Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Afternoon in Mantes

Bakeries abound. 
I could easily have a sandwich and a coke. But I’d rather sit to something hot. It isn’t very warm out yet, even with the strengthening sun clearing away the clouds. The restaurants I’m seeing, however, are either closed, or white linen affairs serving people in ties. I am determined to find something in between: open, modest but not a bar serving ham&cheese with fries.
At last I find just the perfect place. Down a narrow alley lined with shops there’s an archway leading to a courtyard of shops at the base of a high rise apartment complex. There’s a hairdresser’s, a real estate office, and a café. Pasta, panini, crèpes, not expensive. The daily special is spinach & ricotta tortellini with pignon nuts – sounds good to me. The room is comfortable and unpretentious, a place you have to know about to find, but with a faithful evening clientele once they’ve found the way.
The pasta is alright. They probably buy it by the kilo sack, but it’s not overcooked. Because it’s dressed meerly with cream (why do the French think that cream, more or less by itself, is a sauce? It’s so boring!), I’m generous with the parmesan. A little pepper would be nice. The grilled pignons are a nice addition, and there are plenty of them. It’s exactly what I expected.
Now how about a crèpe for dessert? The crèpes in this part of France are usually fabulous. I wonder if they make their own caramel. Oooh, they do have caramel crèpes. I’ll find out soon.
Mmm, not home-made, but good. The caramel is served in a little leaf-shaped container on the side, a nice touch. The crèpe itself, alas, was made earlier and nuked. What is with that?? Reheated, perhaps, but nuked? I’d have been happy to wait the extra two minutes it would take for one fresh off the griddle.

13:55 Train to Mareil-sur-Mauldre, empty but for me.
14:20 Here we are, and what have we but a bright yellow trail mark right there on the fence. How convenient. Knew I was coming, did they?
The marks lead first to a pocket-sized church. Locked up tight. The priest comes weekly. No name I can find. The street is called Ruelle St Martin, so it must be St Martin’s the Closed.
A few steps later and I’m strolling in the sun with a field of grass on one side and a field of weeds on the other. Now, that’s how to pass a good day in Paris.
Around a bend at the foot of a wide, sweeping hillside bright with new grass is a plank bench set across cinder blocks, and a stone cross, heavy and lopsided, like some farmer made it himself. The lichen says the cross is old, but the wood of the planks says the bench is fresh. A spot maintained.
You can hear the trains from here, hourly to Paris, and back. A generous tree provides shade in other parts of the year.
The trail doubles back and climbs to the summit of the hill, where the green meets the horizon for my entire field of vision. Green+blue plus a thin sliver of tan path. There’s a single hiker in RED in the distance. Red you can’t miss a mile away.
Bells chime. Somewhere it’s 3 o’clock.
By 4 I’ve made a long loop, going as far as the next town on the line to Mantes before giving up on the yellow-marked trail, which went off in just the wrong direction to give me any confidence in it’s turning back to Mareil. So did a bit of road-walking after all. I near the station with just 10 minutes for the next ride on to Paris, and consider walking some more and catching the one after. There’s plenty of sun left.
But my feet are tender from a long winter indoors, so I decide to head back. My hotel room has a treat for me – a bathtub – and I’m looking forward to a hot soak.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Morning in Mantes

1st sights of Mantes-la-Jolie: a blocky factory with two tall smokestacks. Shanties by the side of the railway. A freeway. The trees are green not with leaves but with moss and algae. The factory building turns out to be the electric company. Another nuclear plant? If so, it’s not the usual design. They might be turning oil, not atoms, into electricity there. More industrial territory. Rust. Litter. Not very jolie at all!
Maybe it’s just this grey tail-end of winter, no leaves anywhere yet and no sunshine that makes it all so ugly. The weather people said it would be nice out today, adding to the disappointment that it isn’t. That and the industrial corridor approach to the city mean I get off on the wrong foot for my little day-trip to Mantes.
Fortunately, French railway stations are always right downtown, or just next to downtown, so you’re not starting off in the middle of nowhere. This one is a short walk from the center of things. I kind of want a coffee, it being chilly out and the hour of the usual mid-morning coffee break. But I also want to get going, stretch my legs after more than an hour on the train. The lack of any enticing spot to indulge my coffee craving means it’s time to walk around.

