Put out in Paris: Navigating the transport strikes

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On the long trek from Gare du Nord, cafes on Boulevard Saint-Michel on Paris' Left Bank.
On the long trek from Gare du Nord, cafes on Boulevard Saint-Michel on Paris' Left Bank. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

I am a strike survivor. I refer to the French transit strikes, launched Dec. 5. It affected the Paris metro, the RER commuter rail, national and some international rail and some short- and medium-haul flights.

I was in Paris for parts of the first four days, having accompanied a Rail Europe agent fam trip focused on Christmas markets in several French cities, wrapping up in Paris.

We arrived in the capital by train late Dec. 4. Rail Europe compensated for the problem on Dec. 5 and 6 with substitute transfer services and even Big Bus hop-on hop-off tickets as a way of having transportation for independent exploration. 

Saturday, Dec. 7, was the program's departure day. Our group was in a Left Bank hotel near Luxembourg Gardens, with ready access to two stops on the RER commuter line that goes north to Charles de Gaulle Airport. The idea had been to carry the rail theme through to the airport transfer.

To visit friends, I had added a day in Paris that was even more dependent on the RER. I booked a hotel near the Gare du Nord RER hub, and my friends live a few blocks from the Port-Royal RER stop to the south on the Left Bank.

The plan: I would move my luggage to the new hotel via the RER to the Gare du Nord stop, double back on a southbound RER to spend the day with friends, return to the hotel via the RER and, the next day, take the RER to the airport.

Didn't happen. None of it.

Reportedly, per hotel staff and others, the RER would be operating on the Saturday and Sunday mornings of Dec. 7 and 8. That was kind of true.

Seen on the long walk to Gare du Nord: A stall at the International Children's Village Christmas market, located at the square in front of Saint-Jacques Tower.
Seen on the long walk to Gare du Nord: A stall at the International Children's Village Christmas market, located at the square in front of Saint-Jacques Tower. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin

Unfortunately, our hotel clerk sent me to the RER station that has no visible elevator or escalator. I would have had to throw my bag down the steps. 

So, I walked an hour-and-a-half north, constantly deliberating about trying for a scarce cab in the slow-moving traffic.

For the return journey, at Gare du Nord, I found the commuter train was indeed running, but only north to the airport. Stairs leading to the southbound tracks were cordoned off with tape, something I would soon see a lot more of.

The return walk was farther, but faster without luggage, lasting about an hour and a quarter.

There were pleasant surprises, too. 

Now with locals, my information came from the youngest and most tech-savvy of my friends. I aimed to visit a hospitalized friend, four long metro stops away, but he determined that the relevant metro line would be open Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. He also reported that Uber prices were spiking! For him and many locals, bike sharing was a solution, but not for those of us who don't know the city as intimately. 

In any case, the metro information was correct. Metro service appeared normal, except that all the entry points were wide-open and travel was free.

The last leg of my day's travel should have been the RER, as noted, but by evening this northbound service had also ceased. 

My last stroke of luck was the prompt arrival, near our dinner site, of a public bus that broadcasts Gare du Nord as its last stop. The bus ride was a standing-room-only affair, and bus stops along this one-hour journey were crowded with daunting lines of would-be passengers. After the fact, I saw online that bus services are often limited or nonexistent. I was VERY lucky.

Overhead screens in the bus announced the stops, but also periodically referred to the ongoing "mouvement social" and directed passengers to RATP.Fr for more information. 

I took the advice. At that website, which warns people away from public transportation, I learned that the RER would operate to the airport the next morning -- but at about one-fourth the usual number of trains, or marginally better than nothing.

My solution, early on a dreary rainy Sunday morning? I grabbed a cab outside my hotel before the exiting passengers had finished paying up. I learned later that one of our group members couldn't find a taxi and it took three tries before an Uber driver showed up. 

Travel is always an adventure, but I don’t look forward to a do-over on this one.

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