Lille is 1088km from Marseille by autoroute plus a toll charge of about 90€. We decided on to drive north in our hire car instead of taking the TGV as we had booked. This unfortunately resulted in not meeting with our friends in the AMA bike club at the annual general meeting in Rasteau near Avignon.
French unions are protesting about the change to the retirement age which has passed most of the stages in parliament to become law. As well as demonstrations on the streets of some cities there are blockades of the fuel refineries which are leading to shortages of fuel for road transport.
We discovered on Saturday that our return train ride for Sunday was listed as cancelled on one of the SNCF (French railways) web sites. There were a number of alternative options listed but they all required longer journey times and it was impossible to reserve seats. The SNCF's information systems didn’t seem to be providing consistent or reliable information. It seemed likely that we would have endure an uncomfortable journey rather than watching the French countryside pass by whilst enjoying a comfortable picnic in the train together.
Having refunded our tickets at Marseille-Blancade station (to avoid the people inferno at Marseille-St. Charles) we loaded up Hertz’s car and set off North with a full tank of fuel.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch not on the top of Mt. Ventoux as planned but in an aire on the autoroute near Aix en Provence. The temperature was 13°C not 31°C as it has been there on many previous visits in the summer.
Passing north of Lyon, we stayed overnight at a pretty hotel “La Vielle Ferme” at junction 28, just north of Macon, The room was soon warm and the menu in their restaurant was good value and we enjoyed a half of Macon Lugny (white) and a half of a Burgundy red.
Sunday morning was chilly, now only 5°C even down in Macon on the banks of the river Saone. Quick donkey encounter outside in their model farm and then we filled up with cheapish fuel just outside junction 28.
Long drive north, of course with a couple of breaks. We needed to refuel at Rheims but found that all the fuel stations in the town were dry. Also at the next station north on the autoroute. Worrying but it wasn’t yet an urgent problem and there was fuel at the second station north, though at the usual increased price for an autoroute (why?); then we filled up completely at Lille before returning the car to Hertz.
Lille-Europe station was filled with unhappy people hoping to travel. There were long queues in the travel office and not enough people to assist.
We saw no TGV trains at all whilst at Lille-Europe station, contrary to the impression given by the SNCF information systems and website, which suggested one train in five was running Province to Province (such as Marseille to Lille) and one in three Paris to Province (such as Paris to Lille). We also saw no TGV trains at all while on the A1 stretch parallel to the TGV line but did see Thalys and Eurostar trains.
Eurostar had changed their usual unhelpful attitude to customer service to being downright rude. It wasn't possible to change our booking, probably because Eurostar’s information systems could not show where there should be spare seats on trains.
Our Eurostar train arrived on time from Brussels and was already full. No problems en route and it arrived on time in London St Pancras. But none of the escalators or moving walkways down from the platform to the Arrivals Hall were working and there were no staff to assist those with heavy bags…
So ends another episode of “The French Experience”! We'd like to hold on to our pleasant memories of the great food and wine, our friends and the warm sunshine of the Mediterranean but it's getting difficult...
Here are some links to English language reports from a BBC reporter apparently based in Paris; he mentions more of the fuel shortage than was evident to us and less about the disruption to rail travel.