Not much is happening this March Wednesday. There’s a market going on in one of the central squares: a few greengrocers and all kinds of cheap polyester clothing. I would pick up a scarf, because the wind is rather biting and expecting good weather I left my wooly one in my room, but nothing interesting is on offer.
So how about the town? There’s a nice tower, or the remains of one, in the old town. The 16th century Tour St Maclou is all that is left of an 11th century church. The signs say there used to be a herring market out front of it, too, the fish brought upriver on flat-bottomed boats. No herring today.
At the bridge over the Seine there’s a great view of the cathedral, the front left quarter draped with scaffolding, the newly cleaned towers rising above the town. Flanking the bridge on tiny patches of lawn are the Dogs of Mantes. Man’s best friend, symbol of fidelity, the dog has been the symbol of Mantes since the 15th century. This is what Henri the 4th said about it: «Messieurs de Mantes, je n'avais aucune inquiétude pour vous, bons chiens reviennent toujours à leurs maîtres». (Good Sirs of Mantes, I had no worry for you ; good dogs always return to their masters). I’m not sure I’d be thrilled to be the dog of the masters!
The larger-than-life statues are good, solid, happy dogs. They look like a labrador on the left and a bloodhound on the right, ready to go for a walk. On a leash.

Across the water, the gardeners are out in force in the riverside park, picking at the newly installed pansies and fertilizing the hedges. The paths are bare, the birds are just arriving, and the skate park & playground empty. Prepared for spring. Come on, already.
On the river, the barge Gymkhana motors past, putting up a nice white foam at its prow. A man is hosing the deck with river water. His green Renault is loaded for the trip. He’s headed east. Upstream, or down? Hard to tell – his wake is the only disturbance on the water.
A flower tossed in the river drifts ever so slightly east, then stops, undecided.
Another barge, the Lem. This one has a white car and a large black dog. Also heading east. Upstream, I think. Must be. On the train we kept the river to our right, and and going east is going back to Paris.
Alas, the riverside path on this side doesn’t go all the way to the next bridge, and I have to –the horror!- backtrack. There’s a rule against that, but the undergrowth is wet and impenetrable.
This river is a regular barge highway. Here’s the rusty Ponto, hauling sand, attached to the Mechta, more sand. Followed by the newer River, whose cargo is covered. Both feature living quarters (which is apparently standard), but neither hauls a car.
By 11:15 the sky is visibly blue, though not exactly clear. Vague shadows appear. There’s hope for a beautiful afternoon.
Finally, a barge headed west comes by. There must be some, eventually; they can’t all pile up in Paris. It’s the Nagaizamo, nearly illegible with rust.

The cathedral, Notre Dame de Mantes la Jolie. The multitude of saints above the triple double-doors are all wonderfully intact, except for their heads. These were all knocked off in the Revolution. It’s an anonymous pageant that plays out on the tympan.
Inside, empty but for the echo of a lone man on his phone. How a voice can fill these lofty spaces.
The windows are interesting, all different periods and styles. The west-facing rose window depicts the Last Judgement, but the figures are so small and complex that from the nave you can only appreciate the mass of color. The panel says that during one of its restorations, panels 4 and 8 were switched. Just in case you thought they got the story wrong (though who can tell, without a telescope?)
Most of the other windows date from the latter half of the 20th century – world wars being rather hard on all that glass. Some are abstract, some are traditional scenes from the bible, either in contemporary styles or mimicing other periods. Some of the portraits in the Navarre chapel might be originals, but there’s nothing that says one way or the other.
Outside again, there used to be a castle here, “much appreciated by kings and nobles”, providing protection from the Normans. I can’t find anything of it now except for the signs and the park, currently closed for repairs.
Looking toward the river, now there’s a barge. Big as two of the others together, the Smack, loaded with 10 red containers, a blue one, and a green one. At least, that’s what I can see from here. Plus a car and a motorcycle.
Time for lunch. Back later.

