Published: September 28th 2008April 28th 2008
The Fastest Way to Cross the Countryside
I sat in my seat, filled with excitement of the extremely overwhelming kind, as they pulled in and out. I had heard of these majestic machines, these gigantic contraptions that move as quietly as a mouse (or, to remove all hyperbole, as quietly as tiptoeing elephants) and drift as though they are flying over the land at speeds significantly faster than I have ever drifted. There in the train station they seemed no more than regular trains, albeit sleekly designed for there is no other way to be seen in Paris, and yet I was still thrilled to be in their presence.
The excitement had to wait a while though as I had somehow neglected to look too thoroughly at my booking (or, perhaps more likely, I had simply assumed
that crossing half of France would take the better part of my day) and my train wasn’t scheduled to board for another four or five hours. I had somewhat exhausted all joy in Paris other that a couple of small and remote sights that I had deemed too much effort for that morning so I sat in a chair and watched with
wicked anticipation as one after another the TGV’s effortlessly pushed away from the platform.
After an hour I was well and truly bored, had finished my book and had started sketching (poorly) a view of my leg into my notebook. Honestly, this wasn’t the highlight of my travelling professionalism; I really had mucked up my plans here, although the alternative of sorting out any sort of free bag storage at my hostel seemed even more arduous in hindsight. So, armed with my overflowingly obese backpack I set out to explore one last slice of Paris. Perhaps this would be the moment when I truly fell in love with that city? Perhaps this would be my romantic moment by the Seine when the world seemed to shine and everything was perfect.
I wandered down a street and across a bridge, picking up a baguette as I went, planning to relax in the sunshine of a park on the left bank, until I found myself in a small clearing with a view all the along the river to the center of Paris. I sat down and opened my lunch, happy with my decision and location, as I basked in the
warm spring sun and thought how lucky I was. Then it hit me, Paris. And by Paris I mean the smell of a public toilet that had such a complex door mechanism that the locals preferred to use the public park instead. I suppose I should have known better than to assume that any public space in Paris would be devoid of un-earthly odours after my previous days there, though I think my optimism could be forgiven. Dejected, I turned back and carried my ever increasing backpack back across the bridge, along the street, and back into the train station where I once again sat and watched the trains come and go.
At least I was heading somewhere worth visiting, somewhere I had been looking forward to visiting for a long time, and I was going there to see someone that I had to deliver a golf ball to. In due course my train arrived and before I knew it I was whizzing along through the green, green pastures of France at anywhere from a hundred mile an hour to light speed. Field after rolling field of flourishing crops passed by so quickly that I actually did blink and
Sleepy Saint Peray
The wonderful little village where my friends live.
miss it along with the ancient stone towns, long and low stone walls, churches, markets, cobbled roads and the occasional cyclist.
I was content to watch the world fly by as I moved swiftly towards Valence, although I figured that given the time I had spent in the station I could have just taken the bus. It would have taken just as long and would have been significantly cheaper, but then again, sometimes the price is justified by the experience.
A Very Worldly Game Of Golf
Once, a long time ago, there was a young man who left his home and was searching high and low through the distant land of Cambodia. What he was searching for was unclear, he himself was unaware, and yet he was very assuredly searching. Even after many months and many adventures in some of the most obscure and intriguing places of the Orient he was still at a loss, however, I am getting ahead of things.
On one decidedly uncomfortable day, when the sun beat down and the sweat seemed to pour from his skin as from a pitcher, our young protagonist found himself alone for the first time
The View Across The Valley
Not a bad view to wake up to in the morning.
on his adventure. To him this marked the beginning of a new world as it was from here that he could truly explore freely, he could go wherever he pleased without hindrance or burden, yet at the same time he felt lonely as he no longer had anyone upon which to throw his own burden during times of need.
