Monday, June 30, 2014

Return to Aigues-Mortes!

Lundi, 30 juin.

Yesterday, Molly and I were generously invited to tag along with the group of William & Mary students currently studying abroad in Montpellier on a day trip to Aigues-Mortes and a local beach. We've visited Aigues-Mortes before (you can read about that trip here), but when opportunity knocks -- and especially opportunity happens to be a free trip to a beautiful historic seaside town -- you answer!

Look familiar?

Since Molly and I had already done the touristy thing, we opted out of another tour of the city ramparts. Instead, we walked around the interior of the city, popping into souvenir shops and -- of course -- stopping for sugary snacks. We decided that after a long morning of walking (and twenty-one years of penny-pinching), we deserved two scoops ... I'll have framboise and caramel buerre salé, please!

Friday, June 27, 2014

24 Hours in La Ciotat

Vendredi, 27 juin.

My friend and freshman roommate Marika is studying abroad at the moment in Aix-en-Provence. (You can see photos from her adventures here.) We planned to meet up for a weekend when she was out of class and decided on La Ciotat, a resort town just east of Marseille ... and what a good decision it was!

Marika and I just couldn't get enough of the colorful boats in the city's main harbor. If you want to see what we saw, you can check out this "street view" that provides a 360-degree view from the intersection between the Office of Tourism and the Vieux Port.

Through AirBNB, we stayed in a little apartment with an incredible view! The rocks behind me in the photo below are part of la calanque de Mugel ... which, naturally, we had to go explore.

Calanques are a unique geographic feature that exist almost exclusively along the Mediterranean, where the Massif des Calanques extends along the coast from Marseille to Cassis. The calanque du Mugel, which has been partially preserved as a botanical garden, is located on the outskirts of this range. As best as I can understand and explain it, they're really narrow, deep inlets that formed over time in the limestone rock along the coastline. Today, the calanques of the South of France are almost exclusively designated national parks; in addition to being home to a wide variety of plants and animals, they are popular among hikers and backpack-toting college students from Centreville, Virginia. (JK.)

Fun fact -- the word calanque is not actually French in origin, but rather comes from Occitan, the Romance language spoken in the Mediterranean that corresponds closely with Catalan. Funner fact -- the town of La Ciotat also derives its name from Occitan: "la ciotat" means "the city."

In what has to be one of the craziest things to happen to me so far in my travels, Marika and I stumbled across a forest fire in the middle of the Parc du Mugel. Although it looked to be safely contained, we stayed far back. Still, it was amazing to watch the smoke drifting through the trees ... and even cooler to see the helicopter at work, ferrying sea water to fight back the flames! Crazy.

After our impromptu hike, Marika and I tucked into a late dinner at a port-side restaurant. We both decided to go with a Mediterranean specialty ... moules frites! Although I've never been a big fan of fruits de mer, there's something fun about eating fresh seafood while at the ocean. Also, when have I EVER been able to turn down fries?

After a good night's sleep, Marika and I woke up bright and early this morning with one goal in mind: KAYAKING. (Okay, we miiiight have made a pit stop for pastries on the way. But kayaking was definitely the ultimate goal!) We were able to rent a two-person kayak and had an absolute blast kayaking around the bay. Because our phones and cameras were safely tucked away in a waterproof bag, there are sadly no photos from this leg of the adventure ... but I promise that it was simply amazing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Review: Strasbourg, Lyon, and Grenoble

Jeudi, 26 juin.

Remember how I told you I was keeping a diary? Well, it's not QUITE a diary. Seeing as it consists mostly of pasted-in tickets and lists of the places I've been, I'd say it's more like a cross between an improvised scrapbook and a giant to-do list.

But every now and then I wax a little poetic...
Me. Sitting in layover limbo at the Gare de Valence TGV
Wearing dirty Keds that weren't meant for all the explorations they have been through. Jeans, rolled up in a failed attempt to look like a casual French teenager. 
People-watching. Watching a guy eat a sandwich, then a slice of quiche, then a muffin. Chocolate with chocolate chips. (He can't be French!) The couple across from me has two suitcases and a German Shepherd, whose lunch is currently spread across the station floor. My lunch's remains have been contained to my lap. 
Carrying one black suitcase, stuffed to the brim with things that never look like they should take up as much space as they -- inevitably -- do. One backpack, usually filled with books and paperwork. Today carrying a beach towel and a baseball cap that I'll be glad for in La Ciotat. (Even if people will say, she can't be French!) One purse that has been everywhere, carried everything from groceries to textbooks to a 21st birthday cake, and will be hard to leave behind, despite the holes and worn patches. 
For once, I'm not sweating. But I know that it's only a matter of time. Still, for now, the Gare de Valence TGV is not a bad place to be.

So goes my diary entry for Day #17 in France. That's right, today is already DAY SEVENTEEN. Can you believe it? Since leaving Paris over a week ago, I've already made stops in three different cities. And that doesn't even include the towns I've popped into on my various day trips! (Shoutout to you, Sélestat and Rothau. I enjoyed waiting around outside your train stations.)