Monday, March 19, 2012

It just might be...

I do have a follow-up post about my little near-Parisian adventure of last week. It's just that I'm so damned busy. I'll try to get it typed up for tomorrow, promise!
In the meantime, I wanted to remark on the rapid changes out the window. Not the window I look out of all day long at work, no; from that one all I can see is the concrete side of the building next door, and a teeny little patch of sky, just enough to tell me if it's still daylight out (rapidly fading, at the moment). I mean my bedroom window. It's been a pleasure the past weeks to have light in the sky when the alarm goes off. And this morning, for the first time in ages, the sun actually came up before I had to roll out of bed for work.
Out the window over the winter I have a good view of the yard through the bare branches of the plum tree that's right next to the house and then through the bare branches of the apricot just a bit farther.
But while I was gone, the branches went from bare to this:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The slow train from Paris

Paris, Gare de Montparnasse.

My mission today is to take a train to somewhere. Chartres sounds nice. I've always wanted to go see their impressive cathedral. One hears so much about it in books and paintings, it'd be nice to see it for myself one day. Chartres it is, then.

Torn between stopping for a muffin & coffee and getting my ticket right away, I hear an anouncement: Incident on the line to Chartres. All trains in that direction are grounded for at least two hours.

Ah. Well, that's that. Breakfast first, then.

But where to, now?

Mantes-la-Jolie promises to be pretty. Bonus: the next train makes a bunch of stops before getting there, so I can dink around all I want. Sounds good. Departure at 8:39. In 9 minutes.

Miraculously, there's no line at the ticket counter. It takes me longer to elbow my way through the trainfull of people just arriving from Rennes as they scurry and stampede toward their Parisian jobs.

Bonus bonus: double decker train, with plenty of seats upstairs.

First stop: Sevres Rive Gauche. Paris suburbs all the way. Houses, small apartment blocks. The Seine must be near, but I can't see it from the train. Some of the graffiti along the tracks is quite artful, but not worth a stop.

Stop: Chaville Rive Gauche, just two minutes farther. Could be the same town, except the graffiti is lame and monotone.

Next: Viroflay Rive Gauche, two minutes again through the same endless suburbs. Some of the houses are larger and quite nice, now we're farther away. Some have a fabulous view of the tracke - they must have been thrilled when this line was put through. Now the bourgeois can watch the trains go by every few minutes as they lounge poolside or trim the roses.

Next: Versailles-Chantiers. Can't see the eponymous castle from here. But it's there. You just know.

Next: Saint Cyr. Finally we're passing through more open territory, hopping from one discernable town to another, with patches of woods in between. More os less hidden in the trackside woods are numerous schacks and shanties, smoke rising from cooking fires. No people are visible there.

The valley at St Cyr is full of fog and buildings as far as one can see. A bit of woods doesn't mean we've left the Paris burbs. They continue.

Next: Fontenay-le-Fleury in the same continuum. Not exactly fleuri (flowered) today.

Now the burbs are indeed breaking up. Between the patches of woods are occassional fields ready for planting and pastures with a scattering of horses.

Next: Villepreux-les-Clayes. Rows and rows of apartments on one side, early 20th century houses on the other. By the station is a giant parking lot for all the cummuters. A little farther down the trackes, houses with yards, laundry trying to dry, wheat fields...

Next: Plaisir-les-Clayes. I wonder what a claye is. To the left is a big mall with the usual stores, to the right an open field. Fields until they are lost in the haze.

Next: Plaisir Grignon. Not even two minutes from the last pleasure.

