04 June 2008

Rain Rain Go Away

If someone were to tell you that, instantaneously, you were to be transported to the south of France, to the nearly-fairytale picturesque regions of Provence and the French Riviera, what would you pack (say the instantaneous transport gave you half an hour to ready yourself)? A bikini, sunglasses, sunscreen, sandals…

It’s a good thing I’m a mite more practical than you all, and packed rain gear, a hat, long pants, a scarf…Because you know what it did in the south of France during my week-long visit? It rained.

I started out in Avignon, which I’m sure is a lovely town when it’s not raining out. I’d taken the night train from Strasbourg, and the sleeping cars were quite the experience: there are straps to keep you from rolling off the bunks; a care package of earplugs, face towelette, and breath mints; and a conductor that wakes you up before your stop if you ask nicely. Unfortunately, it put me into Avignon at 4:45am, when it was raining. I waited hopefully for the rain to stop and the sky to brighten up, but neither happened. So at 6:30 I trudged to my hostel, which was half-campground and located right on the edge of the Rhône river. The guardian informed me that the hostel didn’t open until 8:00—no problem, I’ll gladly while away my breakfast hour next to the Rhône. Only it was raining. I sought out shelter and returned at the appointed hour, only to find that the hostel cash register wouldn’t be open to accept payments until 9:00. Harrumph. I left my bag and returned to the station, hopping on the next train to Nîmes, my day trip destination. The whole purpose of visiting the region was to see the Roman ruins, which looked their age in the bleak, incessant (you guessed it) rain. In Nîmes I saw a half-dismantled coliseum, a square house (its real name, Maison Carrée), and a big tower.

Feeling not too impressed and a little disgruntled, I took a train to Arles to grasp the wispy café scenes Van Gogh was so in love with. Maybe it didn’t rain when he was there.

Exhausted and in a warm, dry, nonmoving bed that night, I wondered why I ever travel, and why I travel so much alone. Rain can make you feel lonely. I felt better after a good night’s sleep and a lazy morning (when it actually didn’t rain), and took a bus to see the Pont du Gard, a huge piece remaining of a 22 mile Roman aqueduct. They were so good, the bricks don’t even have mortar between them: they are that finely formed. Impressive as it is, it doesn’t merit six hours of attention, but due to the unfortunate bus schedule (the bus arriving at 12:50 didn’t have a correspondence back until 6:45), that’s about what I spent there. I scampered around, took pictures from all angles, laid next to the river (it only threatened rain), climbed the nearby trails…and was still left with two hours of thumb-twiddling. But there are worse places to twiddle your thumbs.

My final morning in Avignon, it rained. I visited the Popes’ Palace, where they lived during the fourteenth century when political intrigue got too hot in Rome. The complex has seen better days, and is large and empty and bare and cold. Felt like it had rained on the inside.

On the train ride to Nice, one of the most beautiful train routes, taking me along the coast past places I’d only heard of in movies, I looked out pensively at the falling rain. The scene could have been in a film. The first bright spot of the whole trip came when I got into Nice (whose train workers started on strike when I arrived) and found my friend and host Julien waiting to pick me up. There’s nothing quite so nice as being singled out by a familiar face from the masses on public transit. I know Julien from tango class, but a guy of many talents, he is actually studying hydrological engineering and is working an internship this summer in the small mountain town of Venanson, two hours above Nice. Thursday night we stayed at the house of one of his fellow city councilors, and it rained. Friday morning we stayed inside, since it was, you know, raining. Before taking the bus up into the mountains, there was a spot of sunshine, and we took advantage of it to walk along the Promenade des Anglais, the main seaside strip in Nice. You wouldn’t believe the blue of the Mediterranean—just like in the pictures!

A Change in the Wind

It still rained at Venanson. But it was nice to have company to complain about it to! Julien is a fantastic hike leader, and when the biologist in him came out it was like having my own personal nature guide. I think I know the names of more flowers in French than in English now. One day we climbed up a streambed to picnic on top of the mountain, the next we descended down to the river that cuts the valley to fish next to a waterfall. On the way we passed grazing goats, honeybee hutches, and plenty of overturned rocks where Julien had earlier searched for lizards, scorpions, snakes, mushrooms…It was simply magical, and the town itself only added to it. Perched on the edge of the grand valley view, Venanson counts 160 permanent residents, and doubles if you count the summer vacationers. The earliest mention of the town dates it to the thirteenth century, and it’s a place where the old days are still recounted in outrageous Provençale accents by tottering old men playing cards on the main square. I soaked it up. Julien, having spent a month pent up by the rain that kept him from doing his job working on the town’s drinking water supply, had found the small town feel wearing thin, but it reminded me of my last summer’s work in the Garden in North Manchester, which was fulfilling work in a good setting.

I could’ve stayed there another week, exploring the nooks and crannies of the surrounding hills and getting to know the locals, but two straight days of Julien’s non-stop company (he talks all the time and he knows it) gave me a good yearning for some quiet time by myself again. So, with good wishes, a belated birthday gift, and thankfulness for my visit, my host sent me on my way from Nice to Dijon.

Capital Punishment

Dijon was just an overnight side stop on my way home to Strasbourg, but I thought the capital of Burgundy and home to the palace of the regional dukes worth a visit. Plus I’d heard it wasn’t raining in the areas north of the coast. So I prepared myself for mustard-tasting and got my left hand ready to rub the owl on the Dijon cathedral for good luck. Dijon is not a very big town, but has a nice town center which gives a half-Parisian impression by its chimneys and a half-Alsatian one by its exposed wood-beam houses. The multicolored tiled roofs, however, are uniquely Dijon. I took the recommended self-walking tour. In the rain. No problem, I’ll just spend the day inside, in the ducal palace. Closed Tuesdays. Can’t I get anything right? I whiled away a few hours waiting sneakily for spotty sunshine to take good pictures, then had a coffee in one of the nice squares around town, making the mistake of not asking the price first, and paying a whopping sum. I left town in the early afternoon, having changed my train for not being able to stand the rain and disappointment any longer.

I was never so happy to see the Strasbourg cathedral, my bike and a long warm evening welcoming me home.

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