Collioule, Avignon, Lyon
Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
10Trip End Apr 16, 2005
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Briton that she is, Margaret decided that she would be able to get us to our destination. On the map the road looked decidedly squiggly which we knew would translate into very, very bendy roads. It was the first time we had put aside our computer-generated itinerary and relied entirely on our road map. The route was indeed squiggly and narrow, which didn't help Margaret's nausea. Once we reached the Vermilion Coast the scenery was something to behold. I ranked it second only to the Amalfi Coast as the most beautiful ocean road we had navigated. The border post between Spain and France was deserted which meant that our passports would contain no evidence that we had ever visited the former. The local French drivers were just as crazy as their Spanish brethren and swept around blind corners at alarming speeds. We inched around such corners at a snail like pace, eyes glued to the side of the road to avoid driving over the cliff and into the sea.
Collioule was a very picturesque town stretched around a bay. There were no parking spots to be found, though we did drive into a caravan park accidentally. How would we find a place to stay if we couldn't park? Eventually we stopped just outside of town at a lookout and I walked down to the nearest hotel. It was a very nice place and, for a rather large amount of money, I was able to get a room with a balcony overlooking a small bay. On the way back to the car I surreptitiously attempted to take a photo of a couple of young ladies bathing topless on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. When I had the film developed back in Sydney I was disappointed to find that I had only managed to take an extremely sharp picture of a fence; everything else was blurred.
Margaret was still feeling unwell, but ever the stoic, walked with me down the hill and into town. Collioule was the French equivalent of The Entrance, though a little more stylish. The beach was full of people in various stages of undress ranging from the completely clad who glowed red as they baked on their deck chairs to the topless girls who shone with oil. Needless to say there was no sand, only pebbles. I obtained a map of the town from the tourist office. The two girls behind the counter were stunningly beautiful and I thrust my chest out, projected my self-acknowledged charm, then tripped going out the door.
Margaret writes: It is the first time we have driven near the French coast and the Mediterranean and it is very beautiful. The water is a deep blue and the houses on the coast give a distinct feeling of the Riviera; a poor man's Riviera though we are not far from Nice. The only thing spoiling the picture is the lack of yellow sand on the beaches, instead one sees grey pebbles and dirt and, I might add, people lay on it on their towels, some topless, some in bathers and some in clothes. I think that if I needed to sunbathe here I would at least bring my deckchair. Nevertheless it is beautiful and now that the weather has warmed the flowers are starting to bloom which adds to the picturesque scene.
I am sitting on the balcony while Michael has decided to go and dip his delicate toe in the Mediterranean, just so that he can say he has. He declined a swim in the hotel pool, I might add. I watch the French with their dogs, which they bring with them on holiday. They range from small poodles to large Labradors and are treated as special members of the family. They are allowed into hotels here and yet you never smell them. Michael still hasn't returned. I hope after his two beers and bath he hasn't slipped into the ocean, never to be seen again.
By the time I returned from my walk down to the beach Margaret was feeling better. She was most impressed by the four pebbles I had taken from the water (or so she said!). Three of them were much less attractive once they had dried and I threw them into the bushes.
We treated ourselves to a three-course dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was fine and in Margaret's case first class, but the service was glacier slow. We started our first course at 8.15 and our last at 10.15. Margaret explained that this was meant to allow us to talk about our hopes and dreams between courses. Unfortunately we had run out of both hopes and dreams five minutes after finishing the first course.
DAY 28 SAT We wouldn't have minded staying another night in Collioule if only to relax on our balcony, but I had booked a hotel in Avignon by phone the previous day. We had learned that it was sometimes difficult to find lodgings on a Saturday.
As we drove along the autopiste towards Nîmes we gazed with admiration at the snow covered mountains on our left. For once I was willing to pay a toll and we sped down the A9 without having to navigate narrow minor roads or crawl through towns. When we arrived at the tollbooth we failed to appreciate that the exit we had chosen was reserved for motorists with cards. Not Visa Cards. In a moment of quite uncharacteristic spontaneity I inserted my ticket but then found that there was nowhere to insert money. The machine kept our ticket and the barrier remained closed. Earlier in our journey we would have panicked but after having survived the driver's trap that is Toledo we were inured to disaster and we both reacted with great calm. I motioned to the cars behind us that they should back up and Margaret reversed and drove across half a dozen lines of traffic to a cash tollbooth.
