Posts Tagged With: world travel

Travel Journal: Ancient Cities and Rental Cars Part One

A couple of months ago one of my Facebook friends posted an article on her timeline entitled “20 Spots in Europe You Must See Before You Die”. Number Fourteen stood out to me above all the rest. Something about the crystal clear blue water and the rising peeks called to my soul. I needed to experience Les Gorges du Verdon.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I hadn’t even wanted to go to Paris. After what I thought was an adequate amount of time in this famous city (4 days), my brother and I hightailed it out of there for southern France.

We went without a plan. I wanted to white water raft the gorge but all of my phone calls to the rafting companies had been futile. Apparently, the dam only releases water twice a week and those are the only days it is suitable to raft. But the schedule is released at 5pm the day before. All the rafting shops close at 5pm… I just had hope that it would work out.

We arrived at the Nice airport in the afternoon. I rented a car with Hertz. This process had given me endless headaches. Initially it seems that renting a car is really cheap. For six days I was getting quotes of $150. But that was a manual. I understand the basic concept of a manual, but my skills are less than desirable and my experience is limited to about two hours of lessons- once from an uncle when I was 14 in our field on the farm and another from a Clove Island teammate. Mark, my brother and traveling companion, is a valet parker. He drives cars for a living so he can do it, right? That will be an extra $300 for someone under 25…

I chose the cheaper route- an automatic, which did add another $150 to IMG_2938the price- and I had to be the sole driver. I hadn’t driven anything in over 10 months. I was nervous, to say the least, so the salesperson had no trouble signing me up for maximum insurance, adding another hefty sum to the price. I left the car rental office with lighter pockets but an excitement that was only boosted when I saw the cute little Citroen DS4. It had a built in GPS that was invaluable! After a couple minutes of fiddling around and getting acquainted, I put the car into drive. Immediately the female GPS told me to “Tournez à droit puis tournez à gauche”. I’m fairly certain that Mark, speaking no French previously, could give perfect directions with a crisp accent after more than 20 hours of listening to that.

Castellane

Les Gorges du Verdon are located about 2 hours north of Nice. Mark connected his iPhone to the car and we blasted Twenty One Pilots and Avicii as we climbed higher and higher into the Southern Alps. The temperature began to drop rapidly. When we arrived at our destination of Castellane it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius).

IMG_2962I’d chosen the cheapest place I could find with access to the gorge: Camping Frédéric Mistral. I booked a tent. It had two twin beds and a nightstand separating them. Nothing else would fit into the sloped space, not even our luggage. We kept our bags in the trunk and lived out of the car during the time we were there.

I’d decided we would stay in the town of Castellane for two nights, giving us one full day in which to white water raft.

Castellane is overshadowed by “Le Roc” or “The Rock”, a massive cliff topped by the Chapel of Our Lady of the Rock. The morning of our full day in the town, we made the half-hour hike to the top of the mountain. Along the path leading to the top there are Stations of the Cross altars, each with a mosaic of Christ’s suffering up to his death and burial. When we reached the top, we encountered a large headless statue. The plaque at the base describes it as a statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 70AD. I have a little bit of a hard time believing this. Was Mary already idolized in 70AD? Enough to have a built a giant statue in the middle of nowhere France? I guess it’s possible but it seems highly unlikely.

Further exploration brought us into the chapel itself. The current chapel dates back to 1860 but there has been a church standing in that spot for hundreds and hundreds of years. Inside the walls are covered with plaques. They are different in form and color but most have initials and a date. Some hold explanations. “My brother was healed from cancer,” said one. Many, many plaques date from the years of World War II. They are all thanks for miracles attributed to “Our Lady of the Rock” who is prominent on the altar at the front of the church, holding an infant Jesus.

