Enjoy the region and take your time: The Interrail diaries

A speedboat cut across my vision and pivoted when the owner caught sight of me sitting on the rocky shore. It was the mid 1980s, in Savonlinna, Finland, and Scandinavia was sweltering under a midsummer heatwave. The boat pulled up and I kept my eyes on the man’s face, trying not to look down at his turquoise Y-fronts as he talked and shrugged and made suggestions. Yes, I was Interrailing. No, I didn’t want to join him on his boat. No, I really wasn’t tempted to stay another day and join him at ‘a country house’

These memories surfaced recently as I read an article in the Guardian about the resurgence of Interrailing. Like the author, I’ve also kept the diaries from my trips across Europe. Little grey spiral notebooks purchased from Boots, with detailed itineraries and page after page of vocabulary and pronunciation notes for Portuguese, Greek, Norwegian, Finnish and Czech.

Continue reading “Enjoy the region and take your time: The Interrail diaries”
Sète canals

Sète: where the Canal du Midi meets the Mediterranean for a spot of jousting

The two boats moved towards one another, one blue, one red. From each boat rose a ladder, with a boy perched on a platform at the end, high above the water. As the boats became parallel, each boy raised a 2.8 metre wooden pole and I watched, perplexed, as they tried their best to dislodge each other, until the boy from the red boat lost his balance. Cheers and jubilant music drowned out the noise of the splash

This is marine jousting, a tradition that began in Sète in 1666 to celebrate the opening of the town’s port, and which continues today with its own training school. That night I must have been watching the juniors, but it’s also an adult sport, where bachelors (blue boats) fight the married jousters of the red boats. Traditions aside, it felt weird watching the town’s people egging on their children to poke each other into the canal.

At least the water looked clean.

The layout of Sète was shaped by Louis XIV’s decision to end the Canal du Midi here; streets face each other across the canal grid lines, with the tables of fish restaurants close to the water’s edge. The odour of fresh bream, salmon, oysters and mussels follows you as you walk down one waterfront, cross a bridge and then walk up the other side. Moored boats line the frontages, and at one point were broken up by the looming bulk of a visiting tall ship.

The town is overshadowed by the slopes of Mont Saint-Clair. Above the narrow terraced streets of the upper town are hundreds of steps that lead to the summit, where you gain a view that encompasses not only the port of Sète behind you but also the Thau Lagoon that stretches 20 km inland. You’ll see the 800 or so shellfish farms in neat grids across the inland sea, but not the other thing for which the lagoon is renowned – its seahorses.

Walking westwards down the Mont Saint-Clair, the palm-lined roads contrast with the cramped terraces of the eastern side; houses remain concealed behind long driveways and broad gates. Back down on the main corniche coastal road we followed a parallel path above small coves, where succulents cling to cliffs that are themselves overshadowed by holiday apartment blocks.

Sète is an open air museum of street art, with artists encouraged to cover the town’s walls. Murals range from an impressive one covering the wall of the Lycee de Paul Valery, to a slightly unnerving mural on the outer walls of a primary school with strange marine creatures celebrating tielles, the spiced octopus pies that are a speciality of Sète.

I don’t know what it is about tables set out along a waterfront, but they often generate an urge to just sit down and spend the rest of my life there, reading, writing, painting and gazing out at the water and the fishing activities. The Pointe Courte peninsula has more streets of coloured terraces than you’d think was possible on such a tiny spit of land, and I was drawn to a string of metal tables and chairs on the narrow waterfront. It wasn’t a café, as I’d first thought, but an outside living space for the houses on this side. Fishing nets were hanging everywhere, and an elderly man sat fixing one in a lean-to. More nets were piled up in a type of sentry box, where a sleek black cat watched the antics of the peninsula’s cats with disdain.

La Pointe Courte is also the name of the unofficial first French New Wave film: the self-funded 1956 debut of Agnès Varda. The film documents the hardships of the fishing community, and when a young man wants to romance a neighbour’s daughter, how must he prove his worth?

By none other than showing his prowess in a marine jousting tournament.

Carcassonne citadel

A stopover in Carcassonne: oui ou non?

Need to buy a replica medieval helmet and sword? Fancy flouncing around in costume like a Kate Mosse character?  All this can be done whilst visiting the fortified city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s up there at number 20 of France’s most visited sites.

In summer, the main town has a vibrant feel, with plenty of outdoor cafes and a stream of tourists eating ice cream as they wander to and from the fortifications of la cité. Boats will cruise you along the Canal du Midi and I once spent a couple of wonderful days cycling in both directions along the towpath – very bruised from bumping over the tree roots, but happy.

