Tuesday, 24 June 2008


A few weekends ago I headed back to Versailles and stood in the massive line again for what seemed like hours. Seriously anyone thinking of going to Versailles, buy your tickets before you get there, whether that is online, through the train company or a tourist bureau because it's not worth it to stand in the massive queue to get in. I thought it would be better this time as I went real early, one of the first trains to get out there, but nope just as bad.

This first photo is of the Flora fountain, she's there sitting on a whole bunch of flowers, I hope there aren't any roses in that bouquet as that could be a little uncomfortable.

It was pretty funny when we got to the train station at Versailles as there were a lot of tourists all getting off at this stop, and of course being tourists they don't really understand how the French train tickets work when you exit the train station. It's pretty simple really the tickets go in one end, and then the gate opens, but it takes them each a little time to work out where the ticket goes and if it has to go a particular way (it doesn't). So we are all trapped waiting whilst the tourists very slowly trickle through the few turnstiles. Perhaps the tourist bureau of Versailles could look at improving the access there as it was a serious crush.

The other thing they really need to look at is their joke of a ticket machine. When you want to go back to Paris the ticket machines, in a fit of absolute brilliance by the designer, only allow you to buy one ticket at a time, so if you are there with a group you have to very slowly buy each ticket one by one. What can add to the sheer enjoyment of this task is if the ticket machine also doesn't accept cash and so you have to go through the added bonus of using your bank card for each 4 euro ticket, which adds about a minutes to each transaction time.

This second photo is the glory of Versailles, looking down to the grand canal which is 1.5km long and was built so the King could have boating parties.

This time I got to visit the gardens, which I think really are the highlight of Versailles, I mean the Hall of Mirrors is good and all, but the gardens are definitely better. A weird thing they had done between my visits to the chateau is they had drastically reduced the audio guide time for each room. It was really bizarre as now the guide stopped almost in mid-sentence and a lot of the interesting information was excluded. I don't know why they did this, whether it was to get people moving through faster or to encourage people to go on a tour, because the audio guide was definitely better the first time I visited.

This photo is the gardener's house, it was well isolated from the royal residences, which is probably just how the gardener liked it, and certainly had some of the best grounds of any building. As you would expect I suppose.

So onto the gardens. They are pretty cool with their massive hedges and fountains and things, though I was a little surprised at the lack of flowers they had growing. I would have expected acres and acres of them but instead it was all gravel paths and massive hedges. What was kind of cool were the 'groves' which were basically overgrown scrub/forests. I can imagine people got up to a lot of naughtiness in those groves back in the King's day, and probably still to this day, which perhaps was the idea behind their design.

The fountains were impressive and there were an awful lot of them, I guess the only bad thing about them is when I visited they had some sort of music exposition, which basically means they turn the fountains on for a few hours during the day along with classical music. Nice idea and all, the only problem was the sheer volume at which they were blasting the music, you turn anything loud enough and it just becomes noise, I think I'm turning into an old person. Apart from that, seeing the fountains going was pretty cool as you get more of an idea of what it was like when old Louis was wandering around. When the fountains were off you felt more like a servant during the periods when the king was away from home, no luxuries for you then!

I think the best thing about the gardens was the Marie Antoinette part, definitely visit this section if you are up to the 2km hike to get there after strolling through the massive main gardens of Versailles. This section is also quite large, encompassing a little make-believe village the queen had built where she could come to escape from the rigours of palace life, poor dear, and play dress-ups as milkmaids and the like. Marie Antoinette's section certainly felt a bit more natural, though I imagine an awful lot of planning goes into making something look "natural". It was funny seeing this queen's vision of how the peasants lived as she really didn't have any idea how the vast majority of people struggled, hence the revolution I suppose. In fact she would milk hand-picked docile cows, but her milk pail was made of porcelain and was painted to make it look like wood, ahh rich people and the funny things they do.

One thing I found funny in this section is that they had all these different parts to the gardens and they each had names. So they had a French garden which was all manicured hedges and flowers planted in rows, looking like a typical English garden. But then they also had a section called an English garden but all it turned out to be was a field of waist-high weeds. I don't know if that was a subtle dig at the English or whether the French really believe that's how English gardens look. The guys at work didn't seem to be at all surprised when I described it to them, so perhaps they think the English are incompetent gardeners.

Marie Antoinette's billiard room in her little pretend village. Nice setting though.

Last Days

So these are my last days in Paris, man how the time flies, I've already been here for a year and now it's time to leave. I'm heading off to Egypt on the 2nd of July and then spending a few days in Italy before flying back to Australia and into the real world, ie finding a job and all that jazz. I finish my job on Friday and I'll try not to get too self-indulgent here but I guess a bit of reminiscing is in order.

I have enjoyed this year and I feel I have been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to live in a pretty cool city somewhere completely different for a year. I guess what I'll miss most over here is the little weekend jaunts I've been able to do. The ability to just on a weekend go somewhere with a completely different culture is fantastic and one of the best things about Europe. I love the attitude that the French have to life also, they understand that weekends are important and that you aren't your job, which I really appreciate, being the lazy slacker that I am. I love the food too, especially the bread, wine and cheese (the classics I suppose).

