Europe 2017 (Episode 1): Corsica for ……short people, the credit card-less and mirror manufacturers

Somewhere in Corsica you will find the bodies. The poor fools that travelled up the Cap Corse without cash. Ostensibly we are in France a modern, 21st century nation. But not in Corsica. No you are in anti-France where the French are just more foreigners, credit cards are a yet to be discovered means of paying for things. Alternatively they are a trick played on innocent Corsicans by tourists and the Italians (Genovese) who were simply invaders that happened to hang around for a century or four.

Bastia & Bastia street photography

In Corsica, cash is still King. Moreover do not assume that in the absence of credit card facilities, the natives will provide ATMs. No, for the idiot traveller if you do not bring cash from one of the major cities, tough. You shall neither eat, nor drink, neither shall you refuel your vehicle or pay for a camp ground.

And do not question the natives about why they do not accept cards, for they will simply make like Atlas did, shrug their shoulders and say “C’est le culture, Monsieur”. And good day to you, please die quietly if you find yourself stranded in our fair land with no fuel and no food. That cash culture has, of course, nothing to do with the fact that the Corsicans are the nearest thing you can find in France to the Sicilians and like the Sicilians they have a similar aversion to the tax man.

The absence of modern day credit is, arguably, yet another symptom, of Corsican resistance to outsiders. Ask mainland French people about the idiosyncrasies of Corsica and they will simply shrug and say “Mais, c’est La Corse”. In other words..it’s Corsica, shit happens, as the Corsican resistance will explain to the French.

Bastia

During the centuries of occupation, variously, by the Genoese, the French, British, Italians, Germans etc the Corsicans have quietly gone about their business resisting all of them with the leading “hero” being Pasquale Paoli. Language signs are frequently in Italian and French and Corsican, which is a variation of Italian and which is still spoken if not widely then, at least, as a symbol of Corsican resistance. A sort of “fuck you” to outsiders.

Various movements, calling for either greater autonomy or complete independence from France, have been launched, some of whom have at times used violent means, like the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica (FLNC). In May 2001, the French government granted the island of Corsica limited autonomy, launching a process of devolution in an attempt to end the push for nationalism.

Other than the risk of starvation and general penury Corsica also offers death by cliff diving. Somewhere, over the cliff, lie the broken vehicles and battered bodies of tourists who were too nervous for Corsica roads. The secret to driving on Corsican roads is to have nerves of steel and never to assume that around the next “s” bend a Corsican driver will not appear, on the wrong side of the road, attempting to overtake a tourist in a camper van.

Drivers of camper vans, are the devil incarnate. A brief conversation with a very pleasant Corsican shopkeeper revealed yet again the fundamental truth of tourism. Yes, they love tourist dollars but hate tourists and hate the drivers of camper vans most of all. Especially the big fat camper vans like the one we were driving. While not quite the cause of the last two world wars, tourism simply perpetuates the bad feeling created a by a plethora of historical invasions.

This van was supplied by a Portuguese company which, rather in the way God/Allah visited religion on Earth as a permanent scourge and bad joke, decided, as another sick joke, to visit on planet earth and, especially Corsica, vehicles that are fundamentally unsuitable for Corsica.  These vans are at least a foot wider than can reasonably be accommodated by Corsican roads resulting in thousands of tourists being permanently psychologically damaged by their driving experiences . 

Porto

The principal beneficiary of this decision by the car hire firm are the manufacturers of wing mirrors. Scattered along the roads of Corsica are about half the vehicle wing mirrors ever produced in the history of human kind, each one testimony to a soul permanently scarred by their experience of driving on Corsican roads. If the mirrors could speak they would record a multitude of humans now permanently scarred with anxiety about plunging off mountainous roads and a myriad of relationships damaged forever by arguments over whether to risk a head on with oncoming vehicles or a side-swipe with adjacent cliff faces.

The other trick the Portuguese visited on us was to decide that no one over 170 centimetres should hire their vans but they failed to tell the potential hirers of this limitation nor to explain why it was imposed.

Perhaps they decided that “short people got no reason to live” as advocated by Randy Newman so they planned to hire their vans only to short people who then kill themselves driving vans that are too wide for narrow roads. Regardless, as a person of “normal” height, as a result I spent the entire trip around Corsica sleeping in a semi-foetal position due to the shortness of the bed.

The upside of all this is a land of spectacular mountains, crystal clear creeks, alpine lakes and ancient hill top towns. Corsica is nothing if not a paradise for those who love the outdoors. Some of Europe’s best walking, paragliding, canyoning, cycling, diving and much else.

The GL20 is reputed to be the hardest long distance walk in Corsica along the spine of the island. We are somewhat less ambitious in our walking plans primarily because the inside of my right knee, according to the specialist, looks like the human knee equivalent of Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Almost nothing left and what is left is in complete ruins.

Our mini tour of Corsica starts in Bastia, where our host deposits us in one of the best AirBnBs ever, brand new, luxuriously appointed and overlooking the main square and hills. We try and overlook the fact that some poor Corsican is probably living on the streets as a result. Our vehicle is a Fiat rented from Indie Campers.

Once I have picked it up,  I am almost immediately forced to perform my first idiot tourist manoeuvre. Just as I am planning to enter a bypass tunnel with my 2.75 metre van I note the tunnel is only 2.6 metres high. There are cars behind me. I cannot go forward and I cannot go back. The only way out is over the 20 centimetre high concrete dividing strip which I have to hope to pass over without either losing the exhaust, rupturing the tyres or compressing the entire underside of the van.

Bastia’s main road comes to a standstill as I perform my escape. Had the dividing strip been just 2-3 cms higher I would have ended up trapped on it with the van balanced half on one side and half on the other, and unable to go either forward and back. My excellent judgement and driving skills, however, avoided that fate.

Cap Corse

After this auspicious start we head across the island to Saint Florent. We have been advised that there is a “sauvage” (wild) walk along the coast. Very gorgeous we are told. And so in a way it is. But sauvage it is not.

