It's a Wide Open Road

Adam Gibson's travel writing

Posted on April 16, 2014

Adam Gibson is an Australian writer, journalist, artist and photographer. He has travelled to over 40 countries and written extensively about his experiences all over the world. This site is specifically on his travel writing. With an eye for the quirky and the off-beat, the subtle and/or the superficial, Adam’s travel writing provides clear insight into the places in which he finds himself.

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An Aussie Armistice Day in France

Posted on April 25, 2014

Adam Gibson represents Australia at an Armistice Day commemoration in the Somme, France, and finds it unexpectedly moving. [Published on ninemsn website]

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Friday, November 9, 2007 … A fidgety choir of local kids, led by a woman who appears to be their school teacher, is gathered on a stage in the packed town hall of the tiny northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux. A 20-piece band and seemingly the entire town are fanned out in front of them.

After running through various numbers, a bagpipe player announces his arrival by tripping through a side door, whacking the top of his bagpipes on the doorframe and then nearly falling over, all while peeling off a succession of notes that I’d be kind to label a “tune”.

Welcome to an Armistice Day commemoration in the heart of the Somme region, north of Paris; a home-spun event that would later provide me with one of the most profound experiences of my life…

Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate November 11, the date World War I officially ended, I have gone to the Somme in the hope of finding some semblance of occasion to mark the end of hostilities which decimated the area from 1916 to 1918. And I have chosen Villers-Bretonneux as my first stop because I know it’s a town with a strong connection to Australia after the Aussie troops recaptured it from the Germans in 1918, thus turning the tide of the German advance on Amiens and towards Paris.

I’d heard that the main street was called Rue de Melbourne, that the town symbol was a green and gold kangaroo and that the local school was called Victoria School, with “N’oubliez pas les Australiennes” (“Never forget the Australians”) written above the blackboards in the classrooms. All up, it seemed a pretty good place for this Aussie to be on such a day.

With the crowd appropriately stilled, and our man on the bagpipes doggedly ploughing on, a local dignitary ascends the stage and launches into a passionate distillation of what the day means to the town.

My rough translation is that “La Premiere Guerre Mondial” (French for the First World War) had a big impact on the town and is something that, 90 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, should be appropriately recognised. He makes specific mention of “les Australiennes” and talks of how they took the town with great bravery.

On such an occasion as this, therefore, one would expect at least a few other Australians to be present. But no, there are apparently no other Aussies here: I am Australia’s sole representative…

Later, with a theatrically Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a thoughtful rub of his beard, President of the Franco-Australian Association of Villers-Bretonneux, Jean-Pierre Thierry, tells me increasing numbers of Australians are coming to the town, visiting the wonderful local museum and seeing the place where the Australian legacy is so great.

Back at the ceremony, the dignitary gent finally finishes up his speech and signs off by announcing two triumphant words: “Waltzing Matilda“. And before you can say “who’s strangling that cat”, the bagpipe player launches into an interpretation of the tune.

To his credit, he doesn’t let talent, nor any lack thereof, stop him being a focal point of the town’s big day. Mais non, monsieur. On he plays till the (bitter) end.

And just as I and everyone else are about to clap him for effort, at the very least, suddenly the band sparks to life and begin their own version of the song. Bracing myself for more aural torture, I am therefore pleasantly surprised when the band bounces back from their own dodgy start and actually coalesce into a cohesive whole.

But as the first verse looms I am prepared for anything as the choir, who have hitherto shown more interest in pinching and tickling each other, are readied for their role. I watch as the music teacher begins rushing around like a head mechanic getting set for a Formula One car to arrive in the pits during a race. This could be interesting…

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Australia provided the greatest military contributions of all the British dominions which sent forces to the Great War. There were 331,000 Australian volunteers (out of a population of 4,875,000) with 16,000 killed and a further 42,500 wounded.

I have these figures, plus images from the museum of smiling diggers in the trenches, durries hanging from the corners of their creased mouths, in my mind as I warily listen to the band and choir prepare to bring ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to lift-off.