Now, on a Sunday in April, I zigzagged to avoid the dogsh*t as I walked through the shuttered town, and wondered why I’d come back. The town was dead, but did I really want to join the throngs of visitors up in the fortress?

Of course I did. From the Pont Vieux over the River Aude, the outer ring of the concentric fortifications looms up ahead on the opposite bank. There’s little indication that a portion of the 360,000 or so annual tourists are swarming around inside.

As I ducked past the costumed soldier at the Porte Narbonnaise,  the atmosphere became transformed from dead Sunday to Disney wonderland. Here almost everything was open, with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Marseille soap, furs, and more jewellery. Like many must-sees, Carcassonne is a casualty of what it offers in terms of impressive heritage. These fortifications date right back to the Roman occupation, and fans of Kate Mosse novels will know that the cité has an ominous history as a home of the persecuted Cathars, who were nevertheless expelled from there in the early 13th century. Perhaps some visitors are particularly drawn by whatever lies at the end of the ominous signs that point the way to les tortures.

Of more interest to me was a poster proclaiming that Carcassonne is the only town in Languedoc-Rousillon where Occitan is taught from Primary right through to High School. The term Occitan, or the langue d’oc, came into being in the 14th century to differentiate between the languages spoken in the south and the north of France. The langue d’oc, spoken where oc was the word for yes, is a legacy of the region’s proximity to Spain and Italy.

As a linguist, I view Occitan as an umbrella term, rather than a clearly defined, individual language. There are a number of related varieties within southern France, such as Languedocien and Gascon, all with the same Latin root, and all with few contemporary speakers. As I noted in my book, over 90% of the Ariège population in 1864 were speakers of Gascon, rather than French, yet hardly anyone can speak it there now.

But here in Carcassonne, pupils can choose from an entire curriculum in Occitan. And it’s about more than just maintaining the language of their ancestors. The similarities of Occitan to Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese mean that it’s a bridge to learning those other languages.

So, with all the crowds and consumerism, is Carcassonne worth a visit? It’s true that the narrow inner streets are crammed with people, but few seem to venture the short distance to the outer ramparts, where you gain a true perspective of the size of these fortifications.  From here there’s also a view that stretches across the terracotta rooftops of Carcassonne, and, if you’re lucky, a close-up of a banking Ryanair plane as it prepares to land.

Similarly, if you can pull yourself away from the busy Place Marcon, there are quiet squares where few venture, such as the Place St Jean, with its view across the ramparts. And as the darkness descends, so does the magic; the floodlit ramparts have an eerie quality, and there are restaurants on the side streets that’ll transport you from Disneyland back into gourmet France.

Best of all, responsible dog owners are greeted with free bags on arrival at the fortress. That means clean pavements.

In search of Dordogneshire: Bergerac in the time of Brexit

Back when I was researching English incomers in the Ariège Pyrenees, many people cited Dordogne as a kind of benchmark. It was a way to disassociate themselves from that stereotype of Little England:

‘I think people come here because they don’t want that Dordogne thing. They want to take part in the French culture. They don’t want the English on the doorstep all the time.’

So if Dordogne didn’t exist, perhaps it would be necessary for the English to invent it, to have something to identify against. We also appear to have invented an odd pronunciation – Dordoyn – that rhymes with groin rather than Sonya. I wonder where that came from?

Anyway, my pursuit of Dordogneshire began with just 32 euros for a five hour journey from Carcassonne to Bergerac. After a heart-sinkingly dull approach to the famed wine town, my spirits picked up as soon as I wandered around the half-timbered buildings that line the narrow alleys of Bergerac’s medieval centre.

The Musée de la Ville tells how the Brits were once the principal buyers of the area’s wine, with a preference for a rather weak rosé. That was until the 18th century, when the Dutch market replaced the British and led the vintners to produce stronger reds.

On hearing I was from England, the museum officer immediately asked if I was one of the 8,000 Brits who lived in the Périgord region. Apparently they mostly live in the hilltop bastide towns rather than Bergerac itself. Predictably, the second question was about Brexit – pff! – which gave me an opportunity to use all six of the words for crazy I’ve learned.

Being early April, many restaurants remained closed, but I found one that was sufficiently intimate to strike up a conversation with the woman at the next table: a Dutch woman who’d just begun a 10-week hike to Santiago de Compostela. She was walking the pilgrim’s Way of St James.

“And you, you’re fleeing Brexit?” I ignored the snorts of laughter from the other tables and asked her about The Way. She described it as a metaphor for living: how you cope with the walk can reflect how you live your life.

