31 October 2014

Passing through Montpellier on the way from Narbonne to Paris

My original plan was to stay in Montpellier for a couple of days but the lack of hotels on the required dates scorched that idea so I moved to Plan B which was to spend more time in Narbonne and do a quick tour of Montpellier on my way to Paris and then on to London.

I had booked a fairly late eurostar train out of Paris (20:13) to give me as much sight-seeing time on my final day and so I took the earliest practicable train out of Narbonne having first had breakfast in the fine cafe at the station.

Montpellier provided a grand welcome with a stunning modern station.

I failed to find a tourist information office there but I had come prepared with a maps of the city saved on my iPad the night before, another reason for insisting on hotels with wifi.

The station was just to the south of the old town and that is where I headed.

Just up the road from the station I found Place de la Comédie which immediately impressed with its size and grandeur. I learned soon after that it was the largest square in Europe, or something like that. This fact came from the tourist information office at the east end of the square which also provided me with a map.

With a tourist map I soon had a plan for the rest of my day in Montpellier.

My tour started with a stroll north through the park running north of the square and in that park I was delighted to see this playground that looks as though it was inspired by somebody with a child-friendly imagination like Dr Seuss.

There was more fun at the end of the park with a series of colourful and unusual statues. This was after I had walked past opera house and before I walked to the unexpected escarpment at the end with its views north across the newer parts of Montpellier.

But it was not the new Montpellier that I was interested so I turned west through the top of the old town looking for some of the things that my tourist map suggested that I should look at. I was starting to feel like Michael Portillo clutching his Bradshaw's, except that I was doing all of my journey by train.

Going down the hill took me back in time to the old heart of the city. This was something of a shock, a very happy one, after the beautiful baroque on the south side of the old town the north side was basic almost to the extent of being grim. I like basic and grim too.

The old town behaved like old towns should with roads that refused to run straight as they made their way around and over the hill.

Turning south brought me back toward the centre of the old town where things started to get smarter and posher though not necessarily better. At least the older part of the town had almost no traffic.

I had to settle for the traffic though as I could not find a cafe until I reached the brow of the hill. At least the cafe was by a nice square.

Montpellier kept being pretty as I walked south down the hill. The roads were no less straight as they crawled from square to square, each of which was thick with cafes, restaurants and people.

There was lots to see along the way from old buildings to an old moped in a shop window. I paused many times to soak up the atmosphere and savour the urban scenery. I was really enjoying my time in Montpellier and had already decided to try and stop there for longer the next time that I was passing through.

Given the limited time that I had to see the city my first priority was to walk around as much of it as was possible (I had my suitcase with me as I was between trains) and I spent less time than usual on taking photos and on coffees. I would have plenty of time for a coffee and some food on the next train.

Of course I did take a few photographs, around fifty, of the prettier things that I saw, things like this ornate door and balcony.

The prettiest things that I saw where the trams.

These were not allowed in the centre of the old town but seemed content to skirt around it. They were all heavily decorated and very colourful. This one was turning slowly in the square outside of the station. It was just a shame that I had no excuse to go on one. Next time.

The rest of the day was good but uneventful. I bought something to eat at the station, the train to Paris was on time, I met some friends there for a drink, and the eurostar was as simple as always.

Montpellier was forced to play just a bit-part in my holiday but it grabbed that limited opportunity to show me that it is exactly the sort of place that I like to go to on holiday and that I should make more of an effort to do so next time.

Montpellier is a very pretty town and the trams make it even prettier

30 October 2014

Narbonne Day Four took me out to the seaside at Port-la-Nouvelle

One my fourth and final day based at Narbonne I decided to head for the seaside at Port-la-Nouvelle, because that is where the railway line went.

Once upon a time Narbonne was on the coast and it owed its wealth and purpose to its port. Then the river got curmudgeonly and moved a few kilometres to the east and the port moved to Port-la-Nouvelle, i.e. new port.

I was looking forward to the short rail journey as on my previous journeys along that route to/from Barcelona I had enjoyed the scenery and I was not disappointed this time either. The line skirted with water all the way a lot of which was managed wetlands of artificial lakes and shallow rectangular bays which I presumed where there to harvest salt.

There were flamingos too.

Port-la-Nouvelle made Narbonne look large and busy. The station was little more than a halt and the station cafe that I assumed would be there was not to be found.

Walking the 300m or so in to town was like being on the set of 28 Days Later. I saw nobody else. This was a Thursday morning on a fine day and nobody was around.

There were a few faces once I got in to the centre of the town where a few shops were clustered for safety. Several of the cafes were closed which suggested that this was a tourist resort and I had arrived out of season. I did find a cafe that was open and managed to get a coffee but they had no croissants and even a trip to the local supermarket failed to produce any.

