December 2010

unstuck: Figueres & finally BCN

Thank God and all his merry men, We have escaped!

You would not believe it. But I’ll say it anyway. We caught a taxi to Spain today.

Today we went to the station, railway, having been told the one train that would not be cancelled was the 12:30 – I’m talking strikes here, union idiocy and further bureaucratic idiocy from SNCF, French rail. Of course, our worst nightmare came true: arriving at the station – which Dali called the Centre of the World – It just dawned on him that it was – It was the end of the world for us – arriving there to find that train cancelled and no trains, NONE, going to Espagne.

SNCF had even closed the booking office down. Two ladies wandered around fielding endless enquiries from others stranded and us… And everybody seemed so CALM! There ought to have been a bloody revolution!

And SNCF as a stopgap had put on a bus at 4:30 to Cebere as close as one could come to Espagne… 4:30??? We’d be arriving if we made any connection at all in BCN at around midnight, or worse. Worse in fact as it turned out would’ve happened. Since our taxi driver a chatty Catalan bollocked SNCF for sending people to this 2 taxi town 30 minutes from the nearest Spanish railway station… Imagine!

The Welcome office was naturally open to welcome stranded passengers, a service they excelled at, while not actually having any other use. I asked about buses. Travelling from the bus depot. Don’t know can’t say won’t bother. Thanks. You’re welcome! Any other modality of arriving over the border? I asked, stretching my French. Taxi! Welcome said.

On repeated shaking, one of the ladies kindly coughed up the way that the land lay, t’were much better to go in a straight line to Figueres up the Autoroute than try and get to Port Bou by taxi, our destination by train, curly-wurlying around the mountains for hours. I love this lady. She saved us.

On approach they are full of come-hither and I-may-hit-you charm, the taxi drivers. This guy was brusque but biddable when it came to talking the fare to Spain. Got him down to 110 euros to Figueres. Which is as fate has it, a Dali town.

In confab, we decided all joking aside to take a taxi. Returning to taxi-stand right outside the centre of the world, 110 guy had buggered off. First off the rack guy now said 130. Let’s do it then!

He was a delightful guide, really: big old diesel Mercedes rolling when it got the chance at 160 k’s which wasn’t often for any great distance and talking talking. Over the border the biggest brothel in Europe, 150 girls. Full of useful info. This town is Spanish on one side of the street and French on the other, although the official border is down there. And so on.

We were stuck in more traffic jams, on the Autoroute, and, nearing a full-on stoppage, left for the N road. A scenic route. Q. got the guy’s Nintendo to play with. We talked about the unification of Europe that has given such boost to regional identities like the Catalan, how curious it is that under these conditions of open state borders older formations reassert themselves, and become viable economic entities in their own right.

We were in Fig. by just after midday, sooner than if there had been a train. Discovered a regional RENFE due to leave at 12:26, so from taxi to train. The latter making all the stops, but a great introduction to spoken Catalan and Spanish. They have rubber tongues, the Catalan, said Q. They must do. Was transfixed by two girls chatting loudly in the aisle.

Second brilliant, rather shorter taxi ride. Pronunciation lessons. And a brief guide to the city. First impressions: not so daunting, easier than Paris.

Then. Then. Were there. Now are here.

It all seems a close shave with being totally totally stuck. And think of it this way: Another night in Perp. would easily have cost us 130.

Even the apartment happened to be ready for us to climb right to, up the narrow steep stair. A terrace.

Before dinner a walk down the promenade beside the broad artificial beaches, past Frank Gehry’s fish and a building that looks like a Renzo Piano. Glimpses of the Sagrada Familia in the distance down long hazy boulevards.

But will all sink in tomorrow, when better slept and relieved of the stress of strikes and France and no house in BCN. Here!

on tour

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on heeding H. & the laughing patroness we hie to the life-size talking crucifix of the bus-stop: Collioure to Perpignan & back, just

It would have been a pretty tale of Collioure and the Spanish Gothic, its lightness as opposed to its oppressive heaviness in the North, a relief, presaged by reliefs yesterday, undone, done up. Hard to say.

Instead it was more bureaucratically sanctioned bad service, sanctioned, because, it seems that anybody behind a desk can and does here get away with it, telling whatever to whomever happens to reproach them with having not delivered, not communicated, in their own or any other language, speaking only that special language reserved for the interface between the mechanism and its delivery, in the most grotesquely aberrant uses of the word information. Or, naturally, of the word service. There is little of either service or information to be had from the bureaucracies ostensibly set up for their delivery.

What makes me wonder is that F. can have called this lax attitude Latin, when it is infinitely preferable to have someone in officialdom stating that they don’t know or don’t care. Perhaps wrongly, I would have identified this as Latin.

No. The sanction I refer to is that by which the I don’t know and don’t care turns into the I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT …

H., let us call him that, the man at Hotel de la Loge, proposed that we travel to Collioure, saying, If you’re going to do anything… Over breakfast. Recall the special figs of the region that are able to be picked for three months only, and floured are served, and taste like dried figs. I don’t know if that is after all special. Let us call it special.

Such endearing eccentricities: the garden statue in the middle of the breakfast area, the colours, alarming, the tea box, brought forth with ritual, full of tea-bags, the charming solicitude of host and hostess, the only attendees in the hotel we’ve seen.

