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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moulins sur Allier

Where to go, where to go.
I would have spent this weekend, or Sunday at least, in Paris in the company of my friend Iris, if only she were not in the midst of her wage-making season. For a tour guide, the insane schedule of June makes up for the slack times of February.

I have to be in Paris anyway on Monday, for a meeting, so how about one of the towns on the Clermont-Paris line that I haven't yet been to? The stops are Riom and Vichy, close enough I've been there many times, sometimes Saint Germain des Fossés sometimes we blow through it (I've written about St Germain; if it isn't in the archives, I'll try to remember to transcribe it for you), Moulins sur Allier, and then Nevers. I was in Nevers with Iris and her then-husband Matt and her mother and her dog, so Moulins is elected.
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Sunday trains to Moulins sur Allier (can't forget the on-the-Allier part, there are other Moulins lurking in France) leave Clermont at 8:34, 13:27, and later. Me, catch a train at 8:34 on a weekend? Are you kidding? Let me do my market shopping for fresh eggs and tomatos and white onions first. Have a croissant and some coffee. Wander around the flea market.
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At 13:28, off we go. It's a beautiful day outside. Sunny, but not too hot yet. The neat fields of corn or newly golden wheat or leafy potatos are all growing as fast as they possibly can, in the bright warmth before the ground dries out. Along the ditches and berms blood-red poppies are scattered around.
Suddenly, sunflowers!
A patch of happy yellow along the rails. In a week, there will be such patches everywhere.
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I've never put this to the test, but I like to play a game whenever I take the train in France: how far could I have travelled for free? This train finishes in Paris, and they usually only come around once for tickets. Could I have travelled as far as Moulins without a ticket? Vichy is more than half way, so far so good.
When we pull into Moulins at 14:28, nobody has asked for my ticket. Another free ride for the daring.
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The first thing to do, as always, is find a place to stay. The hotels around the station all look pretty scuzzy, as station hotels tend to. There must be something near the center of town. It isn't a long walk.
Not long, but even so it takes me a while, because as soon as I hit the older part of town I'm looking around and gawking at the medieval and renaissance architecture and taking detours down narrow little streets. I'll come back without the heavy backpack! I tell myself. But to little avail.
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Happily, unlike my last weekend adventure destination, Tarare, there are hotels worthy of the name in the center of town. The Normandie and a Kyriad are on the same block. Usually I'd go for the small business over the chain, but it looks pretty run down from the outside. And the Kyriad promises free wifi. Oooh. Free Wifi. It's so sad how small businesses are harder and harder to maintain in the face of economy-of-scale national and international chains. But against that sadness, am I willing to sleep in a saggy bed reeking of cigarettes and shower in a cubicle I'd really rather not be able to see? Even if I save 10 euros in the deal? Just ten years ago that difference in price would have cinched it. Today, alas, I'm pampered middle class and I'd like to stay that way. I'll grade up, but not down. Sorry.
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Moulins is has a beautiful town center. Magnificent stonework. Half-timbered houses. Narrow, cobbled streets. Geraniums spilling over balconies. I'm not a fan of churches, but I must admit, they do have the prettiest buildings. The white cathedral on the in the center of the city is spectacular, if still partly shrouded in scaffolding. Towns like this make me appreciate how poor Clermont-Ferrand really is in terms of this kind of physical heritage. We have a small historical quarter, but quite small. Here it's the entire central part of the city.
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I was hoping to find Moulins a little livlier, to get some interesting people-pictures for the next Friday Shoot Out. But France is more or less closed on Sundays. Unless you're in the touristy Cote d'Azur. Exceptionally, this being the first weekend of the Sales, many shops are open today. And still the streets are nearly empty. Something big is happening at the cathedral, which is packed to overflowing, but that can't account for the whole town. Maybe they're down at the river having a picnic.
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The riverfront is less interesting than I had hoped. Islands have formed downstream of a major bridge, but as soon as the water smoothens out, a hundred yards or so downstream, it's just one wide gravelly bank and one bank with vegetation down to the water. The gravel is dirty with the leavings of picnics and detritus left from the spring rise, and in places where water has pooled in backwaters it stinks. Bathing is forbidden by a sign, but nobody is being arrested.
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I wander around with my sack full of camera and notebook and stuffed rabbit until 6:30, then it's time for a shower and a rest before finding dinner. I check out the wifi. Sure, it's free, but you still have to sign up. They'll send your password to your cell phone. Only, I don't have a cell phone. Stuck. Sigh. I'll have to get one some day.
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Dinner is Italian, at the first restaurant I come across. I get tired of French all the time, and my feet aren't interested in hunting out that special mom&pop place serving the heavenly local specialty. And why shouldn't I have Italian? The scallop and langoustine pasta bake is excellent.
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Early train to Paris in the morning. Slightly too early to score a fresh croissant and some coffee before getting on board, so I settle for what's available at the station in Paris. Meeting until 1:30, followed by lunch with my colleagues, then finally time for a bit of birthday shopping before the train home. It's so terribly convenient to have one's birthday coincide with the first week of the summer sales! I find a summer jacket in gold silk in a tiny japanese shop tucked away in the Latin Quarter that's quite affordable. Then walking in the general direction of the train station through the Marais, with my backpack getting heavier every minute, I stop in a little cul de sac filled with restaurants and boutiques, and fall in love with a loose tunic made of grey silk with purple flowers (I'll take a picture when I get home). No way would I even walk into this store if it weren't my birthday; no way would I try it on if it weren't a third off. Is mine now.
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When I was 12 and part of my girl-scout troop was very much into camping, we used to have a lot of fun mocking Anne's dad, Mister Pilgrim, for taking so many pictures with the lens cap on. I think he eventually got an SLR, where you can't help but notice that, but even most point & shoots won't let you do that now (if they have a lens cap at all). So I find it lax of the camera-building firms of today, or specifically Sony, not to save digital users from themselves in a similar way. With a camera that detects everything, there should be a warning - hey idjit, there's no memory card loaded!

2 comments:

GingerV said...

I love traveling by train in Europe - and have done France two times, once paris/mice/Rome and one time Paris/san Michel / amboise
(my spelling?) both trips were beautiful and only complicated by too much luggage and difficulties finding taxis. loved this tour you have given us.

sciencegirl said...

Thanks, Ginger.
I do try to limit my luggage, as it just gets heavier by the hour!
The facebook response to "I'm off to Moulins the see what's there" was "Nothing!! why on earth are you going there?!" When you've been someplace too long you just don't appreciate it in the same way.