Hello, Provence

Trip Start Jan 14, 2011
Trip End May 17, 2011

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Flag of France  , Provence,
Thursday, March 3, 2011

First of all, I want to apologize for the radio silence, my adoring fans! As many of you know, I experienced what I am calling a "dark week of the soul" about three weeks ago, and I even considered coming home. However, I am very glad that I decided to stay and overcome my anxiety because I have finally started having an awesome time! I'm trying to do one thing every day that I can do only in France so as to carpe diem, dontcha know? I am also one a strict at-least-one-pastry-per-day diet because the pastries here are truly unbelievable. You really can't get anything like them in the States (yes, yes, y'all may now scoff at my use of the term "States" as opposed to the good ol' US of A). A couple of weekends ago I visited my stepsister in Lyon, but the trip was largely uneventful...But enough about that.

This week is winter break, and my friend from Mount Holyoke, Ashley, and I went on a little tour of some of the cities of Southern France: Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, and Arles. We arrived in Marseille around mid-day on Sunday with a view to take a ferry to the Château d'If, a chateau located on an island off the coast of Marseille. Unfortunately, we were informed that it was too windy for the ferry to go to the Château d'If, so we opted instead to take the ferry to a nearby island called Frioul. After walking around the Vieux Port of Marseille for about an hour, looking at the beautiful waters, smelling the briny odor of fish, and being whipped by gale-force winds, Ashley and I boarded the ferry and realized that if we took the time to explore Frioul, we would miss our train to Aix-en-Provence! We decided that it would probably be in our best interests to catch our train, so we were just going to ride the ferry there and back and enjoy the view. But, boy, was it windy! This is what we call "extreme ferry riding." Huge waves were crashing over top of the ferry as it rocked side to side and bounced over the tops of the crests. Exciting...and a bit nauseating. We were both really bummed that we weren't able to see the Château d'If--famous for being the fortress in which Edmund Dantès was imprisoned in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Hopefully, we'll be able to make a weekend trip to Marseille when the weather is a little fairer.

Sunday evening (after making our train in the Marseille station), we arrived in Aix-en-Provence, hoping we could take the bus to our hostel. Alas, Sunday is not the best day for traveling in France since nothing is open. The buses weren't operating, so we had to walk to the hostel...which was on the opposite side of town. After a day of traveling, we had to book it for 30 minutes with our packs on our back, sometimes discouraging that we were lost or convinced that this was some type of magical hostel that disappeared like a mirage as we approached it! Finally--miracle of miracles--we found it! The woman at the front desk asked for our hostel cards...which we didn't have. Ashley tried to bluff our way out of it, but the lady insisted that we buy them. Eh. It was only 11€ and will most likely come in handy. Our room was actually really nice. We had a private bath, and though there were four beds in the room, no one else arrived, and we had the room to ourselves. After a much-needed good night's sleep, we woke up early to grab the hostel breakfast and check out. Our first stop was the Office of Tourism, where we asked if we could leave our baggage in lockers. But small town = no lockers. We would have to carry our bags all day. We walked around the big beautiful avenue downtown, and then we began to hike up the hill to see the town's main attraction: the studio of Paul Cézanne. Another long walk and more getting lost. Finally, we arrived at the studio...at 11:45 AM, so we were informed that it would be closing in 15 minutes for the infamous two-hour French lunch break. Ashley was pretty cranky at this point, since her bag was heavier than mine (not having taken her own advice to pack light!), so we decided to hike back down the hill to the bus stop we had found and take the bus downtown to eat in a cafe that Cézanne frequented. It's the fanciest restaurant that I have eaten in yet, but the service was somewhat lacking--maybe because we weren't ordering the three-course meals and bottles of wine like the other patrons since we're just poor American students. After a satisfying meal of tuna steak à la provençal, we took the bus back to Cezanne's studio. I had though that we would be able to tour the whole house, but the tour was limited to just the one room, the real studio. It was pretty cool nonetheless. We saw some of the skulls that he painted, the statue of the cherub depicted in one of his more well-known works, his easel, his paint frocks, etc. Then we had to report back to the train station to get on the train for Arles.

We arrived in Arles around 7:00 PM so it was dark, and we were disoriented. I was a big dummy and forgot to write down directions to the hostel, or even the address, so we tried to call a taxi, but no one answered the phone (Welcome to France moment). We started walking towards downtown, but Ashley was pretty cranky from being tired of carrying around her bag all day. She said we'd look for ten minutes, but if we didn't find it, we would just take the next train back to Montpellier. I really didn't want to give up that easily, so I asked for directions in a tabac. The owner and a customer tried to explain the directions to us, but, met with blank stares, they told us that they would just drive us there. Our Saviors! Of course, it was a little scary getting into a car with two male strangers, but while I was alert, I didn't feel threatened. They really saved our butts. Lesson learned: don't arrange to arrive in a new city at night because it is way harder to find the hostel! Plus, if you arrive during the day, you can leave your stuff in the hostel room! The hostel in Arles wasn't as nice as the one in Aix-en-Provence, but the owners were a really sweet old couple, and the hostel was clean and quiet. Ashley and I got some reading done and then hit the sack early, again exhausted.

