Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lost in Oppidum

An oppidum is A Roman provincial town built often on high ground which is fortified and walled. Hérault's most impressive oppidum is at Ensérune but there's another one at Murviel-les-Montpellier, one which I've been wanting to visit for years but never got round to although I've been through the village many times.

Yesterday I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in Murviel. My first thought was 'coffee' and I went in search of a café in the tiny medieval quarter of the village. The stone houses all nestled together were charming, and there was many a cat dozing picturesquely or out on the razzle, but café there was none.

That was when I remembered the oppidum, and, thrilled that I had at last the opportunity to see it, and remembered before it was too late, I followed a signpost that indicated the direction. Little did I know but that would be one of a total of two useful signs.

I was starting to wonder at the distinct lack of directions when I met a man, who turned out to be a local Brit, and was very helpful and told me that all paths lead to the oppidum. I just had to climb to the top of the hill, turn right, and I'd be overlooking it in all its splendour.

The path was steep and rocky, and promised to provide quite enough exercise for the day without me needing to go to the gym too.

Steep path up
A couple of faint blue lines on a rock indicated a circuit of some sort, but without a sign of any sort, it was impossible to know whether it was going to the oppidum or not. Still, I followed it, and turned right at the T junction at the top where I saw a 'useful' sign.
'Useful' sign
Don't try and search for information on it, there is none. There probably had been, once, but now it was just a post with a white board on it. I couldn't see through the trees either to overlook the alleged oppidum. Maybe it was there, maybe it wasn't...

After walking through a tiny olive grove in the middle of nowhere (it seemed), I found some ruins.

Roman ruins
Was this the oppidum? Was there an information panel to tell me? They were pretty underwhelming as far as Roman ruins go, and, in the absence of a useful signpost, I decided that I probably was not looking at the oppidum.
Thick Roman wall which may or may not be part of the oppidum.
I was enjoying my walk in lovely undulating countryside, with garrigue plants and trees and delicious smells of herbs and pine despite not knowing where I was. Another signpost did nothing to help, and I could see I wasn't the only one to experience mounting frustration, because someone had expressed his/her annoyance with a clear message on the blank panel: Information NULLE !! Justifiably so.

Disgruntled visitor message: 'Information NULLE !!'
The faint blue lines had also long since disappeared, so it was with interest that I finally came across something clear and precise. Almost.
Clear signpost with a fatal flaw
A map! At last! A lovely map showing all sorts of useful bits of information. Except one. The 'YOU ARE HERE' spot. What a tease. I was obviously not the only person to spot the fatal flaw because someone had written on it: 'On est où ?' - Where are we? The mystery continued.

Bushy 'access-friendly' path
I continued taking random directions, and noted the different types of vegetation along the various paths. They were solid proof of the diversity dream.

At one junction, I met a jogger who optimistically asked me the direction to the village. He was lost too. He had been following the faint blue paint marks until they petered out. We struck up a matey chat of fellow lost-ees until I cracked and got my phone out to consult Google Maps. The jogger decided to try one direction and, while I was still waiting for my return itinerary to load, he came back to try another as the one he took just stopped.

Tree-lined stony path
Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered I was a mere 15 minutes from my point of departure despite having been walking for almost an hour going up and down and along. No sign of the oppidum, natch, although I thought this immaculate olive grove very impressive.

Immaculate and very posh olive grove
I didn't quite follow the directions correctly (and got reprimanded by The Voice), but did discover an abandoned home with a well nearby, which brought up images of a wizened old farmer's wife trekking down the hill in the depths of winter to draw water.
Abandoned well 50 m from abandoned house
I got back on the right path to The Voice's relief (it was palpable).
Another picturesque path
I never did find the oppidum. I suppose it's there somewhere, and next time I have a couple of hours to spare there I'll try again, this time having printed off directions and a map, because I know you get no help once there!

This is what I didn't see (to some lovely music):


Thursday, October 12, 2017

#SNCF Christmas Train Ticket Wind-Up

#SNCF have excelled themselves today winding up hundreds (and possibly thousands!) of customers wanting to travel at Christmas.