I think I've learnt a new-found appreciation for immigrants or visitors, that it is difficult when you move to a new country and that any friendly gesture on the part of the locals is very much appreciated. I definitely have a greater tolerance for people how can't speak English too, after spending a year as a non-functioning illiterate I can understand how hard it can be to learn another language and how isolating that can be. And just because someone can't speak English doesn't mean they are a moron or are willfully ignorant.

Though I will miss Paris I'm looking forward to touching down in Sydney airport. I guess I'm looking forward to being back in a country where I speak the language and understand the pop culture and just "get it" because that's certainly been one of the hardest things over here, constantly feeling like an outsider. I'll see how this blog pans out, but I'll have to keep it going for at least a little while so you can all see my adventures in Egypt and Italy as well as the pain of getting a new job. That's another thing I'm looking forward to, I've learnt a lot this year, and funnily enough most of it hasn't been to do with physics, and I'm certainly looking forward to finding a job that isn't in academia. I'll let you know how that works out. I'll have to change the name of my blog though as I won't really be taking on the French anymore. Hmmm, I'll have to think about that one.

Fete de la Musique

Saturday was the summer solstice over here in the Northern Hemisphere, ie the longest day of the year, and they have a pretty cool way of celebrating it here in Paris, with a day and night of free music throughout the city. On this day any group can come out and perform anywhere, and it seems without any permit or permission or anything. They obviously have more organised events as well, though they are generally classical music as that needs a bit more organisation than a thrash-metal band. The main stuff seems to kick off in the afternoon and then carry on through the evening well into the night, the metro runs much later than normal, in fact it may even go all night, so you don't have to worry about getting home. It is just a really awesome idea and just wandering the streets I got to see so many different bands out. There was first the choral music in the French senate, which is the big building in the Luxembourg gardens, then brass bands, barber shop quartets, heavy metal, 40-year old's pub music and just general cover bands.

I spent most of the evening listening to one band in the Latin quarter and it was a slightly strange experience, they spent most of the night playing cover songs of American/English music and it really felt like you were in an Aussie pub, except that they spoke French after every song. So they were playing things like Hotel California, Stairway to Heaven, Yellow, etc and the French people were all sitting there listening to it, seemed to be getting into it, but then later in the night they started playing French songs and then the audience just went off, they all got up and started dancing away and singing along and it makes me wonder why they played all the English songs first, especially as they didn't seem to know them nearly as well as the French stuff.

All in all it was a really good night, it's just a shame that they could never do this same thing in Australia. Over here it was a real family event and while there was alcohol being sold on the streets, most people weren't drinking and those that were just seemed to get to the happy dancing stage rather than the aggressive punch-you-in-the-face stage. I'm sure there must have been a few fights later in the night though but it just didn't seem to have the same violent vibe that you can sometimes get at these sort of events in Australia. I have the feeling that if they opened the whole of Sydney up to an all-out drinking and music festival it would fairly quickly degenerate into a city-wide riot. Just look what happens on New Year's Eve and that's in the controlled sections, in Paris I don't think I even saw one policeman out on the streets. I don't know why we anglophones have such a strange relationship with alcohol, why is that we aren't capable (as a society) of just having a few friendly drinks without it turning messy? But I suppose if the Australian government knew the answer to that they would be implementing those policies rather than just raising the tax on pre-mixed drinks.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Bits and Pieces

So my year here is nearly up, my job finishes on the 27th of June, well actually my contract expires on Monday the 30th of June but I was planning to take that day off. I mean what are they going to do, fire me :). So I'm slowly gathering up my various goods and chattels and deciding what stuff I want to keep and what I'll chuck out. I've got two boxes from La Poste which cost 40 euros each. I'm assuming that 40 euros includes the postage as whilst they are nice boxes and a very fetching orange, I don't think cardboard could ever be worth that much. This means I have 14 kg available to send stuff home, which is actually quite a lot of weight, the problem is the boxes aren't that big and my stuff is kind of bulky. I need one of those vacuum bags you see on late night TV where you vacuum seal your clothes and chuck them in the attic, and are much smaller than if you hadn't spent the $29.95 on what is essentially a plastic bag.

That's my work building to the left, taken when we got that snow in springtime. Just thought I would give you a photo to break up the writing.

The other thing I'm trying to do at the moment is buy some Italian train tickets. I've already bought my tickets from Rome to Florence, but I also wanted tickets from Florence to Milan. For some reason every time I try to buy that ticket my payment is always denied. I've tried with both my French and Australian credit cards and it's the same deal every time. In fact after I used my Australian credit card my bank wanted me to get in contact with them. So I ring them up on what is meant to be their international reverse charges number, only to be told by the operator that the number is blocked to reverse charges, scummy banks. Luckily I was at work and they use that VOIP-thing so apparently it is free to call international numbers, or so everyone at work tells me. But I really wanted to charge my bank with a massive reverse charge call cost, damn them! So anyway the security issue they wanted to talk to me about was the transaction I had tried to make with trenitalia (the Italian train company). Apparently they had had security issues in the past with this company about false credit card transactions. Made me feel real secure, but I told them that the transaction was real and they wrote a note saying I wanted to buy Trenitalia tickets. Which of course makes absolutely no difference as the transaction was still denied the next time I tried. Oh by the way if anyone out there is with Commonwealth bank and needs to contact them from overseas, the number to call, which apparently doesn't have a reverse charge block on is: 612 8835 2397. At least that's what the lady on the phone told me.

