A Travellerspoint blog

Dubai

I have seen the future and..... it's hot

sunny 41 °C

I'd been interested in visiting Dubai for some time but when we actually arrived I was just so tired that I didn't really care. Alot of people I know had said the Emirates were a really good airline with excellent service, but this was not our experience. The flight from Milan to Dubai goes via Rome. The flight takes a little over an hour and then there is an hour stopover. After welcoming us on board at Milan we never saw any of the crew again. There wasn't even the offer of a glass of water during the flight. As soon we we landed the crew announced that all passengers travelling on were to remain in their seats while the plane refueled, was cleaned and the crews changed. Then the crew left. So we waited another hour, again without even the offer of a glass of water. There was chaos as the new passengers got on at Rome and the new crew tried to work out where everyone needed to sit, then, as soon as everyone was on-board the first and business class passengers got their drinks service while the rest of us plebs had gone nearly three hours without a drink.
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We arrived in Dubai around midnight. We rapidly transitted through immigration and out of the airport. The heat and humidity of Dubai crashed down on us like a wall. It was unbelievable, unbearable. We'd booked a room at the Ramlee Guestline Hotel through LastMinute.com and had only sketchy details about where it was or what it even looked like. Our taxi driver advised that actually there were three Ramlee Guestlines in the city - two of them on the same street - so it was a bit pot luck. He dropped us off at the first Ramlee Guestline and I tried to confirm with the staff whether this was the correct hotel. The staff were all Indian and mutually there was a bit of struggle with accents but the concierge eventually confirmed we did have a reservation. As soon as they tried to check us in however it became increasingly obvious that this was not the right hotel. The booking was in the Malcolm and Mr Malcolm hadn't paid, whereas we had. Nevertheless, the staff were helpful and agreed we could stay in the room until the payment issue could be dealt with by the day staff. It was then off to the room.

Cost had been the primary factor in choosing the Ramlee, but we were a little disappointed in the hotel. It was quite old and shabby, with very 1980's decor, but when we were let into the room we were gobsmacked. Firstly it wasn't a room, but a huge hotel suite with three separate bedrooms, lounge with a flatscreen TV, dining room and a bathroom large enough to practice surfing in. True, it was decorated in 1980's style, but that was hardly the point. Clearly this was not our room. We tried to convince the bellboy, but he just wanted to show us how to work the TV and airconditioning. So I phoned the front desk. They too had become a little suspicious that we were not Mr Malcolm (having checked out our passports) so we all traipsed downstairs again. They very kindly apologised for the mix up and sent us over to the correct hotel in the hotel car. The second Ramlee was much more modern than the first so although our room did not contain its own private swimming pool we were very satisfied.

