Provence, part 1

It’s hard to play favourites with places that you visit on holiday; each one stands out in its own way, bringing you find memories and tastes that keep calling you back. One such place is Provence, a region in the south east of France. It was once the first area taken over by the Romans outside of Italy, their first province, thus its name. They no doubt had to bash through hordes of Celts and Gauls to establish their neat little towns, and on our journey we were faced with similarly obstreperous natives; the French rail network.

A quick search to confirm the name shows that there is another strike underway, though I imagine that the many people who are staring at timetables in stations and angrily calling helplines won’t be as lucky as we turned out to be. We found out our pre-booked tickets had been refunded on the morning of our departure, and as she had to rush off for work and say her goodbyes, our host advised us to just turn up at the station and see if another train turns up, or in the worst case hire a car and drive down. So off we went, and lo and behold there was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so a sprint and a scramble around later and we were in first class, on seats left open by friends of travellers who had not turned up. We left a few hours earlier than intended on a faster train, for free, so in all, the strike worked out pretty well for us.

Avignon in the evening

Avignon in the evening

Upon our arrival in Avignon, the temperature rose from the foggy, jumper-needing 15 in Paris to shorts and t-shirt weather. Driving through the twisting streets, past the warm coloured walls and wide river, it felt almost like another country. Our accommodation itself was also very different. For a bit of a difference, we’d rented a gypsy caravan for our stay, which sat in someone’s chicken-ful yard and was bright yellow and purple. It had everything we needed, though in a reduced size and was definitely the most unique Airbnb place we’ve stayed in so far.

That afternoon we wandered around Avignon, admiring the Papal palace and views of the hills and valleys in the distance, as the sun set. For dinner we went to a restaurant that had been recommended online, which should serve as an example to not always believe what you read. After being told they were booked out, we were grudgingly taken to one of the empty tables almost on the street, left for ages, given different menus to the rest of the guests who gradually arrived, not offered anything to drink other than water and generally ignored. I’d have been less annoyed if the food had been decent, but I wasn’t, and on top of that felt disappointed that the stereotype for rudeness was true in at least one occasion.

The bridge of Avignon

The bridge of Avignon

So how do you follow such a day of ups and downs? You have a Roman holiday.

Our first stop was the well deservedly famous Pont du Gard. Since my partner’s last visit years ago, tourism around it had taken off, so it was only after crossing a huge carpark, paying a fee, getting through the shops and a walk through paths and gardens that we got our first glimpse of the aqueduct. It was awe inspiring, both in the size and craftsmanship, and purpose.

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

The Romans built menuments such as this to work, for a functional purpose, but also to impose themselves on the landscape so that wherever you were in the Empire, you knew that Rome was there. It was impressive from every angle, and dwarfed all of the tourists and staff and little shops built nearby, as it had no doubt dwarfed the slaves who built it, the legions who marched past it and the people centuries later who wondered if it had been built by giants.

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Next we visited Nîmes, which is a gorgeous town that I think puts Avignon in the shade in regards to elegance. Walking along its tree lined boulevards and past fountains, we saw the arena, which seemed almost entirely intact. Inside we saw that it was being set up to host a concert, the original seating, walkways and arena floor still serving the purpose they had been built for.

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

From a vantage point in the top tier, there was a wonderful view over the city, with pigeons soaring and cathedrals and ancient towers rising up and beyond them the hills.

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Not imagining this could be topped, we next found the Maison Carrée. Though long since stripped of the bright paint and gold, it looked almost intact, a beautiful temple that glowed in the afternoon light. It has been a house, a church, a stable and a granary, and still stands as if it had never been touched. Exquisite is a good word for it. If you think I’m waxing a bit too lyrical, I urge you to visit it, and then say I’m wrong.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

It also made me wonder what else had been lost to history, what other beauty had been torn down and the sorts of people and situations that bring that about.

The ceiling of the outer collonade

The ceiling of the outer collonade

Out next stop was Arles, but as we drove I noticed something on the map that had inexplicably escaped my notice before. With a slight change of direction we went off the main road, and arrived at our destination as thunder began to roll on the horizon. Our destination was a replica Roman winery, built on and around an ancient winery, and which was still in production. We were left to explore the centre ourselves, taking in the info about amphorae, wine production and the history of the site. We then found the pressing room, which has a massive tree beam hung above a press, with winches and pulleys, basins for the wine and grape mush and huge amphorae buried in the ground. Every year there is a harvest on the site, with workers and volunteers in costume, who then press the grapes by foot, operate the equipment and create wine following ancient recipes.

The press at Mas des Tourelles

The press at Mas des Tourelles

It was all fascinating and I was giddy with the reality of it, even more so when we were offered tasting, which were included in all visits. Obviously tastes have changed over the millenia, but the herbs, spices, sweetness and saltiness were marvelous to experience, and we left with smiles and bottles of our own, glad we had the opportunity to try this completely unique experience.