Unperturbed by the ominous airs of the preceding paragraphs, for as is the usual case our character was unaware of my writings at the time, the young man got into a prearranged taxi and bravely got on with things. Strangely enough, and rather startlingly odd to be true, the taxi was all but empty. This may come as a surprise to most people but taxis are never empty. Considering the vast populations of Asian countries and my experiences I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of all small pay-per-ride transportation options in this world are somewhere between full and can-of-sardines when you get in them, or, in the more extreme cases are completely empty when they arrive at the station and full to three times their capacity within thirty seconds of their doors opening. In this case however,
the taxi was completely empty save for the driver. Perhaps this potentially unending adventure through the Cambodian wilderness would be a comfortable one?
Of course not, how silly, and all of sudden he found himself packed inside with three more westerners, their accumulated baggage, four local travelers and the driver. Thankfully the ride wasn’t unending; it was only five or so hours.
Now, I do not intend to complete this story here. Not for lack of interesting plot twists or amazing wonders, but simply because I have told it before. If you are truly keen to discover how I wished I could speak French, became a Cambodian, shared a taxi with an ice-cube, ate a Subway sandwich more than a thousand kilometers away from the nearest store, spent a week eating chocolate cake in a town that didn’t have milk, or electricity, ate live ants, fell in love with a German, scaled underground waterfalls, rode a motorbike sideways in the dark without headlights, and had a sauna/massage near the Buddhist Arc de Triomphe, then you should begin reading here: Offroad in Ratanakiri
The important story here is that of the three westerners in the taxi. Thomas, Severine and Audrey
Park by the Rhone
A perfect spring day and all I can do is have an authentic French picnic.
were my three closest friends through that magical month in northern Cambodia and southern Laos and we shared many a great time. Never has someone been as immediately friendly towards me as those three were on that day, and I have not forgotten their kindness. On our last day together, as they headed north to China and I east to Vietnam, we celebrated my 23rd birthday. I had not told them that it was a special day (I had preferred to be low-key) yet Thomas still insisted on giving me a present so he fished around in his bag and presented me with a special token.
Days before, the three of them had been walking up a creek towards a waterfall (a trail which I had seen on my bike adventure but had neglected to stop at) when Thomas reached down and picked up a golf ball. Sitting idly in a creek two hundred kilometers from the nearest notable city this ball defied all probability. Laos is not, as you might be aware, a particularly golfing nation and yet there the ball was found. It was this ball that Thomas gave to me as a birthday present and although
Picnic in the Park
Sev enjoying her lunch.
the present was rather impractical the thought touched me. I kept the gift; it travelled with me as something of a lucky charm and as a memento of so very many happy adventures with my three French friends. The look on Thomas’ face in Valence when I gave it back to him, after almost fourteen golf-less months and three continents worth of exploring the world, was priceless.
A Typical Day in Saint Peray
I had headed south from Paris to see Tom and Severine in their home town of Saint Peray - a small village across the river from Valence. And not just any old river either, we’re talking about the Rhone here. St. Peray is perhaps the perfect image of what a French village is supposed to be. Small winding streets run next to trickling brooks that flow down the smooth hills between the vineyards and houses, the church and town square sit in the middle, and the locals were sitting out in the sun enjoying their coffee and wine. It felt old, it looked beautiful, and it was exactly the image I had in my head from various fairytales and fables.
For that matter,
A French Student Protest
Less active than expected, but still very adamant.
Valence also came across as quintessentially French as it was very much like St. Peray but with a number of modern accoutrements like Lingerie shops (every second store it seemed, an observation to which Tom could only answer “this is very important to French people”) and a mall (which Tom referred to as “the new church”).
Tom and Sev live on a hill behind St. Peray, high above the village itself in an amazing house which overlooks the valley like a castle of old. From their front porch at breakfast while we snacked on pastries, breads, cheeses, and saucisson (local style cured meat) I watched the sleepy village below wake to the perfectly sunny early-spring day. A dozen or so houses backed onto small vineyards around the valley, small plots of grapes which are the source of the local drink, each house looking several centuries older than my country, and across from it all, on the far hillside rose the actual castle of old. This medieval castle rose atop the craggy peak overlooking the Rhone valley, overseeing its blissful domain with solemn might despite the years of disuse. From my vantage on the perfect day I could see everything
Looking down into the Rhone valley from the top of the castle. Apparently this area is well known for its suicide rates... I wonder why.