We got up early the next morning for the typical hostel breakfast--bread, jam, and coffee--and checked out. Again, we headed for the tourism office, and again we were told that we couldn't leave our bags there. Doh! Another day of backpacking through France! In Arles, I got to see my first Roman ruins: a Roman theater and an amphitheater. So friggin' cool. Those Romans really knew how to build some solid stuff...or at least their slaves did. What struck me as odd was the freedom that they gave us to just wander around in them. The amphitheater was under construction because they still use it as an arena for bullfighting. They also appear to still use the theater for theatrical productions. We then headed to the Musée Réattu, a really funky modernist museum. Réattu was an eighteenth-century painter, and the building in which the museum is housed (looking out over the Rhône) was his studio. The collection mixes his works and other eighteenth-century works with really modern works, including "sound art." Ashley and I weren't sold on some of the modernist works, but I found it really interesting how they mixed old and new. Although Ashley isn't too interested in church architecture, she tagged along with me to the Cathédrale Saint-Triomphe and the Cloître Saint-Triomphe. The cathedral had some beautiful (restored) stained class windows as well as the relics of Saint Antoine du Désert. You can actually see the bones through the reliquary! The cloister was a little less visually stunning but featured some beautiful tapestries. We wanted to go to a museum of provençal culture, but it is closed for renovations until 2014.

At this point, we had seen most of what we had come to see, but we still had a lot of time to kill before our train back to Montpellier. After walking around lost for about 45 minutes, we decided to just chill out, regroup and get some gelato. We both felt better after some delicious ice cream (and a nice rest for our shoulders and back). There was another site listed on the map that we wanted to check out: the cryptoportiques, the basement of the Roman forum of Arles, which they discovered under the Hôtel de Ville. Again, those Romans knew how to build. Ashley and I tried to imagine what they used the rooms for: wine storage, prisons. Right now there are a bunch of busted up columns down there.

When we were done exploring the cryptoportiques, we still had about two hours to kill before our train back to Montpellier, so we headed to the Espace Van Gogh. The building used to be the hospital where Van Gogh stayed when he was recovering from the whole "cutting off his ear to give it to a prostitute" thing. After attacking Paul Gauguin with a razor blade, Van Gogh fled to a brothel where he cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe and gave it to a prostitute named RACHEL, asking her to "keep this object carefully." Now the Espace Van Gogh is a big library, and unfortunately, no one preserved the room where Van Gogh stayed. We were kinda hoping they had preserved the ear in some formaldehyde.

Finally, it was time for us to catch our train to Montpellier. We needed to get a quick dinner so we stopped at a pizza truck, and Pizza Jo made us some delicious crispy, greasy pizzas. When we walked into the train station, all the SNCF workers started thanking us for bringing them dinner and kept walking by us making "nom nom nom" noises when we were eating! It was pretty hilarious. The train ride back was pretty uneventful, except there were some really obnoxious young guys who were yelling at each other and rapping out loud...in French. Oh, French rap, how you amuse me!  When I got home, I immediately took a shower to get the travel dust off of me and then hit the sack, because my dad and sister are coming to visit this Friday, and I need to rest up and get my tour guide, navigator, translator game face on!

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aliceparish on

YAY! i'm glad things are going better! and these travels sound awesome. you brought back many memories of wondering around portugal and italy in search of the hostels and having to carry heavy bookbags. yay for backpacking! now you can truley say you went backpacking in europe. and i was hoping you would go to marseilles! count of monte christo is one of my all time favorite movies, and just this week i finally decided to start reading the book and i love it! shame you couldn't get to the chateau d'if, but still awesome you went to the town of edmond dantes. :). hope you have a great time playing tour guide while your family is there!

Carrie Stockard on

Isn't traveling in this way interesting? It all sounds very familiar if not identical to the trips I took. I'm very glad though that you're not trying to hitch-hike! Smart girl. I'm very happy for and proud of you!!!

lacynoel on

Sounds like fun! I loved the church architecture when I was in Switzerland; I imagine it's just as beautiful in France. Gotta love walking around with bags; though, next time ask if you can leave them at the hostel. For a euro or two (or maybe even free) they sometimes let you keep them there. Then you do not have to worry about taking a trip to the tourism office or lugging your bags everywhere. Good luck on further travels!

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