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The final push

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Up early again - and again it's still dark. We told the hotel receptionist the night before that we would be leaving early and he didn't give us any special instructions for checking out. However, the front desk was all closed up. We start to go back to our room, intending to leave the keys there when we notice a box for keys at the bottom of the stairs. It's not locked but with no other choice we have to leave it there. We hope it's okay.

It's Monday morning at 6am and the station is already busy. It doesn't look like anybody has been sleeping in this one though. We grab a soggy sandwich each and an overpriced coffee and make for the famous TGV that will get us to Paris in just 3 hours.

There are 3 annoying loud young men sat next to us. We don't know what they're talking about but don't want to listen. Thankfully as the train gets underway they settle down to sleep just like everyone else.

We watch the sun slowly rise and cut through the layers of mist blanketing the French countryside. The train moves fast and is pretty smooth. There are no stops en route - it just keeps barrelling on towards Paris. After the long slow trips of the day before it's hard to believe when we suddenly start manoeuvering through the suburbs of the city.

It's an easy transfer from Gare du Lyon to Gare St Lazare for the next leg to Le Havre. The station seems quiet when we first arrive, but we're directed toward the huge mass of people down the other end of the concourse.

Everyone is staring intently at the information board. Everyone is waiting to find out what platform the train to Le Havre is departing from.We wonder how many of these people have reservations on the ferry. We know that we don't and we know that the booking website is down.

The platform number is announced and it's right in front of us. There's a mad rush and we're swept along. An elderly woman gets brushed aside. A man crouches over his young daughter trying to protect her from the stampede. Nobody stops. Everyone wants to board that train. Yet again there are big suitcases everywhere and people selfishly take up seats with their bags.

The ride through northern France is not as pretty as the south, and we're back on the slow train. It takes a couple of hours to reach the coast. We eat more pretzels and daydream about good food again.

At Le Havre we don't see any signs for the port. We ask for directions and set off. We're joined by a guy from Plymouth who left Amsterdam that morning. He has found his trip stressful enough so he sympathises with us. He has a ticket so he knows he will be leaving. Together we finally find the passenger terminal and join the queue at the ticket desk.

Most people are converting their internet booking numbers into the coveted boarding passes. We are put on the waiting list and told to come back at 3.30pm. There is a sailing at 5pm and they are hopeful we can get on it.

We skulk around the terminal. There is a tiny cafe with overpriced and unappetising looking food. We watch families with small children arrive from all over the continent and wonder how they're coping. Most of the parents look stressed and the kids look tired but they seem to view it all as a great adventure.

We wait and watch as more and more people arrive. We're told the capacity is 700 people and we hope that no more than 698 have turned up so far. It looks many more than that.

At 3.30 we rejoin the growing queue and the butterflies start building as we approach the front. We watch as more and more people are given boarding passes but note that nobody seems to be turned away. Our turn. The 5pm sailing is full but we're given tickets for the 6.30 sailing. We are mightily relieved even if it means an extra 90 minutes of waiting.

We head outside for some fresh air and we finish off our snacks. We haven't had a proper meal since Saturday night so I set off to forage for food. The town is close by but looks deserted. It's quaint but the only food I can find is fresh fish at a little market. I head back feeling dejected and hungry.

Dani goes to try her luck and heads in the opposite direction. She's gone a long time and I start to wonder if she would ever forgive me if I caught the ferry without her. Suddenly she returns with sandwiches, salad, fruit and orange juice - it's all prepackaged stuff but tastes marvellous, especially the juice. Our taste buds are woken up again after 24 hours of water and pretzels.

The ferry is now boarding and we stand in the queue listening to other people exchange stories. One group hired a minibus to get from Rome. We didn't hear the price but it probably wasn't cheap.

The ferry is fast, much faster than we were expecting and before we know it we are approaching Portsmouth. Well, we're told we are anyway. It's so foggy outside that we can't see anything. At about 9.30 we're told to remain seated until the ferry docks - so everyone stands and makes their way to the exit. It's well after 10 by the time that the ferry docks and we wait while the cars are unloaded. Some people push ahead anyway. There is only one exit and their procedures aren't made for this volume of people. The stairs are wet from the mist but somehow there are no accidents.

We're warned of holdups at immigration control but the lines move fast and we're suddenly thrust into a heaving mass of people crammed into a very small terminal. We try to stay together and keep moving. Outside we grab a taxi and we're away from the crowds. Portsmouth Harbour station is the emptiest place we've seen in days - possibly weeks. It's eerily quiet.

The ferry to Ryde is also quiet and it feels very strange. It feels even stranger when we finally make it home and we're in familiar surroundings. The chaos and the crowds start to feel like a dream. We know we have made it home faster than some and we feel grateful. Even Dani says she is pleased to be back on the Isle of Wight.

It was a frustrating and expensive end to a thoroughly enjoyable trip. All our travel connections went smoothly until the volcano erupted and made all travel difficult. Before that happened we were already contemplating another journey. But by the time we got home we were quite happy to know that we would not be getting on another train for a very long time.


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The Journey Home 17/4 - 19/4

Rome/Genoa/Nice/Marseilles/Paris/Le Havre/Portsmouth/Ryde