Paris—Montpellier—Barcelona day 1

Monday 27 May 2013

Today we travel from Paris to Barcelona by train. We could have completed this leg of the journey in a single trip on a fast train, but we did not know that at the time we booked our tickets, and so we took the traditional route from Paris to Montpellier-Saint Roche via Nîmes and then changing trains for Barcelona. This entailed a five-hour stopover in Montpellier, and a rather late arrival in Barcelona.

As I write, we are in a very comfortable first class carriage of a TGV which is just reaching its cruising speed, a shade below 300 km/h. We have never travelled this fast on land outside of a plane that was taking off. This kind of transport would do much to mitigate the “tyranny of distance” in Australia.

So far the countryside appears to be fairly flat, although this may be to some degree an illusion created by the use of cuttings and tunnels. The weather is the finest that we have seen since we landed in Europe. There is light cloud near the horizon, but otherwise the sky is a bright shade of pale blue. The countryside is verdant and inviting. A great deal of it appears to be under cultivation, and we frequently pass towns and villages where churches are still the most prominent buildings.

Montpellier might well have been an accident, but it turned out to be a pleasant one. We did not get off to a great start, however, because there was nowhere to leave our baggage at the train station and apparently there were no maps of the town available there either. So we lugged our packs into the park next to the train station and watched drug deals being arranged on mobile phones whilst we decided on our next move.

At length we made our way up the Rue de Magelone to the Plaza de la Comedie and occupied a seat outside the local McDonalds where Susan was able to access the Wifi long enough to download the addresses of a couple of museums and a few maps of the town. It did not take long to locate the first museum, but a sign on the door informed us that not only did the price of admission to one museum secure access to the others, but that they were all closed on Monday.

Undaunted, we traipsed back to the sloping plaza from which we exited in search of the museum. Laid out before us was an area surrounded by cafés, with tables and chairs set out in the central area beneath jacarandas that were blossoming in a gentle lilac haze. The sun was shining and it was just about lunch time. So we made a logical decision: we selected a café, took a table for two in the sun and ordered from the set lunch menu.

We shared a rabbit terrine for entrée which was absolutely delicious. I had a few small pieces of beef smothered in a creamy pepper sauce and Susan had veal with tomato and olives, which tasted exactly like something you would buy in Leichhardt back home in Sydney. We washed all of this down with half a litre of house red, which was nothing special, but it tasted all the better for the company, the fine weather, the Mediterranean sun, and the cheerful service. After our leisurely lunch, we drifted back to the train station with a few obligatory stops at shoe shops.

At about 17:40 we boarded a 2nd class carriage on a somewhat slower train to Figueres where we changed for another train to Barcelona. As I write, we are speeding along marshlands beyond which lies the rocky Mediterranean coastline of southern France. The sky is overcast now, and lush forests have given way to flat wetlands, fishing ports, industrial towns, fuel depots, parking lots full of motor homes, canals, shabby farm yards, scrubby country, shacks, caravans, and rather uninspiring beaches with small commercial vessels cruising the horizon. Here and there a headland juts out into the sea to break the monotony; here and there an inlet lined with more saltmarsh, an outcrop of caravans, a row of cedars lining a country road, expensive new coastal resorts in the distance with their backs to the marshes; a jetty; a smudge of pale blue sky; houses with hemispherical, terracotta tiles on their roofs; rows of poplar trees, and fields of grape vines laid out in neat rows. At length, after rain in Peripignan and late sunshine on the other side, the view disappears entirely as we enter a long tunnel. When we merge on the other side, we are in the mountains. Rocky outcrops catch the late afternoon sun; scrappy forests embrace the dusk. In the distance, a splendid mountain peak comes into view.

We change trains at Figueres for Barcelona. We are now travelling on RENFE, Spain’s national train line. We stop at Girona, whose station is located in the middle of long a tunnel. On the other side there are splendid mountains bathed in “God rays”. At 8:30 p.m. the sun is still shining bright and it is 18°C outside. Spain is beautiful, even at 255 km/hour.

Our arrival in Barcelona was fraught. Arrivals are always fraught because the directions are never specific enough. A local cannot grasp what it is like to arrive at a place underground, and emerge into a city with no sense of direction at all. The written directions are therefore always inadequate, notwithstanding the best intentions. And then there is always the curse of the last step: even after you have located yourself on a grid of city streets and determined in which direction you are walking; even after you have found the correct street and the correct building on that street, you are confronted with the task of getting in. Which bell do I ring? Do I have the host’s phone number to hand?  It’s amazing how such things conspire to trip you up at the final hurdle.

Fortunately, we did not have to deal with such concerns when we finally located the correct building in Barcelona. Our host, Stefano, greeted us at the door that opened out onto the street. He must have recognised us immediately from the gormless, lost-tourist look which is unmistakeably worn by people who loiter on street corners with maps and large backpacks hanging off their arses.

Stefano was charming. He spoke English well, and we picked the accent immediately as Italian. He also spoke at high speed and jumped from topic to topic in a stream of consciousness that reminded me of some former housemates who made extensive use of artificial stimulants. He was warm, effusive, and dodgy in a thoroughly endearing, Italian fashion that made us feel instantly at home.

The apartment contained all of life’s basic necessities: garlic, lots of olive oil, very hot chillies, good coffee, and a decent coffee pot. We were therefore set up for the evening and the following morning. I cooked pasta with tinned tuna and tomato sauce that was perilously spicy because I underestimated the ferocity of Stefano’s chillies. One tiny, dried chilli per person was more than ample; more was a recipe for rectal woe the following day.

What we had not expected was the view. Oh God—the view. We know that Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia was within sight from the balcony, but we had no idea that it was so close. The giant, gorgeous folly loomed over the flat from across the space of a small urban park. The effect was precisely as the architect had no doubt intended: it was awe-inspiring. The presence of this astonishing building would occupy much of our thoughts and conversation at home for the next few days.

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