According to her, Le Brexit is also metaphorical; we can’t physically leave Europe, as Britain shares the same tectonic plate as the continent.

The next day I joined the Pilgrim for a Dordogne river cruise on one of the old gabarres boats. Sadly, we waited in vain for enough people to turn up to make the required number. But the guide entertained us for a whole hour with a commentary on just about everything, such as the lift in the river to help the salmon get upstream, and les Anglais, of whom he seemed fond. Mais le Brexit, pff!

The next day, standing in the airport queue, I wondered if he’d come across the English man in front of me. Mr No Deal smiled vacantly while another, very patient, English man tried to explain what ‘trade’ is, and why the local police force not being any good isn’t a reason to leave the EU. I had an urge to tell Mr No Deal about the tectonic plate, as I had an idea he’d turn up with his tools to dig us to victory, I mean freedom. Let us take back control of our tectonic plate, so we can float away into a sovereign sunset!

In summer Bergerac must feel very different when the narrow cobbles ring to the footsteps of the visitors, but it’s not Dordogneshire. Almost all of the very detailed heritage information signs were in French only, and so were those in the museum. There wasn’t an English menu to be seen either. The only English I heard was in response to the Pilgrim asking for tea in a wine bar: Madame, you’ve come to the wrong place!

On the last night I hugged the Pilgrim goodbye and wished her luck, feeling envious. I liked Bergerac and I didn’t really want to leave, and that was probably because I hadn’t found Dordogneshire.

But there, at the tiny airport, were the clues. A large estate agency instead of a duty free shop, and posters advertising relocation services and English renovation architects. The English are all upstream, like the salmon. That gives me a reason to come back. Pff!  

Jardins de la Fontaine, Nîmes

A stopover in Nîmes: slow travel in the South of France.

It’s the first day of spring, although the Jardins de la Fontaine smell more like early summer. Half the population of Nîmes is sitting on the lawns of the 17th century park, like the Uber Eats cyclist taking a break, and the other half are in the outdoor cafes of the old town. I walk up the balustraded stairways and look down at the fat orange fish in the ornamental ponds until my eyes are drawn to vivid purple amongst the green.

A path leads up through the pine woods to the highest point in Nîmes and the oldest of the Roman sites, the Tour Magne. From the top of the tower the line of the Via Domitia, built by the Romans to link the Alps with the Pyrenees, still carves through the city.

From up here you gain a true perspective of the Arènes de Nîmes – a gigantic bowl of a Roman amphitheatre with 34 rows of seats that rise up and outwards.

As I leave the Tour Magne, four police officers amble up to it. France is on alert with the Gilets Jaunes demos, but these four act more like curious tourists than law enforcers. I see them again and again that afternoon, wandering round and smiling, looking at things rather than people.

Crossing the road back into the pedestrianised old town, it’s a surprise to come face to face with one of the best preserved temples from the Roman world, right here in the middle of Nîmes.  The Maison Carrée has been a centrepoint of the city for almost 2,000 years.

It’s 6pm and still hot so I go into the Amorino ice cream shop where they carve my scoops into flower petals and politely check that I understand that lime basilic comes with basil as well as lime. As I step out of the shop I almost collide with a very elderly man in violently patterned shorts. He barks at me in a strangulated voice, in a language that could be English.

Darkness falls and it’s time to join everyone else eating outdoors. I choose a table opposite a narrow alley with a view through to the massive grey stones of the amphitheatre.  16 euros to sit here under the still-swollen moon, with a duck burger du Perigord and a small pichet of white wine; a bargain.

Taking the Eurostar from London to Avignon? Nîmes is just an hour or so by frequent train service from Avignon central. See Loco2 for times and tickets.

All of the Roman sites can be visited. Read more about visiting Nîmes here.

The ancient Roman theatre, Orange, Provence

Make the most of a stopover in Orange, Provence

Following on from my post on reaching the Pyrenees by train, here’s the first in a series on stopover points in the South of France, featuring Orange, Provence

Possibly overlooked by its more famous neighbour Avignon, the town of Orange in Provence offers considerable charm for a short stopover.

After the six hour journey on Eurostar from St Pancras, arriving into Avignon during the festival didn’t do much to alleviate the 39°C of baking heat.  Another 20  minutes on a local train was worth it to simply step out onto empty pavements of Orange.

I’ve previously asked myself if it’s really necessary to traipse around all of the ‘must-sees’ when visiting a place, but the fact that everyone else was swarming in Avignon meant that the monuments of Orange were mercifully clear.  And the town is sufficiently compact to visit most of them on a short stopover.

