As our hero stands on the deck of the P&O studying the rapidly-approaching shores of France, what thoughts stir his mind?
Basically: "Oh, shit, I hope customs won't be too big a pain in the ass."
Which soon proved to be a non-problem. The days of Euro-unity are upon us; there was no customs/immigration inspection, no questions, nothing. Nobody. Not even the formalities. (I was to find this the rule in the following couple of weeks; after the initial arrival in Heathrow, despite several frontier crossings, the only people who ever wanted to see my passport were sitting behind hotel desks - with the sole exception of Luxembourg, and that's getting ahead.) The bus from the P&O dock simply dumped us all by the Calais train station, leaving us a bit bemused; one of the Australians muttered, "What? No customs poofter looking up me arse?"
It had quit raining, though; the sun was out and the day was warm. Evidently France wasn't as chilly and wet as England. That was an encouraging thought...little did I know, little did I know.
I didn't try to make Paris the first day. It was already midafternoon; I'd have wound up getting into Paris late on a Sunday afternoon - on a holiday weekend at that - and I didn't think that would be a good idea; for one thing, finding a room would be much harder. Anyway, I felt the need of a less drastic introduction to France; a quieter, more laid-back place for my first overnight stay.
The map showed a moderate-sized town about halfway between Calais and Paris: Amiens. I bought a ticket for Amiens.
The train, a slow local, ground slowly southward through the coastal marsh country to Boulogne-sur-Mer and then swung inland, following the valley of the Somme. The land was low and soggy-looking; the mind boggled at the thought of fighting a war - let alone a trench war - in terrain like that. The farmhouses and occasional small towns looked old and, what can I say, French.
In Amiens at last, I walked across the little square in front of the railroad station and turned up a side street and almost immediately found a hotel (the accurately-named Central) with an excellent large room, complete with shower and facilities, for a mere 225 francs - a bit over thirty bucks at the current exchange rate. (Handled all the negotiations in French, too. I was getting confident now.) I dumped my pack on the bed, picked up my camera, and went out to see the sights of Amiens.
Whatever I was expecting, it was less than what I found.
Beyond mere size, however, the whole structure is breath-stoppingly beautiful, with clean soaring lines and a splendid unity of design. This last is partly because, unlike most of the big cathedrals of Europe, it was built within a single generation. Notre Dame took a couple of centuries; this one was started in 1220 and finished in 1264, an incredible feat given the construction methods and technology of the time.
Yet they didn't stint on detail; you can spend hours examining the carvings and sculptures on the exterior, especially over the doorways:
Amiens itself was a pleasant, attractive city with flower gardens and women walking dogs in the park -
In the evening I found a brasserie near the train station and had myself an order of poulet roti - roast chicken - with frites, aka fries, on the side. The chicken was marvelously tender and the fries absolutely superb - well, hell, they do call them French fries - and afterwards I sat and drank red Côtes de Rhône and felt a certain satisfaction with life, just now; and also a certain reluctance to resume a standing posture.
Next day I left for Paris.
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