Category Archives: france

Lyon and Catching Up

Where does the time go? I think I’m going to still be catching up on blogging about France when I am back in the States. I returned from a wonderful weekend in Paris with my friend Helen last night and am leaving for six days in Rome tomorrow. Things that probably won’t get their own blog posts include my visit to Grenoble with Kat and Liza to see the crazy David Altmejd exhibit at Le Magasin. It was an amazing room full of what I can best describe as giant mirror transformer werewolves. There was also the Fête du Printemps in Valence, that featured an odd Texas/Oklahoma area complete with “authentic” outlaws and Indians as well as horse tricks and awful lassoing. Pictures here, here, and here. The festival also had one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen in France: a performance of vegetable people, like Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings come to life. I also went to Voiron with Kat and Leslie to visit Jaime to mark her last day in French with a climb up the hill behind her home. We didn’t factor in the fact that it had been raining, so not only was it an incredibly steep hike over slick leaves, there were also huge disgusting slugs EVERYWHERE. But the trek up slug mountain was worth it for the gorgeous view of the Alps and Rhone-Alpes.

As you can tell, it’s been a busy time and I feel like everyday I have to say goodbye to someone. I know that we’ll stay in touch, but I honestly don’t know when I’ll get a chance to see my friends again. I guess I feel lucky to have met so many wonderful people in such a short period of time. It’s only been since September that I stepped off the plane, a stranger to everyone in a city I had never seen.

Lyon in the fog.

Lyon in the fog.

On my parents’ last day in France, we took the train to Lyon, the second-largest city in France. The weather was a little foggy, but we had a nice walk around the city and a delicious lunch on one of the boulevards. I believe I had a can of my favorite soft drink in France: Schweppes Agrumes.

Someone had painted landscapes on the steps leading up to the Basilica.

Someone had painted landscapes on the steps leading up to the Basilica.

I had no idea that the day after Easter was a holiday in France, so unfortunately a lot of things were closed. We took the stairs (I’m always going up steps in France) up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière and passed a lot of miniature landscapes that someone had painted on the walls.

Flowers at the statues feet.

Flowers at the statue's feet.

After admiring the view and seeing the inside of the Basilica, we saw the nearby Roman theatre and then took the path down the hill to the old town. Flowers had been placed at the feet of this statue of Mary, probably on Easter.

Weird rabbit swastika-thing.

Weird rabbit swastika-thing on the Cathédrale Saint-Jean.

Unlike the rest of the city, the old town was bustling. I guess because it’s one of the most popular parts of town, and also because it was the only area open. We went into the Cathédrale Saint-Jean where we saw my new favorite thing in Lyon: the Horloge Astronomique. At certain hours of the day, it has 19 different automatons that move. Although one woman hilariously freaked out when it didn’t work right at 3 pm (according to her watch), it was not at all disappointing and bordered on spectacular. This video is the best I can find, but doesn’t really do it justice. It’s one of the oldest astronomical clocks in the world and was created in 1383. And the music it plays might end up in your nightmares.

Coffee in Lyon.

Coffee in Lyon.

Afterward we had coffee and strolled around the streets and passages of the old town before sitting for a while by the river and then catching a train back to Valence. The next day I saw my parents off on the train to Paris and it felt a little odd to still be in Valence.

Arles for Easter

Rain in Arles.

Rain in Arles.

I’m officially finished teaching! It was such a relief to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the last time yesterday. I got some odd presents from my students, including a box with a student’s picture in it, an origami fortune teller with nothing written inside it, and a somewhat creepy watercolor of an elf. A student was nice enough to give me a bouquet of muguet (lily of the valley), which is what you traditionally give to people on May 1 in France to wish them good luck.

Continuing with my travel posting, on Easter my parents and I took the train down to Provence again to visit Arles. I though that Easter would be a slow day and purposefully picked a more touristy place, but I was unprepared for the massive crowd we found in Arles. Apparently, the Feria de Pâques was taking place, a four-day bullfighting festival mostly centered around the Arènes. This was great because far from being dead like I expected, the city was full of music, people, food, and performers.

Arles pig with a rose in its mouth.

Arles pig with a rose in its mouth.

We first got coffee at a cafe and listened to competing bands playing Spanish music and then made our way to the tourism office. I’d seen Arles when my friend Randall was visiting, so I had a general idea of the city and this time added on even more Vincent van Gogh sites. Of all the towns and cities I’ve visited in France, I think Arles best encapsulates the provençal “je ne sais quoi.” It has the cobblestone streets with colorful window shutters, calissons in every shop window, santons on every corner, and of course the Roman monuments. We couldn’t go in the Arènes or other sites due to it being Easter, but that left plenty of time for quality wandering.

Mill featured in van Goghs painting The Old Mill. Not quite as he saw it...

Mill featured in van Gogh's painting "The Old Mill." Not quite as he saw it...

