Friday, March 02, 2007

Besançon or burst

The adventure has begun!

Today was never going to be a thrilling ride: up at 5am, and on the Eurotunnel train a little after 8am, reaching Calais at 10am local time. From there it was down highway upon highway, initially repeating our journey to Paris 13 months ago, and then diverging in the direction of Nancy and Lyons, Besançon being nearly midway between these cities.

From Calais to Besançon is a 6hour, 650km ride through moderately scenic country, skirting Reims, Troyens and Dijon. While we never saw the ugly industrial backside of any town we passed, the later section of the journey was mostly obscured by backwash from trucks as a heavy rain set in. I do love the way that every town's history and achievements are celebrated in large, uniform but visually striking signs by the road-side. I'll probably always recall Besançon being famous for its clock/watch and microtech industries from these.
Surfing the French radio-spectrum, I encountered a lot of Rod Stewart and the female vocal miasma melisma so much in vogue. Most of the talk was too fast for me to grab more than a word or two, but I was amused by the French "oldies" that popped up such as Claude Bolling's rollicking Borsalino theme and Michel Polnareff's Ame Caline, in all its male-falsetto-melismatic glory.

The fastest journey is along toll-roads, split into two sections at Reims. For the uninitiated European toll-roads are usually pay-by-distance, so you take a ticket at the start of your journey, and then submit it with your credit card at your exit. Apart from a small hiccough the first time I encountered one of these outside of Milan in 2005, I've probably gone through dozens of these in France, Italy and Spain. Likewise Calais-Reims (18€) was no more effort than the awkwardness of rolling into the toll-bay, and crawling across the passenger-seat to deal with the ticket and card on the left hand side of my vehicle. At the edge of Besançon (28,60€), I had VISA cards from Aussie and US banks all summarily rejected by the machine, making me very popular with the queue of trucks behind me, who had to reverse out. As in Italy, hitting the button for human assistance was a futile gesture, so I had to find one in another toll-bay. He didn't know what was going on with the cards, but I did see some fine print taped to the window of his booth saying that many foreign credit cards were now no longer accepted. Maybe a big neon sign 300km earlier would have been more useful. I was finally released from the tollbay after filling in a big pink "I have been a tres tres mauvais boy" form that will undoubtedly (in one of its triplicate copies) turn up in Australia. Tourers beware!

I would have paid cash but despite 3 stops for food and petrol along the journey I've yet to see a cash machine and only had a couple of euro coins. That reminds me, there's a coin-exchange machine at the Eurotunnel entrance where you can put in your $ or £ to get € - turns out it gives an outrageous €1 for £1! Nice work if you can get it.

When the rain had subsided I took Bondi (who had patiently sat through nearly 9 hours in the car) for a turn about Besançon. The streets are old stone with clean-lines, largely unsullied by commercial neon, which reminded me somewhat of the old town of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. This town sits on a bend in the river Doubs, so any respectable meander will keep bringing you back to the water and many fine views of arcades of 17th century houses. Victor Hugo was born in the Grande Rue of Besançon in 1802 and in one of the town squares we found a carousel decorated with extracts from his works, so that children can have a les miserable time while their parents are shopping.

When I log into wifi at the hotel I notice that Google renders my blog headings in French (because of the location) and ignores my personal settings. Similarly, Orange Wifi allows me to specify English UI and asks me to specify my country, and then just renders most of the page in French anyway.

Friday morning: The town centre is sparkling after the rain, and a 20 minute circuit along the river satisfies Bondi before breakfasting in the square of the 8 September, near the Église Saint-Pierre and the misery-go-round.

A gentleman walking his terrier is most taken with the discrepancy in size between our dogs. My ear is not perfectly attuned to his French but luckily the great French mime, Marcel Marceau provided a universal language for such situations. Thus I relayed to him that Bondi likes walking against the wind while I am trapped in a glass box full of water with a broken telephone. David Blaine should have such talent.

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