Archive for the 'Southern France' Category

Jan 01 2008

Marseille: no Evian, please

Published by under France,Southern France

Because we are painfully behind on our updates, I am not going to go into too much detail about our time in Marseille. I’ll start off by saying it does not deserve its reputation as a seedy, working-class city, unworthy of a stopover. Our time spent in Marseille turned out to be some of our favorite days in France. Ben was sold on the city as soon as we broke out the guidebook (once it became apparent that we were stuck there for a couple days), and discovered that the Chateau d’If is in Marseille. The Chateau d’If is the island prison made famous by The Count of Monte Cristo — you know, the protagonist is framed by his best friend, sent to prison, where he meets an old man, yada, yada, yada.

Fish for sale at the fish market. This picture has little
relevance to the written material, but is awesome.

So our first morning in Marseille, after visiting the old port’s active fish markets, Ben and I hopped a boat to the island. The Chateau d’If was actually built as a fortress to protect the port of Marseille (which has been an active port for more than 26 centuries), but was shortly thereafter turned into a prison (because it’s hard to escape when you’re stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean). There were several other famous, and nonfictional, tenets of the Chateau, including the notorious man in the iron mask and the captain of the ship that brought the plague to Marseille. Oops!

Since the fortress was not originally intended to hold captives, the rooms on the first and second floors are actually quite spacious and nice, with fireplaces and windows looking out onto the Mediterranean (of course all the non-wealthy riff-raff prisoners were kept in the below-ground dungeons). I considered inquiring about the upper rooms as a cheap accommodation option, before realizing there probably wasn’t an outlet to plug in my laptop or a wifi connection, so I discarded the idea. (By the way, the French call it weefee.)

the chateau d'if
Chateau d’If

Upon returning to the mainland, Ben surprised me by suggesting that we splurge for our four-year anniversary by going out for a nice seafood dinner on the waterfront. Since I can’t remember ever eating anything other than street vendor sandwiches and spaghetti cooked on a hostel’s hot plate, I was elated by the idea. That night we scrounged together a couple of semi-decent outfits — a task harder than anticipated as all nice clothes I brought have been ruined by constant wear and sink-scrubbing. Oh wait, Ben will want me to clarify that he was not wearing an outfit. He was wearing pants and a shirt.

Money-saving tip for those considering European travel: many French restaurants offer fixed price “menus,” three-course meals that often turn out to be cheaper than ordering items a la carte (the best deals can be found at lunch!). I quickly ordered the menu that included the poissons du jour, when I found out that the fish couldn’t be fresher: the owner had picked it up herself at the fish market that afternoon.

As Americans who regard free water as a basic human right, we’ve been surprised by the cost of water in European restaurants. Only occasionally will it come free in a small carafe. More often, they charge exorbitant prices (up to six euros!) for a tiny bottle. Our guidebook informed us that in French restaurants, the water is generally complimentary, but Ben wasn’t taking any chances. Unbeknownst to me, one of the first French phrases he’d picked up was “de l’eau du robinet,” or “tap water.”

When our waiter brought us our bottle of house wine, he asked if we also wanted some water. “De l’eau?” he said.

“Oui,” Ben replied, and then after a moment’s hesitation, “um, l’eau du robinet, s’il vous plait.”

The waiter stopped, looked curiously at Ben, and started chuckling to himself before turning to retrieve our tap water. He was still laughing when he returned.

“L’eau de robinet!” he said, setting the carafe and two glasses down with a flourish. I buried my face in my hands, trying to remember a time when guys used to take me on proper dates and what it was like to actually splurge.

The next day was spent looking up Prague’s temperature, subsequently buying more warm layers, visiting a few more Marseille highlights and attempting to communicate with the city’s large Greek immigrant population (although they were mostly just confused when Ben greeted them with a “yiassou!”)

We’re doing our best to catch up on the blog, but here’s an enticing tidbit to keep you reading: on New Year’s Eve, a Barcelonian police officer whacked Ben with a nightstick. Happy New Year!

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Dec 30 2007

Marseille it ain’t so!

Published by under France,Southern France

About a week before Christmas, we figured that it was finally time to start thinking about where we actually wanted to spend the holiday. This would be our first Christmas away from family, friends, and home-cooked food, so we needed a festive place that could keep our minds off the homesickness. At first, our sights were limited to Western European destinations, but we quickly abandoned that geographical requirement. After seven weeks in Italy and southern France, we were beginning to feel like everything around us was looking the same. So one afternoon I asked Brittany, “If you could go anywhere you wanted for Christmas, where would it be?”

She responded with no hesitation: “Prague.”