Collioure, Collioure. As you climb the staircase you will see two aquarelles, the first two are of Collioure. It is Catalan. It is fishing. It is commercial. …

To get there take the bus, 1 or 2 to the station, costs only a euro each, then 5 euros each to Collioure.

We did. Thinking, what a great rehearsal for when we get out of Perpignan, hopefully having secured somewhere to stay in Barcelona.

In the morning we made sure we could stay an extra night. Here.

Yes, laughed the patroness. This will give you more time to find somewhere!

Funny these wistfully contemplated places. Carcassonne was like this for the people in the Loire. Barcelona has been like this for the people in Languedoc-Roussillon.

The average age on the bus was perhaps 60; the collective age would’ve run into the hundreds. There was the old geezer, on a single crutch, at the bus-stop, desperately gesturing for the bus to come near. Supposedly so he would simply fall in.

I have to say the bus-driver was well-presented and among the most pleasant of his breed we have encountered. He bunny-hopped the bus forward. But old geezer still had some way to lurch before lifting himself in.

A la gare: Dali called it the centre of the world; let it be. They are so badly informed in all other respects, why not?

She, the person responsive to our questions, said a number of alarming things. Manifestations, i.e. protests, can upset the children was the least upsetting. Manifestations go with being at the centre of the world or universe.

Suddenly it came upon me, wrote Dali. Perpignan station was the centre of …

She said: There is no train back but I will give you a return ticket you can use on the bus.

The bus departs from the railway station at Collioure at 16:20, despite what it says on the ticket I will sell you. Which will say that it is a train which departs from the station at 18:40.

The logic is that of the strikes.

We boarded the 12:30 train without incident. It was nice, air-conditioned. To the right, the snow-capped Pyrenees; to the left, the sea.

It arrived. We descended the little hill to a market that was just packing up where I took a snap of a butcher’s van with a picture of a horse on it, thence to the bay, with the fortress to our right, and Notre Dame des Anges to our left, then a breakwater.

On the terrace above the stony beach, with French kids smashing rocks to make red dust – presumably they were rocks made of red-ochre brick – between stones, there were variously marked comfy seats, full, many of the occupants being fat, while not hugely so, eating up large on pretty boring looking repasts. These we walked behind, arriving at the church, the afore-mentioned Notre Dame des Anges, wherein we saw a big gold altar, the richest of this region, in the Catalan style, meaning gold relief, and what was more intriguing, the bereaved Mary, Mother of God, in full Spanish mourning dress.

In the gallery of the church were two figures kneeling who could’ve been taken for real. One looked like St. Louis. Perhaps the other was St. Jeanne? Like Batman his Robin?

Then we caught a tantalizing glimpse of what was happening behind the church, a chapel on a rock, a breakwater ending in a lighthouse: the arm protecting this as a small harbour. Before exploring it, we got lunch. At an eatery run by one person, who looked to be well past her ciggy break, which announced on the sign above the counter, rather than promised, fast food.

No. With mounting hordes at her back, the solitary counter-keep and chef, valiantly kept to her limit of two orders, cook ’em, and two orders, cook ’em, and two orders, cook ’em. Wearing out the patience, surprisingly, of none of her clientelle.

Us included. The kebabs we got were ok. Sat, ate them on the stones. Mine was at least spicy.

We skimmed stones, showing up the Europeans, who hadn’t quite achieved the transmission of technique down the generations. And sunned ourselves on the stones. Then went to the chapel, snapped rusting life-size Jesus (the land of life-size Jesuses) walked out the breakwater, saw, looking back why three towers on the escutcheon: one on a hill, the other centre, the last on a hill opposite. Retraced our steps.

Rose to the fortress centre town, read that it was shut for us, all three day surrounding our stay and that below is where commandos train in rubber dinghies, visible, as were some buff young lycra-wearing men with conspicuously short hair. Commandos.

A phonecall. C., saying we have the place in Barcelona! No further need to panic! Yippee!

Up now conscious of time the other side of the bay to what else but a windmill in an olive grove used today for mushing up olives and down the other side past the gallery of modern art where an exhibition was being installed, shut for the duration. Up again conscious of time past the market to the railway station.

Where at 16:00 our bus was going to depart. We asked the rabbit-in-headlights person inside if and when. She said: There are no trains.

No. We concurred. There are no trains. A bus? At 16:40?

No. She said. No bus then but at 18:00.

From here?

No. Not from here.

By now she’d caught sight of our tickets which we were waving at her as if to summon the SNCF spirits, however vestigial, the spirits of a functioning transport system.

These are train tickets, she said.

Yes. We were given them in Perpignan (centre of the universe), told they’d work for the bus at…


18:00? We were told…


It’s strange, I wondered aloud, How information differs from place to place.

No, it doesn’t, she said.

Yes, I said. It does.

In Perpignan one was told 16:20 was our departure time…

But those are train tickets, she said.

We were told they’d work for the bus…

O…K…. to be absolutely clear… What time and where does the bus depart for Perpignan?

There is no train.


At 18:00. You have to make sure you catch it.


Does it leave from the station?

No. It goes from in town.


