Holidays and urban spaces

As the recent photos indicate, we spent last week in Avignon. I’m hopeless at holidays. First, I will happily put off deciding to go anywhere forever unless there’s a particular event, like a conference or party, which fixes it in time. Second, once on holiday I rarely want to do much; I’m simply happy to be somewhere foreign, away from my desk, and would be content to sit on a park bench watching passers-by for a week.

Despite my apathy, we went and we did stuff. Avignon’s a nice place, although we rarely ventured outside the old walled part of the city — our one aborted excursion down a main road reminding me that while the French are tops at quaint old towns and beautiful countryside they’re also great at busy roads and soulless retail sheds. However, the city did go up in my estimation when we discovered its four screen arts cinema showing original-language films tucked away behind the 14th century Palais des Papes.

We stayed at Hotel d’Angleterre, chosen for its centrality, cheapness, pleasant rooms… oh alright, chosen for its free wifi, which meant we could pass our time wrestling with comment spam. Cursing the world and swearing at dodgy installations of Movable Type is what holidays are all about, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

We went on a day trip to Orange, known for its huge Roman theatre. I’ve never used one of those audio guide things before, but these came as part of the entrance fee and were surprisingly good. They lead you on a route around the 7,000 seat outdoor theatre and, coupled with the film about the history of the place at the end of the tour, made for an informative experience. And also meant the entire site could apparently be run with only three people.

We also took a train to Montpellier, which I’d last been to a few years ago, when the new tram system was just being installed. The city centre’s now crawling with big blue trams and is almost empty of other traffic, which makes it an even more gorgeous place to wander around. Well, most of it. I’d never been to the modern, central development of Antigone before and I feel no better for having done so. It’s a long, long, straight pedestrian route split into squares and circles surrounded by several-storey-high buildings. The buildings are mostly blank and anonymous (are they offices? apartments?), and the few shops and restaurants at ground level were, on a Saturday afternoon, mostly deserted. There were a lot of people walking through the place (it takes 15 minutes or so from end to end) but it didn’t feel like the kind of environment you’d want to spend any time. Devoid of character, it’s all empty show and monumentality.

In contrast the Place de la Comedie is a much older space, surrounded by elegant buildings, with packed restaurants and thronging with people who, I felt, were happy to be there, rather than just passing through. For another lesson in pleasant pedestrian surroundings you could look at the old towns in Montpellier or Avignon — narrow streets and small shops that make walking around a pleasure. When it seems so obvious to me what kind of urban areas “work”, it depresses me when we end up with modern developments like Antigone.

Or, closer to home, we end up with Paternoster Square, by St Paul’s Cathedral, another soulless space, when we could have the intriguing streets of Soho or the lively Leicester Square (I can’t stand walking through the latter’s overcrowded commercialism myself, but it does the job and has some character). It could be that an area seems more appealing simply because it’s old, and anywhere new will seem bland for a while. Even if this is true, I’m not sure it helps; too many buildings these days seem built to last for only a few decades before they’ve outlived their profitability, at which point they’re torn down and replaced with a different form of office or retail space. Nothing has a chance to reach the point at which it’s interesting and distinctive and worth saving.

But now I’m rambling into terrain that others have thought about far longer and harder than I have, so I’ll stop before I find myself in too deep water.

Other reflections from the holiday? Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys reading (or who feels they don’t enjoy reading as much as they should). I can’t help wondering why I’ve spent three years trying to learn Japanese, when I could have been improving my limited abilities in a language from a country I’m likely to visit. Nine days of relaxing and eating large French dinners (culminating in The Day Of Three Desserts) plays havoc with one’s abilities at the gym.

Comments

  • Phil, you’re a good photographer - I’m impressed and enjoyed these pics very much. Looks like a nice relaxing time too, apart from the spam problem (next time leave the laptops at home). btw - I forwarded your Flickr article around to several Flickr fans I know here at work before I realized it was yours - which I learned off Mary’s site. Small world!

28 Apr 2005 in Writing

The Hitchhiker’s Guide movie
I thoroughly enjoyed the revamped, high-production familiarity, but I have no idea if it will work as a film for people who don’t already know it.