The Roman city of Arausio was a staging post on the Roman road between Lyon and Arles, and the legacy is clear in the modern town of Orange.  The remarkable Arc de Triomphe stands at the ancient entrance to the city, commemorating the Roman Army’s victories over the barbarian tribes at the edges of the Empire.  The detail in the friezes is impressive – look at the Celtic-style artwork depicted on the confiscated tribal armour.

The Théâtre Antique is the best preserved Roman theatre in existence, and it’s still used for performances, as shown by the crew’s Airstream parked on the stage.  Keep climbing up the tiers of seats for a view over the theatre with the tiled roofs of Orange as backdrop.

But don’t stop there, as a walk up the Colline St-Eutrope extends the view even further, with a sweeping view across to Mont Ventoux on the horizon.  A network of paths over the hill passes by ruins of the former castle of the Princes of Orange to a small play park with a couple of zip wires.  All of this was almost deserted on a Saturday in July, which was unexpected but allowed some unobserved fun on the zip wires.  The large open-air café was similarly deserted, with chairs and menus ready but no staff to be seen.

You could spend all day mooching around the sites of Orange, but for me it was enough to people watch in the tiny Place aux Herbes, with its laid back bar and a usefully muddled shop where the stock ranged from art supplies, Marseille soap, toothpaste and tins of WD40 – the kind of shop that simply could not survive back in England.

We stayed in the small and charming L’Herbier d’Orange in the Place aux Herbes.  Orange has plenty of restaurants, but why sit in a place that looks like everywhere else when you can eat in a Roman cave with a fine wine cellar integrated at the far end?  As the proprietors of La Cantina (Montée Julia Barthet) state, it’s not every day you can dine in a hole dug into the rock.

La Cantina Orange
La Cantina restaurant, Orange
Le pont d'Avignon

Missing out the ‘must-sees’: a little flânerie in Avignon

Absorbing the city

Have you ever spent time visiting the must-sees of a city and then slowly realised that it’s the hidden corners and your observations of the people that stay with you over time, rather than what Tripadvisor tells you are The Ten Best Things to do in…?

Chatting to a casual acquaintance in Avignon, I happened to mention that I often use the city as a stopover as part of my slow travel to and from France, utilising the Eurostar direct service to London, but I’d never made a ‘proper’ visit to the town’s two crown jewels: the famous pont d’Avignon, and the Palais des Papes.  His jaw dropped in horror and he hastily moved on, perhaps worried that such lack of culture was contagious.

Yet it’s true.  Each time I contemplate the generous half-day to fill before the mid-afternoon departure back to King’s Cross, I simply continue the previous evening’s wandering around the city.   I’ve resisted joining the flow of headset-clad tourists as they slouch around the historic half bridge.  The Pont St-Bénézet dates from 1177 and is a symbol of the city, but the lofty gardens of the Rocher des Doms offer a wonderful aerial view of the bridge as it ends abruptly mid-stream in the Rhône, and a horizon stretching away to the Luberon.  Following the steps down the steep rockface of the Rocher brings you to a free ferry across the Rhone for a different perspective of the bridge.  Yet, to be frank, I was more taken with the long stretch of wildflowers growing parallel to the city walls, and the way that a set of shutters  held out mirrors to the sky.

Avignon shutters
Shutters in Avignon

I’ve also resisted entering the Palais des Papes, which, with its buttresses and crenellations, is as much a fortress as a papal palace. Walking around its immense walls, I’m struck by how the facade changes as the day’s light moves on.

One balmy April evening in 2016, I watched as it became illuminated against the deep blue of the night sky, while in the shadows a small crowd gathered as part of the France-wide Nuit debout  protests against labour reforms and calls for a society built on more than profit.  The peaceful sit-in gradually evolved into an impromptu dance, with friends and strangers united towards a common cause.

Nuit debout Avignon
Nuit Debout gathering in Avignon

My stopovers have unintentionally coincided with the July festival d’Avignon, a world-famous arts festival with performances.  The streets of the old town become carnivalesque for a couple of weeks, swarming with visitors and studded with posters advertising performances; these often take place in improvised ‘theatres’ that pop up in all kinds of buildings.  Tiny restaurants open up and chairs spill over onto the cobbles.

