Thursday, June 18, 2009

Diary of a Holiday, 2009 (3)

June 16th: Sunday in the Park With Angela

First off – well, after breakfast – we established that the local companies running tourist boat trips from the river up to the Canal du Midi don't run them before midday on a Sunday morning this time of year. (The leaflets and flyers take some decoding.) Oh well, Plan A-2 – a quick visit to Les Jacobins, the Dominicans' first-ever permanent convent. (More cunning placement of orthodox theologians to keep an eye on all these Cathars.) This is one heck of a pillared hall, pretty empty these days except for, well, just the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas. One feels that one should pay one's respects to the Angelic Doctor. Muttering that one is surprised that they could fit him into that little box probably counts as too much of a scholastic in-joke; wondering what the Dominicans were doing playing host to someone as unorthodox as this ... is merely forgetting that one century's dangerous free thought is the next century's saintly orthodoxy.

Then, Plan B. This involves a brief wander down through the southern side of the town centre, down where the Renaissance mansions begin to mingle with Victorian and even twentieth century construction and planning, and then into the Jardin des Plantes, which here means the main public park – and a fine park it is too. But we're there for a reason, which is Toulouse's Natural History Museum, recently reopened after a ten-year refit.

And gosh, they've take the opportunity to make it handsome. This may be the most stylish museum I've been in for a long time, all subdued lighting and glass panels in the floor and thematic organisation. Even working of necessity with a rather Victorian collection of exhibits from before the refit – lots of faintly embarrassing stuffed animals and mounted butterflies – they've taken the opportunity to use them to illustrate modern themes like scientific categorisation and “deep time”. Not speaking the language of the labels (which are in any case only illuminated by that subdued lighting), I have to skim rather, but I know lots of nifty fossils and stuff when I see them. Even if the baryonyx and T. rex skeletons were actually casts of things held elsewhere. The place also has a spiral-layout garden full of plants categorised by the uses humans put them to – with most of the herbs and spices categorised as medical plants, which seemed kind of old-fashioned-French – and we grabbed a decent light lunch in the attached cafe.

Then we moved on, north and then east to see the local stretch of the Canal du Midi from its banks before turning back to finally see Toulouse's cathedral (traditionally overshadowed by the basilica previously mentioned, including on our list of priorities) It has to be said that this is a curious mess, what with one whole section being off-centre from the rest – the consequence of a medieval budgetary screw-up, apparently.

And then, after crashing out back at the hotel to let the heat of the day subside, we had to find some dinner, despite some restaurants being shut for Sunday evening. After some faffing about, we settled on a little backstreet place serving platters of stuff. But this is France, so such a pocket-sized place can draw its stock from the excellent local markets and patisseries, even if they have no real kitchens of their own; those platters can include half-a-dozen varieties of really nice cheese, and desert can mean a rich chocolate cake/tart served with a smooth crème anglaise. Yes, thanks – the choice worked fine.

June 15th: To Viollet le Duc's Medieval Theme Park

Our train was scheduled for 12:20, so after we checked out of the hotel, we left our bags there and set out for a last look around Toulouse. Then Angela stumbled stepping off a curb, and twisted her ankle. So we made a slow way back to the hotel, and called a taxi to get us to the station. The taxi driver asked where we were going, and warned us – through the language barrier – that there were problems with trains to Carcassonne. He was right; our 12:20 train had turned, curiously, into a 12:15 coach, which took us on a tour of the shabby districts in which French small-town railway stations always seem to be built. It was turning into one of those days.

Fortunately, it wasn't as hot as some recent days, so when transport from Carcassonne station to the old city area proved sparse, we were actually able to walk it – slowly – without completely losing the plot. We checked into the Du Pont Vieux, which turns out to be the most, umm old-world-picturesque hotel yet this holiday, albeit with the biggest room with the best view (of the Carcassonne city walls, yes), and then went off to see the old city and catch a late lunch.

On entering the old city, we were both reminded of Mont St. Michel; a twisty maze of medieval cobbled streets, lined with tourist trap shops and full of tourists. Still, it is dead picturesque. An omelette and a beer later, I was feeling a bit more human, and we took some time to look around the streets. Like I said, picturesque, and to be fair the tourists are being trapped with quite a lot of decent-looking restaurants (one of them offering four different varieties of cassoulet – look, it's a nice bean stew, and I get the thing about local culinary rivalries, but this is a bit silly – bean stew with fat meat is still bean stew), and if you wander up onto the inner ramparts or out to the outer, the views out over the town and the fields beyond to the distant hills are superb. Inauthentic as it may be, the place lives up to its rep.

Angela's ankle was slowly getting better, but we didn't want to wander too far from the hotel for dinner, which meant that we ended up eating Italian. (With a bottle of decent French rose.) Oh well, never turn down good tiramisu.

