A Travellerspoint blog

Leaving continental Europe for the UK

sunny 23 °C

I have now sworn off Eurail passes for ever. Just when you think you might get reasonable value out of them, the railway system's rules stamp on your plans with pronouncements such as " If you had wanted tickets for that, you should have made a definite booking months ago" and "there will be a surcharge for that service which is greater than the cost of an ordinary ticket." So it proved to be when requiring tickets to travel from Amsterdam to London; the only method available was to pay full price as far as Brussels on one train, then change to the Eurostar to London. The only information to be gained from a short stop in Brussels - first at the wrong station having got off prematurely- was that there are plenty of ladies of the night available in the Brussels afternoon, handy to transport.

Border security seemed extra tight for the Brussels to London segment, with the authorities ready to seize Miriam " Are you carrying a knife in your suitcase?" However, with my cavalier comment, " That's just a pair of manicure scissors," a search was not deemed necessary. After the short, speedy Eurostar dash beneath the waters of the English Channel, we alighted at St Pancras station. Waiting for us at the exit of the Eurostar area (where all were again required to have their passports inspected) was my friend Mark Dupont, who I worked with in the early eighties in the Commonwealth Employment Service. Mark shepherded us to the suburban trainlines to head out to St Albans, just beyond the northern fringes of London.

After getting settled in to the Quality Hotel, a name not backed up by performance or any other attribute, Mark drove us to the Cafe Rouge for a very pleasant meal, French in style, and tastier than many we had endured in La Belle France. In subsequent days Mark kindly chauffeured us around the features of interest in the town, of which there were a surprising number.

To understand the town, you need to visit the remains of the Roman settlement that began in the first century AD. It was known as Verulamium, and was one of the settlements virtually destroyed in raids by the female warrior formerly known as Boadicea. Later, around 250 AD, a pagan named Alban who sheltered a Christian priest was executed by beheading. The legend goes that at the moment the sword sliced off his head, the executioner eyes flew out of their sockets leaving him blind. Alban was later declared a saint, and the cathedral in the town holds his shrine, as well as that of another not so well known saint.

The cathedral that bears his name is grand and dignified, with magnificent stained glass windows both ancient and contemporary; one that was opened by Princess Di giving a modern slant to one end of the building. There is graffiti from the 1600s, painted decorations that have survived on the walls from the 1500s, in fact it is amazingly intact in its internal structures and decor.

Also at what was once the Roman settlement of Veralamium, there is an excellent museum with a more extensive range of finds of the Roman era than I have ever seen. Virtually intact skeletons of some of the inhabitants, young and old, tools, jewellery, games, large and majestic floor mosaics that have miraculously survived, with informative commentary to support them, give a strong representation of the daily lives of the common people who lived here in that era. Close to the museum there are significant remains of what was a large Roman theatre, however we were unable to see it up close as it was shut for the day.

In the town of St Albans itself, the core retains many buildings from the distant past including a substantial square Norman era tower surfaced with chunks of flint held together with mortar. The Lady Eleanor, who has already been mentioned in connection with Bordeaux, appears again here, or at least it is reputed that when she died her body was laid out in state close to this tower.

Over the four days of our visit to St Albans, it was fascinating to see such a rich historical heritage so close to London, yet seeming to be a world away. In fact, it's only twenty minutes by train from the capital. I must give special thanks to Mark for being so generous with his time and friendship in ensuring we saw everything my quirky interests demanded within the limited time available. A bientot, mon ami!

Posted by piepers 11:59 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

A Lot Goin' on in Lot-Garonne

Montcabrier and the Lot River Valley

sunny 37 °C

In the morning, we dragged our four wheeled rolling suitcases under St Jean station to take delivery of our hire car at the office shared by half a dozen hire companies. I chased up a deal on line by hiring with an agent based in Portland, Maine. All good but I don't have my normal credit card with me as required by the actual car hire office. Fortunately M had her card with her, so the deal was accepted with her nominated as driver number one. The ladies behind the counter were very helpful in devising this work around so we could get on our way.

Driving out of Bordeaux while taking care to stay on the right hand side of the road, we were soon heading northward so as to go southward, in the paradoxical style of French roadmaking. Despite our almost brand new diesel powered Renault Clio we were making no progress at all, as the traffic slowed to a crawl for about an hour. Then, as suddenly as it had stuttered to a halt, traffic flow resumed.
Already behind schedule, the expedition continued along quieter secondary roads, free of traffic snarls, and the vines started to appear on all sides. As we travelled further into the heartland of red wine production, the names of towns began to sound like labels from the top shelf at Dan Murphy's Wine Cellar.

Thanks to some very clear directions provided by Sally Gaucheron, the owner of the B & B we will be staying in at Montcabrier, we made good progress with only a few false moves provoked by temporary road re-directions. After settling in to seeing the road in reverse from what is usual, the driving part was going fine. However, the brilliant sun was gradually sliding towards the western horizon - hmm, time to notice we had taken a turn to the left instead of the right and were now incorrectly facing the setting sun. A sweeping u-turn by the Tour de France sign post (Tour de France this way) and back on track.

