After an unanticipated but energetic start to the year, it was back to Toulouse in late November, and I continued to explore South West France with a visit to Carcassonne, a fortified town that resembled no other that I had ever seen. No photo can do justice to the massive Roman fort, which seemed like a town in its own right, set on a hill overlooking the town. It was so perfectly preserved (or restored) that from afar, it seemed like it could have been digitally imposed and could easily represent the French Hogwarts. It was steeped in so much history and had known so many changes of hand between kingdoms.
Back in Toulouse, I got a taste of the real contemporary France with my first ever mass strike. As I was casually cycling along one of the main roads in the city centre, I saw a huge mass of grey and black smoke rising high above the low-rise buildings. As I got closer and closer to scene, I saw that it wasn’t a building on fire, but a huge pile of hay and rubber tyres that had been dumped to block one of the main avenue thoroughfares. Splattered across the road were tonnes of rotten fruit. It was a demonstration of agricultural workers against E.U. policy.
Dozens of tractors were driving incredibly slowly with people marching alongside. When they eventually came to a stop at one of the city’s main metro stations, the police were waiting for them. I stood well back expecting the farmers to charge at the police, but instead I saw them aiming enormous hosepipes connected to their trailers at police. In retrospect, it was naive of me to think that anything except water would be pumped out of this, but no. They turned on their hoses and what sprayed out was chunky, very thick manure, distributed evenly so as to cover as many officers as possible. What was most incredible is that the police weren’t doing anything to stop this. Nor were the fire brigade putting the fires out. If this happened back home, the demonstration would have been quashed promptly, which made me realise how we don’t live in as free a country as we think. France proved to be a model of free speech, even under Nicolas Sarkozy.
Ten weeks had passed since I arrived in Toulouse in late September, when temperatures were still in the twenties. Now winter was drawing in and temperatures plummeted. 8th December each year is when Lyon welcomes the famous Fête des Lumières, the festival of light. Six of my friends and I hired a car to make the five-hour journey to France’s second city to see the lights. When we arrived, not only did we spend an hour driving around Lyon looking for the hostel we booked, we found out that it was as far away from the city centre as possible, but it was only for one night.
Lyon was fantastic. I was born, raised and have always lived in a big city (until last year), and Lyon was the prime example of why I love cities. It had beautifully striking architecture set against the backdrop of the Alps to the east and a tall jagged hill to the west, at the top of which was Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a vast cathedral only built in the 18th century, and this point offered spectacular views across the city with the snow-topped mountains clearly in sight. This is a city that deserves its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The festival was equally stunning. Around two-dozen installations were dotted around the city centre, but getting to each one was easier said than done. Hundreds of thousands of people had descended on Lyon for the festival. The crowds even filled the widest avenues from side to side, travelling at less than 5 mph. That said, we had a long evening and managed to see most of the exhibitions that lit up the city.
After a beautiful evening, we went back to the hostel and I had forgotten that we had actually only booked one room between six of us…three in the room, three in the car. Guess where I was sleeping.