Friday, February 13, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Eleven

Friday, 16 December, 1988
Toulouse to Moissac to Toulouse and on to Paris

Found out last night I’d have to skip Souillac-- the train schedules were impossible. So I spent the typically-gray morning getting traveller’s cheques changed, picking up my Youth Hostel pass at the Poste Restante window, buying a new battery for the Olympus, and trying to find 36-exposure slide film. Very difficult-- and very expensive when you do find it.

I've got enough French to clearly ask a passerby where the nearest camera store was; my deficiency was in understanding the answer. In France they don’t tell you to go right or left so many blocks or streets. No, they tell you how many meters away the place is. But I've got no ear for high numbers in French. And even with me being an architect, I'm a lousy judge of distance. So I'd go whichever way the person was pointing, walk down that street to the next intersection, ask someone else the same question, and repeat and repeat till at last I made it to where I needed to be. No hope of comparison shopping at more than one camera store under those circumstances! I had to take what I could get.

As I was on my errands I noted something worth mentioning. It’s odd how you’ll see different sides of a town on different days. Last couple of days it’s seemed as if the streets of Toulouse were populated by nothing but tres chic upper-middle class types, but today, it seemed as if I noticed a homeless or impoverished person lying in two or three doorways per block. Of all ages and both sexes, too. I never know quite what to think of people my own age or younger who do that. You’d think they’d be able to find something . . . but maybe they’re too depressed.

At the last I decided to go say goodbye to St.-Sernin. When I got there I realized I’d never gone round behind the basilica and looked at the chevet. So I did and mon Dieu, it’s the prettiest thing! Those cylinders just build and build in that rose brick with the white trim, up and up to that fabulous tower. And I hadn’t brought my camera this time!

After that, back to the hotel at Place Wilson, picked up my luggage, and snagged a taxi. I was running close on the time for the train at 1:50 to Moissac.

At la gare Matabiau I put my baggage except for the cameras into a locker and caught my train. Not a terribly long ride. Arrived; followed my nose and the signs to the abbey church of St.-Pierre.

Saw the cloister first. As is becoming customary, I was the only one there, except for the nice young man selling billets at le guichet.

Sun did not cooperate aujourd’hui. Still, I took my time going around and examining each and every capital. It’s much easier recognising the ones with the parables or other Old or New Testament themes. I’m afraid I’m not as firm on church-age iconography as I should be.

The sculpture is in various stages of preservation. There’s obviously been some restoration work done in some cases, in materials with worse wearing capabilities than parts that look to be original. The plaques of the apostles, which I take to be 12th C., are in very good shape.

It was pretty cold there and I got to thinking about the monastic vocation. I could see how you had to have one, a vocation, I mean, to put up with reformed Benedictine conditions (the refectory† didn’t even have a door on it! At least, not fitted into the doorway arch, since that had been frescoed, which I hadn’t expected to see, and there was no sign of hinge mortises in the stone surface). And I could understand how the Cluniacs‡ could slide into luxury. The alternative was there, and not particularly attractive.

As for me, I haven’t much endurance at all. I spent some time figuring up how much more time I have to go on this exile and wasn’t too pleased to find I wasn’t even halfway through. Twenty-three more days.

Well, I can always kill time looking at late Romanesque capitals.

Around to the south portal of the church after that. Discovered it’s on one side of a southwest corner porch. There is a west door, too, but I suppose it’s not as often used. I think the porch does go most of the way across the west front of the church.

Anyway, everybody was there in that portal just as they were supposed to be: Jesus in glory with all the Twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse around Him (I love it when translations put that as ‘old men’) and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the lionesses (they are all lionesses) on the trumeau and Peter and Paul on the jambs. It wasn’t exactly St.-Denis but it’s getting there.

There’re even little bits of carving up the outer jambs and continuing into the archivolts. Mostly naturalistic, shells and flowers and things.

Inside, the church is-- different. Very mural, no side aisles, and it’s all been frescoed-- so that it looks as if it’s been wall-papered.

(I was amused by the big furnace installed in one of the side chapels, with its blower aimed into the nave.)

One of the main streets of Moissac extends out of the plaza in front of the south portal. There was a little shop just a few yards up from the church where I finally fulfilled my craving for some jewelry. Bought some earrings with abalone shell inserts for 40F. Trouble was, when I looked at them outside, out of the warm showcase lights, I saw they were vermeil and not the silver I thought I’d gotten. Almost wish I’d gone back and spent the 10F more on the ones that were.

The town seems pretty lively. Wandered around until time for the train, which wasn’t due till 7:10. They have an exhibition hall donated in 1930 by the city of Paris, all decorated in Art Nouveau. Too late to get any decent shots of it, though.

Cold, so I ducked into a salon de thé and had some hot chocolate. Bought a pastry (a jesuite) and a piece of pizza to take with.

Only 5:30 by then so I took my time heading back to the station. Moissac’s streets are all strung with Christmas lights, too. Into a bookstore for a minute and glanced at a French news magazine. More on Armenia, but I’m not sure what the problem is there. Surely the rioting hasn’t broken out into civil war!