Sustained by an excellent vegetarian pizza at a town we later found was St Silvestre Sur Lot, we pushed on as the shadows lengthened to match our faces. We thought we saw the football pitch that signalled the need to take the next road. This country lane, assuredly most charming in the daylight, started off with a jauntily sealed surface that gradually gave way to more uncertain conditions, a dark road, and a number of quiet, where on earth are we moments of reflection. Yet hope was not yet as lost as us, for from time to time there were lights, whether of ghouls or the houses of civilised man could not be determined.

Just then a car with striped livery, some kind of SES guy, appeared before us and offered his help. Once I had explained the situation, he simply said "Suivez-moi", and so we were able to follow him to the correct turn off for Montcabrier.

Turning in to the single car width entrance to the village of Montcabrier, it became apparent that we had perfectly timed our arrival for the middle of a Friday night market. The music was loud and appeared to have started in 1968 and not stopped since. Parking in some open space on the edge of the village, I conducted a reconnaissance mission alone. Before too long, on the edge of the town square, I found my name on a card taped to a gate. Fortunately by this time the party was breaking up and I was able to bring the car and Miriam to our accommodation.

The village or bastide of Montcabrier was buiilt in the 14th century as part of the ongoing struggle for control between those on the side of the English and those on the side of the local French nobles. Remarkably well preserved, its ancient stones speak of old struggles now long forgotten. In an early example of town planning, the streets are laid out in a grid with the Marie (town hall) representing civil society facing the old church with its bell towers ever ready to ring out - at least for 7am, midday and 7 pm. Even in the late middle ages it was apparently important to make the most of your land: on one house the spiral staircase sits out above the street instead of being contained within the bounds of the walls.

Many of the buildings are in almost original condition, the ethos of the local folk being highly protective of their tiny enclave. The stonemasons who made these walls have left their signature marks, such as an image of pair of scissors above an arched doorway. Depending on the presence of iron and other minerals, the stone of various walls is coloured yellowish or with a rusty red tint.
At the edge of town remnants of the original defensive ramparts and a small guard house remain, with a commanding view down over any potential invaders. You can almost feel the presence of long gone archers and swaggering crusader types.

Our host Sally was full of information about the village and suggested lots of options to explore in the surrounding area. It proved essential to have a car to get around the place, with the only store in town (boulangerie, post office, general store) closing for lunch and shutting down for the night about seven. After that, if you needed anything, the nearest town where a shop might potentially be open (but not a sure thing) was seven kilometres of winding road away. Sally also is an excellent cook and will turn on a tasty meal from her own kitchen by arrangement.

No idyllic view over meandering forest valleys, seen from the breakfast table on the terrace, is complete without the presence of a cat, of course, and Noire, the venerable feline who has lived agreeably here for many years - now aged twenty would ensure to wish us a good morning.

During our time based at Montcabrier we ventured to a number of localities each with much to offer the curious observer.

Puy L'Eveque, the closest town, a fortress like conglomeration occupying a peninsula-like loop of land almost surrounded by the Lot River,once held by a powerful bishop with knights residing on the lower levels beneath his palace. By the river, the medieval streets are steep and cobblestoned, with a narrowness and awkwardly tight onewayness complete with casually parked cars on the side that could make a hire car driver nervous. We are crepes at the Pigeonnerie, a restaurant operating in a building that hundreds of years ago had a different purpose. It was a house for pigeons to live in and defecate in, with the resulting fertiliser a reliable cash crop of the times.

Cahors, similarly arising from a medieval power base, was remarkable for how wherever you went, in any direction, you could always see a roadsign pointing the way to Cahors. Clearly, all roads no longer lead to Rome, because a significant number are leading to Cahors. We passed through Cahors and noted remarkable crumbling castles and majestically arched bridges.
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Sylvestre sur Lot is a charming little town, where many campers gather by the Lot to try their luck at fishing. Best vegetarian pizza available at the one and only pizzeria. There is also a restaurant next to the river Lot that serves a fabulous self-serve buffet for ten euros a head. Delightful as the view over the river stretching into the blue haze of another steaming hot day.

Cazals
It is fortunate that there is at least one good reason to go to Cazals. That is the pleasant and cooling swimming hole located just out of town. While you can fish for trout here in season, right now it's the season of letting loose the kids on the (created) beach that lulls your feet into expecting a sandy bottom, that only lasts a few meters until your toes are squishing through a very fine silt.
All swimmers stand under a shower point that squirts at you from all angles. Only one person objected to this treatment, but she was only about two years old and easily overcome.
Oh, the other reason to go to Cazals. So you can get over the idea that French cooking is pretentious. Here at the Welcome Point for the Camping area, we sampled the delights of the local cuisine. M had the Croque Monsieur a la Microlonde (Toasted cheese sandwich cooked in the microwave) while I could not resist sampling the admittedly anglicised Cheeseburger, also with the deft application of the microwave to the 'patty'.
Reasons to not go to Cazals are that at ten past two in the afternoon, in the town itself, you are sneered at contemptuously should you seek to purchase any food; we got away with coffee, but it was a close thing. If there had been a guillotine handy, the waitress had a certain look in her eye.

