Thursday, 13 March 2008

Sodden' Soissons

Just like winning or losing a job interview in the first four seconds, it takes very little to raise a deep and eternal hatred for a place. Soissons, I mean.

We'd told ourselves the rain wasn't heavy; it was warm and not wholly unpleasant. So we failed to put on waterproofs for the half-day walk into Soissons. And yes, we knew our hotel was on the main ringroad two kilometres from the city centre. But everything else was entirely the city's fault. Soissons doesn't have any hotels in the centre, and out of all the flea-pit sounding alternatives in the tourist brochure, only this one had made it into the Michelin guide.

Trailing rucksacks through post-industrial social housing is never edifying but when the rain is lashing and the flats have been built on stilts to accentuate the wind, it is soul-numbing. By the time we spotted the half-extinguished neon of our hotel's name, Soissons had almost blown it.

Then it tried harder.

A locked hotel door and a note promising a return in five minutes wasn't encouraging but we were newly practising a pilgrim mentality and merely leaned against the wall to wait. The woman who eventually opened to us had a face like a black line and glared without a greeting. She had children around her feet wanting lunch, and two dripping travellers were of no importance to her.

We said we had a reservation. She disagreed. But she could see that I could see the computer screen and the ranks of empty rooms, so eventually she gave us one - up a dark corridor, cold and damp-smelling. The carpet was stamped with the hotel's name, a carpet so meagre we took it for underlay. On either side the rooms stood open and abandoned, exposing personal belongings in some, piled up furniture in others. The low-lying smell of cigarettes stirred as we walked.

Our room was one of those with piled furniture, which presented a problem: there was space only to put our dripping bags down on the floor, or to remove the furniture from the bed. There was a single, threadbare towel between us, and no heating.

In fresh clothes we sought escape in town. On the way out a teenage girl with her eyes wedged in the TV denied all knowledge of taxis or buses, but promised to get the heating sorted.

The best Soissons could offer for lunch was a burger bar that did paninis and hot chocolate. At the tourist office a young man proudly used his English to tell us that no, they didn't have local walking maps. No, it was not likely anywhere else in town did. No, not many trains or buses to anywhere. But yes, there was a laundrette and even an internet café, of sorts. He pressed upon us "Let Soissons tell you its story", a lush and elegant brochure outlining the history of the city and its chief sights. Beware tourist officials bearing spot-varnished print: they are likely to be overselling. Headline news was that some Barbarian king had once chopped the head off one of his soldiers after whinging that the soldier hadn't cleaned his armour properly - but secretly it was in cowardly revenge for the soldier breaking a vase belonging to a bishop a couple of years before. Wow! So no miracles then?

We plodded round the circuit. A street corner near a roundabout is announced as the hillside where the Roman circus - the largest in Gaul - was probably situated. A piece of broken stone lower down might have been a defensive tower. The town centre cathedral was eighty-percent destroyed in the 1914-18 war and has been rebuilt in a business-like way. Elsewhere, an arch here or there is extrapolated to describe an entire abbey or school.

In the Monoprix was a woman with dyed sandy hair and a square chin under thick orange make-up. Her mouth was hard and straight. I say "her", but it might have been a man in drag, deciding that femininity was defined as one of those supercilious French toiletry counter assistants. He performed the function to perfection, unable to even look at oh-so-very-unfeminine me as I asked for my Oil of Olay.

Soissons' one redeeming feature is the single remaining wall of the beautifully ornate abbey church of St Jean des Vignes, with the frame of its rose window absurdly enclosing nothing but sky. I read dry the accompanying exhibition with its audio-visual content in bad English. Everywhere people offered us the same glossy leaflet. "Yes," we said, "we've heard the story. What else?"

Back at the hotel with our only dry clothes now soaked by another downpour and no taxis, the heating still didn't work. We lay in bed and phoned the hotel in Compiègne to make sure we could arrive a day early.

But Soissons had a last barb. Next day we idled an hour in a café by the station waiting for the time the coach should leave for Compiègne. We had the time down in black and white, in a timetable. Ten minutes before it was due, the coach pulled in, spent fifteen seconds looking around then drove off, just as we were running towards it, waving. The driver in the coach behind said, "No, he won"t be coming back. Come here in an hour. Maybe I'll take you ..."

27 February 2008

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