June 16th: Views of the Area

First thing, we headed back up to the old city, with intent to see some of the obvious things that we'd not managed yesterday afternoon. The castle didn't open until ten, so we strolled down to this place's basilica (which used to be the cathedral until that status got shifted to a church in the Bastide St-Louis, across the river, just a few years before the renovation of the old city began – the place must've been a real mess by then, people were making archaeological discoveries in the cellar). Once again, it turned out that architecture had emerged from budgetary screw-ups in centuries past, to interesting effect this time; when the French crown grabbed the city off its maybe-heretical counts, they ordered that the romanesque church be replaced by something gothic, then ran out of money before the demolition was complete. So one wanders down a restrained Romanesque nave, and the whole thing suddenly explodes around you into a Gothic transept, complete with some gorgeous period (or in bits, Victorian-recreated) stained glass.

Anyway, the castle. This proved well worth the price of admission, not so much for the castle itself – which is fine, but I've seen plenty of medieval castles back in Britain – as for the views from the walls and towers. In one direction, there's the lushly restored/recreated/imagined old city, and in the other there's the scruffier and dustier surrounding buildings and beyond them the Bastide and the green valley of the River Aude. Standard southern French domestic architecture – rendered walls and pantiled roofs – doesn't look so good close up when it's a bit neglected, but from above, panoramically, it can be gorgeous.

Lunch, in one of the old city's many restaurant gardens, was more salad and stuff, and then we took a stroll – being careful of Angela's still-recovering ankle – into the Bastide. This turned out to be rather unremarkable, but we found our way up to the Canal du Midi, which runs through the town, and in general it's-a-holiday mood, booked ourselves a boat trip.

Our timing for this turned out to be immaculate, as shortly after it started, so did the rain. But the boat had a canopy, so we sat back, watched the banks go past (initially meaning dull industrial buildings, but soon turning very green), and listened to the trilingual commentary. The Canal du Midi really is one of the unknown wonders of France; 240 kilometres of 17th century engineering, linking the Mediterranean to Toulouse. Okay, I was especially impressed by the deep cut through solid rock that we passed through shortly after we started, and I subsequently discovered that this was 19th century engineering, dating back to a slight re-routing that moved the canal up to the town, but still. It sounds like the hydraulic engineering which brings water from the local mountains to keep the canal topped up is the really clever part.

Oh, and dinner. We really felt obliged to sample one more cassoulet before we fled the south, but we also wanted to treat ourselves. So we tried Au Comte Roger, back up in the old city. This was described as combining local standards with gastronomic refinements, which at least in the case of what we ordered, turned out to mean wrapping delicate starters and fairly restrained desserts around seriously generous quantities of (excellent) cassoulet as the main body of the meal. I carefully left some of that – well, some beans and maybe a bit of pork – in order to be sure of having room for dessert, but I could probably have managed more.

(And interestingly, even this sophisticated French restaurant seemed to think that a “cappucino” should have whipped cream on the top, a peculiar idea presumably resulting from the need to distinguish cappucinos from what many French places serve when one orders a cafe au lait. Me, I thought that a proper French cafe au lait involved a big cup and a lot of not-much-frothed milk. Hey ho, I'm turning cranky in my old age.)

June 17th: Retracing Tracks (1)

And so we start for home.

We had an alarm set for 6:30am, and arrived at the Hotel du Vieux Marais in Paris about twelve hours later. (Not bad, but fairly basic facilities for the price, and this is evidently the hotel refitting season over here and they haven't quite finished refurbishing our room yet. Note; the picture on that 'Web page doesn't show the hotel.) After checking in and resting a while, we decided that crepes would suit us again, and after a bit of wandering, we ended up in a place near the Beaubourg. Which basically wrapped up the day.

June 18th: Retracing Tracks (2)

Morning in the northwest side of the Marais... Hey, Le Pain Quotidien is just round the corner from the hotel. So that's breakfast sorted. (I like baguette+croissant+coffee+orange juice as much as the next man, but it's nice to find a place here that offers some alternatives. And which does killer walnut bread and proper cafe au lait.)

The train isn't until after 3, though, so once we're packed and checked out, we consider our options. It's a while since we've been up the Eiffel Tower, so we set out in that direction on the off chance. When we arrive, though – well, the queues for lift tickets are what you might really expect on a dry morning in June, and the signs are flashing warnings about possible overcrowding on the upper level. So we turn aside and take a stroll up the Seine instead.

Incidentally, the base of the Tower is a major focus for Paris's current professional panhandler infestation. (There's someone somewhere in the city conducting master classes in asking “Do you speak English?” in a wheedling tone.) For that matter, just as we were getting to the Tower, we were subjected to a real live excuse-me-did-you-drop-this-implausibly-large-gold-ring-which-I-amazingly-just-picked-up. And there were all the ambulatory hawkers flogging dubious souvenirs of the tower, although at one point something – I'm not sure what – made all of them break and sprint in the same direction.

Anyhow, the walk back took us past the left bank end of the Pont Alexandre III, reminding me that Paris has a few monumental vistas that only get footnotes in the tourist guides because there's not much to visit there. (Though the Air France signs on one of the key buildings in this view might spoil the tone, unless you assume that a national carrier is essential to la gloire. Then it was over the Pont des Artes and time for a quick lunch, and hey, we haven't been to L'As Du Falafel yet this trip.

Mmm. Falafel.

Which does give us easy time to pick up our luggage from the hotel and use the last of our carnet of Metro tickets to get to the Gare du Nord.

Breakfast and lunch in Paris, dinner in Hertfordshire, not much stress. I could get used to this stuff.

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