Sunday, 30 June 2013

France Daily VI: Le Retour

The final in the daily blogs, my chaotic but grateful return.

I needed to get a cab, to board a train, to take a minibus, to board the aeroplane home. Easy right. No way.

Getting a cab inside a medieval city: As it turns out medieval cities weren't designed to be wide enough to pass lorries. So any cab you order may well get stuck behind a lorry unloading before or after you jump in. Not too bad in my case, just 10 mins late.

Boarding a train in France: First buy your ticket, with 3 people ahead of you in the queue and only 10 mins til the train leaves. Navigate a French ticket master who clearly sees neither your urgency nor your luggage and asks if you've got another 10 cents for the change. Congratulate yourself on making it to the platform with a whole 6mins to spare only to discover its one of those platforms split in two and that's your train 200ft away and with only 2 mins to departure. Cue running. And this bruise from the Chateauneuf bottles bashing your leg as you run.

 (the price you pay for good wine!)

To take a minibus: I arrived at Nimes station with plenty of time to spare. So, half an hour before the little shuttle bus was due to leave I decided to work out where it left from. Supposedly easy - the map of the station 'clearly' showed its location, so I looked around the locale and there were neither signs nor bus shelters for this bus. I asked the 'station info' point - he had no idea. I went out and checked again. Nothing. Just as I lost hope, a bus drew past me - the shuttle! I successfully boarded the only shuttle bus to leave Nimes that day. He waited 3.5 mins for any passengers before moving on. Not a big window of opportunity by any means. I had thought all my worrying would then be over, but the route the driver took out of the city was very different to that which I had taken just 6 days previously. We were heading towards 'Garons' with the airport sign. Then when we got there the departure lounge looked so different to the airport I had left that I actually asked the driver if I was at Nimes airport. Luckily for me he said yes (and rolled his eyes)

To board the aeroplane home: This bit was actually very easy, my bags came in underweight, there was plenty of time for me to eat Haribo - albeit with a disappointingly large amount of licorice in it -  drink coke and indulge in other habits of a balanced lifestyle! All was calm again until England I was running again for a train to central London and once liberated of my baggage, to see my sister's  show.

(healthy diet)

The South of France in summary:
Sunny, disregards health and safety, has a penchant for castle-like abbeys, good taste in theatre, coastlines and amazing wine, appreciates fine pastries, contains donkeys, requires a car really, has a sensational mistral wind, scented by lavender, olive oil and broom plant. Not bad for a week off.

As this blog marks the end of my holiday normal weekly(ish) service will be resuming next week. For now, thanks for reading.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

France Daily V: Palais et Villeneuve

Today I decided to stay fairly local to Avignon itself, exploring its famous UNESCO protected Palais des Papes and the nearby town of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon.

Palais des Papes

The Palais is a massive palace built by the Popes, primarily in the fourteenth century. It is a large fortified space with all of the characteristics of a castle, stores for money and food, a Great Hall for entertaining, large walls for defence. As usual I bought an audio guide, unlike the tour of Nimes Amphitheatre this tour focussed on explaining what was on show in a historical context or with heed of the archaeology, much less interested in creating a narrative to spark the imagination. 

One clever feature of the tours was that the videos installed around the building were auto-synched with the headsets meaning that not everyone in the room was subject to the noise and all visitors were able to watch the video with audio in their own language. They also made heavy use of the touch screen capability of the audio guides to show more content. 

My criticisms: 1. The route around the Palais was not easy to follow, often having to guess which way to turn for the next step, this wouldn’t have been a problem if not for, 2. The centre of the Palais was full of staging, as at Nimes and thus you had to trust the route to know you hadn’t missed anything, 3. The art exhibition at the site, included bits of dead horse in the chapel - I’m note sure about that. 4. on the audio commentary they kept telling you the room’s ornaments weren’t original - either get some that are or mention it once - the cumulative effect of telling us every time made me think, ‘is anything here original?’

(Palais des Papes)

Leaving Avignon behind me I ruminated on the reality that most of intra-mural Avignon is UNESCO protected - and how, just at Djenne, that will have both supported the town (through tourism) and limited it - all the roads are really narrow - too narrow for road transport really, most housing is 18th century or older. If you are an inhabitant of the city both the tourists and the lack of infrastructure can be quite frustrating…


Crossing the river on the modern Pont d’Avignon I walked to the town of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. Lonely Planet said it was like Avignon without the crowds. Whilst walking Avignon’s battlements I had seen several buildings that looked interesting so decided to seek them out - at first merely heading in the ‘right’ direction. As at Marseille this decision to go off book, didn’t pay dividends. I ended up walking a very long way round for some mediocre views and several main roads. The stripey building was nice though. Reconciled to my need to start again I came across a far better path. Containing amongst other things a windmill, a tower and a donkey! The Phillipe le Bel tower was a mere snip at just 1.50€ with my Avignon tourist pass) and provided an amazing panorama of Avignon and the surrounding region, you all know how I love climbing towers by now. 