Down. Past the square on the left, to the right, at the round-about.

Please repeat. I have to be sure, I said.

The bus leaves Ceret at ten to, arrives here at 18:00, make sure you’re there.

We walked to the round-about, where, at the bus-stop, we read an arrival time of 17:35.

I asked, Is this true? Yes, said the lady with kids. I’m waiting for it too.

We returned to the town, had a weak and thin espresso at Le Petit Cafe, on the Terrasse. Q. made caveman pictures on rocks. Returned around the base of the royal fortress of the kings of Mallorca and waited.

Waited, stressing out, for the bus. While people gathered. Like those German teenage girls. That Northern English couple. While that black lady with her toddler had been waiting …

Jockeying for position. Then, when the bus at last arrived, a free-for-all.

It arrived after 18:00. The office at the railway-station at Collioure would’ve been vindicated were it not for the fact that once on board, having pushed our way through several layers of German girls, the bus driver would not accept our SNCF tickets. Why? Why not?

This is stupid, I said. In keeping with the minimalisation of these thing in which Europeans seem to indulge.

Not my fault, said the driver.

Where was the woman and baby boy?

Turned out the ticket was one euro apiece.

Where was she?

More and more piled on, a family who were told that there were three places after them. But those left on the side of the road would be left.

For safety reasons, said the Lyonnaise next to us.

What? one had to ask. But there was no queue! The black lady and her baby boy were left behind.

It hadn’t helped that the boy had fled up a side road and she’d been nowhere near to push in front of us, to put before us.

It wasn’t fair because everything on the side of the road had been gearing up for that. Plus the life-size crucifix over the road.

Not a bus but a coach. And: We’d been lucky. If we hadn’t got on it would’ve meant a 60 euro plus taxi ride.

The strikes! Les greves!

She’d known, the lady, with her young boy; roadside martyrs to the greve! the strike!

Plus, our tickets were four times more expensive than this, the only bus, it appeared, back to Perpignan.

The first family in front of us were intrigued by the distance: how far to NZ? The boy making the connection to rugby and the haka.

The second, Celeste and Pauline, the loudest, boldest small girls, knelt up on their seats and interrogated us – in nonsense.

They read the news according the logic of bonbecs. Lollies. Harassed. Were cheeky and funny. Loud. The whole bus looked around to see them waving as they waved us good-bye.

We got off the bus with a young couple whom I’d asked where we should that was closest to Centre Ville.

We found our way back. Told our story to H. at the desk, whose emotional allowance reached to: But the bus worked for you. I was getting into how guilty we felt for those who hadn’t made it. Especially the mum and kid.

H. had other customers. We came back to our room.

J. tried to find the way through from Port Bou to Barcelona on the Spanish side, clear of the strikes over here, on the day, in fact that the new retirement age was passing into law.

We at last heard were expected on the 28th so felt we could go out and eat. Rather than stay in and agonise over a warm wifi. At last.

The place was German-styled, the menu featuring sauerkraut dishes as well as fish dishes. The bar lit up like a disco floor when you entered, two enormous chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, with thousands of small lights, and to the side where the eating was going on, with very little room between tables, and double-rose themed lampshades on two lamps and two on massive side-brackets.

Ate mussles marinaded in a celery stock, scallops with a sweetish cheese sauce, endive and potato, and red mullet, salmon and scallop with ratatouille and salad. The waitress presiding had an Irish accent, having spend three years there, a brummy uncle and German father. She told us to leave nothing on the table for her, which we didn’t. But having not, she raced to our table as we were leaving as if we should’ve.

Back to our room once more, we opened our email only to find that the date we were expected in Barcelona was the 30th not the 28th.

Cellphone calls followed.

Out of the panic came assurances from over there we would be met at 5:30 at Barceloneta.

Let’s see.

on tour

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brushing Andorra, Perpignan via the Pyrenees

A day car-bound, travelling from Carcassonne. Mme D. dispatched us from our top floor gite. We ended up not mentioning les blattes, or cockroaches, in the microwave, in the dishwasher, as well as everywhere else. We decided what her response would have been: Yes. They are a problem. Or: Yes, it is very common with the older style buildings. As if a question of style. As if as necessary of acknowledgement as the clouds in the sky.

Packed into the car, a moment of panic. The camera missing again.

Out, searching under seats, through bags, it was not going to be found. It was at the shop at Les Grottes Niaux, the caves we’d visited yesterday.

Consulting the map, it seemed like we could go via the Pyrenees, Tarascon-sur-Ariege being about midway, on the map, between Carcassonne and Perpignan, where we had to drop off the car. The scenic route.

I rang. For the second time in two days, Have you by chance found a camera? And the difficult part: How can we retrieve it? Difficult, because the guides to the caves work in shifts.

After long explanations I finally got it that if we arrived at or just before midday, we’d get into the shop. If however we were late, we’d miss the guide, he’d be at lunch, short by French standards, only an hour. Thereafter, there’d be someone manning the shop for an half hour of each two hour tour slot. We are departing, I said, At great speed.

We arrived at Niaux at 12:03, to meet a white car coming out of the one-lane road up to the caves. It was him. He gave us the Nobody-Messes-With-Lunch look. (Sarko messed with lunch: now signs up say Strike till Victory! (Which brings to mind the news we saw last night of the death of Georges Freche, Montpellier’s visionary mayor, a French David Lange, apart from his racism, two days before.))