That is unless would describe as “wild” a coast dotted with tea cafes and water stops and populated by, apparently, half the population of Corsica. Even were the coast wild there are, immediately offshore, more yachts/boats than were sent to Dunkirk to rescue the British expeditionary force. The only thing deserted about the allegedly deserted beach is the presence of sand. No mind, we shall not whinge and we shall enjoy the water.

The next day takes us on our credit card and cashless tour of Cap Corse along the spectacular winding roads and through a plethora of fantastic hill and coastal towns. The highlight of the day is our visit to Nonza perched spectacularly above it’s black pebble beach and its iconic white stone “angel” laid out in white rocks on the black bench.

It’s actually intended, we think, to be an image of St Julia the patron saint of Corsica who was martyred in Nonza in the 5th century and after whom the Nonza church of St Julie is named. In keeping with the Corsican tradition of trying to ignore foreigners, such as the French, there are no explanatory signs.

Nonza

The legend tells that after she was martyred (crucified) her breasts were cut off and thrown at the rock, which immediately and miraculously gave rise to the natural water springs at the site. If you descend to the beach along the path you can drink at this spring in celebration of the inhumanity of the Pagan Romans towards the Christians.

A level of inhumanity which of course the Christians have repaid in spades by continuing to murder people of other faiths for centuries right up until today. At the beach you can inspect the beach drawings, made from white rocks on black, including that of Julia. It’s also a good spot for a swim on a calm day, despite the multiple admonitions not to swim due the dangerous currents – of which we found no evidence.

Nonza is also famous for the heroics of a lone Corsican soldier who, after all his colleagues had deserted, held out against the French invading forces. He, Jacques Casella, is celebrated as a Corsican hero and honoured by a plaque in the hilltop fort. Apparently he managed to persuade the French army that there were several dozen Corsicans firing on them.  Given that when the average French person takes their one hour lunch break they come back three hours later we can assume the French are not good with numbers.

Nonza

From Nonza we circulate around the Cap Corse, getting progressively more hungry and thirsty before finally at about our tenth attempt we find a bar which accepts credit cards.

The route off the Cape takes us back through Bastia and then on up to the mountains south, heading for Lac Melo a popular walk not far from Corte. The last 5 kilometres or so is a narrow one lane road. Negotiating this road involves a lot of luck in not meeting a vehicle coming the other way.

The principal goal here is to play a good game of bluff and chicken in which you try to get the other party to back up. If I fail to intimidate the oncoming driver I have to reverse my overlarge vehicle for dozens or more metres down a road where even going forward you require centimetre perfect judgement to avoid going over the edge. Apparently there used to be a shuttle bus with no vehicles allowed, but the Corsicans have decided life is more amusing watching the tourists negotiate the road and, hopefully killing themselves doing so.

Lac de Melo

Eventually we stop and hitch the last two to three kilometres because the signs all tell us that no camper vans are allowed further up the road. When we arrive we find, of course, that almost everyone has ignored those signs which reminds me, once again, that it is best to sin first and ask forgiveness later.

We walk to Lac Melo, a two hour walk which we share with a good proportion of the Corsican population as well as half of the visitors to Corsica, all of whom appear to be following us from place to place. On the walk up I admire the mixture of absurdly old and overweight people and tiny children who are struggling up the walk. They are probably thinking the same of me….look at that old bastard going to the lake.

On our return we hitch back to the vehicle where we stop and spend two hours lolling around in the mountain creek that runs out of the lake. This is one of the great joys of Corsica; a plethora of beautiful crystal clear mountain creeks with icy water warmed just sufficiently by the summer sun to allow pleasant swimming.

Even better there are multiple large flat rocks suitable for sun-baking and reading. We sleep by the banks of the same creek with the soothing sound of running water outside the van, after consuming a great wood fired pizza at the ‘Camping de Tuani’ campground cafe.

From here our trajectory takes over to Ajaccio and up the west coast of Corsica, stopping at Cascade des Anglais (the waterfall of the English), Piana. Porto, Ota, Venaco and back to Bastia from where our ferry leaves for Italy.

The only thing English about the Cascade des Anglais is, arguably, the crowds. We don’t come across any English people and the weather, mountains and forests are very un-English. Apart from anything it’s in Europe which the English, except arguably geologically speaking, are not. This central area of Corsica contains some of the best walking in Europe. Despite the teeming hordes we spend a pleasant half day in the area which includes sampling the local Corsican gelato which, for information, is nothing special.

Near Piana, which boasts some magnificent blue gums, we walk out to Capo Rosso (Red Cape). The full walk takes one to the old hill fort tower on the highest point. Very cleverly a combination of Idiot Traveller timing and lack of preparation, ensures that we reach the most exposed, steepest, part of the walk at the hottest time of day. Here my errant right knee decides that more than four hours walking is too much. These multiple misfortunes combine to stymie our effort at peak bagging. So an hour short of our target we turn around.

Capo Rosso

This is fortunate because with only three hours water for a six hour walk we just manage to avoid the European equivalent of the headlines one sees often in Australia. By that I mean a newspaper headline where some Idiot Travellers succumb to heatstroke and die because they thought that Uluru was only a short stroll from Alice Springs. Despite our attempts at an early death, we return having enjoyed a great walk perched high above the Mediterranean Coast with stunning views back across the bay on which Piana sits.

Piana, itself, is one of those small unspoiled clifftop coastal towns of the sort that one finds scattered throughout Italy. Unlike many of the beachside towns it is relatively uncrowded and the locals haven’t been overrun to the degree that the only people one meets are tourists.

We stroll the narrow streets down to the magnificent red cliffs which drop sheer to the deep blue hundreds of metres below. The contrast between the ocean and the cliffs is why Piana is considered one of the most scenic towns in Corsica. Almost every house has magnificent views and relative to Australia prices are cheap – only $1.1 million for your four bedroom holiday home…

Restonica

After Piana, we drop down to Porto and imbibe a bit of local history at the ancient Genoese fort (built in the 16th and early 17th centuries to protect the Genoese occupiers from invaders), including such useful information as the fact that the name of the French resistance, the Maquis, comes from the impenetrable local scrub. The port is a gem but the town itself has been partially ruined by too many ugly tourist buildings that don’t fit in.