(Hello Donkey)

After I had greeted the donkey in the appropriate fashion I found the old town which had previously eluded me and stopped for a bit of lunch. I had goats cheese and fig chutney and a lot of slightly pretentious lemonade. Chic Picnic were very accommodating. Feeling like myself again I found the Abbey and Gardens (cheaper than Avignon again at just 5.50€, and without the crowds) were the source of all those fortifications so visible from the battlements of Avignon. I also found another abbey (Chartreaux - 13th century and similarly fortified) but requesting 7€ entry fee at 4pm I gave it a miss and instead stumbled upon the Olive Mill - what a find! 

In this part of the world olive oil is a big deal and the restrictions on its quality are similar to the restrictions on wine - the best have appelations. With both better quality and lower prices than Avignon’s tourist district I made the most of buying presents here. And then trotted back to Avignon about  45 mins walk, and only requires taking your life in your hands once or twice. Get a bus, the number 5 will take you!

With Villeneuve once again I rued my lack of car transport which would have made all the difference, enabling me to jump between sites with ease, but again whether I’d have had the confidence to drive on such inclines and between such narrow passages I am less sure. I could definitely have spent longer in Villeneuve but after a while all these papal fortifications start to blur into one like a never ending game of Carcassonne and its time to go home.

Quick note: Cinema Utopia

We went to this Art Cinema tonight, excellent things included; no need to pre-book, not extortionate entry fee (6.50€ each), choice and selection, running 20 different films most days across 4 different times meant there were plenty of options, unique location close to the Palais and with plenty of fine art to line the walls. I was less keen on Jesus and the cherubs who were the last thing you see as the lights dim and the first thing to reappear as the credits roll - bit creepy. 

Tomorrow the return to English soil.

Friday, 28 June 2013

France Daily IV: Chateauneuf

Today I thought I’d invest in my heritage and go on a wine tour; when in the south of France…

I booked the tour from the local tourist office a few days before and then a sleek black minicab picked me up at 9 am. Its a full day’s work this wine tasting malarky. I was joined on the tour by 5 americans including one who claimed she was English because she lived in London, I know.

For the modest (!) sum of 110€ we had a comprehensive chauffeur service including the setting of our seating, ‘you are on vacation!’, a tour of the local wine museum (its free to visit), a lesson in wine tasting and visiting 4 vineyards. I think if you had access to a car and had done your research in advance you could probably have done the whole thing yourself with much less cost. Driving through the village of Chateauneuf just pick a sign that looks interesting, park in the drive and have a ‘dégustation gratuit’ in the salesrooms. The benefit of the tour was access to a car (I was on public transport - it would have been pretty tiring on a bike!), the wine tasting session and going to see the caves. I guess the sommelier wisdom also played its part too but to what degree I don’t know.

(messing about in the vineyards)

The wine tasting lesson itself was hilarious - some aspects of it were infinitely practical - telling age by colour and taste. The description of flavour however seemed farcical, you can claim it smells like anything you want it to - including peaches, leather, smoke or indeed grapes, as long as you can attach it to a scent ‘family’. Similarly the last smell test when the wine is gone, for which you have to raise your glass like a trumbone possibly added for comedic effect.

One of my favourite parts of the day was lunch. We went to a little place right next to the Popes summer-house called Le Verger des Papes. With the Rhone, mountains and endless rows of vines as a backdrop the food is just so vibrant, vine tomatoes, chickens with herbes de provence and of course plenty of Chateauneuf.

(not a bad view!)

There was always the opportunity to buy and I regret not buying La Fiole du Pape, not just because it comes in a funny wobbly bottle but because it had a lovely fruity flavour (hyporitical I know). If you’re interested I bought one red and one white Chateauneuf from Roger Sabon, I didn’t know until today that you could white Chateauneuf apparently its a bit unusual. Neither of those will be drinkable for a little while, so into the cellar they go. I also bought a Rasteau because I like sweet dessert wines. 

(Wine Caves Chateauneuf)

In all I enjoyed learning new things about wine and the commaraderie of jumping in the minibus - for a lone traveller definitely a benefit. Tomorrow - Palais des Papes, Villeneuf lez Avignon and the impact of UNESCO, maybe a film too we’ll see. For now, santé!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

France Daily III: Avignon

I ought to start my description of Avignon with  our dinner last night. My charming host took me to a cute little French place specialising in tartines. Ginette et Marcel came thrice recommended by my host, Trip Advisor and my Lonely Planet guide and understandably so! The food was excellent; I had goats cheese and honey, the three cheese and pear was also grand, the wine was lovely. We stayed for pudding and coffee, and didn´t faint when we saw the bill! The atmosphere was great too- gently kitsch, no pretence and the service none too in your face.