Back in September when I bought my Eurostar tickets (because they go on sale way before SNCF, but that's another story/bone of contention), I signed up for the alert telling me when I could buy my TGV train tickets at Christmas. I wanted to be there at the starting blocks, in time to get the cheap Prem's tickets. I got myself organised. I couldn't fail!

This is the message I got the day before T-day (T for ticket), that got me all excited about the 'best prices' starting October 12:

Very 'clear' information from #SNCF
Ready, steady... hang on, what time is "aube"? Dawn breaks round about 7.30am at the moment. Did SNCF mean actual dawn or pick-a-time-early-in-the-morning?

I got up at 6.45am and dashed to the computer, as fast one can dash still half asleep. The SNCF ticket page was open and ready from the previous night (organised, see?). I clicked on 'Trouver' and... up popped not nice cheap Prem's tickets, but bog-standard pretty expensive ones.

What time, I wondered furiously as I went through the process (whilst grinding my teeth) of buying them, is effing aube?

I set about trying to find out. I sent a message on Twitter and entered into the twilight zone of a 'dialogue des sourds', on their part, anyway.

My question was clear, was it not? Why wouldn't they tell me? Was there a conspiracy afoot to thwart those of us not-in-the-know getting cheap tickets so only the favoured informed few could travel cheap and have enough left over to buy the odd Christmas present? Things didn't improve:

With my frustration levels rising at an alarming rate, I tried putting a message on Facebook, but none of my friends knew what time the tickets went on sale. 

Then I tried ringing SNCF but all their salespeople were on the phone, I should ring back later.

Then I tried SNCF on Facebook. I put a message on their page and up popped a message window. I copied the message into the window and immediately got a link to a Q&A page that is deeply embedded (or so it seems) on the sncf.com page, not the usual voyages-sncf.com page.

Would I get a precise answer, or wouldn't I?

YES! At last! For SNCF, 'aube' on October 12 is at 6am! And note that this information was only available because Gerry had taken the time to find the page where you ask questions and write the request. Had no one done that, we would all be none the wiser! This is in the age of communication, too. Opaque? It's like getting blood out of stone.

In any case, at 6.50am I was too late! All the cheap tickets had gone. Or had they?

I then started reading messages from irate customers who had been there at 6am on the dot in order not to miss a thing, and already there were no Prem's tickets. What is this 'arnaque', this scammy wind-up? Why get us up in the middle of the night (it's still black out at 6am!) for nothing?

Five hours after my initial conversation with SNCF on Twitter, and after I'd already got the answer I wanted, they kindly deigned to tell me the exact hour, and that all the Prem's tickets had been sold in record time:


I concluded, along with many others, that there had been NO Prem's tickets on certain trains. Or perhaps one or two, and that SNCF had set us up to fail. So thanks, SNCF for a morning of frustration, rage, anxiety, nervous exhaustion, and much time-wasting.

And as an exercise in communication, let me tell you for nothing, SNCbloodyF that it FAILED! If you need further advice, you know where to find me...

Sunday, October 01, 2017

OnVaSortir... or not?

It's now the demi-saison, that lovely time of year with vivid autumnal colours and ideal temperatures for outside activities.

This morning I went for one of my favourite walks in the park of Restinclières. There were few people about, the sun was shining, and as it had rained yesterday, drops of water glistened on every plant. The warm air brought out smells of wet earth, herbs and pine. I took this photo of herbes de Provence growing wild. They look very dry because we've had so little rain, but walking past, they smelled wonderful.

Wild herbes de Provence (rosemary and thyme)
I ambled along and thought how delightful it was to be there, alone, and thus able to think, stop to admire the views and really look at everything.

Walk through a pinède carpeted with herbes de Provence
A group of three people came towards me talking and moaning. They were not appreciating the views or walking 'in the moment'.

