We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. When we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away we could really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, though, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge.
Articles tagged with "france"
I got a train to Narbonne, and then headed to Durban-Corbières, a tiny town in Languedoc-Rousillon. I spent a fantastic fortnight there with my family, relaxing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, eating good food and enjoying a good life. I went for one moderately long cycle around the hills but otherwise did more or less nothing. My travel style is not normally like that; a holiday without uncertainty, hardship and fear is not really a holiday by my reckoning. But just every now and again it’s nice to actually relax. The view from our villa to the crumbling castle was more or less my only view of the outside world for two weeks.
Two weeks of slothful living passed very quickly, and all too soon it was time to pack up and go.
While we were in Paris, the Villette Sonique music festival was on, and the last night’s star attraction was Joanna Newsom. I’d heard her music before, recommended to me with great enthusiasm by two of my friends, but I was not a fan. In fact, I thought it was unbelievably awful and I planned never to listen to it again.
But my friends in Paris wanted to go, and I reluctantly bought a ticket. And as it happened, the gig entirely changed my opinion. She was supported by Roy Harper, who looked pretty messed up and rambled vaguely between songs. But his music was pretty good, with just his voice, a guitar and a delay pedal.
And then Joanna Newsom came on stage. The audience were in raptures right from the start, which put me off a bit, but her voice didn’t sound as weird as it had done on the songs I’d heard before. It was one of those gigs where you start off quite liking it, and as the show progresses you realise it’s something quite special, where the musician is on supreme form and the audience is ever more impressed. By the encore I was clapping almost as enthusiastically as the rest of them.
We went to the Pompidou centre and saw some modern art. It was another classic Paris thing to do that I hadn’t done before. We also, being scientists keen to communicate what we do, joined in at Paris’s first “Science Corner”, where people from various disciplines set up stands on the plaza in front of the centre, offering the public the chance to ask us anything they wanted to. Not speaking French obviously made it a bit difficult for those of us from the UK, but none the less we got plenty of interest. There were some press people there and articles later appeared in a few newspapers.
It had been a long time since I’d been to Paris properly. I’d passed through on my way to Barcelona a couple of months ago, but now, two friends of mine were living here, so I got a eurostar early one Saturday morning to go and visit them.
We visited Notre Dame. I’d been there before but only to the inside. We decided to go up to the roof. It was a May bank holiday weekend so this involved spending a long time in a queue, creeping slowly across the square in front of the cathedral. It looked like it was going to rain heavily, and I was hoping it would so that some less enthusiastic queuers might go away and do something else, but it didn’t.
Eventually we made it up to the heights. By coincidence it was ten years to the day since my first visit to Paris, when I’d arrived utterly broke after a trip across Europe to celebrate the end of my degree. I thought then that I had just left UCL forever. I wondered what I would have made of it then, if someone told me I’d actually have got a job there, ten years on.
I went to Grenoble with five friends to go skiing. A few of them were experts but this was my first time. We went to Chamrouse where I learned the basics and fell over lots, and eventually destroyed the camera I’d bought in Paraguay. The next day we went to Prapoutel, where I fell over a bit less. Skiing was fun and even if it hadn’t been, it would have been worth going just to be out in the mountains.
I’d travelled from China to Paris without a hitch, and I imagined that Paris to London would be the easiest part of the journey. Sadly I was mistaken. I headed to Gare du Nord at about midday and found that there was a train to Calais leaving in a few minutes. So I bought a ticket and headed to the platform. But the train was a Eurostar train, and you have to check in twenty minutes before departure. They had sold me the ticket too late to make the cut, and so I missed my first train back home.
I went back to the ticket desk and explained the situation. Luckily they could change my ticket without charge, but unluckily they said there was not another train to Calais until 5pm. I really didn’t want to spend another four hours in Paris and felt annoyed that I wasn’t already half way to Calais. As I walked away with my second ticket, I found a timetable which said there was a train at 3pm to Calais, so I queued again and asked. It turned out that all the standard class seats were full on the 3pm train, but as I was a student I could get a first class seat for only one euro more. Fantastic, I thought – I’ll travel back in comfort. I gladly exchanged my second ticket and a euro for my third ticket, and felt happy again to be nearly home.
With an hour to kill, I went to a cafe on the station and got some lunch and a coffee. I couldn’t wait to get back home now. At quarter to three I picked up my bags, started walking towards the platform, reached into my pocket to get my ticket, and found that it wasn’t there.
Shocked, I hurried back to the cafe, thinking I might have left it on the table. But it wasn’t there. I looked around and saw no sign of it. I walked back and forth between the cafe and where I realised I’d lost it. It was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t believe it – had it been stolen? Had I just lost it? To this day I’ve got no idea what happened to it. Now I was furious, and once I’d given it up for lost I rushed to the ticket offices. But the queues were far too long for me to have a hope of reaching the front before the train left. I went to some automatic ticket machines, but for some reason none of them would accept my bank card. 3pm came, and I could only watch in despair as a train with an empty first class seat on it rolled out of the station.
