Sunday, October 31, 2010

WALES : Some extra fluff

Mike and Munson - Mawddach Trail panorama

I’m going to catch up with my blog posts from Lyon and thereabouts any day now, but first a really beautifully composed picture taken by Chris on our day walking the Mawddach Trail in Wales two weeks ago. Chris has some extra thoughts on malamutes, their commercial potential and indeed man’s future in space at his blog.

Mike and Munson - Mawddach Trail - close-up


Click through to Flickr for Chris' photo of the lake completing the Precipice Walk.

Precipice Lake

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lyon to Albi: The beast of Gévaudan

Not wanting another 8-9 hour slog to reach home, or indeed just another day cruising down highways, I’ve found a little hotel outside of Albi to aim for tonight. The satnav has been set to avoid tollways, so we’ve got a more-or-less directly southwest bearing to follow from Lyon. I’ve really no idea what we might see along the way, but am conscious of the opportunity to divert through the large Cevènnes National Park if we have time. Our two days of warm sunshine in Leon have been washed away, so expectations aren’t high.2010-10-30 Wolf park - Albi-3

The first thing that really catches my eye is in Le Puy-en-Velay, a town in the Auvergne where a small red figure atop a mount suggested another hill that prays, and then there was a second mount with a church – the 12th century Cathèdrale Notre-Dame de Puy – keeping it company. There is extensive Christian mythology associated with the area, as a place of pilgrimage, and now as a starting point for the pilgrimage to  Santiago de Compostela.

A puy is a volcanic hill of a type common in the Auvergne (or Auckland!): a cinder cone. The word comes from the same Latin root as podium. The Gersois village of St Puy was once the Roman fortified camp Summer Podium.2010-10-30 Wolf park - Albi-2

Like yesterday in Lyon, my day started getting a bit wolfy, with numerous lupine icons popping up along the road, such as shown at St Privat d’Allier (top right & bottom left), and then the outskirts of Saugues. I’m not sure where the wolf vs bear figure was located, but I remember twice circling a roundabout to see it properly.

Pays de Saugues

Note the image for Auvers in the local map above, with a monument of a wolf being speared mid-leap. This is la Bête du Gévaudan, based on stories of wolf-like creatures terrorising the region in the 1760s. It is the subject of my favourite pre-revolutionary martial arts film The Brotherhood of the Wolf.

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The terrain was quite fantastic: the gorges of the Allier in autumn colours, orange marching through the trees like a Christo installation. With the roads sweeping to over 1000m altitude around St Albans, drifts of snow were visible in the mountain pastures and at the roadside, sadly none big or accessible enough for Munson to experience fully.

A sign on the highway caught my eye: Parc à loups du Gévaudan. A wolf-park!  This is the second time I’ve lucked onto something  like this in France. Last time it was the sighting of the Parc du chien polaire between Pontarlier and Geneva when Bondi and I were making our final loup-de-loop of the continent. The Hypnowolf sign also commanded me to drive off the highway to his parc.

Hypnowolf is watching you

PA300739There was hardly anyone else out side the reception area/cafe when I arrived. I set off on the path past the number of enclosures for different varieties of wolf, many of which look like a malamute slumber party. By imitating Munson’s “hey I’m a friend” whimper I was able to entice some of them out of hiding down to the wire fences. Crouching down a bit also made them a bit more comfortable that even if I wasn’t a bizarre wolf, at least I was polite.

The small rapport was destroyed just before the end of my circuit when  a party of impatient visitors brandishing large cameras and tripods came striding down the path, making a lot of noise and scaring the wolves back into the undergrowth.

Wolf vocal communication primer

While loading up at the gift shop I overheard a new visitor tell the proprietor that there was a wolf in one of the cars in the parking lot. Fortunately I’d warned him that I had a malamute passenger only a few minutes before, although I later regretted missing out on a team going to investigate Munson’s presence.

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Albi was our last stop for the day before bedding down for the night in Realmont. Students of European history may be aware of the city’s connection with the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in the early 13th century, a forerunner of the Inquisition.  Albi’s dominating feature is the cathedral Saint-Cecile, the world’s largest in the red-brick Gothic style I’d seen in the Baltic states. Unlike the cathedral at Chartres, walking past the fat towers at some corners you indeed feel that this is a do-able DIY cathedral-project, although it does apparently have an extremely ornate interior.

