Day off

Well, I had a great day in Avignon yesterday, wandering the streets and visiting the Papal Palace. The palace is amazing. Most of the rooms are quite empty: stone walls, high ceilings and mullioned windows, with occasional traces of the frescoes and polychromy which once rendered the rooms garish and hideous. Unfortunately, they don’t let you take photos inside, but I did sneak one from the topmost tower.

I can’t imagine what it would be like for a devout Christian to visit a place like this. The building is huge and beautiful, but room after room reveals the popes to be grandiose monsters, and medieval Christianity to be a brutal confidence trick. Does that sound harsh? Anyway, at least we got some lovely buildings out of it.

It’s my last full day in Avignon. Off to Nîmes tomorrow, for some Roman ruins. So doing nothing much today. I might walk over to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon on the other side of the river. I might go to Place les Halles, where there’s lots of great food at lunchtime. I might see if I can find that restaurant Geoff mentioned in his comment on my last post. But there’s no list of things to do or sites to see. Just gonna enjoy the atmosphere, I think.

Les beaux messieurs font comm’ ça

Well. I’m in Avignon. I arrived early afternoon yesterday, and I’m in love with it immediately. It’s small, for a start, and I don’t need a map. I wandered the streets last night, totally certain that I wouldn’t get lost. And it’s beautiful, full of well-lit medieval churches and surrounded by walls. I walked through a gate last night, and it was like leaving a fairytale castle.

And then there’s the famous bridge, with its well-known nursery rhyme. It’s too narrow to dance on, of course, but you can see me standing on it with confidence. There are lots of photos.

Today, the Papal Palace. And tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the bus to the Pont du Gard, a massive Roman aqueduct just over 20 kilometres from here. Then off to Nîmes for a few nights.

I’m changing my plans. The trains are a bit complicated, so I’m going from Nîmes back to Paris, and then overnight on the train to Rome. Then Rome for a few days, before Sorrento, which is the place I’m most looking forward to.

Lost in Paris

I decided to stay in Paris for just two nights. So far, I’ve spent all my time in big cities, and I want to go somewhere smaller and more restful. I got a lot done during my one whole day, but it was tiring and a bit stressful, and I’m glad to be off.

I had three things to do: buy a ticket to Avignon, book a hotel room there, and see the antiquities in the Louvre. Not a hectic agenda, but nearly more than I could manage.

Buying the ticket was easy. I had checked out the Gare de Lyon the night I arrived, and I knew I could get there. But after leaving, I got lost almost immediately. And I discovered that despite years of high-school geography, I am completely unable to use a map to get from one place to another. I can’t remember place names and directions, and I need to turn the map around so that it corresponds to the layout of the streets. Except that that doesn’t really help.

After an hour of standing on street corners, frantically rotating an obvious tourist map and swearing in English, I came across a metro station and decided to use that. The metro system map was fixed to the wall, which made rotating it more or less impossible, so I decided not to tempt fate, and went to the station nearest the Louvre on the line I was on anyway.

There followed another hour of hunting for wi-fi enabled cafes, booking hotel rooms, rotating the map, swearing, tearing up the map, and being offered directions in French by a helpful old man. However, I can’t understand directions either, even in English, and I was too busy wondering if the old man would want money to really pay attention.

But I did find the Louvre, mostly by following the well-signposted Avenue de Louvre, with its Café de Louvre and Tabac de Louvre and so on. It ended up being the huge-ass palace thing at the end of the street. And although the Greek and Roman ceramics were closed (damn!) I spent a happy few hours wandering around, mostly looking at Classical Roman sculptures, finishing with a quick run around to catch the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s prisoners and the Venus de Milo. The Louvre map was smaller and much easier to rotate.

After that, I did the obligatory tourist spots, most of which I had visited last time. There are photos, as usual. Then dinner in Saint-Denis, as David suggested, and then back to the hotel. And I only got lost on the metro once.

Free wi-fi!

Here I am at the Gare de Lyon. My train leaves at quarter past 11, which left me enough time this morning to eat breakfast, pack up, and arrive at the station more than an hour early, with a heavy backpack and nothing in particular to do.

But there’s free wi-fi here. So I’ve been passing an agreeable few minutes labelling my Paris photos on Flickr and dicking around on the internet. And with a clear conscience. Wi-fi is ubiquitous in Europe, but you usually need to pay for it. I found a great café in Amsterdam with free wi-fi, and I hung out there a lot. In Paris, many cafés had it, but most of the waiters had no idea how to let me use it. Here at the station, however, it’s free and unlimited.

I’ll write about my day and a half in Paris when I’m on the train. And I’ll upload it when I arrive in Avignon, wi-fi permitting. Until then, enjoy my photos of Paris. And thanks to Tsunami, the unsecured network near my hotel which made uploading them possible.

Crocodile Dundee and the Stingray

I have already suggested that this trip was not very carefully planned. Some people like to keep a completely open mind, making decisions at the spur of the moment, suddenly abandoning their plans and heading off in a completely new direction. I am not one of those people. I just find that planning ahead makes me tired or thirsty or angry, and I like to put it off as much as possible. That’s why I bought a Eurail pass. That way, I could leave Sydney with no more than a four-day hotel booking in London and absolutely no idea what to do after that. I didn’t have to consider the weeks and weeks I’d be away from the couch, travelling, booking hotels, finding food and interacting with scary new people.