But I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have doubted the kids of this little town with their ill-matched clothes and pale faces. I even shouldn’t have doubted the little chap in the choir’s front row who decided it would be a good day to bust out his camouflage army pants.

Nope, with a frantic wave of the teacher’s hand, the kids eagerly lean into the iconic Aussie tune with full confidence and the result is absolutely note perfect.

And here I am, the only Aussie in a tiny hall on the other side of the world and these kids are singing a song every Australian knows. I’m both proud and excited and it’s a moment, obviously, I won’t easily forget.

The bagpipe player, however, might not last as long in memory.

//

The South Pacific’s ‘Wild West’

Posted on April 24, 2014

Adam Gibson discovers there’s more to Fiji than lolling under a palm tree soaking up the sun. [First published in TNT Magazine, London]

WHEN you look out the window of the Whale’s Tale restaurant in the Fijian island town of Levuka you can see the exclusive Wakaya Island across the water, green and rugged in the haze.

This is the elite resort where Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman recently stayed and where a plethora of other star types — including Michelle Pfeiffer, Celine Dion and even Bill Gates — have rested their well-heeled selves.

A single night at the Wakaya Club will set you back around US$1,500 per double per night so it’s not a place that those a little shorter of a quid should consider for their next holiday. Indeed, with its own aeroplanes, landing strip, golf course and other fancy features, the Wakaya Club is firmly in the league of fantasy for most of us mere financial mortals.

But a Fijian holidaymaker with a yearning for something much cheaper could do a lot worse than making their way just as far as Levuka. While not overflowing with accommodation options, this gem of a town does have the extraordinary Royal Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the South Pacific and a place worth the trip alone. And then there’s the Whale’s Tale … a superb restaurant specialising in the abundant local seafood and run by Australian-born Liza Ditrich and local Sai Tuibua.

Nestling on the eastern shore of the island of Ovalau, located off the east coast of the main island of Viti Levu, Levuka is a richly historic and seriously quirky destination.

It was here where the “Deed of Cession” for Fiji was signed in 1874 and the islands brought under British rule. Following that, the town became the site of the original British colonial capital in Fiji with the islands’ affairs being run from buildings that still stand. When the capital was later shifted to Suva, Levuka subsequently developed into something of a South Pacific “wild west” town.

Throughout the 19th century whalers, traders, pirates, shore leave sailors and other assorted riff-raff enjoyed the delights of the town’s 50 hotels and saloons. These were halcyon days of shipwrecks and brawls and locals, such as legendary 82-year-old tour guide Henry Sahai, now talk of that colourful past with pride, quietly revelling in their little town’s big history.

While those days are long past and the town now dozes in a faded colonial timewarp beneath the tropical sun, there is still a fantastic ambience in the town.

From the moment you arrive on Ovalau — either by 12 minute light plane ride from Nausori airport near Suva or a four hour bus/ferry combination from Suva — it’s clear the island is not your typical Fiji package deal location. We arrived by plane, scooting across blue water and coming down to land on at an “airport” that consisted of a strip of bitumen and an antique amenities shed that doubled as the terminal. The road from the airport makes the Birdsville Track look like the M1, all rock and dust, but soon we were skirting past beautiful bays on one side and neat villages on the left.

Then Levuka, population around 2000, emerged around the bend and we entered the three-block business district of Beach St. Here, weatherbeaten stores, complete with high “wild west-style” facades, line the road offering a wide array of goods, including top quality “grog” — the ubiquitous Fijian social lubricant also known as kava.

Further north towards the Royal Hotel, huge frangipani and mango trees grow wild everywhere and a couple of the town’s several churches stand immaculate and peaceful in the heavy air.

While Fiji is renowned for its major tourist hotels and facilities, the charm of Levuka is that it’s a living, breathing town. It doesn’t exist solely for the sake of the tourist buck. Those visitors that do make it there are hence rewarded by unpretentious and genuinely enthusiastic goodwill. To be honest, once you’ve taken legendary local Henry Sahai’s $6 two hour tour there’s not a lot to do in Levuka. But that’s sort of the point.

