(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille

Marseille has been voted European Capital of Culture for 2013. Something to be proud of perhaps, but there are so many building works, road works, sewage works and promotional works going on that, by the time 2013 comes around, Marseille won’t be Marseille any more.

Toilet humour.

Everything, from the great squares, to the ports, to the monuments, to the pavements are blocked with workmen. It feels like a city in transition, but by the time it has transited it might find it’s lost itself on the way. I see superficial beautification, an emphasis on consumer chain shops and a whole bunch of unemployed men.

What would Euthymenes make of it all?
Who is Euthymenes?
A Greek explorer from Marseille, since you ask.

This is what the European Capital of Culture seems to bring to a city. It brought it to Liverpool in 2008 and now it is bringing it to Marseille. It seems to be a licence to throw money at a designated area of degradation, to turn it into something that it wasn’t before. The award of “European Capital of Culture” seems to me to be a euphemism, a way of disguising slum-clearance as something to be proud of.

I’m exaggerating there, I’m sure, but both Marseille and Liverpool are port towns facing disquieting futures. As far as the European Capital of Culture is concerned, this future must be tourism and shopping. That is all our secondary cities are good for now. In time, that is all Europe will be good for: a provincial destination for Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Russian and Gulf tourists wanting a taste of exotic European history.

Marseille is probably better placed than Liverpool for that, given that it is a south-facing city. It will always have the sunshine and the sea air and that will always be popular, until such a time as climate change makes it redundant. On the other hand, Liverpool will always have The Beatles. Liverpool will always be the city where a time (the sixties), a technology (recorded music) and a sound (pop) coincided and froze. The Beatles were the first global pop band and, as any businessman knows, the most critical asset in market penetration and brand awareness is to be first. There will never be another Beatles, not until the end of this civilisation, and Liverpool will be cashing in their myths for a long while yet.

But the European Capital of Culture bestowed on Liverpool not just a new cash pride in their culture, it also bestowed a new city centre: Liverpool ONE. Liverpool ONE is a privately owned network of 169 shops and services straddling six streets in what was once the centre of the city. It opened in 2008, Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture. Socio-economic development is now one of the criteria for awarding that honour. It is transparently not solely about culture. Since when was economics cultural?

There is nothing I’ve seen in Marseille to match the monstrosity of the Liverpool One shopping centre, with its faux public spaces, its private branded security guards, its private branded litter bins and benches. But the Rue de la Republique has become a string of international chains, and not all of them pearls. I saw many shops you could buy from, but not too many you could live with.

I should say that I’m directing my criticisms, as the European Capital of Culture directs its blessings, at the city centre. The banlieue, the suburbs, will still put cleaners, cooks and captains on life support, to supply services for the centre. And of course there are still scousers living in post European Capital of Culture Liverpool, just as there will still be maghrebi men living in Marseille, lounging on car bonnets down the Rue des Petites Maries, waiting for house paint jobs, talking on mobile phones, taking a coffee, smoking a cigarette.

But these people aren’t the people that the European Capital of Culture wants. The European Capital of Culture wants tourists, people who will spend money in idleness, all day, every day, to support the structures that support them. The European Capital of Culture wants – no, demands people like me.

The maghrebi men, just like the scousers, provide not always welcome local colour. One walks the quay, selling petits pains from a deep hessian sack. One plays the trumpet, his wife collecting pennies with bonjours. One manipulates a marionette to paint portraits. One cycles past screaming. Local colour.

Local colour, making local noise.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Trains

Over the past few days, the universe has been telling me loud and clear: “You should be on a bicycle, not on a train.”

You see, I had the temerity to use trains to go and visit my friend in Hamburg. But the universe didn’t like this and so the universe made things very expensive. Then, when that didn’t halt my progress, the universe made things highly inconvenient. Then, when that didn’t stop my passage, the universe decided to get radical. The universe struck down the entirety of Northern France’s rail network. The universe brought on soldiers with machine guns. The universe threw bodies onto train lines.

But still I prevail.