Next: Beynes. Pronounced "Ben". Now we have rolling hills, generous green or soon-to-be green fields lined with rows of trees, creeks in the hollows filled with willow tangles. An isolated farm stand is advertising asparagus and strawberries (strawberries?? whether imported from Morocco or the local hothouse kind, I'll pass. Try again in a month or two).

Next: Mareil-sur-Mauldre. Just like Beynes. If the thick ceiling would lift and brighten the day, it would be a nice place to go for a walk out of town between the fields and hamlets. If you could find the way, one train station to the next would only be half an hour on foot.

Next: Maule. Many taggers have signed their names to the defunct freight station here. There's even a portrait, though whether self-deprecating or a mockery of someone else is hard to say.

Next: Nézel-Aulnay. Nowhere much, here. There's a 2-court tennis club, but nobody is out playing.

We are warned that at the next station, Epône-Mezières, the door of the last car will not be at the quay. Our train is too long. So you'd better move forward if you want to get off there. Yeah, if there's anybody left. I'm all alone in my car now.

Interesting. I was expecting some tiny hamlet, that the quay would be too short for a standard train. But no, this semi-industrial town is the largest we've been to since leaving the burbs. WTF?

Last stop: Mantes-la-Jolie. It's 9:58.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

St Etienne Chateauxcreux Station

11:30 to Firminy: off it goes

11:50 to Lyon, track E, waiting already at half past, a double -decker. I like those. You can sit upstairs and see over most of the hedges that line the tracks for miles and miles.

11:52 to Roanne, track F, the other side of the same tongue of concrete between the snakey tracks. Hanging out on the quay are 40 or 50 people, either waiting for the 11:52 to Roanne to appear, or having a smoke before boarding for Lyon. I'd say about half and half - Roanne isn't a very big place; how many people could possibly be going there? They stay huddled in the middle, between the vending machine and the stairway. Nobody moves down the quay far enough to get out of the Lyon trains's shadow and into the weak but helpful sunlight. They tighten their scarves against the chilly breeze, then flick their butts onto the tracks before boarding for Lyon.

The conductor gets on at 11:49, and the agents on the quay speak into their walkie-talkies over the last loudspeaker announcement. A whistle blows, doors close, and the train squeaks and rattles its way east.


Roanne will be 10 minutes late.

12:04 to Lyon, track B. A dozen waiting travellers are revealed by the departure of the 11:50. I wonder why they didn't just take the other train, but then there are two stations in Lyon, and maybe they have their reasons. My view is quickly blocked by the arrival of the 12:08 to Montbrison. That's on my way home. I could take it and lunch there and then continue. Though...why? I was in Montbrison years ago, and there's nothing.

*Correction: the 11:52 to Roanne will be 15 minutes late* Sorry.

The train to Montbrison promises also such exotic burgs and hamlets as Bonson, and Suny-le-Comtal, or St Romain-le-Puy. Interesting places I'm sure. I could eat my sandwich in one of these unexpected locales, and my lemon cake, but you can get stuck there for a long train-wait, and this cold wind says Not Today.

*Correction: the 11:52 to Roanne will be 20 minutes late* Sorry.

If this continues, it will leave later than the next train to Roanne, scheduled for 12:22.

12:13 to Paris, track B, loaded up and ready to zip down the rails at high speed, has closed its doors and blown its whistles. Off it goes. Via Lyon, naturally, in case anybody needs to go there.

Ah, here is the 12:22 to Roanne, track F, taking on passengers. Not everybody wants it, since this one is going direct to Roanne and the other stops at the wonderlands of Boutheon, St Galmar, Montrond, Feurs, Balbigny, St Jodard, and Le Coteau. And indeed, here that one comes, ready to load up at last. No worries - the SNCF will get you there eventually.

12:20 to Lyon, track B. Again. Can't fail to go to Lyon if you're in St Etienne. Incontournable. Can't get around it.

