Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Toussaint, Day 7...

vendredi 30 octobre
Arles and free afternoon!

The day in Arles…well, we started off the day with a tour. Surprised? This was literally one of the longest tours I have been on in my life. Part of this was probably due to the fact that it was 3 hours long…ugh. Part of this was also due to extreme fatigue of tours in general. The town is actually fairly charming, and really old. Like, old enough to merit Roman architecture. We saw the ampitheater they built, as well as the old Roman baths. For living 2,000 years ago, they were astonishingly advanced in their technology. We even got to go under the town hall, which is built on an old forum of sorts. So we got to see where Romans walked, underground. There we experienced that wonderful French phenomeon of “tag along with the tour groups and pretend we’re part of the group too, even if we’re clearly 20 years older than said students. It is really fairly ridiculous how often this happens here.

After our 3-hour-tour (you’re welcome), we headed off to lunch. As Arles is fairly close to the Mediterranean, you would probably be correct if you guessed our lunch consisted of seafood. Actually, you would be correct. We had paella, which actually originated in Spain, if I do not confuse myself. It was yummy, minus having to peel the largest shrimp in the history of the world. They still had eyes, I’m telling you. During lunch, we took a survey to see what everyone felt like doing – apparently we were all really burned out, so none of us wanted to do anything. However, we all perked up when Dr. Allen mentioned the beach. How could we resist?

After lunch, we headed off for the Mediterranean. How cool is that? We got to a little town that is named something like Mary-on-the-sea (no joke, it really was) and headed straight for the beach. Actually, we headed straight for the ice cream stand. There was a gelato stand not 20 feet from the beach, and since it was a beautiful 70 degrees outside, we made a beeline for it. I personally went for coffee- and Nutella-flavored gelato. Delicious. With gelato in hand, we headed for the beach. Contrary to the stereotype of French beaches, this one did indeed have sand. However, the water was already ice cold. We all tested it. So instead of doing much wading, we contented ourselves with lounging in the sunlight. Great idea for an afternoon diversion.

After a relaxing afternoon, we all wanted to head out to dinner together. So we trekked off to a restaurant in Arles’ center square (incidentally, next to the one that Van Gogh painted while he lived in Arles. The specialty was: bull. Really. According to those who had the courage to order it, it was actually really tasty. I, being the coward I am, stuck with a fairly neutral and safe pizza. Not extraordinary, but nothing in France is actually bad, so it was fine. :) The dinner itself was hysterical, as any dinner accompanied by wine would tend to be. All in all, a good end to a good day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Toussaint, Day 6...

Day 6 – jeudi 29 octobre
Aigues-Mortes and Nîmes

Aigues-Mortes literally means dead waters (Aigues is the local dialect way of saying « Eau .» So we spent the morning in the town of dead water. It actually gets its name from the extreme saltiness of the surrounding water – just like the Dead Sea. We had a tour of (of course) another castle/fortress from the Gothic period. It was actually fairly interesting – it got taken over by Louis IX so he could have a port fortress (everyone needs one of those). And this time our guide did not talk at the speed of sound, so we were fairly pleased with that.

For once, lunch was a little less filling. And by a little, I mean that we had fish instead of beef. It was still delicious – if you put the fish, potato, and garlic bread on your fork at the same time, it was a wonderful combination of flavors. However, we still had the cheese, dessert, and coffee, so we left really full all the same.

After lunch, we headed off to another new city – Nîmes. There, we saw the ancient Roman amphitheatre (literally about 2000 years old) and the Maison Carrée, considered the best preserved square Roman temple. The guide actually sassed Dr. Allen – he asked her to speak only in French, and she kept switching back and forth between that and English anyway. He was not pleased. After she left, we went into the Maison Carrée and saw a hilariously bad 3-D film that documented the history of the temple. We spent more time laughing at the ridiculous 3-D glasses than actually paying attention and it was totally worth it.

When we finished with the movie, we met up with the former French house assistant, Anne-Olivia, who was in the area. Somehow we ended up a bar, all having drinks. When a couple of us went to the bathroom, we realized that there was a camera in there, presumably to prevent hook-ups. This camera ran to behind the bar, so of course we hammed it up for those who might have been watching.

On the way home from Nîmes, we found the French version of Wal-Mart, Carrefour. Honest to God, there was no difference between the two, except the French one has no bags for your groceries. Awesome.

Toussaint, Day 5...

That's right. he's howling like a wolf.

Day 5 – mercredi 28 octobre

Day 5 found us in Carcassonne, a two minute walk from a medieval fortress. Now, I would love to tell all kinds of stories about what was in fact a really cool castle. Unfortunately, our guide was insane. He spoke way too fast and abstractly, even though Dr. Allen had warned him to speak slowly for us. He also did a great wolf impression, which would have possibly been more hysterical if we had known why he was howling like a wolf. However, after we got back on the bus, Dr. Allen gave us the highlights and that was that.

