find both and gave us directions!
500 metres straight on, then right and keep going for 600 metres, then the third left and another 400 metres and the second right and we should find what we needed. Without wasting time, we set off, walked as fast as our legs would carry us... and presto! A cash machine. Loaded with Euros, we looked around and saw a tobacconist! Enquiries inside revealed that the taxi stand was right outside!
'Ryanair closes gates exactly 40 minutes before departure,' our taxi driver warned us in heavily accented English as we got on. 'You'll make it this time but next time, be careful!' Andrew and I looked at each other and smiled. If only he knew!