I have to say I haven't had this treatment from my French bank. They just deny my payment and don't really care if the transaction was legitimate or not. But please Trenitalia get your act together! Another thing they should fix on their online ticketing service is that there is no real way to choose your seats. You can ask to be placed near a certain seat, but if there are 2 people travelling together you would think the reservation would put you together, but it seems to be kind of arbitrary. Unless on Italian trains, seats 54 and 57 are next to each other, they must have a unique numbering system in Italy. I've booked a lot of train tickets using the French online service, which I have to say is fantastic, seriously cannot fault it. And there it is very easy to pick your seats, and if you don't like the ones you've been given you don't have to start the whole process again, but simply choose from a drop down menu. But then the good thing about Italian train travel is that the price is always the same, even if you buy it 2 months or 20 minutes in advance, I'm just hoping there are still seats available on the train I want, when I get to Rome and have access to a Trenitalia ticket machine.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Train Strikes, Grrrr!

There are more train strikes on today, well one strike anyway as it seems to only be on my line to work and everything else seems to be unaffected. I didn't know there was going to be a strike today, I hadn't seen any warnings on their internet sites and I normally check them quite diligently now. I guess in France I should get in the habit of always taking my work home with me in the quite likely chance that there will be a strike on the next day and I can't get to work. I waited on the platform for an hour, 4 trains came by (normally that would be something like 10-20 trains) and I literally couldn't get on any of them. People were having to grab onto the door frame and then force themselves on by pushing against the frame. I'm sorry I haven't lived in Paris long enough to get quite that up close and personal with people. Wedged in with all the other sweaty people and getting crushed more and more as the train continues on it's journey, no thanks.

My options are either to try again in an hour and hope that the people traffic has died down somewhat, or I could catch 2 buses then a train and then walk for 20 minutes and end up at work 2 hours later, hmmmm I think I know which one I'll be trying. I guess I always have a third option and that is to just not go to work today. The thing is I have 2 weeks left here and I really want to submit a paper before I go, and these strikes are making it hard to achieve that.

Whilst I was coming out of the train station to think about my options, there were a group of communists handing out their pamphlets about the strike and that sort of thing. Not many people were taking them, surprisingly enough. I don't think they are doing their cause any favours. I can understand why the transport workers go on strike and I certainly agree with their right to industrial action, but the problem in France seems to be that strikes are their only sort of action, there's no negotiating, no meetings, well the negotiations seem to go one way only. And if the workers don't get all their demands meet they go on strike, in fact even if their demands are getting meet they still go on strike. Unfortunately the transport workers really know that they hold all the power in Paris, and I don't think it is very fair of them to hold all us poor working saps hostage every time their, kind of unreasonable, demands aren't meet.

Sunday, 15 June 2008


When I was visiting Nimes I thought I may as well pop into Avignon on the way back to Paris. I really love that name, Avignon, it's like something out of King Arthur. Avignon is famous, at least among French people and British school children, from the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon" which means "On the bridge of Avignon". It's just a children's song about dancing on the bridge in a ring, though actually the original version of the song was "Sous le pont d'Avignon" which means "Under the bridge of Avignon" but the words got corrupted over the years. Now I had never heard of this song before, it wasn't until I mentioned to someone here that I was going to go to Avignon and they started singing the song, which was slightly strange at the time, having never heard it before.

I suppose the other reason Avignon may be famous was that it was home to the Pope for a while, or rather Popes as they were there for almost 70 years, enough for 7 popes. I never knew the Roman Catholic empire was home to such intrigue, I thought they were meant to be pillars of holiness and all that, but it sounds like at this time they all went a bit crazy. What happened was that the King of France at the time, Philip the Fair, started to get a bit too big for his boots and was questioning the power of the popes over less spiritual matters. Good on Philip you might think, standing up for his rights, but I think the real reason he started to go after the Church was he wanted to get his hands on some of that glorious money they had, in order to fund his many wars.

