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This is being posted from the town of Vernet-les-Bains, tucked into the foot of the Pyranees, the mountain range separating France from Spain. According to the French government, the population of this little town is about 1400.
These mountains are majestic and imposing, certainly, but somehow not so threatening as others, perhaps because of the countless stories from World War Two of the local people leading downed allied flyers over these mountains to the relative safety of Spain.
My excuse for this visit is another ride on The Little Yellow Train (more about that next time), but this part of France has an allure all its own, sensed on my first visit here two years ago and reinforced yesterday by a slight, 50ish lady named Sylvie.
As we both got off the same train at Villefranche, I mentioned to her that I was going to a hotel in Vernet-les-Bains, just four or five kilometers away.
I knew that eventually there would be a bus coming, but after an all-day train ride from Paris, I was ready for a shower, a good meal with a glass or two of wine, and bed. For me, I said to Sylvie, the solution was a taxi.
Sylvie shook her head doubtfully but, gesturing “follow me”, headed back into the station to the glass-enclosed booth where a young women sold train tickets.
Sylvie asked her about taxies while gesturing at me, and the lady checked her computer and scribbled two phone numbers on a slip of paper.
We moved to a quiet spot and Sylvie, using my mobile phone, called the first number. There was no answer.
She called the second number and, after a conversation that seemed to grow a bit heated, she hung up.”He’s eating his dinner,” she said, shaking her head, and headed back across the room to the woman the ticket booth.
After another search in her computer, she jotted two more telephone numbers on the piece of paper. Sylvie called both numbers. Neither one answered.
Finally, after this scene had repeated itself a few more times, Sylvie said there was a bus going to Vernet-les-Bains and that I should follow her to the bus stop, which was but a 10-minute walk. Ten minutes for her, perhaps, but it was uphill and I was pulling my wheeled suitcase. When I paused to catch my breath, Sylvie snatched the handle and started off up the hill, cheerfully ignoring my protests.
Two middle-aged men were also waiting at the bus stop—backpackers just concluding a three-day trek through these mountains. In a few rapid French phrases, I was handed off and Sylvie, who dismissed my thanks with a wave of her hand headed back down the hill.
“You were never going to Vernet-les-Bains,” I called after her. It was an accusation. Sylvie laughed and waved good-by.
The bus came along about 30 minutes later and by that time I had learned something about the two back-packers and they had learned a bit about me. At Verney-les-Bains, we parted as friends.
Later, in my room at the Princess Hotel, I found the slip of paper that had been handed back and forth between Sylvie and the clerk at the train station. There are eleven telephone numbers on it.
Lesson learned: If you should ever need a taxi driver in Villefranche, try to avoid dinnertime.
This article first appeared on www.trainsandtravel.com
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