About three blocks from the station I stopped for another hot chocolate. Interestingly, here in France they serve that with the sugar on the side. It comes somewhat bitter, more akin to coffee than to a dessert drink.

To the station a little after 6:00. Ate the piece of pizza (turns out "pizza nature" means without meat) and waited for the train. There were a number of children in the station, too, and the father, as I supposed, of two of them was saying something about Montauban (an intermediate town) and Toulouse. So it seemed the kids were going there.

It seemed odd, then, that everyone but me went out on the platform along about 6:20. I began to wonder, so at 6:25 I went and asked the counterman. He told me, as far as I could make out, that the 7:10 train to Toulouse wasn’t running and that one had to get the 6:30 to Montauban and change for Toulouse. Well, that wasn’t what the printed schedule or even his departure board said, but I guessed I’d better take his word for it.

So I did.

The station at Montauban was really full of kids, of all ages. I’m not sure if it was the usual weekend exodus from country boarding schools or perhaps the beginning of the Christmas holidays. They all had their nylon duffel bags and backpacks in tow and occasionally a parent or two. Too many of them were smoking but they all had that cocky, confident look that thinks it can go out and lick the world. I don’t say they made me feel old, exactly; just as if I’d taken a wrong turning someplace.

I know, they’re all just as insecure as I was at their age (and still am!). But I could never fake the opposite like that. It all comes down to wishing I’d been born pretty . . .

The next train to Toulouse was listed at 7:04. When it came it was two cars, period, for all those kids and a few stray adults. I ended up standing all the way to la gare Matabiau.

I can’t say much for some of the kids’ manners. They strewed their gear all over adjacent seats, depriving others of a chance to sit down. But the way the seats were arranged, tête à téte, it might have felt odd to sit there anyway. Like horning in on someone else’s conversation. And they did have to courtesy to get up and fight their way to the smoking car when they wanted a cigarette.

The train was a milk run and stopped at every small town between Montauban and Toulouse. I noticed there was a first class section at the front of the car where I could at least stand without being subjected to the smoke emanating from the vestibule immediately behind me, but I decided not to be such a frigging capitalist and stayed where I was.

It was around 8:00 when we arrived back in Toulouse. The train to Paris wasn’t until 11:00 so I set off back to the basilica.

Yes, they do light it up at night. Shot the rest of the roll on the chevet and we’ll see how those come out.

I seemed to recall there being a concert tonight at 8:30 but couldn’t think where. I knew there was a poster over by the Capitole so I made my way there. Yes, at the Eglise St. Etienne, which could be reached by the rue Alsace-Lorraine, where I was. So I headed down to the church-- and after about ten minutes discovered I’d turned the wrong way and was back to la rue de Strasbourg! It was 8:40 by then so I decided to chuck it.

So I went into a café there at the rue Bayard for their 35F poisson plat du jour. Sorry, pas de poisson, pas des plats du jour ce soir. But as by then I’d already consumed half a carafe of their water I felt obliged to order something. So I got a "steak-frites" which comes garnie with nice greasy fries, even though I wasn’t really hungry, I just wanted some fish. Oh well. Got some protein into me.

Back to the station around 10:00 to sit and wait. A good complement of winos and weirdos to keep things lively. But the oddest thing was a mezzanine overlooking the waiting room, where a dance was going on. You could see the couples waltzing by through the half-curtained windows.

About fifteen till 11:00 I decided to go retrieve my stuff, but noticed that there was something on the board about the Paris train being twenty minutes late. So I checked on the platform and they told me the one sitting there was the one my reservation was for. Went and got my bags and had my reservation confirmed at the proper guichet, though I still wasn’t utterly convinced that this wasn’t the train scheduled to depart at 10:55, not 11:00. But they all said no, this was it.

And I guessed it was. Found my couchette compartment, first one in. After Carcassonne I was a little leery of being in with some strange man, as I hear sometimes happens. But there was only one other young woman. Locked everything down even so, as recommended.
†I've recently read on a website or two that the refectory was demolished in the 1800s to make room for a railway line. Huh. I wonder what large room attached to the cloister it was that I saw!
‡Actually, at Moissac it was the ordinary Benedictines that went flabby and undisciplined, and the Cluniacs who came in in the 11th C. to knock them into shape and build the new church.


whiskers said...

Oh how fun! I'll have to remember about the hot chocolate, though, I do prefer dark chocolate to milk...

Currently in French class we're learning about the 'subjunctive' and learning that none of us could do it reliably in English, let alone in French...

Hugs, and Happy Valentine's Day!

St. Blogwen said...

It'd be interesting to know if that's changed over the last 20 years, and that now they're sweetening their hot chocolate like everybody else.

I favored it during that trip because it was hot, I don't drink coffee, and unlike tea, it got some calories into me.

I tried French tea on a subsequent trip across the Channel and it's not worth drinking.

St. Blogwen said...

Oh, and hugs and kitteh-leg-strops back to you, too!

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