Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 31, 2015 -- Paris, France

I made a big mistake today. I thought the train trip from Montpelier to Paris would be a one-beer trip. It turned out to be a two-beer trip, so I had to buy the second beer in the train's dining car, which cost me 5 euros! That's about $5.65 US. Believe me, I won't make that mistake again.

On the way to the train station, I stopped in McDonald's for a cup of coffee. It's only one euro in McDonald's, which cheaper than just about anywhere else. But as you can see in the photo, it's a tiny cup of coffee. It's very delicious, however.

(By the way, if you've noticed that I'm wearing the same green sweatshirt in every photo, you might be asking yourself if I wear the same shirt every day. Yes, I do! It does get washed, however, and I usually only pull it on over by T-shirt when I'm going outside. I don't think it smells too bad, but I do notice that in the pictures I am almost always alone.)

Enjoying a cup of coffee at McDonald's
Below is a close-up of the coffee cup. The French on the cup translates as "freshly ground." Generally, when  you get a cup of coffee in France, the beans are ground after you place your order, and then hot water is forced through the grounds. In other words, each cup of coffee is made individually starting with the roasted coffee beans. You can't get a fresher cup of coffee than that. If you buy a cup of coffee in one of the fancier McDonald's that has a separate McCoffee counter, you pay 1.20 euros, and you get your coffee in a tiny china cup. That doesn't seem to make it taste any better, however.

McDonald's coffee from freshly ground coffee beans
Many people who read this blog are in Europe, and I don't have to explain to you how good European coffee can be. Some people's idea of a good cup of coffee, however, is that mass-brewed stuff that they sell at StarBucks.

Also on the way to the station in Montpelier, I snapped the following picture of a protestant church, or more accurately, a protestant temple. In France, Catholics have churches and Protestants have temples. Of course, Jews have synagogs (or synagogues if you have a hang-up in favor of archaic spelling), and Muslims have mosques.

A Protestant Temple near the Montpelier train station
I like the fact that the Montpelier train station doesn't have the horrible yuppie rock music playing over the loudspeakers that you hear in almost every store and coffee shop in most of the world these days. Instead, there is a piano, and anyone who wants to may sit down at it and play. The young man who was playing when I snapped this picture seemed very talented. Others play not so well, but even a poor musician playing on a real piano sounds better than piped-in, low-brow crappo. Oh the big red box on the right of the picture is a ticket machine.

A traveler playing the free piano in the train station
Below is a picture of a French high-speed train that I shot from another platform while waiting for my train. They are called TGVs, which stands for Trains de Grande Vitesse. That literally translates as "trains of great speed." The train I took looked similar except my train was a double-decker, and my seat was on the upper deck.

A French TGV or high-speed train
On a test run, one of these trains attained a speed of 575 kilometers per hour or 357 miles per hour. On normal runs, trains can hit speeds of 322 kilometers or 200 miles per hour, although most of them travel a bit more slowly than that, say around 150 miles per hour.

In the first part of the trip, I had four seats to myself. Behind the facing seat sat a woman who... let's say she occupied more than her fair share of space. She had a poor little dog with her, which was a bit cramped for room, so it crept under the seat and came over to ride with me. You can see the pleading look in the dog's eyes. "Please don't send me back to squeeze in next to that fat woman!" Oh, the other object in the picture is my right leg. No! No! The dog didn't do what you're thinking, although it does looks as if it's considering such a move.

A dog pleads with me not to send it back under the seat to its mistress.
Statistics from where the blog views came from so far this week (with a few hours left to go before it ends): USA 73, Germany 20, Ukraine 11, France 6, Spain 5, and one each for Indonesia, India, Japan, and Poland.

Friday, January 30, 2015

January 30, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

Today is my last full day in Montpellier. Tomorrow I'll take the train to Paris as I work my way back to Brussels and my flight back home to Phoenix.

Today I decided to visit some non-tourist places including the large Polygone shopping center. In Arizona, the traditional large multistory shopping mall with its department store anchors has almost disappeared in favor of strip malls, where the shopper can drive up to the store and park right in front of it. The traditional multistory department store has also almost disappeared in Arizona. Both are very much alive in France. There is still an advantage to being able to wander around a large shopping mall and ogling the offerings of small shops instead of just driving from Walmart to Costco and then to Target.