It made me think about the website OnVaSortir.com where you can either organise an outing or sign up for one organised by someone else. It's a good way of meeting people and not doing stuff alone all the time. As you can see from the screen shot below, there are lots of different types of activities.

from onvasortir.com 
At 14:00 'Randter' has organised a walk at Restinclières, although no one has signed up for it (1/10) so why didn't I want to go with her this afternoon? Because when you walk with others, especially people you don't really know, you have to talk to them. When I go for a walk, I like to walk in peace. I like to concentrate on smells, sights, sounds and think about how lucky I am to have such splendours on my doorstep.

Call me an unsociable old bat, but I don't want to have someone yakking at me barely pausing for breath, or me realising that I don't like the person and then feel bad for a) thinking uncharitable thoughts; and b) wasting my time being there.

What I would enjoy more is a mountain-bike outing. Not the super enthusiast type that has you going up nearly vertical slopes and slogging over 20km+ of rugged terrain, but a more leisurely ride without too much up and down. Then if you get into trouble, you've got help at hand, and it's quite difficult to talk to people on a bike, so you'd have to do all that during rests. Yes, that is more my thing. My youngest's VTT (mountain bike) club organise family bike rides twice a year so that parents can join in, and they are always very enjoyable. That.

Someone told me this week that people also use OnVaSortir as an unofficial dating site. I suppose this is to be expected because one way of meeting other people is to be active, so you're bound to meet like-minded types, especially if you target your activities wisely.

So, I haven't signed up for anything yet or thought about organising something (no thanks!). There's a time for everything, and I do like to take plenty of it.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

20 Things To Do in the South of France

Every now and again I get contacted by someone either wanting my views on some topic, or to link to a blog post or website.

Most recently, Jen of Jen Reviews contacted me about linking to a post she's written on 100 best things to do in France. I had a look at it, and it has a pretty good variety of things to do, from the obvious to the less obvious. So, if you're planning a visit to France, you could do worse than peruse her suggestions.

It got me thinking about my own list of things to do. Of course, I didn't agree entirely with her list, but then my own would be concentrated around the South of France. While I'm not sure I can come up with 100 things to do, here in no particular order, are some of my favourites:

1. Motorbiking
Michelin came up with a brilliant idea many years ago of colouring routes that go through attractive scenery in green. Motorbiking along these roads is the best way of exploring them, and of getting deep into the French countryside. Cycling takes more effort, and driving is not so much fun unless, I suppose, you're driving a cabriolet.

2. Walking up the Pic St Loup

View from the top of the Pic St Loup
The Pic St Loup is the local Montpellier landmark and is a popular walk. Take a picnic and admire the wonderful views from the top.

3. Lac de Salagou
Lac de Salagou, ruins of Celles in the distance
I cycled around the Lac de Salagou once. However, you don't have to cycle around it to enjoy it. It's a beautiful place for playing in safe water, doing water sports, having a picnic, going on a walk. We've motorbiked around it too, it was much faster...

4. Meteorological Observatory, Mont Aigoual
On the top of Mont Aigoual is a functioning meteorological observatory in an imposing purpose-built castle that also houses a free exhibition and museum. There's also a nice shop and café if you don't want to face the bracing winds eating your sandwiches at the picnic tables outside.

Picnic table and view
5. Mont Aigoual
While I'm on the top of Mont Aigoual, I'll mention that it's a great place for walking, and even has a small ski resort - Prat Payrot - with 4 downhill green slopes, 4 blue and 3 red, plus 32km of cross-country skiing, including a black course.

6. The Cevennes
One of my favourite areas. Fabulous for motorbiking, walking, canoeing, visiting, eating, observing, skiing and all manner of other fun things to do.
Fabulous Cevennes scenery

7. Bambouseraie
I looked through my blog to find a post on visits to the bamboo gardens at the Bambouseraie near Anduze, but I must have been there mainly before I started St Bloggie de Riviere. I used to go when my parents visited, and I had young boys. It's a fantastic place, well worth the visit, and has a lovely shop too.
Bambouseraie shop


8. Little Steam Train
A natural follow-on to the Bambouseraie is the little steam train that runs from Anduze to St Jean du Gard with a stop at the Bambouseraie.