During our travels, we’ve heard story after story from fellow hostelers about the wonders of Prague, especially at Christmas time. A quick online search for airline tickets revealed one-way flights to Prague for 14 euros through RyanAir. The catch? The cheap RyanAir flights leave from Barcelona, and we were squarely in Aix-en-Provence. But back at the computer, a second online search unearthed cheap overnight bus tickets from Marseille, France, to Barcelona. Seeing as Marseille is only an hour south of Aix-en-Provence, we booked a flight for two days later out of Barcelona, and packed our bags for cold weather.

We arrived in Marseille the following evening, and headed directly for the bus station. We still had a couple of hours before our overnight bus would leave for Barcelona, but we’d heard that Marseille is a seedy city without much to see, and we weren’t eager to wander around the streets at night any more than necessary. We quickly located the counter for the overnight bus service, and I approached the lady at the window.

“Two overnight tickets to Barcelona, please.”

“No problem. When would you like to go?”

“Tonight, on the bus that leaves in a couple of hours.”

“No, not tonight. The bus is full.”

“What do you mean FULL?”

I hadn’t noticed until this moment that the other people in the waiting room were all holding reservation slips, meaning they must have had enough foresight to book this trip ahead of time. Seeing as we were relying on this bus in order to catch a plane in the morning from Barcelona, I should have taken a moment to reflect on a lesson about the importance of planning ahead. But instead, I grabbed Brittany’s arm and raced to find another means of transportation. Considering that I have no idea how to get from Marseille to Barcelona, have no knowledge of local driving laws, and can not read French or Spanish road signs, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious: rent a car!

Well, two out of the four rental car companies in the Marseille station were clean out of cars. And I was about to learn why these two companies must be so popular. The third station had an “economy” vehicle available, and it could be ours for one night at the very special price of just 400 euros. When he saw our jaws drop, the salesman shrugged and laughed, and indicated by way of gesticulation that he didn’t totally understand why the price should be so obscenely astronomical either. Has his company ever successfully processed a rental transaction? What logic could compel them to prefer having a parking lot full of unused rentals over the possibility of charging a fair market price? Figuring that his rental company must simply be in the midst of an executive-driven self-sabotage campaign into financial ruin, thereby plummeting the stock price, and ultimately allowing the masterminds to buy it all back up dirt cheap, I decided to try the fourth rental counter. What we learned there compounds a sad commentary on the shady insider trading scandals that must be plaguing the world’s rental car companies. The cheapest car they offered was 600 euros per night.

With rental cars out of the question, we next scurried to the train ticket sales counters, and asked the attendant if he could find any way to get us to Barcelona by the morning. To his credit, the man searched the database for all possible connections that could get us to our flight in time, and actually found us an unlikely series of connections that could put us in Spain with time to catch our flight.

“Great!” I said. “We’ll take it.”

“Very good, sir. And there is just one small inconvenience. From your final stop in Spain, it will be a two hour walk to the airport.”

As eager as we both were to roll our luggage through two hours worth of fields, forests, and unmarked roads of eastern Spain, we graciously declined this particularly enticing travel package.

I was finally resigned to the fact that we would not be in Barcelona in time for our morning flight. Brittany, as usual, was convinced that there existed yet some alchemy by which to render the impossible possible. I watched with horror/pride as she ventured outside to the platform where the overnight bus to Barcelona would soon depart, and proceeded to try and BRIBE THE BUS DRIVER into letting us on his bus. The amazing thing is, if we had only wanted to ride to a destination within France, I think it would have worked. But the border-crossing element must have been too unscrupulous for even him, because when she clarified that we needed to ride all the way to Barcelona, the look in his eye quickly went from “conspiratorial intrigue” to “disappointed refusal.”

With Brittany now in the fold of those who accept they will not make it to Barcelona (I convinced her that there was really no one else to bribe), we made the painful decision to swallow Ryanair’s “flight change” fee of 50 euros, and push our flight forward two days. This meant that we would have two unexpected days to spend in Marseille. We needed to find a hotel, get some food, and since it was now dark, get as far away as possible from the dodgy neighborhood of the train and bus stations. But first things first: we quickly reserved tickets on the overnight bus to Barcelona in two days.

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Dec 24 2007

CS-ing in A-E-P

Published by under France,Southern France

Ben and I often discuss which city on our itinerary we would most like to actually live in. For me, Aix-en-Provence tops the list. It’s got a quintessential small university town appeal without losing any big city amenities. It’s walkable, beautiful, and lively.