He had already gone after the Jews in France for their money, as does everyone throughout history, and wanted to have a go at the Templars and was starting to turn his sights on the massive wealth of the church. The pope before Clement V, Boniface VIII, could stand up to Philip and was actually getting ready to excommunicate him, when Philip sent a delegation to meet with Pope Boniface and they arrested him on charges of heresy. This pope was freed 3 days later, but at 68 years of age he couldn't handle the stress and he soon died. King Philip stepped in once again and forced the election of Clement V who was then tied to Philip, but the Italians in the Church weren't too happy about that and so started to make things tough for this French pope. Rather than standing up to them, Clement V fled to Avignon where he then went about doing Philip's bidding and electing hundreds of French cardinals. Now as the cardinals are the ones who elect the popes, there was quite a string of French popes after Clement V, who were also tied to the French kings at the time. The Popes eventually returned to Rome in 1378 under Gregory XI who was getting a bit worried about all the unrest in Rome. The peace didn't last long though, after his death the cardinals went to elect a new pope but an Italian mob broke into the chamber and demanded that they choose an Italian Pope. So they elected Urban VI, but this Pope turned out to be too much of a Christian for the cardinals, demanding that they refuse gifts from kings and condemning them for their luxurious lives. The cardinals didn't take too kindly to this and so moved back to Avignon where they then elected another Pope and named Urban VI (the Roman Pope) the Antichrist, cool, even better though, the Avignon popes of this time are known as the anti-popes.

This made it pretty tough on the normal people as there were now 2 popes running around who had both been legitimately elected, all because the cardinals were greedy. This was the Western Schism which lasted nearly 40 years, where it then got real messy, before some major political manoeuvring was required to get the two popes to combine as one. It was kind of like electron-positrons (anti-electrons), which annihilate each other upon impact. When the pope and the anti-pope met they were both stripped of papacy and another person was elected and the matter finally came to an end.

I'm looking forward to visiting the Vatican in a few weeks time, I'm going on a tour and I plan to ask the guide about all this sordid business. There was also a kind of recent pope who only lasted for 33 days before he mysteriously died, the conspiracy theory is that he was poisoned by corrupt cardinals. Adding to the suspicion is that he was very quickly embalmed and no autopsy was allowed to be performed. I guess that's what power will do to people, even those supposedly sent by God. So that's a small part of the messy history of the Popes and Avignon, but now onto my visit.

The first two photos above are of the Palais des Papes, which was built in the 14th century as a massive fortified palace for the papal court. This place was massive and even though it was empty now the sheer size of the rooms gave you some idea of the insane amount of wealth these popes had. I love how it is just what you imagine a castle to be too with the square ramparts and everything, a bit austere from the outside but the popes aren't there to make people feel welcome.

Above is a photo of the ramparts, these are about 4.5kms long and were built between 1359 and 1370, I guess those Avignon Popes were really scared of the Italians attacking, or maybe the French Kings were more likely. You can also see the Palais des Papes in the distance.

In one of the churches near the Palais they had a replica Shroud of Turin on display. I don't know where the real one is, probably locked in some coffer in the Vatican away from those ungodly scientists and all their tests and measurements and proof and facts.

A view of the Rhone river and the famous Pont St-Benezet (the bridge of the song). This was built between 1177 and 1185 to link Avignon with the town you can see on the other side of the river. It used to be 900 m long but has been rebuilt and repaired numerous times as floods constantly damaged it over the years. In the end it was reduced to the 4 arches that are currently standing, after the other 18 spans were washed away for good in the mid-1600's. The story goes that this bridge was originally built because Benedict, a pastor from Ardeche, a tiny town 150kms north of Avignon, was apparently told in 3 separate visions that he must get the Rhone spanned at any cost. I guess Avignon has had a long history with crazy religious people.

Another bridge picture.

Avignon is only about 40kms north-east of Nimes and as the weather was nice this day I could actually see Mount Ventoux off in the distance.

The Rhone river, looking particularly inviting, with the Avignon bridge and just a few of the hundreds of paddlers out on the water that day. It looked like the current was particularly strong here with all the paddlers struggling against the river heading towards the bridge and then flying back down to the hire place.

Monday, 9 June 2008


After my morning at Pont du Gard I had the afternoon in Nimes, which was a really lovely city. Nimes is actually where denim comes from. The story goes that during the 18th century the large protestant middle class, which had been banned from government jobs and various other things started to make a fabric known as serge. This fabric was stained blue and was popular among workers. Then Levi Strauss, an immigrant to the USA, started to make trousers for the gold miners in California. He wanted the clothes to be durable and after experimenting with tent canvas he settled on serge de Nimes, or serge from Nimes, and from that we got the word denim, so there you go.

This city seemed very wealthy, particularly in the old part of town, but then also a relaxed feel to it. The old city part was fantastic and some of the Roman ruins were amazing. The thing I liked best was their amphitheatre which is still in use today. They do bullfighting there, which I didn't realise they did in the south of France, but I guess they are kind of close to Spain. In fact the non-French speaking bus drivers I spoke to when trying to get to Pont du Gard were in fact Spanish.

Les Arenes, as the amphitheatre is known, was built in 100AD to house 24 000 people. The audio guide was fantastically informative and explained how initially the gladiators were respected and their fights almost never ended in death, but then as the Roman empire disintegrated and the Vandals started attacking the culture started to break down, until the end it was nothing much more than a blood bath. Apparently during the barbarian invasions the townspeople took shelter in the amphitheatre as all the rich people had already left the town for safety elsewhere. In fact there were a few hundred people people living here once they had turned the walls into ramparts as it was the only semi-safe place at that time. These buildings remained until the 18th century when they were knocked down and the amphitheatre returned to it's present form.

