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Spring Break in France

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: March 2003

During a year abroad at the University of Glasgow, I was fortunate enough to have a month-long spring break between my second and third terms. I spent it backpacking around France, Italy and Ireland with an American friend. It was the longest I’d ever spent traveling at one time, and I learned a lot. One: Traveling can be tough on a relationship. My friend and I tried to give each other space on occasion — splitting up for an afternoon, doing separate things in the evenings — or else we got rather snappish with each other. Choose your traveling companion wisely! Two: Traveling can be quite tiring, so it’s important to schedule in some down time. There’s such an impulse to go go go, since you never know when you’ll be in any particular place again, but if you’re pushing yourself too hard you won’t enjoy what you’re seeing anyway. Three: Pack less. No matter how much you packed…pack less.

My friend and I mapped out our route pretty thoroughly in advance, since there were certain things we definitely wanted to see. We would start in Paris, and then make our way through Bordeaux down to Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Nice. That would take two weeks. Then we’d spend a week and a half in Tuscany before splitting up — me to Ireland for a long weekend there and her to England to stay with another friend. A lot of backpackers don’t bother making hostel reservations, preferring to have freedom to change their itinerary at any point. Since we had a pretty clear idea of where to go (and since, I admit, I’m a bit of a planner at heart), we booked all of our hostels ahead of time — mostly online. We also purchased combination France and Italy Eurail passes.

We left only a few days after the U.S. started bombing Iraq and a bomb had been found in a French train station — both incidents that made me a bit nervous about traveling. My friend and I agreed to try to play down our American-ness as much as possible (“We’re from Canada, eh?”) just in case. Luckily, we didn’t feel unsafe at all during our trip; locals ranged from indifferent to friendly everywhere we went.

We flew on Ryanair from Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport to Paris’ Beauvais Airport, then took an 80-km bus ride to get into the center of town. I got such a thrill when we first saw the Eiffel Tower, all lit up in the distance. We found our hostel — the Friend’s Hostel — quickly enough, but were we glad we did? It was a dumpy place in a slightly seedy area (at least at night; it looked okay in the morning), and the guy at the desk had put the two of us into a dorm room with about seven or eight guys and no other girls. It made me a little nervous, but I just curled up around my bag and tried to sleep.

Sleep took a while though. The bed didn’t have a pillow, and one of the room’s doors opened to an outdoor courtyard that was letting in the cold March air. Brr. Then there were these two guys talking (out in the courtyard perhaps?) in American accents about their travels, rather ridiculously trying to one-up each other. “Yeah, today I went and saw the Arc de — the Arc de Tri-oomph? It was okay, but couldn’t really compare to…” “I speak English, French, Spanish, a little bit of Russian, a little bit of American sign…” I drifted off when they finally gave it a rest, only to be awakened by some absolutely incredible snoring (“phlegm-rattling,” in my friend’s words). First there was the guy in the bunk below me, who was making these horrible wet-sounding noises, (luckily he let up when I shook the bed). But the worst was coming from the guy across the way — loud and obnoxious and never-ending. My friend and I couldn’t stop laughing over it (in a semi-hysterical way), especially when he got so loud that he woke himself up with a combination gasp/sigh/moan; my friend compared it to a thirsty man in the desert drinking sand (I told you we were semi-hysterical at this point).

In the morning, all memories of our night from hell were eclipsed by a wonderful first day in Paris. I’d seen so many images of the city that I felt like I was walking around in a movie. We walked first along Sunday-quiet streets to the Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre, a beautiful white cathedral that was already crawling with tourists. After grabbing breakfast (a croissant and a pear-vanilla muffin, mmm) we went into the church, where — bizarrely — they were holding Mass but letting the jeans- and T-shirt-clad tourists walk around the outer aisles anyway. The interior was beautiful, as was the Mass (sung and spoken in French), but I felt pretty bad tromping through a church service.

We had ham and cheese paninis for lunch and then wandered around for ages trying to find the Pantheon (never managed it!) and Notre-Dame. We made it to the latter only after pausing at the Sorbonne for an outdoor string quartet concert; we sat on a bench and enjoyed the music (Pachelbel and Bizet, among others) and the gorgeous weather. We enjoyed a quick stop at Notre-Dame; the line to climb the towers was really long, so I planned to stop by the next morning. Then we walked over Pont Neuf and along the Seine (there were a bunch of locals sunbathing), past the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, and several important-looking palaces before we reached the Eiffel Tower. I must admit that the top part looks cheesy as you approach it — think big radio tower — but the whole thing, in its green, Washington Mall-like environment, is very imposing (and gorgeous at night).

