World Clock

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Grand Old Lyon

Kiss count: 2. Left-Right.

As I said in my previous post, I left Avignon early, about 8h30 and the TER-network train to Lyon (Lyons in English - again... why?) took around 2 hours, passing some lovely countryside on the way. The final station, Gare de la Part Dieu, is situated about 2km east of the centre-ville of Lyon, the city itself situated in central south-east France. It has the second largest population in France with around 2 million inhabitants, and it is easy to see why so many people choose this as their home, it just has such an air of grandeur about it. And while it appears a lot more commercial than many of the other cities I have come across so far in France, with some fairly upper-class stores and a few wide pedestrianised shopping strips, Lyon is also one of the country's cultural heavyweights, second only to Paris, meaning there is always some sort of festival or event going on at pretty much any point in the year. Interestingly, Interpol has had their headquarters here for the last 20 years, although I didn't get a chance to find it...
To give you a sense of orientation, Lyon is divided crudely into 3 sections by two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, that actually meet at the southern end of the city. The 5th arrondissement (or district; Lyon is divided into 9 of them), comprising Fourvière Hill and Vieux Lyon (old Lyon) and cut off from the other 2 areas by the river Saône, is the smallest, oldest and most visually exciting area. Sandwiched between the two rivers is the main shopping and cultural area of Presqu'île, with a number of large public squares dotted along the roughly north-south axis. On the eastern bank of the Rhône lie the districts known collectively as Lyon-Rive Gauche (left shore) with the predominently commercial areas a little further out.
My last 5-and-a-bit days in France were spent with the awesome CSers Anouck and Vincent, and their soon-to-be ex-flatmate, Greg. These guys were very welcoming and accommodating: they took me to a huge house party the first night I arrived where I met a whole bunch more cool French guys; they made me their temporary interior designer, rearranging their living space to make it more agreeable for potential new flatmates; they cooked dinner for me on a couple of occasions; they took me out to see a bunch of live local music; and they introduced me to the wonderful world of Woody Allen films!
After pulling myself out of bed (well, technically, off the couch) around 10h30 the morning after the house party, I took a stroll around the Presqu'île area and then worked my way through colourful Vieux Lyon - I don't think I've ever seen so many vividly couloured buildings, each one distinct from the next - before ending up at the white Basilique Notre Dame situated at the top of Fourvière Hill. Nearby on the hilltop is the famous Tour Métallique (metallic tower), a transmitting tower that looks very much like a mini Eiffel Tower - the original of which is, coincidentally, also used primarily as a broadcast tower. From this vantage point, the entire city sprawls out before you in a sea of red roofs.
Fête de la Musique: An absolutely brilliant idea that I think should be brought to Australia immediately - although, having researched a little, it looks like capital cities in Australia have already been celebrating this day (the 21st of June) for the past couple of years, but calling it something along the lines of Musicfest? I've personally never heard of it. The idea behind la fête de la musique is that the government loosens restrictions on public music performances, with bands, DJs, solo artists, etc. able to perform on the streets freely (and for free) for the entire day throughout the entire country. Starting from Place des Terreaux, the large open square near the guys' appartment, I had such an awesome night roaming the streets by myself, watching and listening to all sorts of music being played on basically every block - there were some great acts too; my favourites being an army brass band, a DJ with keyboard and trumpet accompaniment causing a stir, and another group on the brass pumping out such hits as Daft Punk's "Around the World".
Some more noteworthy things I got upto in Lyon include: visiting the fabulous and famous museum/fine art gallery known as Musée des Beaux-Arts; checking out some more of those impressive painted building murals I saw in Montpellier (in fact, in a few of the other cities I've visited as well) showing everything from 25 local famous personalities to an artist's impression of 'the ideal city' to an entire building of huge books; learning (and, er-hem, winning) a cool new card game called Jeux de Tarot; and lastly, exploring the early history of film at the Musée Lumière, situated in the building where the Lumière family (coincidentally the word lumière translates as "light" in English) lived in the late 19th century while producing some of the world's first (silent) motion pictures.
Most of my time in this city, however, was spent just relaxing as opposed to constant sightseeing. I played Vincent's guitar quite a bit, chilled out eating pains au chocolat (so bad but oh so good..), and just generally wandered about. I really liked this place and it was certainly a good choice as an ending of my time in France - so lively, warm and friendly... I will be back!


count the vineyards...

some interesting folk at the party..