The photo below shows the hordes of people entering and leaving the Polygone shopping center near the Place de la Comodie here in Montpellier. There is a parking lot in the subbasement, but most people take public transportation to the area and then walk to the shopping center. This benefits other businesses located nearby that shoppers must walk past to reach the Polygone.

People entering and leaving the Polygone shopping mall
Inside, the shopping center looks a lot like traditional shopping malls used to look in the USA, and may still look in some parts of the country as far as I know. This is one of the two periods of the year when stores in France are permitted to hold sales (soldes). Hence the sign to the right of center of the picture below with the word "soldes" at 50% to 60% off. 

In most countries of the world, a store can hold a sale anytime the management decides to do so. Holding a sale with marked-down prices is illegal in France except during the two six-week periods when the national government allows it (up from five weeks last year). There is a bit more flexibility allowed in some cities, especially in cities on the border with other countries. If you own a store and get stuck with some stock that is not moving, you may not just mark it down in price to try to get rid of it. You have to hang onto the stock until the dates when the French government allows markdowns. Do otherwise, and you will face harsh justice.

Inside the Polygone shopping mall
Despite the efforts of the French government to reduce cigarette smoking, France is still a country of smokers. Through the 1970s, roughly 2 out of 3 French men smoked. The government has managed to get that figure down to 1 in 3 for both men and women. France has tough anti-smoking laws with a fine up to 300 euros for violations (about $340 US at the current rate of exchange). However, the law suffers from lax enforcement, and it is still sometimes difficult in France for non-smokers to avoid secondhand smoke. In 2016, France plans to implement the world's toughest anti-smoking law. In remains to be seen if that law will finally make France a country that is friendly to non-smokers. Tobacco sellers threaten to turn out hordes of French people to demonstrate in the streets if the law goes into effect. However, about 70 percent of French people support smoking restrictions, which is just about the percentage of French non-smokers.

I have only seen one person on the street "vaporing" or smoking an electronic cigarette. However, e-cigarettes are increasingly available here if not yet as popular as in the USA. I stumbled across the e-cigarette shop near the Polygone shopping center on my wanderings today.

An e-cigarette store
Finally a look at the inside of the Montpellier railroad station. Most of the railroad stations in France have not been modernized and looks like they were built in the 1800s, which they were. I prefer the old railroad stations. These modern ones seem sterile to me and remind me of airports and their association with the unpleasant experience of flying commercial airliners. This is the station from which I will take the bullet train tomorrow for Paris.

The railway station in Montpellier

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

I started re-reading a book about bicycle racing on my Kindle yesterday afternoon. I'll be back in Phoenix next Thursday, and two days later I'll be doing my first bicycle race of 2015. I will not have been on a bicycle for over a month, so I'll probably do poorly, but I am nevertheless getting the bicycle-racing bug. I'm psyching myself up by mentally rehearsing going through the one high-speed 90-degree turn on the course without panicking. A 72-year-old guy should probably not be taking corners at high speed elbow to elbow with other cyclists, but those other guys in the racing pack will also be close to my age, so I won't be the only aged nut out there.

The predicted rain for today turned out to be an all day very light drizzle. It was not enough to stop me from being out and about. One thing I have observed not only here at the youth hostel but also by touring the city at large is that very little in Montpellier is what it seems to be at first glance. Also such concepts as logic, reason, planning, etc. are not valued. I commented in earlier blog entries that almost everything here at the hostel is out of repair, but many things in the city outside the hostel are also not what they should be. The two things that do seem to work are the city's tram system and the railroad station. Of course, the latter is run by the national railway company and not by the City of Montpellier, and I haven't actually ridden the tram.

Everywhere one looks, the streets are torn up, but very little seems to actually get done. Some of the construction sites have workers present, and others just have machines sitting idly on the torn-up section of street with no one tending to them.