It was my friend’s 21st birthday, so her dad treated us to dinner (from afar) on his credit card. We ate in a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, and boy was it good. She started with a salad with hot goat cheese (divine), and then we both had roasted chicken. I topped off the meal with creme brulee-flavored ice cream with caramel and whipped cream. Mmmmmmm. We sat out on the green in front of the Eiffel Tower until it grew dark, and then headed back to the hostel. After the fiasco last night, we were given our own private room with bathroom, hurray! (So what if we had to kill a cockroach and a few ants…at least we didn’t have to deal with the snoring.)

The next day I climbed the Notre-Dame towers as promised, and enjoyed the view over the city, including the Sacre-Coeur — which I’ve decided was my favorite building in Paris. Then I hit the Louvre, which was overwhelming. I knew it was big, but I had no idea how big until I got there. I saw the requisite famous stuff (Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo), as well as some neat objets d’art and the medieval walls/turret bases of the castle that used to be located on this site. Then I met up with my friend to walk along the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe.

The day after that I ventured out of the city to Versailles, which was neat but also one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever seen. That plus the obscene entry prices, the fact that none of the fountains in the gardens were turned on, and the huge roped-off “being renovated” areas almost canceled out my pleasure in being there. I’m glad I went, but it was a tad disappointing. The day was saved by an evening back in Paris, sitting and relaxing in front of the Sacre-Coeur as night fell.

Our last day in Paris, I paid yet another obscene amount to take an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but the view was neat and at least I can say I’ve been all the way up there! I also browsed around the Musee D’Orsay, which specializes in Impressionist art — lots of Monet, Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, etc. Really enjoyed it.

We rode the train to Bordeaux, in the western part of France. Once there we discovered that what we thought was a hostel was really a budget hotel, and we had our own private room with a bathroom/shower, TV, clean sheets and pillows, and even a small balcony! It certainly wasn’t the Hilton, but it seemed like it after the mighty Friend’s Hostel in Paris. The walls were a bit thin, unfortunately — one morning we were treated to the sounds of conjugal bliss from the next room.

Our two days in the Bordeaux area were cloudy and rainy. Our first day we explored the city a bit, which would have been prettier if half of it hadn’t been under some sort of (re)construction. The cathedral (St. Andrew’s, I believe) was beautiful inside, but there was no way to get a decent photo of the exterior without getting cars, cranes, scaffolding and/or hard-hatted construction workers as well. We also spent some time in the old city, which was quiet and charming.

The next day we took a brief trip to St. Emilion, a medieval town surrounded by vineyards. We enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets and looking out over the vineyards, though unfortunately it was a bit early in the season for them to be green and growing yet. Unfortunately we got totally poured on a few hours into our visit and had to hide out under an archway. Emily read a book, while I amused myself watching a waiter dashing through the rain to serve the two lone customers at a nearby restaurant (the diners were under an umbrella).

We spent one night in Avignon (in the southeastern part of France) at the Foyer Bagatelle, a camping/caravanning/hostelling place all in one. Quite cheap — my friend and I paid less than 13 euros each to share a private room. It was just over a bridge from the walled city of Avignon, an easy walk. Once there we saw lots of cobblestones and winding streets, a few nice churches and courtyards, and one humongous Gothic palace, the Palais des Papes, built in the 1300’s. I took my time wandering through the palace and also going out onto the Pont d’Avignon, a ruined bridge. (Two very chatty audioguides were included with admission, so I figured I might as well listen and learn something.) I also spent some time just meandering around town with no particular goal in mind, which went fine until a local came up to me and started babbling in French. I kept saying “no,” not sure what he was trying to ask (or sell me, probably). He asked, “English or American?” to which I responded, “Canada.” He kept following me even after I repeated “no” several times, so I ended up turning around and going in the opposite direction just to lose him. But luckily that was only one small annoyance in a generally very enjoyable day.

We took the train from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence, changing trains in Marseille. We were staying at an HI hostel there, which took us forever to walk to from the train station. We ended up arriving pretty late at night, 15 minutes past when we were apparently supposed to. We were lucky to be let in. Then the guy at the desk got completely confused by our HI member cards and the way I had printed out our reservation info and confirmation numbers. “I’ve never seen like this,” he kept saying as he riffled through my whole eight-page itinerary. I ended up circling and underlining the relevant information (after he started writing all over confirmation info for later hostel stays). Meanwhile my friend and I were both apologizing for being late, having weird cards, printing the info wrong and being alive in general. It took us a half-hour to check in, but finally we were admitted to our very clean dorm room. Whew.

