France by Train

Hello beautiful world!  It’s only been a few days since my last post, but it’s been eventful for me.  I planned to leave Luxeuil-les-Bains on Friday, and arrive in Clermont-Ferrand the same night.  Alas, it was not to be.  So far I’ve had good luck in terms of travel – I haven’t had any trouble getting from place to place using ferries and trains.  That fateful day however, I missed my first train.  Sarah drove like a champion, but we got stuck in a maze of one-way streets, and we hadn’t left enough buffer time to get to the station, so I missed the train by about twenty minutes.

I did manage to change my ticket, though it was more difficult that it should have been because this weekend was Easter Weekend.  The whole world was traveling.  I wound up staying with Sarah and Vitalik for an extra night, and going to the station very early the next morning.  We watched Les Visiteurs, a dumb but hilarious movie about a time traveling medieval knight and his servant.  As I was making my morning tea I broke the sugar jar, and when we left for the station, the first thing we saw was a bunch of firemen putting out what looked like a house fire.  Two bad omens to start the day.

Despite this inauspicious beginning the train ride from Luxeuil to Clermont-Ferrand was uneventful, and the scenery was lovely.  My favourite part of traveling by train and the reason I prefer not to fly from city to city, is the views.  Planes are often cheaper and faster, but they involve airports, security, long waits, and nothing to look at but clouds.  Trains make me feel like I have seen the countryside, even though it goes by quickly. 

There is also a certain nostalgia to traveling by train.  It is very romantic.  I can imagine, as I rumble through the hills of central France, that I am a traveler from another time.  Instead of a backpack I have a trunk, and when I arrive at my destination I will descend the train into a city bustling with carriages and newfangled automobiles.  The cities in Europe retain enough of their ancient buildings and signs that it is not difficult to picture the people in gowns and waistcoats.  Traveling by train connects me to the long tradition of people who have done it all before me.  I buy postcards and croissants, and try to write novels, and pretend I am Ernest Hemingway in Paris.

I was met at the platform in Clermont-Ferrand by Jeremy, a dear friend from both high school and college who is doing a Master’s program here.  We’ve kept in touch well, despite the fact that one or the other of us always seems to be jetting off somewhere.  We dropped my stuff off in his teeny-tiny room, and then went for a walk around the city.

Clermont-Ferrand is in a volcanic region of France, and the most striking thing about it is the stone all of the older buildings are made of.  It’s black, volcanic rock, and makes everything look vaguely ominous.  Some of the buildings look as though they have been charred.  The city itself is fairly quiet.  There is a large Arab Muslim population, and several universities.  We walked through a lovely park with people picnicking and enjoying the weather.  There were also swans.  Menacing buggers. 

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I call this one “Leda and the Swan.”

Jeremy took me to the cathedral, which was perhaps the most unique I have ever seen.  It is made of the same black lava rock as the rest of the town, and as a result looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.  It’s in the Gothic style, and in black stone it was simply breathtaking.  Two spires dominate the front, with huge stained glass windows surmounting the giant double doors.  We entered at the side, and were greeted by more stained glass, a huge rosette set into a smaller alcove.  On the other side there is more stained glass and a huge clock with a black face and white numbers.  The only thing missing was a vampire sleeping in the crypt.

Inside, around the sides of the cathedral are many alcoves which are each dedicated to a specific saint, and serve as small chapels.  Most of them have more of the gorgeous stained glass, usually illustrating scenes from the life of the saint, but some of them have plain glass instead.  My guess is that these windows were damaged during WWI or II (or perhaps a different war) and have not been replaced.  This is the case with many cathedrals and churches in Europe, particularly France. 

The cathedral was impressive in its own right, but the black stone made it striking.  It felt bigger than it was, and darker, and heavier somehow.  The golden chandeliers stood out starkly against the arched ceilings, and the memorial candles in front of Saint Theresa’s chapel looked small and bright, like they were pillars of fire in some other dimension, only letting the smallest gleam through to this world.  I did not take pictures.  I could never have captured the grandeur of the place.

After being appropriately awestruck by the cathedral we went to an early dinner at a restaurant situated in a converted hotel.  The interior looked as though it hadn’t been changed since the early nineteen hundreds, with exposed brick and stone arches, a low ceiling, solid wooden tables, and candles in wrought iron holders.  We ate galettes, a local delicacy (similar to crepes but made with a different kind of flour) and local cider.  The cider is very light, and we were served an earthenware pitcher with two small bowls.  This is, apparently, the correct way to drink cider.

I find the accent here much easier to understand, which is a relief.  Nobody speaks English (or if they do they’re not telling) so I have been speaking a little more French.  My sentences are still awkward approximations, but at least I know exactly what I’m responding to! 

After eating, Jeremy took me to meet some of the other people in his program, and we ended up hanging out until quite late, drinking cheap wine (cheaper than the States and still better quality) and eating two of the local cheeses.  They have a little tradition of giving everyone codenames, so I was dubbed “Miss America.”  As I believe this gives me a better-than-average chance of getting into Captain America’s pants, I accepted the name with glee. 

Day Two in Clermont-Ferrand saw Jeremy and I rising late and going to the local street market, which takes place every Sunday.  Jeremy busked with his banjo for grocery money, and I fell into the trap of secondhand book vendors.  I was very restrained however, and did not buy the embossed, leather-bound set of Molière’s complete works.  I didn’t even buy the equally embossed and leather-bound three-volume set of Alexandre Dumas’ plays.  I did buy a pocket copy of the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo in the original French, because I’ve wanted to read it since forever.  I was also caught by a box of old postcards, and bought eight.  The oldest one is from 1909, and the handwriting is ornate and clearly written using a fountain pen.  One of them is in English.  I naturally left all of these purchases on Jeremy’s desk when I left this afternoon, so I will have to get him to bring them to me when he comes home in June.

We ended up walking around the city for eight and a half miles after leaving the market, and buying éclairs.  The Hunt for the Perfect Éclair is going well.  The one from Besançon was beaten by the most recent find, which was chocolatey and gooey and delicious.  We made dinner when we got back, and then hung out playing cards with more of Jeremy’s friends.  They’re all so nice.  I also booked a ticket to England (by train of course), and found a place to stay with a Couchsurfer in Nantes.  It will be my first time staying with a stranger, so it should be exciting and a new experience!  I will probably be Couchsurfing for the rest of my time in France, since hostels are shockingly pricey here, and I think I will enjoy meeting some locals.

My current vague travel plan is: go to Nantes and then work my way by train through Bretagne and up to Mont-St.-Michel, the little semi-island fortress in the South of Normandy.  I’ve been there once before, but I was too young to properly remember it, and I want to see it again.  Right now I am on the train on my way to Nantes, passing through fields of bright yellow rapeseed plants (Colza in French) that sometimes stretch all the way to the horizon.  It’s hard to take pictures from the train because it moves so fast, but the view is so striking that I did my best.

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Au revoir pour maintenent mes amis!

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2 thoughts on “France by Train

    • I almost wish I had photos… but some things can’t be captured on film (or pixels). I honestly don’t think the photos would have been very good – even aside from the difficulty of capturing the grandeur of the place, it was so dark inside that I think everything would have been blurry, since I don’t have a tripod. There are ore eclairs coming in the next post. Spoiler alert: I’m branching out from chocolate!

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