My breakfast plans were rescued by another supermarket further down the road and I sat down by the harbour to eat it.

The west end of the harbour, especially the south side, was mostly given over to pleasure boats and these were a pretty backdrop to my breakfast and the start of my walk.

Walking east towards the sea and the harbour quickly turned to industry. I stopped and watched one boat being loaded with what looked like coal by a crane with a Clam Shell Bucket. It looked like a very slow process and I wondered why they were not using some sort of belt.

The town (south) side of the harbour got quieter too and my expectations of finding somewhere nice to have lunch were beginning to erode, There were no more shops either.

At the end of the harbour there was a breakwater crowned with a lighthouse to stop ships running in to it. I was half tempted to walk out along it but only half as I was not sure that the view back would be worth walking all the way out to the end and then back again.

Looking the way there was a long sandy beach that looked strangely deserted given the warm weather. I am sure that Weymouth beach would have been much busier than this on an equivalent day.

I walked along the beach, south, a little way before heading to the line of buildings on the right of the picture. I was hoping to find a restaurant there. Not only did I find one but it was good and busy. It felt rather weird after an hour or so with seeing hardly anybody to suddenly find so many people all in one place and lively people too.

Judging by their familiarity with the staff I guessed that all the other people in the restaurant were all locals. They were certainly more interested in their food than in the view which enabled me to claim on of the seats outside facing the beach.

I had a relaxing light lunch with a drink and consulted my map. Port-la-Nouvelle was almost exactly rectangular and I has walked all along one of the long sides (north) and most of the way down a short side (east). That meant that the only sensible option open to me was to head west back towards the town centre.

The south-east quarter of Port-la-Nouvelle seemed to be devoted to holiday homes, though some were clearly occupied in October. These houses were arranged in strangely curved roads that seemed devoid of names so it was easy to get lost. Which I did more than once.

Helping me to get my bearings again were two artificial lakes that it was hard to miss, though I almost did. The lakeside properties looked nice enough though out of season the area was disturbingly quiet.

Port-la-Nouvelle was defined by water from the salt beds to the harbour to the sea to the lakes to the canals and ditches. In the absence of any notable buildings I used the water as my guide moving from one blue mark on the map to another.

There was not much else to see apart from a couple of holiday parks that confirmed the purpose of this part of the town.

Returning to the town I found it as quiet as it was when I left it. Still, there is nothing wrong with peace and I wanted variety on this holiday.

Knowing there was little or no hope of finding a restaurant open in the town, much less one that catered for vegetarians, I trekked back to the station, took a train back to Narbonne and went to the fresh food restaurant that I had been to on Tuesday, which I was relieved to find open after the disappointment the previous day.

I am not quite sure what I expected from Port-la-Nouvelle but with its harbour, beach and lakes it offered me a fine walk through different and interesting zones. My last full day on holiday did all that I could have asked for it, as had all the others.

Sur la plage au Port la Nouvelle pres de Narbonne.

29 October 2014

Narbonne Day Three took me along the canal and out of the town

On Day One in Narbonne I had confirmed that there was not much to do and the rain that I had allowed for had not come to my rescue so on Day Three I decided to go on a long walk. A walk is its own reward and does not necessarily have to be taken anywhere beautiful or interesting so I was content to have that as my sole ambition for the day.

I headed off south along the main road until I hit the canal that bisected Narbonne.

The Canal de La Romine was to be my route and Pont de L'Escoute my starting point.

The canal was refreshingly thick with bridges and as I stood on the first one I took a picture of the next not far away.

Following the canal took me under the bridge with buildings on it. Hidden in the black here are the signs of its growth as different arches revealed how the bridge had got wider and wider until it was wide enough to support a road with buildings on both sides.

I had passed the market house on Day One when it was closed so I took this opportunity to go inside. One of the reasons that markets work for me is that fruit and vegetables cannot help but be colourful and have interesting shapes. The stall holder know that too and do their part in arranging them to maximum effect.

The canal continued east towards the sea and got smaller and quieter as it did so. The wide boulevards disappeared at the first ring road and the moorings got further apart and held fewer boats, I think there are just four by the far bend here.

There were also far fewer people and the two ladies on the far bank were the last people that I saw for a long while.

By the time that I got to the town boundary and the motorway the path was reduced to a mud track on just one bank. Luckily it was on the side that I was walking so I was able to keep going as far as I wanted.

Any semblance of a town had been left behind a kilometre or more previously and it was only the motorway that gave any sign of life. Which was a shame as I was rather keen on food by then and did not fancy walking back all the way that I had come to find some.