Shelly was keen to get up early and set off to explore and do some shopping, but we were both exhausted. We had breakfast at the hotel and then went back to our room and plan. Today however was Friday, the Muslim Holy day, and we were in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim Holy month. Consequently all restaurants were closed all day and the shops are shut until late afternoon. The streets outside our hotel were deserted. So we slept until 1pm. I was so thankful at last to get some restful sleep. About 2.30 we dragged ourselves outside. The helpful staff tried to determine where we were going but the advice they gave was either contradictory or incomprehensible (eg, "Don't walk, take a taxi" "Can you order us a taxi?" "No." "Where do we get one then?" "Oh, just walk up the road. But if you go shopping, no need for a taxi. Just walk up here. Big shop. All the same." "Err, okay, thanks").
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The heat was scorching. The only other comparable heat I'd felt was in Aswan in Egypt - dry, baking, desert heat. We walked up a couple of blocks (walking! In this heat? Are we crazy?). The only other people on the street were a couple of tourists wandering aimlessly like ourselves. An Indian guest worker hurried up to us to beg for money, but we had none. We turned towards the Dhow Jetty, a couple of blocks from our hotel. It's supposed to be a good tourist attraction, but there was nothing to see today. Everything was shut. Piles of goods were stacked up on the dockside. Indian workers were lying around under the shade of the few trees and stared as we walked past. We decided to leave. We'd only been out for about half an hour and were already drenched in sweat so we grabbed the first taxi we saw and went to The Mall of the Emirates, a gigantic shopping mall in New Dubai. We drove through the new CBD, which seemed to be nothing more than a showcase for exceptional modernist architecture. It was stunning, and highlighted the apparent dearth of architectural creativity in our own home city of Perth (honestly, don't get me started on Perth, planning and architecture! It will only end in tears). In the centre of the Mall is a model of a new development - Dubai Waters - that is the stuff of science fiction fantasy. All of this city - which is bigger than the current city of Dubai and many other cities of the world - is to be built on reclaimed desert with an artificial waterway. It's visionary and incredible.
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But models of future cities is not Mall of the Emirates' claim to fame - it's the famous indoor ski run and alpine village. It's such an incredibly crazy idea - an artificial ski field in a shopping centre in a desert country. Not being skiers we did not go on the run but we did do toboganing. It was extremely cold (durr!) and great fun. The rest of the day was spent shopping. Now, I'm not well known for my stamina when shopping, but suspecting this might be a long day I'd gone to Borders bookstore and bought myself a decent book (worked a treat). After visiting every single shoe store and dress shop in the Mall we finally left around 1am.
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The next day we decided to take in some actual sight seeing and went to the Old Town and Spice and Gold souks. As far as souks go it certainly wasn't the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and the architecture of the Old Town wasn't particulary interesting. By mid-afternoon we were done and took a taxi back to the hotel. We had a swim, cooled off and then took a taxi over to the Burj al-Arab, the famous sail shaped hotel that has become symbolic of Dubai. After an almost half hour taxi ride we were a little surprised to find that you cannot actually approach the Burj unless you are a guest or have a reservation. I can understand the hotel and its guests not wanting to be disturbed by tourists wanting a bit of gawp, but then this building was created specifically as a symbol for Dubai and is advertised as such. Certainly there should be some viewpoint from which people can look at the building a take a photo. Instead Shelly quickly snapped a shot from the driveway as the taxi was turned about. Frustrated as the light began to fade we we went to the Jumeriah Medina complex next door. This luxury hotel, resort and shopping complex was built in the style of the old city (except on a monumental scale). As a place it was fairly lifeless but it was the only place from which you could actually get a decent glimpse of the Burj. We wandered around it's artifical canals, palm groves and shops before catching another taxi to another theme park shopping mall, the Ibn Battuta Mall.
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Ibn Battuta was an Islamic Marco Polo, leaving his home in Tunisia to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the thirteenth century, he decided to keep on travelling. Like Polo, who travelled in the same era, he capitalised on the Pax Mongolica to travel in the wake of the Great Khan across central Asia to China. Both travellers threw in their lot with the Mongols, Polo becoming an Admiral in the Chinese navy and Battuta became a Moslem judge in the Imperial Court (the Mongol Khans were quite flexible in matters of religion - they variously used the services of Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Pagans as it suited them). Battuta travelled for some 40 odd years before finally settling down again in Tunisa, where he dictated his memoirs describing his adventures in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Byzantium, the Ukraine and Steppes of Central Asia, China, India, Sumatra, Indonesia, the Maldives, Zanzibar, East and Central Africa. Like Marco Polo, he was disbelieved and ridiculed as an inverterant liar during his lifetime. Only one single, long forgotten copy of his memoir survived and is now recognised as critical source of information about life in the thirteenth century.
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The Ibn Battuta Mall is absolutely enormous, seeming to stretch for kilometre after kilometre. But it isn't all about shopping, each wing of the Mall is built and decorated in a style appropriate to each of the main empires Ibn Battuta travelled through. We started in the China Mall which is built like the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. Inside the gigantic hall a Chinese junk, sails afurl is displayed along with information about Ibn Battuta's travels through China and his lucky escape from a shipwreck between India and China. Then we progressed through the other Malls, the Persian Mall, the Egyptian Mall, the Tunisian Mall, the Andalusian Mall, and the Mogul Indian Mall. There many interesting and informative displays on Islamic science and culture from the Golden Age of Islam (850-1300), which certainly kept me amused while Shelly shopped, although it did lead to us getting lost a couple of times. Again we finished up about 1am.

We had certainly shopped up a storm at the end of our trip, but our bags were still underweight when we checked in to the airport - a surprise (and a godsend!). Eleven hours later we arrived in Perth - tired and frustrated, to join the long winding queue of fellow travellers subjected to the newly rigorous customs checks.

And then it was over.

Posted by paulymx 01:53 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Cote D'Azur

Swaning around in St Tropez

sunny 25 °C

Leaving the mountains behind us at last we arrived at the coast at St Tropez. St Tropez had once been a tiny, poverty stricken fishing village on the Mediterranean until in 1956 a film crew arrived to make another one of those mysogynistic, self indulgent films the French so excel at. It could have just been another one of those films watched only by film students and pretentious wankers except that it introduced a young lady who simply burnt up the screen - Brigitte Bardo. The film "And God Created Woman" launched both her career and St Tropez's. From now on every rich bastard in the western world wanted to sit on a beach in St Tropez in the hope that a woman like Brigitte Bardo would could wandering up out of the water, f*ck him like there's no tomorrow, use and manipulate him and completely screw up his life. And you know what? Once the rich bastards started arriving, so did those women.

As a playground of the rich and famous St Tropez really wasn't the kind of place we would usually visit while travelling. The most common phrase in our travel vocabulary seems to be "That's too expensive. Do you have anything cheaper?" Unfortunately it was not a phrase that people in St Tropez understood. The car parking was F-ing expensive, accommodation was ridiculous, food was extravagant, and drinks were simply out of this world (9 euro for a middie of beer!!!! F*uck ME that's like $15 Australian dollars! FOR BEER!!!!! JESUS HELP ME!!!!!).

That little rant aside, we had a great time in St Tropez. The first thing we did after parking the car (6 euro AN HOUR! - sorry) was wander down to the tourist office to check on accommodation. The tourist office was manned (manned!) by a couple of suitably gorgeous young ladies, who cheerfully advised us that the cheapest room in St Tropez was in the vicinity of 80-120 euros. As we were looking at the bottom end of that market (at LEAST) they couldn't actually make the booking for us so, using their map, we wandered around the city (it's fairly small) confirming with the various hotels that they were all fully booked. The one place that did have a single vacancy was 120 euros, but we were frightened away by the lady on the reception whose make up was so fiercely applied that I thought she was either a transvestite in her later years or the preserved corpse of Tammy Bakker. Urrggghh!!! So we wandered back to the tourist office.