Local reaction is understandably mixed about the way that the old town – home to around 12,000 inhabitants – is taken over in this way.  Wandering the backstreets, I came across a long line of placards affixed to buildings, detailing the history of the festival.  The display didn’t gloss over the current depth of feeling expressed by some of the inhabitants.  As I understood it, Avignon is no longer a town with a festival, but has become part of a festival that possesses a town.

avignon walls1
Wildflowers along the city walls

All this talk of urban wandering in France brings to mind the concept of the flâneur, a strolling observer of city life who wanders, loiters and explores, observing people and places.  The focus is on what’s happening in the crowd. The writer Walter Benjamin popularised the concept of the flâneur from the earlier work of the poet Baudelaire.  Awareness of the flâneur has grown alongside interest in psychogeography, which studies the art of becoming lost in the city as a way into its soul.  The act of flânerie, an aimless drift through urban landscapes, is at the heart of psychogeography.

Yet, as Lauren Elkin points out, the flâneur is a quintessentially male concept.  Although women haven’t always had the same freedom to walk the city streets by night and day, the art of urban wandering is not confined to men, with Virginia Woolf being one notable flâneuse.  Nevertheless, as Lauren argues, we perhaps shouldn’t see the flâneuse as a mere female equivalent of the flâneur, but as something distinct; often more defiant than the aimless and undoubtedly privileged flâneur of the literature.

I’m wary of drawing too deeply on the complex notion of the flâneur to describe the behaviour of the contemporary traveller, although it’s clear that it resonates with some travel bloggers.  Yet, like many concepts, it can help us to make sense of what we do.

It’s certainly a privilege to be able to traipse the city streets, to wander and observe anonymously.  But avoiding the tourist traps of The Ten Best Things in… can also save a small fortune, enough to indulge yourself among the used books in the delightful  Camili Books and Tea. I’d never have found that little gem if I’d limited my footfall to the main sites.

Palais des Papes, Avignon
Night falls on the Palais des Papes, Avignon

Slow travel to the Pyrenees

How to travel overland to the Pyrenees: some ideas

Ok, so it’s not on a par with travelling overland to Asia, but today many of us are conscious of our environmental footprint and looking for ways to travel without flying (there’s some academic discussion on the Flying Less Movement here)

I recently chatted with a guy who owns a holiday home in Carcassonne, and he was full of enthusiasm about the low cost of the flights he was able to take from Scotland.  Sometimes he paid as little as £10 – £20 each way, which meant he could afford to go on holiday every few weeks.  When I explained that I much preferred to go by train to the Pyrenees, he looked aghast – ‘What about the cost?’

Of course it’s more expensive to travel around Europe by train compared with the low-cost airlines, and it’s hard to imagine that many people will make the switch while the price difference is so huge.  Yet for me, travelling overland helps me to really feel that I’ve arrived somewhere, following the route from the ground rather than dropping down from the clouds. Being a digital nomad I can work from anywhere, and it’s much easier when sitting on a train compared with when I’m wedged into a budget airline cattle-truck.

Best of all is that travelling overland gives the option to break the journey with a stopover somewhere new each time.  And unlike the Ryanair frequent flyers, I don’t go every few weeks, but instead I have fewer trips with longer stays, so the cost evens up a bit.  Booking well in advance and outside the weekends can also make a huge difference to the price of the ticket.

In this first article I’ll talk about some of the travel options I’ve used.

It’s now possible to step from a damp and grey St Pancras onto the Eurostar and emerge less than six hours later into the heat and sun of Provence.   Eurostar runs a service that takes you straight from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille.  I’ve paid as little as £49 each way, which compares really favourably with the budget airlines.  From Avignon TGV station it’s just a few minutes on a local train into Avignon Centre, from where you have the option of connections or an evening’s stopover.

Le pont d'Avignon
Whiling away an hour in Avignon before the train back to London – it beats any airport!

From Avignon I usually take a local train going west via Nimes, Beziers, Sète, Montpellier and Narbonne to Carcassonne, the latter being my gateway to the Pyrenees, from where I hire a car to get me into the mountains.  All of these places offer scope for appealing stopovers, and I’ll be writing about some of them in the next articles.

It’s also easy to get to lots of destinations via Eurostar by changing in Paris.  Last year I did just that, taking a high speed TGV that shot me from the capital to Bordeaux in a few hours.  That allowed me a long evening to look around the city and a not-too-early start for the train that took me via Toulouse to Carcassonne.

Bordeaux
An evening stopover in Bordeaux

Planning and booking train travel in Europe is easy these days.  I find the Loco2 system very user-friendly and I’ve used it for train travel all over Europe.  The site connects to many national rail services and they don’t charge booking fees.  Some tickets can be printed at home, whereas others need to be picked up at the station machines.

If you’re not yet aware of the wonderfully comprehensive website The Man in Seat 61 then take a look at it and bookmark it for future reference. It covers everything from an overview of a country’s trains and services, to individual route suggestions between major cities.

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