The map suggested that there was a retail park nearby so I headed for that. It was typically down-market and characterless, it could have been in England, but it did have a cafe and after a few moments I worked out how to get stuff and to pay for it, for my coffee I had to buy a token at the till and then use one of the machines in the seating area,

I took a different route back in to Narbonne, one that followed a main road for most of the way and so was not very interesting, though I was greatly impressed by this array of solar panels in a car park. Solar panels and always a good idea and using them to make works of art is even more so.

I had planned to go back to the fresh food restaurant that I had been to on the previous night but it was closed for reasons that escaped me! That left me with little alternative but to walk back in to town and the pizzeria that I went to on Day One.

At least that meant that I could walk past the Collège Victor Hugo, a large and fairly grand building not far from my hotel. It too was decorated in the municipal purple (Burgundy?) that I had noticed on my first exploration of the town.

Above the railings the college clock was making the most of the sun as it slipped away for the night.

The centre of the town was about 600m away and that made it an easy 6 minute walk. I was starving by then and saved time by ordering the same pizza that I had had on the first night.

My third day in Narbonne was quiet and uneventful but filled with plenty of walking. I wanted a day with a change of pace and that is just what this was. There would be other days to be busy.

What were those funny coloured things in Halles de Narbonne?

28 October 2014

Narbonne Day Two was a gentle day trip to historical Carcassonne

The original plan was to spend two days in Narbonne and then move on to Montpellier for two days but something was going on there and I was unable to get a hotel and had to settle for four days in Narbonne.

I confirmed on my first day in Narbonne that there was not a great deal to do there but my plan also included staying in a hotel close to the station to make it easy to go out for the day, to places like Carcassonne.

Carcassonne was only half an hour away, more of less due west, and I wanted to go there because of its old fortress, which is about as far as my research on Wikipedia went.

Carcassonne was ready for me and there was a tourist information place just 100m or so from the station and there was a cafe across the road from that where I had my breakfast (coffee and croissant) and had a look at the map. This informed me that the castle that I had come to see was some distance away, about 1.5 km, beyond the town on the other side and across the river.

I set off through the new (or newer) part of Carcassonne which was laid out in a convenient grid pattern. The castle was my destination and I tried not to get side-tracked from this and generally succeeded.

The map suggested some interesting places in the new town and the grid system allowed me to visit them without making the journey any longer. One of these attractions was the neat market square alongside the main road that ran north-south through the centre of the new town from the station.

To the east of the market was another attraction, Square Gambetta, and from there it was a short step to the river and Pont Vieux which crossed it. I could see the castle there on a hill in front of me but the main route in took me east across the top of it then south to the main entrance that faced away from the town.

Walking around a third of the caste gave me a good idea of its size and construction before I even breached its walls. There was a dip, once a moat perhaps, an outer and then an inner wall with both walls reinforced by towers.

Inside the main gate there were more walls and more towers. I have been calling it a castle because that is what I thought it was until I got there but it was really a heavily fortified town; it was Carcassonne until the defence became unnecessary and the river more valuable and so the town moved across the river to where it is now.

The old trades had long gone and been replaced by just one, the tourist trade, and the old town was full of gift shops and cafes. I managed to avoid the former and find a good example of the later. Another coffee was required before plunging in to the castle proper.

The castle within the fortified town had its own walls and towers and was accessed via a drawbridge that was guarded by ticket sellers. The queue was not too long and I was through in a couple of minutes.

There was a suggested route through the castle and I followed that to avoid missing anything. That worked out well for me and I traversed the walkways and staircases with confidence.

Some of the rooms and old relics and one had an exhibition on castles that, I was very pleased to see, included several examples from comics such as, obviously, Prince Valiant.

The views from the castle battlements were often as good as those of the castle. The green belt in the middle of this picture is where the river flows and the new town is just beyond that.

The sun was being indecisive that day and really could not make up its side whether to stay in or to come out but when it did show it made the most of the terracotta roofs of the houses below.

The castle had been abandoned rather than sacked and, while some of it had fallen in to disrepair, that meant that most of it was intact. At least all the main walkways were and it was possible to walk all around the walls of both the castle and the town around it.

I was also pleased that the restoration that had been done did not extend to putting safety railings on the walls. There were times when I was a little cautions, thanks to my vertigo, but I was always grateful for the uninterrupted views.

Carcassonne was made for walking and there were paths running in all directions. The best of them led through archways like this to places unseen and unknown bringing the tingle of exploration with them.

Back outside the castle and in the old town I found the cathedral and, close by, a very friendly restaurant that was ideal for lunch and a decent break. I had done a lot of walking that day and there was more to come.

Eventually it was time to go and I snuck out of the back of the old town, that was the west side facing the new town and the sun. I took a different route back to the new town and the station, one which involved crossing the river on stepping stones, something the little boy in me enjoyed immensely.

