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June 21, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 4

This is the fourth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.



This is my last day in France, and I'm a little sad to be leaving so soon. I'm just getting to the point with my rudimentary French to feel comfortable navigating around, just today I navigated a bookstore and the post office (La Poste), and I've really enjoyed my time here. Scotland and England were a fun start; but France is definitely a foreign country for me, with many, many new things to discover. I really like the French language too, and wish that I was better at it (a small part of me is plotting to take French language classes and to spend as many summers in Paris (or somewhere else in France) as I can).

When I last left you, it was the morning of my last day in Paris, and I was leaving early, having done everything I'd wanted to do... well, that last day I did very little. I hung out in the Place des Vosges, a little public square a few blocks from the busy Bastille Metro stop. I read some more in my book, watched the Parisians lounging, did postcards and generally just relaxed. Later, I had Berthillon's sorbet (which was very good) and a nutella creperé, and realized that I'd finally discovered the Paris that people fall in love with - it was only after I stopped bustling around trying to see the 'sights' that I discovered this Paris. So I made up my mind to try to come back soon :)

The next few stops were small French towns - Amboise, Sarlot and then Carcassone. Amboise is in the Loire Valley and at the heart of Chateau-country. I stayed at a hostel there, which turned out to by my first bad-hostel experience. I poked around Amboise the day I arrived, seeing the Chateau d'Amboise and the Clos Lucé. The chateau was beautiful, but small. Apparently, at some point in its long (1000-year) history, four-fifths of it were sold off as scrap stone in order to pay for the renovation of the remaining fifth. If I recall correctly, it's known as the royal chateau because it became the French royal residence (of Françios I) for a brief period of time as well. The Clos Lucé is where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last three years. François I gave Leonardo the little chateau so that they would be able to chat on a regular basis - supposedly, there's even a secret passage that connects the two chateaus. The following day, I rose early and rented what might be the most uncomfortable bicycle I've ever ridden on! With it, I rode to the Chateau Chenonseau. This chateau spans the river on which it sits (you might have seen pictures of it... it could very easily have been the set for a fairy tale). Aside from being quite beautiful as well (it was designed by Catherine da Medici and Diane something-or-other), it also served as a key point in WWII because it spanned the river delimiting free- and occupied-France, so sneaky things like prisoner swaps supposedly took place here. Very cool. My second and last stop on my uncomfortable bike was the Chateau Chaumont, which sits high up on a hill overlooking (through a delicate screen of trees) the Loire River and is much more castle-like than Chenoneau. The views of the river from the chateau and the surrounding gardens were breath taking, and I used-up an appropriate amount of film. As I was traveling to Chaumont, I realized with some dismay that the chateau I'd really wanted to see, Chambord, was too far away to reach in the short amount of time I had left that day! Arg. Again, I'll just have to come back and make a special effort to see it.

Sarlat was my next stop and was certainly my most expensive experience yet. After the bad hostel experience in Amboise, I spent a little extra and stayed at a hotel that I hoped would not have a long-term power-outage during the night (that's what happened in Amboise). Sarlat is a medieval town that has grown up a bit. The centre ville (city center) is very well preserved from its medieval days - the streets are very narrow (about 10ft from wall to wall in many places), some of the buildings have stone-shingled roofs, there are bits of the town wall that still surround the centre ville, and the buildings in general look like they're straight out of the 16th or 17th century (from XVIth or XVIIth, as the French would write it). My first day there, I walked around the centre ville and soaked up the atmosphere. I also marveled that this little town is the world capital of foie gras (goose liver) that's supposed to be good, but I didn't end up trying any. I have, however, been enjoying French food, which is very good. I imagine I'm missing out on a lot seeing as I'm a vegetarian, but c'est la vie.

