Day 32 – Friday 16 March
Friday morning I spent some more time working out where to go. I get engrossed with trying to sort out hotels, distances from railway stations, connections, attractions, routes, bookings…. It takes hours. To go to Arles or not to? I decided it was going to be part of the itinerary because of the Van Gogh poster that’s been on my wall for the last three years, but when I realised how touristy the whole Van Gogh thing is – something about ‘crowds of ecstatic Japanese…’ Well, I let Eduardo put me off going to Santander –‘two hours on the bus, it’s not worth it…’ – but I decided I could at least have an overnight stop in Arles, so that will be Monday.
I was trying to find somewhere to stay in the Camargue – after my sight of flamingos on Thursday, I’d got very excited about the idea – but trying to identify hotels which would be accessible by train got too confusing, so I found a cheap (relatively) hotel in Cannes and booked that for Tuesday.
By the time I’d got everything sorted out, and headed out for breakfast, it was about half past ten. I‘d made a conscious decision not to book breakfast at the hotel after Perpignan, and I’d spotted a café advertising breakfast, but by the time I got there they’d stopped serving, but the place next door, where I’d had coffee on Thursday afternoon, was OK. I ended up going back to that place three times yesterday and again this morning. It was just a good place to sit, overlooking the canal, doing a su doku, reading, writing in my notebook, letting the world go by.
I started walking up the hill and out onto the headland. Suddenly I was walking through non-touristy areas of the town, rows of apartments with washing hanging out, schools, not even shops. There were signs pointing to the corniche, the sailors’ cemetery and the hill, but they were road signs, not walking signs. The only other people I saw walking were clearly just local people going about their normal daily business. I tried not to look as out of place as I felt.
At last I came upon an outlook overlooking the sea, a turn of the road higher than where I’d been the afternoon before, with a bench, but it was occupied by a woman with a dog. There was another bench a little lower down, where I paused. A red car pulled up behind me, the driver wound down the window and started speaking rapidly, I just shrugged and shook my head.
I have an English friend who used to live round here. He’s says the Languedoc accent is very distinctive, much more Latin, and I can see (or rather hear) his point. There do seem to be quite a lot of Spanish influences around.
Anyway, if the guy was asking for directions, I couldn’t understand enough to give him a sensible answer.
I pulled out the map, to check where I needed to go. Up the road behind the sailors’ cemetery. I started walking, up white streets of strangely forbidding white houses, lots of signs saying: ‘Propriete privée’ and ‘attention chien’ and stuff about no advertising and no propaganda, another one I didn’t quite understand about ‘no services et no etrangers’. It all seemed a bit heavy handed. They were nice houses, and they had beautiful views, but I didn’t think I’d really want to live there, with all this paranoia (or maybe they actually are constantly being pestered by propaganda, services and foreigners, which is even more off-putting). Then it occurred to me that they might be second homes, empty some of the time. The dogs were real though, and when one started barking they would set the others off in a long, intimidating relay.
I kept passing bus stops, and then remembered that I’d planned to take the bus up and walk back down, but I never did see a bus.
I got to a cross roads and consulted the map, then realised I’d somehow taken a wrong turning somewhere, not the road I thought I was on. Road signs that tell you where you are never seem to be there where you need them, I’ve noticed that before, or maybe it was just part of the security, to confuse unwary strangers and those of evil intent.
I took the turning which sent me back towards where I wanted to be, and caught the scent of hot tarmac. Round the bend a gang of blokes with diggers and levellers and a big heap of black stickiness and a truck with more on the back, somebody reversing a roller towards me, I dodged around and they showed me past the vehicles and round the end of a strip of unlevelled tarmac about a metre wide so I didn’t have to try and leap over it.