Then on through the mountains via Ota and Evisa via the Gorges de Spelunca. The gorge itself is a popular stopping point en route through the magnificent scenery of the area. The track up the gorge follows an old route between the villages. It passes over the Ponte à Zaglia bridge which was built four hundred years ago to make life easier for the locals who traded and passed up and down the track.

It’s an easy walk up the gorge as far as the bridge and because the majority of people can’t be bothered to do the simple 60 minute walk many of best swimming holes away from the bridge are relatively uncrowded. For those with more time there are longer multi day walks through the river gorges.

Spelunca Gorge

From here it is back to Bastia for a final overnight stay before heading for Italy. The last night in Bastia is supposed to be a relaxing evening of dinner and drinks but we arrive to encounter one of the banes of AirBnB…a host that isn’t there and doesn’t answer her door, despite having replied 30 minutes earlier and said she would be.

At this point we have no vehicle, no patience, no vehicle and lots of luggage (that being a relative term – in fact we have two main bags each less than 10kg and two hand/man bags). We ring, we phone, we text. We contemplate a bomb scare to get everyone to evacuate on the basis that we can then ask around and find our hosts. We can get into the building and we can get to the correct floor but can find no door with the correct name.

After 3o minutes I go looking for other hotels. As I return I get a phone call – since Kaylee is not, apparently, an Idiot Traveller*** she has worked out that there are two halves to the building. In our initial exploration we were only looking for name plates on the the flats on the eastern side. Having found the flat Kaylee has managed to waken the hosts from their primordial slumber.

***Note: Kaylee avoids being an Idiot Traveller by not doing any travel bookings. With her latent (and largely un-used) internet booking skills if she were to actually try and book anything one can be sure that she would end up in Sydney, Canada, rather than Sydney, Australia and/or Paris, Texas rather than Paris, France.

It turns out that one of hosts had fallen asleep and the other was outside on the front verandah where, allegedly, she could not hear the bell. This is despite the fact that when we eventually get to her door and ring the bell half of the living dead are also awoken from a centuries long sleep.

We enter the flat and it is clear to the host that Kaylee is not happy – the host gets a frosty reception and starts to apologise profusely. Fortunately, it turns out that they are both very pleasant so normal relations are quickly restored and we soon decamp to one of their recommended restaurants where we are entertained by multiple street bands and good food and wine.

This is the first post in the series of five entitled: Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia

You can find the full archive of the images used in this post by clicking here:

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 9 – France, Annecy)

I decide to go to Annecy after Aix and Nimes; it’s a suitably random decision a bit like the answer to the question about why you climbed Everest….”Because it was there”.

The best form of travel follows no logical pattern, is ideally not pre-planned; it follows no timetable. This mode of travel is increasingly hard to do since following this system inevitably involves significantly higher costs, the likelihood that you will end up sleeping on the streets, at worst, and that you will spend in excess of half of your holiday standing in lines to see things for which, had you pre-booked or pre-planned, you could have bought tickets for in advance.

Gallic shrug, hands upturned, pursed lips
I know nothing; purse the lips, Gallic shrug, upturned hands

There is a solution, however, to the nightmare of tourist queues and that is to either (a) ignore all the famous places and just look at them from the outside or (b) climb under, through or over any relevant fence or wall; something which has the added benefit that, if you do it early in the morning or evening, you get to spend the best time of day in places completely free of the teeming hordes.

The downside of the illegal entry is getting caught by security. But, if you do get caught the solution is easy.  You adopt the French technique: shrug, put out your hands, palm upwards, purse your lips and declare yourself unable to speak anything other than simply English. Above all, plead ignorance. If the security guard points to the large sign in English saying “Forbidden to xxxx”, you shrug again, shake your cane with its white tip, put back on your dark glasses and shuffle off tapping the ground.

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Preparing the drone

But first I must actually get to Annecy…the trains and buses are expensive and long-winded. So I decide on Bla Bla car. This is not some form of talking, self-driving car but the French car sharing system in which, for about a quarter what you might otherwise pay, you go from A to B. The downside to cheap car-sharing is the risk of sharing a car with a suicidal maniac, a person who has bad body odour or breath, believes that the best way to fill in every spare second is to talk non-stop.

You can, of course, ignore the avid talker with a stony silence but usually when he/she gets no reply the tend to nod or prod you thus disturbing your imminent decline into sleep. Failing all of the above you run the risk of spending the entire trip listening to the virtues of Marie Le Pen and how all blacks should go back to Algeria, Senegal or wherever else they came from. That is the price of car-sharing socialism.

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Flying the drone

But my trip turns out to be the archetype of almost all my French experiences. The driver is friendly and drives normally and my fellow passenger is a very tall Frenchman who, despite being more than 10-15 centimetres taller than me, insists on sitting in the back so that I can get the view better of the passing countryside.

He is a photographer and, leaving aside the pleasures of the passing scenery, one of the highlights of the trip is flying his drone during our lunch break. This is where all the latent boy genes come to the fore….high tech toys which are super noisy and allow one to behave something like a formula one driver. Perfect and with the added benefit of annoying the shit out of everyone passing or just relaxing nearby. The aerial equivalent of jet skis.

We arrive in Annecy in the late afternoon. It’s hot, we are late, the traffic is like Victoria Road, Sydney on a bad day and I have pissed off my host by not letting him know soon enough that we would be late. Hence he came home from work especially to let me in only to find out it was a wasted trip. The end result, when I do get there, is that I am super-heated by the 35° day, super-stressed by my lateness and with a brain made mushy by the long day and combination of heat and stress.

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The chateau

So Cedric’s attempts to explain the door intercom turn into a form of comic opera, where he explains, I don’t really listen and just keep on doing what is clearly not working. His response to my lack of comprehension is to speak louder (standard formula – if the person you are speaking too in a foreign language does not understand make sure to shout the same words – this will make all the difference). Meanwhile I continue adhering to the Idiots Formula: that being that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Finally at just the moment I am at risk of drowning in the sweat pouring off me, I decide to let my female chromosomes have a look in and I actually listen to what Cedric is saying. Five seconds later I am in through the door.