But the best part about our week in Aix was couch surfing. What is “couch surfing,” you ask? is an online project that connects travelers around the world with locals willing to host them. Basically, you show up at a stranger’s house and that person is cool enough to give you a free place to stay and show you around town. We were aware of couch surfing prior to our trip, but have been wary of it: is it weird? is it safe?

After randomly giving it a whirl in Aix, I can officially say that couch surfing is DA BOMB and will change the way I travel. We were lucky enough to connect with two gracious hosts in Aix: the first half of the week we stayed with Simon (said Seemone) and Chloe, a young couple living on the outskirts of Aix. Simon, a lighting technician and avid French punk rocker, and Chloe, a student of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, gave us a room, introduced us to their friends and shared their knowledge of regional beers. The second half of the week was spent with Jean and Laurence, nuclear engineers in Aix, and their two daughters. Their family served us traditional French homecooked cuisine, showed us an amazing variety of French cheeses, and (unsuccesfully) attempted to teach Ben proper French pronunciation skills.

The best part about CS is that it’s like instantly having a local friend. You can experience the culture and place in a way that would be impossible otherwise. To illustrate my point, I present:

Five Awesome Things We Learned Thanks to Couch Surfing in Aix:

  1. The French know more about the Civil War than I do. When Chloe and Simon asked about Richmond’s tourist appeal, we were like, “uhh… we have Civil War statues?” At first they were confused. Then they were like, oh, of course, you mean the guerre de succession. Since the only thing I remember learning about France in school is “liberte, egalite, fraternite” (and I barely remember what that means), I was surprised that Chloe and Simon seemed so familiar with American history. We were even more surprised when they asked if we had a statue of General Lee. Then Simon broke out the source of their knowledge: a popular comic book series about the U.S. Civil War. We were unable to read the comic, but enjoyed the French artistic depicition of Confederate soldiers.
  2. My leg has ants! Do you know what that means? It means your leg has fallen asleep. It also means that you speak French. We learned this little translation factoid thanks to Jean, who was able to understand my “uh, what do you call it when your leg gets all, like, tingly?” question and answer it with, “oh yes, we call that having ants.”
  3. Provence is now known in my book as having the best Christmas tradition EVER: they eat THIRTEEN DESSERTS after their Christmas dinner. Granted, they are typically small desserts like figs and nougat. This is a custom I can really get behind and I’m trying to figure out a way to bring this Provencial tradition to the American South by talking my grandma into cooking thirteen varieties of pie next year. Even better, in order to have good luck during the new year, you must sample every dessert. It’s obligatory and guilt free! As luck would have it, the thirteen desserts festival was going on during our Aix visit. Ben and I ran around the festival’s tent, slyly sampling the various fares without actually purchasing anything.
  4. We were hanging out with Simon and some of his friends at a local pub when Simon pointed at me. “You finished your beer first. You must buy everyone at the table a drink.”

    I laughed as though he were kidding, until I realized everyone was staring at me expectantly. “Oh, you’re serious??” I said.

    “Yes,” Simon replied. “These are the rules. I’ll have a Leffe.”

    “Okay, I guess I’ll get this round,” I replied, a bit confused and a tad put out. Soon I discovered this is just the French way: you never, ever split the bill. Instead, everyone takes turns buying rounds. I noted that if the whoever-finishes-first-has-to-buy rule made its way to America, no one would EVER finish a beer.

  5. At 5:00 in the morning at an all-night cafe in Aix, a friend of Simon’s was trying to describe to me the various words the French have for love. French really is the language of love. She was struggling simply to define the various words using the limiting vocabulary of English. For instance, the French have different words to define various levels of platonic love. They also have different words for love itself — saying “I love chocolate” is a little bit different than saying “I love you,” isn’t it? While that difference is not reflected in English, there are different words for a love of chocolate and love of a person in French. That makes saying “je t’aime” to someone a really big deal.

Unfortunately, while we have many pictures to upload, the only internet cafe open in Prague on Christmas Eve is slow as molasses and I have to get busy eating dozens of Czech Christmas cookies. I imagine that no one is reading this anyway, as you’re probably busy eating holiday feasts and opening presents and visiting family. At least, I hope you are. It’s difficult to miss the holidays at home. Both Ben and I miss everyone so much. Much love to all our family and friends from Prague! Merry Christmas Eve!

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Dec 22 2007

Casino Royale

Published by under France,Southern France

I’ve always enjoyed coffee, since the days of my childhood when my grandmother would let me have small mugs poured from my grandfather’s coffee pot, up through the months of free frappuccinos when Brittany worked as a Starbucks barista. But I’ve never stayed as perpetually caffeinated as I’ve been able to in southern France.

