Stunning scenery and nervous tension
03.10.2007 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.