In the picture below, one of the guys is actually using a tool to do something. There is an operator seated in the machine, but I didn't observe the machine doing any work. The operator spent part of his time hanging out the window chatting with one of the other "workers." The guy in green seems to be checking messages on his cell phone, while one of the men in the orange vests watches the other rake some dirt around.
City employees hard at work
I'm staying in a very historic district of Montpellier, one of the original settlements that were later joined to form the city. Below is a shot of the street where I am staying. The two lighted globes on the left mark the doorway to the youth hostel. If it hadn't been for my GPS telling me "destination is on left," I would have walked by several times without realizing that the hostel was there. There are no visible signs until you are actually in the doorway. That may help explain why the hostel is almost empty.
The street where I am staying in Montpellier
Less than a block from the hostel is the statue of Jeanne d'Arc or Joan of Arc as we call her in English. If the picture looks blurry, it's because the statue itself is blurry. That is, it has been so badly eroded by the rain that Jeanne's facial features can no longer be made out. You might think that the statue has been standing there for hundreds of years, but it was erected in 1917. The sculptor must have been on a budget and not able to purchase a weather resistant stone such as marble. Apparently the custom of doing things poorly has been around for some time.

A statue of Jeanne d'Arc
Below is the city gate of the area where I'm staying. Well, actually it's not. It is made to look like the old city gate, but it is a recent construction.
A faux historic city gate
What I yesterday thought was an old Roman aqueduct, similar to the Roman aqueduct that carried water to the city of Nîmes, is actually neither Roman nor quite as old as I at first suspected. It is called the Aqueduct of Saint Clément and was constructed in the 1600s to bring water from a spring and reservoir 800 meters across a valley. It was, of course, built copying old Roman technology. An Italian I met while surveying the aqueduct jokingly told me it was a copyright violation and that he, a genuine modern Roman, should be receiving royalties from it.
The Saint Clément Aqueduct in Montpellier
The aqueduct terminates in the tank shown below, from which the water was distributed to fountains in the city below. The building that houses the tank looks to me a lot like the building in Nîmes that houses the remnants of that city's Roman water distribution center, except that in place of a metal tank, Nîmes' distribution point has a stone basin.
Water tank at end of aqueduct

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

January 28, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

[As always, you can click on any photo in this blog to see it in a larger format. Then use your browser's back button to return to the blog.]

I’m not sure when or how I’m going to upload this to the Internet. The WiFi connection here in the hostel conked out again this morning. So I’m writing this offline, and then I’ll probably go to a Fast Food joint and try uploading the text and pictures separately.

I once taught electronics, and I believe that if I could get five minutes alone with the router and WiFi access point, I could fix the problem, but the manager here insists that it’s a complicated problem and only the service provider, Orange in this case, can fix it. But then, there is very little in this hostel that isn’t broken, and given the attitude that everything is an immense problem that requires great effort to resolve (and therefore won’t be resolved). Well, it’s not my problem, although I feel reasonable confident that if I could spend 15 minutes alone with the equipment, I could have the problem resolved.

I did some random exploring of the city today to see what I’d stumble upon. The first thing I did stumble upon was the cathedral, which seems to me to be another example of the local custom of not doing things right. As you can see in the following picture, the accumulated grime was sandblasted from part of the outside, and then the job stopped.

Inside the cathedral while I was there, there was only one other person, a woman who was “working” behind a window. I put working in parenthesis, because she was talking on her cell phone, although there was a sign in the entrance prohibiting cell phone use in the cathedral. I suppose she was supposed to provide services to visitors, but she paid no attention to me.

I can’t get over the work that went into building these old cathedrals. I don’t know about this one, but I do know that most of the grand cathedrals of Europe were built during centuries. The stained-glass alone must have an enormous task.

Like Paris, Montpellier has its Arc de Triomphe. OK, the one in Paris may be many times as large, but who’s taking measurements? I’m sure that the people who commissioned this one were just as proud of it as the Kings of France were of the big jobbie in Paris.

The central square in Montpellier is the Place de la Comedie. I suppose it got its name from the Comic Opera House, which is the building at the rear of the picture. This is the place to hang out. Those who have money sit in the sidewalk cafes sipping coffee or beer, and those who do not sit among piles of empty beer cans on the sidewalk, usually with at least two dogs per person. It seems that to qualify as a genuine street person in France, you have to have at least two dogs, and you have to be in a state of constant inebriation.

There seem to be two main means of transportation in Montpellier, bicycles and light trail, called the tram here. There seem to be far more bicycles than cars on the streets, at least in the section of town where I am staying, and automobile drivers are very careful about yielding the right-of-way to both cyclists and pedestrians. As to the trams, one comes by every few minutes; each one is several cars long; and they are all packed with people.