(A slice of Ginette et Marcel)

This morning I set off in search of a local french patisserie, I failed and ended up in an incredibly touristy place. I did however convince them that no I didn´t want to eat my over priced croissant on their terrace. I did enjoy a little reading and typing croissant in hand - that´s the dream isn´t it?

Avignon Tourist Office produce a map booklet with three key routes through the town. I followed their blue route of Mansions and Monasteries through the city. It started at a lovely little free municipal museum. An enjoyable diversion but nothing to write home about. The rest of the route was very picturesque, a great excuse to play with all the settings on my new camera. That said, the scale of the map was such that half the important road names, where one must turn left or right, were omitted - you could spot people on this walking tour as they stood dumbfounded at a dead end! So top marks for free tourist resources in a gorgeous location, but poor follow through on the detail.

(Pretty Avignon)

The route led me to the garden of the Palais des Papes. The garden is a stunning location and a must-see you can even walk part of the city walls here. It provides amazing views of the surrounding area up to the snow capped mountains in the distance, the sister town of Villeneuf-les-Avignon, the Rhone beneath you and a myriad of tourists attempting to dance on the famous Pont d'Avignon. Up on this promontory the mistral is really strong - driving through the Rhone Valley it whipped my hair into a frenzy and I felt so alive! The mistral really is kind, blowing away clouds, taking the bite off the summer heat and creating the ideal weather for great wine! I returned to the garden at sunset, hoping for picturesque photos of the Palais in the setting sun but instead found hawkers and danger. I have always promised to be sensible, so as soon as I sensed trouble I came home by the quickest known route.

(The Rhone, The Pont, The Palais)

I intend to explore the Palais and Villeneuf village more fully later this week but for now that´s all because tomorrow the field of the Chateauneuf await!

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

France Daily: Part II Marseille

After yesterdays exploits in Nimes today I went to Marseille.

I boarded a rather expensive regional train (40€ return) and ran the gauntlet of only a cursory look at my Lonely Planet before heading off. With a rough ticklist - the Vieux Port and the Med - in my mind, I boarded the train. Sometimes I prefer to travel without a guide or  map and follow my nose, sometimes this time it led me straight to ´Grotty Marseille´, down at heel, full of beggars and somewhat lacking in charm. So my first recommendation for Marseille is when you arrive, feel free to take a photo of the pretty station and then board the Metro - easy to do with self service machines, fairly cheap and will save you pain.

Go to the Vieux Port (just 2 stops) its a gorgeous harbour surrounded by Phonecian outcrops, castles and abbeys. There also lots of places offering ´authentic seafood´especially Bouillabaisse - these are pretty effective tourist traps but depends what you are after I guess.

(Vieux Port from the Jardin du Pharo)

 I walked from the Vieux Port round to Porte de l´Orient which seems to be a war memorial to Kennedy. The coast was wild and beautiful because the wind was up, but not the sort of day for sitting on the beach. I also stopped at the pretty Jardin du Pharo which seems to double up as a botanical garden. Great views especially as Bas Fort St Nicholas was shut. I got the bus back - turns out the tickets for public transport are  transferrable - like an oyster card.

(Kennedy´s Door)

Making my way to the 2nd quarter was the best decision I made all day. I stopped at a gorgeous restaurant (l´Effet Clochette - Place des Augustines) intending to have something small but ended up having fresh sardines, rose- petal icecream and then coffee because the food, and the company were so good. I met a lovely couple from San Diego who were struggling because their google app couldnt translate handwritten french on a blackboard - first world problems! We enjoyed swapping unmissable sites and I hope they go on to visit the lavender fields of Provence.

I really enjoyed the old town of Marseille, loads of winding roads with faded shutters, an invitation to dance, emblazoned on a wall, even the old workhouse building is beautiful. The Cathedral Major looked lovely from outside, I assume it is great inside too but like all of France it seems God doesn´t work Mondays either!

As I say, Marseille has a lot to offer, if you look in the right places, 2nd and 7th arondissements were great, avoid 1st arondissement at all costs! Oh and beware the pickpockets, especially in the train station.

(Old Marseille, dance, and Cathedral Major)

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

My French Diary: Episode I

Nimes: who needs health and safety anyway!

So this is me, living the French dream, blogging from an apartment, croissant in hand. I thought by way of an apology for my lack of blogging I´d produce some daily updates for you complete with pictures.

One of the advantages to travelling light is that when you land at an out of town airport you can still explore. I boarded a shuttle bus, cribbing from my Lonely Planet as I travelled, and trying not to meet the eyes of the English Nationalist: complete with patriotic tattoos, England shirt and England bag.

Once in Nimes I headed up the main thoroughfare towards this statue, conscious of how very touristy I looked with all my worldly goods on my back and then I saw it, the amphitheatre. It is the most complete Roman Amphitheatre in the world and it stands at 70ft tall. With time to spare and money to burn I paid a visit.