I spent the night being woken by the happy singing of binge-drinking English children. This morning, I walked the streets saying goodbye to Amsterdam and chatting with some of the city’s more colourful drug dealers. One of them offered me his condolences on the loss of Steve Irwin, whom he referred to as “Crocodile Dundee”. He wasn’t going to sell me cocaine, apparently, but he was willing to give me some in exchange for some money. Sadly, I’d left my wallet in the hotel.

And now I’m on my first train: Amsterdam Centraal to the Gare du Nord in Paris. It’s a lot like a plane, but with less fear and more legroom. They’re even about to serve us lunch.

I arrive in Paris at 4.30 pm. My hotel is not far from the station, but I’ve forgotten to download the map from Google Maps. (Can you do that? I suppose you can.) So if I can’t find a wi-fi equipped cafe near the station, I could be in trouble. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Het weekend

Yesterday I decided to stop killing time in pubs and wandering the streets, and to do some proper sightseeing.

The Rijksmuseum is still closed, just like last time I was here. That’s a blessing really. It’s a huge building, full of rooms and rooms of Delft porcelain: mazelike and impossible to comprehend. But they’ve shifted the main bits of the collection into a side building, twelve rooms with a sensible number of artifacts, including some Vermeers and Rembrandts. The Night Watch is in the last room. But my favourite thing is the rear of a ship that the Dutch captured when they raided a naval base at Chatham in 1667.

Then the Van Gogh museum. Most of his paintings are here. They’re beautiful, but the exhibition is rather sad. His paintings become a bit scary towards the end. Upstairs there’s an exhibition of envelopes and menus scrawled on by the artist.

Then back to my quiet wifi-equipped cafe to upload some photos. It was Friday afternoon, and the cafe was full of drunken Mancunians singing Sweet Caroline (da-da-da!). Over here for the weekend, of course. And this morning, the streets are full of groups of young men, quieter and more dehydrated than they were last night, but no doubt up for a huge Saturday night tonight.

As for me, I’m taking it easy today. I’m travelling to Paris by train tomorrow, and that’s when the heavy-duty tourism begins. I’m gonna need my strength.

Red

This is my third time in Amsterdam. The first time was on my first trip to Europe, with Rob. Within an hour, we had both decided to stay there for a week. The second time we went, we stayed for two weeks. We had many adventures, but my favourite part was just staying for a long time in a beautiful, alien, old-world city. Shopping, eating, drinking, browsing in bookshops, doing laundry. We did touristy things as well: going to the zoo, cycling in a snowy park, touring the canals, admiring the architecture, visiting museums.

But in those three weeks, I barely noticed the red light district. I remember wandering down a canal once and seeing a few sex workers in windows, but it was daytime and we were just on our way somewhere.

So. I went for a couple of walks last night around my hotel. The first time was to look for somewhere to eat. The second time was to sober up a little before interacting with the hotel reception guy, who keeps your room key behind the desk while you’re out. (What’s with that?) And on my walks, I discovered that my hotel is right in the middle of the red light district.

I’d already seen the women around the corner, just next to the oldest parish church in Amsterdam. There’s a photo. But last night, I walked through many narrow, narrow alleys with dozens of windows on each side. Around them are red fluorescent lights, and inside are ultraviolet lights, which create a shimmery purple glow on the women’s underwear and on their white PVC nurse’s uniforms.

Well, of course, for a gay man brought up in a leafy suburb, this is all very embarrassing. Every time I make eye contact, I’m invited in to join them. And I’m painfully aware how rude it is to pointedly ignore people.

So today I’ve decided to browse some bookshops, do some laundry, and visit a few museums. Just to calm myself down a bit. And after that, maybe somewhere local for dinner.

“Want some charlie, mate?”

View from hotel room window

Had a great night last night. Went straight to the Leidseplein to check out all my old haunts. Instantly felt at home. It’s great to be able to walk around a foreign city, confident that you won’t get lost, and familiar with good places to eat and drink. In keeping with Amsterdam’s reputation as a party town, I was in bed before nine last night. Feeling terrifically well rested now.

I’m staying in a hotel not far from Centraal Station, near Dam Square. I haven’t spent much time here before. The area by the Leidseplein is genteel by comparison. There are lots more tourists here, and many more of the tourist-oriented businesses Amsterdam is famous for. There are sex workers in the window just around the corner. And I’ve been offered drugs on the street about five or six times, once as I was actually walking in the hotel door.

It all sounds a bit seedy, I guess, but I can’t tell you how happy I was the moment I arrived. I’ve got lots of good memories of Amsterdam (most of which I intend to keep to myself), and I’m really looking forward to spending a couple of days here.

White wine

So my flight to Amsterdam was cancelled. After queuing for about three months at the BMI ticket sales counter, I was allocated a seat on a flight an hour and a half later. Not to worry, I thought: Calvin to the rescue. I’ll just swan around in the BA lounge for a while, using the diamond (diamond!) club membership he so thoughtfully organised.

No luck though. I’m in Terminal 1, and the Cathay Pacific lounge is in Terminal 3. The nice lady refuses to let me into the British Airways lounge because I’m flying BMI. That makes me insufficiently patrician, I think.

So here I am surrounded by commoners, reading the Guardian and waiting for my flight to be called. The gate opens 5 minutes before the flight is due to leave, so I don’t expect to be leaving on time.