Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cross Countries

Ejecting ourselves from the hotel, we quickly reach the border and leave Spain. After a few hours, we arrive in Arles, the regional capital of Provence. It is an eminently pleasant little town, exhibiting all the kinds of charm that Calella lacked; the contrast is remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising, as people actually live in Arles and have spent centuries making it into an environment to suit their tastes. Interestingly enough, the French fierce cultural self-sufficiency actually enhances the experience: swapping the few French words I can muster with the cashier at a small grocery store, you get the further feeling that if this is not a town dedicated to tourist service, then you are not a tourist, simply a traveller passing through on his way to further adventures. Arles features an excellent river (the Rhone, as in Cotes Du), a smattering of Roman ruins restored just enough to be useful without losing authenticity, and a wonderful old town with battered streetsigns leading to notable churches through back alleys: again, the churches are there for the locals, and nobody here cares enough to build wide boulevards leading up to them. Arles’s greatest claim to fame is that Theo van Gogh recovered here after cutting off his ear. I catch a brief glimpse of a local troupe performing a street version of what looks like Cyrano around the old hospital building and its highly agreeable flowery courtyard, dragging the audience around with them to a new location for each scene. I understand not a word, but still enjoy the performance.

Arles inadvertently and poignantly underscores the ridiculousness of the Estonian real estate market, as I spot a sign in the window of a house for sale. In the old town, in a sidestreet between the Roman arena and one of the more significant churches, sufficiently away from the touristy bits but still well within strolling distance of everything, it carries an asking price of 113 000 Euros – or some 1.7 million kroons. Sure, it looks like it’s no more than a relatively solid box at this point, for three floors and a 60m2 terrace in a seemingly great location in the bloody South of bloody France, they are asking about the same money as a semi-decent two-bedroom apartment in Tartu (or a broom closet in Tallinn). Suddenly and inexplicably, my thoughts turn to my pension fund.

Another blast down the autoroute and a night in what is by far the seediest F1 hostel yet, and we set off for Grasse, a town just uphill from Cannes and home to the French perfume industry. We are given a tour around a perfume factory and an extended sales pitch; I’m sure this is good product at a great discount, but I have no use for it.

We proceed to Nice, and I am forced to admit, it rather is. I have a cafe au lait on the Promenade des Anglais, just so I can later nonchalantly mention having done so to strangers, and stroll around for a couple of hours. Yes, the water really is beautifully, inexcusably blue.

The coach climbs into the hills and circumvents Monaco, which we glimpse from a high vantage point (I give my camera’s zoom function a workout). The rest of the day is spent in a hard blast right across northern Italy, including a gas station stopover, where I chat to the pilot of an old BMW 5-series with English plates and a lot of sponsor stickers on it; they were in a charity race from England to Rome and the beamer had broken down irrevocably.

We stop for the night at a campsite outside Venice (and when I say outside, I mean on the nearest bit of continent). The dug-in old caravan is, curiously enough, a marked improvement on the F1 motels, although not enough to make me understand why people insist on hauling these things about the countryside, when the not inconsiderable purchase price of one will likely cover the cost of charming little hotels for many a year’s worth of vacation. I briefly consider growing a Jason Lee moustache.

I am extremely impressed by the history of Venice, which was an independent state – and a pretty significant one at that – from the early 5th century and until the unification of Italy in 1870. That’s a span of more than fourteen hundred years, and the fact that Venice’s statehood usefully exceeds that of the Roman empire is an excellent example of the very pertinent idea that it is better to expand one’s influence through trade than through conquest – a point that cannot be made well enough these days.

The city of Venice itself is an interesting place to have visited, once, but no more than that. I was especially interested in it after I read an excellent book set there – Joseph Kanon’s Alibi – but these days it seems to have no purpose other than a tourist trap. Maybe I’m jaded, but once you’ve seen St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, the canal infrastructure is not in itself awe-inspiring, and that part of the world is not short of old palazzos anywhere. Unless the San Marco cathedral and the relics contained therein carry a special significance to you, Venice does not seem to contain anything spectacular. Still, I stretch the limits of the Italian I acquired in Rome and grab a gelato just off the Ponte Rialto. It’s excellent.

We blast north, across a significant chunk of Italy and into Austria. I’ve not had much regard for Austria before, suspecting that it was the result of God’s early experiment at giving Germans a sense of humor; the result was so gruesome that it had to be encased in mountains, for the sake of the rest of humanity. I had an Austrian for a boss, back when I sold inflatable dildos on eBay, and the most interesting fact I learned from him was that in Austria, your academic degree is literally part of your legal name. He had „Magister“ in his passport, and said that while he wouldn’t need to immediately change his documents when he got his doctorate, it would indeed be changed to „Doktor“ when they expired and got replaced.

My adjusted assessment of Austria is based almost entirely on a view from the autobahns, but I have to say, it wasn’t half bad; somehow I got the impression that unlike Germany, Austria does not take itself too seriously.

We stop overnight just over the border in Czech, in an old pile still carrying the pride of 80s Eastern Bloc interior design. The next day sees us cover all of Czech and most of Poland, including a ridiculous amount of time spent in Warsaw traffic. We stop twice, both times in a Tesco; the first is still in Czech and I take the opportunity to grab a bottle of beer, because you really have to. It helps the time go by, but when we pull into another Tesco in Poland, I am groggy and not entirely sure what I’m doing there. The rapid change from Czech koruns to Polish zlotys gives me an appreciation for Euros: travelling around the continent and having to adjust to new currency at every rest stop would drive you insane.


Kristopher said...

Ah, it's great reading when you find a place you like. No temptation to stay and find your own way back? They've got you on a schedule from hell with that damn coach.

But Arles is also where Van Gogh (Vince not Theo) started losing his mind, and it begs the question of has this happened to other people? There must be a reason why prices are so low.

Plus, what if people ask you where you're from? "Arles" -- you sound like a pirate gargling.

I doubt the US could match that sort of price though. Just the terrace is 60 m2? Great deals in the US now but probably in soon-to-be ghost "new towns", identical houses of ticky tacky - enough to drive one mad.

Unknown said...

Theo? The great art dealer and kid brother of Vincent van Gogh, the one painter EVERYBODY knows? Amazing. Maybe ear-cutting ran in the family.

Not the most successful trip in terms of expanding cultural knowledge then eh.


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