As you can see they don't go in much for health and safety in France, see if you can pick what I'm talking about. Their only concession to any sort of regulation was a sign saying "parents please hold on to your children" as you got further up the seating area. At one point there was a massive hole in the wall, and I'm talking big enough to drive a bus through, on the 3rd floor, no fence or railing, nothing. You could go right to the edge and peer out if you wanted to, Australian OH&S would have an absolute field day in France.

Another awesome Roman artifact, I don't really want to call them ruins as there is nothing really ruined about them, is the Maison Carree, which comes from the archaic French of "carre long" which meant long square, ie rectangle. It was built between 19-16BC to honour Emperor Augustus' two adopted sons. It is meant to be one of the best preserved Roman temples anywhere in the old Roman empire and it was saved from destruction because it was converted to a christian church in the 4th century. It has been a temple, church, residence, stable (during the French revolution), archive storage and is now a museum. I love how the revolutionaries seemed to go out of their way to desecrate anything that may have previously been cared for, "an ancient Roman temple, we don't care, let's put our horses in there, that's a good idea".

It wasn't all just Roman ruins though, there was also the Jardins de la Fontaine, or the fountain gardens. These are meant to be the first civic gardens in France, being built between 1738-1755. They were centred on a spring and in Roman times there were baths and a temple here. This was actually the first place I have ever heard proper ululating going on, it was pretty cool. There was a wedding procession going on and so people were beating drums and every now and again one of the women would start full-on ululating. I felt a little sorry for the bride though as it had been raining all day and she was having to pick her way through all the mud and puddles in her white dress and little shoes. At least she had a fair few bridesmaids/hangers-on to hold her dress up. These were some really lovely gardens though and quite large stretching up the hill to the Tour Magne, which was an old Roman tower (can't escape those Romans for long in this town) which used to be part of the 7km ramparts of Nimes. It was built in 15 BC and is about 30 m high.

I really get the feel of the Roman baths in this photo, loving the tiles in the ponds.

After scaling the tower in about 10 minutes, it was meant to have already closed and the attendant was nice enough to let me run up and down, I headed back down the hill and popped into the temple of Diane, yes another Roman temple. Not nearly as impressive as the Maison Carree and strangely there was some French Christian band practising in there, I don't know if they understood the Diana was not a Christian and maybe she wouldn't appreciate them praising other gods in her temple.

That was it for me in Nimes, I only spent an afternoon there, but if you like Roman ruins I would suggest you pay it a visit.

You are meant to be able to see Mount Ventoux from the Tour Magne, but unfortunately the weather was bad, so only a rainbow this time. For those who don't know this was the mountain where Tom Simpson, the British cyclist, collapsed and died within half a mile of the summit still clipped into his pedals, so the story goes, in the 1967 Tour de France. They found speed and alcohol in his bloodstream and amphetamines in his jersey. Who says cyclists don't know how to have fun!

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Pont du Gard

One of my latest weekends was a bit of a Roman weekend. I went down to Nimes in the south of France, this second half of the year has all been about the South really. Anyway Nimes is quite famous for it's well preserved Roman architecture, and one of the more famous structures, in France anyway, is the Pont du Gard. It's meant to be the second tallest Roman structure still standing in the world at 49m, it's something like 2 metres shorter than the Colosseum in Rome. The name means bridge over the river Gard and was thought to have been built in 19BC to carry water from a spring in Uzes to the city of Nimes 50km away and is thought to have been working for something like 400-500 years. The bridge was built in 3 years without the use of mortar, the stones were precisely made to fit together, which is amazing when you look at all the arches. If any of you have a 5 euro note, or remember what is on the 5 euro note, this photo may be familiar to you.

I caught the train in Nimes and I had checked on the web, including the Pont du Gard website, which all said there are buses running from Nimes to Pont du Gard, the number 169 and they even gave the timetable. But when you arrive in Nimes there is absolutely no information as to where the bus departs from, or even if there is a bus there at all. It is the main bus depot in Nimes and yet there is not one scrap of information there, no office open, no maps, no timetables. The only information lists the bus numbers and when they depart, but there was no number 169 listed anywhere. I got there about 40 minutes before the bus was due to depart, it was when the train arrived, so I had a lot of time to look around. The thing with Nimes is that on one side of the train station are the provincial buses, going to Avignon and Pont du Gard and on the other side was the main bus station for the metropolitan buses around Nimes. But I didn't really know which side my bus should leave from, so I kept wandering back and forth between the bus stations trying to find any sort of information. I eventually resorted to asking people in my pitiful French and so I at least homed in on the bus station on the correct side of the station. But I still had no sign of where the bus would leave from or even if it would ever leave. While I was examining the little information they had pined up I noticed another group of English people complaining about the lack of information, turns out they were trying to get to the city of Ales but also had no idea which bus to take. So we commiserated for a while and they tried the bus stop on the other side of the station. I then proceeded to ask all the bus drivers I could see, some of which said I don't know, some said down the other end of the station, and some didn't even speak French, but nobody seemed to know what time the bus arrived. At this stage I noticed a couple of other English-speaking people were walking around asking people too and turns out they were also looking for the bus to Pont du Gard and had exactly the same information as I had printed from the web. We really roused all the local Nimeans though, I could ask everyone, because I could speak enough French to at least phrase my question, whilst the others focused on those who could speak English. Between us I think we asked everyone waiting for a bus. Eventually we got definitive word that the bus would arrive at this platform in 10 minutes, and then it showed up right on time. The thing was it wasn't even bus 169 it was bus 14 or something. It's pretty strange that such a popular site has no specific information at the bus station. I wonder if the tourist-question asking is a regular occurrence at that bus stop? I also wonder if those other guys ever made it to Ales.