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The colours of Annecy

Annecy is one of those perfect destinations and places to live. An old city mellowing in its perfect colours, sitting on a perfect blue lake which is the cleanest large lake in France, surrounded by a vista of stunning mountains, encapsulated by picture perfect sunrises and sunsets. All this just an hour from the ski resorts and with great cycling, para gliding and a host of water sports all thrown in.

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The chateau dominates the lake and town

The old city sits on a mini labyrinth of canals leading off from the lake and is dominated by the bulk of the old chateau. Wandering the narrow laneways one feels as if some artist, for a tad of recreation, decided to try and create a perfect tableau of water, natural colours and painted buildings. Then they sprinkled the town with a plethora of markets, traditional shops, cafés and a smidgeon of antiquity. With all that you have the essence of France encapsulated in an area about three quarters of a kilometre square.

Sylvie at work
Sylvie Rossignol at work

As is common when travelling alone, I have fallen into the metaphorical embrace of the citizens of Annecy, mainly Sylvie Rossignol, a local artist whom I met in Sablet during the gathering for the opening of Anne Froger’s workshop. I am given a guided tour of Annecy, loaned a bike, introduced to family and friends, taken to the mountains and pushed off a cliff to go paragliding. In between I am offered picnics and group swims in the lake and generally made to feel welcome.

The fortuitous nature of these events is entirely to do with my having little guilt or shame – thus allowing me to ask for help and assistance where others might hesitate to be so forward, and, generally, an undeservedly large helping of good fortune.

This lack of shame and good fortune allows me to (a) assume that death will not come as a result of following strangers down back streets in bad parts of remote cities in the third world and as a result enjoying the experiences that come with such risks and (b) always assume that people will simply say “no” if they don’t want to help; if you assume this then you never feel guilty asking. As for the good luck I remember my good friend Bob Burton saying after some stroke of outrageous fortune that if the end of the world happened only the cockroaches and I would survive. I felt this was somewhat a backhanded compliment and that being stranded alone with several billion cockroaches was not something to be entirely desired.

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On yer (Dutch) bike

I mount my loaned Dutch style bike and take myself off to explore Annecy. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the people who say “Oh but I love my Dutch bike” are much like people who say “Oh give me a good whipping, nothing better”. They may claim to enjoy old Dutch bikes but to most everyone the bikes are a form of purgatory.

Generally they are old, have brakes and gears (if they have any) that don’t work properly. They are heavy, everything squeaks, the basket falls off at the critical moment tipping your camera, phone, passports and everything else of value in front of an oncoming 30 tonne truck and they steer like the proverbial drunken Irishman – noting that this is not a racist comment but simply a statement of fact. If you are Irish, and offended, you may substitute, Pole, Australian, Briton, Russian etc. for Irishman.

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Enjoying French police humour

Despite the obstacles posed by my bike, I nevertheless succeed in circumnavigating half the lake even when restricted by top speed of 15 kms an hour. Most of the lake is surrounded by bike path. In Australia, to find an entire lake surrounded by bike path would be the equivalent of returning from Europe after 3 months and finding that someone had finished the high speed rail from Melbourne to Sydney. A pure miracle. The exception, in Australia, is Canberra, of course, since it consumes half of Australia’s entire road funding simply to ensure that the denizens of parliament house enjoy a smooth trip wherever they go in the city.

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One kilometre from Annecy, a million miles from the crowds

There is one way in which Annecy does not differ from anywhere else in the world. I call this phenomenon the “traveller’s blessing”. The “travellers blessing” is the reality that 99% of the world’s population are too lazy to walk or cycle more than about 500 metres. Hence, apparently, all 100,000 visitors to Annecy are crowded on a single beach just outside the town.

Here, at the main beach, you can share the beauty of Lake Annecy with a veritable plague of sweating, farting, noisy, and indubitably annoying people. Or you can go expend a small modicum of the excess calories you consumed with your extra-large holiday breakfast and no more than 500 metres down the road share a beautiful spot with two ducks, a swan and about four other people in perfect peace and quiet.

The biggest drawback of Lake Annecy is, allegedly, the Lake Annecy flea which, if one has sensitive skin gives one an annoying and itchy allergy.

The following day, Sylvie, takes me up to the mountains. This is one of the world’s top paragliding spots. Kaylee Mackenzie has persuaded me that I should take a tandem flight, in Annecy, and eventually at Sylvie’s urging I overcome the inertia which is caused by the overcast weather and the fact I didn’t bring any money with me.

I launch into the stratosphere over Lake Annecy. My pilot is Vincent Genest from Airmax Parapente who, apart from being a tad crazy, appears to be a really good pilot and gives me an exhilarating and enjoyable 45 minute flight over the lake. This is true despite the appearance given by almost all the pictures he takes, in which I appear to be in fear of my life. A highly recommended experience.

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Views over Lake Annecy from the paraglider

On my final two nights I have to move accommodation having been unable to find someone for the entire period of my stay. In my new abode I am entertained by Dominique, who in common with many of my AirBnB hosts is great company. Apart from being on crutches, the result of some bizarre accident, she is also a prime mover behind La Ripaille à Sons, a great local group of performers based around brass instruments. So once again, as I have been many times, I am entertained by guitar, brass and song while relaxing in my abode.

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The lunchtime view

My final day before I head back to Paris and on to Amsterdam, is spent exploring the byways of Annecy town before Sylvie takes me to lunch with friends up in the hills behind Annecy. From here one can enjoy million dollar views while firmly embracing the good wine, cheese and company. A perfect ending to four days in the mountains.