Like many other European cities and even Mexico City in North America, Montpellier has a public system or rental bikes. When you subscribe to the system, you get a magnetic card, which you can use to unlock any of the bikes in one of the automated bike racks like the one shown in the picture. When you reach your destination, you leave the bike at another rack in the system, and a computer calculates how long you have been using the bike. This station is solar powered.

Another of the items that I stumbled upon is what looks like an ancient Roman aqueduct. If I had an internet connection, I would research it. Exploring it father is one of the tasks I have set for myself for tomorrow.

I also need access to a weather forecast. The last time I checked, rain was forecast during my stay in Montpellier. Today was warm compared to most winter days in Europe. The jacket over a sweatshirt felt good in the early morning, but by afternoon, I began to wish that I only had the sweatshirt with me and not the jacket.

Now, I’m going to visit someplace with free WiFi and hope I can sit there long enough to upload and format the pictures and text and make this look like a decent blog entry.

PS/ I sat out in the cold in the Place de la Comedie uploading the above and formatting thee pictures, and when I returned to the hostel, the manger and the day clerk were gone. A Dutch lady was working the desk. I explained the problem to her, she unplugged the correct WiFi/router box, plugged it back in, and within five minutes we had WiFi again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 2014 -- Montpellier, France

I spent a good part of today getting from Girona, Spain here to Montpellier near the Mediterranean coast of France. I am sitting in the youth hostel writing this, but I’ll have to go to a free WiFi in a fast food restaurant to upload and format the pictures and text, because like many things in this hostel, the WiFi is out of order. The credit card machine is also out of order, so I had to pay cash when I checked in. The vending machines probably are working, but they are sold out of beer! They do have orange juice and Coke, but who wants to drink that junk? I can’t wait to take a shower. I have no confidence that the hot water heater will be working.

I spent my time on the trains staring out the window at the scenery except when we were standing in a station, when I read. Most of the trip was over coastal planes except near the Spanish-French border, where we went through the edge of the Pyrenees. The train took tunnels through the few low mountains along the coast, but I could see snow glittering in the sunlight on the distant higher peaks. In addition to the snow-capped Pyrenees, I also got an occasional glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea.

Riding an almost empty train in Spain
The first train from Girona to the border was almost empty. I had an entire rail car almost to myself, as you can see in the selfie above. The later trains in France were fuller but were never cramped. One advantage to taking the regional trains is that there is more space. Second class in a bullet train is just as cramped as flying economy minus the seat belts.

The Spanish regional train was one that stops at every single village between Girona and the border. Most of them are so small that they don’t have a train station, just a platform on either side of the tracks and a shelter to get out of the rain in bad weather. The only way to buy a ticket is to purchase it on the train from the conductor. Below is a photo of one of the train stops that I snapped through the train window. No, the building across the street is not the train station. The only thing resembling a station is that little graffiti-covered shelter on the platform.

A train "station" in Northeast Spain
One of the cities that looked to worth a visit on a future trip is Beziers. I snapped a photo of it as the train was approaching the station, and the glare in the photo is the reflection from the train window.

Bezier as seen from the train window
I also had time on the train to reflect on some of the people I met at the Girona hostel. One was a retired Italian merchant sailor who spoke no Spanish but fairly good English. He claimed to also speak Turkish, and I took him at his word. He seemed to be living at the hostel and said he was taking courses in Spanish and having his teeth worked on at a cheaper price than he would pay elsewhere in the European Union. He spent his days wandering around the lobby, talking to anyone who would listen to him and to some people who wouldn’t, taking a break from time to time to go out into the street in front of the hostel to smoke a cigarette. He said he was 66 years old, but felt much older, which he blamed on the cigarettes.

The hostel was also full of young Erasmus students. Erasmus is an exchange program among universities, which I also took part in the year I studied in Grenoble, France. There was a whole group of Mexicans Erasmus students, whom I placed immediately when one of the young ladies didn’t understand something that was said to her and replied ¡Mande! To my knowledge, Mexicans are the only Spanish speakers who use that expression to request that someone repeat a phrase that was not understood.

There was also a young female student from Portugal, who spoke perfect English. When I mentioned that I planned to be in Portugal in late summer and was going to brush up on my Portuguese in preparation, she said I needed bother. She claimed that everyone in Portugal speaks English, especially in the south of the country. I will see in the summer, because my flight home leaves from Lisbon.

