Where do I start.
Yesterday we had a lovely last day in Bordeaux, with Diana doing a bit of shopping and us going up the tower and into the cathedral. Now, while I’m sure I’m in for stunning buildings in Rome and everything, I was still struck dumb by the cathedral in Bordeaux. I took a few photos and then gave up. There’s no point. You had to be there.
And we headed down to the train station and bought a few tickets to Toulouse. I took some footage on the train of the sunset and the little farms going by and everything. I’ll post that up soon. It was a nice trip.
“Bonsoir, Toulouse!” I say as we exit (or “sortie”) the train station. By this time we have already been asked for money twice. One guy had some sort of bleach-braided hair that looked like it probably cost several hundred New Zealand dollars.
It’s dark at this point, around 7pm. We’re looking for a place called Hotel Chartreuse, which Lonely Planet tells us is opposite the train station. What’s actually opposite the train station is a collection of around 20 rough-looking dudes with 20 rough-looking dogs. We gingerly circumvent them (two new requests for money added to the tally) and cross a river thing to the street opposite.
There’s the Hotel Chartreuse, lovingly nested between strip clubs. We knock on the door and the guy apologises – they’re all full up.
Now, you might think it’s silly to go somewhere without booking a room. And basically, you’re right. The thing is, up until now this has not been a problem. It’s the off-season, and backpackers and hostels have been stoked to see us.
Diana isn’t too concerned, as it’s not an area she’d like to stay in anyway. I’m inclined to agree. So we buy a map and start tracking down other places recommended by Lonely Planet. A half-hour trek through the city later, they’re full too – a particular pity as I had managed to ask for the room in French.
Now we’re thinking, “Fuck it, we’ll just take any old place in a two-star hotel.” So we retrace our steps, going into hotel after hotel. Complet, complet, complet. No room at the inn. I start waxing poetic about what a poignant story the Nativity tale is. We get almost all the way back to the train and try for a room at a place called l’Hotel Des Ambassadeurs, I think.
“Pardon, Monsieur. Complet.”
We stare mournfully up the stairs at the concierge who’s told us the same thing everyone else has. By now I’m wondering how well I could put a positive spin on spending the night at a 24-hour internet cafe, an old trick I’ve used to save on accommodation while backpacking, but probably not easily sold in to Diana. What would appeal to her? Could there be a 24-hour internet cafe next-door to some kind of 24-hour petting zoo?
The concierge takes pity on us. “Come up, come up,” he says, intuiting that we’re not native French speakers.
We scale the stairs and Diana collapses into a sofa in the waiting room.
“Everywhere is full,” explains the concierge unnecessarily. His name is Mathias. “There is a congress.” A convention. Some kind of business convention in Toulouse has booked out every damned room in the place.
So the concierge starts trying to help us. He thinks there are two beds left in a dorm room at one particular place in the city. He starts trying to phone them for us, but there’s no answer. All the while, about once every five minutes, the door downstairs opens, a bell rings, and a new person is told that there are no rooms left at this hotel.
Finally he gives up, at the same time as he finishes his shift. “The last available room was 30km away,” he explains. And it was snapped up hours ago.
So I start formulating a plan. We’re getting out of Toulouse. We’re moving on to our next destination, either Carcassonne or Nimes, and we’ll book accommodation ahead of time there.
First step: finding out whether or not any trains are going out this late. Mathias joins me on the walk down to the train station, having briefed his replacement at the hotel.
We walk past the collection of guys on the street with dogs, and I have to ask Mathias, “What’s with the dog club?”
He explains. It’s against the law in France for policemen to leave dogs unattended on the street. So all of the homeless guys have dogs as protection against being arrested. To arrest the homeless owner of a dog would be to either leave the dog unattended (not allowed) or somehow look after the dog (too much hassle). Thinking back, most homeless people I’ve seen in France have had sad-looking dogs with them.
So I get to the train station ticket counter. Naturally, there are no trains left going to either Nimes or Carcassonne. In fact, our only option is back to Paris – or something on the way to Paris.
This is the first time I have heard of a place called Cahors. But that’s our destination. Maybe. I ask the lady how many people live in Cahors, what the population is. She looks surprised and says, “I have no idea.” She asks the lady next to her, in French, who laughs hysterically at the question but doesn’t answer it.
Now, back to the hotel to see if we can book a place there.
The new concierge (Kevin) doesn’t speak much English, but we muddle our way through. He brings up booking.com and we book a place in Cahors. We use my credit card. We get details of where it is (500m from the train station). It all sounds good. We’re on our way out the door to buy the tickets before the train leaves when he says, “There is problem!”