Regardless, up we trolled, hoping the second person I’d spoken to at Tourism Ariege was correct, and there’d be someone up there at 12:30.

No. An hour later, in beautiful clear weather – the drive up to the Pyrenees had already been magical, but for our great haste, would have been enjoyable – out of the caves came the guide and her group.

I have it, she said. We had to wait for an hour, I said. Yes, it was lunchtime for the guide, she said. But you’ve got your camera. That’s a good thing.

Then we drove across the Pyrenees. Higher and higher we climbed, through the pretty alpine village of Ax-les-Thermes, and on, past signs warning chains were obligatory on the Hospitalet, on towards Andorra, the border of which we would not cross, because, I discovered, on repeated consultation of the map, we were going into a tunnel at Hospitalet. I withheld certain information, not wanting to spread undue alarm. We were after all supposed to be returning the car around 2 pm. Or was it 4?

Up we went, the snow getting thicker, the sheer rock-faces encroaching on the road, the distant peaks looming ever closer. We were in convoy with other small cars and still traffic seemed to be streaming down unencumbered by chains.

The road curled and hairpinned back and forth, snaking over the highest point. The road running with snow and ice melt despite the sun, and gritted, and ploughs and brushing-clearing vehicles either parked up on our side, or following the traffic on the other side.

Finally, a levelling-off. One road led to Andorra, the other into a tunnel. It seemed that the chains were for an alternative route into Andorra. Relief that we were passing under the mountain and not over it, sliding down it.

Out the other side, the first section a gentler gradient, the towns and villages had names with double consonants and x’s in them. The Spanish side, but not in Spain.

Time was already getting away on us when we hit the descent to the mediterranean. Unlike the climb, this was an almost continuous ten-percent gradient, on roads dropping sheerly into the gorge. Of this, the French seemed unaware, ignoring the signs to Be Careful, also in English.

Perpignan remained at the same distance, since we were simply going down and not making kilometres. The architecture of the castles and abbeys and priories changes, again the Spanish influence, possibly related to the Spanish possession at the time they were built. The walled abbey of St. Martins was the highlight, right against the road, corner guard towers sticking out like ornaments with red-tiled turrets.

I had to ring again, to explain our lateness with the car’s return. We don’t close until 6 pm, I was told. And again, relief. But little let-up in speed, now that we could make headway.

The temperature had risen to 18 C. And the landscape turned dusty green, the clay visible on the hills, the coast nearing.

Perpignan was the royal seat of the Kings of Mallorca. Our guide said little remained. So don’t stay long. But given our lateness and the lack of anything sorted for Barcelona, we booked a hotel, Hotel de la Loge, in the centre of town. With Wifi, to hunt down our next accommodation.

With directions from the Office du Tourisme, we got to the Citroen centre, having first overshot it, ending up in farmland, by pulling into the first likely-looking Citroen centre. A mad place, humming with people, most of those working permanently attached to earpieces. We felt somewhat out of place.

We’d been on the road since 10:30, stopping only to give the car a quick vacuum and drive-through wash – so not stopping for that even, I guess. We’d been feeding on chicken saved from last night’s dinner and the last of the nougat. We had a car full of luggage. And here we were in the sparkly busy land of car sales.

But we were here. And it took a few signatures and a perfunctory once-over of the car before we were free of it. Corinne did however ring us a taxi.

The hotel. A large room, eccentrically furnished and appointed. The third and greatest relief of the day. Monoprix for wine and vodka. Pizzas to take back to our hideout from a guy who said, Kia ora. We’d been looking at the waiter, wondering if he was Maori. Perpignan, a Kiwi presence apparent at the time of the plane crash. We didn’t ask.

on tour

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signing the surface: aux caves Niaux, par Mirepoix et Foix, de Carcassonne – & a note on oppressive architecture

A day begun with impossible things overcome and ending with further impossible things to do before breakfast, like find accommodation in Barcelona.

Eurocar repeat in various places ONE MUST CONTACT 4 WORKING DAYS BEFORE DROPPING CAR OFF. We forgot.

Rang before my brain was working in English, let alone Francais, and haltingly explained the delivery, the retardation, no, what is it? the failure to check in earlier. For some reason, regardless of the fact that the second woman on the line spoke to me in French, I was passed on. Second woman had more of a jocular style. So there was an improvement. She seemed to want to pass quickly over the fault and get off the line. Difficult to find, I asked, the drop-off point in Perpignan? No! There’s a big sign. And that works? D’accord. D’accord.

First hurdle. Second hurdle: The missing camera. No case. It must have been with the braille book in the chateau with the librairie. The municipal offices had the number. It took another phonecall. I was asked, Was it an oh-lin-poo, or something like that. Yes! I said, That’s it.

No problem. Tell the cashier at the entrance.

She turned out to be the same as had allowed me through with my bomb. We turned up approximately two hours after my call to the shop, having visited the Office du Tourisme, to reserve places at Niaux. The cashier said, Oh, that’s funny, they’ve just called!