Dejectedly I joined the queue for the ticket offices, and bought my fourth Paris-Calais ticket of the day, for the 5pm train I’d wanted to avoid. If all had gone to plan I’d have been on the train from Dover to London by 5pm. In the end, I reached Calais with only minutes to spare before the last ferry of the day.
As we crossed the channel I looked at the lights of France receding, and the lights of England approaching. The last time I’d seen the sea was at Qinhuangdao almost two months previously, and now I was on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. Night was falling as we pulled out of Calais, and we got to Dover in darkness. I hurried off the ferry to the train station, and got the last train to Charing Cross. I finally got back home at 1am, staggered at what a farce the last step had been, happy to be home, and slightly unable to believe that I’d just travelled a third of the way around the world by train.
I got to Paris at 9am. I got a metro to République, remembered from my trip two years earlier which exit to take, and walked along Boulevard Jules Ferry to the youth hostel I’d stayed in before. The atmosphere of cosy familiarity was abruptly shattered when they turned out to be full. There was an accommodation office next door, but it wasn’t open yet, so I bought some food from a nearby shop and sat by the Canal Saint-Martin having breakfast. When they opened, they found me a space in a hostel nearby.
Sometimes when I go back to a place I’ve been before, I find myself going to exactly the same places, somehow unable to find new things to do. And so it was here. I walked to the Île de la Cité, saw Notre Dame, then walked to Montmartre. Two years ago when I was here it had been grey, rainy and empty. Now it was a hot day and very busy. In the narrow streets below the hill, some small children were ineptly busking. They had accordions, which they obviously had no idea how to play, and they squeezed and pressed buttons randomly. I was disgusted at how stupid they must think tourists would be, if they thought they’d make money this way, and then even more disgusted when I saw someone giving them some change.
As I looked over Paris, my heart wasn’t in the travelling any more. Paris was too familiar and too close to home, and I felt like I shouldn’t have stopped. I’d been here just two years earlier, so it seemed silly to interrupt my journey virtually on my doorstep to see places I already knew. In slight frustration, I planned an early start the next day to get back home.
At the end of our seven nights of telescope time, we’d had five and half clear nights – not bad going for February. Satisfied, we packed up and headed for Avignon to catch the train back to London. I wondered if I would ever be back here again.
We got to Avignon with some time to kill, and a few of us visited the Palais des Papes. It was a warm day, much warmer here than at the observatory, 600m above sea level. We knew that back in London it would be cold again, and so we reluctantly boarded the TGV to Lille, and headed home.
On the wall in the 80cm telescope control room was a photo taken of the dome while it was being rotated. It looked really cool, and I wanted to have a go at reproducing it. I got my chance towards the end of our run when clouds started gathering as night fell, and it was clear we wouldn’t be observing. I climbed up onto the roof of the control room, and Didier set the dome rotating. I opened the shutter and let the dome spin right around a few times, and the shot worked out nicely.
Later it cleared up a little bit. At the time we were in Provence, the space station Mir was approaching the end of its life, while the International Space Station had recently been put in orbit. During our visit, both space stations were visible in the early evening. On this particular evening, both would be crossing the sky within a minute of each other, passing through the constellation of Orion as seen from OHP. This would pretty much be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity if I could get it – the two space stations passing through a famous constellation, with a bunch of telescope domes as a foreground. Sadly the clouds didn’t clear in time. I saw Mir going overhead, but the ISS was hidden by the clouds. Two months later, Mir re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, and burnt up in the skies over the South Pacific.
We finished observing each night as twilight began to light the sky. It always seemed like an incredibly long time from then until sunrise, and most mornings I didn’t stay up. After a long winter’s night at a telescope, only the most spectacular sunrise seems worth staying up for. But one morning, we got one. The sky was on fire, and a few of us went out to a small hill in the observatory grounds to watch.
After a couple of nights, the students were well into the routine and there was not so much for me to do. I had time to go out and watch the sky once the observations were under way. A bitingly cold mistral was blowing, the cold wind bringing clear skies but bad seeing. Our stars were badly smeared out by the turbulent atmosphere, which made the observations a bit more difficult but not impossible.
I went up to see what was happening at the 1.52m telescope. This one was much easier to use, being mostly automated. The telescope would slew pretty much to where you wanted it, and all that was required was a bit of fine-tuning with some plastic dials on a control panel that looked like something out of Blake’s 7. After I’d checked out their latest observations, I went up onto the roof, and saw three bright meteors blazing by.