I could ask for, hills, valleys, ancient towns, a castle and even the Pres-Alps. My two friends really are a lucky pair.
So what does one do in such a place on a spring day? Well, you revel in everything French of course! For dinner upon my arrival we feasted on escargot, in the morning Tom went and bought fresh pastries from the bakery, and after that we headed into Valence and wandered around the marketplace shopping for fresh local cheese, saucisson (even though Tom had an entire leg of home-made cured ham), a local dip made from olives, strawberries, cream and whatever else took our fancy. After a quick stop for a local drink at a small café near the centuries old church where we could sit in the sun on a cobbled street with the locals we then headed to the park by the river where we lay in the sun near a marble fountain and ate our fill of everything we had just bought. This sounds like a poorly written and awfully stereotypical novel about French life - the idealised view of a day in a the life of the French nobility - yet this is
exactly what I did that morning.
After relaxing in the sun for a while, catching up on all that we had done since our last meeting, and after watching a student protest move through the park, we managed to drag ourselves up to the chateau on the hill high above Valence from where I looked out over the valley and saw just how lucky the people of St. Peray really are. I could not imagine a more idyllic place in my wildest rants of fictional writing, and yet there I stood with Tom in a ruined castle.
That evening we were expected at a birthday party so we had to ensure that we didn’t get lost on the hill. Despite this, Tom decided that we had to go hunting for orchids on the other side of the hill and before I knew it I was ducking under electrified fences and walking through thick scrub on a pathless hillside. This in itself was not so odd as I was more than fully aware of Tom’s adventuresome spirit, however, what did strike me as strange was the way Tom was intently staring at the ground. In my humble Australian experience
orchids like to grow on tree branches and are usually only found above you, but here in France they grow straight out of the ground like any other spring flower. We had walked into a small clearing on the hillside and suddenly I found myself surrounded by small purple and white orchids. Everywhere they seemed to be sprouting up tiny and delicate flowers.
If this story is to get anywhere I will have to move on for that day was memorable for so many different reasons. Finally, and after much effort avoiding electric fences and finding paths through the bushes Tom and I emerged back at the carpark and found ourselves with a few hours before the birthday party (Sev was already at the party getting ready). What on Earth were we to do. . . it truly was a difficult decision. . . so while we thought about it we want to a Cave for a wine tasting. St. Peray is known for a sparkling wine and thanks to Tom, who seems to know everyone in the village, we were given a private tour of the winery which was rather briefly translated for me before we began tasting.
One of the orchids on the hillside behind the castle that Tom and I found while attempting to get ourselves lost.
Unfortunately neither of us was particularly fond of the wines from that vineyard so we moved on to a second where Tom knew the vintner and assured me that we could find better wines.
The second winery was much larger and had a dedicated room for the tasting which was quite busy that day. Another friend of Tom’s was serving and he explained to us how it was very important that we cleanse our palette before tasting the local wines, and to that end he poured us each a glass (and a half) of the “perfect cleanser”, Champagne. After we had finished our glasses, which I should point out were filled with the best champagne I had ever tasted, he assured us once again that it was critical that we have a fresh palette for our tasting so a second glass of Champagne followed. The server himself was drinking full glasses with us and it seemed apparent that he had been, to put it politely, working a long shift and when our third and fourth glasses of Champagne appeared it seemed that we would be getting little else in our time there. After a good half hour in that
winery we had not tasted a single local wine but oh my had we had a lot of expensive Champagne.
We had to drag ourselves away lest we be late for the birthday party as I have found that being late for a surprise party is rather ineffectual. It was going to be an interesting night as I neither spoke French nor knew the birthday girl. I was sure that I was going to be in a lot of awkward situations that evening. As it turned out things could not possibly have been better as everyone at the party was intrigued to know about me and where I was from as well as wanting to practice their English with me.
That evening I sat around eating copious amounts of local snacks of so many varieties that I could not name them all, drinking a local spirit similar to Ouzo, talking with friendly people and generally having a fantastic time. It was just like a birthday party back home, a luxury that I haven’t been able to indulge in far too long, only in French with exotic French food.