For a visitor, the town is about clicking back into another time, allowing the quiet pace to envelope one.

And nowhere is this charm more evident than at the Royal Hotel. Heritage-listed and a bona fide colonial relic, the Royal has been owned and operated by the Ashley family for three generations. Its ramshackle rooms and genteel bar and restaurant have hosted everyone from the Fijian president, to legendary ship captain Bully Hayes, to writers, artists and local dignitaries.

After a hard day of nothing much at all, there’s nothing quite as pleasurable as sitting beneath the rasping fans in the Royal Hotel and sipping from a frosty bottle of Fiji Bitter. And then, if you’re lucky, there may well be a dance organised for later in the evening, at which you are sure to be asked more than once to shake your booty with the locals.

With accommodation starting at around AU$15 a night, the rich and famous can stick their exclusive hideaway you know where. Levuka, in all its idiosyncratic glory, will do just fine, thanks very much.

The end

Going Dutch … hanging out in Holland’s Surf City

Posted on April 22, 2014

Adam Gibson hits Holland and finds a version of Surf City right there in the North Sea.
[First published in Tracks Magazine].

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Ahh, Holland. Land of freely available dope, home to statistically the largest breasted women in the world and, believe it or not, a place with a truly happening surf scene. Yes, the chilly northern European country abutting the North Sea has waves. And a recent visit confirmed to me that, while not rivalling the Mentawais (or even Bondi for that matter), on its day there are definitely a few decent peaks to be found.

But to backtrack. After slogging through the shivering depths of a European winter, stuck in landlocked cities where about the only waves I got were when I was given the brush-off by some lithe lass in any number of smoky bars, an invitation to head to the coast of Holland for a visit was too good to pass up.

Susan, a friend of my brother’s from an earlier European jaunt, invited me by email to stay with her in the small town called Scheveningen, just outside The Hague. The Hague was only previously really known to me as a bureaucratic centre of Europe and home of the International War Crimes Commission, where despots such as Slobodan Milosevic have stood trial.the_Pier

In my mind it was a stuffy old European city … sort of like a Euro version of Canberra. But Susan promised me there’d be surf, litres of fine Dutch beer and a decent bed in the home she shared with three other girls five minutes’ walk from a long beachbreak.

After a 50-minute train trip from Amsterdam, Susan met me at The Hague’s Centraal station and we took a 15-minute tram ride out to Scheveningen. Arriving at her house, I was surprised to see a quiver of four boards lined up against the door and a surf poster on the wall. Hang on, hadI been beamed back to Bondi?

Susan’s flatmate Lotte joined us, we grabbed a board each (me choosing Susan’s 6’4″ thruster) and, with the wetsuit I’d had tucked tightly in my backpack for five months finally seeing daylight, we headed out to the beach. The sun was shining bright enough for sunburn and the temperature was an easy 20 degrees – and this was in Europe in April! Tony Abbott, if you believe there’s no global warming happening, wake up to yourself.

On the walk to the beach we saw a bloke come casually riding his bike up the street, bright red board under his arm. A mate of Susan’s, they launched into what was clearly a convo about the surf. Whilst I couldn’t understand the actual words, I could pick the tone of “you missed it – this morning was going off” in any language. But just the idea that I was going to surf in Holland was exciting … I couldn’t care less how bad it was.

We then continued onward, down the main street of Scheveningen, stopping briefly at the massive Sublime Surfshop – a place brimming with every piece of surfing equipment imaginable. There were more good-looking boards in the racks than at most surfshops in Australia. After a brief chat with the amiable owner Ray Max on the merits of surfing in Australia, I was assured that Tracks was the magazine of reading choice in these parts and was promised beers later that evening in the pub.

When we got to the beach, across a wide stretch of sand, I could see the surf was only a couple of feet, but it actually looked alright. Suitably suited-up (a borrowed pair of booties on my feet), Susan, Lotte and I (nothing like surfing with two local chicks on my first surf in a new place) hit the water and … oh dear … it was absolutely, unequivocally freezing!

