Sunday, 26 April 2015

Taking the Tram in Porto

My friend and I were originally planning to go to Marrakesh for our short week away this month, but flights to Morocco were very expensive and flights to Porto were cheap, and neither of us had ever been to Porto and we both quite liked the idea, which is how we ended up arriving last Sunday night with nothing but an Airbnb booking and an unread guidebook to lead us on our way.

Luckily, it turns out that Porto is a very easy place to appreciate without much forward planning, because its pleasures are mostly to do with a somewhat crumbling but elegant aesthetic, lots of old-fashioned charm and discreet people who largely make you feel welcome and leave you in peace.

Our plan for today was to take the tram out of the town centre to Foz, where Porto's beaches are to be found. We had been waiting at the stop for ten minutes or so when a very kind old man, undeterred by our evident lack of Portuguese language skills, came over to explain that there was a strike on and the next tram wasn't for another hour. (Luckily the word for "strike" in Portuguese is "greve", so we could understand that bit!)

We decided to walk out to the beaches anyway, as it wasn't that far and actually a really nice walk, and we spent a happy few hours watching the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks and eating lunch at a beachfront café. As we were making our way back into town, we caught sight of one of the elusive trams rattling its way along the tracks, and we rushed over to the stop to catch it on its return journey.

We bought the tickets in Portuguese, using about 25% of our entire vocabulary (i.e. about 5 words). After that, we spent the first few minutes of the journey taking photographs, because the trams in Porto, at least on this particular line, are of the old-fashioned variety, made out of varnished wood with bench seating and controlled by large metallic levers, with the only element of modern technology being the swipe machine for validating your travel pass.

A few times along the way, a car or lorry would be blocking the tram tracks, and the driver would tap a little foot-operated bell to make the driver aware of our presence, and each time the car owner would appear reasonably quickly to move the vehicle out of the way with very little fuss being made on either side. At one point, some cheeky teenagers ran alongside the tram and jumped up to hang on to the outside and hitch a free ride, but they had to keep changing sides to avoid being squashed as the tram squeezed through a narrow passageway. To cross a junction, the driver had to get out and press a button on the traffic lights, and at the end of the line she changed the connection to the overhead wires from one end of the tramcar to the other using a mechanical pulley-type device.

In so many ways, that short tram ride seemed to sum up everything we liked about Porto. The way that things which are functional are still in use even although they are old. The kindness of strangers, who were never intrusive but almost unfailingly helpful. And the adventure of travel, when you never quite know what is going to happen, but it usually turns out well in the end.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Learning Portuguese with Duolingo

I mentioned in my new year post that one of my goals for this year/the future is to learn another language. As tends to happen with ambitious resolutions, that one has been quietly left on the back burner since January as I've struggled to find the time even to read more in French or get through the first few chapters of my current Italian novel. But after a Skype chat with a fellow language geek friend who raved about the addictiveness of Duolingo and a trip to Porto on the agenda, I decided to give learning Portuguese a try.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Duolingo, it's a website and app that teaches you foreign languages. It can be used by speakers of lots of different languages, but I have the impression that choosing to work from English gives you the greatest choice of languages to learn. The courses are divided into short sections and you can set yourself a daily goal for the number of sections you want to complete. As you progress through the levels, the language is recycled, so you are continually revising what you have already learned.

What I like about Duolingo:

- It's grammar based. You start by learning a few nouns, verbs and articles and immediately combine them to make sentences. I much prefer this to communicative approaches which teach you hundreds of supposedly useful phrases without developing your understanding of how the language is actually structured and how to build sentences of your own.

- It's quite intuitive. Maybe it's because if you speak other romance languages , Portuguese is quite easy to understand, at least in writing, but I felt that the words and even conjugations were introduced quite naturally. That said, I think if I'd been tackling Turkish, I might have preferred a bit more input and explanation.

- There is speaking involved. This is one of the great advantages of recent language-learning technology: you can say a sentence into the microphone of your computer and the programme will tell you if your pronunciation is accurate enough to be recognised. That said, watching what Duolingo did with my mangled sounds, I wonder if the speech recognition software isn't more understanding than an actual person might be!

What I dislike:

- There's no context. Apart from a few pictures to guide you along the way, you're basically learning language the way a computer does. I suspect that in the long run this makes it much harder to retain the words, never mind actually use them in the real world. To see what the programme is like for learners with a higher level of language, I tried out the Italian course and it had me translating sentences like "The cow does not eat the butter", which is not a sentence I have ever uttered in English, never mind in a foreign language.

- It's very translation-based. With no context for the language, it has to be. And, as anyone who has ever used a foreign language in real life knows, translation will only get you so far before you start saying very strange things to people. I remember the time I tried to tell my French friend that I needed to buy boots for hiking using the word "bottes". This is indeed the French translation of the English word "boots", but hiking boots in France are actually called hiking "shoes", and even smart leather ankle boots are not "bottes" but "bottines". Needless to say, I learned my lesson.

