I predicted that this instalment would be jam-packed, and I was not wrong. In a move never before seen on this blog I have therefore decided, for everyone’s sanity, to split it into two parts, à la everyone’s favourite movie franchises.
I spent the first week of my holidays visiting an old friend of mine, Catherine, who is an assistant in Carcassonne in the south of France. From this point onwards the school holidays are staggered so that the entire population of France isn’t trying to go skiing/to the beach at the same time. Catherine was actually working this week, so I took myself on a whole lot of day trips to explore the region while she worked and we hung out in the evenings.
Carcassonne is a small city/large town (?) most well known for its medieval walled cité which was restored by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the mid 19th century (more on that later). The cité really is the main drawcard and aside from that there’s not a whooole lot to do, so it worked out well for me using it as a base while spending most of my time elsewhere (sorry Carcassonne!). It was great to spend time with Catherine and meet a lot of her friends though, and it was really interesting to see the assistant experience in a smaller town. Although there might not be much to do, it seemed like there was a better community – not only amongst the assistants, but with locals as well, something that in my opinion can actually be lacking in a big city like Lyon. So pros and cons to both!
The cité itself is both a UNESCO world heritage site and a national monument, so it was free for me to visit. I chanced upon a guided tour, but it didn’t take long to realise that I would have been better off without it. It was in French, and the guide was extremely dynamic – which was much appreciated by everyone else in the group, but unfortunately for me the combination of all the specific historical terms she was talking about and all the asides and regional in-jokes she kept making to various members of the group just made it too hard for me to focus on what was actually important information, and I’ll admit that once my brain decided this I pretty much stopped paying attention. Whoops. I did go back and find a basic printed guide and basically started from scratch, and spent a good couple of hours there all up.
One thing I would have liked to have learnt more about – and again, I could have asked the guide but I just couldn’t face it – was Viollet-le-Duc’s aforementioned restorations. The impression I got from my visit was that he is considered a hero who saved the cité from the crumbling ruin it was, restored it and with it the livelihood of Carcassonne as a city etc etc. What was scarcely mentioned was the controversial nature of said restorations, which is something I learnt about once upon a time in art history class. Yes, VLD did undoubtedly important work not just in Carcassonne but throughout France. However, his ‘restorations’ tended to go beyond restoring a building to how it had actually been in its heyday, ‘improving’ it to what he considered a final or ideal state, even if that state had never been achieved in the first place. In Carcassonne’s case he added pointed slate roofs to the towers which were typically northern in style and not at all in keeping with the history of the cité, which was not even part of ‘France’ when it was first constructed. This wasn’t just a case of the big city cheese waltzing in and doing what he wanted to a provincial town though as he also infamously added a whole spire to Notre Dame, amongst other things. This debate over the limits of restoration/conservation/preservation is an ongoing one, and obviously I had particular knowledge of this going into it, but I still feel it was a shame this aspect of things wasn’t elaborated on.
I won’t beat about the bush: my day in Toulouse was not a success. To be fair, the odds were stacked against it with horrible weather – we’re talking 4 degrees, and wind that really chilled to the bone – something I have clearly become de-acclimatised to in six months away from Wellington! I honestly think this is the coldest day I have experienced all winter. This was added to by the fact that all the museums I tried to go to were closed (which annoyed me primarily because the lady at the tourist office had advised me to go to them), and I just kept seeming to lose my bearings/think I was walking towards something and ending up somewhere different which is very unlike me!
Nonetheless Toulouse did still have some redeeming features, notably my visit to the Capitole or town hall, which had beautiful (and surprisingly modern) artwork throughout its public rooms which were all free to visit. Another highlight was visiting an otherwise unassuming church, the Basilique Saint-Sernin, and chancing upon some kind of organ demonstration which was very cool! Catherine’s recommendation of a crepe place for lunch was also a godsend.
So, although my experience of France’s fourth city was not a great one, this is by and large due to circumstances conspiring against me – don’t write it off because of my bad experience! Toulouse is also a hub of the aeronautical industry and it looks like there are some cool things to visit if you have the time to get out of the central city.
Narbonne and Collioure
Thankfully, the failure of Toulouse was redeemed by the resounding success of the following day’s visit to Collioure. Collioure is a little seaside town just south of Perpignan, close to the Spanish border. To get there I had to change trains at Narbonne, with a minimum one hour stopover, so I started off earlier to have a decent amount of time to poke around Narbonne. This worked out just right with time to wander round the city centre, visit the cathedral (which was never finished) and the Horreum – Roman underground galleries thought to have been used as a warehouse. Not something you see every day!
Unlike the day before, the afternoon in Collioure worked out perfectly. It wasn’t warm, but a beautiful crisp sunny day with no wind, perfect for wandering round the port and all the little streets. Collioure was popular with some of my favourite artists, the Fauves, at the turn of the twentieth century. Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain et al experimented with ~colour for colour’s sake~, and it was obvious to see why Collioure was such a drawcard for them. I’ll let the pictures do the talking!
The last daytrip of the week was to Montpellier. I spent a good few hours in the Musée Fabre, which had a surprisingly impressive collection, and the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets – which, unlike Toulouse, was without incident! Montpellier is the 8th biggest city in France and one of its top student cities, also home to the world’s oldest medicine faculty still in operation. While most of Catherine’s friends said they preferred Toulouse, I thought Montpellier had much more character and a generally better vibe (and yes, I think this would have been the case even if I had a good day in Toulouse). It looks typically mediterranean, with its cream coloured buildings and paving stones, and had a great combo of grand open spaces and arty little lanes.
So that wraps up week one of my holidays, proudly sponsored by SNCF – I wish. Despite all the time spent in trains (and the expense!) I was very happy with how the trip worked out and definitely glad to have done it. Normally, that would have been quite enough to-ing and fro-ing for any one person to deal with, however due to the way the fates aligned I was back in Lyon for less than 24 hours before setting off again.
Part two: the Berlin chronicles to come when I get it done…