Posts Tagged ‘ train ’

Nîmes: Rome in France

I spent today in Nîmes, which is about an hour west of Marseille by train.  When I was looking for cities to visit I didn’t find any that were hugely interesting in the far south of France apart from Nîmes which sounded OK and the next city that I’m visiting.

Most of Nîmes’ tourist attractions are based on the fact that it was an important city in Roman times, and they still have well preserved remains of buildings to prove it, so I spent my day visiting these and trying to forget that I’d come from warm sunny Marseille inland to a colder cloudy city.

By far the biggest Roman site in Nîmes is the amphitheater called the Arènes, built in the 1st century A.D. and which they claim is the best preserved in the world.  It’s been used for different purposes throughout history, including initially as a place of entertainment for the Romans who would go there to watch things like gladiatorial duels and animals fighting, as a fort after the fall of the Roman empire, as a city neighbourhood in the 18th century, and most recently it’s used as a bull ring and entertainment venue.

Although the story of what took place in the amphitheatre must be pretty similar to what I’d heard when I visited the Colloseum in Rome, a lot of the facts seemed new to me.  Maybe I just wasn’t listening when I was in Rome.  For example when the Arènes was first opened the gladiators were actually trained fighters who were rarely died if they lost, as the school which trained and managed them would be out of pocket if they were dead.  Later on in Roman times when there was a shortage of money, slaves did fight as gladiators but that wasn’t always the case.  Also there were different types of fighter with different skills, and a fighter would normally compete against a different type of fighter who had a complimentary fighting style, so it wasn’t all sword fighting.

nimes arena

Try to imagine the arena filled with people...

The Arènes was very close to my hotel so it was the first place I visited in the morning, but after I left I went to the tourist information centre where I spoke to a huge guy who was surprisingly softly spoken.  Later on when I went to buy lunch, the woman at the bakery has a completely different accent which put a lot of stress on the end of the word.  To be honest I’m usually too busy trying to understand what someone’s saying to notice their accent or how they speak, but the differences between these two people was huge so I wasn’t sure what to expect when talking to other people around the city.

I’d been told that people in Marseille had a distinctive accent as they speak very slowly, but I didn’t notice that either to be honest.  I do seem to be keeping up with the conversations that I’ve been having with people, but they haven’t been all that complicated.  In the end the other people I spoke to in Nîmes didn’t have a noticeable accent as far as I could tell, so I’m not sure where the Tourist Information worker and the woman in the bakery came from.

After lunch I went to the Maison Carrée which is another Roman remain, which stands in the middle of a square by itself, surrounded by cafés and a modern art museum called the Carré d’Art across the road which was designed by Norman Foster.  The building is the only fully preserved ancient temple in the world, which in this case was used by a priests to talk to the gods.  The people who were waiting for the news the priest would delivery had to wait outside on the square.

nimes maison carree

The columns of the Maison Carrée with the Carré d'Art in the background that mimics the columns

These days you can visit the Maison Carrée, but not see what it looks like inside as only a part of it has been converted into a small 3D cinema, and that’s the only part that you can visit.  The cinema shows a 20 minute film about the Heroes of Nîmes throughout the ages from the gladiator in the first century A.D. to a bullfighter in the present day called Nimeño II, all of whom have made a mark on the history of Nîmes.

nimes nimeno 2

Statue of Nimeño II outside the Arènes

The last Roman remain left to see in the city was the Tour Magne, which dates from the year 15 B.C.  It’s the highest point in the city I think as it’s built on top of a big hill, and it’s now a tourist viewpoint.  Unlike Marseille where you could get a great view of the city from the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and you can watch the boats coming and going in the harbour, in Nîmes there isn’t a whole lot to see from a high viewpoint.  There are some nice old fashioned roofs and a few stand out buildings, that are recognizable like the Arène and the Carré d’Art, but I don’t think there’s anything else that was impressive to see from there.

nimes tour magne

The Tour Magne which overlooks Nîmes

One odd thing that just struck me today is that dates here are avant or après J.C. while in English we say B.C. or A.D.  If we said “before J.C.” which is the direct translation people would laugh at us for saying J.C., I think.  I’ve heard people say it before (Chris Rock in Dogma comes to mind) but it’s not normal, and this was the first time I thought about how it translated from one language to the other.