But undaunted, onward we went. By no stretch of the imagination could the surf be called epic – just smooth two-foot beachies with odd nicely whackable section – but to look up towards the beach and see Holland was just amazing.

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Look, I probably shouldn’t be expressing such surprise about there actually being surf in Holland. Over the years, I’ve heard various mentions of Dutch surfers and surfing, and indeed on the old campervan circuit from France to Spain and Portugal I’d met any number of Dutchies. But it was the genuine sense of how into it the locals were that surprised me. A genuine sense of Scheveningen, specifically, being a full-on surf town, where everyone surfs, where the quality of the day’s waves have a true influence on the town’s mood and where locals have rooms full of boards to cater for every desire.

And as I reclined at the bar of the local pub that night, cool band pumping away, fine Dutch beer in hand, lovely Dutch lasses all around the place, I reflected that, while my limbs were still thawing out from the cold water and the surf wasn’t pure perfection, this wouldn’t be a bad place to just stay a little while longer in … yeah, not too bad a place at all.

 

 

Coast to Coast – The Indian Pacific

Posted on April 20, 2014

Adam Gibson goes coast-to-coast in style on an iconic Australian journey. [First published in TNT Magazine, London]

LET ME get this straight. I’m no trainspotter. No rail buff. The longest train trip I’ve been on was when I fell asleep on the Hammersmith line one night and woke up at Bromley-by-Bow.

So the thought of spending three days and three nights in a train carriage (and covering 4352km) on the trans-Australia Indian-Pacific didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. It filled me with … well, just let’s say uncertainty.

The Indian-Pacific journey is truly an incredible trip. It’s the only true trans-continental train ride in the world, literally going from coast to coast. You can have a dip at Bondi Beach in Sydney on a Monday and then take the plunge at Scarborough Beach in Perth on a Thursday — with every centimetre of land in between having rattled beneath your feet.

After leaving Sydney’s Central Station on a September afternoon, we headed straight west out of town, through graffiti-emblazoned suburbia and then began to ascend the foothills of the Blue Mountains. From the wide windows of one of the bar cars I watched as the sun went down and the escarpments of the mountains proper passed by. And then, with the last glimpse of sunlight, we rolled into Lithgow, nestling snugly in the hills like a scene from the movie Babe. Then night fell and around that time the thought struck me … I would be on this train all the way across the country.

There’s something about travelling by train which the rarified atmosphere of plane travel or the eye-wearying rigmarole of driving on Aussie roads cannot hope to match. Train travel gives the best of both worlds. You get the cushioned comfort of flight combined with the real sense of travel that driving can bring. And, basically, you get none of the bad bits.

Waking the first morning, after a night spent largely trying to not fall out of the top bunk, I was hit by the sight of a blindingly orange sunrise across the scrubby plain en-route to Broken Hill. After eating breakfast while spotting kangaroos, emus and the odd wild horse darting away in the distance, signs of mining operations appeared and then, without fanfare, we rolled into Broken Hill station for our first stop.

Operated by Great Southern Railways (GSR), the Indian Pacific has four scheduled stops on its journey: Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook (on the Nullarbor Plain) and Kalgoorlie. Organised tours are available at each stop except Cook.

The Broken Hill stop was the first chance we had to see passengers from other sections of the train. They represented a fair cross section of the community. There were elderly couples, hip young groovers in dark sunnies, daggy middle-aged couples and everything in between. The “IP” caters for all these types, offering three classes of travel.

There’s First Class, where mostly elderly passengers share twin rooms with fold-down beds and a shower and toilet, plus lavish meals from the dining car included in the fare price. There’s Holiday Class, where less extravagant passengers have single or double rooms with shared bathroom and shower facilities in each carriage and meals available from the on-board cafeteria. Then there’s Coach Class, the more budget option which Train Manager Robert Knight described to me as “a bit wild but good fun”. You’d probably go a bit wild too with just an upright seat as your accommodation for several days. Throw in the fact that you have to share toilet facilities with passengers who are often “tired and emotional” from a day spent in one of the bars and you have a recipe for … well, an interesting trip. But it’s worth it.

