I Like the Slow Bus to Paris.
My frequent idea of travelling from London to Paris has always primed my sense of adventure. I do it quite often and have become something of an authority. I am not the stripling that I was once, but every time I decide on the date of my next trip, it still makes the (thinning) hairs on the back of my neck stand up a bit.
It all started for me more than a quarter of a century ago. I was flying for a regional airline based at London City Airport when services from there were just about to start. My company had won a contract with Air France to provide a scheduled air service to Paris from City Airport. Air France wanted to pioneer the new London terminal with a route of its own before anyone else got their foot under the door. The rotations often meant staying overnight in Paris. I always flew with French cabin crew recruited in France and was able to share their lives, their country and their beer. This all started in 1988 when the London to Paris route was the busiest air service in the world.
You can still go to Paris in an aeroplane if you want to, but air travel is not what it was. These days there are other alternatives.
To fly, you have to drag yourself to a far flung, out of town airport. If you go in your car, the vultures will sting you for horrible parking charges. Check in these days needs to be about two hours before your flight leaves. All of the security people love to hope that you might be a terrorist so that they can nick you. They will make you almost undress to ensure that you have no bombs or bottles of water concealed about your person. They will examine your passport with an atom microscope and ask many vulgar questions just to make sure that you feel completely unwelcome.
You finally board your flight. The aircraft pilot will then inform you about the additional delay due to the amount of other aircraft occupying the sky. He will give the provisional time of the departure ‘slot’. This will have been allocated by a gnome occupying an underground bunker in Brussels. He will then tell you about the French air traffic controllers strike threatening further delays. He will also politely mention that you cannot get off the aircraft and walk instead. Your baggage is in the back and you have to travel with it. That is the way things are these days.
When you finally land in Paris, your journey has hardly started. Walk vast distances through the huge airport terminals and join the queues to await your baggage. Just trust that it has not ended up in Hong Kong. Join the line for surface connection travel outside. The City centre is still miles away and you have probably had enough of it all anyway.
Coach travel from London Victoria to Paris is always a bargain. It is a form of camping on six wheels and not really for the traveller who has succumbed to the comforts of life. The journey will take about eight hours and cross the channel generally on a P and O ferry. The trip will be a bit of a long haul jaunt but it has certain unique and, for me, attractive qualities.
There is no on-board service and provision only for one loo for all to share. There might be fifty other passengers. Schedule keeping though is always good and the coaches are modern and clean. The danger of road travel is always lurking but the drivers are all experienced and cautious. I have travelled this way to Paris a number of times and it somehow appeals to my sense of sentiment and humour. The channel crossing takes about an hour and a half and provides an opportunity to eat in the ship’s restaurant and use the loo. Remember to note the location of the bus on board the boat so that you can find it again. You are not allowed to remain on it for the crossing.
There is no formal security check prior to boarding the coach at London Victoria. Passports are looked at briefly by trained check in staff and the baggage allowance is generous. You put it on the bus yourself. Random seating always applies but most of the services are pretty full. The surface journey provides a splendid opportunity to view City life and the countryside en-route from your lofty perch high up in the coach. Travellers might find themselves sitting close to sleeping snorers occasionally, especially at night. Passengers consuming their own food around you can be a little irritating too. Everyone just has to muck in.
European coach travel routes from London spread far and wide. The journey to Paris is one of the shorter runs. The coach terminal in Paris is called Gallieni and is to the eastern side of the City. It is close to the Pere Lachaise cemetery but still fairly central. The coach terminal is easily connected to the centre of Paris. Take the Metro line from Gallieni itself or even walk. That is what I always do. There is a regular bus service from just outside as well.
The start of your journey at Victoria coach station will find it awash with the jumble of traveller life from across the continent. Comfort in the terminal while awaiting your bus is provided on iron and basic seating. The Paris Gallieni end is agreeable enough. It is clean but well used and not really so crowded. Constant but subtle security observation is always in place. There is Just one neat little cafe for drinks and sandwiches but it is often closed just when you need it. There are numerous snack vending machines along the corridors.
Ticket prices are very affordable and attract, shall I say, the financially challenged traveller (like me). 50 to 80 pounds sterling return all in. Tickets are cheaper for night time travel and cheaper to book in advance via the internet and print yourself. Eurolines and Megabus are the prime operating companies. Eurolines can be as low as £15 each way. Megabus sometimes offers lost leader deals down to £1 each way.
Travelling by train is the new way into Europe. Eurostar travel from St. Pancras International Station to Paris is the vogue. Electric rail travel across the continent has made any short haul air service from London redundant. Ultimately all of the power can come from renewable sources. The Eurostar service via the channel tunnel is civilised, sophisticated and green. Travellers get an allocated seat and carriage printed on their ticket. The pre-boarding airport style security check is thorough but is conducted in a brief and considerate style.
The terminal at St. Pancras is very swish and efficient. There are plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants that will remind travellers of the finest airports almost anywhere in the world. I suspect it has been designed to project the Boris Johnson idea of a 21st century London but without, apparently, any of his desires to fall in with all our EU friends. At the Paris end of the journey at Gare du Nord, the experience will be rather rough and tumble by comparison. Eurostar just blends in with all the other routine and busy train services.
The train journey is smooth, fast and uninterrupted. Services generally operate on time within five minutes of the schedule from both ends. Travelling time is two hours and fifteen minutes. Bar and cafe services are provided on the train but you have to queue up in the appropriately connected carriage. The service is sophisticated travel for the 21st century passenger and the seats are wide and comfortable. The arrival at Gare du Nord is very much ‘Paris Central’. There is plenty of transfer transport snapping just outside the doors day and night.
For the return journey, a rather coarser form of airport style security is in place. Belts and shoes have to be taken off and this is accompanied by a slow form of baggage X ray. Be on your guard for many beggars along the streets outside. They do seem to be a real problem in Paris due to their quantity. Adults steadfastly ask for money whilst accompanied by their very young children. They want to appeal to your sympathy. They have all gone at night so must have somewhere to go I suppose. I respectfully suspect that it is wrong to contribute to this form of black economy. It is all a bit out of control in Paris at the moment.
Eurostar train tickets from London to Paris are from 70 pounds one way to much greater. My last was a standard fare at a bargain price of 114 pounds return all in and not refundable. It is always cheaper to book via the internet in advance. Some promotional prices can be as low as 29 pounds one way.
I would never fly from London to Paris as a passenger anymore. Eurostar these days is the most comfortable, quickest and efficient form of transit. It is smooth and dreamy and makes the traveller feel special.
I do have a soft spot for coach travel from Victoria coach station however. I have used the service many times. I love the experience of leaving London by road. I love a night ferry trip and to watch out for France appearing through the early morning mist from the ship’s bows. Across the water, observing French life going on around the coach on the roads is exciting. I love also to wait for the suburbs of Paris to emerge at the start of the day and remind myself of a previous life.
I not so sure for next time. I think I really will take the coach again and just go camping on the bus. It is an earthy travel experience. When I arrive in Paris early in the morning, I get the streets to myself until the City wakes up. We all grow up too fast.