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Lunch with friends in the hills behind Annecy

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 9 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images from this post can be found on Flickr here:

Annecy General; Annecy Paragliding

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 8 – France, Provence)

Aix and Nimes, like Orange, Sablet and Avignon are all in Provence. I love this part of France. It feels very French, steeped in history, bathed in the soft hazy sun of the south, spotted with with hilltop villages as if some crazy God just dropped them randomly around the countryside.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire

It’s the France of Cezanne, of the Dutch-Frenchman, Van Gogh, it’s the France of Spain, with bullfighting rings and bullfighting still scattered around, with Paella served in the markets, and of the Rhône lazily, slowly and corpulently winding its way to Mediterranean, fattened with the rains of recent floods. Arles, the home of Van Gogh for the last years of his life, is just 30 minutes away perched lazily on the Rhône banks.

Aix, colours – one of many galleries

Most times I come to France, I come to Aix-en-Provence. For all that it is over-run with tourists it still has a certain southern slowness about it. It never makes me feel like hurrying. The roads are lined with honeycomb coloured buildings, matching the colour of Mont Sainte-Victoire. At every turn there are pastry and ice-cream shops and two great bookshops with cafes.

Aix is home to Bernard and Nadine, my two oldest friends in France. I met them in 1998 on Gili Air, Lombok. I had been at a yoga retreat in Ubud and the yoga crew inundated the Safari Cottages where the two of them were staying. In those days Gili Air was a rustic, under-visited getaway for hippies and those escaping the night life and cultural destruction of Bali.

Bernard, Dave, Self Safari cottages

We spent a week there doing the hour circuit of the island, eating pineapples on the beach, sampling every cafe on the island and spending our evenings doing never ending renditions of Beatles, Cohen and other popular songs which were within even my highly restricted repertoire – my singing is sounds much like that of an overenthusiastic hyena; occasionally you get a note that sounds musical but mostly it is the singing equivalent of giving an untrained five year old a violin and saying “make noise.

But my friends are tolerant and at a dollar for each off-key note I only have to buy all them dinner about 1000 times.

In Arles, with Bernard
In Arles, with Bernard

Today Gili is an overdeveloped, overwhelmed, over-loved tourist destination full of a five thousand 20-somethings all eagerly getting drunk, stoned and infected with STIs. When you are not tripping over the drunks, you are stepping on the discarded condoms from the party-goers that actually remained sober. The Bali armageddon has long overwhelmed the Gilis.

I’ve spent the subsequent 30 years bumping into Bernard and Nadine in various parts of the world, most notably Paris and Bangkok. Bernard is what is know as a Pied Noir, having been a child of parents who lived and worked in Algeria. Being a Pied Noir is both a good and bad thing. Good in that any bad behaviour can be explained away by a poor (as in lack of style and class) upbringing, and bad because anything that goes wrong for the partner of a Pied Noir is, inevitably, a result of living or knowing a Pied Noir.

Lunch in Aix en Provence
Lunch in Aix en Provence

Generally the Pied Noirs were conservative. The left disliked them for their support of French colonialism, their exploitation of Algerians and the role of the Algerian wars in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Bernard suffers the double burden of being a Pied Noir and thus generally viewed as suspect by the left but actually being on the left and this also despised by the right. He is a prophet without honour in his own land.

On the Rhône with Bernard
On the Rhône with Bernard

This, the recent history of the Pieds-Noirs, has been imprinted with a theme of double alienation from both their native homeland and their adopted land.

The relationship of Nadine and Bernard was what might be termed argumentative; no hint of reason shall ever come between the two of them and a good rambunctious argument, as described in my original description of visiting them in Aix “Lunch in Aix-en-Provence

Bernard and Nadine have long separated. With true panache and timing their separation came just months after they had jointly adopted a young Haitian boy, Nel. Bernard now lives with new partner, Celine and their son,  a couple of hundred metres from Nadine where I am ensconced in my normal abode in the downstairs apartment. My time in Aix is apportioned between Nadine and Bernard; I feel a bit like they have been awarded shared custody of me and it is important to ensure each get equal time.

Dinner at Jean Jaques
Dinner with Jean Jaques, in 2011

My first night in Aix takes me to the home of Jean-Jaques who I last saw about ten years ago. He is a cross between an archetypal rural Frenchman, who one might expect to arrive at any moment with baguettes and onions, a traditional French agrarian socialist and a West Virginian hillbilly.

He wants me to on his local radio program and talk about Australian politics, ideally anything that is likely to get me arrested on re-entry to Australia. Like how the immigration concentration camps are a genocidal horror sufficient to  justify the assassination of any politicians advocating or supporting them. Fortunately I am leaving the evening before.

Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples
Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples

He has a new wife, an English woman, Louise Vines. Last time I visited he had a New Zealand wife who left shortly after I visited. I’m assured there is no connection between the two happenings, even though half the women with whom I have had relationships have decided immediately thereafter to become lesbians.

Jean Jaques lives just out of Aix on what might loosely be termed a small holding, populated by a menagerie of cats, ducks, geese, hens and various breeds of cars. The cars have bred faster than anything else. Last time I was invited for dinner there were three rusty French cars now there are about eight. He has another “new” car, which is actually a rather nice Alfa but managed to rip a scar down one side only about a week after getting it.

Nadine is off to Marseilles for just over two days to one of the never ending round of summer festivals that exist in the region. but I want to go and visit my ex-colleague, Gregoire, who lives in Nîmes, about an hour away.

I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new car for the purpose and I drive off with her admonishments not to damage her new Fiat ringing in my ears. This is like calling down fate on my head, or putting pins in one of the voodoo dolls which she brought back from Haiti. I have already bulk ordered 40 odd voodoo dolls when she next goes to Haiti, one for each member of the Coalition cabinet and 15 for the England rugby union team.

Inside the Nîmes arena
Inside the Nîmes arena
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes

I arrive in Nîmes just before I am due to meet Gregoire and miraculously find a vacant parking spot right near the station.

I think that I have struck lucky but realise that I am simply the beneficiary of southern mediterranean culture. There is no one parked there because it is lunch-two-hour and everyone has gone off home for the lunch and siesta. Hence not only are the spaces empty but between 12 and 2 pm there are no parking charges; it is the only city I have visited where not only does everyone stop work for two hours but this also applies to the parking charges and the parking attendants.