In 1999, I’d forgotten to bring a cable release, and I’d also forgotten to bring gloves. Keen to get a star trail photo, I’d held the camera shutter down myself for 40 minutes, which nearly gave me frostbite. This time I’d learned my lesson. Back at the 80cm, I pointed the camera up, locked down a shutter release, and went inside to enjoy the warmth for three hours.
The stars shone brightly on our first night. My task was to assist the group using the 80cm telescope, and I soon had terrifying flashbacks to my own experiences here two years ago. Most telescopes are totally automated these days, you just type in the coordinates of what you want to look at and off it goes. Not so the 80cm at OHP. Here you have to do it old-style, with setting circles.
Taking pity on the students, as he’d taken pity on me when I was here before, was Didier. Didier was a legend, remembered fondly by everyone in my year, and all years since. He didn’t speak much English, and none of us spoke much French, but this was no barrier to understanding his many jokes or enjoying his company. He watched benignly as we all struggled to point the telescope at the target, assisting when necessary and offering comedy insults at all other times.
Luckily it didn’t take too long to get on to the target and start taking data. We were looking at a star which was undergoing frequent small outbursts, and our target was brightening. My job done for now, I slipped out to take some photographs of the blazing skies.
Two years ago as an astronomy undergraduate, I’d spent ten days on a field trip to the Observatoire de Haute-Provence, learning what real astronomy was like. The finding of targets, the taking of observations, the drinking of coffee and the self-infliction of insomnia. I had loved it. And after my degree, I’d managed to get a toe in the door of this fun job with a PhD place. This year’s batch of undergraduates needed a postgraduate to assist them in their observations, and I was on hand to provide it.
I was a bit nervous meeting the group as we got a train to Paris from Waterloo. In my year, our postgraduate assistant had not been popular, and was the butt of many jokes. I hoped I wouldn’t suffer the same fate. But in Paris we had time enough to socialise over a coffee in a cafe near the Gare du Nord, and I felt that it wouldn’t turn out that way. We got to the observatory after midnight, and it was great to be back.
The next morning I got up early, and went for a walk around the observatory site. I’d felt hugely nostalgic for my first trip here for a long time, and after leaving the first time I didn’t expect ever to come back, so I was in a great mood. The skies were not clear, but I had a feeling that by the time we needed them to be, they would be.
The next day dawned grim and rainy. I decided it would be a good day to check out the Pompidou centre, but when I arrived at 10.30am, I found out it wouldn’t open until 11am. So I wandered around in the drizzle for half an hour, returning to read the sign more carefully and realise it wasn’t actually going to open at all. So I wandered around the left bank and the Ile St. Louis.
I had lunch of French bread and cheese near Boulevard Jules Ferry, then went to Gare du Nord to buy a ticket back to Calais. The rain built up to monsoon proportions while I was at the station, but by the time I was done it had eased back to a heavy drizzle, so I thought I’d go to Montmartre. I climbed to the top and spent a while gazing out over Paris.
This was the moment I felt my student days were really over. I was absolutely broke and would need to get a job as soon as I got back. I felt melancholy as I thought about the last four years, standing up there in the rain. But I pulled myself together as it was getting dark, and the rain began to fall heavily again.
The sky was still leaden in the morning, but it was dry as I made my way to the station. I got a TGV to Calais, where the sun had broken out, and by the time I was across the channel, it was a warm, sunny day. France was clearly visible across the water, which is always startling. I got on the train back to London, and prepared myself for the real world.
Who could go to Paris without checking out the Eiffel Tower? It was only supposed to be a temporary thing and was almost pulled down in 1909, but was saved by its capacity to be used as a radio mast. This was quite lucky, because Paris without the Eiffel Tower today seems unthinkable.
I arrived at about 7pm on a beautiful May day. The crowds were still quite large, so before I went up, I wandered around for a while, searching for the photograph that would make the tower look as huge as it is. I strolled down through the Champ de Mars. I passed people in berets playing boules (honestly), people playing cards on a table improvised out of a box in a bin, and other such odd scenes of Paris parklife.
At the bottom of the Champ de Mars is a peace monument, right in front of the military academy. It’s a strange juxtaposition. From here, it was a fine view up to the tower, and I walked back towards it. Having now seen it from everywhere except up it, I bought my ticket and went to the lift. It’s a little bit disturbing, going up at an angle as you do. By the time we got to the second level, the view was already pretty amazing, and I wondered whether I’d wasted my money on the ticket to the top. But once the lift started the big ascent, I decided it was worth it.
The view from the top was breathtaking. Central Paris glowed in the late evening light. The sky was clear, but there was rain falling to the west. As the sun descended towards the horizon, the light got steadily more and more amazing. After the sunset, the lights slowly came on, until with the sky a deep shade of blue, Paris was like a glowing carpet.
Eventually, at 11pm, I decided I’d have to come down and get the metro back to the youth hostel. It was really difficult to tear myself away, though. I hadn’t expected to be so impressed by the tower.