There was one alternative in town - an apartment. It only cost 90 euro and for some strange reason we'd originally turned down the idea, but we were now desperate. The ladies at the office made a call and the owner came down a few minutes later. He took us through the backstreets around the cathedral, through a non-descript doorway and up 4 flights of narrow, curving stairs (now I remember the reason!). The apartment was stunning. A tiled wall created a separate space for the toilet and bath but otherwise it was simply a large room. But it was clean, stylish and trendy, like a minimalist loft apartment you see in the movies. It was great. What's more the owner gave us his carpark space so we could park for free. EXCELLENT!!! Keys in hand, we collected the car and drove to the harbour (where we had a pass for the carpark). It was a bit of an effort to lug the bags all the way from the harbour, across the waterfront, past the rows and rows of multi-million dollar yachts and then up the stairs to the apartment, but it was worth it. We had a loooonnnnng soak in the bath, tizzied ourselves up and then set out to check out the night life.
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We cruised along the waterfront restaurants and bars, checking the scene and - more discreetly - checking the prices. Suffice it say we didn't end up choosing one of the premier restaurants, but settled in a very nice little Breton creperie. The food was nice and inexpensive and they served house wine by the litre so when we left we were feeling very good. We kicked on to a funky and cool bar a street back from the waterfront. It was so cool in fact that the only people allowed in there were the staff. A hostess, dressed in a suitably retro 1960s outfit (like something from Austin Powers) helped us take a seat at the bar. The drinks menu consisted of expensive cocktails or extremely expensive champagne. The champagne came in two sizes - bottles or jerraboams. Nothing smaller. No beer. So we settled in for a cocktail, watched the rugby on the wall sized flat screen TV and drank very very slowly. The place still hadn't filled by the time we left and the only people who seemed to be enjoying the ambiance were the staff.

We wandered past a couple of other bars. We went into one but the red lighting was so garrish we thought we'd stepped onto the set of some 1970's porno. In fact, the whole place had the vibe of swingers bar with rich, but badly dressed men ogling overtanned, older women. This was definitely the wrong place to be hanging so we left. We finally settled on Le Grand Joseph, a very exclusive waterfront bar. All the seats face the waterfront so you can watch the pretentiously wealthly eating on the back decks of their cruisers (let's call them cruisers, not yachts - yachts have sails and these things were more like small ocean liners). As if to emphasize their superiority it was de-rigour for the wealthy to turn their backs to us plebs to landward. Really, it didn't really look like those people were having that much fun. If I had a multi-million dollar cruiser at my disposal I'd be inviting people to come about and make a party of it.

Le Grand Joseph was an interesting bar. The floor was of black sand. A few doors up its partner, the restaurant bar, had a white sand. As we stood out the front a stretch Hummer pulled up and a couple of suspicous looking characters went into the restaurant. A policeman tried to get the chauffer to move the car. It turned out the car belonged to some Russian mafia types and they didn't really feel like moving the car. There was a vigorous debate and eventually both sides backed down. The driver moved the Hummer a few feet and the policeman's wife and children were released without harm.

For men with really small p*nises, the stretch Hummer is a great car. It draws crowds who all want to stand around gawp and take photos (myself included - but I wasn't impressed, honestly. It's a stupid car). It especially draws young ladies who suddenly become all very keen to sacrifice their morals to climb aboard. Two young (probably underage) American girls asked us if we knew who's car it was and what they could do to get in. We said we didn't know and we could guess, respectively. It seemed a fair trade to the girls, but as the mobsters were still busy threatening the policeman's family, they decided to cruise on somewhere else.

Excitement over, we entered the bar. Two middle aged ladies - guests - were dancing on table at the entrance, which drew the attention of many middle aged gentlemen. We cruised around the bar a couple of times. It was nice and the prices weren't as extravagant as other places (9 euro for middie - what am I saying???) so we bought a round and settled down. 9 euro also gets you a plate of chocolates with your beer. Normally chocolate and beer doesn't go well together but on this occasion we made an exception and gobbled them all down. By chance we started chatting with two American girls sitting at the table next to us. They asked us where we were from and we said Australia. "Oh yeah, there are a bunch of Australians out the front.", one of the girls said. "They're from some sport team or something. Is it soccer?" Shelly and I looked at each other. "You don't mean the Australian Rugby Team do you??" "Yeah, that's it. We had a couple of drinks with them earlier. We can introduce you." Anyway, I'm sure Shelly didn't mean to knock me off my chair as she jumped up, but as soon as I picked myself up, dusted off the footprints on my chest, we were standing at the Wallabies table introducing ourselves. "So, you following the games?". one of them asked. "Nah, not really.", I said. "Don't follow rugby at all. In fact, I think it's a stupid game really. Just a coincidence we're here." Oh man, did they laugh and laugh - then they punched me in the face. No, not really. We congratulated them on their recent success (smashing Japan) and they welcomed us to their table for a chat. Perhaps "we" isn't the right word. It was probably more like 'they invited the girls to their table' and I just tagged along. It wasn't the whole team either mind you, just five of the team who were having a little time off. The rest of the team was in Marsailles. We mostly spoke to Sean Hardman, a hooker (whatever that means?). He was a great guy and, as Shelly so politely pointed out, "didn't sound like a Queenslander" (Aussies will understand what that means). It was a great night.