Lunch that day was actually really fun. We had been invited to our professors’ house again, since they live near Carcassonne. So we had a delicious cassoulet at their house, along with the requisite cheese, dessert, and coffee courses. Bernie the nuisance was there as well, and naturally starting whining and howling anytime he thought he wasn’t getting enough attention.

After being force-fed a ridiculous amount of food, Madame Sinniger proposed a walk. So off we went, not knowing that our beautiful afternoon was about to be ruined by class time. Once we got to the nearby town, she and Dr. Allen decided it would be a great idea to go to the town’s museum that was an old military school. Admittedly, it was fairly interesting, but we all just wanted a break at that point from having to think about classes. On the way back, the sun was setting, and I got some great pictures of the sun setting over the hills. When we got back to the Sinnigers, we discovered Saïd had arrived (this was the day we switched out drivers), which made all of us very happy. Jean-Claude was a great driver too, but we had had Saïd for all of our trips thus far, and it was nice to have him back.

Toussaint, Day 4...

Day 4 – mardi 27 octobre

The morning of day 4 was spent in the grottes of Font de Gaume. Basically, they’re the only grottes in France of pre-historic art still open to the public. We learn in the French major about the grottes of Lescaux, but they’ve been closed at this point. Their copy, Lascaux II, has also been closed. Even if humans don’t touch the paintings (obviously bad for prehistoric art) their breath can damage it just as easily. This was news to me. So we went to another grotte, which has what they said was polychromatic art (more than one color). Even at this one, the safety measures are crazy strict. It felt like I was about to board an airplane. We had to leave any bags behind, wipe our feet on special mats outside to prevent bacteria getting in, and absolutely not touch anything once inside. However, the paintings are definitely cool. They’re mainly of bison, but what else would you draw in prehistoric times? Obviously, I don’t have any pictures, but I bet you can google one of the grottes to get an idea of what we saw.

Lunch was in Sarlat, a small town nearby (and it’s absolutely charming). This was seriously one of the best lunches we have had. Our appetizer (the entrée) was a kind of foie gras, which is evidently a specialty of southern France, judging by how many times we’ve had it in the past week. The plat principal was a steak and potatoes dish, but it was not boring by any stretch. The potatoes were au gratin, I think, which is another specialty. The steak was soooo good. In France, they like them more rare than in the U.S., so this thing was practically still mooing, but it didn’t matter – it was incredible. Of course there was a cheese course, and dessert was some kind of pecan/hazelnut tart. It was like pecan pie, French style. Easily everyone’s favorite meal thus far.

Our afternoon was spent working off the incredible meal. We walked all over Sarlat with a guide who insisted on wearing her tour microphone, even though there were ten of us. Completely unnecessary, but it was funny. We also got to see one of the great French traditions once again – the latching onto other tours. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to us. Someone will notice we’re with a tour guide, and start following our group. This wouldn’t be so annoying except for two things – they haven’t actually paid for the tour they are following, and they’re never subtle about it. This particular time was a little old lady and her husband. The husband was at least a little classy about it, but the woman? She would pretend that she was reading a restaurant menu, and then the guide would say “okay, look to the left,” and whoop! Up would go her head at that exact moment. We spent most of the tour just laughing at her pretending to be reading menus at 3 in the afternoon, when nothing is actually serving food.

We finished our tour and hadn’t gotten into trouble yet, so naturally we tried to correct that by walking right into a funeral service. Several of us wanted to see the cathedral, so we traipsed up the stairs only to realize the doors were closed. We figured it was a mass (it usually is) when we noticed a guy on the stairs giving us the stink-eye. We then noticed the hearse at the bottom of the stairs. Oops. So we left, pronto.

We finished off our afternoon by moving on to a new hotel in Carcassonne. It was relatively nice, but had the distinct problem of each room being the size of a North Village room. Which is the perfect size for one person, but three is a little cramped. And there was a distinct lack of outlets. France really does not seem to believe in outlets. It’s a pest when you’re traveling with a phone, a camera, and a computer, all of which need to be charged separately.

For dinner, we were still pretty full, so instead of a real meal, we got kebabs from a nearby street corner. In France, these are more like sandwiches than food that is skewered, but it’s delicious all the same. When we finished clogging our arteries, we were almost as full as the lunch earlier had made us. Yikes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Toussaint, Day 3...

Day 3 – lundi 26 octobre

This was a low-key kind of day. The morning was spent traveling – boring. The afternoon was spent in the town of Périgueux, which I can’t say particularly enraptured me. We had a tour, which I absorbed very little of. I’m not even actually sure what the city’s importance is. All the history starts to run together after a couple days. Take a twelve-day trip around France and you’ll see what I mean.

