WHY I HATE PARIS AND SOUTH AFRICA

I must be the only person in the world who genuinely hates Paris. I know many people who think they hate it but most of these have never actually been there. However, I have….and I hate it. How anyone can call it the “City of Love” or the “Most Romantic City in the World” I will never know. And I think I can talk from experience. On my way into the city by train I counted up on my trusted Ipaq that I have been to the capital of crap on 53 occasions. Now that surely qualifies me to say why I hate it so much….It is not just one thing, its everything – its the aloofness of the Parisians, its the interchanges between lines on the metro (how can a 20 minute walk be classed as the same station??), its the ridiculous metro lines that seem to go to all lengths to avoid running straight, it’s the ridiculous price of the food and drink in the restaurants, it’s the way that the French think that by referring to us as “rostbeouf” that we are offended in any way and its the horrible drain smell that permeates around the city.

So why, you may ask, do I bother coming back. Well for once it’s not football, but Rugby. In fact the last 4 occasions I have been to Paris it has been for Rugby. This time, thanks biggest game of the tournament – versus South Africa at the Stade de France. Of course, being allocated a ticket at the last minute was always going to cause a problem. Firstly the game was being played on a Friday night, secondly it featured an English team, and thirdly it was in one of the world’s most accessible cities – meaning zero per cent chance of getting a last minute flight/train for less than £500 return.

Ah, but this is where the Fuller knowledge of budget airlines comes in…A single search on Ryanair threw up a bargain £45 return to Tours Loire Valley airport, and with some connecting trains I could easily do this trip with as little amount of time as possible in hell (Paris). One of the reasons I love Ryanair, as I have said before, is that is seems to go out of its way to find the smallest airports in the world to fly to…Now I have flown with them to Oostende, Gothenburg City, Verona Brescia, Nimes and Eindhoven – each time vowing that this is the “smallest airport in the world”…..Well, the search is over as Tours wins hands down.

Firstly, it only serves the one Ryanair flight a day – what a job the firemen there must have! Passport control is in a marquee attached to the terminal (in the loosest sense of the word!), The check in counters double up as seats in the cafe when they are closed, and once you pass through the door (security) there are no shops/duty free in the departure gate (sitting room basically). The plane parallel parks against the terminal adding a more informal feel to proceedings. As a simple tick list ensures that all passengers are on the plane.

But anyway, I digress. After landing, I was outside the terminal in a record 53 steps and 37 seconds and in a taxi to the station. Trains run either from Tours Gare in a very pretty square, or from St Pierre des Corps (the French equivalent of a Bristol Parkway) almost every hour. I was in luck as our 55 minute flight had got me in time for a direct TGV (French for bloody fast train) to Paris which would take just 70 minutes to burn over 260km. Whilst I hate Paris, I do like France. I am all in favour of paying top dollar for trains as long as they get you there in comfort and as quick as a retreating French soldier – and so €75 lighter I alighted (what does that would really mean??) at Paris Montparnasse, and got on the Metro at the ridiculously titled Bienvenue Montparnasse! I had to go to the Rugby World Cup Media centre first which meant that thankfully I did not need to change lines.

Another problem with Paris whenever there is a major event on is that the hotels decide to put their prices up 500%. With England in town this was 600%. However, I got a real bargain – £26 for a room in a Campanile hotel in somewhere called Paris Nanterre. A brief bit of research showed me that it was just 2 stops on the RER from Charles de Gaulle Etoile (the Arc du Triumph)…..I’ve stayed in many chains across the globe and always associate them in bands – so a Formula 1, ETAP and a Travelodge would be together, A Travel Inn is a bit more classier and would be up there with a Holiday Inn Express and a Campanile so I knew what I would be getting…So this made it even more of a bargain….

10 minutes later I emerged from Nanterre Prefecture station into a chaotic scene – a local market was busily winding up – and it became obvious that the area around the station was very ethnically focused and my first impressions that a white guy walking through the middle with a laptop bag may be a welcoming new “stall” at the market. But first impressions are sometimes wrong and what I found of Nanterre was a great little place, with a fantastic park that with the sunshine looking and feeling like Central Park in New York, and bordered by the amazing buildings of La Defense.

