29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

vercingetorix2.jpg
Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

IMG_3204.JPG
Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on-screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and less likely to encourage smoking (!), but I will always prefer the original look.

IMG_3771
Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

IMG_3758

Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

img_3691.jpg

A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

such-art63.jpg

If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

img_3784.jpg

The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand

Bricks, doughnuts and sunshine

A few weeks ago I had the extremely good fortune to get invited to stay a week in London completely for free (well, after train fare). That’s an offer you just can’t refuse. So I packed up my laptop, arranged cat-sitters for Sésame and was off!

I love London and try to visit once a year. As a native English speaker living in France, it’s always somewhat refreshing to step on a train and in a couple of hours arrive at a place where I can just open my mouth and start talking with zero thinking-ahead time. Or rather, knowing that whatever I say will be completely normal. Or as normal as American talk can sound to English ears, I guess. 🙂

But more than that, when I arrive in London I always feel a general sense of comfort that I don’t get at “home” in Paris. It’s less densely populated, for one thing, and sidewalks are wider. People are much friendlier, something that even my introverted self values highly, as loyal readers will recall from this episode. And it’s also one of the vegan capitals of the world. So even though I like many aspects of living in France, a trip to London always feels like a visit almost-home.

Since I visit fairly often, I have the luxury of exploring the city at a leisurely pace and visiting just a few sites in each trip. This time, I mainly hung out with the friend who invited me, worked (as I couldn’t take the time completely off without longer advance notice) and enjoyed the city’s street art.

Allow me to take you on a little guided tour of my week.

First, the bricks! One of the first things I always notice when I get to London are the many brick buildings – bricks being rather few and far between in Paris. There’s something very grand and majestic about them, and something warm and inviting too, don’t you think? The university I went to in Milwaukee had several old brick buildings with ornate decorations (a bit like the one with the green door above), so bricks often bring me comforting memories of strolling about the campus, my mind filled with some fascinating thing I’d just learned, and of breathing in the vanilla scent of an old book I’d just cracked open at the campus library. I miss those days.

And the doughnuts! Somehow I’d never noticed before that doughnuts are largely absent from the pastry landscape of Paris. Logical enough, right? Since they’re not a traditional French thing. But neither are cupcakes or chocolate-chip cookies, and those are all over the place. So I think some room could be made for doughnuts. When I was still living in the States I wasn’t particularly a doughnut-eater, past childhood at least, but I was fascinated by the doughnuts London seems to suddenly have in abundance, and with very original flavors/themes. The nice thing is that most mainstream doughnut purveyors now offer not zero but several vegan options! The same is true for cupcakes (see photos). This was not the case just a few years ago, so things are really starting to move.

From this excited description you’ll probably assume I spent my time in London eating doughnuts. But I was actually more interested in their existence, and in taking photos of them. I ate just one during this visit: a massive caramel buttercream and speculoos-encrusted affair with coffee glaze called Houston, We Have Biscoff from Doughnut Time.

It also happened to be unseasonably warm and sunny the week I was there, especially for a city known for being overcast and foggy. The first day was as chilly as can be expected for mid-April, justifying tights and a light jacket, but after that it was positively summery. The sun shone brightly the whole rest of the week, and fruit trees were in full blossom. At the end of my stay, a local joked that I’d just experienced all the sunny days London would have in 2018. That could very well be true! In any case, I felt lucky to be able to soak up the sunshine and synthesize some vitamin D after the long, gray and depressing winter we had.

streetart4.jpg

I really appreciated the nice weather as I walked around the city in search of street art! The piece above is by Steve Powers. Incidentally, when making this piece he commented, “I love working in public and I love painting brick walls. London has some of the finest brick walls in the world.” You see what I mean about those bricks!

Two works by the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy. The one on the left appeared last year on a wall of the Barbican when a retrospective show dedicated to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat opened there. In it, we see how Banksy imagined the late artist (depicted in Basquiat’s signature style) being received by the British police when arriving for his own exhibition. Surprisingly enough, the Barbican did not repaint the wall and even put up some Plexiglas to protect the street art.

IMG_2979

A piece on Old Street by Ben Eine.

Left: Queen Elizabeth II as the guy from A Street Cat Named Bob, down on her luck and trying to sell copies of The Big Issue (Loretto). Right: giant stick people look down benevolently upon Shoreditch (Stik).

streetart14.jpg

I also did some hunting for mosaics by French street artist Invader to up my Flashinvaders score. At the time of my visit, London had 84, so this became a rather big undertaking. With the help of a local space invader hunter, I was able to find 77 of them by the week’s end. Below is a selection of my favorites.