I know I haven't been the best about uploading blog posts on a reliable schedule, so in review, here's a look at what I've done over the past three cities:

   -- Hello There, Haut Koenigsbourg! (le 17 juin)
   -- Museum Tour: Struthof (le 18 juin)
   -- On Top of the World in Strasbourg (le 19 juin)
   -- Sunshine and Surprises in Pérouges (le 21 juin)
   -- Museum Tour: Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (le 22 juin)
   -- Museum Tour: Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l'Isere (le 25 juin)
   -- A Bird's-Eye View of Grenoble (le 26 juin)

So what happens now? Well, the next stop on my research schedule is Bordeaux and given the way the trains run, it's easier to go south, west, and back up north than just to cut across the center of the country!

So I figured ... why not take a few days off and have some fun while I'm at it? I'm first heading to La Ciotat to meet up with Marika, who is spending her summer in Aix-en-Provence. We're going to spend a day beaching and boating; then she'll head back to Aix and I'll continue to Montpellier. I'm staying with Molly in Montpellier until Monday, when I'll get back on the road (well, the train track) and head on to Bordeaux!

A Bird's-Eye View of Grenoble

Jeudi, 26 juin.

Stendhal, the famous 19th century French writer about whom I should probably know much more, was born and raised in Grenoble. (And trust me, they don't let you forget it.) He once praised one of his hometown's most well-known sites, a mountain fortress that overlooks the city, explaining that he could not even begin to explain the incredible and ever-changing view ... "Je n'ai pas la force de décrire la vue admirable et changeant tous les cent pas, que l'on a depuis la Bastille."

So in honor of Stendhal -- and in following my current trend of climbing tall things in my free time -- I decided to spend my last morning in Grenoble at the Bastille. The site was constructed on Mont Rachais in order to survey and protect the city of Grenoble; now it welcomes over 600,000 visitors per year to take advantage of the amazing views it affords. Luckily, unlike Stendhal, I didn't have to stop every one hundred steps to appreciate the view ... or, as I suspect was more likely, to catch my breath. Ever since 1934, the fortress has been accessible by cable car, or téléphérique. Although some people still opt for the grueling hike, I was more than happy to shell out a few euros for a five-minute cable car ride.

The téléphérique was like nothing I have ever seen! Its unique space-age cable cars -- nicknamed "the bubbles" -- have been around since the 1970s and travel constantly between the Bastille and the station at the base of the mountain. The cars rise above the Isère River and travel along approximately 2,250 feet of track, conveying their passengers almost 900 feet above the ground. Each little "bubble" seats six people, which meant that as we made our way up the mountain, five strangers got the pleasure of witnessing a mix of excitement and sheer terror on the part of a certain American tourist who had conveniently forgotten her hatred of heights prior to climbing aboard.

Is that two-inch gap SUPPOSED to be there?! Apparently -- and inexplicably -- yes. 

Although the ascent was more than a little terrifying, it was worth it. I emerged at the top of the hill (all in one piece!) and walked out onto a completely empty viewing platform. It was calm, quiet, and absolutely breathtaking.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sunshine and Surprises in Pérouges

Samedi, 21 juin.

Hallelujah ... the dynamic duo are back!! Molly, my eternal travel buddy, and I reunited this weekend for a few days of cheapskate adventures in Lyon! We originally planned this visit way back when Molly was still looking at a graduate school program at one of the city's universities ... although she's since decided that it's not her cup of tea, we figured that it would still be fun to explore together! We spent yesterday walking around the city and checking out the sights -- the Renaissance neighborhood of Vieux Lyon, the beautiful Basilique de Fourvière, and of course the famous "ONLYLYON" sign! (You might remember some of those sites from my November 2013 trip to Lyon.)

After all our city exploration, we decided that it would be fun to get out of town for the day. There are some beautiful sites within just a few hours of Lyon (including the lake towns of Annecy and Aix-les-Bains), but we decided on Pérouges, a preserved medieval village in the countryside.


If the name "Pérouges" sounds strangely familiar to you or if those pictures are bringing on some serious déjà vu, there's a reason ... it was one of the day trips that my mom and I took during her visit to France last fall! (Don't remember? You can refresh your memory here.)

But while Mommy and I visited on a cold and rainy day in November, Molly and I's trip fell on a hot, sunny weekend in June. And let me tell you, that makes ALL the difference. Instead of trudging through the rain and walking around ever-growing puddles along the road from the train station to the medieval town, we took the "scenic route." As if anything around here ISN'T scenic!

Molly's and my path (following the Chemin de l'Aubépin) led us through a neighborhood, around the picturesque étang de l’Aubépin, and past a thicket full of absolutely delicious blackberries. Can you say snack time?!

We would have been happy to lay out in the sun forever ... but we were on a mission! Even with the scenic tour, Pérouges wasn't far away. Before we knew it, we were wandering through the cobblestone streets of one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Top of the World in Strasbourg

Jeudi, 19 juin.

Good morning from the top of the Strasbourg Cathedral! (Fun fact: for 227 years in the Middle Ages, this was THE tallest building in the entire world. Now it's kind of small potatoes ... but that's okay.)