Place des Terreaux and the Hôtel de Ville

looking across the River Saône with the Basilique in the background

the view from Fourvière Hill

the grand buildings of Lyon

Fête de la musique!!

across the Rhône

enjoying a quiet beer

now that's a bookshop!

inside the Musée des Beaux-Arts

ONE of the cheese sections in the supermarché

checking out some live music...

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

the city of mysterious energy

Kiss count: 3. Left-Right-Left.

What can I say about Avignon? It is a fortified city, with its almost completely preserved walls considered to be one of the finest examples of medieval fortification in existence. Its streets and café-filled squares are lovely, its museums are very interesting, and again the architecture is quite aesthetically pleasing. It is home to the Pont d'Avignon (bridge of Avignon) - officially called Pont Saint-Bénezet - which spans almost across the Rhône (all but 4 of its 22 wooden spans were washed away by a catastrophic flood in 1668) and is the star of the famous French song, "sur le pont d'Avignon." The city is most famous for its history under Papal rule between the 14th and 18th centuries, which came about due to political turmoil in Rome at the beginning of the 14th century, forcing the pope to migrate and reside (along with several of his French-born successors) in Avignon.
What attracted me to Avignon, however, was not any of these things in particular, but the overall unexpected energy of the place. For some reason, the moment I jumped off the train in this new city at 9pm I felt oddly revitalised. I usually would be getting tired by about this time and couldn't be bothered doing anything, instead here I was keen to drop my stuff at the camping ground/hostel and begin exploring as the sun set. Turns out that from this point on up until now as I write this, I have a renewed vitality about my days. Strange. But not at all unwelcome!
After walking around much of the city's walled perimeter and many of the interior streets, I ventured across the river to Avignon's picturesque sister-city known as Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. This is where many bishops associated with the papal court built their massive residences, despite it being an area under French rule as opposed to papal rule. Nowadays, it remains a fairly quiet residential area but retains a very medieval feel with crumbling stone buildings winding up the hill towards a huge fortress-like monastery.
That evening, I bumped into a Luxembourgish couple (how many people can say that?) and we spent the evening at the local Irish pub chatting about anything and everything - they were a good laugh! The next day was fairly uneventful except for a visit to the Musée Lapidaire, which houses one of the most interesting collections of ancient Roman and Egyptian artifacts I have seen, again that could be partly due to my enhanced mood as of late. I watched the sunset over the river and pont d'Avignon on this night.
During my last day here I decided to check out the interior of the colossal gothic Palais des Papes (popes' palace) within the city's walls. It was constructed during the 1300s and the inside was apparently decorated with amazing tapestries, carpets, stained-glass windows, etc. None of these adornments are present today, however, as they were all either pillaged or destroyed in the many fires that ripped through the building over the centuries, and this made for a much less absorbing visit, although the grand scale of the rooms and building itself was quite exceptional. One intriguing thing I learnt was that every time a papal conclave was required, they would actually knock down a few of the walls of this building to make more room for the popes during their time of isolation - afterwards the walls would be resealed and everything would be back to business as usual.. A lot of effort for the sake of a few days in my opinion..
The rest of my afternoon was spent lounging in one of the parks, observing the (fairly unsuccessful) courting ritual of pigeons, before heading back to the hostel and finding myself in with a group of 10 other Aussies, chatting general crap and drinking beers as we do. I stayed my final night in Avignon with another CSer, Sabina, who had quite limited knowledge of English and we used this to our advantage by turning the evening into a massive language lesson for both of us. She is a lovely person and I was a little sad we didn't get a chance to spend more time together as I left early the next morning for my last overland train in France...

Last stop: Lyon!


The city, the Rhône and the pont d'Avignon

these are the city walls

the French love their protests...