12:30 to Clermont-Ferrand, track E. A train of interest - let's go.

Clermont is only an hour and a half from St Etienne on the freeway, but we'll take more than 2 hours to get there, taking the scenic route and stopping to smell the roses. The sun is deliciously warm with the window between me and the wind. For the first time today I take my coat off.

12:34 St Etienne La Terrasse. Not out of town yet.

12:46 Bonson. Sandwich consumed. A splotch of low houses on the plain, I think I've seen enough of Bonson from the train.

12:58 Montbrison. LIke Bonson, only very much larger. Lemon cake consumed.

13:16 Boen, nestled into the hills of the Haut Forez area. Barely a village with a bar and a grocery, I bet there's good kiking here if you can find the trailheads.

13:32 Noiretable, still in the Haut Forez. This is another place I've always meant to come explore, a mix of fields and forest and steep hills with white water in the creases between them. Soon.

14:02 Thiers, city of knives. Well, with all these cows around, you've got to have good knives. Thiers, where pasture is limited because of the steep hills, has made steak-facilitators a specialty.

14:33 Clermont-Ferrand. Time to get back to work.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A bit of a walk

I wouldn't want you to think from yesterday's post that I spent my whole, precious, day off riding the tram back and forth. No, no. Just one go-round, that's all. The other thing I did was take a walk in the hills to the west of town to photograph a certain tree there.
There's this one rather nicely shaped tree that's off on it's own on a hillside, standing about a hundred feet from a bunch of a dozen other trees that make a little tableau of their own. It's like the guru tree and the others are the followers. Anyway. I go up there every few weeks and take way too many pictures of them all. I figure in a few months I'll make an album with nothing but these trees, a sort of woody biography.

Monday, March 5, 2012

31 stops.

This is just in case you don’t ever get to ride the tram around Clermont yourself. Read this and you won’t have to.

11:07 La Pardieu Gare. Southern end of the line (or the eastern end, depending on if you think of the tram line as a north-south thing or an east-west thing. Your choice.) in an area of businesses and light industry. Departure in 3 minutes. Departure after that in 10 for those of you who are not quite ready for all the excitement of the adventure. One other person gets on, and sits near the middle of the tram.

11:11 Lycée Lafayette. Three women with their shopping from the nearby grocery centre, two with wheely carts, one with just sacks. I used to snigger at the wheely things, but now I have one myself. Useful for stocking up on cat litter. Or if you need to carry home more than one case of wine. Nobody from the Lycée gets on here, but later they will flood the train.

11:13 Fontaine du Bac, between a cluster of cheap apartment blocks and a football field. Two more women board. A fat old man watches the empty playground from a bench in the unexpected sun.

11:15 Margeride. Another handful of riders board, having left their cars at the park&ride lot. Nothing else is here except a connection to the number 13 bus. We’re filling up.

11:16 Campus, where a handful of college students wait. This is my stop when I’m done with classes in the fall.
They’re whacking down all the old pampas grass along the railway today. A shame to cut down the golden fronds that catch the light so well, but they’ll grow back soon enough. As a bonus now we can see all the trash that’s accumulated on the ground over the year. It isn’t all that much, really.

11:18 Cezeaux Pellez. The other campus stop, right next to the physics and math buildings. Another handful of people get on, and finally some get off.

11:19 La Chaux. The railway passes under a bridge here, and the sides of the cut lined with concrete are covered with graffiti. A real canvas for the spray-can set, though not many of them seem to have much talent. Near the train station is where the real artists tag. The other interesting thing about La Chaux is the section of track that is also a residential road. There isn’t room to have a tramway and a road, so cars and tram take turns. Parking must be an adventure sometimes.

11:21 Léon Blum. If when I get off the bus on the way to work, there’s not more than 3 minutes to wait, I’ll wait for the tram. Otherwise just walk. Unless it’s raining.

11:22 Saint Jacques Loucheur, the closest stop to work. Not much else to say.