The real highlight was the part of the day after the tour. We went to a corner grocery store right near our hotel, ordered a couple of pizzas, and ended up camped in mine, Amanda and Emily’s room. We for some reason got a larger room than anyone else, so it turned into the party room, if you will. We even convinced Dr. Allen to join us for pizza. We spent most of the night just hanging out, playing dumb card games, and watching hilarious videos on Youtube. Just what we needed.

Toussaint, Day 2...

Day 2 – dimanche 25 octobre
Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Next morning we started out bright and early – 3 more chateaux were on the schedule. Breakfast was delicious. French hotels on the whole have a gift for continental breakfast. Coffee or tea, plus bread galore (I really like bread), yogurt, cereal and juice. It’s the same stuff that you tend to find in the U.S., but it’s all fresher, and therefore much better.

First up – Chateau Azay-le-Rideau. Nice enough, but again, I’ve already forgotten the story. These silly chateaux all blend together after a bit. We had fun frolicking on the grass after the visit, I remember that.

Chateau de Langeais – this one was actually really cool. It’s older than the older chateaux that we’d been seeing. It’s about 1100 years old as opposed to only 600 or so years old. Very nifty. We got to climb up on the ramparts and see where the guards would have patrolled.

Chateau d’Amboise. Easily my favorite. This might have had something to do with the fact that it was the last chateau on the schedule, but I would like to not be that cynical. It was better than the others, plain and simple. It’s situated on top of a hill, so you have a view of Amboise from every angle. On top of that, the day itself was gorgeous, so that didn’t hurt either.

After we finished with 3 chateaux, we got to have a wine tasting. Our guide, Annabelle, took us to a nearby cave to try some local white wine. We got the entire wine making process explained to us, and it’s actually really cool. She told us that while they’re fermenting the bottle, should it be opened, the force is equal to 2 ½ tires blowing out. One bottle of wine. I have a whole new respect for it now. The cave we were in had about 4 million bottles being prepped, and each year they ship or sell about half of that. We figured that could keep one person continuously drunk for about 1,000 years. Not that you want to drink the wine – since it’s not finished, it’s all really, really, really dry. After our little tour, we had a degustation of about 6 different wines to finish our day.

Toussaint, Day 1...

Phew. Lots has been going on – we’ve been traveling around France on a tour bus and looking at a lot of really old stuff. My goal is to get some of it down before I forget it all. So here goes.

Day 1 – Samedi 24 octobre
Depart and Chateaux of the Loire

We had to leave unbearably early for this trip. We had to be at the train station at 6:45 AM, and let me tell you, it was nothing short of torture. Especially considering that it was raining and we had a lot of luggage (for a 12-day trip). I met up with Kirstin at the bus stop, and we somehow maneuvered our suitcases and selves onto the first bus that showed up. When we got to the station, we were actually on time! So proud of that. We also made the happy discovery that we got a bigger bus than we had had for Normandy. Phew. We had warned Dr. Allen of how difficult that had been. The enormous bus with an actual trunk for our suitcases was literally one of the highlights of the morning. We also made the acquaintance of Jean-Claude, who was going to be our driver until said could meet up with us a few days later.

First on the itinerary were the chateaux of the Loire. We started off with the Chateau of Blois. It’s a nifty indication of French architectural history. Each of the four sections was built at a different time by the a different king in a different style. The chateau itself didn’t grab me, but it was cool to see how the architecture evolved over a few hundred years.

Lunch – at a restaurant in Cheverny (wherever that is). We had what is apparently a regional specialty of guinea fowl and potatoes in a sauce gratin dauphinois. The appetizer was a pate of some kind – they seem to really love it in the south. Dessert – fruit with chocolate sauce. Mmm.

After lunch, we rolled our way through two more chateaux, Chateau de Chambord and Chateau de Chenonceau. Chambord doesn’t have any furniture because it was never an actual residence (just a hunting lodge for Francois I). We didn’t get to go in, but we did see the outside, which is impressive all the same. It also has a double helix staircase that was built to enable those protecting the castle to use the stairs without running into invaders. Very convenient.

Chenonceau is more impressive, seeing as how we were allowed to go inside. It (if I get the story right) was a gift from Henri II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. However, this didn’t go over so well with his wife, Catherine de Medicis, and when Henri II died, she forced Diane to move to another, less impressive castle. The castle itself was built on a bridge and then expanded later, so whatever window you look out, you get a great view of the river and gardens off to the sides. We finished off the day with a visit of medieval Tours that I have already mostly forgotten, since I didn’t really listen to start with. Oops.

After whizzing through 3 chateaux in 1 day and a visit of Tours, we checked into our hotel, hoping to crash. No such luck. We were forced to go out to dinner at this fondue restaurant in Tours. It was torturous. We had a fondue of 3 cheeses with cold cuts and bread to go with it, and 3 bottles of white wine to complement the fondue. Dessert was a tarte – no one actually knows what was in it still. It was a berry like blackberries, but I think it was something special to France. After scarfing all this down, we finally got to pass out in rooms.