The price of these classes (Sydney to Perth) varies steeply, with Coach Class adult fares starting around $450 and First Class reaching up to $1500. If you’re strapped for cash or if your idea of a good time is sitting in a seat for 65 hours, then take the Coach Class option. Alternatively you could go the pampered near-opulence of First Class — but pay accordingly.

For mine, the best option is Holiday Class, costing around $900 from Sydney to Perth (or vice-versa). There you at least get to sleep in comfort, something you’ll be heartily glad of because the rock and roll of the train is akin to a giant mother’s hand rocking the cradle — I could hardly keep awake to enjoy the spectacular scenery flashing constantly by.

After a walk around Broken Hill in the icy early morning wind, it was back on the train for our journey to Adelaide, which we reached in the late afternoon. There was just enough time to catch a cab into Rundle St East and grab a sterling pint of Coopers Pale Ale in one of Adelaide’s great pubs.

After Adelaide it was onward towards the undisputed drawcard of the Indian Pacific journey — the Nullarbor. This vast 5,900sq. km “treeless plain” holds a special place in the Australian psyche. Regarded as a near-insurmountable barrier by the early explorers, these days there is still an undoubted mystique about it.

Unlike the Eyre Highway, which runs along the fringe of the plain along the Great Australian Bight, the Trans-Australia Railway line runs smack-bang through the middle of it. Indian Pacific staff regularly say “the only way to see the plain is by train” and, rough-hewn poetry aside, they’re pretty well spot on.

But with the prospect of the Nullarbor consuming one’s thoughts, it’s easy to miss some of the wonderful country leading towards it. There’s the township of Pimba, for instance. Just north of here is Woomera, once a rocket testing site for the British Army and home to the infamous Immigrant Detention Centre. Further north of that is Roxby Downs, the equally infamous uranium mining site. And somewhere nearabouts too, shrouded in secrecy, is the US military installation called Nurrungar.

A few hundred kilometres west on the train line is the township of Tarcoola. This is the spot where the legendary Ghan, also operated by GSR, leaves the Trans-Australian track and shoots off north to Alice Springs. But the interesting bit for me about the place is the fact that it must surely be the only town in the world named after a racehorse. Yep, that’s right: it took its name from the 1893 winner of the Melbourne Cup. Only in Australia…

The Indian Pacific was formerly operated by the state-run Australian National railways (AN). However in 1997 it was sold to private interests and GSR was born. The change has had a significant impact on a number of the railway siding towns along the Trans-Australia route. Perhaps the most noticeable has been at Cook, our next scheduled stop, in the middle of the Nullarbor.

Cook was formerly a bustling town with a population of around 100 people, all employed or connected with AN. With privatisation and a subsequent decision to move most of the railways operations to Adelaide and Port Augusta, Cook was virtually shut down overnight. Now the only people there are the station master, his wife and their small delightfully mischievous-looking child. But the evidence of the former life there is compelling. Arriving in the early morning, you see the gravel-filled swimming pool, the deserted school and hospital plus a number of desolate empty houses baking in the heat.

Re-boarding the train and heading towards Kalgoorlie, the true vastness of the Nullarbor can be appreciated. For at least eight hours the landscape doesn’t change a jot … kilometre after kilometre of dry scrubby land. No sign of human or animal life whatsoever.

By the time we reach the gold mining city of Kalgoorlie in the evening it’s well and truly time to disembark for another breather. The train is resolutely comfortable and enjoyable but the long stretches on the tracks are surprisingly tiring. One or two more stops along the way would prevent that and provide for a more languid journey. But then, I’m not the boss, am I?

After an insightful night-time bus tour of Kalgoolie (costing $16), it was back on the “IP” for the final run through the night to Perth.