When I was reading a little bit on Nimes I read that they have 300 sunny days a year, and I thought brilliant, I took my umbrella anyway, it is Europe after all, but I didn't bother with my raincoat. Unfortunately when I got there it started bucketing down and then I read on a brochure that whilst it may be sunny for 300 days of the year, when it does rain, it rains hard, apparently that is the Mediterranean climate. So unfortunately I was there for one of the 65 days of the year, but even the bad weather didn't detract from the amazing sight, though it did make it a bit difficult to walk through the forest with my umbrella. There is a reason why bushwalkers generally wear raincoats rather than carry umbrellas.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


My last little jaunt while I was in the south of France was to Corsica, or more precisely to Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon. Ajaccio is the largest city in Corsica and is the political capital. Napoleon was born here in 1769, but I'm not sure how much he liked to remind people of that fact. They loved him in Ajaccio with all these museums and monuments but I don't think he ever visited again once he was emperor, even though his family all lived here. I suppose he was probably too busy anyway, out conquering Europe and all that.

Corsica was really awesome, flying in all you could see was mountains rising out of the sea, I think it's like the resort of France too, so it has a real relaxed feel to it, but thankfully not the resort of England, so it doesn't have the drunk hooligan feel to it. It really felt like it's a place where only French people come on holiday, there didn't seem to be many other non-French speakers around, so it had a real authentic feel to it.

In fact the whole of the south of France had a different feel to it, especially when compared to snooty Paris. Everyone at work had told me that the people were much friendlier in the south but I was dubious. But after spending a long weekend there I can say that I did have heaps more conversations with people, and French people too I'm proud to say, though I use the word conversation very loosely, which has never happened in the north of France. They really did seem to be more relaxed and friendlier than people I have met in Paris. Not that I mind, I don't really want to get into a conversation with a stranger every time I catch the train to work. But when you are on a holiday it is nice to just relax and chat to people every now and again.

Completely stupid monument to Napoleon, I mean as to how big it was, this thing was massive, easily the biggest thing in town, including the buildings! Well maybe not quite, but it was huge.

Corsica is definitely a place I would like to come back to, but maybe in 10 or 20 years when I feel like slowing down for a while. I'm thinking maybe hire a car (definitely a necessity if you want to see the whole island) and just cruising around. I would love to do these massive walking trails they have over nearly the entire island. Almost the entire interior of the island is taken up by the 3300 square kilometre National Park of Corsica. There is one trail which stretches over 160 km and follows the islands continental divide and so most of the trail is over 2000 m, this walk takes about 2 weeks and is only passable in summer. In the photo to the below left I think you can still see the snow on some of the mountains, apparently the snow remains until July, they are that big.

It would also be nice to catch a ferry over to Sardinia and then maybe to Nice and hire another car there, ahh so many holidays to do, but I only get 4 weeks in the year :(. I didn't realise Italy was so close until I visited, apparently Sardinia is only 12 miles away, it seems strange that Corsica is French, when it is so much closer to Italy. But apparently Corsica was ruled by one of the Italian principalities, Pisa in this case, from the 11th to the 13th century and then it was taking over by the Genoese rulers. During this time the Corsicans were not happy about the foreign rule and then in 1755 after 25 years of war with the Genoese, the Corsicans declared their island independent. They established a National Assembly and adopted one of the most democratic constitutions in Europe, though really I don't think that's saying much back then. This independence only lasted until 1768 when Genoa, even though they had no effective control over Corsica, gave it to the French, whose army then defeated the Corsicans in 1769. The island has been a part of France ever since though there are a few Corsicans who believe they would be better off independent. The island is heavily subsidised by mainland France though and in fact the joke goes that a referendum on Corsican independence would be rejected in Corsica but granted in the mainland. There are on occasion a few bombs going off but generally the rebels don't seem to be too murderous.

My first day I was there I went on a little tour around the city and out to the famous Iles Sanguinaires, yeah I'd never heard of them either. But they seemed quite pretty, they are a little group of islands just off the coast a bit south of Ajaccio. They are meant to have slightly reddish rocks, thus giving them their name, but I couldn't see it. There is also one of the Genoese watch towers built on the mainland here. When Genoa controlled Corsica they built thousands of these watch towers all over the place as they were worried about an attack from North Africa, actually I think this one might just be to defend against pirates, but maybe the pirates were from north Africa?

