Friday 7 October 2011
Homps to Paris
Strike! It’s time to say “au revoir” to our boat and our brief life on the canal. We wake to more seasonable weather, a breezy and overcast morning; by ten, the sun is shining through and it’s beginning to warm up. I struggle to pack my suitcase with the added heft of two mottles of Minervois. We spend the last hour unloading luggage and tidying up, trying as best we can to leave the boat in the same condition that we found it.
At 9 o’clock, Rick checks us out at the Le Boat office and we climb in a cab for the ten-minute ride to the station in Lézignan-Corbiere and what will become an unexpected adventure in civil disobedience. No trip to France is complete without a strike!
The Lézignan-Corbiere train station is a ghost town for a day.
Yes, we have no trains to Paris today! Tooling along the highway, I overhear the cab driver say something that, with my limited French, I hope I’ve heard wrong. Did he say train strike?! At the train station, we learn it’s true. The TGV is on schedule, but our connecting train (from Lézignan-Corbiere to Montpellier) isn’t running today. Though the woman working the ticket counter can’t sell us the tickets we need to take another connecting train, she defies every French stereotype and is as helpful as can be, patiently explaining (and re-explaining) our options for catching a train to the nearest TGV to Paris.
While there’s nothing available in second class, we learn there are 42 empty seats in first class on a Paris-bound train leaving from Narbonne. Because time is tight, we decide not to wait for the bus and instead call our cab driver, who smartly left us his card just in case. Thirty minutes after climbing back into his cab, we’re in the Narbonne station where we learn we don’t need new tickets–just grab a seat if you can when the train pulls in. We’re told to show the conductor our existing tickets, should he ever come by, which he never does.
Trains are running late, fifteen, then thirty, then sixty minutes behind schedule. When our train finally pulls in, there’s a mad dash to stow all our luggage and find some seats on the top level. Unlike second class, seats in first class are assigned so with each stop, we play musical chairs as folks get on with tickets to our seats. An hour into the four-plus-hour ride, things seem to have settled down, the car filled with fellow travelers scrambling for a train back to Paris.
The French countryside sprinting past my window is beautiful. First an abundance of vineyards, through a mountainous region, and then rolling green fields, dotted with grazing cows and sheep, and ancient-looking villages. Once again, I appreciate the train’s smooth ride and the quiet inside the car, free of loud conversation or intruding cell phone monologues. The pleasant journey passes quickly.
At six in the evening, we arrive at Gare de Lyon, an impressive (so big! so old!) train station bustling with traffic, fallout from the strike. Ignoring the threat of rain, we enjoy the fifteen minute walk through the National History Park, back to our hotel. The best part about making our train connection is that we can still make our final dinner reservation. (My greatest fear was having to spend my final meal in France at a MacDonald’s, should we have arrived in Paris too late to dine anywhere else.)
Dinner of a lifetime. Our dinner at La Rotisserie is one of the best and most memorable in my lifetime, let alone the trip. Upon entering the restaurant, I see the flaming rotisserie behind the chef’s small prep area, as well as the warm, homey decor, and I have an inkling that we’re in for a good “last meal.” Our table is near the rotisserie, with a great view of the kitchen area where the plates are staged for serving.
After an apéritif (porto for me), the entrées arrive and oh-my-gawd, are they amazing. Snails prepared with a final grilling over the open flame to start, and an outstanding duck foie gras, crispy on the outside and like butter on the inside, served with a grilled pear that’s the perfect complement. Karen and Mary order chicken and Rick the leg of lamb. In all cases, the cooked meat is skewered and then finished by hanging in the rotisserie. I order steak with pommes frites, a classic French meal I’ve yet to have on this trip. It’s delicious, with a béarnaise sauce that’s the best I’ve ever had and thin, crispy pommes frites seasoned with just the right amount of salt.
This duck foie gras is one of the best things I have ever eaten.
For dessert we share chocolate mousse, a gâteau made with rolled pastry dough and vanilla custard, a lemon tart, and apple macaroon. Throughout the entire meal, we’ve been oohing and ahhing with big smiles on our faces, much to the amusement and appreciation of the chef and his staff.
We leave three hours later, absolutely thrilled with our fantastic final dining experience and thankful that we’d made a reservation a few days earlier and not left the all-important ultimate meal to chance. We were doubly thankful that the train got us in on time.