My second day in Sarlat, I rented (with only a little bit of trouble in both finding the place and in conveying all the appropriate information in broken French) a moped/scooter. This was my first time riding any kind of motor-powered bicycle, but after a slightly rocky first start, I was zipping along the French secondary roads. I very much enjoyed the whole experience, and even if I hadn't had other plans, I would have enjoyed spending the entire day just riding it :). My first stop was to see the cave paintings in the Dordogne area. I chose to see the Lasceaux caves, which are closed to the public. Fortunately, after a ten year project, France produced a near exact replica of the two main galleries of the caves that contains 90% of the paintings. It was a bit expensive to get the guided English tour, but the paintings were still very enjoyable, and quite impressive for being done in two- or three-color mineral paints under candlelight some 17,000 years ago. My next stop was te Dordogne river, via Gare d'Sarlat (Sarlat train station) where I bought my ticket to Carcassone with no English!). Back on the Dordogne River, I found a canoeing company, got myself a one-person kayak, stowed my bag inside at my feet and headed down the river. The visual panorama from the water was simply breathtaking - the unbroken lush green of the trees carpetted the hills that rolled gently back from the silky grey-green ribbon of water, the Dordogne, that stretched out from my feet. Capping the scene was a baby-blue sky speckled with fluffy white clouds that had only recently emerged from what had started as a miserably gloomy morning. I used an appropriate amount of film as trees, white-washed cliffs with the carpet of trees literally hanging off the top, the castles and the towns of the Dordogne River Valley gently passed by. Along the way, I met some interesting people including a pair of Brits (one Scottish and one Welsh, and their accents showed it) and a family of Americans who live in Buchurest(sp?), Romania. Although Sarlat was my most expensive experience, it's been one of my favorite so far as well.

The next day, I headed to Carcassone by train. Much to my consternation, when I'd finally figured out how to actually validate my train tickets, no one checked them on the whole five hour journey! Still, I have one more chance to do it correctly as tomorrow I leave for Barcelona. Carcassone used to be another tiny medieval town. It sits very near to the Spanish-French border, and you can tell by the heat. Modern Carcassone is two towns; La Cité is the old medieval town, while the new development (including a McDonalds... the first I've seen in over a week) is across the river from La Cité. My guidebook told me that there's lots of stuff 'nearby' to see, but it requires renting a car, and since I really have no desire to do so, I'm only staying the one day here before moving off to Barcelona. Never the less, Carcassone offers some fun things to see too. I'm back in a youth hostel (my wallet is still feeling hurt over spending so much for those two nights in Sarlat), which seems nice. The guide book also warned that Carcassone is big with the day-trippers, and as I arrived in La Cité around lunch-time, I got to experience the throngs of bussed-in tourists first-hand. By dinnertime, most had either retired to their busses (coaches) or moved to another locale, and the place assumed a somewhat less touristy feel. La Cité itself is similar to Sarlat in that it's a well-preserved medieval town, but the architecture and general feel were much different from Sarlat: the buildings have less of a gothic or renaissance design to them and looked more 'mediterranean', or at least designed more to bear the sweltering heat of the climate. The city walls also gave it a more rugged feel - the walls are about forty-feet high, and there are two sets of them, with the inner set starting between ten and fifty feet inward from the outer set. All in all, it gives the place a very, ah... defensible feeling. The area was at one time swept by crusades from the Roman church to exterminate a local sect (the Cathars) that the church deemed a threat. Anyway, I strolled the outside walls and marveled at them and the endless miles of vineyards that are tucked away behind La Cité.

Tomorrow, it's off to Barcelona!

Now reading: Fellowship of the Ring, book two. It's been really interesting to read FotR after seeing the movie version of it. I think about which of the numerous scenes made it into the movie, which things where changed, etc. and I really do think the movie is a good adaptation of the book, if a slightly overly dramatic one.

Au revior! Aaron

p.s. I haven't heard from a lot of you, and I'm curious to know how life is with you - so please write back! :)

posted June 21, 2002 09:43 AM in Travel | permalink