I introduced my parents to the European street kebab for lunch and then we saw almost all of the van Gogh sites in Arles. New for me was Les Alyscamps, a Roman cemetery painted a few times by van Gogh and also by his frenemy, Gaugin. We also took a walk a little out of the center of town to see the mill van Gogh painted in “Le Vieux Moulin” (“The Old Mill”). The old mill isn’t exactly being kept up to tourism standards and was actually in a depressingly bad state, but there seemed to be renovations in process. I wonder if van Gogh would like modern-day Arles. It seems like there would be too many people around now and definitely too many motorbikes ruining the picturesque views. Maybe he would live somewhere like Montana.

Bridge painted by van Gogh in Le Pont de Trinquetaille.

Bridge painted by van Gogh in "Le Pont de Trinquetaille."

We also saw the bridge painted by van Gogh in “Le Pont de Trinquetaille,” although only the part on the right seems the same from the picture. I have no historical reference, but I would bet something happened to the bridge in World War II involving explosives. I know it is not good to make up history, yet my time in Europe has taught me that the Allies and Axis alike were experts at missing military sites and destroying nightclubs, churches, and cultural monuments. Van Gogh’s studio, the Yellow House, was a victim in Arles, although we were able to see where it stood.

Horses getting dressed up in costumes.

Horses getting dressed up in costumes.

The only downside of the day was it rained constantly, forcing the city to cancel a lot of the festivities like the parade. However, we did walk by horses that were getting dressed in some costumes and the bands continued to march around town through the downpour. I really need to get a new umbrella when I get home because mine just gets worse and worse. It’s pretty much half an umbrella now and the slightest gust of wind flips it inside out. I refuse to buy a new one in France, though, as I don’t want a single more thing in my suitcase that is not necessary.

A street performer in the Place de la République.

A street performer in the Place de la République.

I wasn’t able to convince my parents to try Ricard, a yellow star anise-flavored pastis liquer made in Marseille and favored by Frenchmen over the age of 50 everywhere, but I had a glass when we took shelter from the rain. Its very popular in Provence and started to be produced in the early 1900s when absinthe was banned, basically manufacturing the illegal drink without the wormwood. It’s a little different now and definitely an acquired taste. After more street wandering, we stumbled upon a street juggler in one of the Places. Being that he was about the only act still going in the rain, he had a huge crowd and it was obvious that his nerves were getting to him. Oddly, the more things he dropped the more money people put in his hat. I guess sympathy gets you more reward than admiration, sometimes.

Crowd and bands in front of the Arènes.

Crowd and bands in front of the Arènes.

Before getting the train back to Valence, we stopped by the Arènes to see all the bands playing outside before the next bullfight. I’d read that Easter was the only time of the year they killed the bull in the Arles fights, so it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see. Still, the festivities around it were great and at times the music and large dishes of paella all over town made me feel like I was in Spain instead of France.

Château de Crussol Hiking

Donkeys at the ampitheatre near

Donkeys at the amphitheater near Château de Crussol.

The Saturday my parents were visiting, we started by going to the outdoor market and buying picnic essentials like green olives, fresh fruit, Comte de Savoie cheese, and crunchy baguette to take up to the Château de Crussol. The market has gotten better and better as the temperature has improved and it’s definitely one of the things I’m going to miss the most about living in Valence. It’s always different due to the season and since Drome, the department where Valence is located, specializes in fruit and olives it’s constantly changing with the weather. Currently, red strawberries and green and white asparagus are covering the market tables.

A shepherd herds donkeys at the ampitheater.

A shepherd herds donkeys at the amphitheater.

Our hike up to the Château de Crussol was a little extended due to a wrong turn I made with the bus, but we finally made it up to the amphitheater to have our picnic. We were surprised to find the whole amphitheater filled with donkeys, about 20 of them, each with a bell ringing on their neck. Their owner was letting them graze on the green grass and, since they seemed very focused on eating, we decided to just have our picnic alongside them. I literally could have reached out and petted the donkey as I ate my sandwich, although I didn’t really want to get fur on my food. As we were finishing lunch, a shepherd came out of no where with a black and white sheepdog and the donkeys were rounded up and ran out of the amphitheater in what couldn’t have been more than a minute.

Rainy weather at the castle ruins.

Rainy weather at the castle ruins.

After lunch, we hiked up to the Château de Crussol, a castle that is now in ruins. You might remember I visited it in March. Although the weather was a little rainy, we could still see most of the valley with Valence surrounded by the Rhone-Alpes.

Flowering tree in the ruins.

Flowering tree in the ruins.

My parents nicknamed their trip “Fitness in France” because of all the uphill climbs and hikes we seemed to do. Crussol was definitely not an exception and it had some treacherous walking, although we did make it to the very top. I tend to spend a lot of my time in France walking uphill. Just today I was visiting a friend in Voiron who is leaving France tomorrow and we scrambled up a wet leaf-covered hill at what must have been a steady 45 degree angle. There were also disgusting giant slugs, but that is something I will describe in more detail on another post.

Wall of Crussol.

Wall of Crussol.

I would love to know what the castle looked like when it was still standing and what rooms were where. There isn’t any information in the ruins themselves and I can’t find much out online. I imagine not many people lived there as it would be a pain to have to hike up and down the hill to get anything. Then again, you would have a perfect view of the valley and I can’t imagine anyone would go to the trouble of attacking you way up on the hill.

I only have one more day of teaching and it’s tomorrow!