Right next to the cathedral in the old bishop’s palace is a museum honouring one of Albi’s most famous sons, the artist Toulouse Lautrec. It has all his famous posters and many works by contemporaries such as Rodin, Matisse and Degas. It was a bit late for a visit today, especially with Munson needing some post-touring entertainment, so I’ve bookmarked it for a later return journey.

PA300852-858_stitch Albi- square beside cathedral


PA300861-865_stitch Albi

Lyon to Albi

I noticed belatedly that our route had taken us very close to the famous Millau Viaduct, the world’s tallest bridge and subject of an episode of Extreme Engineering. I probably would have been a little sick at the thought of driving across it, but viewing it from a distance may have been OK.

Friday, October 29, 2010

LYON : Kissing the lion


Finding myself in a neighbourhood dense with restaurants busy laying out tables for the night, I surveyed some of the blackboard menus on the narrow but cosy Rue Guiseppe Verdi. After enquiring as to when the kitchen would be ready for the evening plats, I booked a 7pm table, and continued on with Munson to see a bit more of the city as the lights reimagined the streets.


I took a picture of the Gentleman Farmer store as I’m sure Brent will want to outfit himself as a Gersois squire when his herd starts producing an income.

Kissing the lion: drinking from a street fountain



We settled into a corner table at Bistro Pizay, and I rattled off my order, with the main course being frogs’ legs, which I hadn’t tried before. For the inexperienced, it’s a bit like eating calamari, but with some of the messiness of lobster as you have to deal with bones.


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The evening ends back near the Lyon Opera House where a subset of the young men remain in the alcoves between the pillars advertising a Cinderella ballet, still presenting small snatches of their own dance routines.

There’s definitely a more relaxed pace to life here in Lyons than I remember in Paris nearly 5 years ago. The people are more conspicuously friendly, and the air is cleaner. Maybe I’m just a more experienced traveller in France, or perhaps Lyon is less weighed down than Paris by the numbers and expectations of tourists. Our day has been pretty simple in plan and execution, yet these eight hours on the streets have been very satisfying.


LYON: Tintin and the park with the golden head


The lands here were known as the Parc de la Tête d’Or five hundred years ago, but they were not transformed into what is now France’s largest urban park until the 1850s. At 117ha, it’s about three times the size of Sydney Park, but still only about 2/3 the size of Sydney’s Centennial Park. The headquarters of Interpol have been situated adjacent to the park since 1989.


We entered through the main gates facing the river, and are immediately presented with the lake vista below. The squadron of geese hovering near its edge were not in a hurry to meet Munson, but seemed to be sufficiently well-acquainted with leashed dogs to not panic on his approach.



It seemed that any tree within ten metres of the lake wanted to lean over the waters, and dip its branches so as to form a gracefully airy cocoon over some ducklings or other small birds.



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This sculpture seems to illustrate Archimedes’ statement “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth with a lever”. I don’t know if he qualified that to state “an earth comprising of just Italy, France, the United Kingdom, USA and New Zealand” or the remaining lands were omitted or fell off. Greece at least should have been given a place on the globe.


There’s a small island in the shallow lake with a large memorial to war deaths. The island is accessed by a short underwater tunnel.


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There’s a small zoo on the edge of the park. At its entrance (which I don’t think was barred to dogs, but I didn’t want to take Munson in lest he accidentally distress one of the animal inhabitants) I spoke at some length to a Frenchman with two children of Asian birth, the latter of whom had lived in the United States for a couple of years and thus spoke some English. They were interested in Munson but a bit afraid to even touch him. Nonetheless they persisted in questions and so I conducted a mini-lecture in two languages for benefit of all three ( I don’t think their guardian had any English), and as I looked around, a mini-crowd of children distracted from entering the zoo while a potential loup or loup-chien was out and about.

reinforcing the streetscape

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There was an off-leash area for dogs about the size my little backyard in Sydney. Any dog bigger than a small terrier would not be able to run in a straight line for more than five seconds. While France does superficially allow great freedoms for dogs, they don’t give them much space in urban environments.


Back on La Croix-Rousse, these parodies of frames from Tintin in the Congo reminded me of David Messer’s Tintin parodies in the University of Sydney student paper Honi Soit.



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Back in the commercial heart, one could still glimpse the basilica high on the hill that prays.