This is partly due to the free coffee provided by our hostel in Nice all day (well, they SAY all day, but it’s really only until 8:00pm, which is when they irrationally close the lobby, and force you to find somewhere else to get your fix) and partly due to the French cafe atmosphere. What better way to spend your weekday afternoon than sipping cafe au lait on a city sidewalk?

Well, working for a living perhaps, but based on the size of the crowd that currently surrounds me in a random cafe in Aix-en-Provence on a Friday afternoon, the French seem to have found a way around this particular nuisance. I want to ask them how they do it, but my eyes are darting around far too rapidly at this moment to focus on faces, and I don’t need the French thinking I’m any more insufferable than they already do. Also, I dare not divert my attention from the task at hand, as it’s taking all my left hand’s resolve to maintain its steadying grip on my writing hand’s wrist.

In fact, that does it, I can already tell that it’s going to be impossible to read my own handwriting when I go to type this entry up. (Note from future self: it WAS impossible to read my own handwriting when typing this up.) I intended to write about the day we spent exploring Monaco and Monte Carlo, but instead, I will present the story in the style of that highest of arts, the graphic novel.

How Monte Carlo was SUPPOSED to go…

How Monte Carlo actually went…

There are probably a lot of things I should be writing about now, since we just surprised ourselves with the decision to break from southern France and catch a budget flight to Prague for Christmas. But sadly, Brittany’s laptop charger broke sometime last week, eliminating our reliable access to the internet/blog/world, and we have therefore become quite behind with our blog entries. We’re doing our best to get back up to speed…

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Dec 17 2007

Bienvenue en France!

Published by under France,Southern France

After Ben finally tumbled his way to the bottom of the mountain, where I not-so-patiently sat waiting, we dragged our stiff, frozen bodies to the Trento train station to catch a Euronight train from Italy to the French Riviera. Night trains are worse than hostels in that they try to squeeze four “couchettes” (two-foot-wide vinyl surfaces the train company can’t even bring themselves to call beds) into cabins that are only about five feet wide, to extract as many euros from as many people as possible.

overnight train from Italy to France
On the overnight train

After figuring out which train to board (harder than it seems as many of these night trains split in two at certain stations, so even when you figure out which platform to board from, you have to figure out which half of the train is going to your desired destination), we located our cabin, only to find the door stubbornly locked. After many attempts to force it open, I begrudgingly turned to find a controller when the door swung open and I was confronted with a large, half-naked man. “You in here?” he grunted.

“Yes?” I said, meekly. The man turned, grumbling his obvious displeasure in a language I didn’t recognize, and plopped onto a couchette, where he promptly began snoring loudly. This continued ALL NIGHT LONG. Ben and I have discussed how some sort of projectile/prodding device should come standard with a bed in all room-sharing situations. On many occasions, I’ve had to storm out of bed in the middle of the night under the guise of going to the bathroom and just so happen to violently kick the bed of a particularly offensive sleeper on my way out the door.

Between the snorer and the train’s racket, no sleep was had that night. Nor did it help our moods when our train was delayed by THREE HOURS for reasons unknown to us, as we don’t speak frantic Italian. But when we (finally) stepped off the train in Nice, France, and found it to be sunny, balmy and 60 degrees outside, we shed our grumpy moods with our fleece jackets and went for a picnic.

Vieux NiceWe’d planned on only staying in Nice proper for the night while trying to find a more permanent accommodation in the surrounding countryside, but we were so charmed by the Niçoise lifestyle — the markets, the beaches the pastries! — that we decided to make Nice our base for exploring the area, and bargained for a cheap week’s rate at our hostel.

Another reason we decided to stick to the city is because we are completely befuddled by the French transportation system. Even if you’re able to decipher the timetable/fares beforehand, which is no small feat in itself, upon arriving at the station, there’s about a 7% chance the trains are actually running. French transportation workers are ALWAYS on strike. I have no idea what prompts these perturbances half a dozen times a week, but they occur so frequently that stations keep pre-printed and laminated notification signs on hand to pull out during strikes. So, pretty much daily. We figured that if we stayed anywhere outside the city, we’d be stranded indefinitely.

French has been the hardest language for us to master those necessary conversational tidbits – particularly for Ben, as sometimes I’m able to recall the high school French I learned. The pronunciation is nearly impossible. Even Greek (once we’d learned how to translate their alphabet) was easier to pronounce, as the words are pretty much said like they’re spelled. French has words like buerre. Seriously, how do you say that?? We’ve yet to master the whole back-of-the-mouth gurgling sound that seems present in every French word. When Ben tries to say anything it mostly sounds like: ooooooooooeeeeerrrrr + hacking.