He’s booked (and I’ve paid for) a room in a hotel in some place that’s not Cahors. When he searched for Cahors hotels, some other city’s hotels came up too. This is no good. He cancels it and hopefully cancels the credit-card payment, and with many many apologies books the Deltour Hotel in Cahors. He gives us a booking number and a four-digit code. I write them down.
Where is it? 2.5km from the train station. Is it a safe walk? Oh, yes, yes.
We get to the train station. The ticket counter has closed. So I walk up to an official-looking fellow and ask if he speaks English, because I’m too tired to try for French at this point. “Non, non, Laurent, Laurent!”
He points me to a man named Laurent, who starts singing Lionel Ritchie at Diana: “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for? I could see it in your eyes…”
We laugh a little. He asks where we’re from. “New Zealand,” we say.
“New Zealand?! Get out!” he says. Apparently they follow the rugby in Toulouse.
Now he takes us to a man who can sell us tickets to Cahors. Laurent speaks quickly in French to the guy, mentioning “Nouvelle-Zelande”.
“Nouvelle-Zelande?!” says the man. “Tell them to get out!”
“We wanted France to win!” says Diana desperately, and I’m reminded of that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the captured German guy, fearing for his life, starts saying, “Fuck Hitler! Fuck Hitler!”
Anyway, we buy the ticket and get on the train. For an hour and a quarter, things are going fine. Because we’re on a train. Diana plays Civ on the iPad. I read a book. Then we arrive in Cahors.
Now, we’ve got a map. It was printed out by Kevin at the hotel, from Google Maps, and it shows the route we should take to get to the hotel. It’s not detailed enough to have street names, but there are helpful step-by-step instructions (in French).
As far as I can tell, one of the first things we did was take a wrong turn.
It’s midnight by this point. I know the general direction we need to head in, but France appears to be a country dedicated to obfuscating the names of its streets. Every so often a street is labeled and it’s not a name I can find in our directions.
We see a main road and head there. There’s a bar, closing up. We find someone in there who speaks enough English that we can ask for directions.
“We’re going to the Deltour Hotel,” I say. “On foot?!” he says. And points us up a road.
“Keep on going. You’ll see it.”
Okay. So we start going in that direction. At times there is no footpath. At times there is no lighting. I pull out the flashlight and use it to help us out. Every so often we stop and take in the night, because it’s actually magnificent. Mild temperature, a clear sky of unfamiliar stars, a river running alongside the road we’re taking. Every house in Cahors is like a caricature of a French house. Some are massive, all are charming.
Finally we hit a road I recognise from the directions. Google Maps, in its endearing way, picked the technically fastest route from the train station to the hotel, which meant lots of tiny side streets instead of taking the main road we did. Naturally.
So we arrive, around 1am, at the hotel.
The story doesn’t quite end there.
We arrive at the hotel and there’s a sign on the door saying, in French, its open hours are until 9pm (about half an hour before we booked our room online), and there’s an emergency after-hours number. There’s a machine that looks like an ATM out front, and I’m too exhausted to think twice about it.
But the door to the hotel is open. We walk inside and gratefully put down our backpacks. Now, at least we’re warm. We could sleep in the lobby if we had to. Things are looking up. I check that emergency number and figure we’ll give it a call.
Diana finds a payphone and I pull out some change, but no, it only accepts some kind of telephone card. Then Diana remembers that she has some global roaming on her Vodafone prepay phone, which is currently beeping due to low battery. I call the number and a sleepy-sounding French woman answers.
I explain as simply as possible that we’re in the lobby and we have a reservation and we’re very sorry. She says, “Tres bien,” and then the battery dies on the phone.
There’s a horrible 60-second wait as I wonder how easily the furniture in the lobby could be turned into bedding, and how we’ll explain it in the morning. Then a hastily dressed woman emerges from a room, all but rubbing her eyes, and walks past us outside to the ATM-looking machine.
Remember the code we were given as part of the room reservation? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, apparently if we could read French, we would have seen that it wasn’t an ATM (and why would there be an ATM there anyway?) but an automated check-in machine. So, more apologies to the poor girl we’ve dragged out of bed.
We get given the card. We get to the room. We collapse on to the bed.
Various lessons learned, but now we’re in Cahors. We would never have visited here if all of this hadn’t happened. There are some sights to see, and there is a distinctive local wine to try, and we have to plan our next move.
Whoo! Anyway, your loss, Toulouse. Enjoy your congress.