Pech Merl was a highlight of the trip so far. This sympathetically preserved and presented wonder is a series of caves where many artworks and other traces of neolithic man can be seen up close and personal. With limited visits permitted, visitors are escorted in small groups along a dimly lit subterranean path to witness images of mammoths, bison and the now extinct auryx, a primitive form of ox. the hand that created with a few bold lines these vivid emblems of a long-dead tribe worked with skill and a precision that needed few lines made with primitive pigments. Footprints fossilised in the minerals laid down by the slow dripping water show where man stood 15000 years ago or so. The same hand prints made with ochre spitting techniques are seen here as in Aboriginal art still surviving in more exposed caves.

Unlike the more famous Lascaux caves, where 'reproductions' of the actual artefacts are shown to the visitor, this is the real thing, and feels like it. A deeply impressive experience.

Chateau de Bonaguil
A short drive from Montcabrier was the Chateau de Bonaguil. This castle was also quite fabulous to explore, for anyone who spent their childhood watching Robin Hood swordfighting his way down a stone spiral staircase. All the features you expect were their, round towers, square towers, ruby glass windows bending the light into galleries where knights and ladies dallied in the 15th century. Held by one family for several hundred years, in the French Revolution it was decreed that the tops of all the buildings to a certain height should pulled down. In good shape for its age now, you can climb to the top and stroll around with a view as broad and sweeping as the guards whose duty it would have been to stay up there and keep watch. In the lower levels you can still clearly see where flooring timbers and other structural elements were positioned, so imagination fills in the gaps and you get a clear sense of how the community living here would have functioned. In times of siege, they had to be self sufficient in order to survive.
It was only in the nineteenth century that efforts began to preserve and restore this important remnant of the days of chivalry. Don't want to start a chain mail, but if you're in the neighbourhood, this is well worth a visit.

At the end of a week we were ready to step back in the Renault time machine and miraculously navigate back to Bordeaux, despite being on the wrong bridge, being baffled by petrol station protocol, and calling on every shred of memory from studying the map of the side streets around the car hire drop off yard, we made it back with ten minutes to spare. Another five minutes of suitcase draggage and we were lying down in the Best Western with a nice cup of tea a-brewing.

Posted by piepers 14:20 Archived in France Comments (0)

Bordeaux

Wine Glut City, with a side of street crazies

With a correctly composted ticket (the machine to validate the train ticket you have already paid for is called the Composter) we were spirited down the tracks from La Rochelle's grandly decorated station to the riverside expanse of Bordeaux, the capital of the red wine growing regions of France. The station doors disgorge you right in front of a restaurant just when the rigours of travel have made you rather peckish, actually, and the plat du jour doesn't look too bad. Refueled, we spied in the distance the sign of the Best Western Hotel, our hired home away from home for the night.

Bless they who Condition the Air for they make a room truly comfortable and giveth much relief after a consistently hot week in the Lot Valley. All up a restful night, needed for He Who Had Committed to The Drive on the morrow.

With little time to waste, we walked to the edge of the mighty Garonne river, which was rushing headlong under the ancient arched stone bridge, whirlpools whipping around near stones gathered in front of each arch. A soccer ball and a balloon in the shape of a rabbit's head rush headlong down the stream.

Along the walking and cycling paths trail a wide assortment of predominantly young people, pedalling a range of vehicles extending from bicycles to scooters to rollerblades and skates. Fitness enthusiasts sweated up a storm exercising on the concrete promenade, pushups and shadow boxing included in the grand look=at-me package, while a madman played counterpoint a few metres away with his ' my dog won't obey me say would you have a cigarette for me' routine.

A little further and the ancient town centre is heralded by a majestic church tucked up a side street. Next comes into view the celebratory city gate built in honor of a conquering king, a Charles 3 or so. Passing through the gate, no longer protected by a portcullis as it once was, and indeed now not joined other buildings, these having been torn down long ago to better show off the fine structure of the gate and its towering presence facing the river. Upstairs, a small museum display building implements of the type used in the gate's construction.

From a plaque on the ground we are informed of how Eleanor of Acquitaine, the beautiful heiress of the local duchy, through her second marriage tied a massive part of France to rule by the English for hundreds of years. She went on to be the mother of Richard the Lionheart and his brother John.

In the river, some of the less royal residents, a family of river otters, climb out onto the bank of the river, and seem quite at ease in their urban environment. Controversy breaks out on Facebook. Are they otters, beavers, or water rats? David Attenborough fails to appear on command.

On the way back to the hotel, we pass a deserted carkpark under a building where filthy foam mattresses lean at drunken angles against the wall, while their owners sit with their limbs at dispirited angles on whatever brick or metal surface their bones find themselves against.

To sleep, perchance to dream. Far too many action dreams during this constant travel.

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Posted by piepers 14:11 Archived in France Comments (0)

Beachside Interlude at La Rochelle

sunny 34 °C

After a week of smoggy Parisian air, it was time to move on to our planned three day stay at the beach-side town of La Rochelle on the mid south west coast of France. The distance involved did not seem to justify using a day of our Eurail pass, so when I realised that our need to travel was less than two days away, I leaped up, jumped into the Metro and travelled one station to Gard de L'Est. In such a large station there are different windows to buy different types of tickets, leading one to stand in several lines before getting directed to what I hoped was the correct place, at the level where the fast trains come and go from the platforms. Here, I eventually learned that queuing for a 'live' ticket seller was of no use; they were selling tickets only for the trains actually leaving today. To buy tickets for any other day, the only option now is to use the electronic self-service machines, several of which were scattered around the station.

