Tuesday, June 13

Super Sunday

Today was a day for the ages--in a good way, of course, as a simple expedition to the beach turned into quite an adventure.

This past week when we were in the train station setting up train reservations for next weekend, when we go to Paris, we talked to some of the train station people about beaches on the Mediterranean side. The beach at Narbonne was recommended and it's also rather conveniently situated so six of us agreed to go.

On a tangent, the entire French rail network boils down to two main lines that converge in Paris. The eastern one runs south, down the Rhone valley to the Mediterranean and then turns west while the western line runs southwest from Paris down to Bordeaux then to Toulouse. They then reconverge at the opposite side of the country in Narbonne. So taking the train there is no problem; it's just about an hour and twenty minutes.

Now, I could let you know right away what we learned today, but then the story won't be as good so I'll write it later.

Five other people had made train reservations a couple of days ago for a beach about an hour more eastern that Bayonne and they left at 7 am today. We were more casual so we slept some more and left at 8:30 and headed to the train station to see what we could get. We then were able to get seats on a train leaving after 10 and getting to Bayonne by noon, so we putzed around for an hour.

After a pleasant train ride we arrived at the train station, bookbags laden with beach equipment in tow. The people to whom we had spoken had said that there was a bus that'd take us to the beach so immediately we checked the big map in the station for the bus stop. The only thing worthy of mention was that there was a street named 'Karl Marx Avenue'. Once outside and after turning a corner we could see that there wasn't much activity, at all at the bus stop. A search party left and walked down the parking lot while someone else who spoke French went to inquire at the ticket window about the beach bus.

Reconvening. Perhaps there's bus leaving from the city center? Follow the signs. Pointing down the road, walk one block a small roundabout, with a sign for the tourist information office pointing down the street. Take the turn, walk 10 paces, there it is. On the corner. Why'd they put a road sign for a place on the corner? It's closed anyway, only Monday to Friday.

We decide to continue heading down the previous road to the city center. We made it another block to a big circle/roundabout type thing with a big park in the middle. We walked around it and there weren't any road signs. After circumwalking 270 degrees around the circular park, we could see the train station down a street again so we head back that way. It is decided that we should talk to a local.

There was an old gentleman crossing the street so we approached him. Someone asked him "Parle vouz anglais?"-Do you speak English. He said no. Our French speaker had continued on to someone else, so I said "Espanol?" since we were in the southern corner of France, their next probable language would be Spanish. He looked at me and said "Si".

The following conversation, loosely described, took place in Spain Spanish with a French accent so I got most of it.

Me: We're looking for the beach.
French: The beach? Yeah.
Could we walk to it?
[Sizing us up] I guess, yes, you could...
Which way to the beach?
[pointing] Go down this street and turn left
How far is it?
20 km.

I then repeated my new knowledge to the non-Spanish speakers and we thanked the man for talking to us. 20 km. Just like money and everything else, except for time (not counting the whole 24 hour time thing), we had to convert it to something we understand. 1 km = .6 miles, roughly. Oh, so that's about 12 miles?

That was a bit of a bummer. We headed back to the train station. Luckily, we hadn't wasted too much time yet. Our train would leave at 21.45 (9:45 pm) and it's about 12.30. We'll try a taxi.

There was a taxi stand in front of the station but there weren't any taxis to be found. A woman and her daughter who were from Ireland or Scotland were trying to get to the beach, too. They had gotten off the train immediately before us. She told us that she had called for a taxi several times and none had come yet. After a few minutes, one appeared. She spoke to the driver and he got on his cell phone. He then went in the station and came out with a couple who got in the taxi and left. After a few more minutes, a young couple from Italy who were looking for a way to the beach showed up.

This is starting to get a little long so I'll just speed it up. There were a total of 10 of us trying to get to the beach. A taxi showed up and we decided to split into two groups of five. Three of us and the woman and her daughter went in the first one. He said that it'd be 10 minutes for the next one; we waited half an hour. He wanted to charge 60 euros, nearly $80, including some kind of 'Sunday surcharge' which doesn't exist. The round trip on the train was about $45 for each of us, including the cost of the rail pass. The Italian couple said that they couldn't afford it because they only had an hour or two by now. The three of us left behind, Mike, Dave B., and I, decided to walk.

I went to the store in the train station and asked the guy "carta?" which is Spanish for map. He pointed them out to me. I got the one for the area and he pointed where the beach was. Go down the street and turn left, then follow highway 168 to the beach. Not too complicated and I didn't want to buy the map so we quickly committed it to memory. It was 1:30 by the time we started walking. About a block away, we met up with the Italians again. We walked together for about a quarter of a mile.

Go down the road. This town was the first Roman colony outside Italy. Wouldn't have guessed it. Another roundabout. Trees are good for shade. Past a neighborhood, down a low hill. There's a sports center; a convention center on the left. The sidewalk turns into a worn path which fades away. The road divides and the speed limit increases. A cool breeze, from the sea, perhaps? Did I mention that there was some kind of bike riding convention going on? It was ironic, 20 km wouldn't have been that bad to ride. Past a gas station. Thumbs out, water running low.

An hour and some minutes later we stop for a break in the grass next to a roundabout. We've been out in the country for a while now, under an interstate overpass and past grape fields with cars whizzing by, the hills growing in height. Walking in town they were low bumps on the horizon between buildings, now we had made it to their base and were starting to walk up hill.

We start again, we've been following the signs for the "Narbonne-Plage". This sign points up the hill and says 11km. We're half way there. We walk about another couple hundred yards and a Land Rover type car slows down. The guy says something about Plage. We got in, thanking him profusely. He was playing some kind of loud-techno-rap. It turns out that it was a good thing that we didn't walk the rest, the road was narrow and squigled around without a shoulder.

I wanted to take some pictures, the hills basically looked like what I've seen of Spain on tv, I guess, but I was afraid that he would have been like "nice camera", and I wasn't ready to die over a camera so I just sat there. Luckily, he dropped us off a block inland from the center of the beach and we found the rest of our party quickly. In total, it took us about 90 minutes and a lot of walking, but we saved 60 euros!

As for the beach it was very nice, but a little on the cool side, I went in up to my knees. I would say that it was about 60% crowded. The little town between the beach and the hills was mostly cottages and a few little businesses like motels and restaurants. The sand was hot and as for the Mediterranean, it's not really that different from Lake Michigan, warmer and with less pollution. As for the beach, it was very...how would you say...European. Males in 'euro trunks' and some women 'sunning' themselves.

We hung out on the beach for several hours. As dinner time approached, the people on the beach left. Our train didn't leave until nearly 10 pm, but we didn't want to risk it. The approach of 7 pm together with the sound of the hungry villagers looking for a sacrifice pulled us from the beach to call a taxi.

It was worth the 40 euros split among 6 people. Back in town, we ate a slow dinner at a kebob place.

It was quite a relief to finally pull into Toulouse's train station. Like native Toulousers, we nonchalantly walked down the platform and out the front of the station to the subway entrance. Ah, the good old subway. I don't think we really need to even look at the signs anymore. Our stop is two down from the train station.

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