That little adventure was enough to persuade us to abandon tollways and return to the slower national roads. The N110 took us through the centre of several towns but at least we were able to appreciate the beautiful green countryside. At the outskirts of one such township I noticed a sign warning that crossing the town was very difficult. I didn't tell Margaret, and if she even noticed the warning she didn't have time to translate it. I crossed my fingers in the hope that it wasn't going to be another Toledo experience. My veteran driver found no difficulty crossing the town and laughed when I told her of the warning sign.
Getting to our hotel, the inaptly named "Le Splendid", seemed easy on the map but was quite difficult in reality. After driving around the city several times we found the right city gate and then drove down the main street until we found a huge car park. We lugged our bags through town and up the stairs to our room on the third floor. The hotel might have been very basic but it was just down the lane from Cours Jean Jaures (the main street) and only a block away from the tourist office.
Margaret had left our powerpoint adapter stuck in the wall back at Montserrat, so we set off to find what our hotelier assured us was the only electrical shop in the city which might stock an Australia/Europe adapter. It didn't and I realised that I would have to either grow a beard or use Margaret's leg shaver. I left Margaret to rest in our room and explored the streets in search of music and bookshops. Avignon was extremely crowded with tourists and it took me ages to push through the throngs. By the time I found a couple of interesting shops it was after four and they had both closed. We resolved to spend the next day looking at the tourist attractions, especially the famous bridge under which people were reputed to dance while singing Frére Jacques and other jolly medieval folksongs.
As I write: We are resting in our room before venturing out for dinner. We have both remarked upon the fact that I tend to become more stressed than Margaret. At the moment I am wondering whether we should move the car from the expensive parking station to the free parking spot in front of Le Splendid. This would save us money but could result in our becoming lost in the backstreets. I have also realised that I should have arranged the return of our car four working days before it was due, not four calendar days.
The hotel manager recommended a restaurant around the corner which, he assured us, had good food at reasonable prices. They might have been reasonable for a rich French hotelier but for us they were a little rich (which we were not). We dined instead at a Thai restaurant, which we stumbled upon while searching for an atmospheric but cheap eating establishment. We enjoyed it so much we resolved to return the next evening.
DAY 29 SUN Our hotel, Le Splendid, proudly proclaims on a sign above the front door that the Bureau of Tourism has awarded it one star. This is one star too many as far as we are concerned! Margaret strenuously objects to my giving it a few points for its unusual toilette electronique which works a lot like a WC on a Boeing 747. I spent many happy minutes pulling the lever and waiting for the fooom sound.
In the morning we sipped our first coffees at a streetside restaurant and watched as several hundred demonstrators organised themselves for a march up the Rue de la République. Whilst not quite as exciting as the arrival of the Royal Scots Regiment at Edinburgh Castle it was still pretty rousing. The marchers were in a festive mood and held banners urging citizens to vote non for the ratification of the European Union Constitution. "Deux, quatre, six, huit, non to the European Union Constitution" bellowed a pre-recorded message from the van which led the march. We soon realised that it was May Day and quite a collection of left-leaning folk had turned out to advertise their various causes, such as more pay for public servants and shorter hours for government workers.
Having spent several weeks in Spain we found ourselves constantly lapsing into fluent Spanish. The French are quite tolerant and laugh with shared amusement. It is quite possible, of course, that amongst themselves they snigger at the stupid foreigners.
The crowds had thinned since yesterday as most of the shops were closed. At the far end of the Rue de la République we found the Palais des Papes, built and inhabited by seven or maybe nine French popes during the fourteenth century. Lonely Planet had suggested that it was not really worth visiting as its rooms were largely bare. We found it quite interesting and, having entered at 11am, didn't emerge until 3.30pm. The rooms may have been bare but our individual commentary devices described in extended detail their history and uses. Most of the popes lived in great luxury and, if it weren't for the fact that they didn't have TV or headache pills, I would quite happily filled their shoes.
Our Palais ticket also allowed us to walk upon the famous Pont Saint-Bénézet, better known as the Pont d'Avignon. Without the well-known song it would be a pretty ordinary bridge as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't even go all away across the Rhône, which makes it pretty useless unless you like to dance under bridges. At the end (which used to be the middle) is a little chapel which, before a grill was placed across the entrance, was extensively defaced by graffiti artists (or tools, as we call them).
We were amazed at how quickly the time had flown. It was a bit late for lunch but we hadn't eaten since the previous night so we bought a couple of overpriced sandwiches at an outdoor restaurant in the Place de Horloge in front of the Palais. The waiter was not very friendly so we scurried away without leaving a tip.
