A Pilgrim's Tale

This week when we are approaching the joy of Easter, albeit in the cold of March, I would like to share with you an incredible tale of a family’s triumph over adversity, during their journey to the Eternal City last week.

Three coins in the Trevi Fountain, three angels to help us get there.

You could say we’re Rome groupies. We must have been there a dozen times. We fell in love with it on our first visit in 1993, not long after I converted to be an RC. That visit was organised by Pax Travel and we tend to use Pax as a reliable specialist tour operator which organises memorable pilgrimages at relatively low cost.

But this time was different. Margaret and I were taking our daughter for the first time. No big deal for most 33-year-old women. But a bit of a tall order for Lizzie. She is not only partially sighted, sporting a white cane, but also suffers from hydrocephalus. Medical advice is that flying would endanger her life, as she isn’t equipped to handle the pressure differences unlike you or I.

So we contacted Philip Dean at Pax and he was soon on the case. Philip quickly came back with a costed itinerary giving us five days in Rome by train – Eurostar to Paris, then on to Rome after a good night’s rest near the Gare de Nord, then fast train to Rome. The return journey offered an overnight stay in Turin, which piqued our interest as we had never been there. The cost was surprisingly low. We had imagined that rail travel would be prohibitive but we were most surprised how cheap it is actually to go via rail.

Someone once said it is better to travel in hope than to arrive. That thought struck us as we arrived at the check-in desk for Eurostar at St Pancras Station in London on the morning of March 12 to find all trains to the continent had been cancelled indefinitely because of heavy snow both sides of the Channel. I was reminded of the famous headline: “Fog in Channel: Continent isolated.”

What to do? Phoned Pax, got some quick advice about our plan to get to Dover and take a ferry. Pax were marvellous and came up with a range of emergency onward travel options. One thing Pax couldn’t do, though, was guarantee our onward journey wouldn’t be frustrated by the white stuff.

So it was that we found ourselves in a cheap hotel handy for Calais Ville station, along with other stranded travellers. The next morning I was outside said station when it opened. Bad news. All trains suprimee (cancelled). Until further notice.

So it was that we found ourselves in a taxi dash to Calais’ second railway station, Calais Frethun. In the sparse daylight we could see how bad things were, with snow piled up everywhere and vehicles abandoned at the side of the road or stuck in drifts. The station was just opening up as we arrived. We were the only ones there. Being a stubborn Yorkshireman and a Taurean to boot, I don’t often allow myself to be beaten by circumstance. But this was our lowest ebb. From this point, reader, I would have been telling you: “So we cut our losses, abandoned our trip, got back on the ferry and went home to Northamptonshire.”

O ye of little faith. For here, reader, the first angel intervened. A man appeared from the shadows. We hadn’t seen him approach. In broken English, he asked us: “Do you vant to get to Paree? There’s one train leaving from ze other Calais station in an hour, for Lille. Get to Lille and you ‘ave a chance of getting to Paree today.” We thanked him, before he melted back into the shadows.

Another taxi dash back to Calais Ville. On the train in good time, helped by our second Angel. A young Englishman. Seeing Elizabeth’s white cane and our struggling with our baggage, he helped us onto the train. Lille, here we come.

Arriving at Lille, he again helped us with our baggage. He had also been furiously downloading train info onto his mobile, on our behalf. There’s only one train going out from Lille to Paris this morning”, said our knight in shining trainers. “The bad news is it should have left half an hour ago. The good news is – it’s 40 minutes late.”

The angelic young man took us to the train and negotiated with the guard to allow us on without tickets. We made it with seconds to spare before the whistle blew.

We found out later that that was the last train to leave Lille for some hours.

Paris Gare de Nord, the Eurostar terminal. Gare de Nord to Gare de Lyon by taxi. Two hours late to make our Rome connection.

Deflated, we quickly hatched a plan. Hang the cost. In for a penny, in for a Euro. We’ll stay overnight and pay for new tickets for the first train tomorrow.

Enter stage right angel number three, taking the temporary earthly guise of a young man at the SNCF train company helpdesk. Margaret explained our predicament in French.

“You have two options”, he said, in fluent English. “You can go to Turin today and overnight. But then you’d have to pay for your hotel. Or you can stay here tonight, in Paris, and we will put you up in a hotel for free. Can you walk? It’s a long, long way.” So kind. So amenable.

So it was we found ourselves enjoying, at no cost, in pampered luxury at the Hotel Mercure (normally 230 Euros a night), next door to the Gare de Lyon, no long way away, but a few steps from the main concourse, with free transferred tickets for travel the next day.

“Why did this happen? “We asked ourselves. “It’s not SNCF’s fault that Eurostar, a separate company, hashad problems.” But then we decided not to look this particular gift cheval in the mouth. Who can second-guess an angel?

We firmly believe in angels. Not necessarily of the supernatural variety. All of us at some time have the chance, the opportunity, the gift of being an angel in someone’s life, to help them on their way, to comfort them at a time of grief or crisis, or just to be there to support them. We encountered three angels in that 24-hour period. A trinity of angels. Was it a coincidence? Or was it by God’s good grace? We know it is the latter. There is no such thing as coincidence. It is all the work of the Holy Spirit. How blessed we were.

Thus we arrived, almost a day late, in the Eternal City. In March, with the new Pope’s first Angelus, the Italy v. Ireland rugby match (avanti azzuri!) AND the Rome marathon, we found Rome v. well populated. We had the closest view possible of Pope Francesco’s first Angelus, up against the fountain in St Peter’s Square, along with an estimated other 299,997 pilgrims thronging the square and surrounding vie.

And did I tell you about the upgrade to business class when we transferred at Milan…? Or did we mention that there were many more than simply three angels? We forgot to mention the angelic host working at Pax travel, phoning ahead of us, making new arrangements, giving us moral support as well as practical assistance?. Grazie ragazzi!

It was reassuring to hear that Peter and his family had an uneventful journey home!

Philip Dean

Managing Director

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