We were moving just a little slower the next day (funny that!). We had to be out by 11am and we wanted to check out the beaches. After all these years of travelling I am still waiting to see a beach populated as far as the eye can see with young, beautiful, blonde haired, buxom beauties baring their breasts - to NO AVAIL - not in France, not in Germany, not in Croatia (the home of nude beaches) not in Italy, not in Rio, not even in Cancun! For this failure I blame Shelly. Somehow or other she manages to ensure that on the one day we go to the beach it rains, or a storm blows up, or something else happens. I think she is in league with the devil to thwart my evil plans. After what seemed like an interminable drive into a rural wilderness we saw a sign for la Plage de Pamplonna - St Tropez' long, famous beach. We pulled into a dodgy looking carpark, paid over our 5 euro and wandered down to the beach. It was hot, but windy and the beach was largely empty. Not only that, but it was nothing compared to an Australian beach (especially the beaches in Western Australia). The whole place in fact looked shabby. It seemed so out of place with St Tropez' reputation. So, we left after only a few minutes, passing on our way out two of the rubgy boys looking just a little worse for wear!

We drove down the coast towards Nice. There were some nice towns and gorgeous views, but to my mind it wasn't really an appealing area. Maybe because I'm not a beach person I find many seaside towns boring and often ugly. We stopped for lunch in one of the many beachside towns and had a very ordinary pasta, served with studied indifference. We jumped onto the motorway and then sped to Nice. We managed to navigate our way into the city and found the railway station. The streets around were littered with hotels so we pulled into a carpark, squeezed into a bay and paid 'a tip' to a couple of dodgy characters to "protect" the car, ie, please do not steal from the car while we're gone. We looked at three hotels and took the most expensive - the other hotels were bordering on disguisting. The reception of our hotel was manned by a small fluffy, well manicured dog which sat on the counter and called to her equally well manicured owner whenever someone approached. With the room secured we rushed back to the car - which hadn't been robbed thankfully (money well spent!) - and drove to the train station. There we dropped off our trusty hire car. It suddenly felt like the holiday was at an end.

We'd been to Nice before - in 1998 - as part of a Contiki tour, so Shelly decided to go shopping. I went sightseeing, however, Nice really isn't that nice. In fact the most impressive sight I saw was a well tanned, very fit young lass walking down the central boulevard in a thin, partly see-through, lemon yellow dress, with a dangerously plunging neckline and no underwear. I did not however, see the right hook Shelly landed on me to remind me we're married. Sorry Dear!!!
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We ended our French adventure at a little restaurant in the old town. We had a set menu for 13 euro - I think we gnocchi with roquefort cheese - and it was excellent. As we moved onto desert the table next to us was taken by the strangest set of couples we ever laid eyes on. Two women, probably in their mid 60s, tanned a dull red, with skin like old leather, and wearing makeup painted thick and garrish. One lady - the older looking one - dressed like an EMO with black eye makeup and all the facial piercings. They were partnered by two 20 something, well dressed young gentlemen. In other circumstances we might have thought they were mothers and sons (or grandsons), but that was not the way they behaved. It seemed more that the two gents - who seemed gay - were playing the part of attentive toyboys to their older wealthy patrons, fawning over them, lighting their cigarettes, paying them outrageous compliments- everything except pay for anything, then the ladies wallets came out.

The next morning we dragged the bags to the nearby railway station and bid adieu to France. We took the train to Genoa, then on to Verona, where we visited our good friend Roberto for two days. By good fortune Roberto had just returned that evening from two weeks in the Greek Islands. Verona is one of our favourite cities in Italy and this was our third visit, so we took things very easy. Shelly shopped and I found an internet cafe and attempted to update the blog (not very well actually - I only got as far as Carcassonne) and booked accommodation for Dubai. Two days later we were back on the train to Milan and Malpensa airport. We were off to the last gasp of our holiday.

Posted by paulymx 06:12 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Mountains and Ghost Towns