What a fantastic day that was. I had eaten,
drunk, seen, felt, and indulged in everything that a small village in the French countryside is supposed to be and have. As I lay down that evening, or collapsed if you will, I really felt as if I had seen a real and authentic part of Europe and France, I was happier than I had been in a long time.
And I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet: whenever I was greeted or when I said goodbye, everyone I met would kiss my cheeks three times as if I had grown up with them. The fact that I was an outsider, that I was only temporarily passing through their lives, seemed to mean nothing in that village. This small token made me remember just how friendly the people of this world can be.
Presenting the Pres-Alps
As if my first day had not been enough I found myself awake early the next morning, again eating pastries on the balcony high above the village, as we prepared for a day trip through the Pres-Alps. This mountain range rises from the Cotes du-Rhone as a prelude to the Alps and, even though it lacks the height of
The Hills Are Alive. . .
The grassy hills in the Pres-Alps.
the mountains behind, this range is strikingly beautiful for its sudden and sharp rise from the valley floor and its spectacular rocky faces.
Tom, Sev and I were joined by Pauline, the birthday girl from the night before, and her boyfriend Pierre-Etienne and together we drove up into the hills. In very short order the landscape changed into what could only be described as the set from “The Sound of Music” complete with rolling grassy hills, craggy mountain backdrop, copious amounts of yellow flowers and a quietly flowing stream. We drove on through that wonderful scene, ducking down through a small valley between two ridgelines until we stopped at an old church from where the French resistance had operated during World War II. We looked around for a while before heading onwards until we found a place where we could walk down to the stream for our lunch.
Once again I found myself lying on the grass in the spring sunshine eating French delicacies and chatting with friendly locals only this time the fountain had been replaced by the gurgling stream. How lucky I was to be enjoying such a perfectly French lifestyle!
In the afternoon we
Tom and Sev
At our second picnic, this time in the mountains.
explored deeper into the mountains. We drove through valley after valley of beautiful grassy fields full of flowers and we passed through innumerable sleepy villages made of centuries old stone houses where everything seemed to move at a slower rate than the rest of the world. After a while we came to a town famous for its precipitous houses which teeter on the edge of a cliff next to a waterfall; the toilets even go so far as to hang out over the edge so as to simplify the plumbing.
This town marked the point where that river collected itself at a bottleneck between two mountains and finally fell from its mountainous origins down to the level of the Rhone valley below it. The scene was spectacular as the river appeared to rush from the tiniest of gaps in the mountain and flood downwards to the sleepy stream below it while the houses clung to the rocks and tried to avoid the same fate as the water. While we enjoyed the scene we stopped to enjoy another French delicacy: coffee and crepes.
To end yet another perfect day in my French paradise we found ourselves high in the
Pres-Alps at an ancient cave near the top of the cliffs. This cave contains artifacts from cave-men, practically extinct salamanders, and a kind of stalactite that is only found in a few caves around the world (these thin tubular stalactites are only a few millimeters across and they make a fantastic vision in the cave). We were taken through the cave on a guided tour where we were guided through a number of galleries. Unlike most cave experiences around the world this one was actually very tasteful and the grand finale where a monstrous cavern the size of an average house is progressively lit up while a massive orchestral fanfare echoes around the walls should not be missed by anyone.
I guess my words so far have explained what I feel about Ardeche, St. Peray, the Pres Alps and my friends there. To Tom, Sev, Pierre-Etienne and Pauline, thank you so much for showing me such a wonderful time and for making me feel as though we had known each other forever. To everyone else, find yourself a place like St. Peray as enjoying the simple luxuries of warm spring days, handmade local food, pretty
When Will the Houses Fall?
I wonder what sort of insurance policies those homeowners have?
villages and friendly people is what life is all about. I know of no place where I have been happier.
Nevertheless, all good things must end and an appointment in Bulgaria beckoned so I made my farewells and once again boarded a TGV. This time I was headed East, to Austria and two more friends that I had met in Asia. Who could tell what crazy things would happen when Harry Potter was reintroduced to the mix.
There are more photos below