- I wasn't a big fan of the placement test which I took in Italian, as it seemed to be more a test of knowing the exact content of Duolingo rather than my actual level of Italian. Not quite having a few colloquial phrases to hand and forgetting a couple of vocabulary items set my level much lower than it should have been compared to the objectives of the lessons. (I don't think that's just injured pride speaking!)

So, will I be continuing with Duolingo? Yes, to pick up a bit more Portuguese and because it appeals to my inner geek. But as a way of actually becoming able to communicate fluently with real people, I suspect it has its limitations.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Travels in the South West

A scary number of years ago, when Understanding Frenchman and I had not long been together, we went on our first holiday, a trip to the Pyrenees with a group of friends. I still remember waking up early on the morning or our departure and feeling immense, childlike joy that we were setting off on holiday, packing up my trusty little Clio and setting off on our sunny road trip south.

On the way down, to break up the drive, we stayed in a hotel somewhere south of Rocamadour, with a swimming pool in the middle of the sunflower fields, and had dinner in a tiny medieval town perched on a cliff. As we continued on our journey the next day, we promised ourselves that we would go back. And finally, this year, we did.

We didn't go quite as far south, staying this time in a lovely gîte near Martel. On two of the days, we went hiking, visiting the little towns of Floirac and Carennac on the river Dordogne, then trekking through the stunning gorges of the Parc Naturel Régional des Causse de Quercy to Rocamadour. Rocamadour is a really stunning place, with its sanctuary and monastery practically clinging to the edge of the cliff face, accessible only by narrow cobbled streets and many, many stairs.*


Cliffs in Les Causses de Quercy

On the third day, we visited the Gouffre de Padirac, an immense hole in the ground which leads to a network of caves and passageways, through which runs an underground river.

You make your own way down into the hole, then a guide rows you along the river, a little bit like the Phantom of the Opera, before another guide takes you on a walking tour of the massive natural vault. The only annoying thing is that you're not allowed to take pictures, so here is one that I stole from the tourist office website:

Our gîte was equipped with a fitness room (which we didn't use) and a hammam (which we did), but in all honesty, the best bits of the trip, as well as the amazing sights, involved lots of sunshine, lying around in the garden after a long hike, and having barbecues out on the terrace as night fell and we could actually see the stars come out. As a break from Paris and a little sample of what the summer hopefully has in store, it couldn't have been better!

Actually, you can also drive to the top of the cliff and walk down, but it's not nearly so impressive.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Travelling Back in Time to Medieval Provins

The Routard guide's description of Provins, a medieval town located 90km from Paris on the regional border between the Ile-de-France and Champagne-Ardenne, is an exercise in creating inflated expectations. Admittedly, we didn't follow the instructions to approach the town from the ville haute in order to "experience the shock of entering without any transition into the Middle Ages". We took the Transilien train from Paris-Est, then walked up from the station, meaning that our first views of the old town were set against the backdrop of the D619, a few block-shaped apartment buildings and a BUT furniture warehouse, all prosaic reminders that we do actually live in the 21st century.
View from the Tour César. You can't quite see But and the main road in this picture.

Nevertheless, we had a lovely day in Provins. The sun was out for what seemed like the first time since last October, and we were far enough from Paris to almost feel as if we were on holiday but without the inconvenience of having to book a hotel, pack a suitcase, or even pay a train fare. (Provins is the final stop in Zone 5 of the Transilien network, so you can go there for free on a de-zoned Navigo pass.)

We started by climbing the Tour César, an octagonal tower whose building was begun by the English during the Hundred Years War and which was mainly used as a prison. After that, we walked out to the Porte St Jean and climbed up to the ramparts to admire the view of hoards of children setting out on an Easter egg hunt that was being organised by the tourist office. In Paris, this could have been the beginning of a nightmare scenario for two adults hoping for a tranquil day trip, but in Provins there was space for everyone and everybody seemed calmer somehow.

The Place du Châtel from the tower. Look closely and you might see the old well enthroned in a circle of lime trees among the superb residences which surround it ... or you might just see some spindly branches and old, pretty houses.
We ate lunch at a terrible crêperie at the end of the Place du Châtel, where the dry galettes served with a blob of margarine on top were somewhat offset by the pretty terrace and the view of the square. One prime source of entertainment was a clown giving rides to children on a bicycle with a toy horse that they could sit on attached to the front. The kids' wore expressions of pure joy and the clown himself genuinely seemed almost as happy as they were.

We finished our day in Provins with a look around the Collégiale Saint-Quirice and a stroll out to the Porte de Jouy. With more time, we would probably have visited a couple of the museums and maybe gone to see one of the shows, and I'd also like to go back when the medieval festival is on, but we left satisfied with our visit, despite the best efforts of Le Guide du Routard to set us up for disappointment.