Steam Train at St Jean du Gard station
You can make a day of it, starting at Anduze to St Jean du Gard, having a picnic, getting back on the train, stopping at the Bambouseraie and catching the last train back.

View along the little steam train route

Over the the Pyrenees Orientales and the town of Thuir you'll find the Byrrh factory where they make herb and spice-based liquor which was originally sold as a health tonic and eventually became part of France's aperitif culture. You go on a tour of the old parts of the factory, learn about the manufacturing process and get a tasting at the end. Absolutely fascinating, if for no other reason than it has the biggest oak cask in the world holding over 1 million litres.
The original aperitif

Near Clermont-l'Hérault, this is a great one for kids because they can run around the weird and wonderful rock formations and let their imaginations run riot.

Weird rock formations at the Cirque de Mourèze
It's a great place for a walk for adults too.


11. The Noria Water Museum
At St Jean de Bruel in Aveyron, this is another very interesting museum set in an old water mill. It's been put to different uses at different times, but one of the main ones was cleaning woollen cloth. The mill has been restored so you can see how it was done. There's also a mini hydro-electric station, a large model of a river modified to produce hydro-electricity, lots of other interesting water-related information and a place for kids to play.

Noria water museum

The village is very pretty and there are some fantastic views to be seen after walking up through shady chataigner woods to the 'sentinelle'.
St Jean de Bruel 'sentinelle' and view of the village


12. Glass-blowing Museum
The Halle du Verre is in the quaint village of Claret. The region was an important glass-making centre, with manufacture monopolised by gentlemen glassblowers who came back from the Crusades with the skill and didn't want anyone else to share in their fortunes. The museum has an excellent permanent exhibition, regular temporary exhibitions, and an actual glass-blower working behind a protective glass panel. It opens on May 3 until 30 November.


From the top of Mont Ventoux looking east
A great favourite with cyclists, bikers, walkers, the Tour de France, and others, Mont Ventoux is an exceptional site with its limestone scree top that looks like snow from a distance. 


14. Markets
Some good local ones on Saturday mornings are at les Arceaux in Montpellier, Clermont-l'Hérault, and Sommières. There is a vast amount of parking at Sommières which gets very full by 10.30am. I know this because I went through Sommières yesterday on my way to a mountain bike enduro site and saw how many cars arrived between 9.45am and 10.30am. I'm sure there are others, but I just don't know about them. I seem to remember that Olargues has a lovely organic market but it's just once a year, this year on 15 August 2017. Special 'estivale' organic markets are popular in the summer.


About this time of year you also get the 'Médievales' which are great for families. My boys used to love them. They combine a market, sword fights, brave knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, jousting, etc. You can visit them all over Languedoc Roussillon, information here

Trying on a heavy helmet

16. Castles (ruined)
My youngest used to love visiting ruined castles. He used to dress up in his Crusader kit and, preferably with his brother and a buddy, would be happy to walk to the castle of the day and spend a productive afternoon doing battle. Languedoc Roussillon and beyond has many ruined castles from the imposing, impressive Cathar castles in the PO, to less frequented and easier to get to ruins nearer to home. Before Wikipedia came to the rescue of those in search of information on the castles of Hérault (for example) I used to take a map, look for the ruined castle symbol which, on Michelin maps is a triangle made up of three black spots, pack a picnic and get in the car.

Our most local ruin is the château de Montferrand above St Mathieu de Tréviers together with the château de la Roquette.


17. Other Festivals
There are many festivals throughout France, and depending on your poison, you can probably find one that suits. Festivals that I have been to or go to regularly include the FISE (extreme sports festival) held in May (24-28, 2017) showcasing the best of BMX, Roller, Skateboarding, Wakeboarding and MTB scenes. Then there's the Tomato Festival in Clapiers in September (250 varieties on show, plus lovely market), the International Short Film Festival (court metrage) in Clermont-Ferrand in February, the Avignon arts festival in July, Montpellier Danse, also in July, and the Montpellier music and film festival des Nuits d'O in August set in the shady grounds - you bring a picnic or buy something en site, and sit at long picnic tables eating before the band of the evening starts. It's very cool.


