Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

Life on Mars

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The trip to Rome was not too bad after all. The Norwegian family were nice, and their four-year-old daughter was cute and well behaved. And it turned out that not only was there a dining car in the next carriage, but it was possible for all of us to sleep lying down at the same time. I think I slept well, but I’m pretty tired now, and when I had a lie down in my hotel room earlier on, it felt like I was rocking from side to side. When I asked the Norwegian woman how she had slept, she was evasive and distant, so I suspect that for much of the night I was snoring or farting or both.

We arrived in Rome at about 11, one hour late. I found my hotel easily enough: it’s just near the station. But it is odd. Reception is on the first floor, and the rooms are behind a door on the fifth floor. On the other floors, there are other hotels and pensiones. And they serve breakfast at a café round the corner.

After dumping my stuff, I went on my customary hunt for a cafe or bar with wi-fi. No luck at all. There are internet centres on every corner, full of scary Windows machines infested with toolbars and spyware and shitware. Nothing I’d be prepared to type a password into, and nothing that it’s possible to upload photos from. Some internet centres offer to burn your photos onto a CD, which would be great if it was 1996, but doesn’t help me get my photos safely off my person and onto this blog.

So I uploaded yesterday’s blog entry standing on a street corner using stolen wi-fi. I may have to do the same with this entry. And it’s just possible that there won’t be any new photos here until I return to the present day. See you then.

Lost in Paris II

Monday, 3 March 2008

My trip back to Paris took three hours and was very easy. Three hours of sleeping lightly, listening to Doctor Who audios and looking out the window at picturesque French villages. I was looking forward to sitting elegantly in one of the cafés at the Gare de Lyon, drinking wine and using the free wi-fi that so excited me last time.

We were pulling into the station when I took another look at my Paris–Rome ticket, and it occurred to me that Paris Gare de Lyon and Paris Bercy might be completely different stations. A quick look at the departure board at Gare de Lyon confirmed it: there was no train leaving from there for Rome.

Frantically consulting Google Maps, I discovered that the Gare Bercy was only a mile away, and that it could be reached by following the Rue de Bercy. Even I managed that without getting lost. The station itself was horrid: no cafe, no wi-fi and nowhere to sit. Thank God there was alcohol available.

And so now I’m on the train. A second class couchette was the only thing I could get, which means I’m currently sharing a tiny room with a nice Norwegian family of three and a reticent young Japanese woman. I don’t think there’s enough room for us all to sleep at the same time.  I’m hoping the conductor guy is going to bring our passports back tomorrow morning. And I’m beginning to suspect there will be no food served on this trip.

I’ll upload this post when I arrive in Rome. And I’ll let you know then what kind of state I’m in.

Conversations with Mormons

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Yesterday I spent a few hours checking out Roman ruins, and at about three in the afternoon I was wandering the streets when I saw a pair of well-dressed young men ringing a doorbell.

Now, I’ve been in France for just over a week. And everyone here speaks French, apparently.  I’ve had to book hotels in French, and order meals, and buy train tickets. I’ve even explained the merits of the Eee PC to a few curious passersby. But my French is not what it was. I can tell people that the monkey is on the branch without making any mistakes, but otherwise I find myself horribly self-conscious about genders and irregular verb tenses and things. I came top in French in 1A, for God’s sake, I shouldn’t be uncertain about the future tense of faire.

So I was so excited by the prospect of a conversation in English that I went straight up to the young men. The more confident one told me he was from Idaho (bless him!); he had learned French at school and had done some intensive language training before coming to France as a missionary. I told him about my plans, and he was lovely and enthusiastic, as Mormons are. He briefly attempted to hook me up with missionaries in Sydney, but didn’t push it when I told him I wasn’t very religious. I said goodbye and walked away much happier.

The ruins had been great, of course. I went a bit mad with the camera. There was the Maison Carrée, where they show you a cheesy 3D film about the heroes of Nîmes. And then the beautiful Jardins de la Fontaine, where there was once a temple of Augustus and where you can still see the ruins of a temple of Diana. And at the top of the hill is the Tour Magne, a deceptively squat-looking tower from where you can see a panoramic view of the whole town. If you can cope with the scary spiral staircase leading to the top. I even visited the Castellum, which is the cistern at the end of the aqueduct, which used to distribute water all over the colony.

Catching the train to Paris this afternoon, and from there to Rome. I arrive on the morning of the fourth. I’ll catch up with you all then.

Colonia Augustus Nemausus

Saturday, 1 March 2008

I arrived in Nîmes yesterday lunchtime.

The hotel was easy to find, but hideously grim and unimpressive. To name and shame: it’s the Hotel de Provence, Nîmes. When I checked in, the concierge apologised about the room, and I said no, I’m sure it will be perfectly alright, but I was horribly wrong. The walls are grimy and the shower overflows. There’s a smell in the corridors, and there’s a continuous grinding sound somewhere on the second floor. There’s only one power point. I got home this evening to find that no one had done the room. Avoid.

The hotel put me in a bad mood, so I went off to look at the town. At first, I was unimpressed. It was like a grim country town in New South Wales: wide streets and shitty Chinese restaurants. Like, say, Guyra, only not as nice. But then I turned a corner, and at the end of the street I saw the Maison Carrée.

A narrow street full of parked cars. Unexpectedly, there is a Roman temple at the end of the street.

And from then on, I started to cheer up. After the Maison Carrée, you turn another corner and there are clothes shops and nice bookshops and trendy cafes with alfresco seating, and a few hundred metres further there’s a giant Roman amphitheatre.

I visited the amphitheatre in the afternoon and took dozens of pictures. They’re all up now. It’s the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world: in fact, it still seats 15 000 for the annual bullfights. I hung around there until it closed and then went off to find somewhere to drink. Most places were full of soldiers, as has already been noted. I wonder why.

This morning, I spent an hour booking my ticket to Rome (overnight, via Paris again), and another hour trying to find a bus to take me to the Pont du Gard, which is a stretch of Roman aqueduct about 20 km from Nîmes. It’s beautiful. It spans a valley covered in what I want to call bushland; three levels of beautifully preserved arches, built in the first century to supply Nîmes with water. The pictures don’t do it justice, of course, but I’ll try and upload more of them tomorrow.

All the cafés round here are full of hot young soldiers!

Friday, 29 February 2008

I just thought I’d mention it.

From Avignon to Nîmes

Thursday, 28 February 2008

A low nineteenth-century building with the words Gare d'Avignon Centre across the front. There's a car park in front of it.

Just under an hour before my train leaves for Nîmes. There are a few things I want to see here:

I’ve given myself three nights there. Hoping that’s enough time. And then to Rome itself. There’s a possibility I might have to catch the TGV back to Paris, and then another train to Rome. I’ll find out this afternoon.

Day off

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

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.

A view from above of brick arched bridge going partway across a river, with trees on the far bank.

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.

Lost in Paris

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

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.

Les beaux messieurs font comm’ ça

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Looking down my legs: I'm wearing jeans and sturdy walking shoes,  and standing on the pebbly surface of what turns out to be the  bridge at Avignon.

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.

Free wi-fi!

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

It's dusk. We're looking at the Gare de Lyon, an ornate nineteenth-century train station dominated by a tall clock tower.

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.