Girona-Perpignan-Arles-Marseille: Planes, Trains, Bicycles and Buses

1 Aug

We ditched our booked, nonrefundable travel from Sardinia to Marseilles. The ferry connections via Corsica would be horrendous without the motorcycle so we switched to an evening Ryanair flight from Alghero to Girona, Spain. Nothing against Ryanair, we know the rules and abide by them. Shame the obese chap requiring an extra length of seat belt who was sharing our row and overflowing from his seat into Stuart’s had neglected that most basic of social niceties, the shower followed by deodorant. Note to self – if travelling Ryanair book only morning flights. This guy was so ripe you could hear passengers around us moaning when he moved in his seat. We tried to beat it back with frequent sprays of cologne but the BO was too powerful. Sheer relief to stumble off the plane and into the smoky air of Girona.

GIRONA
The pilot alerted us to the wild fires burning between Girona and Figueres. They were visible from the starboard side. Just that day a holidaying French father and his daughter fell to their deaths from a cliff at Port Bou trying to jump into the sea to avoid the flames. Another man had a heart attack and died watching his family home incinerate. When a man with 80 per cent burns from being trapped in his car died overnight the death toll rose to four. Spain has had its driest winter in seven years this year. A carelessly discarded cigarette was cited as the most likely cause of this most recent wildfire outbreak. Thousands of hectares of arable land, homes, livestock and nature reserves are in ashes. Another blow to the Spanish economy and terrible personal tragedies.

Until the wind suddenly changed direction it looked like we might have to stay more than one night in Girona. We wouldn’t have minded. It’s a charming town of 85,000 people. The cathedral is magnificent.

Rental cars are always at a premium in summer in the South of France so we booked SNCF trains to travel Girona-Perpignan-Arles-Marseilles. I made the booking for the first two legs online through the SNCF site whilst in Sardinia and bowled up to the Girona train station first thing to collect the tickets as directed. Slight problem. I didn’t read the small print in French. This must be done at a French SNCF station, not a Spanish one. The only solution offered was to travel an hour each way into France to pick up our tickets. Life is too short. I rebooked and paid again and lo, the tickets were printed. What I hadn’t realised until we boarded the train was that so many trains north from Barcelona were cancelled because of the fires that when they opened the line – same day – the backlog was so great they stopped ticket checks. It was standing room only. Our Girona train should have connected in Figueres for Perpignan but continued to Cerbere without any announcement. Hundreds of confused non-French speaking tourists were deposited on the platform at Cerbere. We could have travelled without any ticket. Photo note: The white smoke is a grass fire near Figueres.

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PERPIGNAN
I seemed to be on a roll. I messed up again with the Perpignan hotel booking. I swear when I checked the location on Google maps it was walking distance from the train station. In fact it was five kilometres away next to an industrial zone and on a dual carriageway. The taxi cost 20 euro. It was a nice hotel but I was reluctant to pay for four taxis to get into town and back to the train station while we were there. After much nagging the receptionist finally admitted there was a bus stop just 300 metres from the hotel and I located the bus schedule online. It was worth trudging down the road for the satisfaction of paying 2.20 euro for a bus ticket instead of 20 euro. Perpignan has well preserved medieval buildings and some grand constructions from its time as the capital of the Majorcan empire. We should have allowed more time here. The town ping-ponged between French and Catalan-Spanish control and still has strong Catalan features. I realised over dinner when I was having trouble ordering my meal that in less than 24 hours we’d moved from Sardinian/Italian to Spanish and then to French. No wonder my speech was coming out jumbled…

The trains from Perpignan to Avignon and on to Arles were less crowded but brought different problems. A French family group of a middle-aged woman and her two young adult sons boarded late at Perpignan and proceeded to intimidate the solo woman traveller seated there out of her place in a four-seater table area so they could spread out. Bad enough… Then the woman and one son began arguing loudly. This went on with increasing volume and vehemence for nearly half an hour. People began moving away. I stood up twice and glared at them and mimed a request to be quiet. They got louder. Finally an elderly French woman seated behind them told them (according to Stuart’s translation) that she had had enough of their family squabbles and swearing and it was time to be quiet. At that other French people stood up and said similar things. The arguing continued more quietly for a while then the woman moved to another seat.