This takes place in Orange June 16-17, 2017, and gathers together bikers who love the idea of adventurous travelling, want to go on an adventure trip, have been on a trip, are preparing for a trip and so on. We particularly enjoy the presentations made by bikers (men and women) who were sponsored for their trip and have to give a presentation of what happened. We've listened to a young woman who rode from Canada down to Ushuaia, a couple who rode from France to Iran, others who rode around India, and so on. It makes for a fantastic day out if you like motorbikes.


19. The Beach
I don't often go to the beach in summer, but it is fun to go with friends to one of the many 'paillotes' - pop-up restaurants on the beach with private sections of beach that are installed for the summer and have to be taken down again in the autumn. Go in the evening for an apero, for example. Balmy air, the lapping of the waves, a glass of chilled rosé, trendy décor, it's definitely a cool thing to do. 


20. What boys like to do
When I asked my youngest (16) what he likes to do, he came up with the following list: 
  • FISE
  • Aqualand (Cap d'Agde)
  • Beach (with friends only)
He has also had lots of fun on his birthdays doing paintball, and Accrobranche, and can't wait until he's 18 when he can join an air-soft club. As an outdoor type, he loves mountain biking and there are many fantastic sites where you can ride for pleasure and take part in competitions. We often go skiing to Mont Aigoual to Prat Peyrot, but this year went to Prapoutel in the Alps which was much bigger, much better and more fun, even in the bad weather. He has also greatly enjoyed canoeing/kayaking on the Hérault river, and jumping off the rocks into the river at the Pont d'Issensac.


There is of course, so much more to do (like vigneron picnics, or various circuits by foot, bike or car), but I hope you enjoyed my list, and I'm always keen to get recommendations.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Day Motorbike Ride around l'Hérault and le Gard

Weather over the Easter weekend is often terrible in Montpellier. The local football club organises a tournament every year and more often than not, games are played in the rain, or are called off.

This year however, we had glorious sunshine, and every biker in the land wanted to be, or was, out riding through the glorious colours of spring. My DB and I jumped on the new BMW GS1200 for it's first outing of the year.

Our first motorbike ride of 2017 in Hérault and the Gard
Starting at the bottom, we rode west to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, stopping to admire the Pont du Diable.
Pont du Diable near Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert looking south
(Click on the photos to get a better look)
We were able to have a quick stop to look and take some piccies because we were on the bike. If you have a car, this is a lot more difficult because there is practically nowhere to stop and park any more. You have to go to the designated car park and walk back. This makes it much more of a faff, and rather obliges you to stay for long enough to make it worth while.

Looking north towards Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
On the plus side, there's a free navette to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert so you don't have to double the faff by finding the designated car park there too.

We carried on past Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert towards Ganges, via Saint-Jean-de-Buèges which is very pretty and has a bar with a handy, shady terrace where you can enjoy a refreshing beer. There speaks the voice of experience (after a lovely walk along a nearby river), because it was too early for booze, so we rode straight through and turned left at Ganges towards Le Vigan.

From there, passing a group of bikers on the way, we took a winding route up the mountain to l'Esperou on Mont Aigoual where we had lunch at the restaurant of the Hotel du Parc. We arrived just in time because hot on our heels was a group of 7 bikers (not the same), another group of visitors, and then the group we'd passed previously too. The patronne must have been delighted! Fortunately, we had got our order in first and were served before the hordes monopolised the waitress.

Although it was a lot chillier up at l'Esperou than in the valley, the hotel had a nice fenced off garden where my DB was able to snooze peacefully in a garden lounger while I continued reading my (actual) book 'Nice Work (if you can get it)' by Celia Imrie which I enjoyed very much. I travel prepared...

On  our way back down the other side of the mountain via Valleraugues, we came across a shelter for observing mouflon which look like wild goats with big curly horns. My DB's friend hunts them apparently. I'm sure the meat requires very slow cooking as the muscles must be hard as rock with all the scampering up sheer rock faces.
Mouflon observatory
We had a good peer about, but just saw impossibly precarious mouflon paths up scree-filled slopes. Disappointed, we carried on, having noted the still bare trees at altitude compared with the vibrant greens of further down.