I also got to see the church where Napoleon was baptised, very important, he was 2 at the time, but the church is still known as that. And the baptismal font, where the priest took the water to baptise Napoleon's noble head is still there, inside the church.

I also really wanted to see the Fesch museum while I was in Ajaccio. Cardinal Fesch was Napoleon's uncle and he built a palace in 1827 where he dedicated three wings to an art museum. It seemed to me that this uncle, who was only 6 years older than Napoleon, just followed him around as he conquered Europe and stole all this loot from the conquered countries, where it then ended up back in Ajaccio, of all places. So I was imagining they would have some pretty impressive pieces, unfortunately it was closed for renovations though.

Adding to the Mediterranean feel they, obviously, had going here, there were orange trees just growing along the streets. The oranges looked pretty diseased though, that's probably why there are still so many on all the trees.

A typical street in Ajaccio, well in the city centre anyway.

with the The next day I decided to go on a little walk, there is a walking trail leaving from behind the massive Napoleon monument that heads up into the hills above Ajaccio and follows the coast for a little bit. I was pretty keen to get out there and have a bit of a walk and it really was fantastic. I got to see heaps of wildlife too, lizards and bees and snakes and even a tortoise, that was definitely the highlight for me, seeing a tortoise in the wild. Here's me being naughty and interfering with the tortoise, it wasn't very big, but it wasn't going any where. It was off in the bush a bit and also quite camouflaged so I was incredibly lucky to see it at all.

There were quite a lot of ants around too, I suppose gathering their store for winter. This one I thought was doing quite well with this grain of grass.

I actually managed to get a bee on a flower, you can even see a little bit of pollen on his fur. I also got an awful lot of photos of just a bee leg or a blurry flower, these things moved pretty fast. I also have a slight fear of bees because I am allergic to them, not anaphalactic shock allergic, but just insane swelling allergic. I do wonder what would happen if one ever bit me on the throat, that could be interesting.

I also saw a snake, I don't have a photo of that though. That was the first snake I've seen over here and it was when I saw it that I got a little nervous. I'd never even thought of dangerous wild animals over here. You just assume that Europe is fairly safe, that you've left the country with insanely venomous reptiles. I just never even thought about snakes in Europe, for some reason I forgot that they have them, but then it is only Ireland that doesn't have snakes, thanks to St George. But just because a snake isn't in the top 10 most dangerous list, doesn't mean it can't kill you, it would just take a little while longer. It was the only one I saw but it certainly put me on the lookout for more.

The views were amazing and I'm now going to bore you with a whole stack more photos. The walk I had planned to do was meant to go for three hours and get me a bit of the way along the coast. The walk did keep going though all the way to the end of the bay and the Iles Sanguinaires and I didn't have a map, but I thought well I'll walk for 2 hours and then keep my eyes out for the turn off. I walked for about an hour and then saw a turnoff but I was sure that couldn't be mine, it would mean a walk of 90 minutes rather than three hours, and let me tell you I wasn't walking that fast. Taking 5000 photos as you will come to see. So I kept walking, but it turns out that no, that was the turn-off I was meant to take. Makes me wonder if the 2 week walk I mentioned earlier can actually be covered in a week.

It was lucky I kept going though as otherwise I would never have got to see the tortoise. In the left you can see the Iles Sanguinaires off in the distance. By this stage the weather was unfortunately turning bad, so every thing is a little misty.
The Bay of Ajaccio with the ferry from Nice just arriving.

There were all these strange ruins up in the mountains which I wasn't really sure what they were from. Shepherd's huts or farmers or independence fighters?

Looking down on Ajaccio with the citadel on the point and yes those are sandy beaches. The citadelle was begun in 1554, but is unfortunately still owned by the military and so is not open to the public. I wonder what they do in there, maybe it is the French version of Guantanamo Bay?

Flora along the walk.

Where am I? Corsica or Canberra? Suddenly along the walk there was this little pocket of gum trees, I don't know if they were planted deliberately, or if they went feral or if they are natives here, but they certainly stood out against the low scrub land every where else. In fact walking on a bit and looking back you could see the gum trees towering over everything else.

Of course it wouldn't be my blog without the obligatory macro-lens shots of flowers. Only two this time though, and I'll spare you the single colour shots, this time at least.

I'll leave you with a few more shots of the Mediterranean sea and the lovely resort-esque look of Ajaccio, but I will say that whilst they had incredible views over the marina and the bay and across to the mountains they did that strange European thing where that fantastic view is ignored in favour of having all the restaurants in a little pathway in the middle of the town. That certainly had it's own appeal but the scene over the marina at sunset would have been stunning and yet they ignore it, strange.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Weird-ass Monaco

Whilst I was in Nice I thought I may as well pop into Monaco, seeing as how it is only a half hour train ride away. I had visions of something incredibly glamorous and beautiful, even though I had been warned at work that it was very touristy. It is certainly a strange little place, only 1.95 square kilometres in area and has been ruled by the Grimaldi family since 1297, the world's oldest ruling dynasty. There are actually 5000 native Monegasques, as they are called, who pay no income tax and have the world's highest per capita income. It is no surprise then to hear that street crime is almost non-existent here and there is a very large police presence, I'm guessing the residents indulge more in white-collar crime than that messy assault stuff anyway.

