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.)


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Museum Tour: Struthof

Struthof, a picturesque ski resort in the mountains of Alsace, was turned into a concentration camp in the spring of 1941. The region in which the camp is located (Alsace-Lorraine, or Elsess-Lothringen in German) had actually been annexed and declared part of the German Reich at the time of its creation; however, it was the only Nazi concentration camp built in 'modern-day' France.

KL-Natzweiler (as the camp is now called) would house approximately 52,000 prisoners over the next three years, just under half of whom would die in the camp. It was the first concentration camp in Western Europe discovered by the Allied Forces. However, the American soldiers -- arriving in Alsace to liberate the city of Strasbourg -- found but an empty shell of the camp; the Nazis had evacuated it several months prior. Since the end of the war, the site has been preserved as a lieu de memoire, or place of memory. In addition to restored camp buildings, the site now includes a cemetery, memorial, and center of commemoration.

If you like, you can follow along my (super unofficial) tour with this interactive map. (Please note that although all other links connect to the English version of the official Struthof website, this link is only available in French.)

Lieu de Memoire


"Aux héros et martyrs de la déportation, la France reconnaissante."

In addition to the cemetery (in which are buried French victims of various concentration camps) and national memorial, the site features an eternal flame in honor of the unknown victims of the camp.

Le Musee de KL-Natzweiler

My visit began just outside of the camp itself, with the unexpected discovery of the chambre à gaz. It's located off the side of the road, just fifty feet away from a local restaurant. (Discover the interesting story behind that restaurant, which is still in service, here.) Unlike other camps, in which poison gas was used as a method of mass extermination, the gas chamber at Struthof was created as a place of medical experimentation. Read more about it here.

The first of the camp's main buildings is the Kommandantur. This villa -- complete with a swimming pool -- was the home of the camp's commander. Although it looks like any other house, it's not easy to forget what it was; the home is separated from the path to the camp by a barbed wire fence. This old photo (courtesy of the Struthof official website) shows what it looked like during WWII.

L'enceinte du camp (the camp enclosure) looks much like it did during WWII ... but there was something uncomfortably commercial about the ticket window and bold posters that made me feel like I was waiting in line for a log ride at Disneyland, not entering into a concentration camp.

The museum is located in one of les baraques (the deportees' barracks), the only such remaining structure on the site (visible in the right side of the photo below). Other buildings still standing/reconstructed on the site include the nearby kitchen block and the crematorium and prison, both located at the bottom of the hill and visible in the photo above.

The museum was first opened in this barracks in 1965, but this first museum was almost completely destroyed in 1976 when neo-Nazis attempted to burn down the site. Although the museum later reopened in 1980, it was redesigned after the opening of the CERD. The new museum, opened in 2005, attempts to give a sense of daily life in the KL-Natzweiler Camp. The museum pays particular attention to the over 50,000 prisoners who passed through the camp during the 1940s. (You can read statistics about the deportees here.)

Although many of the camp's prisoners were deported because of their religious or cultural affiliation, the majority were political prisoners. Of these, many were members of the Resistance and/or victims of the Nacht und Nebel initiative. Loosely translated to "Night and Fog," NN was an effort undertaken by the Nazis in order to eliminate political opponents in total secrecy. NN prisoners, brought to Struthof from all over Europe, received particularly horrible treatment and rarely survived imprisonment. Their families were not informed of their fates and even typically-meticulous camp records did not always list their fate.

Le Centre européen du résistant déporté

The Centre européen du résistant déporté was inaugurated in 2005. It's meant to represent and remember those who fought oppression throughout Europe during WWII.

The CERD's permanent exhibit is located in the basement of the building. It's a dark, eerily quiet space that traces the history of resistance and deportation in Europe. From a visual perspective, the exhibit is incredibly well-done, although the sleek finish of its back-lit displays occasionally comes off as impersonal and overly polished.

As you can see in this photo, the illuminated exhibits surround a fenced-off concrete structure. Called the Kartoffelkeller, or potato cellar, this building was built in 1943-1944 by camp prisoners. According to the museum, no one has ever been able to discover what the purpose of the building was intended to be. Given the Nazis penchant for documenting every detail of their undertakings, it's an uncertainty that I found particularly chilling.


As far as concentration camps go, KL-Natzweiler was small potatoes ... nothing like the infamous killing sites now scattered throughout history textbooks. I had never heard of it before beginning my research and have observed that the name is not particularly well-known, even in within France. However, after my brief visit, I have to say that the site is one of the most striking -- if not the most striking -- sites related to WWII and to the Shoah that I have ever seen.

I walked to and from the site, a distance of almost eight miles roundtrip. It was a LONG walk, but it gave me time to think about what I was seeing. With its rolling hills, green pastures, and picturesque villages, the area around the camp is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful paysage in France. It's a strange contrast that only becomes more striking the closer you get to the camp itself. How could something so horrible happen in a place so beautiful?

For visitors asking themselves this very question, the museum provides an answer in the form of a small plaque on the barracks features a quote from Léon Boutbien, a member of the Resistance deported to the camp ... "Ceux qui admireront la beauté naturelle de ce sommet ne pourront croire que cette montagne est maudite parce qu'elle a abrité l'enfer des hommes libres." ("Those who will admire the natural beauty of this summit will be able to think only that this mountain is cursed because it served as the hell of free men.")

Plan Your Visit

ACCESSIBILITY. Struthof is located approximately 60 km (or one hour, by road) from Strasbourg. According to the Struthof's official website, the site is not accessible except by car or chartered bus. This isn't entirely true: as you read above, I was able to make the hike from the nearby town of Rothau without much trouble. The unique hike follows the path taken by the prisoners deported to Struthof and informative plaques are scattered along the route. However, walking to Struthof is a big undertaking and not something that I would recommend for the typical tourist. The trails are marked, but not always easy to access. If you would like to make the hike, consider buying a map of Alsace hiking trails and contacting the Office de Tourisme de la Vallée de la Bruche, who will be able to give you some advice. Make sure to bring sunscreen, bug spray, and plenty of water, and to allow approximately two hours to make the trip from Rothau to Struthof.

The Rothau train station, where deportees arrived on their way to the  KL-Natzweiler concentration camp.

Although the official website claims that all information is offered equally in English, French and German, I found the museum was geared primarily towards French- and German-speakers. English-speaking visitors will have no problem at the CERD, which features extensive English translations.

PRICES. Admission to the memorial and former concentration camp is free for all visitors. However, guests wishing to visit le Centre européen du résistant déporté (CERD) -- also located at the site -- must purchase a ticket. Find individual ticket prices here.

MORE INFORMATION. Click here to access the official website and find out more about a visit to Struthof. If you are unable to visit the camp at this time but would still like to see and learn more, you can conduct a virtual visit on the camp's website.