So a short walk through the park, a quite shower and I was back on the train, on my way to meet ginger Pete. Now for some positives about Paris. The Stade de France was built by some people who understood football. Two fast train lines, and two specific stations were constructed within 5 minutes walk of the stadium, and planning that ensured that trains run every 5 minutes in the build up to the station (on top of a regular metro line just north of the stadium). With so many bars opened before games then fans tend to gather at the stadium to drink from 3 or 4 hours before the game. So that meant that just 32 minutes of leaving Nanterre (think Croydon) I was at the stadium.

The bars are a great idea – all open just for events at the stadium, all serving the same food and drink but charging a ludicrous €8 a beer – captive audience and all that! But this is the only downside to a stadium that is truly one of the best in the world. My seat was in the upper tier, but as you enter the stadium at the middle level, the walk up was not too bad and legroom was generous.

So here I was sitting amongst the world’s top hacks and I realised that most of them had absolutely no interest in the game, and spent the whole game planning on which brothel to go to after the game. It was, in all honesty, marginally more interesting than seeing the English rugby team deliver such a spineless performance that for 30 minutes after the game at the press conference I pretended to be Irish. To fail to score in any rugby match takes some doing – even in the record International defeats, the losing team always scores (All Blacks 101 Italy 3 in 2003, All Blacks 145 Japan 17 in 1999 and so far in this tournament their win versus Portugal by 108 to 13). In this instance what made it even worse is that England did not have one kick at goal – meaning we simply created no chances at all close to the South African line that caused them any concern to indulge in foul play.

For anyone who hasn’t been to the stadium it is hard to describe why it is so good. Every seat offers a great view of the action, and of one of the two huge screens at either end of the stadium. Leg room is generous, concourses are wide and stewards are polite – but I can never remember seeing a team I have supported win there! And today was no exception. It is also very rare in rugby to see a team score zero, but today England managed it. Every time they ventured into the SA half, which wasn’t often they lost the ball, knocked on or ran into touch. On sixty minutes they had their one and only chance to get some points when they were awarded a penalty, but for some reason Corry decided to kick for touch, which they still managed to miss. The game fizzled out for England and the vast majority of the fans, and by 11pm most had headed back to the RER station.

An hour after the humiliation had finished I was back in my cell at the Campanile, although the walk through Central Park didn’t really appeal at midnight so it was the long way round for me in anticipation of my early morning train trip back to Tours.

With a few hours to spare in one of the most historic of French cities on Sunday morning it was a pleasure to kick back and relax. A nice French-style breakfast followed by an early lunch beer was on the cards and a mental note for fingers crossed later in the tournament.

Three weeks later, with England someone finding form thanks to the likes of Paul Sackay and Matthew Tait, they dispatched France in a very partisan Stade de France to reach a second successive World Cup Final, and keep the dream of retaining the Webb Ellis trophy alive. Queue the mad scramble for tickets as well as travel arrangements as the whole of England decided to try and head for Paris.

I applied for a media ticket on the hope of a kind person in Paris, and for good measure also applied to see the 3rd/4th Place game between France and Argentina at the Parc des Princes. Unbelievably the French RWC committee came through for me so I was in possession of a World Cup Final ticket for free…let me re-phrase that – I had a World Cup Final ticket for free! Ginger Pete called excitedly to say he had a ticket and all of a sudden the dream team were back together. I rang Mrs Doubtfire and he grumbled a bit before agreeing to come as well, even though he did not have a ticket.

I managed to secure flights back from Tours on the Sunday lunchtime, and now it was just up to me to find accommodation and a way to get out there. The biggest French hotel chain is Accor and in one of those “Oh my God” moments (similar to when I logged onto the 2006 FIFA World Cup portal and saw a pair of tickets for Brazil v Australia just sitting there saying “pick me, pick me”) I found they had a triple room available for the Friday and Saturday nights for just 120 Euro in total – less than £100! As I was going out on the Friday I decided on the Tours option myself and bagged this for less than £50. The boys however were planning on a Saturday arrival. Again, thanks to the knowledge of Monsieur Fuller in the Budget Airline market I found that a flight to Charleroi in Belgium with Ryanair for £20 one way from where they could get a direct train to Paris in less than 2 hours. So with a Rugby World Cup weekend sorted at less than £100 per head it was a real Game On!