sunny 24 °C

We could have stayed on in Annecy but decided to press on as we were beginning to run out of days. We chose Marsailles as a tentative destination, knowing it would be quite a long drive. But it wasn't going to be that easy. For one thing there is no motorway between Annecy and Marsailles as the central massif is in the way. Although we didn't mean to, we ended up on the motorway to Lyon, which took us about an hour out of our way. Perhaps if we had have stuck with the motorway to Lyon we could then have gotten onto the A7 south. But we didn't want to backtrack and so turned off at Grenoble and headed directly south across the Massif on highway 75. On the map Highway 75 looked like a major road, but what the map couldn't show was the terrain it was covering. We were back into the mountains which meant a much slower journey. Fortunately there weren't many cars on the road so we never felt under pressure, but as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to peak between the mountains it became clear we were never going to make it Marsailles. French rural roads are not illuminated so driving at night is not really an option and although it was still only 4ish I suggested to Shelly that we make contingency plans to stop somewhere else.
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Digne-les-Bains in northern Provence is famous as the heartland of the lavender region and every year the city hosts a lavender festival. It sounded suitably quaint so we agreed that was where we would go. But as the afternoon wore on and the light continued to slip away it seemed like we wouldn't even make there. Once again we started preparing contingency plans. Unfortunately the Lonely Planet was no help as it didn't provide any details about the towns in this region. Up ahead we could see a limestone spur towering over the highway topped by a massive medieval castle. Its scale suggested that the town it was attached to must be fairly large. It turned out to be the town of Sisteron, population approx 20,000. Passing through the new industrial suburbs of North Sisteron, we came to the old town clustered around the base of the massive limestone spur. For the briefest of minutes the sun suddenly burst from behind a mountain peak and the whole town was illuminated in rich, warm tones. It was so stunning we pulled over and took a quick series of photos. Then it was off again before the light completely faded. We both fell silent as we drove through the rest of the town, admiring its well restored medieval buildings, festooned with garlands of flowers. There were people out in the streets, wandering around enjoying the late afternoon ambience. The place looked like a postcard. So we pulled over on the side of the road. Should we stop here for night? We should certainly be able to find a hotel and we'd at least have another 45 minutes of afternoon light to explore. I mean it all looked so nice. We re-read the entry for Digne-les-Bains. Digne did SOUND lovely and, after all, Sisteron had not cracked a mention in any guide so we decided to press on.
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We arrived in Digne-les-Bains just on sunset. The hotels mentioned in Lonely Planet were either full or extravagantly expensive so after about six laps around the darkened town we eventually found a cheap room on the outskirts of the old town. Fortunately there was a public carpark across the street with one single space left - there was a good reason for that - it was almost impossible to squeeze a car into, but after completing an epic 33 point turn I managed to squeeze our car in (and prayed to God that someone else would have moved by the morning so I could get out again!). After dropping our bags we rushed out to get some dinner before all the restaurants decided to close. We settled for a fairly average pizza before heading back to the room for an early night - the streets were almost deserted.

The next day we wandered around the old town. Unlike Sisteron, Digne-les-Bains seemed devoid character. Nor was there much evidence that we were in the heart of the lavender region. In fact the lavender had all been harvested recently and had been cut back or plowed over, so there were to be no fields of lavender for us. A tip for travellers - always be wary of guide books that state a particular place is wonderful because it hosts some seasonal festival. Undoubtedly the guide visited during the festival when everything is happening and the place is alive. What's the place like 99% of the time when there ISN'T a festival? Well, in Digne-les-Bains case it becomes just another very sleepy little regional French town.

So Digne was a disappointment - oh well. We decided to make the most of the opportunity and take the scenic drive through the Grand Canyon du Verdon. It proved to be a lovely drive. We stopped at a beautiful little village called Castellane, dominated like Sisteron by a towering peak of limestone, although this time topped with a little church. It was well worth the detour. Turning onto the scenic drive the road once again narrowed and became torturously winding. It was tense but again there were few cars on the road to hassle us. A few hours into the drive however we began to notice a build up of traffic. We were debating what could be the cause - this was a pretty obscure road - when we suddenly came upon a massive traffic jam. For an hour we crawled slowly forward in first gear. The cause turned out to be a head on collision further along the pass. The two cars, both obviously travelling fast, had been completely destroyed. As we drove past we noticed there was blood trailling down the drivers door of one of the cars. I doubt if anyone survived. As if we needed any further warning of the danger of these roads! I must admit the sight unnerved me. I was confident of my driving, but that was irrelevant when so many French drivers were prepared to drive like maniacs and overtake on blind corners.

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As we wound our way out of the Canyon we passed the tiny and quaint little village of Montferrat. Tucked away high in the mountains it seemed not to have changed in centuries and perhaps it hadn't. But for all its modern obscurity, Montferrat was once a famous place. In the eleventh and early twelfth centuries the Marquis' of Montferrat used the Crusades to build for themselves a reputation that far exceeded the actual importance of their tiny village. They married their way into many of the princely families across Europe; they were advisers to Popes and Kings; one was elected King of Jerusaleum and two almost became Emperors of Byzantium. Looking at this tiny village now - even with modern roads it was far from everywhere - it seemed an amazing feat that people from here had even managed to escape from this place, let alone influence the world as they did.

From the mountains it was all downhill now. We were speeding towards the sea. We had a date with St Tropez!

Posted by paulymx 01:32 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Into the Alps

Stunning scenery and nervous tension

sunny 23 °C

Shelly had recommended a break from ancient ruins and medieval cities and had planned a route that would take us through the Gorges de L'Ardeche. We had less than half a tank of petrol in the car when we left Avignon and it certainly didn't look very far away on the map so we didn't bother to stop to fill up the tank. It took some navigation on Shelly's part to get us to the Gorges - they weren't very well signposted, but we got there in the end. Initially I was a little underwhelmed. The Gorges were limestone, gray and not particularly impressive. In fact, geologically speaking France seemed rather featureless - the whole country seemed to be a flat plain crossed by a few slow moving old rivers. But at the Gorges this familiar and somewhat mundane landscape suddenly changed. The road wound slowly upwards along the rim of the gorge, but up ahead we could clearly see a pass where the gorge peaked and then a slow descent began. But the descent did not last for long. Shortly after we crossed the pass the road began to slope upwards again and the turns became sharper. Up until that point we'd been rather casual with our driving - there were few cars on the road and the road was wide enough to pull over and hop out to take photos whenever we wanted - but as we ascended the road became increasingly narrow, as correspondingly, did my focus.
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We were now on our way to the natural bridge at the northern end of the gorge, but a half glimpsed road sign indicated that this was some 90 kilometres away - far further than we'd anticipated. Shelly noticed me eyeing the fuel gauge, "Do we have enough petrol?" she asked. "I'm sure we'll be fine.", I answered, not entirely convinced. Besides, what could we do now? Turn back? It was a bit late for that. To say that the drive was spectacular would be an understatement. The narrow winding roads constantly offered us views of sheer peaks and plunging gorges, but it was a very tense drive. I was constantly shocked at the speed and recklessness with which French drivers hurtled around blind bends, bordering on sheer drops. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt, but one slip on these roads would have been fatal. I know I scared the wits out of Shelly on occasion by pulling the car close to edge, but she couldn't see how close the cars were passing us. I swear we almost lost our wing mirrors on a hundred occasions.
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We were delighted to find that the natural bridge represented the end of the de L'Averche Gorge and we were back on flat ground. We stopped on the side of the road, walked and stretched our legs, took a photo and then were off. Thankfully we made it with the petrol gauge resting on empty. We pulled into the very next petrol station we passed and filled up, vowing never to do that ever again.