Firstly, I have a strong recommendation for anyone wishing to travel in Europe using any mode of transport other than their own. Make a plan. Book in advance. Be boring, or else expect to pay for your spontaneity. It would seem that modern train fares encourage the sort of constrained thinking that also dogs aviation as a mode of transport: advanced planning and point-to-point travel. I can bear witness to this.

I only decided that I wanted to go direct to Hamburg from Paris last Wednesday. It was a spur of the moment sort of decision. I wanted to go that day because I wanted to see my friend and there’s only so much you can spend on patisseries in Paris. So I went to the train station: a train that day would cost me 200 euros. One way.

I left the train station and went to an internet café. I calculated forty-seven different ways of transporting myself and my bike from Paris to Hamburg and thence to Marseille by train (I had also decided that France on the whole was overpriced and underheated). The cheapest option, it transpired, was to buy an Interrail pass for 267 euros, not including mandatory train reservations, which cost extra.

So I returned to the Gare du Nord and engaged in proxy combat with a computer booking system through the exhausted mouse of an SNCF employee. I could not travel on an Interrail pass that day. There are limited places available, you see, for people with Interrail passes. Normally, my SNCF told me, you should book months in advance. She clicks her teeth at this, as if I have personally put her out with my spontaneity.

But to her credit, she locks horns once more with the binary code on the other side of the silicon and comes back with a new plan: I can go tomorrow, changing at Brussels and Cologne. She winces: it will take over ten hours. I don’t care. Ten hours? I can swallow that. She leads me carefully through the itinerary and also books me onto trains back from Hamburg and to Marseille. I am now locked in to travel at specific times to specific places. Reservation supplements bring the total cost to well over 300 euros. I swallow it. She hands me my tickets. It would appear that I’m now French. She takes back the tickets and reprints me back into an Englishman.

I leave the poor SNCF employee shaking with effort (she actually closes her window) and roll my bike over to the information office. I make a half-hearted attempt to find out about how to transport my bike on the TGV train to Marseille. The information dude thinks I just have to pay a supplement. So whatever. I leave my bike at a friend’s place in the deuxieme and enjoy a last Parisian supper.

The universe has successfully made things expensive and inconvenient. These I can swallow. I even take it in good part when I confuse Hamburg-Hauptbahnhof and Hamburg-Altona, forcing my friend to travel across town, at risk of prosecution for fare evasion, to meet me. Over ten hours on a train, but aside from incipient piles, no permanent damage done. The trip back will be better: eight and a half hours and only the one change in Cologne.

One happy train.

Or so I thought. The universe was not done with me.

I caught the train from Hamburg to Cologne at about half eleven. At about half three I arrived in Cologne. At about half four I caught the train from Cologne direct to Paris. At about seven we made a scheduled stop in Brussels. We were about ten minutes late. I quietly accepted this fact.

Then we stayed stopped in Brussels.

An announcement declared that we would be here for at least an hour, due to an electrical fault. They made it sound like a light bulb had blown. In fact, the whole of the Northern France rail network was power-less. An hour and a half later, we still hadn’t moved, although I had bought several packets of biscuits.

An announcement told us to consider postponing our travel plans. Nobody, they portentously announced, is travelling into France. An odd announcement, that. It didn’t actually say that trains were cancelled, just that we might like to consider postponing. So I joined an exquisitely long queue of people trying to get tickets changed, vaguely wondering what this would mean for my onward travel to Marseille the next morning.

I happily stood in the queue for about half an hour (as an Englishman, I know my place). A film crew was interviewing an excited gaggle of American girls in front of me. I was just getting to the part where I could almost see the doors of the ticket office, when a casual voice announced in French: “Mesdames et messieurs. Le train pour Paris Gare du Nord partira a vingt-et-un-heure-quinze du quai six.”