Palais des Papes with the cathedral in the background

gives a whole other meaning to climbing plants

in Villeneuve-les-Avignon

some more of Villeneuve

the Luxembourgish, Alessio (Alex) and Conny

mesmerised by a street performer

the Opera house

loving the gothic theme

Monday, 7 July 2008

Beaucoup de Mostiques!

Kiss count: 3. Left-Right-Left.

The most famous resident of Arles was one Mr. Vincent Van Gogh. The Dutch painter spent the penultimate year of his life creating some of the world's best known, most popular and most expensive paintings here whilst battling severe depression. It is also here that he stalked his artistic partner, Gauguin, with a razor blade on 23 December 1888 before famously slicing off the lower part of his own left ear lobe, wrapping it in newspaper and giving it to a local prostitute, named Rachel, telling her to "keep this object carefully." Van Gogh committed himself a few months later to a nearby mental hospital where he would spend the next year before shooting himself in the chest with a revolver, on 27 July 1890 at the age of 37, in a field near Paris. Oddly, he didn't die in that instant and didn't realise he had fatally wounded himself - he died two days later in his bed. Van Gogh's last words, as reported by his brother Theo, were "la tristesse durera toujours" - French for "the sadness will last forever"... Poor guy...
Despite Van Gogh being such a prominent part of Arles' history, not a single piece of his work can be found here - except for some reproductions by other artists - which I find very odd. Nevertheless, the city is quite charming with its Roman architecture and colourful buildings situated on the banks of the River Rhône (one of the main waterways in Europe, passing through France and Switzerland), and you can see where he was able to find the inspiration for his paintings.
Like many towns in the area, Arles (pronounced Arl) only prospered after it became a Roman stronghold around 49BC. The city soon replaced Marseille as the region's major port and within a century-and-a-half had become such an important centre that a 12,000-seat theatre and a 20,000-seat amphitheatre, reminiscient of Rome's Colosseum, were built here. Today, these structures still stand and are used for cultural events and even bullfighting (with a slight twist - around this area, known as the Camargue, a non-lethal form of bullfighting is practised whereby white-clad razeteurs attempt to remove ribbons tied to the bulls horns using hooks held between their fingers).
On the Saturday morning of every week a massive market, stretching on for what seems like miles, is held in the streets of Arles with everything from fresh produce to jewellery, used electrical goods to Islamic fashion items (it appears as though there is quite a large Muslim influence in France). I checked this out for an hour or two before going on my obligatory wander around town. In the evening, two girls from the hostel and myself headed to place de la République in the city centre where a four-piece female a capella group was performing - we had a great time listening to them but unfortunately had to leave early as our hostel had an 11pm curfew.
The following day I took a bus south to an old farmhouse-turned-hostel in the heart of the Camargue, a huge delta of the Rhône famed for its expansive beauty, white horses, black bulls raised for bullfighting, flamingos and mosquitoes! So many mosquitoes! Anyways, so I managed to hitchhike down to the coast to the main town in the area, Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer. I spent a good few hours here and bumped into some of the people from the hostel in Arles before bussing it back to the hostel where I spent the night eating dinner and trying to make conversation with a lovely French family from Lyon using our very limited knowledge of each others' language.
I spent most of the next day riding a bicycle (a velo) I had hired around the Camargue. Unfortunately I had given away my insect repellent to Alana and Brooke in Beijing and it was way too expensive to buy there so I decided to brave it and go without. Big mistake! I got to see thousands of flamingos in their natural environment but at the same time came back with thousands on mozzie bites all over my shoulders, hands and ankles. I don't know how they got to my shoulders since I was wearing two thick long sleeved tops... Mutant mosquitoes maybe? After all this fun, I decided to give hitchhiking another go back up to Arles - very unsuccessfully. I was picked up once but got dropped off about halfway and eventually had to catch a bus after another hour or walking.
When I arrived back, instead of staying in Arles - where there was no vacancy in the hostel anyway - I walked to the train station just outside of town and bought myself a ticket...


Simona and Angel

enjoying the bread at the Saturday markets

the streets of Arles

the amphitheatre

from a different angle

some more artwork

who's been playing funny buggers?

my Japanese friend Satoko!



the famous black bulls

given up.. waiting for a bus in the middle of nowhere after a couple of hours hitchhiking