Timing here is a bit of an issue. We asked why everything was shut in the town – wanting to buy a map – at the Office of Tourism. Were told, Some shops do open at ten.

It was eleven-thirty.

In the street we tried to find a Tabac. Three before the pattern became clear: Each tobacconist had a croney-guy, with whom he swaps dirty jokes and generally tries to intimidate all comers; maps for regions outside his specific one are disdained, not stocked; if you ask for them, you’re greeted with: I don’t have THAT! (I have every sort of pornography. But not that!)

It was back in La Cite, having retrieved the photo apparatus, Olympus, in a French accent, and, conveniently, ours, that I found a map for the High Ariege. Back into the car. A booking for 15:15 at Niaux, outside Tarascon-sur-Ariege.

Out into the country-side, soon climbing, the temperature dropping, dropping. 8 degrees Celsius, outside for the rest of the day.

Mirepoix we stopped for lunch, les sandwichs. The town is famous for its medieval covered market. Within, there was a market being packed up by the normal ciggy-sucking hard merchant types, into once-white vans. Every cafe around the perimeter, however, full of ferals, hippy types, funky oldies. A whole new social scene out here. The trans-alpine?

Excellent sandwiches. A Pyrennese, a Brazilian, an Ariegois. The first gamey cured ham and emmental cheese; the second something like butter chicken; the last dried duck with walnuts. All with fresh green leaves. We ought to have stayed in the warm with the casual dressers, but returned to the road, and ate on it. More crumbs in the car.

We got to Tarascon-sur-Ariege one-and-a-half hours early. Parked. Looked for coffee. The snow covered peaks around, and the autumning trees, red, orange, gold. Meanwhile the sky making spotlights on the landscape. Freezing, mind you.

Ducked into a riverside – high on the Ariege – hotel-resto. The twelve-year-old waiterer-d’ wouldn’t let us sit with the view, because it was reserved for resto guests. Why?

It is.

Out, into the church. A very odd Pieta. Back into the car, and up the narrowing, narrowing road to the mouth of the Niaux caves.

A view stunning. An architect-designed reception, by Fuksas, Italian, enhancing with its forced perspective, in oxidised metal plate, the scale of the cave-opening. And some time to wait in the cold, even colder up here.

We’d been warned the tour of the caves was in French. However, it appeared half the tour were English. Possibly because the English were so loud. Loudly English. Dressed as if scaling mountains, not taking a stroll under them, with French children on school holiday. Their designated translator, the English, had haliotosis, giving another reason to stay away from them.

With torches in hand, a group of twenty-four – numbers are strictly controlled, hence the booking, because gaseous people are bad for cave art – we went through the ‘artificial’ entrance. Into a cathedral-scale cave system. What do they call them? Gallery after gallery opening up under the light. Marble and quartz. And the calcified formation of pillar and stalactites, stalacmites. And, consistent with our finding that the French have no public liability, little in the way of barriers, rails, cut trails. One realised why in NZ doing the same thing is so oppressive: it’s the oppression imposed by the authority, not that imposed by the architecture.

We climbed the ‘dune,’ a massive beast, curving up and up. And the narrow passes demanded that we crouch, with no more warning than a ‘Mind your head!’

The first markings were ‘geometric signs’ signifying something but what we don’t know. (It sounded better in French, this insistence on uncertainty and ambivalence.) They are signs that above all have a sense, but ones of which we don’t the meaning.

Further, one-and-half kilometres under the mountain, and in particular places – with superimpositions, and drawings-over, as if there weren’t anywhere else to draw! – bison, goats, the local varieties, horned, deer, and horses. No people were depicted here. And the animals most represented were those least hunted. Bison in the 40 percent. Horses next.

And small markings, arrows. Although bows and arrows were not used. No pattern asserted for the low frequency of occurrences, with the non-representational elements. With those that are representational, images carried from place to place with the movements of the nomadic Magdalenic tribes.

In the acoustic space of the Salon Noir, a sense that there were these visual cues to states of mind, like images carried on the underside of a stone eyelid, as well as acoustic cues. The extraordinary resonance of this space.

I wished we could have been asked to find the resonating frequency of this space with our voices, not to have the English shout out Hello! into the forty metre high cavity of the roof. I didn’t have the presence of mind to suggest it. Could have, I suppose.

Architecturally, what was interesting was that the irregularity in the floor of the cave, and the lack of lateral references not part of the cave, gave rise to a disorientation: gravity could easily have been withheld, in the normal sense of up and down. The floor could easily be the roof or walls.

A remark made about the illumination: that made by the light of a live flame, the drawings were also meant in some cases to be animated by a live flame, living in the flicker. And the interesting fact of the drawings’ inaccessibility, their relative secrecy.

In the deep part of the cave, there are geometric signs only able to be seen by someone scrabbling along on their back looking up at the roof pressing down on them.

More thought necessary. As the thing was another encounter with a great mystery.

Of a different order than that surrounding the lack of available accommodation in Barcelona, the high cost of that which is available. Our nightly McDonalds visit again ending in frustration. Nowhere to stay!