Quoi? I look at my phone. That’s now! I don’t wait to hear the message repeated in Dutch, German and English: I run for the platform. There are four trains-worth of passengers who want this train. The French-speakers are rather unfairly placed first in the stampede. Security guards try to stop us. The Thalys train people flap their hands to slow us down. We hit the escalator. A film crew (how had they got there?) was blocking it from surging up, so a few people try running up the down escalator. The security guards drag them off, so they start to walk up the down escalator, getting nowhere. A priest breathless behind me raises his hands to heaven – Merci Thalys!

The atmosphere on board is electric. The only electricity in Northern Europe, apparently. An announcement says that this is the Thalys service to Paris Gare du Nord and that we’ll be travelling on la route classique, which sounds lovely. He’ll tell us at Lille what time we’ll get to Paris.

We arrive in Lille at quarter past ten, but we’re last in the backed-up queue to France. The driver says we won’t move for forty-five minutes. Then we move and the driver says we’ll arrive in Paris at 00h45. This is shockingly late to stay at my friend’s flat. She’ll leave the key outside the door. Finally the announcement is that we’ll arrive at 01h30. Each new delay is greeted with something approaching glorious hysteria. I think everyone is just glad to be going somewhere, sometime.

When we arrive (and we do, finally, arrive), Thalys are handing out water and a box that contains magical coffee that gets hot when you shake it. I think they’re putting on taxis as well, but I’m glad to walk down Boulevard de Strasbourg to my friend’s place, ignoring the prostitutes sheltering in phone booths. I’m looking forward to a few hours couch kip before my next train south to Marseille – this time with my bike – at ten the next morning.

Or so I thought. The universe has one last desperate trick up its sleeve.

I get to the station the next morning and ask the information people about how to buy a ticket for my bike. They say go to the ticket office. I queue for the ticket office, arriving with about fifteen minutes to spare before my train departs. Perfect.

Then: they don’t take bikes unless they’re in bags. Bags? The woman looks at me angrily, like I’ve personally put her out with my poor planning. Tsk. I go to the train anyway. Maybe they’ll let me on after all. Maybe it’s not busy. Maybe I’ll get a kindly guard. Maybe.

No.

But I do get helped by a kindly passenger, who directs me to a local branch of Go Sport, where I can buy a body bag for my bike. This is when the universe decides to really go for it. I leave my bike chained up outside the station, against an innocent-looking wall. I go for a pee. I come back and see three soldiers in full battle fatigue, nervously gripping semi-automatic rifles. One of them is looking at my bike. A couple of firemen stand around, smoking. I see the soldiers and think – oh that’s funny, they’re near my bike. I stand around, not wanting to get too close to men with guns. The soldiers storm past me into the station. I creep up to my bike. A fireman asks me if it’s mine. I admit responsibility. The alert is called off. The soldiers let me go, mysteriously explaining that it is all part of the “terrorist plan”. I hurry away to a boulangerie.

Then I cycle to the Go Sport shop. It is raining by this point, another part of the universe’s plan. I will pay anything to get out of here. I need the south: it won’t be raining in the south. Anyway, how much can a bag really cost? 10 euro? 20 euro?

Well, 75 euros, apparently. More than the cost of a ticket if you plan in advance, as I strongly recommend. I baulk at this robbery and try to cook up an alternative plan involving a friend’s flatmate, a scooter and Montpellier. It comes to nothing and I have to buy the bag. It is 80 euros by the time I get it to the register. I swallow it. The assistant sweetly informs me that there are bags available for 100 and 200 euros. I took their last cheap bag. Lucky me. At least the ticket office at Gare de Lyon allow me to change my ticket for free.

The bag necessitated collapse of my bike into component parts: wheels, frame and handlebar, but into the bag it eventually went. I was all set, following rules and feeling sick about it. I buy a book to boost morale. The universe, despite bringing in the military, will not win. I shall get to Marseille.

Spot the bicycle.

But still the universe was not done with me. At this stage, though, even the universe knows when it is beaten. So all it could muster were fate’s snide remarks, irony and mild inconvenience. The train was half-empty and could have accommodated an elephant, let alone a bike – with or without the world’s most expensive bag (which, incidentally, already had a hole in it). At Aix-en-Provence we heard an announcement that a man was on the line (it was unclear if he knew he was there or not) and there would be a delay of around ten minutes. Ten minutes? Is that all you’ve got left, universe? Ha!

