18 April 2011

Mountain climbing

Sometimes it's difficult to follow through with a Sunday hike in Marseille. In the morning, many large roads were closed for the marathon, so the buses didn't go. After the runners passed, the buses continued to not go because of several little strikes; someone is always on strike down here. I didn't actually get to leave until noon, and had to connect several times to reach the end of the road at the seashore.

From there I went hiking. I wanted to find the trail along the coast but couldn't find it. The one I did find went uphill, which didn't worry me because the coastal trail the week before went uphill at first too. But then it got really really steep, almost vertical up a narrow gully with some footholds hewn into the rock. Up was ok but I didn't want to return that way so I kept going even after it became obvious that I was on the wrong trail, one that went inland into the hills. I followed the yellow trail markers, up a few more difficult climbs, until I met the red trail. There are beautiful views there over the sea far below and the valleys and peaks all around. The path is rocky but sometimes covered with slippery gravel. The trees are deep green, with steep white walls rising from the sparse forest all around me. There were few other hikers, and they all had better boots than me... I could hear several groups of climbers scaling the vertical walls of the hills.

I didn't have a map but a GPS unit and my cellphone with GPS and Google terrain maps. Neither was showing the trails, unlike the trails last week. I was trying to following Google's altitude lines, but had little choice but climbing all the way to the top of the highest hill at 425 meters because leaving the trail is impractical. My cellphone battery had run out by then but fortunately I no longer use my iPhone and so could swap in a fresh one. The view from the top of the Massif Marseilleveyre is magnificent - there is a ruined church up there overlooking the other hills, the valleys, and the sea with small rocky islands. "Hill" is a misleading word here - these are not gently rolling hills but steep white pinnacles with near-vertical walls near the top; most are far too steep to have trails going up. On the other side there is a stunning view of the Marseille bay and the city, stretching far into the distance.

I met some hikers up there who did have a map and knew the way down to the edge of the city. I knew this would turn out scary because Google's altitude lines were packed really closely there, but after a while there we met a father with two children, and I figured that if they can do this so can I. The vertical sections were even steeper than the early ones, they were longer, and there were more of them. They must be climbed like a ladder, but it's difficult to look down and find footrests and handholds and to plan a route because the walls are so irregular and hidden from sight. Often I had to feel the wall with my boots. It seems very dangerous, and there are no chains or cables to hold on to, but it's doable. There is never a point where it's not clear what to do next. Eventually I reached the forest at the bottom; the trails are still steep and rocky there but can be walked easily. I had lost sight of the children long ago because I kept stopping and taking pictures of the gorgeous landscape.

Deceptively easy at first:

But then the trail gets down to business:

The narrow valley I had been climbing:

A view of Marseille from the other side of the highest mountain:

Climbing down is hard:

Made it, back in civilisation!

16 April 2011

Hide and Seek

The public transportation system in Provence is very good, unless it's on strike. But figuring out how to get from point A to point B is maximally difficult. You are basically expected to use the web site lepilote.fr. Suppose you want to go from rue de Rome to Luminy. Every sane trip planning site lets you enter the those two stops, or a street address so it can tell you about walking distances as well. But lepilote.fr is not sane.

First it asks you which company you want to use. There are 18 of them (in other menus 14, no idea where the rest fell by the wayside). Most have names that give no indication where they operate, such as "Omnibus" or "Bus du Soleil", and there is no map. There is never a map until you have figured it all out by yourself; then you get the map as a reward. So you guess. RTM is a good start.

The next question you get is which line. Again, that's a stupid question - like the choice of company, that ought to be lepilote's job to figure out! You are now on level 2 of this text adventure game, so you get a hint: it tells you the names of the final stop at each end. For example, RTM line 1 goes from La Rose Métro to La Rose Métro. If you don't like it, you have 125 more lines to choose from. For example line 145, which goes from Métro La Rose to Métro La Rose.

So you guess. I know Marseille a little. Bus line 21 has several variants, one going from Gare Saint-Charles to Luminy (we are in luck, Luminy is a terminus) and the other from Castellane to Luminy. It makes a lot of sense for a bus to use rue de Rome to get from Saint-Charles to Castellane, so let's choose bus 21. I hope you appreciate that I am trying to make this puzzle as easy as possible.

After a few more clicks, after doing all the work, the site finally admits that yes, it indeed has maps. You can't display them because lepilote.fr hasn't discovered that it's not 1989 anymore and the world wide web does pictures now, but you can download the map as a PDF file. Only for that one bus of course, other buses are not shown, that would be a different PDF.

But wait, lepilote.fr also has a search mode. If you click the microscopic Recherche Guidée button, the game master shows you three doors: near a place, schedules, and itineraries. I chose the itinerary door. (Might as well.) Here you can enter start and destination addresses, which gets you to a screen telling you, so sorry, but those addresses can't be found. This step cannot be skipped, if you just want to get to some small village, and are lucky enough that it's in the very short list of villages, you still need a precise address, which probably won't be found. So you start trying out major roads until you hit one that it admits may exist. In my case, it found Cours Julien. Well, actually it didn't; it said that it can't figure out "Cours Julien" and offered 22 possible interpretations, with #8 being "Cours Julien".

And then a miracle happens and it finds RTM bus 21 all by itself. Tomorrow is the Marseille Marathon and I think that inspired it to calculate the walking times.

I then tried a less trivial route, going to Gémenos instead of Luminy, and had to use Google Maps to find a road that exists because "town center" or "anywhere in town" aren't valid destinations. This is a trip I have done several times before; it involves a connection between two bus companies. This blows lepilote's tiny mind and it says, sorry but you can't go there from here, game over, would you like to submit a bug report (signaler une anomalie)? Shudder.

Marseille is quite hilly, but they dug two métro lines (undergrounds). Sometimes that means that the stations are very very deep underground. The system was built in 1977, the decade that taste forgot, so we are talking about a very, hm, vivid color scheme here... Yellow, orange, and brown, with a touch of beige, why not. But it's modern and efficient, and not expensive: a single ticket costs 1.50 euro, and there is a two-ride special that costs 3 euro.