2010-10-29 LYON the hill that works1

At the Lyon Opera, over a dozen young men and boys were swapping street moves, short bursts of athleticism and overly-self-conscious choreography presented to each other with all the affected nonchalance of middle-aged men demonstrating their golf swings on a Sunday afternoon round at the local 18-holes. Munson didn’t pay them much attention until the nearest guy started hopping around on one arm, and then the opera began…

It was about 5 in the afternoon by now, and there seemed little point in leaving the city during Friday peak hour. I wanted to see at least a little of the city dressed in evening lights, and perhaps have a proper sit-down meal before we finished the visit.

LYON : The hill that works for me

I enjoyed today so much … I enjoyed this day in Lyon so much that I thought I’d try something a bit different – a more-or-less complete reconstruction of a day of Munson and me wandering around the city, split over several posts.

2010-10-29 LYON the hill that works

My preparation for the day was looking up the location of the traboules and the Parc de la tête dór, suggested respectively by contacts in Australia and France. The traboules are a network of corridors in the older neighbourhoods, notably used by silk-workers to move their wares through the city in all weathers. Yesterday we spent most of our time on or near the Fourvière hill topped by the basilica. In local parlance, this is “the hill that prays”. Today I concentrated on La Croix-Rousse “the hill that works” – the base of the city’s silk industry which could be seen in the long panoramic shot yesterday where buildings cascade down between the rivers Rhône and Saône into the city centre where the strike action took place.

Once I’d identified a nest of traboules on that hill of the russet cross, and that the park of the golden head was an easy walk away, I simply aimed the satnav at the area. I didn’t hurry in that morning as I’d observed that Lyon is not a city of early risers: many businesses operate solely from 2-7pm. Once I reached the site of the Lyon Opera, I parked for the day, and set off with Munson to explore further.  We started in the square (top right) near the Opera and drifted purposefully in the direction of the Passage Thiaffait on rue René Leynaud, past squares of children at play (it’s a school break) and windows of piggy banks. Passing l’école maternelle Robert Doisneau which I freely speculated was for the offspring of couples who had met while kissing on the street.


At one corner, I find myself looking at this building, heavily disguised by trompe l'oeil painting.

Passage Thiaffait Passage Thiaffait - looking back

The Passage Thiaffait is a small courtyard with a bunch of studios, and a cafe. It’s almost lunchtime and I’ve not had breakfast, so I enter and enquire about the plat du jour. I’m told it’s a parmentier – I didn’t recognise the word when spoken, but my look of consternation draws a smile from the young woman at the counter and she draws me into the kitchen to look at a tray of bubbling white in the oven. The chef explains “mashed potato and minced meat”. Oh of course, shepherd’s pie! I explain that that’s tourte bergère en Anglais.

Properly filled with warm pie, I’m standing by the door of the Laspid studio, peering at T-shirt designs through the glass, when two loud crashes have me nearly shooting out of my skin. If Munson and I had not moved a second earlier, the strong wind rattling above us would have deposited a flower-pot on each of our heads from four stories above. I looked up to see a couple more plants waving dangerously, and quickly dragged Munson up the staircase at the read of the passage to go looking for traboules.


From the site I’ve downloaded to my phone a map of a walking route that will lead me through a number of these passageways to the top of the hill. Many of them are now blocked off so you have to do some backtracking to reconnect with the route. The passageways as passageways aren’t that interesting (at least not the few dozen on this route), just corridors and stairs, but you do see catch interesting glimpses into courtyards and windows, or just touching plaques citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a stairwell off the public street.


Now at the top of the hill, we find a rock from the last ice age that was uncovered in ‘the course of building a cable-car in 1890, and which became an artistic symbol during the 1930s.


Our descent is by an adjacent street which offers not only wider vistas of the city, but a riot of graffiti art and a children’s bookstore window ( Pleine Lune, LouLou, Little Red Riding Hood) – all mysteriously wolf-obsessed. I’m also hearing the whispered “loup-chien” (wolf-dog) so many times that I think Brent and Jean should call their next child Lucien.

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Past houses of god and houses of dog, we’re back at Passage Thiaffait to await Laspid’s 2pm opening and I’m still keeping a wary eye on the flower-pots wobbling on the sills above like plates twirling on a circus performer’s pole. Our path up and down the hill had been littered with laundry items blown from balconies, and other larger flowerpots lying cracked and upended in a pool of soil. I collect one Laspid T-shirt, and then whisk Munson over and along the Rhône in the direction of the Parc de la tête d’or.