After descending from the mountain, we drove 5 kilometers to the supply shack for Aboard Rafting. Unfortunately, the dam had not been opened that day. However, we were able to book an airboat tour. An airboat is an inflatable, one-person kayak. It rides higher in the water, allowing it to go over rocks and such on which a raft would get stuck. We suited up in wetsuit socks, a sleeveless wetsuit and a long-sleeved wetsuit jacket. Along with our chain-smoking French guide, a young German couple and two French girls we began our half-day journey down the Verdon. After paddling for just five minutes, we detoured to the bank, climbed to the top of a rock and jumped into a deep, clear blue pool below. The shock of the water hitting bare skin on hands and feet felt like a punch to stomach; all the breath in my chest was expelled and I popped to the surface scrambling to intake life-giving air before screaming about how incredibly cold it was! That was enough of that water for the day. Despite getting stuck on multiple rocks, losing a lot of the air on one side of my boat making it very unsteady and getting run into by the inexperienced and very silly French girls, I managed to stay upright in my kayak the entire time. Mark was not so lucky, but he can tell that story if he so chooses.

The $35 spent on the kayak was definitely worth it. The “Places to See Before You Die” website was right on point with this one. But it only got better from there.

That evening we met a Canadian couple that told us about some other gorges in the area. The next day that’s what we decided to check out. Les Gorges de Daluis and Les Gorges du Cians, to be specific. You can find information about these gorges on www.dangerousroads.org. Why? Because the only route through these majestic marvels is a balcony road. The website describes the road better than I could. Here is an excerpt: “This road is one of the most famous balcony roads in France. A balcony road is a hair-raising lane cut into the sides of sheer cliffs. It’s a kind of road not for those who fear heights. There is little room for error on these roads.”

It recommends taking the road at a snails pace with which I was more than happy to comply. The crazy French drivers were not so happy getting stuck behind me. But I just used that as an opportunity to pull over and take pictures of the amazingness. The pictures DO NOT do it justice. This is a phenomenon that needs to be appreciated in-person.

The detour through the gorges took about 4 hours, and then Mark and I headed to Arles. It was a random town I’d decided to go to the day before after searching Google maps for a minute.

ArlesIMG_3110

Arles, located on the Rhône River near the Mediterranean, has been inhabited since 800BC. It was an important Phoenician trading port before Roman occupation beginning in 123BC. In more recent history, Arles played host to Vincent Van Gogh who painted some of his most famous painting while staying there.

The city center is small and it was easy to walk from monument to museum in minutes. The attractions offer joint fare admission so we were able to choose one museum and three attractions for just 11 euros. We started at the Roman amphitheater, smaller but in better repair than the Colosseum in Rome. It was built in 90AD, seating 20,000 spectators and has remained in constant use since that time. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a fortress and developed into a small town and residential area until the 18th century. Today it is still used for various shows.

From there we walked to the Roman theater, taking pictures of the semicircular seating

and the fallen columns littering the courtyard. Then we descended into the depths of the city, into what is called the cryptoporticus. Arles cryptoporticus dates to the first century BC and was a part of the original Roman forum, though it was probably built by Greeks from Marseilles. It was dark and damp with no signs explaining the significance. It doesn’t have great reviews on TripAdvisor for these reasons. People called it creepy and a waste of time. But I liked it! I imagined the thousands of people over the years who had walked the stones, their feet smoothing the rough edges and creating the depressions that pooled with water. I didn’t need signs at the time. Breathing in the murky dampness was like breathing ancient history. Then I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia; who needs signs?

We ended our Arles day at the Musée Réattu. We had wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum, but we missed the opening by 2 days. The Musée Réattu was created in 1868, featuring the works of Jacques Réattu. In 1888, after three days in the city, Van Gogh wrote this to his brother Theo concerning this museum, “The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke, and fit to be in Tarascon.[1]

Since that time, the museum has acquired some Picasso drawings, making it, in my humble and inexpert opinion, even more of a joke. The actual building in which the museum is housed has historical significance so that made the visit not a complete waste of time.

Stay tuned for part two of Southern France covering Carcassonne (like the board game!) and an interesting Airbnb experience in Toulouse.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_R%C3%A9attu

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Travel Journal: The City of Lights

I’m in Madrid, Spain at the moment. I shouldn’t be.

I bought bus tickets online to go to Barcelona at 9am…on May 18th, the day we arrived in Madrid. So I’m sitting here at a McDonalds on Calle de Francisco Silvela, Madrid until my new bus, that I had to pay full price for, leaves at 1pm.