Fortunately, there is a choice of which language the display presents, but still there are surprises as you work through the choices presented. The choice of "departure" is easy enough, as it appears automatically. For "destination", as you start typing, with each keystroke the number of possible towns you might have meant narrows, but weirder, the keys on the on-screen keyboard go grey and unavailable - I mean, as you press L - A the keys that would allow you to choose any town in the whole of France that does not commence with those letters becomes greyed out and unavailable. After working through that part, you then have to go through further rigmarole concerning any concession cards you may claim to hold, and if so, must be able to produce both to enter the numbers on such card, and to show to any railway official who may demand to see them. Yeah, well, I just wanted two tickets. OK. enter details for passenger number one. Ah ha, so both passengers travel on the one ticket. Bon. Please enter concession details for second passenger. Sacre bleu! Will the questioning never end? But at last this yellow dalek of a machine advised that I should insert my credit card, and extracted from my account the required amount. My French is not too bad, especially after receiving a vigorous work out on this trip, but honestly, if I had to use that machine in its native tongue we might still be stranded in Paris, maybe sheltering under a bridge with the street dwellers.

The following morning we made the short trip by Metro to the Gare de L'Est again, and exactly at the appointed time our train pulled out and was soon speeding towards La Rochelle. This trip was notable only for the fact that we did not see a single conductor or railway employee during the whole trip. The ticket seemed to indicate that there would be a need to change trains at a certain town; but when we got there, the illuminated signs said that this train would continue to La Rochelle. Snap decision to stay on, resulting in getting there an hour earlier than the alternative train would have done; if it arrived at all.

The station at La Rochelle, like many in regional France is quite grand in itself; this one has enormous and beautifully executed mosaics at either end, high up on the walls. One depicts sailing ships of the Renaissance period, the other the three towers for which La Rochelle is quite famous. These were done in the 1920's in tiny tiles that together give a wonderful subtlety of colour, almost like a Seurat painting but not dotty.

As has become our habit, we first trooped into the closest cafe for a coffee to recover from the trip and seek some local advice on how to get to our hotel. It turned out that we just needed to continue heading along the street that the cafe had at its side to reach the centre of the town, where our hotel should be. Soon I spied the Office de Tourisme, always a great place to grab a local street map. Ten minutes for an unencumbered person at a moderate stroll; twenty minutes for two profusely sweating middle aged folk with suitcase wheels beginning to squeak and squeal, despite their fifteen year warranty. Soon we were in the midst of narrow medieval streets that grew ever narrower as we progressed, with human statues plying their trade and the usual round of buskers squeezing pained cacaphonies from accordions and other instruments of musical destruction. Presently, the Rue de Fleuriau hove into view, and the familiar Ibis sign winked at us from the end of the street.

This Ibis was a different creature to the one we had stayed at in Paris; for starters, this one didn't smell like an old folks' home, had only three floors of accommodation, and treated their guests with politeness. But there is no escaping the standard breakfast, the machine coffee, the machine orange juice, the croissants, the croissants, and the croissants. Once again, no option to make your own hot drinks provided: make your own arrangements to ensure you can do this independently is my number one tip for travellers, unless you want to be going into hotel bars at all hours and blowing your dough on drinks at four euros a pop.

So what's this La Rochelle joint all about? In essence two things: medieval history by the bucket load, and a swinging place for French folk to cavort at the beach. Old stuff first: this was a key place to defend French interests against the English during the 100 years war, way back in the 13-14th century. To do so, it had some excellent technology. Like, the entrance to the cute little harbour, now filled with expensive cruisers of the bourgeoisie, had a chain that was drawn across the entrance at night so unexpected visitors couldn't sail in and invade.
Around the harbour are clustered the towers that kept watch, and the Tower of the Chain had the role of putting the chain barrier in place at night. For those who have a taste for ancient French literature (Halloooooo? Is anybody there?) this very chain is mentioned in Rabelais' work Pantagruel, where a giant is held down by four massive chains "and one of these can still be seen at La Rochelle." There is also the Tower of the Four Sargeants, where four unfortunates were held pending there execution at Paris. In that tower, there is graffiti from a range of prisoners including pirates and other n'eer do wells of the high seas. Instead of the bland sea walls of Melbourne, the sea walls here were once the ramparts that held the enemy at bay, and they still hold a few spiky extrusions to make things hot for anyone trying to climb up from, say, a rowboat instead of from the harbour. At night the three towers are brilliantly lit and make a delightful fairy tale scene for a beachfront walk. Around the harbour, the Vieux Port (Old Port), with a strip of restaurants jostling and spruiking for their share of the tourist euros, along the Rue Des Femmes where women would come and look wistfully out to sea awaiting the return of their men - if they came back. The sailors could get rowdy at times, but there were several gates (one still existing) that could be sealed to prevent the sailors from coming into town to make trouble. These gates were also a way to stop the spread of fire, should a vessel catch alight in the port.

