Saturday, September 29, 2012

Big weans: Avignon Fahrt, part 3.

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Sometimes - often, in fact, our Avignon trip made me feel like a teenager. A young teen - say 15, or as I was at 15 - and I felt I was in the right company. Two incidents might illustrate this, quite aside from the ongoing lightheartedness that comes from submitting all to the care of The Person In Charge, a carefree approach that I remember fondly as I prepare for a more adult, responsible trip.

The first took place in the Fondation Vasarely, where a couple of guides took our divided group through a series of cube-shaped exhibition halls and attempted to explain what the artist had in mind. I think. Our group had the less able guide; it was a warm afternoon; we had eaten lunch and not been able to find coffee; the couches were comfortable. I found myself wondering how I would help this guide to made her presentation engaging. It would have helped if she'd done her homework, I suspect, as she read, laboriously, from a pamphlet. She may even have been doing simultaneous translation: clever, but not calculated to hold the wandering attention. And in the end, wandering happened. We wandered off, drifting past one screen into another space, peeping round corners, finding the stairs to the upper gallery. The photo shows our guide, in her red dress, sloping off. She might have been mopping a tear, but I suspect she was on the phone, seeking transport, rescue from the philistines - something like that.

The other event was spontaneous, crazy and fun. There is a carousel in the middle of the Place de l'Horloge in Avignon, just down the road from our hotel. It is an old-fashioned, two-tier roundabout, with traditional horses and other carriages. One evening, as the horde - there were 48 of us - headed out for dinner, the carousel stood waiting, empty - and probably about to shut up shop for the night. And suddenly we were all leaping aboard. I got a horse - I loved the horses as a kid. We didn't think about paying - The Leader would take care of that. Round and round we went, up and down, laughing like zanies. We could see people stopping, taking photos - you can make out a man in a cafe doing just that on the right of the photo. The music struck up, and suddenly we were all singing "I'm getting married in the morning". At the top of our voices. The crowd grew. Someone remarked to The Leader - for he was not aboard - that it was wonderful to see old people enjoying themselves so much. We must have looked utterly absurd - the youngest was probably 60 - but we didn't care.

The music stopped, we clambered - stiffly - down. People applauded, and we went on our way. Big weans, all of us.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Of bulls, flamingoes and rice

A feature of our recent trip to France was the journeys we made around the area - we had a bus and driver at our command throughout (the driver looked to be about 12 years old). On the Sunday we went south, to Arles, arriving mid-morning. All we knew about the day was that we'd had to change our eating arrangements: a restaurant where we were booked for lunch had been obdurately and mysteriously closed after the booking had been made. When we  arrived, it looked as if Arles had also been closed, and the bus dropped us off at the end of a blocked-off street. The barriers were over head height, and wired together - you can make them out in the photo on the left. Apparently we had arrived on the Feria du Riz and had no idea of what might happen. We set off on our walking tour, accompanied by an excellent American guide. (Oh, the joy of a good guide, and oh, the tedium of a poor one). We were delighted by the garden of the hospital where Van Gogh was taken minus his ear, and by being able to snap the cafe he famously painted at night and see that it was much the same even if the street wasn't. And we loved the way the Roman remains were somehow mingled with buildings still in use, so that the whole effect was somehow casual and random.

We arrived at lunchtime. We'd already seen the huge vats of paella being cooked on ever corner, and the backstreet cafés were tempting, but we had a notion to be close to the action. Having heard the wild roars from the Roman Amphitheatre, we had a taste for the excitement of the promised bull run; we wanted to see what was happening. We sat at a table beside the barricaded road. Bands played, vying with one another. Lines of horsemen - and women - paraded up and down the road with what looked like spears (they weren't). They wore the kind of hats that made them look special, and sat with their legs straight in long stirrups. They were Camargue cowboys, and they looked invincible. We waited for paella and action. A gun went off. There was a distant roar, and then the clattering of hooves on tarmac. By this time I was peering through the barrier, just in time to see a swirl of horses, dust, and - fleetingly - the small, black bulls corralled in the centre of the horses. This was how it worked, then: they had to keep the bulls under control as they all pelted along. Just where I was standing, a bull escaped, turned round, started back the way it had come. Great horsemanship, more swirling, and it was back in the equine corral. Youths dashed after them, trying to catch the tail of a bull. Later - for they did it about 10 times - young boys joined in and with the reduction in speed were able to catch up, wrestle the bull's horns. One of our party, wine-glass in hand, chased after them too. She spilled not a drop. I thought fleetingly of health and safety. I also thought more about how exciting I'd found it - I'd thought I might be crippled by disapproval. I even wrote a poem about it, which you can see, along with a great photo by a friend, here.