We were now on the Central Massif, the high limestone plateau that is eastern France's most notable geological feature. The countryside was hilly, but not mountainous and towns and villages now began to reappear. Lyon was our next destination but we couldn't resist getting ourselves lost again when we tried to pass through the city of Valence, on our way back to the motorway. Once again, contradictory signposting at a roundabout sent us on a long and time consuming loop through the centre of town - during peak hour - before returning us to the very same roundabout. After the tense drive through the mountains I was a little less than thrilled. Eventually we found our way to the motorway and then it was smooth sailing.

We arrived in Lyon at dusk. Although the A7 motorway runs along the Rhone waterfront (becoming just another 4 lane highway), it does little to marr Lyon's pleasant riverside aspect. In fact, Lyon's Rhone bears a striking resemblance to Paris' Seine. It too is tree lined, pleasant and lined with handsome public buildings. Nevertheless, it was bumper to bumper traffic and we still had to try and find both a parking spot and a hotel. Navigation - so far - proved to be easy. We easily located the street with the hotel we'd picked from the guidebook and it wasn't one way (woo who!!!!). I managed to scam a spot on the road verge about a block from the hotel and Shelly ran down to see if they had a vacancy. She soon came back, sadly disappointed. In her absence however another driver had tried to force his car between ours and a line of bollards and came off much the worse for wear. Unfortunately, in my attempt to get out of his way he'd pushed our car back into the bollards too. Fortunately a quick inspection revealed there was no damage (touch wood - hope the hire car people aren't reading this!). We drove towards the heart of the city - fortunately there was less traffic in the city proper - but our search for a hotel was proving fruitless. It seemed like Toulouse all over again. Eventually we weaved our way down towards the railway station (there are always suitably dodgy and cheap hotels around railway stations) and found a clean, freshly rennovated, decently priced hotel (Hotel De-la Marne). The owner was extremely helpful, recommending we temporarily park the car in a tow-away zone across the street until he could find us somewhere else to park. When we returned from dinner later that evening we found he'd blocked off a vacant loading zone in front of the hotel with a couple of bins for us. That's service!

Lyon is Frances third largest city (after Paris and Marsailles) and has a good reputation for nightlife. The city seemed very quiet though, except in the restaurant district, which was quite a walk from the hotel. All the hotels, bars and cafes were packed. After dinner and drinks we wandered around to see what was happening, but it was pretty rowdy in the bar zone as a Rugby World Cup match had just finished being televised. The supporters of the losinrg team (I don't remember who it was) were flooding out onto the streets, drunk and unhappy. Some, in a very pecularily French tradition, were literally flooding the streets. The French I think seem to have an overly indulgent attitude to public urination. I have no particular issue with people urinating against a tree or over a drain when caught short in the street, but it seemed like people (well, men specifically) just pissed wherever the urge took them, usually in doorways along the street, which:
a) Leaves unsightly stains on doors and pavements;
b) Creates unnecessary obstacles for pedestrians;
c) Stinks, and;
d) Is fairly disgusting.
With the fragrance of France filling the air, we decided to head back to the hotel.

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The next day we took a "hop on - hop off" tour of the city - it was just too big to walk around. Lyon is a pleasant city but wasn't overly blessed with must see sights - most of the buildings in the centre of the city dated from the nineteenth century - handsome, but familar. There were some old districts dating back to the fifteenth century when Lyon was famous for its silk industry. Under the streets there are a series of tunnels that were built by the silk merchants to allow them to transport the silk out of view of prying eyes (Lucca in Italy had a similar arrangement). These old districts had a very bohemian aire similar to Montrematre in Paris, but could scarely be described as the "village" atmosphere claimed by our guide book. We took the bus to the Fourviere hill overlooking the city. This was the site of the original Roman city of Lugdunum and there are the remains of a Roman theatre, Odeon (enclosed theatre) and some tombs there. I must admit, the ruins were a little disappointing as they looked as if they had been perhaps a little over-enthusiastically restored in the nineteenth century. There was just a little too much concrete, leading one to question just how much of it was actually Roman. When it comes to restoration of ancient monuments - anywhere around the world - the question of 'what' to restore and 'how much' is always important. In the nineteenth century especially there were plenty of amateur archaeologists at work whose restorations owed more to their imagination and 'modern' theories than historical accuracy.