Surrounding the Old Port, of course the Old Town. Here the streets are narrow, the houses almost all built from limestone of a whitish shade, and you enter this part of La Rochelle through a magnificent gothic arched gateway that has stood since the 15th century. This is known as the Grosse Horloge (Big Clock) because when it was last renovated (about thirty years before Captain Cook sighted Australia) a tower to hold this massive clock was added atop the gate. Apart from the lapse in taste of this anachronistic timepiece that clashes in style with the grandeur of the gateway itself, La Rochelle is doing itself proud in preserving and restoring its heritage. The main shopping streets have Les Arcades, arched porches that protect the pedestrian from the hot sun between the edge of the street and the shop windows. The shops riff on the nautical theme with lots of sailor style clothes with thin stripes, crafts based on sea themes, and the typical seaside resort souvenirs that visitors to any sea facing town must endure and some, apparently, buy.

In the oldest, tiny square of the town, where money lenders once had their tables, a man and a woman set up their human statue act each day at about 10 am, work for eight hours at keeping very still and very grey (that make up must be hot and unbearable in August!) with the woman occasionally waving her fan, the man turning his head slightly. They seemed to have a nice little earner going. Kids loved it. Apart from the legitimate buskers, there was an infestation of youngish beggars of prime working age, some wearing French army camo gear and mohawks, each with their own massive, ugly dog to sit at their feet. One was cheeky enough to have two cans set out, labelled Biere and Fumer (Beer and Smokes) to receive donations. After they had gathered enough coins and been moved on several times, they would congregate off the tourist beaten track to drink the rest of the day away. This seemed to be the major growth industry in La Rochelle. The grandeur of commerce has faded a little, where once they had their own Stock Exchange, preserved still, with a magnificent carved wooden door facing out on to the main street of merchants.

Although facing the sea, there was hardly a breath of a breeze in our three days there, and to escape the sweltering conditions a stroll around the botanical gardens was a suitable tonic. these were small but lovely, with species from around the world laid out in a small park with only about twenty six rules listed on a board to ensure the visitor shall behave in a manner befitting the dignity of the town. At one end of the park, some enthusiastic topiary fiend has gone berserk and created the zig-zaggiest examples I've encountered. It could make a certain enthusiast I know green with envy.

As for the beach, here unlike much of Europe there is actually fine white sand there, much to the delight of visiting children. This appears to be a place that many families seek out for their August holidays, and when the Bank Holiday / Assumption of The Virgin day rolled around on the 15th August, suddenly there was a huge upsurge in the number of people swarming in the streets. The chance to wander among the ancient streets was lost among crowds that rolled around the Old Port like a tsunami, if a tsunami can hold a gelato cone upright.
In view of this, we were kind of relieved to get ready to move on to our next port of call, the great inland capital of the red wine regions, Bordeaux. More of that in my next bulletin.

Posted by piepers 14:13 Archived in France Comments (0)

Is Paris burning?

Not quite, but the skin of the locals has turned quite red

sunny 32 °C

It would be churlish to say 'regretfully, we set off for Paris' but as we slid out of Amsterdam's Centraal Station on the French-owned Thalys fast train, we certainly felt like we could have happily stayed longer in the Nethernetherlands. A train ticket is a train ticket though, and when using a Eurail pass, once you have made a booking, that's it. no change is permitted. On the other hand, if you don't book well ahead, you run a high risk of not being able to get a ticket to the destination you need to get to on the day you need to be there. Such are the dilemmas that the traveller faces.

The flat lands fly by at up to 250 kph, with a glowing indicator at the end of the carriage informing you of how ludicrously fast you are moving, yet the water in your plastic cup shows barely a ripple. After dozing for what seems like a few moments we slide into Gare du Nord, the northern of the four or five major railway stations that are clustered within a few kilometres. Kind soul that I am, I proposed that we grab a taxi to cover the two and a half km to our hotel, rather than dragging our suitcases through the streets. A taxi procured, we proceeded in the right general direction, but our driver's French was almost as halting as mine (like many, many people in Paris, his origins were uncertain), and he dropped us off at an Ibis hotel as requested; but malheureusement (unhappily) it was the wrong one, as a baffled reception desk looked for my pre-paid booking on the computer. So, we wound up with a kilometre or so of luggage dragging with map and compass in hand, and arriving hot and sweaty at the Ibis Bastille Opera Hotel.

The hotel presented some good aspects and some moments where I was ready to pull out some of the nastier words from the Bad French Dictionary (and my dear friends well know that I am slow to reach boiling point). It is in a side street not far from the Place Bastille, set back a little from the road, with a compact eating area painted with green paving paint to give the illusion of greenery. To complement this, two enormous red plastic plant pots guard the entrance doorway, illuminated at night. This is the area where smokers, exiled from their rooms by regulations, would sit on stubby little pebble-mix coated stumps, under the watchful eye of the security cameras, while adding their fags to the burdensome Parisian smog.

Inside, the breakfast room was ruled with an iron fist by alternately a Madame La Fargue character seeming quite ready to whip of the head of any guest whose "paid for breakfast" status could not be immediately confirmed, and later by a Chinese gentleman who was so abusive that I have been forced to make special mention of him in my post-stay feedback. As for the Ibis hotel, well, once upon a time we had a really pleasant stay in one at Avignon, where even though the kitchen was officially closed, they turned on a tasty meal for us and a warm welcome. Here: this one is for the birds. The dank corridors have not seen oxygen for many a year, with carpet worthy of a geriatric home. The monk's cell room size, with a bathroom somehow triangular in the shower preventing anyone of average size from even turning around. All this is supposedly compensated for by having free wi-fi, but even that tended to drop it's net connection at critical moments. As a semi-retired couple (given the current not so strong demand for over 55's) one has to choose an economy hotel, and some of them I have found to be really excellent and in many ways preferable to the bland, white bread offerings of the major chains. I would not rate this as my best choice ever. But enough Paris spleen. Here are my impressions of our visit to the City of Light.

