Un, deux, Troyes

Mention the French city of Troyes to any English person and you’ll probably get the response, “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been there.” This is because it is efficiently by-passed by the A5 autoroute, meaning that anyone travelling from the Channel ports to the South of France will have seen Troyes on signposts scores of times but probably won’t have stopped off for a visit. This is an error!
To clear up the first question everyone asks, the pronunciation is as in un, deux trois, and not as in “Helen of …”. Troyes is the capital of the Champagne region, and large amounts of the sparkling nectar are drunk here, even though the bottling plants and cellars are mainly in nearby Reims.
The medieval city of Troyes is a charming place to wander round and, because it’s not nearly such a tourist magnet as it ought to be, it’s pleasantly quiet. Fairy-tale half-timbered buildings, impeccably restored, cluster round the market place and down the numerous narrow alleyways, the best-known of which is the “Ruelle des Chats”, or “Cat Alley”.
The city centre is enclosed within a network of roads which, on a map, exactly resembles a champagne bottle cork, and is thus known as the “Bouchon de Champagne”. Within this area, you can stroll from restaurant to creperie to bar unhindered by traffic. Just outside the central area lies the Catholic cathedral, which dates from the twelfth century and contains some of the most stunning stained glass windows to be found anywhere in France. Just adjacent to the cathedral is the Museum of Modern Art, with an ever-changing collection of top quality abstract works.
Once you have soaked up sufficient history (the Seine, incidentally, flows through the city), Troyes presents unusual shopping opportunities. The area’s main industry is clothes manufacture, so on every corner there are “bonneteries” selling “seconds”, and also a large number of full-scale outlets offering designer clothing at bargain prices. Among labels manufacturing in the Troyes area are Le Coq Sportif, for sports gear, and Le Petit Bateau, for children’s clothes.
During the day, there is much to explore. Within half an hour’s drive lies the Forêt d’Orient, a vast wooded area rich in wildlife and ideal for walking, cycling and picnicking. At the centre of the forest is a large lake with extensive water sports facilities and even its own artificial beach!
Dining in Troyes is extensive and traditional, with the emphasis firmly on meat. The local speciality is Andouillettes de Troyes (coarse sausages). And before you leave, don’t forget to head up into the hills and visit a few of the local small champagne vineyards, where you can taste the goods and buy at bargain prices.
So next time you’re on the A5, don’t ignore the Troyes signs – follow them!
From the Hampshire Chronicle

Read More

My Holiday Disaster

To be fair, we were warned. When in Poland, the guide book said, be prepared for the public toilets to be challenging. Snort. For veterans of the original, now fast disappearing French “Flush and Run” specials, what possible terrors could Poland’s conveniences hold?
You can’t avoid them, unless you’re teetotal. The seductive nature of the extremely strong and outrageously cheap beer (“piwo”, such a sweet name, don’t you think?) means that an occasional visit is essential.
It was my wife who first alerted me to possible problems. Disappearing into the depths of the cellar of the central arcade in the “Reynek” (market place) in Krakow, she took a worryingly long time to reappear. It transpired that, after a lengthy queuing procedure, she had been severely told off by the “babcia klozetowa” (brutal old lady in charge of handing out the regulation two sheets of toilet paper). My wife had had the temerity to protest (via sign language) that this wasn’t much of a deal for 40 groszy. But the main hold-up had been caused by a fruitless search for a flushing mechanism and a fear of public humiliation if she re-emerged without having flushed. It was only after having finally given up hope that she discovered that the mechanism was activated by opening the cubicle door.
A couple of piwos later, I had no choice but to follow. Sure enough, I promptly had a run-in with the babcia klozetowa, who tried to claim that I had performed a function other then the one I had. You see, a pee costs 40 groszy, something more substantial costs 50 groszy. On this occasion, I was accused of trying to get away cheaply, despite the fact that her beady eyes had been on me throughout the operation.
What happened at the gloriously down-at-heel Hotel DomTurysty in Zacopane (jewel of the Tatra Mountains) was, however, more than a joke. Taken short (50 groszys worth) in the breakfast room, I wrongly assumed that the hotel’s facilities would be free. I had already entered the loo when I realised that I had no money. Pounced upon by the duty crone, who thought I was leaving, not arriving, I had to suffer a tyrade of abuse as I tried to explain that I was just going back to fetch my fee.
On returning, I proffered the 50 groszy, which were quickly pocketed. Unfortunately, she thought it was in payment of my alleged previous foray, and now refused to let me in. When all pleading failed, I had no choice but to return to the dining room yet again, to get another 50 groszy.
This gained me admission (thank God), but in the kerfuffle, the guardian hadn’t given me my two sheets of loo paper, a fact which I didn’t actually realise until I physically required it. A furtive peer out of the cubicle door revealed that the crone had now gone off for a break. The only way to get hold of any paper was to hop, trousers round ankles, to the attendant’s kiosk and remove the paper from where it lay, enticingly, on a shelf. I don’t think the two Dutch backpackers who witnessed this operation will ever get over the trauma.
From the Independent on Sunday