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ARLES
I redeemed myself in Arles. An open and helpful tourist information office at the train station, a five minute stroll to our hotel along mostly pedestrian streets, and a nice, cheap, newly refurbished two star hotel on Place Voltaire. I’m back!

Arles absorbs thousands of tourists following the footsteps of Van Gogh and other artists who flocked to the Camargue for the strong sunlight. Tour groups stand in front of the yellow house in Place Forum to be photographed in front of that ordinary building.The town is still an artistic hub, 60 different art and photography exhibitions were showing in Arles this summer alongside a full program of film premieres and screenings in the Roman Antique Theatre. We were happy just to stroll and enjoy Pastis and free live music in the cafes in the squares. We rented bicycles to ride the 46K loop down to the closest etang/brackish lake. We passed dry rice paddies, fields of sunflowers, grazing white horses and a lot of nothingness. It was hard to find access to the lake but we jumped a ditch and ate our pique nique and drank our Cote de Rhone on a bank by the lake. The beach was made of mounds of tiny shells. In the absence of any other human beings Stuart took the opportunity to skinny dip in the warm, knee high water. The only cafe en route was at Villeneuve. The deconsecrated church is now a hunters’ bar. Our last evening in Arles was spent at the Courses Camarguaises championship in the magnificent Roman Amphitheatre. The previous story covers that mad, dangerous sport.

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MARSEILLE
booking.com is usually reliable but the Marseille booking was totally wrong and had to be redone when we arrived at the Sofitel Vieux Port. Seriously, not my fault! These two nights were a special treat for us. The Sofitel is far and away the most beautiful, most luxurious hotel of the trip and has an unparralleled view of the old harbour. It also has impeccably trained staff. I spent much of my time sitting in the window of our room, eating our picnic lunches or sipping tea watching the boats come and go. There’s always something happening. Stuart overdid it in the gymn and needed a quiet day so we caught up on forward travel bookings and made good use of the pool, jacuzzi and spa. We still had time to cover a lot of the harbourside on foot and take a quick taxi ride up to Notre Dame de la Garde then stroll down.

I am fed up trying to find vegetarian food in European restaurants and on our first night gorged on veg Vietnamese food at Ginseng restaurant. Aaaah tofu!

Our dinner last night was an experiment. We’d booked in at Passarelle Restaurant which is an open air ‘garden’ restaurant run by some young boho Marseillaises. They pride themselves on using only local ingredients in their dishes and the food was good, especially Stu’s baked Dorade fish. Less good was the unfettered smoking of the four diners at the table right next to us and the hordes of under fives running amok while their parents chatted, drank Rose wine and chain smoked. One waitress had to rescue a small girl who was about to decapitate herself on a wooden swing. The Mother simply said, ‘Fanny be careful’.

Our final train for the foreseeable future is the one I am writing from now. The TGV from Marseille to Nice to reach Nice Airport and meet up with Tris before we set sail for a week is not a good advertisement for SNCF. It has stopped twice because a problem with the power supply and we are thirty minutes late. The temperature is a steamy 33 degrees. More annoying to me though was the behaviour of the Frenchman who was draped over my assigned seat when we boarded the train. I won’t go into the French farce that ensued. Suffice to say it did nothing for cordial Australia-France relations. Did I mention that French nuclear test in the Pacific?

Well, we missed the connection but managed to catch a bus arriving only 20 minutes late to find Tris waiting patiently. The young, female French bus driver made up ten minutes. She even helped us with our bags and pointed us in the right direction for the Easyjet arrivals. I think we will switch to buses!

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