After wiggling our way back down to Ganges, we turned off right to cross the river and head west towards Montdardier and the Cirque de Navacelle via part of the Gorges de la Vis.

Dinky bridge across the Gorges de la Vis

Quite the prettiest trout farm around
To reach the Cirque de Navacelle, we had to climb up onto the plateau on a tiny road with hairpin bends every fifty metres. The views became spectacular pretty quickly. Across the plains, the arid countryside was yet another contrast to the verdant valleys.

(fuzzy) Menhir de Trivallé, causse de Blandas
We stopped to photograph a lonely little menhir, and although it's too fuzzy to read the signpost, it does have a name - the menhir de Trivallé. A quick search of 'menhir Blandas' threw up lots of hits, and it seems there are many of them dotted across the causse (menhir des Combes, circle of megaliths Cromlech de Lacam de Rigalderie), so if you're searching for sites of dolmens, menhirs, etc., the Causse de Blandas is the place for you!

La Causse
The causse seems to go on forever, but suddenly it stops at a dramatic cliff face which overlooks the photogenic Cirque de Navacelle.
Cirque de Navacelle looking south, from the Belvedere visitors' site
You can park in the Belvedere de Blandas where there is a visitors' centre with exhibition, shop and cafeteria, and walk along the cemented path (so no one misses out) to the view points. It's an amazing view.
Cirque de Navacelle by wiggly road
Then you get back on/in your vehicle and tackle the torturous descent to the village. Go back up the other side and you get the less spectacular but by no means minable view looking north.

Fab road on a bike
We returned towards main Ganges road, crossing over the Hérault river on the the sky-blue suspension bridge at Agonès, and then turned off towards Ferrières les Verreries where they extracted iron in the Middle Ages, and glass was made by gentlemen (gentilshommes verriers) from the 16th century up to the Revolution. If you're interested in glass-making, there's a fantastic glass museum in Claret where you can learn the fascinating history of these gentlemen glass-makers.

Cevenol village tucked into the hillside

Seen along the way


We got back in time to shop at the Cave à Bières in Montferrier-sur-Lez on the Ste-Julie roundabout, and pick up a number of bottles of IPA from all over the place. The owner is very knowledgeable and serious about the beer, and keeps the bottles in little wooden lockers to protect them from the light.

Various IPAs - perfect after a day on the road
Cheers!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflecting on The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton is one of my favourite authors. I love his writings on philosophy and his belief that the point of philosophy is to help people live their lives.

I was given 'The Art of Travel' for Christmas which was perfect reading while convalescing after a bout of 'état grippal' (flu-like state) which has had me gripped for two weeks.

I have a very ambivalent attitude to travelling on the whole. I'm not one of those with itchy feet. If I can't travel, I'm not that bothered, but if I can, I tend to enjoy it. Of course, it depends how I'm travelling, and with whom, and why. My DB asked me recently to list my favourite ways to travel. I thought about it and came up with:

  1. motorbike
  2. car
  3. train
  4. plane

Since air travel became a cattle market, with dodgy air conditioning systems that share a plane-full of bugs amongst the passengers, I've avoided it, preferring the train for long-distance travel from A to B (France-UK). You can take more baggage on a train too, important for those essential supplies like boxes of wine for Christmas and summer holiday consumption with one's mother.

On a bike, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination if you choose the right roads, and with a car, it's similar but with more space and less contact with the weather.

Much of what Alain de Botton wrote resonated with me. He has a capacity to identify situations, problems, issues, and put words to them. Since reading about his holiday to Barbados which he expected to be fantastic, but found that he had 'inadvertently brought myself to the island' with accompanying psychological baggage, I read a similar sentiment in a novel later in the week: 'Not Quite Nice' by Celia Imrie, and of course, have often been distressed at how many unresolved issues encroach on the enjoyment of a holiday. The reality of travel is different to how we fantasise about it. We anticipate it to be somewhere we can be happy and carefree, but the reality is different.