My space invader hunt took me to a place I somehow hadn’t been aware of but that’s now my new favorite London museum! So I’d like to take a moment to share some glimpses of it with you…

IMG_2742.JPG

If, like me, you love the city of London and also enjoy seeing how people of the past lived, this museum is for you. It takes you through the city’s history from Roman times to the present, giving you a sense of how things once were in the form of artifacts and models. Included are souvenir mugs commemorating Charles II’s coronation, amulets for warding off the plague, very old false teeth, the actual wooden walls from a 1750s prison cells complete with graffiti by prisoners, a series of streets and shops from the Victorian days, fashions of the 20th century, models of row houses, Elizabeth II’s coronation memorabilia and finally books printed in other languages for immigrants to England (including a book designed to teach children of Polish immigrants to read and write their parents’ language – Polish now being the second-most spoken language in the UK).

By now you may well be wondering what there is to eat in London besides doughnuts! We did of course visit some of the city’s many fine veg*n eateries, such as Mildreds, By Chloé and Temple of Seitan.

My very favorite this time was a new 100% vegan pub called The Spread Eagle near Hackney. It opened in January and right from the start, a waitress explained to us, the owners made sure that everything used there was vegan, from the alcohols and other beverages (free from animal-derived filtering agents) down to the cleaning supplies and hand soap in the restrooms (from brands that don’t test on animals) and the upholstery on the bar seats (something other than leather/wool).

From Wednesday through Sunday every week, they serve super-delicious vegan Latin dishes by Club Mexicana. We had the chick’n “wings” with hot sauce and salsa verde, beer-battered tofish tacos, jackfruit and garlic tacos, a giant salad with popcorn chick’n and finally deep-fried ice cream with Mexican chili-chocolate sauce and cinnamon. It was so good that before we even finished eating, I started feeling sad that I couldn’t have it more often. If you’re in London but can’t make it as far as this pub, or the days don’t work out, you can find Club Mexicana fare at Camden Market seven days a week.

Another pleasant surprise in the good-vegan-options-at-mainstream-places category was Leon, a chain with locations all over the city. One evening when I was tired from walking too much (see “street art” above), not wanting to go anywhere far from the place I was staying, I wandered in to see what they might have.

I tried their meatless meatballs – made with eggplant/aubergine, black olives and rosemary and served over rice with some kind of magical tomato sauce and garlic aioli – and was blown away! I’m hoping and praying they come to Paris! Incidentally, I found their recipe for the meatballs, but they don’t say how to make the sauce… I think it’s too top secret to share. 😉 Another time I stopped in, I found that they also offer several vegan dessert/pastry items, like this baked pistachio & rosewater doughnut. So I guess I did have more than one doughnut on this trip after all! But this one was normal-sized.

So there you have a few ideas for things to do and places to eat next time you’re in beautiful London.

Street art in Paris

If all the world’s a stage, it may as well be a canvas too.

As you visit Paris, scurrying perhaps between one art museum and another, keep your eyes peeled for the many works of art on display right out on the street: sprayed or stenciled on a wall, pasted to a pillar, affixed to a street corner or integrated into a road sign.

11351296_10153275909465690_1599435867358695133_n
Elf-like creatures by Fred Lechevalier try to get a better view of the city’s most famous landmark.

The streets are probably the best place to view the very latest, freshest contemporary art. Some of the works you see may have been added in the wee hours of the previous night. Often ephemeral, always changing, it turns a city’s public spaces into an open-air museum for all to enjoy. No entrance fee necessary.

lacommune

In Paris, street art (or art de rue in French) as we know it today began to appear in the late 1960s. One of the first major works was the 1971 installation Les Gisants de la Commune de Paris by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who is still active today. Paying homage to the Paris Commune revolt 100 years earlier, it consisted of silk-screened images of fallen men unfurled down the steps leading to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the Montmartre district.

“Places are my essential materials,” the artist told biographer André Velter in a 2014 interview. “I try to understand, to grasp everything that can be seen there—space, light, colors—and at the same time everything that cannot or can no longer be seen: history, buried memories.”

For more about the history of street art in France, I recommend this Widewalls article. Also check out the highly entertaining Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop for an insider’s view of installing art around the city in the dead of night (Paris features prominently).

IMG_7023.JPG

One of my favorite street artists is Invader, who in 1998 began his ongoing project Space Invaders. As of this writing, there are now 3,564 of his tile-mosaic creatures in 74 cities around the globe. See him at work here.