So in Marseille I did finally arrive. It was a stunning entrance, all sun and sandstone. I dragged my bags into the sunset and busily reassembled my bike. Wrongly. A kindly man in hip-hop shades pointed out that my fourchette was back to front as I replaced the handlebars. The universe is kindly. I then cycled down a hill, only to realise that the hostel I wanted to stay at was up the hill. I pushed my bike up the one-way hill and looked into the hostel: complet, full. I kept on walking past, winking at the universe. Then I stopped. I turned around. It won’t hurt to ask. They’ll be able to direct me to another hostel, I’m sure. I ask at the desk. They are not complet. In fact, when I arrive, I am the only person in my room.

It does fill up later with three others, including the mandatory snorer, a mild woman of middle age with the respiratory system of a Harley Davidson.

Universe: let’s call it a draw, yeah?

Worth taking on the universe for: Marseille.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Hamburg

This is Hamburg.
Please note: This is not actually Hamburg.

I wasn’t supposed to be here, really. Not until the Sunday before I left England. I then wasn’t supposed to be here so early. Not until I had dallied in Paris too long to cycle to Bonn. Bonn, where I was supposed to collect a train to Hamburg. Instead, I dallied in Paris, ate croissants aux amandes, went to the theatre and drank vin rouge. It was all very Paris.

This is actually Hamburg.

And the suddenly it wasn’t very Paris, it was very Hamburg. By which I mean: ports, building sites, graffiti, squats, ships, cranes, burlesque life-drawing, wind-farms, compound nouns and absurd uses of the word ‘super’.

“Brunch”, c. 2 p.m.

Still, I was pleased to see that they do patisserie here and have duly invested heavily in baked goods. I was also pleased to see that they have shoe shops here and have duly invested in a pair. Of shoes, not shops. So Hamburg passed by in a glaze of eating (Pakistanisch, Portugiesisch, “Brunch”), walking (docks, Schulterblatt, Alstersee) and keeping my hair out of the wind. None of which is interesting to you, I’m sure.

So I won’t say any more about Hamburg, except to invite you to suggest purposes for their tower:

Flying saucer? Mind control tower? Enormous hypodermic needle? Whatever it is, there are plenty of them in Germany.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Paris

I never meant to go to Paris. I never really meant to stay in any one place for more than a day or two and I certainly never meant to do a lot of walking.

So that’s why I spent four days in Paris, à pied.

My bicycle necessitated repairs, which was why I went to Pairs in the first place. The cycle shops in Vernouillet were closed on Mondays. So I caught a train to Paris-Saint-Lazare and cycled to a superior Parisien cycle shop. It was closed on Mondays.

With a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, I decided to have lunch.

What happened next is a little hard to explain, but it involves Shakespeare, a packet of karmic tissues and Cyrano de Bergerac. Anyway, it’s a story probably best told over a carafe of Bordeaux, to get the real atmosphere. I can’t pour wine over the internet (licensing laws, eh!), but one thing led to another, led to me spending three nights in Paris. Besides, all you want is my cinematoscopic photography in the city of light, isn’t it?

Well, this is what I saw on my sightseeing tour:

Notre Dame Cathedral

The Eiffel Tower

Beautiful.

What was not beautiful was the unfortunate beast who occupied the lower bunk bed from mine at the hostel. He appeared to be a Brazilian musician, but I never actually exchanged words with him (except curses under my breath) because I never encountered him awake. He seemed only capable of sleep during the day; during the night he preferred a symphony of coughing, choking, shaking, mumbling, sneezing, snoring, smacking lips, cracking fingers. Then finally his alarm goes off – evidentally not to wake himself up because he’d never been asleep. I felt sorry for him, really. Well, up to a point. I stayed there two nights, the third I spent on a couch in the deuxième – far more comfortable.