I arrived on the Friday lunchtime, headed for the hotel and prepared myself. Deciding not to take my laptop to the press area at the stadium I boarded the smelliest, crowded inefficient transport system in the world, or at least attempted to.  Of course, the French railways were on strike – oh how predictable.  Major event in the country, and to try and get the attention of the world that they were so hard done by they had gone on strike.  Obviously, fearing the global shame, the Parisian authorities had shipped in a number of English drivers for the trains and so they ran.  I jumped on  one down to the region of Boulogne, home to Loongchamps, the lady boys of the Bois de Boulogne and my old office in Rue Thiers.  Someone on the packed train someone managed to press the call button on the phone, resulting in a dead battery by the time I exited at Pont de St Cloud.  Marvellous…With one of the most complicated days of arrangements to come I had no contactable means.  Absolutley typical.  So arriving at the media centre I tried every means possible to find a pay phone so I could call CMF but there was no such thing.  I had a seat in the back row the of the upper tier, meaning that my view of the action was obscured by the roof coming down but that didn’t stop my next door neighbour launching into a massive rant.  It turned out he was the chief Rugby correspondent for a major British newspaper.  After kindly letting me make a call back home (“call Timbutku if you want the Daily xxxx are picking up the bill”) he went on to tell me about his night out on the previous evening where a group of the “press pack” managed to “do” over a €1000 in four strip clubs and a brothal – “Marvellous” he said “What a job I have when they pay for me to shag my way around Europe in one night”…Nice.  But worse was to come when the national anthems of France and Argentina started.  “If there are two countries I hate more in the world today then I do not know who” and he proceeded to boo and whistle the anthems.

I asked him who he wanted to win – “the referee….what I want to see is a massive fight and both teams have all 15 players sent off”…If we couldn’t have the fairytale ending we could at least have a decent game, and we got one.  Argentina played like men possessed and raced into 17-3 lead at half time with two superb tries.  The game was pretty bad tempered and ten minutes into the second half with another try on the board for Argentina they were reduced to 14 men due to a dangerous tackle.  It mattered little as two more Argentinian tries took the final score to a comprehensive 34-10 victory – and produce one of the shocks of the tournament.

With an uneventful night in the Pantin region of the city (think Hangar Lane and you won’t be too far off the mark) I set out early to Gare du Nord to meet Ginger Pete and Mrs Doubtfire off one of the TGV’s heading down from Brussels.  They seemed regular enough, and with hundreds of ticketless fans on the concourse it was chaos.  Trains came and went yet I was still left standing looking like a jilted fool.  Of course I had no way of knowing what train they were on, and they had no way of tell me where they were.  I had to resort to calling CMF and getting her to act as the intermediatory.  It turned out that the Ryanair flight to Charleroi had actually circled over Brussels for an hour before heading to Gent due to ground fog.  It amazes me that in this modern era when airplanes can fly without any human intervention, they still cannot land due to a bit of cloud.  It also turned out that none of the passengers on said flight diverted to Gent had been told they had been diverted, and only knew when they saw the signs on the top of the airport terminal.  Of course, Ryanair being Ryanair had laid on absolutely nothing for their stranded passengers.  The boys not knowing their Belgium geography very well simply jumped in a taxi and headed for Charleroi.  The hour long cab cost them €130 and deposited them at the station just in time to catch the TGV that had started some 30 minutes earlier…in Gent!

Eventually I met the boys and we headed straight for the bars opposite the station.  Mrs Doubtfire still needed to get a ticket, and the going rate seemed to be €300 minimum in the busy streets outside the station.  The atmosphere was excellent.  With so many non-rugby English fans heading for Paris for the day it had a different feeling to a normal rugby match.  The South Africans were non-existent and soon the party had taken over the whole road.  The bar owner tried to get into the spirit by putting on a plastic policemans helmet and waving a flag of St George whilst jumping up and down on a car – very French.

After a pit stop back in Pantin we headed up to the stadium early doors as Mrs Doubtfire had to try and get a ticket.  I decided not to take my laptop with me.  After all I had not had a proper media desk all tournament and it was the final after all.  So picking up my ticket I was amazed to see 1) That I was issued with a press conference AND a mixed zone ticket, and 2) that my seat was not only a proper media seat with a desk and my own monitor but 2 rows from the front on the half way line.  So not only did I have a plum seat, I also had the likes of Jeremy Guscott and Paul Ackford as my neighbours.  Having left my laptop in the hotel I did what any respecting cub scout would do – I pretended to make notes on my programme!

