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Budapest, winter (8-13 February 2017)

Budapest, winter (8-13 February 2017)

I made a short trip with ML to Budapest a few weeks ago. Budapest is one of those cities I visited when I first ‘discovered’ Europe in the early 90s before leaving for Canada for two years. Quite a few of those cities I have never returned to since then: Budapest, Prague, Vienna. You see, back then, I was attracted to this part of the world. For me Europe was above all Mitteleuropa, it was not the Mediterranean Europe of France, Spain and Italy. In fact, during those first few visits to Europe, I didn’t even visit Italy. Coming from the North, for me Italy seemed to be chaotic and noisy. Today, of course, I feel differently. But meanwhile, in my mind, Budapest rests frozen in the summer of 1991. What it would be like today?

After a short flight from Orly, we arrived at night:

it was bitterly cold, but I had my heavy coat for the mountains.

There is certainly a particular atmosphere in this city at night,

and at the same time there is no question that things have changed,

and the city is not as it was before. Although Budapest, as I learned, was always even in the depths of communism, a city known for its cosmopolitan lifestyle. But now some strange choices are being proposed:

Are you sure?

However, some things do not change, people still swim outside in at Széchenyi in winter when the temperature is barely above freezing:

You must swim fast

There are still a few mysterious things to see,

Many buildings have been restored, but not all of them,

there are still a few traces left from before the arrival of modern-day plate-glass windows,

Certainly food is important,

and during our stay we went to some wonderful bars and restaurants,

and outside in streets, you certainly need to wrap up warm:

And suddenly it was time to leave. Waiting at Budapest airport to board the plane in the depths of winter is a unique experience:

… and we were back in Paris once again. I enjoyed immensely our short visit, and hope to return soon…

Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

Observatoire de Haute-Provence: January 2017

The Observatoire de Haute-Provence (OHP, as we call it to save words) is remote. To get there, you take the TGV to Aix-en-Provence, and then rent a car and drive north for around an hour. The nearest town is Manosque and the observatory is in the mountains. Each year I go there with two other astronomers to teach observational astronomy to a group of Masters-level students. The course is organised by Herve Dole who meticulously sorts everything out, helped out a lot of course by people at OHP and the Universities. We usually have two or three nights on the 120cm and 80cm telescopes, and usually it is clear for around two or two of those nights. There is a lot of work involved: for each group of students, there is a full scientific project, starting from planning the observations and finishing with a report and presentation. This year was particularly interesting: we successfully managed to observe an a transiting exoplanet, a planet which passes in front of its star and causes its light to dim.

The story of OHP is a long one. Observations started here at around the same time the IAP (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris) was created a story which you can read about here. At the start, the OHP was, more or less, the “observing station” of the IAP, a place where the latest instruments could be tested out and where the still-new field of astrophysics could get the data it needed. I won’t go into the whole history of OHP here, but a succession of larger telescopes were built there, culminating with the mighty 193cm telescope in 1958. It was with this telescope that astronomers made the discovery of the first planet outside our solar system, 51 Peg, in 1995. The funny story here is that around the time I was studying for my Masters’ degree in Victoria, astronomers there were using an almost identical telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for the same scientific project (with different instruments). Alas, their control of systematic errors was not quite good enough; they missed out.

Calling 1985

The situation at OHP has evolved. The number of astronomers using the site has greatly decreased in the last few decades with the arrival of other astronomical observatories situated in locations like Hawaii and Chile. Investments in the site have declined, reflecting a policy of concentrating resources in larger telescopes further away. But there is a lot to be said for smaller telescopes with modern instrumentation nearby, as I saw when I visited the JPASS observatory in Spain in 2015. There they have constructed a new small modern telescope on a site like OHP but with modern state-of-the-art detectors. Despite spending a lot of my time working on larger projects, I think there is a lot to be said for keeping sites like OHP open providing a compelling niche can be found.

Today, there are only a few people around after the sun sets. Although there are many telescopes, only one or two are regularly used. Some have been converted to remote, robotic operation. In the past, a chef cooked legendary evening meals each night, but today we re-heat meals made earlier in the day in the microwave (which never get things quite hot enough.) Still, the observatory has decided that educating students in the techniques of observational astronomy is a priority, and each year many nights of telescope time are dedicated to student projects. There is accommodation on-site which is very comfortable. The course that I teach in is part of the Master 2 program for astronomy in the Paris region, and we have tried very hard to keep an empirical, practical approach to our course. You wouldn’t expect it, but fewer and fewer astronomers actually travel to telescopes these days, and I personally appreciate seeing in person the telescope and dectectors even if they are not at the forefront of technology.