In homage to the 1980s video game that inspired his characters, the artist created a game, Flash Invaders, in which players compete to scan as many mosaics as they can with their mobile phones. Each piece has its own number of points depending on size and elaborateness, and when you scan Invaders in new cities you get bonus points. Since the artist is French, Paris is the city with the largest number of these creations (1,305 as of today), and finding new ones as I go about my daily life is always a little thrill.

Street art is something you will inevitably notice as you stroll around Paris, but the works are often enigmatic. Why do Kashink‘s faces always have four eyes and a mustache? What does it mean when a little crown is spray-painted above a head by another artist?

Whether you live here or will be passing through, a fun way to learn more about street art in Paris is to join one of the English-language street art walking tours offered by Kasia Klon, who is an artist herself. During each three-hour tour, she focuses on a specific district of Paris (La Butte-aux-Cailles, Belleville, Montmartre and others) and also offers tours in a few of the near suburbs. Kasia takes you straight to the most interesting works, often pointing out pieces that you wouldn’t have noticed on your own, explaining their significance, back stories and how they fit in with the history of Paris. When a series of pieces by different artists appear together on a single wall, she highlights the subtle common themes between them, showing how the artists have responded to and built upon each other’s work. As she knows many of the street artists in Paris personally, she can offer insights that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

Kasia’s tours are now listed above all other street art walking tours on Tripadvisor and were named Second-Best Tour of Paris in 2016 and 2017 (for all tour categories combined) by Expatriates Magazine as well as Local Experience of the year 2018 for Paris by Travel & Hospitality Awards. She is also the only official guide for the Street Art 13 mural project launched by Galerie Itinerrance.

The following are some noteworthy pieces I photographed in Paris and the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, either on my own or during one of Kasia’s tours.

IMG_5732

Robert Dalban from Les Tontons Flingueurs, revisited with nicer weapons by Jaeraymie.

IMG_6251

A Space Invader eyes the road construction with some trepidation, while a calmer person with ruffly clothes takes it in their stride (Invader and Kam & Laurène).

IMG_5541

Muhammed Ali and Ryu from Street Fighter face off in the Butte-aux-Cailles district (Combo).

IMG_5483

Yarn bombing (artist unknown).

IMG_5143

A mural by German artist MadC.

IMG_6253

Fierce warriors guarding (or menacing?) Vitry-sur-Seine (Kouka).

20638318_10155522157275690_2057064608064092993_n

A decidedly chill Zelda Bomba face looks over toward Canal Saint-Martin.

IMG_6255

A cat and some other creatures brighten the way to this parking garage thanks to Lala Saidko and Bebar.

20729588_10155522271545690_5610889049345843739_n

A wheat-paste figure gives me a taste of my own medicine (Noar Noarnito).

20767709_10155522305120690_356637645205994603_n_B

A street sign revisited by Clet Abraham next to yet another Invader.

IMG_5284 (1)

American artist Alloyius McIlwaine brings life to this wall (see it happen here).

EHYX8156.jpg

A unique figure in the Batignolles district by Anne-Laure Maison.

IMG_4721

A portrait of late singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and (not late!) partner Jane Birkin on the façade of their rue de Verneuil residence, which keeps getting covered by more layers of new street art paying tribute to them (Jo Di Bona).

IMG_5620 (1)

A few of Kashink‘s four-eyed characters, this time in a special project called Kashink Kids, in which local children are invited to fill in the faces.

HOFQ1803_2.jpg

A crow’s nest in the Batignolles district (artist unknown).

heartcraft

Heartcraft‘s stickers spread kisses and love all over the city.

IMG_5203

A collaboration in Vitry-sur-Seine (artists unknown).

IMG_5171 (1)b

Persian calligraphy by Iranian artist A1one.

IMG_5158 (1)c.jpg

Kabuki theater with Irish artist Fin Dac.

IMG_5151

IMG_5153

A portrait of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who helped legalize same-sex marriage in France (C215).

IMG_5353 (1)

A decidedly French robot in Vitry-sur-Seine by Italian artist Pixel Pancho.

IMG_7271.JPG

And sometimes all it takes to create a work of art is a well-placed heart (artist unknown).

IMG_5332

Finally, whether you join a street art tour or strike out on your own, be sure to wear comfy walking shoes!

More information about Kasia’s street art tours can be found on her website. Also check out her Facebook page and Instagram.