Then to finish off our day, we had dinner in Arles, which for my was a plate full of crustacea. Though my partner’s face went white as I offered him meaty lumps of sea snail, I got through the whole thing – and the whole experience far exceeded our first night in Provence.

Seafood extravaganza

Seafood extravaganza

Walking through the town we saw another arena, a bit smaller but still imposing and many cobbled streets and a busker. What overlaid everything was the scent of jasmine, which hung heavily in the evening air, the flowers themselves growing around and into houses and walls.

Jasmine in Arles

Jasmine in Arles

Paris

I have lost track of the weeks we’ve been back in Australia, at some point I stopped counting. It was probably the point at which our life here hit its rhythm, and we started to feel as though this was normal, as though we hadn’t lived anywhere else. Hearing a Swedish accent, seeing birch trees, even the nonsensical names at IKEA, all bring the last few years back with a jolt. I remember that routine, those people I saw everyday, the changes faces of the lake and when that life was the normal one.

It’s sinking in. Until it does completely, here’s the next part of our trip across Europe.

***

What can you say about Paris? Glamour, selfies at the Eiffel Tower, fashion, monuments, cafes chairs on the sunny pavements, rarefied sense of culture. All true, and you’d think enough to make it cringey, but Paris can really pull being Paris off. With aplomb.

Paris in clouds

Paris in clouds

We had both been to Paris before, though not together, so there was no rush from either of us to head to the main sites. I had spent 9 hours in the Louvre, which was enough for this decade, so instead we caught the subway to the Opera stop and let our feet lead us from there. At Gallery Lafayette I bought a beautiful jar of salt, mixed with rose petals and herbs, and soaked in the luxurious smells of chocolate, pastry, tea and other delicacies.

Salt in Gallery Lafayette

Salt in Gallery Lafayette

Then the Madeleine, the gold tip of the obelisk on Place de la Concorde, a glimpse of the Tower over the river and a traipse up Champs-Élysées. There were still tourists overloaded with shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, and Parisians buying everyday clothes from H&M, and the mad chaos of the Arc du Triomphe roundabout.

The high level of the streams and multitude of puddles we’d seen on the train through France came back to us as we crossed the Seine. The river had overflowed the lower embankments, straining the ropes tying boats to shore and climbing steadily up the shins of the bridges. The next day it would pass the knees, and after we left our host was evacuated from her workplace as the water continued to rise. For us it was a novelty of a sort, something to remark on and worry about on behalf of our friend, but for those who didn’t know if tomorrow would wash away their livelihoods, it was a very different reality. On the news were families whose houses were flooded, but here in Paris the shops were selling little Eiffel Towers and the outward face of the city was unchanged, if dampened.

The Seine rising

The Seine rising

Leaving the rising river behind us, we made our way to the tower, where we found that the queues were much too long. In particular, the queue for the lift. Well then, we thought, we’re in decent condition and have all four of our legs working, so what’s stopping us from joining the much shorter queue for the stairs? We found out about halfway up, as my vertigo peaked and our knees liquefied. We did make it though, and were rewarded with the spectacle of Paris spread out around us. Somehow we made it back to our host’s apartment after that, knees a’knockin’, and enjoyed a wonderful Parisian picnic and at least one glass of wine each.

On the second day I finally fulfilled my wish to visit Cafe des Deux Moulins, which will be instantly recognisable to those who have seen the 2001 film Amélie. It was pretty much like in the film, and the owners weren’t shy about capitalising on that, so among the locals were tourists taking subtle or not so subtle selfies with the film poster or the familiar bar. I restrained myself out of shyness, and instead took a parting shot as we left, trying to avoid the crowds.

Sacré-Cœur from the Eiffel Tower

Sacré-Cœur from the Eiffel Tower

While in Montmartre we climbed up to Sacré-Cœur, and were accosted by intimidating groups of men trying to scam tourists. We had to be pushy to avoid them, and even then were frightened. Hakuna matata: not so much. I worry about those who weren’t able to get away. It put a stain on the morning, which was added to by a meeting with an eccentric man in the Marais. He was no doubt trying to help, but his directions and help were so insistent that when we did finally escape, we backtracked down a side street so he didn’t see we’d gone the opposite way, and so run after us.

After the extreme tourism of Montmartre, with the endless knick-knack stores, fake luxury handbags, overpriced cafes and packs of tour groups, the relative quiet and polish of the Marais was a relief. We had a meal at a New York style diner (truffled mac and cheese, mmmm) and very pleasant looking French waiters. Then the rain started to set in, and with dashes from cover to cover, a peek at Notre Dame and ducking around puddles, we got to the stonily serene building that houses the Musée national du Moyen Âge, that used to be known as Musée de Cluny.