This year is my second trip to OHP with film cameras. I wanted to capture something of the feeling of being there in the middle of winter. Each morning one could see wonderful things like this:

Here are a a few photographs I took around the observatory during the day.

And as night falls, time to observe, or eat, depending if your observations are finished or not.

As each year, we stayed a week, arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving early on the following Saturday. It was kind of nice to be slightly abstracted of the concerns of everyday life. When I wasn’t working, I worked on my article for Emulsive. I learned things. I learned that there is such a thing as the “Qatari Exoplanet survey” and our students successfully confirmed one of their transiting exoplanets (and I actually did a fair amount of work aligning their hundreds of images for them). We ate galette, which is a long tradition in France and in Provence it’s even better. And I took a lot of photographs of trees and domes. And group photographs. The best ones are always the unplanned ones. Like this one, taken at sunset. Almost everyone is there, except Herve, but here it is anyway:

At sunset. Michel, Karim plus students. Herve is missing.

I am already looking forward to returning in 2018!

Visiting Montjustin

Visiting Montjustin

Montjustin in winter

Each year in January, as part of my teaching duties at IAP, I travel with the students to the Observatoire de Haut-Provence (OHP). That is perhaps for another post. In 2016, I discovered that a certain famous photographer is buried in Montjustin, which is just a few minutes drive from OHP, so on this years’ trip I decided to make a visit.


Montjustin is a tiny hilltop village just off the main road between Forcalquier and Apt. Driving up the road I missed the turn-off, and had to double-back. You drive up a tiny narrow road, where there just enough space for one car. There are a few ancient houses crowded on the top of the hill. When I was there, the village was in the clutches of winter, the water was frozen in the wells and the trees were bare of leaves. I looked for the cemetery, but I could not find it, and finished giving up and going into the cafe in the town hall on the top of the hill. I said to the friendly person I found there, “So, I am going to ask the question that everyone who visits here asks”, and she replied “go ahead and ask it”!. So I did. The cemetery was just on the bottom of the hill, surrounded by tall cypresses. A beautiful location. Inside, a few plain stone graves. For one of them, I felt that I could only pictures using my 50mm lens, photographers will understand.


I returned later in the week, in sunshine, with a colleague, and we had a coffee on in the converted town-hall. There was some wonderful winter sunshine, too. Certainly I will return next year…

"Virage analogique"

"Virage analogique"

Here I am again, after six months. It was interesting to read the post below once again last night. You see, a weird thing happened between here and there. A few days after I wrote this blog post, I went to a shop here in the 14th in Paris and bought a roll of HP5+, a black and white film produced by Ilford camera. I put it in inside an old camera I still had here in a box, and started to take pictures. I was curious to see how it would turn out.

Well, now on the first week of January, I have filled more than 50 rolls of film with images. As well as the Pentax, I tried an Olympus XA rangefinder, and then in June I bought a Leica M6. Mostly because I was frustrated by the lack of control on the Olympus – developing and scanning photographs is a lot of work and it’s frustrating when something doesn’t turn out right and it was the camera’s fault. Anyway, at least with the Leica if it doesn’t work out, it is always your fault, and you can improve and learn how to do it better next time. So it maybe it is a “virage analogique” but for me it is now a straight road, like the one below I took during a recent trip to Spain:

I’m reminded of the blog post I wrote a few years about the Amazon Kindle and paper books, and Victor Hugo’s Ceci tuera cela. Except in this case, it would be a film camera on the left and a digital camera on the right. But I think in this case it is worse, because film photography and digital photography are completely different. In the case of books, one would hope, the words are the same in both cases. But that is a reflection for another time. Anyway, I don’t want this blog to become devoted to photography (sighs of relief from the occasional one or two people still reading). I wrote my up my experience on a lengthy text which will appear on a certain photography-related site sometime soon. I have also committed myself to take at least one roll of film on the M6 with a 50mm lens per week. That experience you can follow over at 52rolls, and my posts will be here: . In the mean-time I will try to write at least one post per month over here. At least.