Travelling overnight by coach is nowhere near as comfortable as a couchette on a train, but I still enjoy it. I’m one of these people who can manage to sleep at least some of the time, and if it’s a question of spending two successive nights on coaches, I figure that if I don’t sleep much the first night I know by the second one I’ll be so tired that I will.
I am heading to Greece by the scenic route. The first stage is the overnight coach to London. I had some time there before my connection left for Paris, thought I might be able to visit Tate Britain, not far from the coach station, but it was too early, the gallery doesn’t open till 10 and I needed to be back at the station by 10.30. So I walked to the river, along by the Thames, enjoying the bright sunshine.
One of the trees overhanging the water has several boots tied to its branches. Is this an artistic statement or does it have some other significance? I don’t know. I also wonder how it was done, how people managed to climb up into the branches to put them there. Or did they tie the laces together and throw them up hoping for the best? This is a mystery to me.
The next part of the journey is to Paris. Everything feels different as soon as I'm in France. The sun is close to the horizon and the flat land has its yellow light spread across the cream stubble in the fields. There are rows of bare poplars with their delicate twigs. The sun goes behind a cloud which glows at the edge like a covered lamp, the opening of the cloud bag, dark blue against a light blue sky.
At Gallieni I have two hours before my next connection. But the coach, which I think originates in Belgium, is an hour late. I’m struck by the civility of one of the people working there. In London, a young man who had been smoking just outside the station was told in a very loud voice that he could not smoke there, he must put his cigarette out. He looked a bit bewildered by this and possibly had not noticed the no smoking signs. But here, at Gallieni, someone smoking is quietly told that it is not allowed, but if he wants to smoke he can go to l’autre côté – the other side of the station. What a difference it makes, a little civility, politeness, helpfulness.
It’s almost midnight by the time the coach finally arrives. Once again, it’s a night journey. We reach Geneva as it’s beginning to get light.
This is just a brief stop to drop off and pick up passengers. After Geneva it’s back into France, heading for the Mont Blanc tunnel.
We travel alongside the Alps. Snow-topped peaks haze into mist and cloud. The trees on the slopes look dusted with icing sugar. Sugar loaf mountains, draped with white blankets, with embroidery round the edges.
Closer to these trees, they look like thistledown plants. They're not dusted at all, close up – every branch and twig is wrapped around with frost, rigid, emitting pale light. The mountains have snow seamed into every ledge and cranny of rock.
We go into Chamonix, where snow lies thick on the ground, on the road, the pavements, the house roofs, the cars, falls and swirls on the couple of people walking in the streets. I suppose this is the real magnificence of snow, when it teams up with mountains and wildness. Some people find it irresistible. Can’t wait to get out there, with boots and jacket, ropes, crampons, ice axe, carabiner... I feel immensely lucky to be able just to glimpse these mountains without having to feel the cold of the snowy air, ice under my fingers.....
But because there is no wind, the cold is exhilarating. Just the slight swirl of snow when we get out at the French border, before going through the tunnel. There’s time to get a coffee from the machine in the small concrete building, a ridiculously diminutive statement at the foot of these vast and imperishable mountains, in this bitter weather that could sweep you away with one gesture of its snow-furred arm. The end of the line or so it feels, last outpost, before the mountain takes over. And so it would be, if the tunnel had not been built. I think of the only other time I’ve taken this route, Chamonix, the tunnel, decades ago, my daughter very small, chains fitted to the tyres, wondering if the road would be open, driving through thick snow. Coming out in Italy, no sign of snow, clear blue skies, another lifetime really so it seems now...