Journey from a centre of the Universe

Every town has its sobriquet, and it's not always flattering. Take Brazil's largest city, São Paulo. In
Brazilian Adventure, Peter Fleming observes São Paulo is "like Reading, only much farther away." Even in 1932, when the book was published and the city's population was only a fraction of its present 20 million, this was a crushing comparison with the Berkshire town.

Every town has its sobriquet, and it's not always flattering. Take Brazil's largest city, São Paulo. In Brazilian Adventure, Peter Fleming observes São Paulo is "like Reading, only much farther away." Even in 1932, when the book was published and the city's population was only a fraction of its present 20 million, this was a crushing comparison with the Berkshire town.

Perpignan fared much better when Salvador Dalí came to call. In 1965, the Spanish Surrealist took a tour by taxi around the railway station. To you and me, la gare may not appear very different from the average SNCF station. But in his autobiography - the coyly titled Diary of a Genius - Dalí wrote: "Suddenly, it struck me like a bolt of lightning. In front of me stood the centre of the Universe".

Two years later, he created a sculpture in honour of the hub of the cosmos. The work now stands outside the station. It features a cattle truck, the mode of transport by which Dalí arrived; la gare itself is crowned with a crazed figure.

Next Tuesday, 35 years to the day since Salvador Dalí reached his fundamental conclusion, a small celebration will take place at the station. Or, given the curious way that space and time behave at Perpignan station, maybe it won't.

As any cosmologist will tell you, if you start at the centre of an expanding universe you don't go anywhere - the rest of the universe moves away from you. So it proved when I tried to travel from the Mediterranean coast of France to Toulouse on a Sunday. The very idea that a train might turn up, and subsequently depart, seemed absurd as the station and its staff slumbered beneath a sunny sky, with only the gentle buzz of insects demonstrating any sign of life.

A stray train eventually turned up from some distant galaxy. It, and we, sat while the driver smoked a Gauloise, and sat some more when his colleague ambled up for a chat. This pattern was repeated on three more trains across southern France.

When I finally arrived in Toulouse, I was running so late I decided to rent a car. Both Avis and Hertz would be pleased to hire me one just as soon as they had some to offer. For Avis that meant waiting until Tuesday, while Hertz did not expect to have any cars this side of Wednesday. A journey from the centre of the Universe did not seem such a good idea after all.

THERE WAS plenty of time to consider this on the D632, one of the lovely minor roads that meander across rural France. Lovely, that is, in daylight and - if you happen to be hitch-hiking - while a steady supply of traffic remains. The driver who dropped me off at dusk in the middle of nowhere cheerfully observed, " auto-stop is difficult around here".

Day degraded into night, passing cars dwindled to zero and I wished I was back at junction 11 of the M4 outside Reading. At midnight I decided to sleep in a corner of a foreign field.

BY 4AM, when the cold and damp had insinuated themselves into every fold of my sleeping bag and bone in my body, I began to question the joys of independent travel. But by 5am, I was warming up in the cab of a 40-tonne Volvo lorry. As I got in, the driver said the only reason he had stopped for me in one of the most sparsely populated areas of France was because he was in danger of falling asleep.

I was to be the entertainment. After a performance as dismal as the drizzly dawn, next time he may resort to amphetamines, not auto-stoppeurs, to keep awake. He dropped me in a small town that at least had a station - and a boucherie specialising in local beef. A handwritten notice on the door promises: "Only the butcher here is mad - not the cows". And, I thought, the independent traveller.

A good antidote to an unhappy journey is a browse through the 'Independent Traveller's Edition' of the Thomas Cook World Timetable (£11.99). In Java, for example, "people are so friendly they will even lend you their own transport if you can promise to leave it where they can collect it. Stranded in the monsoon, a traveller with an appointment to keep was offered a motorbike provided he dropped it off within three days at the Family Planning Association's offices in Surabaja so that the owner could collect it."

In the city formerly known as Bombay, the compilers suggest the following surreal interaction with the local bus company, the Brihan Electricity Supply and Transport Company (BEST): "When you visit Mumbai, go to a BEST enquiry office and ask for a bus map. They'll give you one, neatly printed and folded, with their logo on the cover. When you open it, you'll find that it says 'because our services are so complex we haven't put them on the map'."

"I must respond to last Saturday's somewhat sour and ill-considered column," writes Nick Warner. In particular, he says, I drew unfair conclusions from the fact that British Airways' last Concorde departure before the fleet was grounded had only 37 of its 100 seats filled.

"After all, it is high summer and it was a mid-week flight. All the business people and superstars are probably lying on a beach in Cape Cod or St Tropez. As a resident of Windsor, I, for one, would be saddened to see this sleek aircraft disappear from our skies so prematurely. It is a lovely sight to see this white bird in the rays of the setting sun on a September evening. I tolerate less the slower and lower 747s that lumber over and can be heard rumbling for much longer."

One of our regular contributors agrees. Tony Wheeler was among the élite of canny travellers to strike a Concorde deal with a far-flung BA office. The airline's more distant outposts were empowered to sell tickets on the supersonic jet at prices way below the official London-New York fare of £6,500 return. That was how the founder of Lonely Planet came to discover that flying Concorde was not a spacious affair.

First-time passengers, reports Mr Wheeler, were urged to visit the cockpit (no frequent Concorde traveller would be so vulgar as to take up the invitation). The crew encouraged visits, he speculates, "to make more space in the cabin."

When Mr Wheeler reached the flight deck, he was astonished to see how primitive it looked: "A Boeing 747-400 flight deck looks like a Nintendo game, but the dials and instruments on Concorde make it look closer to a Lancaster bomber. But it would be a great shame if it never flew again."

Newark Airport boasts what must be the most tactless frequent-flyer advertisement ever, promoting the message that the Continental OnePass scheme imposes no limits on validity. "OnePass Miles!", yells an ad that is unlikely to put flyers at their ease. "You'll expire before they will."

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