After Notre Dame, I went back to the hostel, and slept like I’ve never slept before. I woke up completely refreshed at 8am the next day, and decided to go to the Louvre. I saw the classics: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. And I saw lots of works of art that I’d never heard of that impressed me much more.
The Mona Lisa was OK, I suppose. Probably would have looked better if I’d got within 20 feet of it, but it was set back inside a protective case, which meant you could only see it from almost directly in front of it. So there was a column of people across the room, all squinting and straining to see it.
I was quite impressed with the Venus de Milo, but it was the rooms full of giant Greek statues that I’d never heard of which really impressed me. It made me think, though – why all the fuss about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum when there are Greek artefacts all over the world? Why shouldn’t Greek works be seen outside Greece?
The first thing to do was work out the Paris metro. I was tired from the night train and it took me longer than it should have, but eventually I worked out how to get from République to the centre of town, and later still I worked out that it would have been quicker to walk it anyway.
I started off by checking out Notre Dame. It was extremely full of tourists and not particularly pleasant. The views from outside were nicer.
My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a vague idea, but gradually I began to think I would actually go, and finally, the day the exams finished, I packed my bags and decided to have a crack at it.
In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so I decided to skip buying a few essential things and head for Victoria. There, I found that the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King’s Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called ‘abroad’ is Scotland, their use there is limited. So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, and got on the ferry to France. The weather was great and the boat was almost empty, so I spread my things out over several tables, and enjoyed the ride.
Calais looked grim, and when I got to the station, I found that there was a train to Paris going in 10 minutes. I bought a ticket and headed east. Despite the train being almost empty, the conductor moved me on when he checked my ticket, as I was sitting in a reserved seat. He sent me off down the train, but there seemed to be no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren’t. He had to move me on twice more before I got it right. He then stamped my ticket seven times, muttered something in French which I assume was something like “idiot foreigner”, and stomped off.
At Boulogne, the train filled up with loud and obnoxious schoolkids. As they raced up and down the carriages, throwing things, picking their noses and burping, I found myself talking to a Pakistani bloke. He seemed to have been a refugee in most western European countries, and from what I could gather, he’d just been deported from Britain, and was going to try his luck in France. He’d already had experience of French bureaucracy – “Government write very much paper” – and didn’t hold out too much hope of getting very far.
We arrive in Paris at 9pm. I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est, and tried to buy a ticket to Budapest. But I was too poor and my card was rejected. So I revised my plans, and, seeing as there was a train to Munich leaving in 20 minutes, I bought a ticket and went there instead.
We were all sad when the field trip came to an end. We’d had good fun, done some good work, and become so addicted to the fabulous OHP coffee that some of us would not sleep properly for weeks. On the way down we’d had a brilliant journey from Lille to Avignon, getting enjoyably merry on cheap cans of beer in the restaurant car of the TGV and watching the French countryside race by. We tried the same thing on the way back but somehow it wasn’t as much fun.
We didn’t spend the entire time on the observatory site – the group hired a car, and on one of our days off, three of us went to see the Gorges du Verdon, allegedly the second biggest canyon in the world. We entered the canyon at its lower end, and drove through. Stunningly strong winds were blowing down the valley and at one viewpoint we couldn’t even get out of the car. It rocked about in the wind and we were pretty sure that if we’d have opened the door, it would have been torn off.
Further up the canyon we walked a little way up to a couple of view points. It started to snow briefly but luckily not for long, and we enjoyed standing right on the edge of heart-stopping precipices to look down on the tiny Verdon river far below. After that we drove back downstream, stopping again at the windiest point because it had the best views of the turqoise river. At the end of the valley, the river broadened, the wind dropped completely, and the Verdon carried on placidly towards the sea.
At the end of our 12-hour endurance sessions at the telescope, the pre-dawn skies usually looked stunning. A couple of times I actually managed to stay awake to see the sun come up. One morning, all the surrounding valleys were filled with fog, which looked like a giant reservoir of milk flowing over the countryside.
For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. “What is it you call the school for the little people?” he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we’d got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.
I went to Provence with a bunch of other astronomy students. We’d spent a lot of time at the University of London Observatory, learning the basics of astronomy, and now we were going to an actual professional observatory, the Observatoire de Haute Provence, from where the first planet outside our solar system had been discovered four years earlier.
The 12 of us travelling to Provence met early one February morning at Waterloo station to get the Eurostar to Lille, and then a TGV to Avignon. This was a fantastic journey through the wintry snow-covered countryside of central France. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the consumption of numerous cheap cans of beer in the buffet carriage.
At Avignon we were met by observatory staff and driven up to the observatory. We had a day to kill before our observing run started, and we spent it exploring the observatory, which is up on a hillside with some great views of the surrounding countryside. The air was fresh, the skies were clear, and things looked good.