Our first day in Aix was similarly rough. We spent an awful lot of time getting lost — first trying to find the tourist office to get maps, etc., and then searching for a TGV (high-speed) train station that ended up being some 10 km outside of town. So we scrapped the original plan to take a day trip out into the countryside and instead went to see the old city, but couldn’t find Paul Cezanne’s studio (ended up in a pretty sketchy area) and then couldn’t get in to see the cathedral because they were holding a funeral. We did end up treating ourselves to a decent dinner at a place called Mandarine — figured we needed some sort of consolation after a rough day.

The next day was better, particularly my frame of mind; we’d been so frazzled over getting lost yesterday. I tried the cathedral again and was able to get in, though it appeared that the cloisters were closed. (Amazing how much one’s travel experience is impacted by when you go.) I walked around the old town a bit more too, and treated myself to some Haagen-Dazs ice cream: one scoop of caramel pie and one of vanilla macadamia nut, with rainbow sprinkles! The pleasure was worth the 4.55 euros (ouch) I paid for it. Aix definitely wasn’t my favorite stop on our trip — there wasn’t all that much to do since we couldn’t really get out of town into the countryside — but I was able to see a bit more of its charms on that second day.

We took a rather scenic train ride from Aix to Nice, part of it along the Mediterranean coast, and arrived uneventfully at our next hostel, the Belle Muniere (sp?). We were put into a room with three Australians, two girls and a guy. It was a pretty nice place, though they charged you two euros per shower — what a racket!

We headed straight out for the beach and the Promenade des Anglais as soon as we arrived. It should be noted that Nice doesn’t really have a “beach” as such — it’s all stones, with a waterfront promenade. Still gorgeous though, with lots of lovely palm trees. We ate dinner at a Chinese place, which was a nice change from all the croissants and ham/cheese baguettes we’d been subsisting on.

The next day we took two separate day trips, neither of them far. First we took a bus ride to Eze Village, winding along steep rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. The bus let us off right at the base of the village (the train would’ve let us out further down, leaving us to hike some 40 minutes uphill). The village is basically on a big hill, so we immediately headed upwards, trying to keep track of where we were in the maze of narrow streets. There was an exotic garden at the very top, filled with cacti and home to a ruined fortress. From there we got some amazing views over the sea and the coastline.

Then we went on to Monaco, where everything was really built up, and the weather seemed to change almost immediately from clear and sunny to windy and overcast. We looked at Prince Rainier’s (ugly) palace and went through a church/cathedral, and then wandered kind of blankly, not really too impressed (the part of town we were in wasn’t really that pretty, or as ridiculously opulent as we’d expected from reading guidebooks). We did the requisite visit to the Monte Carlo casino, however, and that redeemed our afternoon a bit. We found it and were marveling at how few tourists there were there when we realized we were actually around the back; when we made our way to the other side it was like a whole different universe, with all sorts of traffic and tourists and activity. One random and unpleasant thing happened here; an old man came up to us, kissed us each on both cheeks, and then copped a feel of my friend’s chest before she could respond. Lovely.

When we got back to Nice, we sat out on a bench overlooking the sea for a while, watching the waves, the seagulls, and this stupid but very cute and enthusiastic dog who kept chasing the pebbles his mistress threw and never managing to find them. His tail was wagging hard though — A for effort!

We stuck around Nice the next day, climbing up Le Chateau to see the park and waterfall there, and then walking quite a ways to get to the Chagall Museum, which was fabulous! I wasn’t really familiar with his work at all before I went, but I walked out with a bunch of postcards — well worth the visit. We walked back to town and had chef salads for dinner somewhere. After, we wandered around Old Nice and stumbled upon this incredible gelato place — I’ve never seen so many flavors.

During our last day in Nice I made my way alone by bus to St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a little peninsula not far from Nice. The town of St. Jean was simply gorgeous, with brightly colored flowers, orange trees, palm trees and lots of beautiful villas. I walked all the way around the peninsula, looking out over the rippling blue waves and spotting a few topless ladies bathing on the beach. I even managed to get myself sunburned. There was only one more thing I wanted to see in Nice when I got back there, but I’d underestimated the amount of time it would take to walk there — so I only had time to snap a quick photo of the Russian orthodox church before I had to go sprinting back across town to meet my friend. I got lost in the old town and ended up being late, turning my whole mood from relaxed/happy to tired/irritable/sweaty/stressed. But we did manage to catch our train to our next destination, so no harm done!

This is really long, so I’ll continue in Spring Break in Italy and Spring Break in Ireland, both separate trip reports also on this site.

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