(for scale, the building on the left is 3 storeys high!)

 * Comprehensive audio guide in English including as many ´more info´ buttons as you could wish for. Background on the town, Roman culture and the Amphitheatre itself
* Unparalled access to the site. In England the majority of the places we walked would have been out of bounds for health and safety reasons.
* Brilliant views
* An attempt at ´Gladiator experience´by transforming one room into a Gladitorial chamber

* The whole theatre was full of staging equipment which probably funds the place being open but to the detriment of the visitor experience
* Lack of walking assistance particularly handrails - maybe I just need to grow a pair but the tiers were 1.5ft deep so I was clambering as opposed to walking up them. And once stood up the wind strength was high. Also they had very steep inclines in places.
* No safety bars either - nothing between you and a 4 storey drop  at times - lovely photos, scary implications especially for the lady taking a stroll along the top at 70 feet!

(Can you see the crazy lady?!)

This laid back attitude to health and safety was refreshing and yet also terrifying, especially with numerous kids running around and ladies considering stilletos fine discovery equipment! After this I became reaquainted with a Chinese/Canadian tourist and we swapped notes on the train. It felt really good to arrive in Avignon!

(Note swapping with China)

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Freiburg and Guildford: Twinned Cities

Freiburg: City of faces
I went to Freiburg because my friend May was going there. I have to say I didn't really know about its history but I sure did enjoy it. Think cobbled streets, with gentle inclines in the towns, mountains in the background. I enjoyed visiting the Gothic minster (we didn't climb the tower as the weather was bad), eating würste, buying curiosities in the Minster Market and drinking cocktails in the evening. Whilst exploring we came across numerous anthropomorphic faces from mermaids, to gargoyles and lions.

Cocktails always aid creativity - my fruit boats

The Augustiner Museum; a modern museum considering the art and culture of Freiburg from the Baroque through to the modern-day is a real treasure. Their stock is vast with tapestries, the most representations of Jesus I've ever seen as well as an organ, stained glass windows and gargoyles to boot! Although the content was really old, the layout was very modern and designed to purpose. The gargoyles were positioned so you could see them from a distance as they would be in situ but also close-up from the gallery.

Secondly, I wanted to tell you about a bookshop I visited. I don't know how you feel about bookshops.  For me, the smell of antique bookshop is like catnip (to a cat!). I cannot resist.
I looked in the window and knew I had to go in.

I asked May to restrain me.

We went in. They had loads of books on Anthropology and Material Culture and several travel books arranged according to locality. One book we found was a Baedecker of the Rhine Land from 1939. It was geographically relevant and was full of references to the Glory of Hitler - quite an unusual discovery! Unfortunately the price was also outside the usual range for my trip - aka all my euros. So I left the shop, but not before I bought this postcode from 1906!

From Freiburg with love - the message is written in pencil round the outside!

Guildford: Heritage, public and private
I visited my friend Bec and spent several hours exploring. There are lots of historical buildings in Guildford centre from the Tudor Rose Restaurant to the Alms Houses, Holy Trinity church, and Abbots Hospital. I found something to climb, this time a Norman Castle tower! I paid £3 to view an exhibition, watch a video (from 1995!) and then climb the tower - this seemed a reasonable fee for the upkeep of such ancient heritage. I don't really know when, or why this obsession with climbing high ancient things came about. I can't help but wonder whether it has something to do with being so small and always looking up at things. There's something quite novel about observing cities from above.

Next I walked out to Guildford Cathedral, passing the road where my grandparents used to live. There were a few subtle changes. The road sign now featured a subtitle 'no access to university' and at the bottom of the road a shisha bar had opened. I wondered what my Grandpa would have made of those changes.

Guildford Cathedral itself is not like many of the other places of worship I visit. It was originally designed in 1930 and was finally completed in the 1960's. The angels on the entrance to the nave were strangely reminiscent of the angels at Coventry, turns out they are both designed by John Hutton. Usually when I visit a Cathedral it is for its Medieval history, the sanctity of ancient places of worship and of course a decent church tower. This time my visit was incredibly personal; my grandfather was a Cathedral Guide and it was a really special place for him. Sat in the Lady Chapel I found myself transported back to my own experiences some 12 years ago at my grandmother's funeral. That too is a history and a heritage, but a much more personal one; it is mine I have both ownership and authorship over it. Not everyone gets a museum or exhibition in honour of their history.

Finally, sorry for disappearing on you all! My weekends have been manic. There has been much to discuss: I've read 4 great books, done lots of thinking on social action and exploitation, experimented with poetry at the seaside and taken 2 people on exciting tours of London over the last 6 weeks. I am not sure there will be time to write on all of these. Especially as I am off to France in just over a week!