I checked the little maps on the bus stops as I passed, and I could see I was getting close to the chapel of St Claire, which is where I thought I wanted to be. One more to go. Still no sign of a bus. And then a sign for public conveniences, which had to mean there was something of interest, and the next I knew I was at the panorama point, and reading a notice from the town council about how this area had been restored to its natural conditions, rocks and scrub and some flowers which I noticed at the time but have completely escaped me now (this is why I must be stricter about writing things up).
And the view was wonderful. I looked over the canals and picked out my hotel (yes, isn’t that sad?), out to see over the harbour, over the town, then the other way across the lagoon and the bay. Far away in the lagoon I spotted black grids in the sea, and thought they must be the oyster tables, like the ones my brother in law pointed out to me in Brittany. I’d seen oysters advertised in the restaurants, not that I like them.
So now I was here, and I had a little look round the chapel, and the window of the church shop. There was a notice saying that pilgrims climb to the chapel on the 19 September every year (or was it the 17th?), and the 19th of every month, so I was a couple of days early. Then I got out my map and looked at ways to go back down again. There were a couple of paths marked with parallel lines going across, which seemed quite intriguing. I wanted to go a different way, but I worried about how long it would take me to get down. I wanted to get back for the boat ride at 3 o’clock, and I probably should try to get some lunch, or at least a drink. I decided that in that case it made sense to go back the way I’d come and then, with typical perversity, went in the opposite direction, telling myself I just wanted to see if the parallel lines meant steps.
Which they did. A long, long set of steps, down into a part of town I hadn’t been to before. Not an attractive part of town, just a residential area of blocks of flats, not even shops, just the odd plumber’s or home improvement business. A whole block of the road was being worked on and even the footpaths weren’t open.
I got back to the harbour in plenty of time for the boat ride. Views ‘sous la mer’ were advertised, but only if the water was clear enough to see anything, which it definitely wasn’t. Still, it was pleasant, and the captain gave me a machine with an English version of the commentary, which I listened to every time anything came over the tannoy. There was a group of Russian youngsters who seemed to be having a lot of fun, and when we got out of the harbour the sea bucked and heaved which caused a lot of hilarity.
So, all in all, an entertaining sort of day for an out-of-season seaside resort. I had another look at the seafood restaurants after we got back, and found one advertising paella and sangria, so went back there for dinner. Everywhere was very quiet and the restaurants were competing for the few prospective clients who were there.
The only other occupants were two ladies sitting together . The one facing me asked in a North American accent: ‘Where are you from?’ And when I said ‘Bedford, it’s just north of London’ (because foreigners never know where it is, and that’s the easiest way to describe it), her friend turned round to look at me and said: ‘I’m from Gloucestershire!’
The first lady was Canadian rather than American, ‘from Ottawa’. We got talking, and I told them about my trip. When I said that I was funding it from my divorce settlement, the Gloucestershire lady said: ‘Yes!’ with a gesture of approval.
‘You’re doing it on your own?’ she asked while her friend was in the ladies. ‘don’t you ever feel threatened?’
‘Not really’ I said. It’s about being sensible, not putting yourself into situations where you’re likely to be threatened. If I ever feel uncomfortable, I just act as though I know exactly what I’m doing and where I’m going. But on the whole, middle-aged women tend to blend into the background. I remember once attending a conference on risk perceptions where one of the speakers, an eminent expert and self-styled little old lady, pointed out that all the statistics show that little old ladies are the demographic group least likely to be victims of nastiness.
‘But you have to pay the single supplement everywhere’.
‘Well, I always go for the cheap on-line deals’ I said.
‘Yes, so do we, but even so…’
I suppose she’s right. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, I’d just accepted that I pay the cheapest rate without thinking that two people sharing would pay the same rate. It’s just one of those things.
But I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else. For a start, obviously, there’s no one I could do it with. Maybe if there was someone, I wouldn’t want to. But to put it in a subtly different way, I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else anyway.
When I came out of the restaurant, I looked across the canal, at the blue sign outside my hotel, ‘L’Orque Bleu’, directly opposite, then walked down to the bridge and across and back up to bed.