Once again I left Margaret in our room while I went off in search of a shop that sold cold beer and wine. Most shops in France close on Sundays; many close on Mondays as well. I walked the length and breadth of Avignon but it was not until I entered the seedier backstreets that I found a shop which sold both beer and wine. Not having a clue where I was I let my feet guide me back to the hotel. They decided against the most direct route and took me down streets not usually trod by the more sensible traveller.
We had thoroughly enjoyed our cheap dinner at the Thai restaurant last night but after criss-crossing the general area for ages couldn't find it again. It seemed to have vanished and we were forced to make do with a restaurant on the main street. The food was excellent but I will never again shudder at the cost of Thai takeaway at Thai Smiles, West Ryde.
DAY 30 MON I finally managed to arrange the return of our car. My efforts on Saturday had failed and I was just a little stressed because I was supposed to make the arrangements four days before the return. The nice lady in our hotel explained that I had been trying to ring using the number I would have used had I been ringing from Australia.
Today was to be a day of shopping (mainly for Margaret), so after our breakfast coffee at the "Irish" pub in the Rue de la République we split up. Margaret had a worrying sparkle in her eyes and was almost jumping up and down in anticipation. Both of Avignon's music shops were closed on Mondays, naturallement but I was comforted to learn that one of them would open late in the afternoon.
I trudged up to the Palais des Papes once again in search of a lavender teddy bear for Helena and a mounted knight for Tom. With my mission accomplished I spent the remainder of my morning roaming the streets and trying not to look like a tourist. Margaret had more luck, returning with bags of clothes all of which were, she swore, great bargains.
After writing some postcards we walked around the corner to the Principal Post Office. The queue was long and the service slow beyond belief. When I finally reached the counter the clerk, almost a dead ringer for our Prime Minister, reacted to my question as to the whereabouts of a coin-operated phone box by waving me away, saying only "toutes cartes" (i.e. Avignon's public phones only accept telephone cards). I told him in fluent French that his attitude was a disgrace and that he shamed France. His muttered reply, "phut", did not appear in my phrasebook.
Somewhat disgruntled we walked all the way up to the Palais and strolled through the gardens which overlooked it. We were looking for the perfect view of the city but didn't find it. Ice cream cones from a vendor near the duck pond provided some consolation and I was able to vent some of my accumulated spleen by sneering under my breath at the primitive squat toilet to which I was forced to resort in order to answer a rather insistent call of nature. The French had the last laugh, however. The door wouldn't shut.
In the evening we found that our Thai restaurant, La Baguette d'Or , had miraculously reappeared. Margaret's meal was only warm and she took it back for re-heating. I would have eaten it cold rather than risk causing offence. A couple of cats watched us dine from their apartment-prisons on either side of the square.
DAY 31 TUE Not much happened today. We drove from Avignon to Tournon-sur-Rhône without incident, avoiding tollways in favour of smaller national roads. The scenery was very pretty and the green fields were punctuated with the ruins of castles sitting high on hills overlooking the occasional small town. Tournon was situated on the banks of the Rhône but other than that the town itself was rather nondescript and boasted only a chateau as a tourist attraction. The girl at the tourist office had just returned from a long holiday in Australia and was only too happy to help us find accommodation.
While I was sending an e-mail Margaret walked up and down the streets and became lost. Only Margaret could get lost in a one-horse town like Tournon! This was a woman whose radar guided her unerringly to every shoe shop in Avignon, no matter how obscurely located.
Our hotel was more modern than we were used to and all the other guests were people working on some project in town. There was no choice of menu in the hotel restaurant and we ate the standard meal provided to the workers. It was a fairly cheap three-course meal (including a cheese platter) and we ended the evening stuffed. Before retiring we repacked our bags in preparation for the next day's dropping off of the car.
DAY 32 WED Our last day with the car. We drove all the way to the outskirts of Lyon through the picturesque countryside of Provence. The blandness of the towns through which we passed was more than made up for by the ruined castles perched high on the side of cliffs and the vineyards beside the wide and swiftly flowing Rhône.
As I had expected, finding the drop off point at Lyon Airport was not without its problems. It was not as difficult as I had feared, however, and we arrived at the Total service station with five minutes to spare. The Peugot girl spoke absolutely no English and found it hard to follow my French responses to her questions. I can only assume that she was not familiar with my dialect which was, I suspect, intelligible only to the citizens of the Dordogne.