Nîmes is a city of about 150,000 which, in common with a significant number of European cities, has done what Australian cities should be doing, and has pedestrianised large swathes of the city centre without any apparent impact on retail trade. It is an ancient Roman city and, among other things, contains one of the most perfectly preserved Roman Arenas. Gregoire shouts me

Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r)
Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r) in former times

lunch, which, apart from dead duck, mainly consists of the usual uplifting discussions about French and Australian politics, Brexit, the current lives of all the ex-Greenpeace staff with whom we worked and a long dissertation from Gregoire about how I could make my fortune, with my background, working for the UN or other international agencies.

The Arena, Nîmes
The Arena, Nîmes

Nîmes also possesses one of the finest Roman temples and the Garden of Fountains, an area of canals and fountains originally designed to support local industry. The highlight of the visit to Nîmes, however, is my attempt to destroy my friendship with Nadine, bankrupt myself and thus end my European holiday due to lack of funds.

This involves, doing $2000 worth of damage to Nadine’s car, even though short of standing on ones head and using binoculars the amount of damage was almost invisible. In reality, as in all situations of this type, it wasn’t my fault.

Or more probably, as a French friend explained to me once “in France it might be your fault but you are never to blame.” Thus I blame Nadine for lending me the car, Fiat for forcing me to refuel, and the petrol station for having an invisible underground bollard that leapt out and scratched the car deliberately.

These events and a range of other brilliantly conceived strategies designed to ensure that no conceivable travel crisis shall go undiscovered are described here in Part 3: “Travelling Idiot Style

This accident also contributes to further my reputation as a feckless traveller and borrower of cars – an observation which refers back to the two other friends’ cars that I have managed to destroy or damage over the years.

Once in New Zealand, 40 years ago, when, looking through a hedge green hedge, I failed to spot a hedge green car proceeding at high speed with the deliberate intention of destroying my friends Wolseley. Again not my fault. Had the hedge been blue, or the other car red nothing would have happened.

Arles, Arena, bullfight
Arles, Arena, bullfight

The second belong to Judy Mahon, in the aftermath of the Franklin campaign when, en route to Tullamarine Airport, another driver decided that turning right across oncoming traffic without looking was a good way to enliven the day.

Having borrowed Judy’s car I then showed the high level of personal responsibility for which I am renowned and abandoned the car into the care of Peter Collins (who was accompanying me so that he could drive the car back to Judy) because, had I not done so, I would have missed my flight thus costing me the massive amount of about $200.

Nîmes, main pedestrian street
Nîmes, main pedestrian street

 

Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard
Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard

On my final night, I head up the road for dinner with Bernard, Celine and their son, Eugene.

Bernard and Celine are teachers but both play in their band, Jim Younger’s Spirit; Jim Younger being a sort of American version of Ned Kelly and a member of the James-Younger Gang.  Bernard tells me he bumped into Peter Garrett in the post office in Aix, who he described as “lurching towards me with his huge height and blue eyes”

With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles
With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles

I ask him if he introduced himself as another rock and roll star, and tell him he could have gone up and said “Hey Peter Garrett, I’m a mate of Chris Harris….”.

I have no idea what Garrett might have replied but I seem to have convinced Bernard. I’m not convinced that I can believe Bernard about much, however, since he also tells me that I have a little malicious smile….which is clearly not true, since I have an open friendly smile with any hint of malicious thoughts or intent.

Casting aside Bernard’s backhanded compliment the evening proceeds as most of our evenings proceed. Large quantities of second rate French wine, endless amounts of food, an examination of the entrails of French, British and Australian cultures, lots of music, many very bad jokes, in an unintelligible mixture of French and English, a ragout of reminiscences largely populated by a surfeit of very large lies.

I have a new victim for some Australian mythologies, Eugene, who is now four. I tell him about Drop Bears, Hoop Snakes, Bunyips and the recently discovered Sand Sharks, that emerge soundlessly from under Australia’s deserts to devour passing tourists. But he is most excited at the discovery that if you eat Kangaroo it will make you hop endlessly for at least six hours after consumption. For the next two hours Bernard and Celine are pestered to buy Kangaroo, so that Eugene can experience this amazing phenomenon.

Dinner in Arles
Dinner in Arles

With Dave and Bernard on Gili AirToo many lies are barely enough….

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 8 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images of Nîmes used in this post can be found on Flickr here

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 5, Paris)

Passing by Paris; Brexit, soccer and other lies

I’m on my way to Sablet for a mixture of a wake and a celebration; a wake, of sorts, for the death of Lincoln Siliakus who died almost a year ago this month – and a celebration of a life well lived. And also a celebration of the opening of a new studio by his lifetime partner, Anne Froger – one in which she will develop dyeing with natural plant dyes.

Regrettably, for those of us in our late 50s and early 60s we have reached the time of life when people we have known most of our lives have started dying or getting ill. I shared many good times with Lincoln, the Franklin campaign, a shared house in Hobart for a year or so (along with Jill Hickie), times lobbying together in Paris, dealing with Gough Whitlam, as ambassador to UNESCO, walking the back lanes of the Cote du Rhone vineries, all washed down with copious quantities of good wine and bread.

Lunch with Lincoln at Gigondas

Sometimes, too late, we realise that we have missed the opportunity to see those friends again, to reminisce – telling increasingly untrue stories as the night lengthens, and to spend time sharing the things we like to share.

But first I must overnight in Paris. That means passing through the Gare du Nord, which is where the Eurostar arrives from the UK. Passing through Gare du Nord after travelling on the Eurostar is a bit like stepping out of a Rolls Royce into a mess of dog shit.

You are borne along in air-conditioned comfort on an almost silent train at 300 plus kilometres an hour and arrive in a railway station where there is nowhere to sit, nowhere decent to eat, no decent signage, a help desk that is closed, and a ticket office where you need to take lunch and dinner with you into the queue in order not to starve before arriving at the ticket counter.