England started much better than they did in the previous meeting with South Africa a few weeks before.  However with Montgomery and Wilkinson trading penalties quality was not on the agenda.  The one moment of magic came not long into the second half when Mark Cueto was ruled to have put a bootlace in touch, and England’s last hope was dashed.  A tired and aged team that included the likes of Jason Robinson, Mark Regan, Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio all playing their final international matches stayed on the pitch to enjoy the moment – knowing that they had come into the tournament with no expectations of reaching this stage but still realising how close they had come to retaining the cup.

Still with no mobile I had no clue where the boys were, so in the end a game of cat and mouse ended up with us meeting in teh hotel foyer at 3am, tired and unemotional.  Mrs Doubtfire had found a ticket for €250 in the end , but we should never tell Jemma that!  So we headed for Tours on Sunday morning, reflecting on a better than expected tournament and also for the opportunity to catch up on a boys weekend away.  At least it meant that I wouldn’t have to head back to Paris for a few years…..until England’s football team announced a friendly against the French for March 2008 – thanks alot!

The Stadium – Stade de France
Cornillon Nord, La Pleine, Saint Denis

Capacity – 79,959 All Seater
In 1992 FIFA announced that France would host the 1998 World Cup Finals. One of the conditions of awarding them the finals was the provision of a stadium that could hold more than 70,000 fans. With only Marseille’s Stade Velodrome anywhere near this, and the fact that it was almost unheard of for a capital city not to host a World Cup Final (only Washington DC in modern times have not hosted the final after being awarded the competition), work started almost immediately on finding a site to build a state of the art venue. Once a site had been located in the north of the city, and funding put in place, construction started in 1995. What was unique about this project was the amount of resource allocated to the construction which meant that less than two years later, the stadium was ready and being used.

The stadium has a number of unique features such as the roof that appears to float above the stands – it is actually 42metres above the playing surface and gives complete cover from the elements to the 80,000 spectators. The lower tier is built in such as way that 25,000 seats can slide back into the middle tier allowing events such as Speedway and athletics to take place without compromising the views for Football and Rugby. The stadium is one of the best in the world in terms of spectator facilities and the sightlines are excellent.

Paris Saint-Germain were given the opportunity to move there, but decided to stay in the south west of the city. For a few games Red Star Paris played here and actually attracted a crowd of over 45,000 for a league game versus St Etienne in 1999. The stadium also hosts the annual Rugby game between Stade Francais and Toulouse, which is normally sold out.

The stadium not only hosted the famous World Cup Final between France and Brazil in 1998, but has also hosted the majority of the French football and rugby national games since opening. It has also hosted two Champions League finals – firstly in 2000 when Real Madrid beat Valencia, and in 2006 when Barcelona beat Arsenal. It will also host the final of the Rugby World Cup in October 2007. The stadium offers daily tours for €10 including two per day in English at 10.30am and 2.30pm.

How to get to the Stade de France
The stadium is located in the Saint Denis area just north of the inner ring road, and almost adjacent to the A1 motorway that runs up towards Calais. It is very well served by public transport with the authorities deciding to build access points at either end of the stadium – a fact that the planners of Wembley Stadium have overlooked. RER station Stade de France-St Denis is on the Green line that passes through city from Creteil in the south, whilst RER station Le Plaine-Stade de France links Paris CDG airport in the north with Orly airport in the south on the Blue Line B. Both stations are one stop from Gare du Nord and the journey time is about 7 minutes. Metro line 13 also serves the stadium through the stop at St Denis-Porte de Paris.

If you want to travel by bus to the stadium then use lines 139 from Porte de la Villette or 173 from Porte de Clichy. A taxi from the centre of the city will cost around €20.

Tours Loire Valley Airport
Located 5 km north of Tours in the Loire valley of west France. Served on a daily basis by Ryanair from London Stansted. A bus departs 20 minutes after inbound flights for the bus and train station and costs €5 each way. The return bus departs from platform 9 of the bus station 2 hours before the flight. The airport is tiny and has a single bar – there are no other shops or facilities.

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