What does it mean? What sign are we being sent? A sign of which the meaning is not known, but which above all possesses a sense: a symbolic obstacle?

on tour

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La Cité

The whole of Carcassonne, Basse Ville, had a hangover and stayed in today, after last night’s wine fair finale – the Fete had been going since the 21st. The streets were empty apart from old men, either on their way, with irregular patterns of footfalls echoing, home, or out for a wander, browsing in the windows of the local theatre, the posters looking decidedly dated. But, like much of the France we’ve seen, not. Current, in fact. One poster for a solo drag act was for last week. Nice to know that the drag names here follow the same pattern as elsewhere. She was a Miss something low-camp Perme.

I was out trawling for croissants and other breakfast ingredients. The supermarket had no baguettes when I walked in, on Place Carnot, by the time I’d picked up the essentials – fresh milk, as opposed to the ubiquitous UHT; pate de compagne (for Q.); butter, soft and salted, from Bretagne; croustillant muesli with four fruits; excellent berry yoghurts – a man in white pants had refilled the bread racks with hot-from-an-oven-if-not-the-oven sticks, ciabatta styled, sized loaves and mini-sticks.

Two other shops I passed on the way home with the warm baguette were open, a patisserie, where I bought croissants, and a florist’s, on rue Verdun. Do dirty stop-outs arrive home Sunday morning with pastries and flowers to make amends?

A light drizzle. Predicted by weather reports we’d seen in Maries de la Mer. Turning to rain in the afternoon.

We breakfasted. Then after Q.’s bath, we lunched. Finally making it up to La Cite on foot, through the Sunday streets. We were reminded of how NZ had been. Sunday only dairies open. People taking an enforced rest. Children’s radio in the morning. And after baths, after the Johnson & Johnson’s powder, fresh pyjamas and the Disney Special on TV. If you were lucky, a cartoon. One of the anthropomorphised animal movies. Or Swiss Family Robinson. Unlucky, something ‘educational’ about the Wild.

Through the dirty breach between La Ville Basse and La Cite on the hill, over the old bridge crossing the Aude, through rue La Gaffe, and up the steep stones-as-cobbles cart-way to the castellated walls now looming over us. This way, the guide called going through the back-door of La Cite, through Porte d’Aude, rather than Porte Narbonnais with its twin towers and drawbridge. We entered close to the Chateau Comtal and decided to do it, do it, do it. Up here on the hill, the streets were full of people, tourists, many English speaking, but Dutch and German and French too.

A read a sign saying no backpacks so I asked the receptionist if there was a garderobe of some description. No, she answered, You’re going to have to carry it around ALL day. With ironic emphasis. But…, I said. What about the sign?

That’s to say your pack will be checked to see if you are carrying a BOMB.

But it was neither to say that nor was it checked. I felt like returning to her to say, You see!? I have been carrying this BOMB around ALL day, without anyone CHECKING. What do you think of THAT?

The striking feature of the chateau is the existence of wooden gantries and walkways locked into the stone of towers and high walls, from which, we discovered, attacks were mounted through the floor onto those below, and out of shuttered loop-holes, and murder-holes, the slits for arrows and cross-bow bolts. Allegedly there is still debate over Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration – taking 50 years, which he didn’t live to see completed – in the nineteenth century. The film presentation on the second floor revolved around the reconstruction, presenting the architect and Middle-Ages enthusiast as something of a hero.

The castle was never taken by force. It was surrendered in the thirteenth century to Simon de Monfort during the period of the Cathar witch-hunt, when, in Beziers, 6 000 people were slaughtered. The film called the campaign he headed merciless.

Simon de Montfort was to be found across town, at the first of Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration projects, the church of St-Nazaire. The church leaflet called the parish, Ste-Marie-Reine-en-Pays-de-Carcassonne. A lot of hyphens. The height of the transcept is that of the peak of the roof covering the nave, hugely tall. Lit by extraordinary stained-glass windows. One painted. The tree of life. Unique, we read.

Some Russians were selling CDs in front of Jesus. And there was a guy on a laptop. Free wifi here?

On the way home, well, to the car, for our daily date at McDonalds – because of the free wifi – to find accommodation in Barcelona, J. realised the camera was gone. Gone?

So into the car, up to the castle. It must have been when we were looking through the brilliantly conceived braille guide to Carcassonne. Both hands were needed to feel the raised features on the white pages. The camera must have been put aside.

The castle was closed. Barred. Padlocked. And the janitor was nowhere to be found. Tomorrow.

After McD’s, excellent self-catering, chicken a la slap-up-Carcassonne – which, the name, has nothing to do with carcases, but Princess Carcas ringing a bell, sonner. Chickpeas, turnip, magic Provencal herbs, tomato, leek, redwine, salt, a little of the lot of tapenade. And chick’s legs, which here are unappealing to look at, having a yellow tinge, but tasty as. I opened the Saint-Pourcain rose we’ve had in our mobile cellar since Moulins, F.’s parting gift.

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Aigues-Mortes, Montpellier, Carcassonne

… time running out on our sojourn European… Leaving Les Saintes Maries de la Mer realising how special a place it is. The commencement of the Mediterrannean coast proper with its shift in scale from hotel to resort says it. First we had to cross the Petit Rhone by wired paddle-ferry, waiting with four vehicles and horses, being told that horses would claim priority.

A quick crossing then flats of vinyards, Listel featuring, for miles.