Baudelaire wrote many poems that capture the schizoid nature of the city, so rich in beauty, yet in the next moment engulfing you in a sense of ugliness and despair. To paraphrase one of his Fleurs du Mal.... "Swarming antheap of a city, city full of dreams, where the spectre accosts the passer-by in broad daylight." After you have passed the thirtieth beggar of the day, and freaky, odd people have appeared and disappeared in the corner of your eye, all jostling for a euro or two, gypsy women sleeping with their legs poking out of a public telephone, three month old babe clutched in their arms, ludicrously overdressed in 30 degree plus heat, encampments of the homeless in every available public open space with the hollow promise of slight shelter, you begin to feel the deep resonance of those poems he dedicated to Paris in the mid nineteenth century. Although "cleaned up" it remains in many ways filthy, and by the end of the day, your skin feels tainted by ingrained grit that seems to fall from the overcooked and almost unbreathable air. The French word for shower being "douche", it must have been a douchebag who approved the dimensions of the Ibis shower where one at last removes most of this urban grit from one's skin.

Getting around Paris is simple yet nightmarish; the Metro, with it's elegant Art Deco entrances, becomes an underground where tormented souls wander in search of the right connecting line to get to where they want to go. The barriers require negotiating not only a turnstile, but then a push-door that briefly swings open with a jolt and gives you just enough time to go through. The range of vehicles that trundles through the underground demiworld is intriguing; one day we jumped on at Bastille Station in the front carriage to find we had the front seats of a driverless, fully automated train with an amazing view forward as the train twisted and turned below the streets. On our final day in Paris, I happened to notice a small, dead end tunnel with some kind of notice. On approaching I found I was looking at the few remaining stones from the Bastille after it was torn down in the French Revolution. Above ground, the site is dominated by a later monument to the communards of the 1830s and their rebellion, while the prison where it all got going has only this very humble sidebar in an out of the way corner of the metro station. At any rate ( and the going rate is about 6 euros for an all day ticket) the Metro is definitely the way to get across Paris in a hurry, avoiding lots of walking, but requires bearing up to some very stuffy, heat-retaining places, both vehicles and the stations. The tunnels that must be navigated to move from one line to the next are byzantine, some are very long, but once you crack the code of symbols on the signs, you can reliably find your way without too many dramas.

We walked along the Seine, observing the pleasure derived by the people of Paris from a heap of sand placed on the bank of the river, dubbed the Beaches of Paris. No swimming allowed. Lots of sunbathing and kids playing, showers and temporary toilets, and of course the inevitable itinerant vendors of drinks and dumb trinkets. At one point of our visit we encountered at least twenty African guys, each dangling scores of miniature Eiffel Towers of cheap Chinese knock off appearance, all eagerly clinking their shoddy wares at each pedestrian.

Notre Dame remains majestic and dripping with history. Here is Joan of Arc, her statue in pride of place, rehabilitated in the eyes of the church that condemned her to burn as a heretic. The sun leans down and pushes sparkling coloured beams of light from the stained glass windows. The pure voice of a woman rises with crystalline clarity into the high, arching ceiling, as she sings a hymn in French. A video screen lets us all get a close up view of the action. A priest is hard at it in the confessional, which is ready to hear sins in French or English, as required. We cool off in a nearby tiny park dating to the 18th century, and after a search find France's version of a memorial to the martyred Jews. This plays on the triangular patches the Nazis compelled them to wear, and creates a tightly claustrophobic structure using triangular concrete forms. There still seems to be some residual shame at how the Vichy collaborators assisted in the shipping out of so many to the death camps. Sadly, outside many of the primary schools, there are plaques indicating how many thousand children were lost from such and such a school district.

Next on our list of 'must sees' was the Rodin Museum. This is astonishing in the scope and depth of what one man can achieve in a lifetime, with so many of his works in one place, showing his evolution from a Michaelangelo-like ability to make marble seem like flesh to a modern take on ancient themes. Heads emerge organically from rough hewn blocks, as if they had been there eternally and Rodin has merely revealed them. There was a temporary exhibition showing many of his lesser-known but fabulous works, all a real treat to see. Moving into the actual Rodin museum, which was his house towards the end of his life, a grand place that for many years harboured a range of arty types including Isadora Duncan, the dancer, Rainer Maria Rilke and many other famous bohemians. To cap it off, there were three Van Goghs and a Munch (of The Thinker) hanging casually on the walls, included in Rodin's gifts of all his work to the nation about a year before his death. This museum, together with its beautiful garden and grounds, is so much more than a place for tourists to snap the Thinker with their i-Phones. It is a unique legacy that anyone who admires fine art must go to and explore at leisure.

