Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

What I learnt on the road with this year's charity winner
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The Independent Travel

To travel the world in the guise of work represents such implausibly good fortune that it is difficult to think of any downside to this occupation. Yet if pressed, perhaps after a second glass of Cristal at The Independent's Christmas party, I might concede that sometimes life on the road can get a tad, well, lonely. Probably my fault, for insisting on staying in some of the world's cheapest and nastiest hotels. But every December, life brightens thanks to this newspaper's Christmas Appeal auction.

The noble purpose of this exercise is to transfer wealth from our generous readers to those in need. A happy spin-off, though, is that I get to spend a day or longer in the company of the highest bidder. They get unlimited access to my travel-addled brain, plus an insight into the art of pretending to work in many of the world's fun spots.

Three years ago, I spent a fine day in Paris with Chris Grey from Stratford; in 2004, SueWard from Belfast joined me on a tour of the four countries of the UK in a single day; last year, Louise Perryman from Kent won the right to research 48 Hours in Rome while lording (or ladying) it in some of the Eternal City's finest abodes, while I took my chances in the Hotel Michigan (€17 a night is all you need to know).

The latest "winner", if that is the appropriate term, was Doreen McInerney, a businesswoman from Dublin. In a year when flying almost anywhere seems to be fraught with stress - and guilt - an inter-city rail adventure was called for. Doreen outbid other contenders for a day of dining out in three illustrious cities: breakfast in Paris, lunch in Lille and dinner in Brussels.

Should you be tempted to try your own variant of this meals-with-wheels itinerary, you could do worse than to follow our simple menu. Breakfast was served at the Café Hugo in the north-east corner of the Place des Vosges, in the Marais. Even though this location receives millions of tourist footfalls each year, it is an unpretentious, good-value location where the petit déjeuner choice is between Un Peu or Beaucoup; with hundreds of miles of travel to go, it seemed sensible to opt for the latter: fresh coffee, fresher orange juice, croissants straight from the oven... you get the picture.

Gare du Nord is the ideal place to begin a journey: the grand façade simply demands that you travel, preferably in a northbound direction. It is not, though, the original face of the gateway to the north. The first version was shipped stone by stone from Paris to the capital of the north country, and now graces Lille-Flandres station - the aesthetic antithesis of the sterility of Lille-Europe, as used by Eurostar.

Our "domestic" train from Paris glided, 20 minutes late, into this elegant station, a gentle amble from the last table remaining free outside Le Pain Quotidien. As lunchtime shoppers buzzed around, we chatted as we waited for an appetising assiette of pâté, cheese and salmon. And waited. For an hour.

One of Doreen's enterprises was as a restaurateur. As the day began to evaporate, she said quietly: "I think I'll just go inside." I am not sure what she said to the patron, but briskly, food appeared and the bill diminished before our eyes.

After lunch, I was all for checking out museums, shops and bars for prospective 48 Hours in Lille. Doreen had a better idea. "We're just a couple of flâneurs", she insisted, and we drifted most agreeably around the Old Town. I asked if Doreen would briefly explain Irish politics to me, but she pointed out we had only 90 minutes before the train to Belgium.

You learn a great deal from a traveller like Doreen. In the course of a day, she taught me the benefit of taking time to seek out the indulgences of life - like the chocolatiers of Brussels en route to the Grand' Place.

By the end of the evening, as we sat, replete, at a restaurant terrace framed by graceful medieval architecture, I felt a momentary pang of guilt - to have had such a lovely day out in excellent company. But then I convinced myself it was all in a good cause, took a second sip of Leffe and counted another blessing.

Lot 36: Missing links

After the indulgences of dining out it's time for some serious exercise - while working on a story for these pages. I have walked almost all of the GR10 - the long-distance footpath that runs the length of the Pyrenees - but there is a gap in the middle that I plan to complete next summer. How does the idea of two demanding days' walking from Luchon to Eylie, reaching altitudes of up to 2,221m sound?

If your answer is "lousy", I can offer 48 Hours in Toulouse on the same trip. If a French adventure does not appeal, how about a British bike-ride? I have cycled most of the way from Land's End to John O'Groats, bit-by-bit. Choose one of the missing links: King's Lynn to Hull; Middlesbrough to Carlisle; Kilmarnock to Pitlochry; or Inverness to John O'Groats. And I can even supply a bike.

Each of these is likely to take three days/two nights, including travelling time. The winning bidder will be able to choose the missing link; and you and I can then agree the precise timing. Bids for the Christmas Appeal close at 1pm on Thursday 21 December; visit www.independent.co.uk/auction.

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