Then the perfect walled square kilometre or so of Aigues-Mortes, propitiously, Dead Waters. When we struck it, Saturday late morning, the town was soaked in vomit, blood, urine and cowshit. The carny people were setting up the attractions outside the walls, getting stodge and fry food ready for the hungover. And the town square lay in puddles of green which we could only guess was disinfectant. The local cafenisti and resto-owners standing out in aprons viewing the carnage, disaffected. Looking at us as though it was our fault, King Louis was holding an empty bottle of wine.

The night before, we finally worked out, the bulls of the Camargue had run, they’d been gardians chasing them, the youth of Montpellier had descended. Carnage on the streets. Burnt out rally cars. People dumped in the canal. Blood, really, everywhere. And by the chateau, the party still in full smoky beery swill and swing.

We passed on the way into the square our favourite sweet shop, prompting J. to remark: Everywhere is everywhere. Possibly the definition of normal displacement.

For Aigues-Mortes was a missed opportunity, last night, to see the Carmarguais spirit for mayhem, but today – nowheresville. Back in the car, away from the stench. Getting lost in the suburbs, very grim. Out.

Then Montpellier. Like a Munich of the South. New part was what we saw. Not very far into it. But a lively feel to the place. Monumental modern was what we saw. Indulged our taste for it.

Setes, canals backed up with boats small and large. Alleys full of bags of rubbish. A constipated if warm Southern town.

Next major town was Beziers. Much more interesting than the guides. A big vibrant provincial town. With a fortified church on the top, when looked back on when finally we found the route to Carcassonne, after farting around with the innards of the town, avoiding routes back to Nimes or Montpellier.

Carcassonne is divided in two since naughty internal crusader Simon de Montfort crushed for King Louis the Saint the heresies of the South, for which one can’t help but have great sympathy and nostalgia – even if for an unknown, an unknown against the monolith, one which had produced troubadour culture. So: a city dating from the 13th century, Low, and one dating from earlier, La Cite, on the hill, with the pointed turrets. The heretics’ city high, then, and the crushed medieval city, low.

It happens we are low. Naughty little Cathars, Albigensians, bent to reform by thin-nosed, tight Saint Louis. Saint Jeanne was ever better looking.

Carcassonne treated us to a Fete du Vin, with brassy brass girl-band and boy-band, followed by strutting Spanish styles. On rock stage. The French, winter approaching, show themselves to be less Latin.

It was fun watching the kids sort out their hierarchies. Been a long time.

The ones who were sussing out Q. particularly, particularly a girl we took for a boy, or a boy we took for a girl, who wanted to break through, but was hemmed in by shyness and her outrageous banger of a younger sister, thick glasses, the wild one, the barrier breaker.

We danced and drank wine at 5 euros a bottle, four euros inclusive of plates of escargots a la Provencal. Fresh and hiding inside their shells. Like shellfish, some bitter, some sweet.

Was a great night. Cool but bearable. We were cool but bearably so too.

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black mary, shirts, owls, raptors, flamingos, the quite involuntarily surreal Chateau d’Avignon & enjoying Abrivado

Abrivado, our hotel, seems to be run by a group of young(ish) couples. Relaxed atmos. Geezers in mufti. No superiority bullshit or internal hierarchy visible. Guy who brought brekky told us he’d personally included the juice in the set menu for us. Not: that’s what it comes with. Like the style, if not the decor. Although sun in the morning almost made sense of the ‘fresh’ pale green, the fake blond-wood-grain lino, and the various and variously clashing tones of blue elsewhere. There’s art above the bed, Picasso single-line sketches of animals and birds. Prompted a visit to the Ornithological Park up the road.

On the way we walked into another market, which led us to the church, the fortified church of Maries. Meaning, perhaps, no windows. A dramatic gloom on the inside, candles around the altar, and spotlights illuminating the display cases, one with relics, finger-bones, mainly, sealed behind windows in reaching up silver hands, another with naive art, depictions of the Maries. Above the altar, up too high to see clearly, and lit only enough to make it a mysterious presence, something that looked like a baby’s cradle, whether for death or life hard to say. Below the altar, breathing a warm breath out into the aisle, the gaping maw of the crypt.

After the preparation of the main interior, this cave, lit with hundreds of candles, was scarily powerful. Here, Sara, patron saint of the gypsies, who is carried out to the sea May 24-5 every year, weighed down in layers of dresses, capes, as if without them she might shoot straight up into heaven. She, like the mysterious virgin of Le Puy, is another black Mary. You could see the affect she was having even on casual touristy visitors, drawing them in and striking them speechless. Like a true Roma idol, she makes people rustle in their pockets for change, to light a candle, make an offering.

The gypsies play music and belt out songs down here in the preternatural warmth of this cave. Somehow the space holds this memory. Left us feeling very strange, floating, legs not working.

Appropriate, then, to be visiting birds. The biggest owls in the world. Kept in a cage. Like fat flying tabbies. Herons, egrets, and clamorous ducks, of many different hues. One similar to the NZ native. These were free. Out in the walkway circuited morain. And white ibis and flocks of nictating, bill-trawling, pirouetting, bloomer-flouncing, real pink flamingos, the mothers and cerise children arguing in their guttural language.