Waking as the train wound through the lush Avon River valley there was a noticeable spring in the step of all passengers. And, as Perth’s outer suburbs came into view, a strong sense of achievement hit me. Sure, it wasn’t exactly hard work, but the feeling of having crossed the entire continent on land was an incredibly exciting one.

And, alighting at East Perth station, another pleasant thought hit me … I’d be going back the other way in a few days. Maybe I’d become a train buff, after all…

The End

 

Cardiff carry-on

Posted on April 17, 2014

2007 Rugby World Cup guide 

This year’s Rugby World Cup in France offers a feast of football for fans combined with the chance to soak up the rich culture of the home of baguettes, brie and bouillabaisse. With the Wallabies in action, Adam Gibson dons his beret and gives you a rundown on hot spots to check out in each city where the team is playing.

Cardiff

The World Cup is officially being hosted by France, right? But a quick glimpse of the match schedule reveals two decidedly non-French cities hosting matches — Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Perhaps one Rugby World Cup is simply too big for one country … or perhaps the organisers simply wanted to share the fun of the event around? Whatever the case, there are several games in both the Welsh and Scottish capitals, with the Wallabies taking on Wales at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on September 15.

While the city will undoubtedly be full to overflowing with rabid Welsh rugger fans, visiting Aussies shouldn’t be put off seeing this compact and lively city.

Located on the banks of the River Taff in South Wales, Cardiff has a population of around 320,000 and the city’s history is inextricably linked to the discovery of coal in the Welsh countryside.

During Victorian times it was the biggest coal-exporting city in the world and while there are many reminders of that industrial past, in recent years the city has been transformed into a cosmopolitan capital with a vibrant and artsy edge.

Developments such as the impressive Millennium Centre (www.wmc.org.uk), Mermaid Quay and the Old Brewery Quarter have given the city a dynamic feel, with a true carnival atmosphere on days when rugby matches are being played at the centrally-located Millennium Stadium (www.millenniumstadium.com).

A day or two in Cardiff
As castles-in-the-centre-of-a-capital-city go, it’s pretty hard to beat Cardiff Castle (www.cardiffcastle.com). Granted, it might not be the oldest castle in the UK and it might not have the hauntingly majestic spires and turrets of some others in the rest of Europe, but it’s still a must-see site on any visit to Cardiff.In the boom years of coal exporting, Cardiff’s most famous citizen was the wealthy second Marquess of Bute, who in 1839 built the city’s docks to export the coal mined from his father’s valley lands. With the wealth earned by the family, the third Marquess decided to build the landmark castle on medieval foundations within a Norman wall smack-bang in the centre of town. And with a design by architect William Burges, they sure didn’t hold back, creating the current medieval Gothic theme.

Another key spot to visit is the Wales Millennium Centre. Again pretty much in the centre of town, this has been an important component in the city’s emergence as a place of culture. Opened by the Queen in November 2004, the centre is the spectacular home of performing arts in Wales, with the Welsh National Opera and six other art companies in residence.

Nicknamed “The Armadillo” for its supposed resemblance to the armoured animal, the venue can hold up to 1900 people and has hosted big budget shows such as Miss Saigon and My Fair Lady.

The history of Wales is possibly not that well-known to many visitors and if that’s the case for you, a visit to the Welsh National Museum (www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/cardiff/) is well advised. Located within the collection of buildings that form Cardiff’s civic centre, the museum gives a great snapshot of the often turbulent past that has made Wales what it is today.

With your cultural and historical sensibilities hopefully sated, it’s time to check out another aspect for which Cardiff is widely lauded … the pubs, bars and nightlife. While it’s not out of order to say that things can get decidedly rowdy in the centre of town (around St Mary Street), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more atmospheric place for a few pints in the whole of the UK.

Particularly on rugby game days, the whole city seems to be abuzz with revellers. The compact nature of the place makes it thankfully easy to navigate … something you may be very grateful for after a couple of stout Welsh pints.

Finding a good pub in Cardiff is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel — it’s very easy. But for starters, try the Gatekeeper (9 Westgate Street, Cardiff City Centre), the Flyhalf and Firkin, Queens Vaults (29 Westgate Street, Cardiff City Centre) or the City Arms (10 Quay Street, Cardiff). If they don’t fit your bill, simply keep walking … you’re bound to find a suitable watering hole eventually.