Now sans automobile we caught a shuttle bus to the city. I harbored a secret fear that the hotel I had booked on the Internet would be a seedy, dirty place in the most unpleasant part of the city. As the bus wound through the progressively less salubrious suburbs Margaret became increasingly pessimistic. To my great relief the hotel was quite nice. The large railway station, Lyon Perrache, was nearby but out of sight and our room overlooked a neat little park. In the evening the park would lose some of its appeal as homeless winos and drug addicts gathered to vomit and sprawl on the footpath.
In the afternoon we walked the length of Rue Victor Hugo, a broad pedestrian boulevarde full of the sort of shops Margaret loves. Our early impression was that Lyon was not comparable to Paris or Avignon in terms of atmosphere but the next day's expedition to Vieux Lyon (old Lyon) quickly changed our minds.
I have found that my highly rehearsed French phrases, beautifully enunciated, can lead people to assume that I am extremely fluent in their language. Thus, when I said to the bus driver at the airport "Je voudrais deux billets a Lyon Perrache" he smiled and rattled off a series of rapid sentences which were total gibberish to me. I then had to reveal that I had exhausted my repertoire. Margaret reckoned that beneath that friendly smile he was thinking "stupid old American".
Margaret had read that the old churches and buildings of the city were beautifully illuminated after dark. Night fell sometime after nine and we walked once again across Place Carnot and down Rue Victor Hugo. The old buildings were lit up and as we walked along the banks of the Rhône (that river seems to be everywhere in France) we admired the Cathédrale Saint Jean and Basilique Notre Dame de Fourrière as they glowed golden on the other side of the river.
Our ramble took us into a rather seedy section of the city and Margaret became rather nervous. I laughed off her fears. Weeks of walking and climbing had made me very fit and I felt like a young Clint Eastwood, exuding menace from every sinew of my tightly coiled body. Back on the main drag we were surprised by the hordes of young people roaming the streets. The elderly and middle-aged had retired for the night and the city belonged to the young.
Margaret was woken in the early hours of the morning by the same youths on their way home, totally inebriated and very loud.
DAY 33 THU A day spent walking. We started at 10.30 and finished at 6.30, interrupting our exploration briefly for a bouchon lunch (lunch of Lyon) and later for a half-hour admiring the cathedral. Following the recommendation of our guidebook we explored every nook and cranny of Vieux Lyon on the other side of the river. The hotel receptionist, believing perhaps that we were a bit decrepit, had suggested that we catch a bus. We were made of sterner stuff and walked all the way.
Even Margaret had forgotten that it was Ascension Thursday, a public holiday throughout France and when we reached Cathédrale Saint Jean we found ourselves at a special Mass. We counted more than one hundred and forty priests, twenty-two bishops and one cardinal, trumping by far the previous record set in Montserrat on the Black Madonna's feast day. The area was crawling with police and, as the clergy paraded into the church, newspaper photographers lit the interior with their flashes. We stayed until after the Gospel then walked along the old Rue Saint Jean enjoying its old buildings and shops before continuing along the equally ancient Rue Juiverie. At the end of that street we found ourselves at the foot of a steep set of steps which seemed to ascend forever. Rather than retrace our steps and take the funicular we decided to climb the steps.
Margaret dutifully counted each step and by the time we had climbed to the basilica overlooking the city she had reached eight hundred and ninety eight, almost three times as many as at Sacré Coeur in Paris. We were a little tired and agreed that we would have had a hard time making the climb five weeks ago.
Lonely Planet and the Michelin Blue Guide described the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière in the most uncomplimentary terms. "Over the top", "gaudy", "an atrocity of bad taste" were some of the phrases used. We thought it was great! Certainly more interesting than the cathedral below. As far as French religious buildings go it was quite young, having been completed in 1896. From the terraces behind the basilica we had a grand view of the city below and took way too many snaps.
Further down Rue Cleberg we stumbled upon the Roman Ampitheatre which, the sign at the entrance proudly informed us, is the oldest reconstructed Roman theatre in France. Back on Rue Saint-Jean we ate a genuine lyonnaise dinner comprised of three courses which was one of the best we had enjoyed to date. The final course was a crêpe Grand Marnier. Perfecto!
We parted company on Rue Victor Hugo so that Margaret could return to the hotel and I could look for the elusive Virgin Megastore that we had passed somewhere in the city the previous day. I found it by pure luck and was delighted to find that it was open for business (most of Lyon's shops were closed for the holiday). I then spent ages trying to find an alimentaire so that I could buy my evening beer. I was successful, thank goodness, as failure to end the day without such a beverage renders me quite depressed.