It was interesting to see the one language change and the other not when I crossed the border. On the Spanish side, all place names were in two languages: Catalán and Spanish. On the French side, the sides were in Catalán and French. Part of Cataluña lies on each side of the border, but on the French side one hears mainly French spoken. On the Spanish side, the spoken language is mainly Catalán.

I was a bit concerned about changing trains in Perpignan, France, because I only had five minutes to make the connection. I needn’t have worried. When my train arrived, the other was already waiting on the other side of the station platform, and the conductor on the first train was kind enough to point that out to me.

One last note is about the friendly, open manner of the people here in the South of France. They seem almost like the Spanish and quite different from the reserved attitude of the French farther north. They even tolerate my lousy French, whereas in the north of France, when people hear me mumbling in French, they usually immediately switch to English.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 26, 2015 -- Girona, Spain

Today will be my last full day in Spain until the summer. Tomorrow I start my way back north with the first stay-over in Montpelier, France.

The euro is dropping in value daily, which means that every time I use my US credit card to pay for something, I get a better exchange rate. It was valued at $1.18 when I started the trip, and this morning it is just above $1.11. It's bound to drop farther during the course of the day as the exchange markets react to yesterday's Greek elections.

Yesterday was a day of touring museums, thanks to a young Italian lady named Anna who is a receptionist here at the hostel where I am staying. She gave me a wristband that gets me into Girona’s museums for free. Here is what Anna looks like. By the way, the ugly guy beside her is me.

Anna from Italy with your blog author
Anna has made everyone’s stay here a pleasure. She talks in a lively manner to everyone, always has a smile on her face, and laughs at every little mishap. I don't know how many languages she speaks, but I noted Italian, English, Spanish, Catalán, and a bit of French. She may speak more.

I did get inside Sant Feilu Basilica today. It appears that it closes for a few hours around midday, and that’s when I showed up yesterday. Following is a picture toward the altar in the main chapel. I didn’t use a flash out of respect, so the picture is a bit dark.

Inside the Basilica of Sant Feilu
Right above the Basilica on the hillside sits the cathedral, which I also visited. I could only photograph the outside, because in the entranceway was a sign prohibiting cameras, dogs, booze, and at least a dozen other items that I don’t remember. I was tempted to break the rule and take a snapshot anyway, because the inside of the cathedral is a delight for the eye, but that nasty little voice inside me that’s always spoiling my fun told me not to.

The cathedral in Girona
As I was inside, yesterday being Sunday, mass was being held in one of the side chapels and piped over a sound system throughout the church.  I peeped in, and there were hardly any worshippers. I believe the mass was being conducted in Catalán, because I didn’t understand a word. I would have understood had the mass been conducted in Spanish.

Another interesting place in the same area are the Arab baths, which were apparently neglected for centuries after the Arabs were driven from Spain but are now a museum. The picture below is of the main room, which was crowded with tourists. There were also other smaller chambers.

The Arab Baths at Girona
The Archeological Museum held, among other items, a collections of antique machines once used in printing. I recognize the machine on the left as a Linotype, used for setting type in the days before laser printers and copy machines. When I was in high school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, one of the programs offered was printing, and I remember seeing a student seated at the Linotype typing away. Above him there were motors running and belts whirring. Every time he typed a letter on the keyboard, a piece of type bearing the same letter would fall down a chute and land in the proper place in the line of type (hence the machine’s name). When an entire line had been typed, it would be cast in metal as one piece.

The Girona Archeological Museum has a large collection of old printing equipment
I graduated from high school (barely) in 1960, and I remember that Linotype machines were used for years afterward, so they must have still been around until the early 1970s.

I cannot resist including a picture of an old vacuum tube radio. In the 1950s, when I was in my early teens, I had a radio of about this vintage in my room. It was already out of date by then, which is why I got to keep it. I connected a long-wire antenna to it and used to listen at night to stations as far away as Chicago. It was that radio and a crystal radio set that I built that got me started in my first career working in electronics.

The large vertical tube-shaped objects are what we used to call condensers, although the more-common name today is capacitor. Today, of course, the circuitry to do the same function as this radio receiver can be placed on a very small microchip.

