- Day 1: Carcassonne, France
- Days 2-4: Nice
- Day 5: Avignon
- Days 6-8: Lyon
- Days 9-11: Paris
- Days 12-13: Loire Valley
- Day 14: Rouen
- Day 15: Bayeux
- Day 16: Mont St Michel
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: May 18-June 3, 2014
“And May has been taking my breath away with both the promise and threat of the impending June, which will take us all away from here, and though we could all come back and visit at some point in our lives, once we leave it, Lyon will not be the same city.”
This was one of the last things I wrote about France before I left 6 years ago (2008) in the blog I maintained while studying abroad. Not too shabby for a 21 year old. As I sit on the TGV bound for Paris from Lyon, I can say my younger self was spot on in imagining what it might be like to return to this city in the future.
We’ve been in France for just under a week now and it’s been a mix of old and new experiences (nearly all old for me, and all new for Tim). We started our grand tour of France in Carcassonne, a small town in the south west, famous for its castle and its cassoulet. The walled citadel has over 2,500 years of history, including settlement by, who else, the Romans. The fortified town is remarkably picturesque, with a 3km outer wall perfect for exploring and 52 towers that make you feel like you could be on the set of a film about medieval times. In fact, you are, since parts of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was filmed here. Tim and I had a lot of fun just frolicking about. There is a museum and ramparts tour available for a cost, but there are plenty of ramparts available for climbing for free and with some historical research beforehand you can get a great sense about what this place is about if you’re on a budget. For lunch we took advantage of a prix fixe menu offering regional specialities. With a hearty salad, a main of cassoulet (a bean stew with sausage, duck and other meats), and a chocolate mousse dessert, we were quite full with just splitting the single order.
That afternoon we took a train to Nice, in the far south east of the country on the French Riviera. Nice and I have a bit of history- after visiting these aqua blue waters during my semester abroad, I applied for and was accepted to work in Nice after graduating college teaching English. Seduced by the income at my former company, I accepted the offer in Wisconsin instead and told myself i’d work a year then reapply and go to France. I reapplied, and was reaccepted, but I redeclined in favor of the generous raise I had just received. All in all though I’d say things worked out quite well for me, and technically I did meet my goal of saving up money and returning to Nice.
I mention all of this because it’s hard for me to be in Nice and not think about how this place was almost my home. Rocky beaches, sunshine and the most gorgeous water of the Mediterranean make it quite, well, nice. Tim and I had a great time, spending our two days there out on the beach. We also visited the park on the coast that offers an amazing view of the city and the water.
After these very pleasant, relaxing days, we had a somewhat stressful day trying to get to Avignon for a day trip on our way to Lyon where we’d stay for the next 4 nights. In true French fashion, the train station in Nice was on strike the day we were traveling out, so our early morning train to Marseille, where we would then connect to Avignon, was delayed several hours. The worst part, though, was that the train didn’t even go all the way to Marseille. It went to Toulon, where everyone trying to get to Marseille (which were most people) then had to cram into a bus. This bus didn’t go straight to Marseille either- it made many stops on the way, and being an unusual route for a bus, it got stuck in some tight places, adding about half an hour to the journey doing 98-point turns. Stranger yet were the characters on the bus- a large family that thought it was fun to toss little balls of paper at other passengers. One victim of these shenanigans wasn’t someone you’d want to get in a fight with- a large Texan military man in an AC/DC t shirt and a gotee to his chest, who, upon being hit several times, stood up, puffed his chest and bellowed, “Stop f***ing around!” I thought there was about to be a bus brawl.
In truth though AC/DC man was very nice to chat with and was traveling with another military buddy from Detroit. The pair may fit some of the stereotypes of the American traveler- I think many Europeans think all Americans are a bit stocky and have southern drawls and wear rock band t shirts. Admittedly, most people tend to think Tim and I are English – perhaps it means we seem quite dignified. Oh stereotypes – I certainly invite you to think about this more…
Eventually we got to Marseille where I finally (FINALLY) got to pee, then take the next train to Avignon. We would get to Avignon thirty minutes before our reserved train to Lyon…which makes for a useless stopover in Avignon. We decided to cut our losses with the reserved train and take another, non-reserved (meaning we pay nothing with our Eurail passes) train later in the afternoon. It worked out alright. I’d been to Avignon before and had spectacular memories of my first visit. I was excited to be back and show Tim the papal palace (the Catholic Church was based here in the 14th century, before moving back to Rome 6 popes later) and Pont d’Avignon, which is actually called the Pont Saint-Benezet. Built in the middle ages with originally 22 arches, it now only has 4, making a cute little semi-bridge and the subject of an annoying song everyone in French class learns at some point… Since we didn’t have a ton of time we skipped the actual tour of both of these places and instead opted to just view from afar before heading to Lyon.
Upon rereading my study abroad blog entry about Avignon I guess I wasn’t all that impressed with the place. I basically just copied text from Wikipedia about it, and I even said the papal palace tour was boring. It’s interesting how my memory of it now, 6 years later, was so great even though it really wasn’t. Memories are a funny thing, and I’m glad I’ll always have both my study abroad blog and this one to capture my voice and my impressions before my memory messes them up.
