Tuesday, 20 September 2016

International whirlpool

In Arles I noticed that if I saw someone consulting a tourist map, I thought (somehow) that was an intelligent and purposeful thing to do... but every time I had to stop and consult a map myself, I must look like a dumb tourist. Note to self, stop thinking everything you do is pathetic.

One of the first bits of French I ever learned was that song: Sewer le pong, Davinyong....' and it's been a life's ambition to go and dance on the bridge at Avignon, so we went to do that yesterday. The flat sandy white muddy powdery land gradually makes space for a few trees as you head north, and some of these trees do very delightfully enter into a visual duet with the shape of the church towers - something we've noticed through all our travels on this trip.

I had this sad feeling - that old France has almost completely disappeared. New France (shopping precincts, MacDs, fast food in general, roundabouts, etc etc etc) has swept in very swiftly and vigorously and there are the empty relics of the lovely old ways all along the old roads.... Buildings which were once family-run restaurants all shuttered up, little garages with deco writing now derelict. All the money, the care and maintenance, has gone and that way of life looks dusty and worthless.

At Avignon, there are a number of new bridges over the Rhone now of course and I had a nagging feeling the old one may have disappeared altogether through bombing or other mishap... We scared ourselves down through narrow passageways and enfilades into an underground parking - Hades has levels (niveaux) and we were 4 down, well inside the astonishing city walls, as it turned out. We had a coffee overlooking the river at a very nice quayside bar and then walked along to 'the' bridge. It's still there - or most of it, and that broken appearance is the whole cause of the song, the story, the romance ...

Whatever myths were spun about a man from the north challenging the bishop and picking up a huge stone to prove that God had indeed sent him to build a bridge at Avignon, they seem to have got their act together in that remarkable age - the end of the twelfth century, getting part of the way at any rate and incorporating a chapel of sorts into their structure. Looking at the river now, it's wide and powerful but not particularly difficult-looking from an engineering point of view (she says grandly). The problems come with the floods. Getting the bridge to span the whole width and stay there, even with islands to help, proved over the centuries to be impossible. They were using wood and stone, as archaeology has now revealed. Kings and princes (and more bishops, and even popes) came to get it going - but in the end it was the mini-Ice Age which did for it - bringing great chunks of ice to smash it at surface level, and scouring waters to wash away the footings.  Eventually Louis XIV came to look and they all danced about a bit (not for the first time, hence the song) and decided to stop trying. So the beautiful bridge goes about two-thirds over the river and then stops.    Traffic to and from the north could continue with its sails and oars and horses and men to pull, but traffic east-west was back at a trickle. Salt smuggling was a big-time thing.  The museum/information in and around the bridge is absolutely terrific, it's worth every penny of the €4 to get in, compared with the very poor value (€3) for entry to Constantine's Thermal Baths at Arles.    We spent a goodly while there, and, yes, we did dance on the bridge......

Bashing up the motorway to Lyon was hard work, and there was a noticeable change in the weather and (somehow) the whole culture (landscape, architecture, light, industry....) as we crossed a high pass of about 300m somewhere 30 miles short of our destination. The heat of summer fled. Suddenly we were in an international traffic flow - lorries from Hungary, Spain (olá!), Finland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Italy... None from England.

We were in a traffic jam - the first on this whole holiday! Our hotel for the night is called Une nuit au chateau, and is in a leafy uphill suburb of the city. It's slightly like my granny's house in London - a touch of Gothic, but propped up with scaffolding here and there. Hard to see where the entrance is... the sign turned out to be less than half an inch high by a bell by a garden gate. We rang. Madame appeared, unlocking everything in true concierge style, and brought us into the house. It is painted in lots of weird colours and furnished with various bizarre arty objects (her son went to art college).  The tiny breakfast room is brilliant vivid green.  Our suite was miniscule and the lavvy down the corridor - she assured me it was only shared with herself.   She showed us another suite available - for 95€ instead of €75 - a vast salon, painted cocoa brown and rather pretty, with an ensuite bathroom featuring a ladder and a second-hand whirlpool bath (not to be used after 9.30pm because of the noise).  We took it.

To get into Lyon, we caught a bus to another suburb and then found the 'funiculaire' which (on the same ticket) swept us down two stops to the old city. The cathedral is adorned with quite a few (many) beggars and homeless people who could comfortably be given space inside, but on the other hand is of free entry and clean and wondrous inside. The glory is really the medieval stained glass, and the modern windows too.  I liked very much the one telling the story of the life of John the Baptist, where Salome is shown dancing in front of King Herod and Herodias, and she's doing a sort of limb-dance, bent right over backwards.  She must have been quite a gymnast.

Across one river (Saone) we strolled and found a vast square, the Place de Bellcourt, big enough for a military parade ground which is what it may once have been of course, since it was Napoleon who built that particular bridge.  Cafe life, students, bars, evangelists, cyclists, children, all good things were going on.  We went to the other river (Rhone) and admired that too. Eventually we found somewhere to sit and have a drink, and then strolled back towards the cathedral for supper. There are still a few, very few, bits of old France left preserved as glittering tourist attractions - tiny dark brown home-like cafes, and more sophisticated mirror-clad gilded places which Toulouse-Lautrec would have recognised... these are survivors only because romantic tourists come to use them and marvel. The change in cuisine was striking - here the offerings are based on les abats or what we would call offal: liver, kidneys, brains, tripe, sausages, etc., all very rich and with a powerful tradition of sauces and presentation. However, we chose our restaurant not only for its menu but because it had wifi. That has been a theme throughout the holiday.  In fact we moved from one room/table to another because the promised signal was too weak.

We were joined on a neighbouring table by a delightful American couple from Reno, Nevada, who are keen travellers in Europe and actually thinking of buying a house of their own at Beaune, their favourite place.  This is their third trip and they were hoping their flight home to the States from Heathrow might be delayed so they could spend some time in London.  Karen and Tony - hi! Welcome to the blog.

We made it back to the chateau via funicular and bus, so many people around, more like Spain than France.

It's nearly time for breakfast now. I have just had, for the first time in my life, a dip in a whirlpool bath...... All I can say is, my bidet at home is more satisfactory.

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