When I’d finished climbing up the tower then going back down again I was a little stuck for things to do.  Too late to visit a museum and way to early to pick up my bags, so I followed the walking tour in one of the leaflets I’d picked up in the tourist information office.  I walked around the city looking at historical houses and noticed that it’s a small and very proper city.  There aren’t people selling fruit and vegetables spilling out into the street (probably because the roads in the old city are too narrow), nor people loitering around, but there are lots of little squares with nice looking cafés and outdoor seating areas which was good to see.

Even after the walking tour I still had time to spare, so I went to the café of the Carré d’Art which claimed to be a Salon du Thé.  I’m becoming more knowledgeable in such things, and can confirm that it is a Salon du Thé because it serves teas with silly names.  After the Fakir Tea I had in Lyon, I had a Casablanca Tea (green tea, mint, bergamot) in Nîmes.  I’m not sure why they can’t just call it a Green Tea with Mint and Bergamot, sure it’s a little longer but it’s also much clearer and less… daft!

Now I’m lording it up in first class in the train (it was only 3 Euros more), although there are still no power sockets which is infuriating!  Better make the most of it as I’ll be slumming it in in cattle class for the last 3 legs of my tour.

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Queuing anxiety

I eventually made it to my parents house yesterday after a delayed and tiring Eurostar journey.  I left work around 3 in the afternoon to take the train at 5:13pm, so I arrived very early, but I thought that I’d rather be safe than sorry and I didn’t know if the métro would be packed with lots of people doing some last minute xmas shopping or if it would be deserted (as it was in the morning on the way to work) because everyone’s already gone to their home regions for the holidays.

As it turns out most people seemed to have gone home already.  We only had around 25% of employees working in the office, and while that’s partly people wanting to take some extra time off and have a less stressful trip home it’s also a cultural difference between France and the UK.

In the UK we have one large meal on xmas day (and then eat the left overs for the following days).  In France however there are two large meals, the first is on the evening of xmas eve and the second on xmas day.  So anyone who lives more than a few hours away from Paris won’t make it back for xmas eve dinner unless they leave early.  One colleague whose family live in Normandy told me that he was stuck in a traffic jam on xmas eve a few years ago, and when he got home dinner was completely finished.  Maybe he was joking, but maybe not.

No such worries for me and as a result of the and I ended up taking two very empty métro trains to Gare du Nord.  When I got there I saw a few delayed trains which I was kinda expecting, the weather in northern France was supposed to be quite bad.  Before passing through security a Eurostar employee checked my ticket, then asked if I was travelling alone and if I wanted to take the later train at 6:13pm.  I politely declined, then after passing through security I put some music on and waited for the boarding call.

Around 30 minutes before the train left a queue started to build up to board the train, and even though I was sitting down comfortably I had a quick look around to see how many people were going to get onto the train.  As soon as I did this my brain told me that it didn’t want to be at the back of the line as I had a big suitcase to store on the luggage racks.

I sat there watching the line slowly grow, getting more and more restless.  I knew that if I stood up and joined the line I might be there for an hour or more if the train was late, but in the end I decided that I’d rather stand and get on the train quickly than stand in a slow moving line later on.  It’s a feeling that I always have getting on to trains or planes, a growing anxiety that I won’t have somewhere to stash my bag and I don’t want the stress of waiting for everyone else to get out of my way.  I want to get on quickly and relax while everyone else is struggling to get to their seats.

I eventually made it to St. Pancras almost 2 hours late because the train left an hour and a quarter late, and there was also a speed restriction on the French side of the high speed line due to the weather.  As it turns out my carriage was half empty, so I could have kept my seat.  After lugging my giant suitcase up and down the stairs in the Underground I made it to Waterloo ready to make the last connection on the way to my parents house.  When I got there I saw that all the ticket machines were out of order, which was a little strange and not something that I was expecting.

