One of the things I love about being a grad student is being able to go around to various cities for conferences and scientific meetings. It gives me so much opportunity to see random places all over the place, and the cost is covered by the school most of the time!
In May, I went to a polymers conference in Houffalize, Belgium, a place almost non-existent on the map and inaccessible by train. I wanted to go around and take pictures of the place, as it was a tranquil little town that reminded me very much of Luxembourg, but unfortunately I didn’t have time. Just a week ago, I went to Clermont-Ferrand for a small-scaled, one-day colloquium. Before such event, I had not heard of Clermont-Ferrand, so it was a new and curious destination for me. As the colloquium started at 8:30 on Friday morning, I had to leave a day earlier from Bordeaux, which gave me sufficient time on Thursday to explore the mysterious city a bit.
Before I even talk about the city itself, let me just mention that it’s a PAIN IN THE NECK to travel between Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand. As there are no direct trains connecting the two cities, going from one to the other requires at least one transfer. And if you can do it with only one transfer, you’re pretty lucky. Let’s take a look at the maps below for routes that I had to take (click for full version).
So there you have Bordeaux in southwest France and Clermont-Ferrand in central France. Doesn’t seem too far, right? If you have a car, then no problemo, but by train, it was a nightmare of transfer after transfer. For my trip to Clermont-Ferrand, I only had to transfer once at Gannat, but as it was a slow local train, the entire trip took about 6.5 hours. That’s a round trip from Bordeaux to Paris. As for the return trip, it was even more ridiculous as I had to get off at Nevers, then head to Tours, and take the TGV back to Bordeaux. Even the TGV itself took 2.5 hours, so you can imagine how far I had to go. I mean…come on. Tours is closer to Paris than Bordeaux, and it’s not even on the way! There was no other way to get back to Bordeaux on that day, unfortunately, and by the time I arrived after my 7.5-hour journey, it was 1am. Add another 2 hours and I could have been back to Canada. Seriously.
Alright, now for Clermont-Ferrand itself. As the train entered the station, I noticed that the city didn’t seem or feel as old and historic as Bordeaux. However, hills and mountains were aplenty around Clermont-Ferrand, and that’s definitely not something you’d see very often in Bordeaux. As you walk around, you begin to notice that the city is surrounded by mountains, as if enclosed in its own natural shelter. One place I’d really like to visit if I ever get the chance to go back is the Puy de Dôme, a dormant volcano not too far from the city. Apparently there are awesome hiking trails all over the place, perfect for you if you’re an outdoor fanatic!
View outside the window from my 6th floor hotel room near the city centre. The view would have been perfect if there wasn’t a construction site right outside and if the cranes weren’t blocking the magnificent church in the distance most of the time. Then again, being able to see that church from my room gave me the incentive right away to explore the city and find that mysterious place!
Place de Jaude, a famous public square in Clermont-Ferrand where everyone hangs out. I guess it’s sort of equivalent to Place de la Victoire in Bordeaux or Place du Général-de-Gaulle in Lille. The statue is that of Vercingetorix, whose history I will let you read yourself if you are interested.
After a short walk from Place de Jaude, I ended up at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, that tall, prominent structure that could be seen from a distance. Its façades attracted me, and upon surveying it from all angles, I conclude that it’s one of my favourite churches that I’ve seen in all of Europe, the other being none other than our very own St. André in Bordeaux. It looks golden brown here due to the reflection of the sunset, but the church is actually dark grey as it was constructed with volcanic rock. Quite majestic.
I walked further along the road and turned around to take another look at the church. Quite the beautiful landmark!
Sunset time, and I wonder if that’s actually the Puy de Dôme behind which the sun sank. The weather was lovely that day, warm enough without a jacket but cool enough for me to walk calmly without sweating. I did go out in high heels though, since they were the only shoes I wore for the colloquium. I now declare that I hate high heels with a passion.
Place de Jaude at night. The rectangular building reminded me of the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux.
More of Clermont-Ferrand at night, with restaurants lining the streets around Place de Jaude.
Finally, the official I-had-been-to-Clermont-Ferrand photo featuring the train station as I embarked on my long journey back to Bordeaux. The city really did surprise me, and I liked it more than I had anticipated. A revisit solely for the purpose of travelling is certainly a possibility in the future.
I head to Belgium again in two weeks, and this time, it’s going to be winter. My plan for the next 3-month stay is to go to as many little places in Belgium as possible, since trains are quite convenient in Belgium and tickets are super cheap. Cities currently on the list are Dinant (MUST), Namur, Ghent, and Liege again. Going outside of the country might have to be put on hold for a bit for financial reasons…or we’ll see. At least I know where I’m going for the Armistice weekend 😉