Paris to Firenza by Rail

Amsterdam to Paris, on Eurostar, was as excellent as anyone might wish. It was a shame that our un-necessarily late departure from A-dam wasted the opportunity to have a sidewalk cafe lunch in Paris. Taking the afternoon train gave us less than two hours to make the unfamiliar connection across town, from the arrival station at Gar du Nord to the Arteisa station at Bercy, for the overnught train to Florence.

I was surprised that the subway connection in Paris we’d been told to take was right.  Two stops from Gard du Nord to Gard du Bercy.  I’d been dreading that connection but it turned out to be as easy and direct as the subway shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square.

For there on, not much went as well.  The problem again is the deteriorating situation with my traveling companion. Every thing I thought I knew about her is turned around. She’s a different person from the one I spent weeks with in New York.

She is quarrelsome and relentless. She has a very bad habit of insisting on her version of directions, complicated by her unwillingness to ask for new directions as soon as a sensible person should realize she is wrong.  But at least at this one time, it went well.

It was a 5 minute walk from the subway to the Bercy terminal where we would catch the Artesia Rail overnight train  to Florence. While there was nothing to mark the way, we simply followed the line of travelers dragging suitcases and wearing backpacks.

The rail station itself was the  first clue that this overnight rail journey was going to be a memorable experience . . . but not in a good way.

Train stations, like the trains they serve, were introduced at a time when their grand spaces and soaring architecture were an expression of the importance of the trains. Rail travel changed everything for everyone  in a way that only jet airplanes and the Internet did for more recent generations. Trains were the first technological innovation in modern history  that had such a profound and beneficially democratic consequence. Maybe the invention of the wheel, was as important.

The great train stations in major cities rivaled cathedrals in grandeur and decor. They exceeded their religious counterparts in the numbers of people who used them every day.

Even today, the great train terminals of more than 100 years ago are exceptional places, held in high regard and greatly enjoyed in ways that bus stations and airports never have been and never will be. It is not at all unusual to see visitors in NY’s Grand Central or Washington’s Union Station who have come there just to enjoy the experience.

click to enlargeSo, to enter the low-ceilinged, plastic-walled, plastic-shell-chaired Bercy Station, a tired old Art Moderne cliche, was to revisit George Carlin’s riff on the significance of the word “terminal.” There was not even a lobby, just a waiting room.  It was predictor of the train itself.

The carriages must have been new back when Sophia Loren was a child.

The photos on the web site at http://www.raileurope.com/train-faq/european-trains/artesia/index.html are deceptive in a way that only professionally taken and cropped photos can be. But for ultimate in lies, outright fraudulent lies, nothing comes close to the YouTube video I saw (I’ll post it when I find it again) that showed elegant, clean rooms and a dining car with lovely linens and china.

What we experienced was paper plates, rude slow service, stale bread (and little of that), culminating in spagehetti that wasn’t a good as canned Chef Boyardi – all for $36 dollars per person – and they were miffed when I refused to tip. The service was, how to say? ah yes – LOUSY.

A short while after returning to our compartment, a dispute broke out down the end of the car. The head waiter from the dining car was threatening to have a young American girl arrested because she had made a reservation for dinner, heard the story from others in her group of what was being served, declined to show up and refused to pay. He was demanding that she pay and she eventually told him, “Shut the fuck up and get out of my face.”

He did and that was the last we saw of him or the threatened police.

I liked that girl.