The innards of an old vacuum-tube radio receiver.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 25, 2015 -- Girona, Spain

This is my third trip to Girona and the second within a year (I was here last June), so the city isn’t entirely new to me. After breakfasting at the hostel, I set out to do some random exploring with no definite goal in mind. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the city wall, although I walked along the top of it from one end to the other last summer. As the photo below shows, this is no weenie wall like the little thing around Avignon. This is a seriously high wall designed to protect the city against invaders. The walkway at the top of the wall, where soldiers used to guard the city, is called the Passeig de la Muralla in Catalán, which I would translate as Walkway on the Wall.

The high wall that once protected Girona
What caused the end of the city wall as a means of defense were the discovery of gunpowder and the invention of cannons that fired heavy metal balls. If you fire enough cannon balls at a stone wall, you will eventually break through.

The picture below hints at Catalán nationalism. Many people in Cataluña feel that they are the industrious, hard-working people of Spain and the rest of the country’s population lives a life of relative ease at their expense. One gentleman last summer went so far as to tell me that Cataluña is an occupied country, occupied by the foreign terrorist regime in Madrid, by which he meant, of course, the Spanish national government.

Cantalña has its own language, although everyone also speaks the national language, which is called Spanish or Castilian. For some reason there is a misconception among some  non-Spanish-speaking Americans that Castilian is the “proper” form of Spanish and is different than say the Spanish spoken in Mexico or South America. Castilian is merely another name for the language we call Spanish and is used to differentiate it from other Spanish languages such as Catalán, Basque, and Galician.

Some people in Cataluña and the Basque Country refuse to call the national language Spanish and insist on using the name Castilian. In their opinion, their languages have just as much right to be called Spanish as Castilian does. However, the Spanish constitution defines Spanish as being the Castilian language.

Caalan flags hang from many balconies
To the best of my memory, I have never seen a Spanish flag flying in Cataluña except back in the days of the dictator Francisco Franco. If someone hoisted one, the neighbors would probably tear it down and burn it. The flags flying from the balconies in the picture above are Catalán flags except  the blue one with the ring of stars, which is the flag of the European Union.

L'Església de Sant Feliu
The church in the picture above is the Església de Sant Feliu. If Sant Feliu is a recognized saint, I would imagine that he has a name in English, but I have no idea what it is. I wish I could have gone inside, but all of the doors seemed to be shut. I have read that the interior is mainly in the Romanesque style with a Gothic nave. The tower is Baroque at the top with lots of windows and an open appearance. The bottom looks to me like the earlier heavy Romanesque style that depended upon massive walls broken only by small slits of windows.

The picture below shows one of the wider streets in the Old City. Yesterday was a festival day with events all over town and vendors’ stalls set up in every open space, so there were lots of locals out walking about chatting away mostly in Catalán with a smattering of Spanish here and there. The red choo-choo approaching is, of course, a sightseers’ train giving tourists a guided trip through the narrow streets.

A tourist train in a typical street in the Old City
Now, a view of the river. The apartment buildings not only line the river, they hang right over it. I don’t know if there are any eatable fish in that river or not, but if I lived in one of those apartments, I’d probably have a fishing line hanging out the window to supplement my usual diet of beer and potato chips or crisps, as the British call them.

Most Spanish live in purchased apartments or condominiums. Except in the villages, one-family houses are rare.

Apartment blocks overhand the river
To finish, the number of visits to this blog from each country during the past week:
Taiwan 17
Germany 3
France 3
Spain 2
China 1
Ireland 1
Poland 1

January 24, 2015 -- Gerona, Spain

I spent all of yesterday afternoon traveling from Avignon, France here to Girona, Spain. I arrived after dark and used the GPS from my bicycle to get me on foot from the train station to the hostel. I'm glad I brought the GPS along. It's not ideal for navigating on foot, but it has gotten me to several locations when it was a bit dark to read street signs and attempt to navigate with a map. It had me worried for a time, because it had me walking up a narrow alley and displayed the message "Equity Point Hostel on left." I didn't see anything that vaguely resembled a hostel in that alley, but when I reached the end, the alley opened onto a large plaza, and sure enough, I had been walking along one of the hostel's walls.