The only good thing that comes from my idiocy is the time to write this post. My pain, your gain. You are all welcome.

Paris. The City of Lights.

I was in Paris 14 years ago. I studied abroad the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Language. I spent seven weeks living with a host family, speaking ONLY French and taking French classes in St. Brieuc, France. We flew out of Charles De Gaulle so the last two days we were given free rein to roam Paris. Not knowing the next time I might return, I tried to do everything. I went up the Eiffel Tower and wrote my name in sharpie along with hundreds of thousands of others. I raced through the Louvre to see Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. I loved every second looking at Degas’ paintings in the Musée D’Orsay. I strolled through the Gardens of the Musée Rodin, admiring the Thinker, of which I had made a mini-replica for French class the year before. And finally, I walked around the manicured gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately, the palace was closed for renovations so I wasn’t able to see inside.

I had no real desire to go to Paris again. Been there, done that. There are so many places to see in the world and so little time! But I was meeting my 20-year-old brother, Mark, and Paris was the cheapest place for him to fly in to.

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At the airport. 1st photo.

I wasn’t broken up about it. This was to be his first trip abroad and everyone should really go to Paris at least once in their lives if they have the means. It is Paris, after all.

I arranged my EasyJet flight from Venice so that I would arrive an hour and half before Mark who was flying Icelandair from Orlando, with a very short layover in Iceland. Although his flight from Orlando was running late, he was still able to make his connection and magically his luggage arrived too.

It had been 10 months since I’d seen him last, but he looked pretty much the same. He had the backpack I’d bought him for Christmas and wore a brave face, though I knew internally he was quaking. It’s a scary thing to really travel for the first time. Fortunately, he has a well-traveled, confident, and, if it’s not too far-fetched, inspiring big sister to, in a very Type-A, control-freak fashion, control the minutiae of the three week journey.

Our first obstacle to navigate was getting to our hotel from Orly. We stayed in TimHotel Berthier, conveniently located right next to the Port de Clichy metro station. First we had to squeeze into the Orly Bus and then switch metro trains a couple times, but we arrived in tact.

Our hotel room was small but really nice- by far the nicest I’d stayed in up to that point. After settling in, we set out to explore the city.

Remember my friend Sarah? She came out to Mozambique for my 30th birthday. Well, a couple days before I arrived in Paris she contacted me and asked what my itinerary was. Then she decided on a whim to come and meet me in Paris. She was staying in a hostel about half an hour metro ride from us. That was the first thing on the to-do list- meet up Sarah. Second was to eat dinner.

We found Sarah easily enough and quickly settled into a cute little restaurant. We ordered our meals. Mark ordered steak tartare. I really wasn’t paying attention, too involved in my own choice of onion soup and salad. Sarah noticed but didn’t say anything because she knows me and I’m a fairly adventurous eater so she thought it might run in the family.

Well, fortunately, it does. The unexpected pile of minced raw meat arrived and Mark didn’t blink an eye. We had a good laugh over his ignorance of what he ordered, but when the server offered to switch it out for something cooked, Mark refused. He ate every single bite of that mass of blood, red beef. He admitted that he only did it because he knew I would make fun of him the rest of the trip if he didn’t (his bad luck, I still have :).

From there we walked to Sacré-Coeur and then on the opposite end of the morality IMG_2749spectrum, the Moulin Rouge. Sarah would have been happy to stay out all night, Mark would have gone along with anything, but I am a total stick in the mud. Eleven o’clock rolled around and I was ready for my nice, warm bed.

The next day found us on the metro. We had a bike tour scheduled with Fat Tire Bike Tours for 10am. We left a full hour ahead of time even though Google maps told me it was only a half hour. It was a new public transportation system to figure out and I hate to be late. One hour and fifteen minutes and four trains later, we arrived at the Fat Tire Office. I blame Google maps! I had typed Fat Tire Tours Paris into the search and it decided I wanted to go to Paris. Just Paris. It was a couple trains later when I realized we were headed in the completely opposite direction. From that time on, I decided to use the maps in every station to guide me rather than unreliable, tricky Google maps.