And for those looking to pick up a few shopping souvenirs from the Welsh capital, take a poke around the backstreets of the city centre, where you might find some cool shops with, perhaps, a World Cup bargain or two.

Medieval Montpellier a must-see

Posted on April 17, 2014

2007 Rugby World Cup guide 

This year’s Rugby World Cup in France offers a feast of football for fans combined with the chance to soak up the rich culture of the home of baguettes, brie and bouillabaisse. With the Wallabies in action, Adam Gibson dons his beret and gives you a rundown on hot spots to check out in each city where the team is playing.

Montpellier

Montpellier is one World Cup city which may have flown under the radar for many rugby visitors. Dazzled by the headline act of Paris and big names such as Bordeaux and Marseille, it’s possible that the southern French city didn’t really figure prominently in planning discussions. But it would be a real shame to miss out on Montpellier, where the Wallabies meet the flamboyant Fijians on September 23.

Situated at the easternmost border of Languedoc region as it enters Provence, a few kilometres from the Mediterranean, Montpellier is a vivacious city crammed with college students, tourists and locals. It features fabulous neighbourhoods for walking and there are striking examples of Medieval architecture all over the place.

Established around the year 1000, Montpellier is an unusual city in the region for the fact that it doesn’t date from antiquity. But this point is perhaps a reason why it’s such a forward-looking place and has a dynamic vibe. A centre for academia and technology, it is regarded as France’s fastest-growing city and is developing a reputation as a serious spot for a party.

On top of that it is loaded with chic boutiques, cool cafes and broad, sunlit squares. The light of southern France is quite dazzling, usually bathing the cities and countryside in a fabulous glow. While Van Gogh may be gone and Matisse may have marched off to the great art studio in the sky, Wallaby followers can still soak up the same luminescence which inspired them and other great artists.

A day or two in Montpellier

Life in the city undoubtedly centres on the massive Place de la Comédie, a pedestrianised square which is regarded as the heart of town. The square is surrounded by impressive hotels, tree-lined walkways and parks, and has the imposing Opéra de la Comédie dominating the scene at the far end.

It’s a cool place to just hang out — spend a morning soaking up the sun and checking out the swank Montpellierians passing by while munching on a baguette or two. And with the World Cup in full swing, the square will be the centrepoint of celebrations, with buskers and performers on hand to entertain the rugby-primed throng.

At the other end of the square from the Opera House, take a wander down the landscaped Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where there’s a market most mornings. Montpellier is one of those cities that has that intangible “something”, and at the vibrant market you can get a taste sense of the city’s spirit, with local merchants plying their trade of fresh produce.

Montpellier’s main shopping street is Rue De La Loge, which also runs from Place de la Comédie. With the shops of Paris being notoriously expensive, regional cities such as Montpellier can often offer far more affordable prices. If you see something that takes your fancy for a reasonable price, buy it — France isn’t cheap but the merchandise is usually of high quality.

From the Rue De La Loge you can venture off into the old town, with its private mansions and courtyards dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, while Rue Foch leads west from the old town to the ornate 17th-century Arc de Triomphe.

Also known as the Porte du Peyrou, this is an impressive triumphal arch worth checking out. Designed by the Languedoc architect Charles-Augustin Daliver, after the model of the Porte Saint-Denis in Paris, it was completed in 1692. It was designed in the Doric style with later carvings glorifying King Louis XIV of France.

Nearby is the Jardin des Plantes, one of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens, and a relaxing place for a casual stroll. Close to that is the 14th century St-Pierre cathedral, set in steep, picturesque streets.

But if all that sightseeing proves a little tiring, your best bet is to find a cool bar or restaurant in the city centre and drink in the atmosphere — and a drop of the local wine or beer, naturally — of this funky town. There are plenty of options to choose from, particularly around Place Jean-Jaurèes.