Drained by our afternoon with Rodin, M rested (well, she had to get on with one of those Swedish Girl with a whatever books) and I set off for a short stroll to check out the Pere la Chaise Cemetery. This is of course renowned as the resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and other 'celebrity dead'. It's a huge place, rising up on one of the steeper hills of Paris, filled with trees, shady winding alleyways between the thousands of tombs. I could find the Acacia Lane that the cemetery map said was where young Jim was planted, but for the life of me I couldn't track him down in this crowded city of the dead. This was of no great concern for me, as I was fascinated to learn a little of the cemetery's origins. Named after the priest who was Louis IV's confessor, when first established no one wanted to be buried there. Too far out of town. Hadn't been consecrated properly. Pfff! So, a marketing campaign had to be established - 18th century style. The authorites exhumed and brought to Pere La Chaise the remains of two giants of French literature: Jean de la Fontaine, the writer of Aesop's fables (you may remember him from Year 7 French class if you were awake) and Moliere, the dramatist whose works such as Le Malade Imaginaire are still cracking up audiences with laughter today. Their bones are set side by side in coffin like stone boxes raised above the ground. This dash of celebrity really moved things along, and today their are somewhere between one and three million remains within the cemetery's bounds. Tiny little shrines, many shared by multiple families, tall but so tiny that only one person can step inside these spooky structures to say or prayer, or simply be thankful they don't have to stay for the night... or longer.

Last time we were in Paris, we overdid the grand museums, and let;s face it, after tramping through the twentieth vast Louvre room lined with massive canvasses of undoubted virtuosity and lots of horses and generals and kings, the brain does a little fizzle and stops in its tracks. If one is to take it in with any justice to the artists, it must be taken in like medicine, in regulated doses. So having been awash in Rodin's genius (as I can say, his facility with marble and bronze makes these solid things into something miraculously fluid) we determined that instead we would do some idle wandering in certain neighbourhoods to see where the locals hang out, and far fewer of the louder variety of tourists are to be found, filling the pizzerias and burger joints that the evil collaborators in the demise of fine cuisine have set up to feed these same travellers. And so two of the nearby areas: Le Maraise and St Germaine des Pres.

Le Marais was clearly very different to the area around the Bastille. Instead of ten shops selling motorcycle helmets and accessories, there were perhaps fifteen shops selling drums and guitars. We strolled down Beaumarchais Boulevarde, where the original Mr Beaumarchais owned numbers 2 to 20, now comprising a whole city block. When he died he was buried within his own domain - but his remains were lost within twenty years of his demise, when a property developer carved it up into a profitable little set of smaller properties.

The streets of Le Marais (literally The Marsh, as it once would have been when it sloped down to a Seine without stone lined banks) are lined with stone facaded shops dominated by fashion and art galleries, some of which was quite attractive and vastly superior to the derivative junk offered in the flea markets that pop up under rollout roofing at certain times of the week. And the giant Lego men and women that were available, the more you buy the cheaper they become, were visually compelling. I just wonder if, like the little Lego men, their faces eventually start to be wiped off by wear, often leaving a peculiar half face. I know that some of you - yes, you know who you are - have compared my own appearance to that of a Lego man, when kitted up in motorcycle gear, only able to move my limbs stiffly and without a trace of gracefulness.

We arrived at a little park to see how the Parisians cope with a hot summer day. What they do is find a personal space equidistant from the rest within the absolutely symmetrical, man made layout, with four identical fountains, one in each corner, with avenues of modestly sized trees so trimmed that they form a continuous canopy above the fine gravel of the paths. To each person, there appears an entitlement to either a lover or at least two dogs. Sunscreen seems not in favour, and since hot sun has been present since we arrived here, the burn marks are starting to show, with many local shoulders sporting a degree of redness that most Australians would now take care to avoid. Just beyond the park sits the house formerly owned by Victor Hugo, one of the giants of French literature and author of Les Miserables (the novel, not the musical of course). This is now a museum devoted to Hugo, though as it was closed we could not enter if we had so wished. It became quite a joke between us, every time we turned and looked at something the name of Victor Hugo seemed to be on it. Boulevardes, Rues, statues in parks and of course multiple busts of the fellow by Rodin. This dude has his name on more things than Donal Trump ever will, no matter how much he spends.

On the following day we crossed the Seine to explore the St Germaine-des-Pres locality. I had thought that this supposed to be the bohemian end of town, but the streets close to the river seem fairly mundane, much like walking down Burke Rd, Camberwell. But looking up a side street I spied the outline of the Pantheone, so directed our steps up a rather steep hill to have a look. The Pantheone, with its huge,majestic columns supporting a massive dome, is France's answer to Westminster Abbey in the sense that if you made it big in French society, you probably got buried here. Think Voltaire, etc.
Opposite is the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris. The adjacent building appeared to have the names of major contributors to French thought, ranging from the ancient Greeks and Romans to more recent fellows from just a few centuries back.

Walking on, we came to the famous Luxembourg Gardens, leftovers from the adjacent Palais de Luxembourg, a former Royal Seat. Again, formality and tightly geometric layouts and constant trimming of the vegetation into strict formality seemed to be de rigeur. Little signs warned everyone to stay off la pelouse (the lawns), and we found this to be demonstrated in practise when we hear a little 'Pe pe; from a gendarmed du parc who used his whistle to alert some daring people who had dared to lie down on the greenery. They beat a hasty retreat as he paced purposefully towards them, ready to pull out his notebook and make an official report of their transgressions. I can only hope they made out of the park unscathed.