According to my train ticket, when I reached the French side of the border, I had ten minutes to catch the train that would take me through the tunnel to the Spanish side. However, my train was more than 10 minutes late, so I thought I'd missed it. Then with some help from the French train conductors, I figured out the the train I was supposed to catch was actually the front section of the train I was already on. All I had to do was get off the train, walk forward on the same platform, and get back on the same train. On the Spanish side, I had an hour's wait for the train to Girona.

Incidentally,when I arrived yesterday evening,, the temperature was warm by European standards for January, in the mid 50s Fahrenheit or about 13 Celsius.

The picture below shows the hostel from the front. The alley I emerged from can be partially seen at the left edge of the picture. The hostel fronts on the Plaça Cataluyna (plaça is the Catanlán spelling for plaza).

Equity Point Hostel, Girona, Spain
I took the following photo from just in front of the hostel. Everywhere one looks in this central part of town, there are beautiful buildings, so it's not difficult to take an attractive picture. As you can see, the sky is blue and the sun is shining brightly this morning. The weather is a welcome change from the dreary drizzle in Belgium and France.

View from the Plaça Cataluyna
Because I am the son of a railroader and remember coal-fired steam engines pulling trains when I was a child, I always take an interest in anything involving old trains. The old locomotive in the picture below was installed in its present location to celebrate 150 years since the railroad arrived at Girona.

Old steam locomotive commemorates 150 years of rail transport to Girona
Finally, I decided I should take a selfie with one of the local residents. This guy, whom I met in the street, didn't appear too happy to have me standing next to him with my arm around his shoulders. Notice how he is disdainfully looking away from me.

Your blog author with disdainful friend

Thursday, January 22, 2015

January 22, 2015 -- Avignon, France

This is my last full day in Avignon. Tomorrow I catch the train, or rather a series of trains, for Girona, Spain. At least I had decent weather today, and I took advantage of it by walking across one of the bridges to  Villeneuve-lez-Avignon or simply Villeneuve (New City). New is a relative term, as the New City also dates back to medieval times.

As I sat down to write this blog, I discovered that I had mislaid the micro USB cable that I use to transfer pictures from my camera to the tablet computer. Good old Google maps! I searched for a place that sells micro USB cables and Google Maps turned up one just two doors away. The longest part of the whole process was standing in line at the cash register to pay.

Half of the Rhône River with part of the island in the foreground and the medieval bridge in the background
The River Rhône splits at Avignon and runs on either side of a large island. The picture above was taken from halfway across one of the modern bridges. The land in the foreground is part of the island. The bridge is the background is what is left of the original Avignon Bridge, which is discussed in yesterday's blog entry. As you can see, the rain has stopped, and when I snapped this picture, the sky was clearing.

Some of the fortifications of the New City
The New City is much smaller than Avignon proper and apparently doesn't require much administration. Below is the Hôtel de Ville or City Hall, which seems to occupy little more than a storefront. As I was sitting in the plaza in front of City Hall, three employees came out and walked to a café across the street, presumably for their lunch break. I think they were the entire City Hall staff.

The New City's City Hall
The following picture shows a street that is pretty typical of the other streets I saw. There are some slightly wider through streets, but none that I saw was more than two lanes wide, one lane in either direction.

A typical street in the New C/ity
This tower bears the name Philippe le Bel or Phillip the Handsome. I had no idea who he was until I looked him up online. He was King Phillip IV of France. The original tower was build sometime before 1300 and was destroyed. The present tower was build in 1303 and added to in 1360. It was, of course, part of the defense infrastructure of Avignon.

The Tower of Philippe le Bel
I intend to spend tomorrow doing a lot of reading. I'll buy some food and beverage to take with me on the train, do some reading here in the hostel, saunter over to the train station, read some more, and finally read on the train. I'll be glad to say good-bye to this hostel. Its problem is that the afternoon staff all smoke heavily, and many of their friends show up to hang out with them. They all also smoke. Smoking is prohibited indoors in public areas in France, so they smoke in the small enclosed patio, but they leave the door open, and the cigarette smoke drifts into the hostel. Like some other ex-smokers, I have developed an allergy to cigarette smoke. It gives me a headache and causes a tight feeling in my chest. I simply cannot be around cigarette smoke.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 21, 2015 - Avignon, France

I apologize, but there will be no photos today. It's raining and miserable outside. I did go out for a long walk around the city in the rain, but with my glasses fogged up, I was in no mood to take pictures or make notes. The rain is supposed to stop tomorrow, so I plan to take advantage of the lack of rain to see some new sights.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January 20, 2015 -- Avignon, France

As has been the case during most of this trip, the weather today was drizzling rain and chilly. Being from Phoenix, Arizona, I'm not used to rain, but I can't sit inside all day when I'm in a magical city like Avignon, so today I was out and about. In addition to doing a lot of walking around the city, I visited le Palais des Papes (the Papal Palace) and the medieval bridge le Pont d'Avignon, also known as le Pont de Saint Bénézet.