Fourviere hill was topped by an overblown nineteenth century wedding cake called the Fourviere Basillica and a miniature Effiel Tower called the Tour Metallique. Neither are particularly impressive up close but the view over the city is quite lovely. Like Paris, Lyon is an amazingly low rise city with only one modern skyscraper breaking the mold (and yes, like the Tour Montparnasse in Paris, Lyon's skyscraper is notably ugly). We walked down a long winding path to the centre of the city - again, it was reminiscent of the walk down from Sacre Cour in Montmatre in Paris.
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In the early afternoon we left Lyon and continued north east on the road to Geneva. The landscape changed again, now rolling alpine hills, stunningly green and little Swiss style villages. France is certainly a big country and as we travelled we certainly noticed that each region is subtly (or sometimes overtly) different - Alsace had a distinctively German feel, the south felt like Spain (and sometimes Italy), Brittany was like sea-side England or Wales, and now it felt like we were in Switzerland. We arrived in the lakeside town of Annecy in the late afternoon.

We managed to grab the last available room at a budget hotel right in the centre town. The proprietor sneered in contempt at our inability to speak proper French - the first and only time we'd ever encountered Francophone arrogance. We set out in the early evening to explore, but typically I turned us down the wrong street and we ended up wandering through charmless back streets until by accident we hit up the canal that runs through the centre of the old town. The heart of old Annecy, which runs along the canal from the lake front, was astonishingly beautiful. The canal lent a picturesque aspect to its lovely sixteenth century buildings. In the centre of the canal is the River Chateaux, an old fortress and one time prison, which bears an uncanny resemblance to some nineteenth century ironclad battleship. That night we enjoyed a traditional Savoyarde dish of cheese fondue, washed down with the local red and white wine.
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The next day we set off to explore the city, which proved to be even more beautiful in the daylight. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and like in Alsace (and many other villages), the city was filled with flowers. Every window box seemed to overflow with flowers. After exploring the town and doing some shopping we wandered down to the lakeside. The weather was warm and pleasant and people were hiring paddle boats, playing boules or just otherwise enjoying the day.

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Posted by paulymx 02:24 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

In Avignon

Papal Babylon

sunny 27 °C

From Carcassonne, we headed southeast towards Narbonne. Narbonne had once been the Roman provincial capital of southern France, but now there is no trace of the old Roman city. We stopped for a late breakfast and wandered up to the cathedral. In the 13th century the Narbonnese had planned a massive new cathedral for the city, but ran out money shortly after the nave was completed. Ingeniously they enclosed the end of the nave to create a somewhat compressed, but functional church. Jammed in amongst the now useless arcade of piers that mark out the position of the original walls, the Narbonne cathedral is an interesting, although unattractive, ode to the failure of grandiose ambition.

From Narbonne we stopped in at Beziers - the city so notoriously destroyed during the Albigensian crusade. The new (13th century) cathedral towered grimly over the city. Perhaps out of sympathy to all those who died within the original cathedral, the new church had been built more like a fortress - grey, stout and unadorned - than the soaring gothic cathedrals we were used to. We didn't stop in the city though but visited the Canals of the Midi just outside of town. The Midi Canals were an engineering marvel of the 16th century. Sea transport was always more efficient than road during the Middle Ages but to get their produce to market on the Atlantic Coast (for transport up to northern France, Britain and the Netherlands) the French had to sail from the Mediterranean all the way around Spain - a route that was particularly vulnerable to both North African and English pirates. So they cut a canal all the way from the Mediterranean near Perpigan, across the base of the Pyrenees to Biarritz on the Atlantic coast. At Beziers the canals go through a series of seven locks that raise (or lower) the canal several metres above the level of the plain. We arrived just in time to see a canal boat and a number of cruisers passing the locks. It was an impressive sight and it was amazing how quickly they were able to traverse the locks.