I called the Fat Tire when we I realized we would be late, but they were great and the tour waited for us. I’m so glad it did because we had an amazing time. The weather was fabulous. Our guide, an American-raised, Frenchman, was knowledgeable and entertaining. We covered so much ground in four hours and I, at least, felt oriented to the city (Mark was just along for the ride).IMG_2770

After the tour, having a better idea of the various things to see, we made a plan of attack. That night Mark and I walked up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. We were about to make our way down whIMG_2816en thousands and thousands of lights started sparkling across the Tower. There was an audible gasp, which I heard first before seeing the lights and I admit my first instinct was TERRORIST…but it was just lights so that was cool.

Full day number two was an early morning start, once again with Fat Tire Bike Tours (because we liked them so much the day before) to Versailles. This time I convinced Sarah to go with us. She’s not much for early mornings on vacation, or physical activity, but she does like hanging out with people so that was the clincher. With a group of around 12-13, we took the train to Versailles with our Canadian guide and got our bikes. Then we spent an hour going around the market buying supplies for a picnic. The tour was, once again, fabulous. Weather-amazing. We visited Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, built in 1783 to resemble her home country of Austria. We had a leisurely ride through the outer gardens and picnicked beside the water. The tour came with a fast pass into the castle. We took advantage of that and I finally was able to visit the palace! It has some great history and I loved connecting the history of the monarchs with the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about them: Man in the Iron Mask, Reign, Marie Antoinette, the Three Musketeers, etc. Obviously, those are mostly fiction but using the guise of people who actually existed and walked the same halls I was walking.

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Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

The following day was originally intended to include an early morning visit to the catacombs but it was May 8th. Not ringing a bell? May 8th is Victory in Europe Day! I heard that there was going to be a military processional on the Champs-Elysees that morning. Mark and I decided the catacombs would probably still be there but how often would we be in Paris on May 8th?? We arrived early and had a great vantage point near the Arch de Triomphe to watch all the diplomats with their flags proudly waving on their Mercedes, Peugeots and Renaults. The American ambassador drove by in the only SUV we saw in the city- a Chevy, of course.

Finally, the French president brought up the rear, with the window rolled down waving at the spectators. He was followed by the cavalry decked out in their awesome FrenchIMG_2873 uniforms, with long hair hanging from their helmets. Pretty cool.

From there we walked to Notre Dame (all the metro stations on the Champs-Elysees were closed for VE Day). It was very far. Then we walked to the Louvre. It was practically empty! Two days before on our bike tour the square in front of the famous pyramids was packed with people queuing to get in. I bought online tickets to avoid that but there was really no need. There was no line and we roamed through the massive museum unmolested.

We attempted to hit everything really famous and visited Napoleon’s rooms, which I hadn’t seen previously. Mark is a pretty fun person with which to visit a museum. He doesn’t bore easily. And we were able to have fun commenting on the works of art. But I started to feel rough about half way through the tour- stomachache. I needed to sit every couple of rooms. It was a serious drag. I wish we could have stayed longer but my stomach was draining any fun out of the day.

I wanted to go back to the hotel and stew in my misery, but I had another rendezvous. This time it was with another Peace Corps friend, Levi and his girlfriend. When I was in Italy I saw Levi post a selfie in front of Notre Dame and so I messaged him to see if he was still going to be in Paris when I visited. Turns out he lives there. So the answer was yes…and no. I hadn’t met up with him earlier because he decided to take that same weekend to go to Scotland. The nerve!

Fortunately, he agreed to meet me right after putting his luggage in his apartment. He lives in the cutest neighborhood that hosts two of the top 50 bars in the world, Candelaria and Little Red Door (according to www.world50bestbars.com). We visited both of them. They were cool; I indulged in water only since my stomach hurt, but the water was definitely topnotch.IMG_2914

I hadn’t seen Levi in the seven years since Peace Corps ended. It was awesome to reconnect, hear about what he’s been up to and meet the lady who stole his heart. Sarah, Levi and I relived some of our more memorable stories and reminded each other of things the other had forgotten. We stayed out until midnight and then raced to the metro to make it back to the hotel before metro stopped running.

And that was Paris. The next day Mark and I took our last metro train to the Orly bus, this time experts in Parisian public transportation. We left in the early afternoon for Nice, but that is another story…

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