11:24 CHU Gabriel Montpied. The most popular stop that isn’t right downtown, there’s a park&ride lot, and of course the University Hospital Centre.

11:26 Saint Jacques Dolet. Another stop in the shadow of subsidized housing towers, some of the older ones in town. From here we leave the St Jacques plateau, down the viaduc and into the bowl of the city. In the middle of the long bridge the tram always slows to a walking pace, then speeds up again. Who knows why. Just for that one section. There’s a nice sharp turn at the bottom, but we’re allowed to gather speed again for that.

11:28 Université. The other campus, or part of it. Law and the humanities here. A crowd gets on, laden with notebooks and computers.

11:29 Maison de la Culture. The stop is right in front of the old bus station, still boarded up but not torn down after several years. What, 7? More? Still a few seats left on the tram, but most of the new riders stand in the aisles.

11:31 Lagarlaye, at the foot of the dental school, the last bit still open of the old old complex formerly comprising the main city hospital. The rest is all boarded up and barb-wired. They can’t tear down the historic old buildings, but it would cost millions to make them usable. So there it all remains.

11:33 Jaude, the main square with its shops and restaurants and theaters and bus connections. The most popular stop on the tramway. We’re at the edge of the historic center of Clermont and its pedestrian district, so we snake slowly to the next stop, sharing the path with bikes and pedestrians.

11:34 Gaillard. More shops and eats. There’s a new tapas place just around a corner here I’ve been meaning to try. Maybe on the way back.

11:35 Hotel de Ville, with its terraced park and Renaissance period fountain (am I the only one to find it ridiculous and rather hideous? I don’t care if it’s authentic) and statue of local boy Blaise Pascal, bird shit on his buckled shoe.

11:37 Delille Montlosier. We’ve made a big C around the hill that is the center of Clermont, and have passed through most of the points of the compass.

11:38 Les Carmes. Stop for the Michelin Tires headquarters. Any Michelin people getting on or off? Nope. Nobody gets on or off. This stop is the reason why the tram does not go to either the train station or the new public hospital, like any normally-planned public transportation system would. It’s already a big squiggle, but it would be a ridiculous squiggle to hit those other places and this one.

11:40 Première Mai. The French love to name things for dates. I should remember that tomorrow is the first Saturday of the month, and that means the monthly flea market will be held at the big parking lot here in the morning. Treasure!

11:41 Stade Marcel Michelin. Rugby! Also going on here tomorrow, though I have a date to play bridge instead. The tram gets so packed on game days you can’t get on (or off, sometimes)

11:42 Gravière. Kind of a nowhere stop. I guess no stop between the stadium and the townlet of Montferrand would have been a pretty long gap.

11:44 Montferrand La Fontaine. This used to be a separate city, and still retains its ancient center, a beautiful place to walk for admirers of architecture and history.

11:46 Musée d’Art Roger Quilliot. Not much of an art collection, but it’s all we’ve got.

11:47 Les Pistes. Michelin’s factories are close by, with the strange-looking enclosed ramps for testing tires. Steam rises from the complex, but it seems half of the huge walled grounds and buildings are no longer in use.

Stop for a convoy of trucks heading to the Bank of France’s money-printing facility on the west side of town.

11:50 Lycée Ambrose Brugière. Nobody around. Must not be lunchtime yet.

11:51 Les Vignes. Get off here to go to the indie movie theater the Rio. *cough* *gag* The guy who just got on isn’t technically smoking, but he reeks so badly it makes me ill.

11:53 Collège Albert Camus. Here it’s lunchtime, and we’re flooded with junior high-schoolers (“college” is grades 7-9 or so in France; lycée is high school).

11:55 Hauts de Chanturge. Another huge subsidized housing project. Most of the kids who just got on now get off. Why didn’t they just walk?

11:56 Croix de Neyrat, more of the same.

11:57 Champratel. End of the line. Everybody off.