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Gare du Nord, at its best

Usually there there is a crowd larger than that found in the average football stadium milling around in the middle of the station obstructing any possibility of moving around the station. Everyone is forced to stand poised like a vulture over there luggage to prevent theft.  This is, primarily, because there is nowhere to sit and even if you can find somewhere to sit it’s almost impossible to know what is going on with train departures without going back to the centre of the station. To get anywhere in the station you need to have a better sidestep than the world’s best rugby winger and more go forward than Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Currently the situation is exacerbated by the decision to renovate the station at the height of the tourist season thus reducing the available space by about 40 per cent.

It’s almost of as if the French spent years building a railway and forgot that it needed to arrive somewhere. At which point they shrugged and said “..Well it is mainly ‘Les Rosbifs’ (Britons) so who cares. At the other end of the tunnel is Britain’s newly renovated Pancras Station which has seats, shops, cafes, a modicum of space and light. Give credit where due, it may be the only useful thing that the British have done in a 100 years.

I’m staying with an old friend from Greenpeace days, Stephanie Lacomblez who worked for Enercoop in the adjacent office; finding places to stay in Paris is problematic because most people either live by themselves in places no bigger than the average dog box or they share and have no spare rooms. Stephanie’s flatmate is away so I hit the jackpot, this time.

It’s just a couple of stops from Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar arrives, to Stalingrad (no not that one), where I shall pick up the key to Stephanie’s flat from Jon Sofier, who works for Enercoop. Jon is an UK expat who has lived in France for more than 15 years, speaks fluent French but somehow remains convincingly British in style, demeanour, if not attitudes. Somehow he is the exemplar of those you might say “you can take him out of Britain but you can’t take….”

I am abandoned in the Enercoop office while Jon goes to pick up his new girlfriend. Enercoop is the new face of France – a company selling 100% renewable energy to French businesses and households. The Paris office has around 60 staff, up from only 7 years ago. That according to my somewhat useless maths is a 1200% growth in that time.

Flammanville
Flammanville – years late, billions over budget

Seven years ago nuclear was still an article of faith in France, now increasingly it is seen as yesterday’s energy. Too expensive (the new plants are years late and billions over budget and, if they were to sell their energy unsubsidised it’s doubtful they would sell any), too unreliable (the majority of plants are 30 years old or more) and reliant for cooling on water than is frequently not available. At one stage in 2008 around fifty per cent of the entire nuclear fleet was offline for this reason.

La Belle Equipe

It’s my first night in Paris in several years and we head off for drinks and dinner. It is only a matter of weeks since the bombing of the Bataclan, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Carillon and the Belle Equipe, among other places. Despite this, at least superficially, the city appears little changed with crowds of people sitting outside every tiny bar, little sign of security except near police stations and railway stations and, even then, it’s spasmodic. Stephanie patronises La Belle Equipe and it is sobering to think that that it is only luck that prevents people you know being caught up in these events.

Beyond that Paris seems a little poorer, more frayed around the edges, dirtier with more homeless people and bigger groups of apparently indigent people standing around on street corners, even in the areas I know well.

The tiny bar we go into, just 200 metres from La Belle Equipe, another of the bars bombed on the night of November 13, is full of Parisians having a Friday night out and a group of English soccer supporters politely and pleasantly enjoying an evening in the ambiance of a typical French wine bar. The night descends into a mixture of repartee, insults and the sort of amicable European fraternity that the average Brexiter seems not to understand.

On my way back from dinner, I pass a local bar and, glancing at the TV, note that England are losing 2-1 to Iceland. The bar being far from the throngs of football tourists is only half full but, nevertheless, I discover that there are people from Ireland, France, Australia and Spain in the bar. All are busily barracking for the Icelanders. I feel this is too good an opportunity to be missed particularly in the light of Australia having just lost two rugby tests to the perfidious English (or Perfide Albion, as an ex-colleague insisted on calling them – Albion being an ancient name for the UK).

One of the immutable iron-laws of sport and almost anything else is that if England are playing any nation at any sport, you may have 160 nationalities in the bar including some English people and 159 of those nationalities will be supporting England’s opponents. I recounted, for the English soccer fans, earlier in the evening, the tale of being in a Paris bar where we counted around 20 nationalities and only one was supporting England. He was English – and even he wasn’t certain he wasn’t making a mistake.

Golden temple massacre – British troops opened fire of a peaceful crowd

This rule is written in stone because of 200 years of British imperialism and the irredeemable English arrogance that went with it, as reinforced, recently, by a correspondent of mine on Facebook. This correspondent noted that with Brexit, Britain would get the chance to be “great again” as they were during 1000 years of empire. He was unpleased when I noted that (a) the British Empire endured for around 100 years not 1000 (b) It did not make Britain great but, rather, a scandalous example of exploitation, racism and genocide, (c) So far as I was aware the year was 2016 not 1816; and (d) the Great in Great Britain did not refer to any sense of virtue but merely to a Great Britain which included Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland rather than a diminished Britain without those parts.

On this particular occasion, leaving aside, the natural support for Iceland as underdog and the fact that the entire Icelandic footballing budget including travel and wages was approximately equal to the cost of one of Wayne Rooney’s boots, this was a matter of a few days after the disastrous and, to most Europeans, entirely bemusing Brexit decision. As several of the people in the bar noted, if nothing else, it was an appropriate revenge for Brexit.

This is Part 5 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 3, Travelling Crazy; Lost & Found)

Back to France…

Back to France. This involves traveling and, despite having spent my entire life seeking to ensure the planet runs out of jet fuel, petrol/diesel and whatever they power trains with – thus giving me unrivalled travel experience ….my traveling system guarantees that no peaceful day shall pass untroubled.

I have a travel system designed to ensure that no day shall be free of stress for either myself or others.

The process is, first, to ensure that you have as many places as possible in which you can put any item of value. This includes of course, your main bag with 4 pockets, your day pack with 7 pockets, trousers, shirt, jacket with, together a minimum of 8 pockets. Essentially, however, this total, with only 19 places in which to put any one item is a poor effort. For maximum effect you should have a minimum of 30 possible places in which to place any item of value.