The park is surely the place for lovers to court unimpeded by officialdom. Yet here, only a narrow, long strip of grass was allowed for such activities, which made the process seem all the more ridiculous. So many young couples, crammed into one little area, while gravel paths and gendarmes swallowed up virtually all the space left among the hundreds of statues of dead kings, queens, and their various supporters and favourites. With a shallow pond reflecting the faded glory of the rulers of the past, the garden of Luxembourg is all about viewing the power and prestige of the high and mighty from a certain distance. An entertaining visit, yet one felt that somehow the people of Paris are still being deprived of their entitlement to roll about on cool, soft grass as they wish. It is all so circumscribed by officialdom and a deeply conservative over-structured attitude of controlling the individual. It makes our Melbourne parks seem like bastions of freedom

As for Le Tour Eiffel, I at last achieved my goal of ascending it, to the second level at least. This pilgrimage, like most, comes with its own forms of penance. The queue is long; and is this the right queue? Does this queue go to the ticket office for the elevators, or does it go to the ticket office for those who dare to walk up the stairs? At first I thought it was the latter; eventually, while M kept place, I scouted ahead and found that we were in fact in the queue for the ascenceurs (lifts). Emboldened by my dogged conquest of Cologne cathedral, I had thought I would do the same here. But the sun beat down without mercy, and I was kind of glad that I would have the assistance of electrical motors to make the ascent equivalent to about 550 steps. This would take me directly to the second level of the tower, high enough for me. To go higher is to reach heights where the features on the ground become so small as to defeat the purpose of viewing Paris spread out like a Sim City all around you.

Miriam felt that her vertigo would not make it possible for her to go so high, and so she opted to find a shady spot by the duck pond and read her novel for a while. After an hour or so, I reached the ticket window and made my purchase. Next, through the security screening room where all must empty their pockets and have their bags rifled through by large gentlemen who dealt with large numbers of people in minimal time. And so to the waiting room adjacent to the double-decker lifts, until it was my turn to be ushered hurriedly into the lift. In former times the lifts were driven hydraulically with pistons and fluid pressure, but now electricity drives us upwards in about one minute and forty seconds. A life size mannequin of one of the former lift jockeys sits outside the cabin - what a demanding job that must have been.

Arriving at the second level, there are souvenir shops, places to get your souvenirs engraved, even toilets, strange, triangular little cubicles ruled over by a multilingual mistress of stern toiletary discipline. In this multilingual crowd with excitable bladders, she rules with an iron fist.
"Hombres!" she almost shouts, "Due!" indicating two fortunate males, including myself, might step inside and relief the pressure that comes from drinking lots of water in a long, hot queue. Relieved, I move out to the viewing platform, lightly caged with gaps large enough for any camera to poke through. Also many a teenage head was inserted through the metal grid, and many I-Phone portraits of the same.

And there, all around, is Paris, reaching out to the horizon in all directions, a monster of a city, yet human in scale. In one direction, the skyscrapers confined like young upstarts to the area named La Defense. That was an area we needed to know because it is at one end of the Metro line we used just about every time we wanted to get back to our hotel. At the other end of the line, Chateau de Vincennes, unfortunately not visited this time; the place where kings of France were buried until Louis IV wanted a grander shack and had the Palace of Versailles constructed in what was then a little way out of town. From this eyrie you can gaze down at the broad boulevards carving up the land in orderly segments as demanded by Napoleon and executed by Baron Haussman, who got to have a boulevard named after himself as a result. These innovative roads built by decree and design required shoving aside whoever and whatever was in the way, resulting in the displacement of the poor and their slums and hovels especially. An unarticulated part of Napoleon's demand was that he wanted to be able to move soldiers quickly through the city to quell any civil disturbance.

What Paris shares with London is that sense of buildings that are stylish and grand, but not overly huge. The styles of construction are generally consistent, forming a pattern that is pleasing to the eye, not chaotic and discordant like many of the world's larger cities. The eye lingers over the river and the green patches interspersed among the closely build streets, and finds an overall harmony that the efforts of millions of people have together built over nearly two thousand years. I think of the fishermen who gathered shellfish from the Seine, and captured wild pigs, about three thousand years BC: their traces are preserved in the crypt below Notre Dame, further down than the remains of Roman buildings. From this height, Paris appears organic, living, and likely to be here for a long, long time to come.

From the second level, there are stairs by which the more ambitious could go even further up; or queue up again (and I thought queueing was an English habit) to take a second lift to close to the very top. For myself, I was well satisfied with about 20 minutes of gazing and photographing in all directions, and to then descend with amazing quickness to ground level.

So, our time in Paris drew to an end. The capital is frenetic, everyone is stressed and hurrying, from the cabbies to the cleaners to the cooks.
There is no time to breathe, and if you do, the air is thick and hard to get into your lungs, and once there it seems to solidify. We needed air.
Fortunately, our next stop will be by the seaside, at La Rochelle on the south west coast. We hope there will be a sea breeze bringing freshness and release from the wound-up spring that is Paris in the summer.

Posted by piepers 13:53 Archived in France Tagged paris eiffel tour st notre dame marais rodin germain-des-pres Comments (0)

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