I found the ticket office and the first thing the woman behind the desk said to me was “You’d better be quick if you want to take a train!”  Oh crap!  I wasn’t expecting to be traveling so late and forgot that the trains would be stopping early.  A quick look at the departures board showed that there were only 2 trains left that I could take, so a quick run to the platform later I made it for the second last train of the night.

Just as well I didn’t take the later Eurostar or I’d would have been stuck in London!  Instead I made it home at 9:30 and had a nice cup of tea 🙂

Berlin is cold!

I made it to Berlin this afternoon after a 4 hour train journey from Cologne that I yawned all the way through after not getting enough sleep and a 6am alarm. Nothing terribly interesting today, apart from checking in to a seemingly dodgy hotel, so you could stop reading here and not waste your time…

If you’re still reading, I checked out of a basic but nice hotel in Cologne that was close to the main train station that I arrived in Cologne at and left Cologne from.  It’s one thing that I look for in a hotel more than almost anything else, it’s gotta be convenient.  When I arrived in Berlin my hotel was a 10 minute walk from the station, so not too bad, and it was the only hotel in the area that wasn’t over budget – in fact it was way under budget – and had free wifi as well as having reasonable reviews on the website I booked it on, so that swung the deal.  However when I got here I found that the reception is 2 floors up and all of the rooms are on a single floor of a 6 storey building, so after passing a fitness club on the bottom floor and a physiotherapist (I think) on the first floor I made it to the hotel.

At the reception little things put together started to give me an uneasy feeling.  First the credit card machine’s out of order and they asked if I could pay in cash – OK I could manage to do that tomorrow – then I saw that the room key looks like something a 5 year old could make in a metalwork class with a vice, some tin snips and a mallet, and finally I was told that the wifi signal wasn’t very good and that I should leave the door of my room open to improve it.  Hmm I think not, so now I’m sitting in the hall rather than letting everyone see into my room.

I’ll have to reserve judgement on breakfast until tomorrow, but it’s served in the bar next door apparently.  Hopefully it’s not a liquid breakfast.

So other than the hotel, I just walked around a couple of areas of Berlin which the guidebook calls the East of the City and North of the City which used to be in East Berlin, and also took me past the cathedral.  It looked OK from the outside, but I decided not to bother going in.  I think I have Cathedral Fatigue.  It seems to be something that almost every European tourist destination has, and to be honest I can’t really appreciate the differences between them.  I can see the differences in style, but at the end of the day most of them are big stone buildings with lots of stained glass and if you asked me what a cathedral that I saw a year ago looked like, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Berlin Dom

It was pretty cold when I got here, and there was a biting cold wind that whipped up ever now and again.  Luckily the snow blizzard that I saw on the train stopped before we got to Berlin, and it probably wasn’t a blizzard, it just looked like one because we were going at 200kmph.  A lot of the pavements are frozen around the city though, with paths cleared along part of the pavement to allow people to get where they’re going.  When I came back to the hotel earlier though I could see that the cars on the road outside were already frozen, so there might be more ice tomorrow.

Other than the cathedral I just spent my time wandering about.  Most of the things in the city are quite new, so there’s lots of information like “this used to be an xyz until it was destroyed during the war.  After the war the area was regenerated and now there are lots of little shops.”  Maybe it’ll be different during the day, but I felt that it was lacking a bit of the character that an old fashioned city has.  I’ve heard that that’s one of the attractions of Berlin too, that it’s young and dynamic, so hopefully I’ll see some of that while I’m here.

Berlin fernseturm

I also unintentionally ran into 3 Xmas Markets during the day, but (almost) avoided the need to eat more fatty food.  The food at the markets is different here, as in addition to the standard wursts they have stalls which proclaim to sell authentic Dresden style food which is something that I hadn’t seen before in the West of the country.  Apart from the food the things they’re selling are pretty similar though, so nothing really caught my attention apart from the photo below.

Berlin xmas lights

Tomorrow is the first real day in Berlin and I’m planning to go on a 6 hour walking tour of the city, so I hope my feet survive.  Tonight’s gonna be an early night though as I’m hoping to catch up on some sleep.

Berlin gedenkt