Too many pockets are barely enough

Next, ensure that, at all times, no item of value, such as passport, tickets, wallet, credit cards, train passes, is ever placed in the same place more than once. In this way it’s possible to guarantee not only the maximum possible delay in finding anything but, with good planning, sufficient stress to ensure that any beneficial effects of a holiday are nullified.

How not to catch your train
How not to catch your train
How to look for your ticket
How to look for your ticket in busy railway stations

Effective pre-planning, such as sitting around in cafes posting nonsense to Facebook, means that starting to locate ones ticket and/or passport only takes places seconds before the train/plane/bus departs. This should occur, preferably, in the middle of a public thoroughfare through which hundreds of people are passing each minute. The ensuing frantic search requires one to empty out onto the ground every item of clothing, clean or dirty, books, electrical cables, cameras, computers, phones, half eaten bananas and anything else inhabiting the nether regions of ones luggage.

Ideally the most important and valuable items should be strewn the furthest away from ones gaze and within easy reach of the passing pickpockets and other unsavoury denizens of the Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon or wherever else one happens to be. This further increases the stress level as you seek to rummage with one hand and eye while guarding your laptop and phone with the other eye and hand. As the proximity of departure increases, the intensity of search exponentially increases. By now one has ones head in the bag, convinced that somewhere in that empty bag is a black hole that has eaten the required ticket.

By this time you have broken into a lather of sweat such that every passing person is also stressed. They assume that you are (a) either the male equivalent of the proverbial bag-lady who, for some unknown reason has decided to camp in the middle of the the busiest part of one of Paris’s busiest stations or (b) you are searching for the detonator on your suicide vest which you have misplaced. This latter thought, fortunately, has the effect of finally scaring off the lurking thieves who are eagerly waiting for you to remove your good eye from your laptop.

….But I found my headphones…

If favoured by fortune, one usually finds the missing ticket/passport on the third search of the first pocket, in which you boy-looked, giving you just sufficient time to jam everything randomly back into your bags and board the train. A victory of sorts since you have neither lost any item of value, nor have you forfeited your ticket. You are now, however, confined to standing in the corridor, since the lather of sweat into which you have worked yourself makes you smell as if you have run a couple of marathons over two days without taking a shower – giving you the choice of either isolating yourself in the corridor or enduring 3 hours of people trying to edge away from you as they whisper to their companions about the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves.

With good judgement, and some luck, one can repeat this scenario on an almost daily basis with some important item of luggage or other item; for example, standing outside your AirBnB at 1 am, in the rain, wondering in which of several shops, bars, museums, cafes etc you left your keys.

No they’re in perfect condition

You, realise, just momentarily before you get hypothermia, that the unpleasant itching in your groin is not some STI (which you can’t workout how you got, since the only intimate relationship you have had in weeks is with your mobile phone), but your keys. These have managed to drop through the shirt pocket, in which you never put anything because you know that pocket has a hole, and have worked their way down inside your shirt and into your elastic-less 12 year old jocks which your partner has been trying to persuade you to throw out for the last ten years.

There are several versions of the “where did I put it” panic, all equally effective for creating stress and annoyance for others.

This scenario: You drive, with the instant Gallic fervour which only comes with being in France, down the auto-route and approach the toll payment point. Pulling up you instantly realise that none of the wallet, credit card, or the ticket you got when you entered to toll road, are in the place in which you resolved to place them. You search every possible location in the car as the line of vehicles behind you lengthens and the friendly drivers commence to assist your calm search with prolonged activity on their “klaxons”. Finally as your stress level rises to ‘take another blood pressure tablet soon’ level, you feel a lump beneath your arse and realise that your wallet, toll route ticket and can of orange juice are all beneath you – which largely explains the pain you have been experiencing for some time.

2016-07-08_2129
When all else fails break window to pay

You now go to open the window to pay but realise that, not having had to open the windows of your borrowed car due to it being air conditioned, you have no idea how to do this. The knob for the electronic windows is in precisely none of the places in which you’d expect it to be. Finally then, as you descend into a state of near hysteria, you attempt open the car door so that you can climb out and pay.

Due, however to your skilful judgement in manoeuvring the car within inches of the pay point it’s actually impossible to get out so, summoning up your yoga skills, you twist yourself around the car door and pay, while at the same time realising that the vasectomy you had some years earlier would have been unnecessary had you only performed this payment manoeuvre at that time.

It’s ok I’ll find my credit card soon

In the event that none of these events are sufficient to ruin your holiday or increase your stress levels enough to require a repatriation under your over-priced insurance policy, you can always try the classic “Let’s borrow my friends brand new car and crash it”. This is a rolled gold guarantee for stress for most – a 9 on most scales (regrettably only a 2, for me, since my holidays are such a long sequence of inconceivable disasters that I have got to the “Ah, well, what the fuck stage” when almost anything happens).

In this particular case I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new Fiat. As I leave, the last words I hear are “But don’t damage my new car”. No stress then. All is well until I decide to re-fuel. Should I do what most normal people do and leave the petrol station, proceed to the roundabout, and do a 360 at the roundabout in order to return in the direction I should be going?

No, I shall be a smart arse and prove that my driving judgement is second to none. Sure, of course I can get a Fiat through a gap only just large enough for a motorbike. No problem. A grinding sound alerts me to the fact that not all is well. Never mind, no doubt just a flesh wound. I reverse. More grinding.

2016-07-08_1845
Not the new Fiat

At this point I notice that a second bollard, that was secretly concealed underground when I last looked, has emerged to deliberately damage Nadine’s car, unseen by me. Some sort of revenge for Australia’s role in helping stop French nuclear testing, no doubt. I drive on convinced that this will just be a minor scratch

Revelations 2.4 states “And it was revealed that the minor scratch was in fact a giant dent all along the underside of the car….and, lo, it cost EU1000 to fix”. Lucky Nadine had insurance then. Final cost EU80, profuse apologies, damaged pride and a reminder that hubris is always a bad thing.

This is Part 3 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

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