And speaking of memories, our next destination, where I spent a life-changing six months, was full of them. On the walk from the train station to the Airbnb apartment we rented in Lyon, we passed by my old apartment. I actually wasn’t 100% certain when we got near it and it took me a few moments to be confident we were in front of the right door. Once again my memory wasn’t as sharp as I wanted it to be, but I was beyond excited to be standing by that door again.
The next day I gave Tim my grand tour of Lyon, starting with lunch in Vieux Lyon, the old medieval part of the city known for narrow winding streets and buckets of charm. We got lunch at a bouchon, which is a traditional Lyonnais restaurant. As an aside, Lyon is famous for its food. Since this place had a pretty cheap lunch special we each got a complete lunch menu package with an appetizer, main and dessert. We figured any leftovers we had we could take back for dinner later. But apparently that is “interdit” since if it makes us sick the restaurant would be responsible, so said the waitress. What? Forbidden to get to go boxes? I was 98% confident this was not a rule 6 years ago… Or maybe it was…I don’t remember having a problem getting to go, but I also don’t remember ever having leftovers to take home. This is more likely the case, since as a poor study abroad student I rarely ate out and when I did I doubt I had leftovers due to my general malnourishment and state of constant hunger that is the result of eating mostly pasta noodles and hotdogs.
After stuffing our would-be leftovers down our throats we continued our walk through the old town, before crossing the Soane over to the Presqu’ile (literally, “almost island” as it sits between Lyon’s two rivers, the Soane and the Rhone). I walked Tim through Place Belle Cour, the largest open air plaza in Europe, and then across the Rhone to my old school, University Lumiere Lyon II. I gave him a brief tour by challenging myself to find the cafeteria, and once I succeeded, and after telling Tim stories from my classes, we made our way to my favorite grocery store- Lidl. Lidl is actually a pretty crappy grocery store, but it’s ridiculously cheap and thus was my favorite. They also carry Mexican style frozen veggies which I would mix with cheese and rice. These were a real treat because they were delicious and rarely in stock. It’s always a good day when you find Mexican veggies, and lucky for us they had one bag left when we were there! The next segment of my tour was on the banks of the Rhone, a beautiful pedestrian and biking area. Lastly, we went to my second favorite grocery store, Monoprix, for more food before heading back to our place.
That evening we had plans to meet up with one of our former coworkers who just happened to also be in Lyon that weekend. I put together an itinerary of 4 bars we needed to visit, starting in Vieux Lyon- St James Pub, James Joyce, The Smoking Dog, then crossing over the river and ending our night at Ayer’s Rock, a rather not-so-classy establishment fondly embedded in my memory as a college kid scene where you can dance to American 90s radio music while being sprayed with water by the bartender. Blaire met up with us at The Smoking Dog where we caught up before heading to Ayer’s Rock (Tim and I hit the other two bars earlier in the night). It was exactly as I remembered it with the exception of new paint on the walls. Some things never change.
We ordered a round of drinks for 12 Euros, danced, had fun, then Blaire ordered the second round which the bartender actually gave her for free. Eventually Tim ordered a third round and the cost that time was 22 Euros. Confused why it was so much more than the first round, we asked the bartender. At this point he got angry and stormed away, and before we knew it a bouncer was behind us escorting us out. It was 3am anyway so we were more amused and confused than anything else. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all and happily ended our night.
The next day Tim and I baked cookies- chocolate chip stuffed with Oreos. It was pretty phenomenal and we’ve decided to call this type of cookie French cookies from now on (even though the recipe came from the internet). Afterwards we hiked up to the Fourviere Basilica, which overlooks the city and is the dominating structure visible from many parts of the city. The hill is also home to ancient Roman ruins of two amphitheaters, which are free to the public and open to walk around and explore. There are a handful of rooms and passages where people can get escape the public- it’s pretty fun!
That night I took Tim to the boat bars- bars that are literally boats tired up to the bank of the Rhone. We went to Le Sirius first and enjoyed their house made punch, great DJs and a few games of cards. We also went to La Marquise a few boats down but it was nothing like how I remembered it. Another thing that makes me question my memory…
Our last day in Lyon we walked to the Parc de la Tete d’Or, the largest green space in Lyon with an awesome rose garden and a zoo.
Being in Lyon again was very meaningful for me, and as much as the experience was different from previously, it was no less wonderful and I still fully understand why I loved this city 6 years ago. Going back to my previous comment, memories are interesting; I was both nostalgic and grateful in this city. I sometimes missed the friends and the feel of this city as I experienced it 6 years ago, but like Buenos Aires was different for Tim in 2010, we absolutely adored being in these cities with each other. Perhaps even more so. I still love Lyon today, and I remain enamored with the daily life and beauty of the city.
Our next stop is Paris and northern France – stay tuned! 🙂