Monaco was really a pretty city, the way it is perched all over the mountains, it was just too bad it was so hard to get around on foot. My first thought at the railway station was to try and get to the exotic gardens which have apparently 7000 species of succulents and cacti and a fantastic view from their position perched in the hills. Unfortunately I discover that the footpath to the gardens has been blocked off with no sign of any detour. So instead I headed for the castle built on the very top of a cliff looking out to sea.

My experience with Monaco was that it really wasn't designed with pedestrians in mind, in fact they seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for those foot travellers. Perhaps that is no surprise when you think of the inhabitants and their means of transportation. I mean if you owned a Lamborghini it's not as if you are going to walk somewhere when you could quite easily drive. What's the point in spending all that money if you aren't going to show off your incredible wealth.

So the only footpaths bordered the main highways where the Ferrari's zoomed along. Pedestrian crossings were also sadly lacking and so when you wanted to cross a road you had to basically dart out into the traffic and hope that the people cared more about their bodywork than the pleasure gained from running you down. It's not as if the roads were really all that fantastic either, they seemed far too narrow for the sheer volume of traffic they were trying to transport, but then the slower you are moving the more people can admire you in your ultra-luxurious car.

I think this was the first Grimaldi, ie the one who started the dynasty. He was standing outside the castle which was perched on the top of a cliff. That was really picturesque, though he looks pretty dodgy, not like any royalty I've seen, more like a monk or a failed wizard.

I found this lack of footpaths really quite strange though as the town really is quite small and beautiful and yet they have completely spoiled the ambiance with the clogged roads. Perhaps the problem is that I was expecting something more like Nice, which was great to walk around, but with better mountains, sadly disappointed though. I tried to walk to the Casino but ended up along some massive highway (kind of like the Eastern Distributor in Sydney) running underground and then I couldn't escape as there were no exits. So I ended up walking way past the Casino (without seeing it) and then having to worm my way back crossing major intersections with no pedestrian crossings. Maybe this is all a ploy though by the Grimaldis as they probably don't want riff raff clogging up their city, so they only cater to the super-rich who are actually going to contribute to their GDP.

Something which didn't help the pedestrianisation of Monaco was the fact that they seemed to be getting ready for the Grand Prix there. I'm not sure why they had the grand stands and fences up though as I visited about two weeks before the grand prix was scheduled for and it looked like they were already pretty set up. But because they were getting ready for the race they had erected massive fences along all the roads, meaning everyone was funneled into these tiny little laneways and then had no means of escaping if we discovered we were going the wrong way. After visiting Monaco I certainly have an appreciation for the drivers of the formula one cars though, the roads really are narrow and I don't think I saw a truly straight section the whole time I was there. You can see here one of the many Ferrari's which had arrived for the Grand Prix, they seemed to be the only brand name of car there, all the other spots in the pit lane seemed to be empty.

The gardens around the castle were really nice, it was here that they had properly pedestrianised things and it was really peaceful and incredibly lush. Who knows what this flower is? That's for all of you from the tropics now living down South, though perhaps Hibiscus will grow in Sydney too, if it grows in Monaco.

I liked this flower, also in the castle gardens, you can actually see where the pollen has fallen onto the petals. These gardens were really lovely and it made me think what the exotic gardens would have been like, but I just couldn't bear the thought of having to battle the roads all the way up the hill to get to them.

Princess Grace sure hasn't been forgotten in Monaco either, she was the actress, Grace Kelly, who married the king of Monaco and then died in a car crash about 30 years later. There are all these signs up around the place with photos of Grace Kelly and her various deeds performed as princess, like opening schools and that sort of thing. It was slightly strange that they keep dragging her up as she's been dead for 20 years now.

Random Japanese garden I discovered whilst trying to find the Casino. The parts dedicated to pedestrians in Monaco were incredibly nice, I just wish there were more of them. I now understand how native animals must feel watching their habitat being surrounded by major highways and how happy they must feel when the government builds green corridors to connect their islands of native habitat. It kind of made me wish the Monaco government would do that for us cheapo tourists, give us little garden pathways between the islands of non-highwayness.

One more photo of the pretty Monaco harbour, that big grandstand in the centre is set up for the Grand Prix, I guess that must be the finish line. It must be strange to go to a car race as a spectator sport. I mean it's not like you would actually see much, every couple of minutes a car would come past in a blur accompanied by an incredible racket. Maybe you go to see an awesome crash, but then you are liable to end up injured as well. I guess I just don't see the attraction.

Give me a bike race any day, where there you spend the whole day in the sun to see the riders whizz by in about 30 seconds (that's if you are standing on a hill, it's much shorter on the flat) but then in a bike race you always have the possibility of someone collapsing in some drug-induced fit, now THAT would be good!