And then we saw beavers. Wild. Dodging across the path, swimming in the ditches and streams. First a long time wondering if there might be some there and we might see one. Then the surprise of a furry face being propelled down a muddy shrub-lined drainage ditch. Then several sightings as they crossed our path, behind, in front. Finally, one carried in a swift stream, snacking on something growing within reach on the bank, which we followed for a time.

We also saw raptors, large and small, in cages, smaller owls. Although the flock didn’t take flight as in movies, we did see a flamingo flying. It looked, with the dark red and black of the undersides of its wings, like a dragon, long, trailing its legs like a tail.

On the way to our pre-booked ‘promenade a cheval’ we picked up sandwiches. The gardian theme apparent even here. Always the strong flavours and greasy goodnesses getting the title. Anchovies and tomatoes on oily bread.

This guy had been recommended by our brilliant Abrivado. But pulling in to the tumbledown corral, 4 km from town and tucked away from the mainstream, mainline of horse-ride-camargue industry, we were less than impressed. Hoping, as one does, that crappy might connote authenticity, a disregard for appearances. Sullen dirty Spanish-looking youth eyeballed us from plastic furniture. We walked past down beside the stables, where J. met horse-eye and averred later it was a sad one. There hairy large Lou sauntered forth. He was kind of threatening. I introduced us as the booking under the name of, and he said, Not till three. Three, I repeated. Three.

He disappeared and dirty leery rat-face man came out, Lou adding his presence from the background. Rat-face said, Allemand? Deutsch? Anglais, I said. He proceeded in German, saying, Whatever you like, German, French, English. French, I replied in German. What do you want? he asked.

A ride, I answered. And the whole set-up seemed all about taking us for a ride. Three o’clock, he said.

I checked my phone for the time. Quarter to. I explained to Lou, I said. We’ve booked. We’re a little early.

The weird stand-off continued, with rat-face wanting to play games and show off. Lou lurking, ominous, silent and dismissive.

J. nudged me: We don’t feel like a ride today. Not today, I cheerily informed rat-face. No? he said. No.

Thanks, I said, returning to French. Have a good one. Sorry, rat-face called after us. Good-bye.

It was stupid and impossible to understand what was going on with these guys, Lou and rat-face. Some sort of macho test?

One should always call people up on being arseholes in whichever language and culture they are doing it. But… that doubt: perhaps for you this is acceptable behaviour?

We were out. And didn’t know what next. The tourism office recommended Mas de Cure. There, however, nothing was up. So over the road to Chateau Avignon, after an 19th century settler, called Avignon who drained the swamps, piped in water from the Petit Rhone. And built the Chateau as a hunting lodge.

The place was deserted. A trestle fence had a no entry sign and a suited guy jumped out of his car with a walkie-talkie as we pulled up to tell us to park beside the only other vehicle there and proceed to the Accueil, Welcome. We did.

The same palaver with walkie-talkie ahead to tell the door to open to the Chateau. All the shutters shuttered, the rooms dark. And another of those stupid ‘exhibitions’ – which extended beyond the Chateau, it turned out and invaded the other buildings and gardens. A desperately embarrassing lack of curatorial consistency or aesthetic rationale. Absolute rubbish in some of these gorgeous rooms, OK stuff in others.

The house was clearly still occupied. From outside, we saw the tower shutters were held open. One could only imagine a Miss Haversham, gone funny with age. Talked into displaying second-rate art by interested parties. What could she have thought? Coming across a paint spattered screen in her dead father’s cousin’s bedroom?

A surreal experience entirely. The out-buildings particularly. The factory, where the old pumps were now housed Dr. Who style stereoscopic view-pumps, emitting a Tardis-like breathing. When one looked in one saw a landscape reproduced in miniature in rubber breathing, rising and falling, in time with the spooky soundtrack. This was the good art. Along with a kitchen full of rows of artificial red apples.

J. and Q. built sandcastles on the Mediterranean, looking out, we fantasized, towards Manarola, our Cinque Terre Ligurian starting point. Here we are in Celto-Ligurian Gallo-Roman Socialist-Idealist France!

Dinner again down in the restaurant. J. swapped with me and had the Gardian stew, rich local beef, with olives and Camargue rice. I opted for the cuttlefish a la Provencal, which came with a roast potato wrapped in tinfoil, melting fresh white goats-milk cheese and herbs on the inside; plus a roasted half of tomato with layers of aubergine, courgette and cucumber again with Provencal herbs on its top.

A red was recommended with it. No tannins. Hermitage from Nimes, 2009. Perfect accompaniment. And then shared profiteroles. Best I’ve ever had. Warm outsides; cold ice-cream insides: with Chantilly cream and almond slices. Q. ran aground on his banana split, a chocolate sauce as thick as fudge.

They brought us a little freebie shot of Carmarguaise to finish. Like a grappa, made from vegetables and herbs. 50 proof.

This is excellent too, this Domaine du Coulet Rouge Cabernet, 2006, from the Vaucluse. So strong it you might think it was fortified. It isn’t.

Our food experiences here have been something to write home about. But this has been largely to do with superb service. A seriousness about the job of serving, coupled with a casualness in social attitude. Best of both worlds.

on tour

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