Read More

Echo Beach

The sound of the Rainstick is a melancholy one. It’s a noise which attracts a bizarre collection of addicts to the beach at Eype, just outside Bridport, on the West Dorset coast. In the case of the Rainstick, the sound is created by little stones tumbling through a network of twigs. At Eype, it’s the waves breaking with metronomic regularity onto the steep bank of pebbles which form the shoreline.
So timeless and reliable is this sound that it tends to induce laughably frightening thoughts such as “How many pebbles are there in the world?”. These are thoughts which may or may not cross the minds of the small but dedicated number of people who, rain or shine, winter or summer, day or night, can be found sitting on the pebble bank, staring out to sea for hours on end. What it is about certain places which gives them the power to mesmerise in this way?
In the week we spent at Eype, rain fell ceaselessly for 72 hours and it was shrouded in fog for the rest of the time. Yet the (well-hidden) caravan park was full, the campsite was full, the B & Bs were full and no one showed any discontent or desire to leave. They must have been regulars, since it takes a real effort to get there. The lane is so winding and narrow that some people assume they’re on the wrong road and turn back; anyone attempting to approach on foot has to negotiate steep, tortuous cliff paths.
One afternoon, I was stopped by a middle-aged gentleman who pretended he wanted to ask the way. He introduced himself as being a Russian poet from Leningrad and, within moments, had produced from his rucksack a slim hardback book containing his own poems, all dedicated specifically to this small stretch of Dorset coastline. The almost spiritual sincerity shone through so brightly that I read them avidly. Each poem had also been painstakingly translated into Russian. He hailed a passing walker to take a picture of me studying his literary work.
Leonid is by no means the only one to find Eype beach artistically inspirational. The African master drummer Noah Messomo holds highly atmospheric drum workshops here (“turn right”, say the directions) and the artist John Skinner leads beach sculpture sessions. Musician Jackie Leven credits the locality as influential in his work, and the singer and songwriter Polly Harvey is specifically inspired by these very waves and pebbles.
At 1 a.m. one night, we met in the lane a woman called Fiona and her young daughter who had driven that day all the way from Rotherham. Their husband and father had deserted them ten days earlier and they’d chosen Eype beach as the place to “find themselves”. Overcome with emotion as they told their story, they nonetheless were obviously gaining in strength and determination from their pilgrimage. They had two Rotweilers. “Don’t trust them,” said Fiona. “They don’t like men.”
Even in the middle of the night, there are figures hunched up on the top of the pebble bank. With their Hurricane lamps and their Thermoses, the dedicated shore fishermen of Eype spend most of their lives there. They never seem to catch anything, so what are they doing? It’s obvious: They are composing songs, writing poems and discovering the true meaning of life.
From the Hampshire Chronicle

Read More