Despite stereotypes of rude, arrogant snobbery, all French people we’ve encountered have been extremely friendly, helpful and funny. My favorite demographic is the really old women, who sashay down the sidewalk in their eight-inch heels, huge fur coats, Louis Vuitton purses and D+G sunglasses. They are about ten times older than me but one million times more awesome than I will ever be.

Their best accessory is always a teeny dog scampering along at their feet. There must be some sort of competition amongst the French to see who can have the tiniest and most ridiculous-looking dog. Every French man or woman is accompanied by/carrying/cooing at a small dog. The dogs themselves are also accessorized, usually with festive Christmas-themed sweaters. The downside is that, as no posh French person would ever scoop the poop, the streets are covered in merde. Ben noted that this was a step up from the donkey crap that littered the streets on the Greek islands.

highest point in NiceThe Côte d’Azur is definitely a resort destination: unabashedly wealthy and reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque lavishness. Nice itself, unlike some other coastal towns, has more to offer than a good tan and designer shopping. The daily markets are incredible: from fruit to flowers to antiques. There’s a surprising amount of history here, with Roman ruins (just like in all European cities, ever) and medieval churches. And, of course, there’s art! Cezanne, Matisse — it was nice to see something other than classical statues and Renaissance paintings.

Thanks to Italy, however, Ben and I have tired of museums and art, so we didn’t spend too much time exploring Nice’s more “cultural” venues. In fact, sitting here trying to write about our time in Nice prompted the following conversation:

Brittany: I guess I can cover Nice in one entry.

Ben: One entry?? It deserves at least three!

Brittany: But all we did was sit around and eat crepes!

Ben: … and it ruled.

It’s true that we spent an embarrassing amount of time sitting in cafés or on the beach eating crepes and drinking cappuccinos, but that’s not ALL we did. For instance, I also ate a croque banane (a chicken and banana panini) from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called “Le Banane.” For those of you who know that one of my favorite childhood sandwiches was banana and mayonnaise, you can see why Le Banane was a highlight of Nice pour moi.

We are also enjoying France for its diversity. In Greece, you see Greeks and eat Greek food. In Italy, you see Italians and eat Italian food. There are actually a few black people in France! It’s much more reminiscent of home. We took advantage by eating Vietnamese food and visiting an Irish pub.

views from the topA couple of days into our week in Nice, the stars aligned such that the trains decided to actually run AND we were able to get ourselves to the station at a reasonable hour. So we were able to enjoy our first day trip from Nice, to a small village called Eze (said ehz, not etzy, like Ben and I were saying it to a much confused ticket cashier). Well, we thought we were going to Eze. It turns out that the train takes you to Eze-Sur-Mer, which is actually below Eze. Yes, literally below. The geography of the Côte d’Azur is such that some towns are situated on cliffsides, meaning that in order to get from Eze-Sur-Mer (at sea level) to Eze (elevation: 1,000,000 feet), we had to hike an hour up a nearly vertical trail. We uncharacteristically splurged by spending one euro on a bus ride up the mountain, despite advertisements that Nietzsche had “pondered” on that trail.

The center of Eze is a spectacularly maintained medieval castle, and we wandered freely around its intricate alleys and arches. Numerous cafés and souvenir shops have carved out little spaces in the castle walls. At the top of the castle is a huge jardin exotique, which is basically a garden full of cacti. The panoramic view of the coast was worth the hour spent walking through the garden to the top while trying to convince Ben that he SHOULD NOT EAT the cactus fruits.

Fragonard parfumeurOutside of the castle, we visited one of many local parfumeries. The Côte is known for its fields of fresh lavender, particularly near Grasse, a small town north of Nice, which alone contains 40+ parfumeries. Ben and I hopped on a free tour of the Fragonard parfumeur in Eze, and saw the perfume-making process from the distillation of essential oils (did you know it takes three tons of rose petals to make one liter of oil??) to the creation of scents, soaps and cosmetics. We also enjoyed learning about the scent-makers – the men who combine the oils to make perfumes. These men, called “noses,” have to be born with a “good nose,” receive special schooling, can identify hundreds of smells with one sniff, are banned from smoking, drinking and eating spicy foods, and are only permitted to work (smell?) for two hours each day. Only about 150 noses still exist in the world, 100 of which are in France. Ben asked the tour guide how much a nose was paid. Perhaps he’s found his calling?

Next on Euros Ate My Dollars: Ben lives out his James Bond fantasies at Monte Carlo! Continue Reading »

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