How many of us have argued with a partner on holiday? My DB and I have had a number of humdingers. The aftermath of an argument leaves you unable to appreciate the many splendours of the place you've come to visit. I remember stomping along a superb cliff path on the Costa Brava, with the Mediterranean Sea glinting blue, and a lighthouse perched attractively on a rocky promontory. I barely noticed the views while there. So, "in order to draw the anticipated happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods, we first have to satisfy other emotional or psychological needs, like the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect".

Looking back on that walk, the memory of my bad temper has faded, but I remember the beauty of the walk. de Botton identifies this too: "We are best able to inhabit a place (in memory, anticipation) when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there". One of the advantages of art galleries full of pictures of other places is that you can see the "essence of a country" without having to deal with the problems. Travelling dilutes the experience.

I always take photos of the places I visit, but I also try to absorb the atmosphere and actually see a place, by not taking photos. Ruskin, the artist, believed that people should learn to draw because drawing could teach them to see. "By recreating what we see, we move from a position of observing beauty, to one of understanding its constituent parts, and hence more secure memories of it." He was scathing of photographers who used it to pay "less attention to the world than they had previously from a faith that photographs automatically assured them possession of it".

Ruskin taught people to draw, not caring if they were any good at it. What was important was learning how to see. He also believed in describing a place in words, to "word paint", because it involves asking questions, being precise in analysing what we see and feel.

de Botton also writes about "spots of time" which are certain scenes we've witnessed that stay with us throughout our life "and when they enter consciousness, can offer a contrast to, and a relief from, present difficulties". One of my spots of time goes back a couple of decades. My ex-h and I joined some friends to walk up the gorges de la Carança and stay at the refuge du Ras de la Carança. We followed the narrow gorge from the car park and at some point came to a clearing with a waterfall. The light was shining in such a way that it looked like a fairy grotto. Hanging branches, long grasses and damp moss were all bathed in visible rays of ethereal sunshine and mist. We were the only people there, so it was like coming across a silent, beautiful other world.

Travel enables us to escape from the everyday, passing through transient places such as stations, airports and hotel rooms. I always feel a thrill of possibilities when I'm in a station or airport, and I love staying in nice hotel rooms.  Baudelaire loved being away from home and especially visiting transient places of travel, and he invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia, "the poésie des départs, the poésie des salles d'attente". Hopper sympathised with Baudelaire's attitude to travel, and painted the places of travel because there he found poetry, the poésie des motels, etc.

There is much to enjoy in 'The Art of Travel'. I have but touched on a tiny fraction, but I strongly recommend it for all armchair and actual lovers of travel.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Happy New Year (bof)

Back to work after a Christmas break is a tough one. You go from the festive spirit, lots of food, wine, making merry with friends and family to the serious business of earning a crust.

This morning I woke up and still felt festive, if a bit tired after a full week of merry-making and the return to France. By the end of the day I felt it was all over. The deccies are still up, and will stay up until Twelfth Night so as not to incur the wrath of the Christmas Spirits and scupper the year, but my heart's no longer in it.

I can no longer put off tidying my lovely pressies away. I'll have to empty my suitcase and generally tidy up the rolls of wrapping paper and boxes of Christmas cards. Après-ski is fun; après-Christmas is not.

Christmas is like a bubble of unreality. You suspend real life while you see friends and family, eat too much at every meal, quaff too much alcohol, indulge in cakes and snacks in a concentrated few days. I think it's the coming back down to earth that makes the hardest bump.

I was in the UK last week. On one evening, I met up with a couple of guys from school who I hadn't seen since they left at 16. We had a fantastic time reminiscing, catching up on who had done what, who had died (not so fun), who was where, etc. A real plunge back into the past, it was. A mega dose of nostalgia.

Back in the present, it's the New Year and I don't even want to think about what's coming up. Instead of plunging into gloom and doom, today I cheered myself up by noting the huge progress in human civilisation since 1820 as seen in the graphs of The World as 100 People.

From here - Our World in Data
Let's just hope the good things carry on getting better and the bad things continue going down.

Happy New Year.