Driving on, we arrived at Nimes at about 2pm. We had come here solely because I wanted to the see Nimes famous Roman amphitheatre. The theatre was built in the first century AD and would have held about 24 thousand people. It is slightly smaller than the amphitheatre in Verona, Italy (to which it bears a close resemblance) but is better preserved. The Verona amphitheatre was stripped of much of its marble facing during the Middle Ages, but Nimes is mostly intact. Nimes is also home to a very well preserved classical Roman temple and other Roman remnants. Once again we found ourselves boxed into a series of one way streets and directed in precisely the opposite direction we were trying to go. At one stage we ended up in the narrow back streets just behind the main boulevard. Insanely, although there was barely room for our car alone in these streets, they were dual carriageways, which caused us no small amount of anxiety. When we did manage to get ourselves to the centre of town we found there was no parking at all (including paid parking) so we had to do another couple of laps. Eventually we snagged a spot not too many blocks from the amphitheatre. The weather was scorchingly hot in Nimes and so we didn't stay long. We grabbed a fairly disgusting burger from the French fast food chain - Quick (no resemblance to McDonalds I can assure you... sort of).
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Shelly was just chuffed to bits when I said I also wanted to visit the Roman aquaduct at Pont Du Gard (well, it was on the road between Nimes and Avignon) and so promptly fell asleep in the car in protest. In fact this was probably the only time on the trip when Shelly fell asleep while in the car. Pont Du Gard was built in the first century BC to channel water to Nimes. It was once part of an 11 kilometre long network of aquaducts but is the only surviving portion. Despite its mundane purpose, it is a stunning piece of architecture. It spans the Gard River in three tiers of elegant arches, each tier smaller than the one below it. Some of the stones are enormous and yet the whole thing looks light and effortless. There was no entry fee to visit the aquaduct, but parking cost 5 euro, which wasn't too bad. When we visited in 1998 there were almost no facilities - in fact the only thing I can remember of the facilities was a rather unsavoury squatter toilet set back in the bush a little way from the carpark. There was a probably a souvenier stall too. Now there is an impressive tourist complex with museum, shops and a cafe. Although we'd only planned a 5 min photo stop we ended up walking all around the aquaduct, despite the heat. Then it was off to Avignon.
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In 1309AD, Pope Clement V and the Papal Curia fled from Rome and settled in the southern French city of Avignon. For the next 70 odd years the Popes - all Frenchmen - reigned from here under the protection of the French kings. Prior to their arrival of the Popes, Avignon had been a fairly small town. In the early 1200's it had been sacked and burned during the anti-Cathar Crusades, so the Popes were almost starting with a fresh slate. They threw up a magnificent (although quite obsolete) new city wall and built themselves an enormous palace to rival St Peter's. The Popes never underestimated the positive effect they had on this region of rural France; as one senior cleric noted with some sarcasm (but little irony) to an aggrieved town counciller 'before we came to this city a traveller would be hard pressed to find one lady for hire between the walls of the city, but now there are over ten thousand.'

Avignon is an elegant city. The full circuit of city walls have been well preserved but within the walls the city is no museum piece. People still live and work within the old city - quite unlike Carcassonne. We had managed to jag a room at the Etap Hotel directly outside the southern gate of the city. We wandered up through the modernised residential neighbours until we hit the main boulevard that runs through the centre of the city. Avignon was obviously a fairly wealthy city and the main boulevard was like a little Champs Elysee. Shelly was keen on visiting the boutiques but I wanted to photograph the city before the light disappeared. I dragged her down some sidestreets, across the busy ring road and over one of the many bridges over the river Rhone. The sun was setting and the Papal Palace, towering over the city was aglow in the last rays of the sun. We then wandered back into the city and found our way to the main square. The Papal Palaces tower oppressively over the main square. They are enormous in scale but as graceless as St Peter's in Rome is graceful. These were palaces built by men in fear and were intended to convey a dark sense of awe rather than rapturous wonder. Inside, the palaces are bare and a disappointment, like the Abbaye Royal. The bare limestone does not convey anything more than emptiness. We stopped for dinner and drinks in the new main square, just below the Papal Palaces. The tree lined clock square, decorated with the obligatory carousel and Hotel de Ville (town hall) was relaxed and atmospheric.
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The next morning was spent taking care of business. We'd recently had some financial difficulties which had led to a few calls back and forth to my bank. To sort things out we needed to find an internet cafe - never easy in regional France. Needless to say this caused us unwanted aggravation and took up a surprising amount of time. Shelly tried to get a little shopping in but after the morning's adventures her heart wasn't in it. I still had some sightseeing to do and led Shelly on a wild goose chase around the old city (yes, I did get lost again). We eventually found our way up to the Papal gardens that sit on a limestone bluff at the northern end of the city. The gardens were quite basic but the view over the river was delightful. But it was time to move on - almost. I had another personal matter to attend to....

Did you know that after the Reconquista in Spain the Jews and Muslims were given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving or being killed? Some left, most converted. But the Church was never entirely convinced these conversions were genuine (really?) so the Popes sanctioned an inquisition into activities un-Christian. Amongst the many un-Christian activities that could get you denounced to the Spanish Inquisition was bathing. You see Muslims and Jews had a peculiar obsession with cleanliness - ritual ablutions, daily bathing, personal hygiene and clean clothes. Christians on the other hand tended to wash at least once a year, whether they needed to or not. So the first thing the Inquisition did was to destroy all the public toilets and bath houses. Then they began destroying the baths in private houses. Having a bath or wearing clean clothes (except on very special occasions) was enough to get you denounced and that, well...., you really didn't want that to happen.... The hygiene factor alone was such a differentiator between ye old Christians and ex-Muslims, that the agents of the Inquisition literally would "sniff out the heretics." Hence the origin of another old saying (oh, I'm full of it!).

I had been complaining for days to those who would listen (that's basically Shelly) how I would give anything for a meat pie or something not French. In Avignon that morning my prayers were answered and I found what we would call in Australia a "sausage roll" or something very similar, and I ate it with gusto. But several hours later, while wandering the Papal gardens, my stomach advised me that perhaps that sausage roll wasn't such a good idea after all. And it was quite insistent. The priority became - find a public toilet, very quickly. By good fortune there was one in a far corner of the garden. Now, I may not have the nose of the Spanish Inquisition ("nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition") but even from a distance I could tell this was not going to be a very pleasant experience. Yes, I know that squatter toilets are better and more healthy for your bowels, and yes, I've been to plenty that were sparkling and clean. But this was not one of those. Suffice it say Avignon's public toilets are not on my list of highlights of France.

Posted by paulymx 22:02 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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