That was enough Carcassonne for me and I took the train back to Narbonne and went to try the restaurant that I had spotted the night before. It was a little shabby outside but fantastic in and I had a lovely pancake, or sort, and a local beer. I had found my restaurant for this part of the holiday and had no intention of going anywhere else.

Narbonne may have had its limitations but easy access to places like Carcassonne meant that it was going to be a decent place to stay for a few days after all.

The old castle at Carcassonne looking very old and very castley

27 October 2014

Narbonne Day One was a change of pace, scale and weather

It was only a small hop by train from Girona in Spain to Narbonne in France but it was a complete change of mood for my holiday; the bustle had gone, the town was a lot smaller and the clouds came to hide the sun.

I expected that there would not be that much to do in Narbonne itself so I had chosen a hotel, Will's Hotel, close to the station. The hotel was charming enough, a converted large house run by a couple, with just about enough wifi to get by. I even managed with just two power sockets in the room simply by unplugging the TV and using that socket for my computer.

Having checked in to the hotel I set off to explore Narbonne.

The first thing that struck me was how quiet everything was. This is about as busy as any of the streets that I walked got. For a while I thought that this was because it was a Monday, it could have been a half-day or something, but the other days proved to be at least as quiet as this.

The streets were all as shabby as this one and I was a little worried that the old town centre that I assumed was there would not be. Then I found the cathedral.

Work started on the cathedral in 1272 and it is not quite finished. A section of it is usable, and is in use, but another part looks like a ruin. It was the ruin that I went in to as I like that sort of thing, being incomplete showed the skeleton of the building, the pillars and walls that defined its shape, unburdened by decoration and furnishings.

That part of town was grander than what I had walked through to get there and I was starting to see smart houses like this one.

The purple colour must have meant something as I saw it across the city, never in large amounts but in a few prominent places so that it was a constant reminder of something.

The Canal de la Robine, linked to the Canal du Midi, ran through the centre of the town and defined it. The canal was inescapable and all the roads seemed to cross it at some point and there were lots of bridges for them to do so.

The canal changed mood as it slipped slowly through the town. Here it was enclosed on both sides and even the bridge was a wall.

It was not hard to find the town square sitting close to both the cathedral and the canal. It was a proper square too with a stately municipal building on one side, a classic art nouveau department store opposite (since converted in to lower class shops) and cafes and smaller shops on the other two sides. I stopped at one for a coffee.

There were several routes out of the square, including one that led directly to the bridge with buildings on it, and I took the route south towards the canal and then east to follow it.

Clearly a lot of money had been spent not that long ago in improving that section of the town with wide tree-lined boulevards on both banks. This is the view from the east of the centre looking back towards it.

Crossing to the south bank at the next bridge I came across a market house, and that is always a pleasure. Les Halles de Narbonne dated back to the 1870s and had been substantially renovated about twenty years ago (perhaps when the boulevards were done) and they looked marvellous.

Unfortunately they were closed (I did say that Narbonne was quiet) but the signs suggested that they might be open another day and I resolved to get back there to see inside. This time though I had to settle for the outside and that was an easy thing to settle for thanks to the intricate ornamentation.

Walking further south the rejuvenated centre soon slipped from sight and memory. So too did the relatively busy north side of the town as I walked along narrow abandoned lanes like this one.

I was tracking down the tourists sites on my map, Les Halles de Narbonne, were on the list, despite them not being that extraordinary when found as that gave my walking a purpose and a direction. What it did not give was much distance as Narbonne proved to be even smaller than the map suggested (perhaps I should have looked at the scale) and in what seemed like a couple of minutes I had gone from the east edge of the town centre to the west.

I had yet to cross the central bridge with the buildings so once I had collected all the tourist sites on the south side I headed the short distance back to the centre and the canal. I was able to walk along the tow path and under the bridge before reemerging in to the light on the east side.

This is the companion view to the one above with the bridge with buildings behind me and looking toward where that photo was taken, so the south bank is on the right.

I still wanted to do some walking and canal side was the obvious place, it was certainly the prettiest. And that is why the canal features here for the fourth time in my self-imposed limit of ten photographs.

Possibly showing a lack of imagination, I went back to the town square for my evening meal and, somewhat limited by choice of both restaurants and vegetarian options on on the menu, I had a pizza. I had a look for more interesting restaurants on the way back and after many disappointments I found one that looked worth a try sometime.

Parts of Narbonne were undoubtedly pretty but that was more of less just the 100m circle around the centre and I had already covered that area, some of it more than once, in my first afternoon there. I was going to have to find other things to do to fill my time over the remaining three days that I had there.