A medieval saint, being wistful

A medieval saint, being wistful

I’m not a big fan of medieval history, but the collection here was lovely, from the Roman bath house, ancient stain glass windows with saints and exquisitely carved ornaments.

Stained glass

Stained glass

The highlight was the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Despite their age, they are alight with colour and movement, each detail so beautifully done that you could get lost in each tapestry for hours. Each one represents a sense, from touch to sight, and one that is still a mystery. Who made them, why and what were they trying to tell us?

The Lady and the Unicorn: Taste

The Lady and the Unicorn: Taste

After a brief visit to Shakespeare and Co we went home, and then out again for dinner at a huge hall, which had formerly been a diner for workers wanting something quick and filling. It still served simple food well done, but now fed crowds of locals and tourists who lined up for hours for a seat. We only just made it in, and after the hearty food, company and warmth and vibrancy of the setting, we raised our glasses to our Parisian holiday. Until next time.

Paris rooftops

Paris rooftops

Streets and stones of London

Though my previous post may have lead you to believe otherwise, there is more to London than just staring at fascinating and ancient artifacts from around the world.
Before I get into that and continue our adventure from the portico of the British Museum, I have a joke relating to an item at the museum to share with you, dear reader.
Me: Knock knock?
You: Who’s there?
Me: Sutton.
You: Sutton who?
And then we laugh. I came up with that joke all by myself, though I have to say that the first listener didn’t give me quite the response I was after. Some people just have no taste.

Anyway, having left the museum (and material for other hilarious jokes) behind, we continued down to the main street, further into London. As we went I noticed plaques on the walls of the very typical townhouse frontages, one of which stood out especially. It was dedicated to Dame Millicent Fawcett, who as I’m sure you know, was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and played an important role in the campaign for women’s votes. History really is everywhere.

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Dame Millicent Fawcett lived here

We walked for a while, taking in the bustle of tourists and locals, the black cabs and double-decker red buses and ye olde style pubs. Soon we found ourselves in Leicester Square, which seemed to to be heart of the West End. Wherever we turned, huge posters for shows loomed above us, some familiar and some new. We headed to one of the last minute booking stands, and after some discussion, booked tickets to a certain musical for the second last day of our stay. There will be more on that in a later post, and yes, it was fantastic and not revolting at all.

It seemed now that we were starting to slip into the more well known parts of London, the streets and squares featured on endless tv shows and movies. One of the most recognisable squares also waited just ahead of us as we went down towards to river from Leicester Square. All of a sudden, a huge column topped by an old fashioned looking gentleman came into view, and beneath him was spread a place that I have seen so many times that I felt a sense of deja vu. It was also bigger in person, the fountains on either side more like elaborate paddling pools and the lions under Nelson’s Column many times larger than life. At the time it was too dark to properly make out the statues on plinths around the square, but something that was well lit up was the National Gallery, sitting becolumned and huge behind the square. It was closing as we arrived, so we put that off until another day.

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National Gallery at night

In addition to the tourists and locals hanging about and climbing the lion statues, there was a collection of flowers, candles and waterlogged posters huddled next to one of the fountains. The words ‘Je suis Paris’, #endhate and the tricolour in various forms were almost lost in the darkness, lit up by the light of the fountain and the flash of cameras. And if you’re wondering, no we didn’t notice a huge amount of security, no more than the serious clusters of bobbies that I imagine would usually stroll around busy areas.

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Je Suis Paris

From the square, as we turned our backs on the National Gallery, a familiar clock face appeared in the distance. Not having any other plans, we headed towards it, dodging crowds, crossing busy streets and passing endless pubs and theatres. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben were all as impressive as I’d thought they would be, lit up and seeming to have just jumped out of a guidebook.

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There was also one final sight that I wanted to take in, one that isn’t on the front pages of the guidebooks. The Stone of London. I’d heard about it in the novel Kraken, by China Mieville, and then found references to it in guides to obscure sights of London.
It’s origins are mysterious, from a Roman mile stone, the foundation of a bath house to the remnants of a medieval wall, and has been mentioned in travel guides from the middle ages to the 18th century. In the 14th century the leader of a rebellion against the king swore an oath on the stone before going to war (he failed, though it probably wasn’t the stone’s fault), and it was commonly believed to be the heart of London. If it was moved, so it was said, the city of London would fall.

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The Stone of London

It’s now located behind a grating in the wall of a convenience store, with only a small plaque and the neighbouring London Stone pub giving away its location. Maybe in another 2000 years it’ll still be there, slightly more reduced and unimportant looking, dragging myths with it into the future.

After all this adventure our feet were starting to hurt and our stomachs were rumbling, so we sought out dinner and drinks and then went home. By the time we made it back, sleepy and tipsy, the name of the train line that we had to catch was completely hilarious. It kept us going at least halfway home.

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A tube line