The afternoon saw us wandering the paths of a bird sanctuary in the Camargue. It couldn't have been more of a contrast. There were flamingoes, egrets and mosquitoes - though we only became aware of these the next day, when we realised that we hadn't spread the repellent under sleeves. One even bit me through my t-shirt. It was hot, and the tall grasses rustled in a gentle breeze. I loved it. And I loved the restaurant in which we ate the meal we hadn't had in the Camargue. La Cuisine de Dimanche in Avignon has inspired me now I'm home and cooking again - you can read what I wrote about it on Trip Advisor.

And now I feel I've written enough for now. I may have to share what happened with a Carousel, and in a modern art gallery. But I have another trip to prepare for ...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Avignon Fahrt: episode 1

Pont St Bénezet
Before last week, I think I knew two things about Avignon. There was a bridge, and there had been popes there. You can read about the popes here - suffice it to say that they were on the whole French, or rather Occitane, and they preferred not to leave France - and as for the bridge, the photo shows how it is now only half a bridge. You can read why here; its other name is the Pont St Bénezet. And that's all I've got to say about that, because the trip I've just been on had so much more about it than simple history.

Bedroom, Hotel Palais des Papes
I was on a Fahrt - in this case, a group of 48 or so people who all knew most of the others, either from past trips or through mutual friends. For me this had the effect of rendering me child-like: instead of feeling any responsibility for anything, I simply went with the flow and trusted our leader to make it all work. And it did. We were only there for five nights, but we saw and did so much that it both passed in a flash and felt like a longer visit. Avignon itself was lovely, and the hotel - not the first choice: we were apparently gazumped by a German group - an inspired location for such a group. Picture it: right next to the palace of the popes, with another square, the Place de l'Horloge to the front, in an old stone building with narrow corridors, a spiral staircase and stone walls left as a feature in the bedrooms, filled completely with Fahrters. (This last feature was just as well - any normal person finding themselves there with us might have been less than happy). Our room had a view of an internal courtyard and our friends' bedroom windows; we were happy because it was silent and we had air-con and felt no need to open the window at all. The beds were four-posters minus the drapes - we hung our hats on the posts - and we had two doubles, for some reason.

The faces of the staff (behind) reflect apprehension
The food in the hotel dining room was just great - though I feared for the effects of the multiple chocolate puddings on the first night. The low point came on the Monday morning; we didn't have an early start, which may have encouraged the management to set our petit déjeuner outside on the terrasse. It was a lovely warm, still morning; the town was coming to life around us; the tour-groups would soon begin to pass and be beguiled by the sight of these jolly, friendly people chatting away at the little tables - surely this must be a charming place to be, they would doubtless think - and all seemed wonderful. And then the lorry turned up. Think Dyno-rods. Two men stuck a clear (my god) plastic hosepipe into a drain and turned on the suction. We tried not to look, but soon the stink of diesel was joined by another smell and our leader went to remonstrate. Big gallic shrug - was this specially for our benefit? The sewer must be cleared or .... This is where the benefit of Farhting became apparent. (No pun intended, but have it if you will). We laughed. Hysterically. It was then that a second lorry hove to, slightly to one side, and a man leapt out and began hosing down the street and watering plant pots. He too had an engine running. And then the third lorry arrived: the street sweeper. It swept slowly past. It was bedlam.

By the time it was quiet again, a last flock of oriental tourists was treated to the spectacle of the late breakfasters sitting with scarlet faces, tears running down their cheeks. Peaceful it was not - but we'll not forget Avignon in a hurry.

This post has gone on long enough. I'll return to some of our days out another time. À la prochaine ...