So that was Paris. What is beautiful is not the stone or the river or the people, but the company. Walking through cobbled streets alone only hurt my achilles. Sitting riverside alone in my ragged stinking clothes, surrounded by chic Parisiens, only brought on acute social anxiety. Staring up at marble and wrought iron only made me feel like all human endeavour is vanity. But when I offered my packet of karmic tissues to a sniffly girl in Shakespeare & Co. then Paris became Paris. But that is another story, like I said.

Cycling to the Sahara: London (ish) to Paris (ish)

No I haven’t got a drinking problem (ish), it’s just that I’m lazy and couldn’t be bothered to cycle all the way through London.

So I started my journey on a train, astonishing rail workers and elderly ladies alike by saying I was going to France. In truth, I was going to Caterham. Then I was going to France. Via Newhaven and a ferry.

Of course, the important thing to remember when doing a London-Paris cycle ride is that the pizza shop in Newhaven is awful.

CAUTION: Pizzabike

The above pizza hacked a destructive path through my intestines, stirring up all kinds of malodorous gusts for the rest of the day. That would be reason enough to catch a ferry from Portsmouth or Dover – but another reason is that the Newhaven-Dieppe ‘overnight’ ferry arrives bang in the dead of dark.

Due to some kind of arbitrary time-zone discrepancy between Britain and France, what I thought would be five hours of sleep turned out to be only four. So I effectively started cycling at three a.m., my time, after about two hours of ferry seat-sleep.

If you’ve never cycled through Seine-Maritime at 4 o’clock in the morning, then it looks a bit like this:

Seine-Martime at 4 a.m.

Ahh – only joking! It looks more like this:

The church at Arques-la-Bataille

But what I lost in sight-seeing, I gained in noise-hearing and smell-smelling. And thankfully there was almost zero traffic-trafficking – breathful, blissful solitude.

There is an excellent cycle path that goes almost all the way from Dieppe through Seine-Maritime – une avenue verte, a green avenue – but you can’t see green in the dark, so I didn’t pick it up until Neufchâtel-en-Bray. Flat, quiet, green and with conversational information boards on the life-cycle of drinking water and the compostition of the solar system, this is a premium cycle path.

The same cannot be said of the D915. This is a main road from Dieppe to Paris. Don’t use it unless you want to die.

So I took the D915 from Gournay-en-Bray to Sérifontaine, a chokey ride through 15km of car fumes. Up hill. 

At about this time I decided to get cold. Really cold. Although the sun had apparently risen by half seven, I’d yet to see any of it. The clouds were heavy and mist blew in my face. My immune system must have been annoyed at my lack of sleep, nutrition (pains aux raisins don’t count) and suitable clothing (sandals, really?) because it proceeded to evacuate litres of sneeze-goo from my nasal orifices.

On a side note: if you ever see a man on a bicycle sneezing, give him plenty of wobble room. The aftershock from one of my eruptions was enough to send me careering across the carriageway and, on the D915, that’s not a healthy move.

Luckily, I made it to Gisors. It has a castle. I managed to take a photo, which was pretty heroic of me, considering how much snot was oozing from my face.

Gisors castle. Through the pain.

Yes I know it’s a rubbish photo. Live with it.

Cycling along the minor roads of the Vexin region is rather pleasant. And my health seemed to pick up no end after the acquisition of a pain aux amandes in Seraincourt. It was still not sufficiently snotless to take any photographs of the beautiful church or château at Gadancourt. Are you grateful for that Gisors castle photo now?

So I managed to cross the Seine at about four p.m., after ten hours of cycling. I was expecting this to be a romantic, mythical moment, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but it turns out that the Seine is only romantic and mythical in Paris. In Les Mureaux it looks out over an industrial works and an indoor swimming pool.

But after a hundred miles of pedalling, you don’t give a toss about romantic and mythical arrivals. That’s why, to rendez-vous with my friend, I chose a local landmark: Lidl. She led me through the baffling twists of Parisian commuter belt sprawl to a real warm home, with a shower and a kitchen.

And that’s what I love about cycling: the feeling of hot water on skin and raclette in stomach.