Avignon is a walled city, and the wall around it still stands to this day, although it is not very high, and it is difficult for me to believe that it was adequate to defend the city. I was able to walk along a short portion of the wall, and I got the feeling that if I were up there and had the job of defending Avignon, I would feel dangerously exposed to arrows shot from the ground. Heck, at that height, someone could probably throw a rock up from the ground and knock me off.

An arch allows a street to pass through the wall that surrounds Avignon
The main square in Avignon is called la Place de l'Herloge or Clock Square. I'm told that in decent weather it teams with life, but in this cold, damp weather there is practically no one about. It is home to the 19th-century city hall and opera house, which is the building in the center of the picture. I'm told that the clock that gave the square its name is also still there although almost hidden from view. I'll be darned if I could find it!

Place de l'Horlage, Avignon
The streets in the medieval part of the city were not designed with automobiles in mind, but believe it or not, I saw a small car navigating the street in the picture below. Only people with special permission are allowed to drive these narrow streets, and they have to carry a card that is scanned at the street entrance to drop a barricade and let them in. If you're walking one of these streets and hear a car approaching, you need to look for some little niche to duck into to let the car pass.

An extremely narrow street winds its way though the ancient buildings
Below is the front view of le Palace des Papes or Papal Palace. I remember learning about the "Babylonian Captivity" in a high school history class, but I've refreshed my memory since arriving in Avignon. In the 13th Century there was friction between the Papacy and the French crown. In 1305 a Frenchman, Clement V, was elected pope, and he moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon. A series of French popes reigned in Avignon until Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome in 1376. The hierarchy at Avignon didn't accept the decision, however, and continued the papacy in Avignon until 1417. In other words, for a time there were two competing popes, one in Rome and another in Avignon. Each pope had his followers who considered the other pope to be illegitimate. When the Avignon papacy ceased to exist, it lost any claim to legitimacy that it might once have had, and the Roman popes came to be considered the legitimate popes of the Catholic Church.

The Papal Palace in Avignon
I almost had a private tour of the Papal Palace. There are very few tourists on the streets of Avignon, and inside the palace, I was outnumbered by the people working there. Even in the large halls, I was usually the only person there. In the halls that still had paintings on the wall, no photography was allowed, so I didn't take any pictures inside at all.

This is not my first visit to Avignon. I stumbled across the city when I was a youngster working in Germany in the winter and hitchhiking my way to Spain during the summers. On one of the trips to Spain, my ride dropped me in Avignon at about sunset, and I found the local youth hostel and spent the night.

One thing that I seem to remember is walking out on the Bridge of Avignon or Point d'Avignon shown in the picture below. In my memory, anyone could walk onto the bridge, which had not yet gained museum status. Today, however, you have to pay to access the bridge.

Le Pont d'Avignon, also known as Le Pont de Saint Bénézet
If you clicked on the picture above to enlarge it, you may have noticed that the bridge ends in the middle of the river. It once went all of the way across and connected Avignon with Villenueve-les-Avignon or the new city of Avignon. It was constructed between 1177 and 1188 but was destroyed several times, once by Louis VIII when he laid siege to Avignon and other times by flooding of the Rhône River. The last time that it was reconstructed in 1633, the Rhône promptly washed away two of its arches, and it was decided that the bridge was impossible to maintain. Today only part of it stands. The building on the bridge is a chapel to Saint Nicholas.

The photo below was take from what is left of the bridge looking back to the city gate. Just before the gate is a drawbridge that could be raised as a defense against those who would use the bridge as a means to attack the city.

View from the bridge looking back to the city gate
Below is a shot across the river of Villenueve-les-Avignon. The day after tomorrow is my last day in Avignon, and I plan to visit the new city then, because it's the only day of my visit here that rain is not forecast.

A view of Villenueve taken from across the river in Avignon