Northern France- A little bit of luxury and a lot of canned food

Itinerary:

  • 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

Our Odyssey: 

Sitting at a crowded train station in Rouen, France, I have just finished eating tuna and cold beans straight from their cans, my shirt drenched in sweat from the several kilometers we just walked with our packs on to get to the train station. An older gentleman is looking at me with pity from across the aisle. Yes, sometimes I feel like a backpacker, but tonight we are cashing in Marriott points to stay in Brussles, Belgium, a fact I doubt anyone who saw me scarfing down cold beans would believe if I had told them.

It seems a fitting way to leave France, as during the past week and a half in northern France Tim and I have experienced both the peak of luxury of our trip so far as well as the depths of shameful backpacker mishaps.

Our stay in Paris was on the whole a very first-class experience. Tim cashed in Marriott point to stay at the Renaissance Arc de Triomphe, which is right down the street from, you guessed it, the famous Arc de Triomphe monument. Since Tim and I celebrate our anniversary in May each year, he had told the reception ahead of time that we were celebrating this week. Upon check in, the reception informed us that they’d upgraded us to a room on the top floor facing the Arc as well as the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur cathedral. We had a large balcony, a sitting lounge, bath robes and slippers and even aromatherapy bath tea. I basically lived in the bathrobe for the 3 days we were there, putting clothes on only for brief excursions outside.

A few hours after checking in, we got a knock on our door, and were pleased to be greeted by a man with a bottle of champagne and a bowl of macaroons.

Tim and I had been planning to have a “cheese date” while in Paris- Tim had researched the best French cheeses and picked out 5 for us to find at a grocery store. When the champagne arrived, we both knew tonight would be the perfect night for a cheese date. We headed out to the nearest grocery store and stocked up on an abundance of cheese- Roquefort, Pont l’Eveque, Camembert, Munster, and Tomme de Savoie. We also got some saucisson sec and a baguette (to make the meal more balanced). Upon return to the room, I immediately robed up (slippers too), and we set the table outside on our balcony.

With the spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower as the sun was setting and the beautiful light cast on the Sacre Coeur, accompanied by champagne and cheese, this evening was about as Parisian as two Americans can get. This was the epitome of luxury, and needless to say, both 27 year old Sarah, as well as the 5 year old Sarah who asked Santa Claus for a French dictionary and phrase book (thanks Mom and Dad!), appreciate this experience more than I can adequately say.

If you had asked me 5 years ago if I would ever get to experience something like this, I would have laughed at you. Me in a luxury hotel in Paris eating cheese and drinking bubbly? More likely in my mind was me in an 8-bed dormroom in a hostel drinking 1 euro wine straight from the bottle, probably eating tuna and beans from a can… oh wait. I guess some of my anticipations on what future Sarah’s life would be like are fairly accurate after all.

The next morning I embarked upon something we knew would be inevitable on a year long trip- my first trip to a doctor’s office abroad. The build-up to this milestone was mired with anxiety- I was feeling UTI-ish (the symptoms are hard not to notice…), and between calling my travel insurance provider to verify my coverage, calling French doctor’s offices trying to fine one that was close by, cheap, and spoke English, and dealing with my, um, symptoms, I was a bit overwhelmed.

Going to the doctor in France is a funny experience, and very different from any doctor’s visit I’ve had previously. We arrived on time, but the doctor was running late, so my appointment started about 45 minutes later than scheduled. When she called me in to my appointment, I went into what is literally an office- a room with a mahogany desk, diplomas on the wall, and a luxurious chair for the doctor on one side of the desk, and a much simpler, shorter chair for me on the other. Towering above me in her fancy chair, she asked me why I came to see her today. She jotted down key words on the back of a used sheet of paper (I suppose this is my medical record) while I explained my symptoms briefly. She asked what I did for a living and I told her I used to work in electronic medical records, at which point she began a long winded explanation on why they just weren’t right for her and her practice. If only she knew how many times I’d heard every word she was telling me… Anyway, eventually she told me she would have me pee in a cup. Okay, that’s pretty normal protocol for a UTI. So I went to the bathroom and she handed me a simple clear plastic cup. No labels for the lab (urinalysis goes to the lab, right?), no patient identifiers, just me and a clear unmarked cup. Pretty proud of the quantity of my sample, I left it on the counter in the bathroom as instructed and returned to the office. The receptionist was in the doctor’s office when I got back, and they were discussing supplies that needed ordering. I stood there awkwardly for a few minutes until she finally told me to have a seat and the receptionist left. With the door to her office wide open out to the waiting room, the doctor stood up and went to the door, telling me rather loudly that she was going to go have a look at my pee. Clearly I’m not too embarrassed about this (after all, I’m writing about it on the internet), but I was surprised by both the lack of patient confidentiality, as well as the fact that she was going to diagnose my UTI by merely LOOKING at my unmarked cup of pee that was hopefully still sitting untampered with in the public bathroom of the doctor’s office. Does anyone else find several things kind of weird about all this? The doctor came back and said that indeed my urine is quite infected and that she would give me an antibiotic that I could pick up at the pharmacy. Eighty-five euros later, I was on my way out the door with a prescription for an antibiotic and a sheet of paper stating I was diagnosed with ICD9 code 595. Success!

That afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Paris that took us by the cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre museum, Pont Neuf, a lover’s bridge made famous by Sex and City (more on this later), Place de la Concorde, among other sites. A few of my favorite bits of Paris historical trivia, before diving into my favorite story:

Victor Hugo, the author of work of literature that inspired Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, inspired more than just a cartoon- his work was so popular it actually made the (then run-down) Notre Dame cathedral a beloved landmark in Paris. This led to it being restored rather than destroyed. He was also a key player building up to the French Revolution, when the monarchy was overthrown in the late 1700s. He fought for social justice throughout his life and his literature was just one of the ways he did this.

The Louvre Museum, my least favorite museum ever, actually used to be the royal palace before Louis XIV built Versailles. It is my least favorite museum ever because I have a shameful lack of appreciation for old art, for starters, and secondly, this particular museum is way too big. Even if you make a list of key things you want to see, which my friends and I did 6 years ago when we went there, you’ll still end up accidentally seeing the whole entire museum simply because the exit signs lie and send you in circles. I left that museum 6 years ago hungry, exhausted, and fighting with my friends. It was a disaster, and the Mona Lisa is the size of the scrap paper my French doctor wrote my medical record on. But I was happy to learn something new about the building itself that allowed me to see it in a different light.

The Pont Neuf, which means “new bridge” in French, is actually the oldest still-standing bridge in Paris over the Seine river. When it was built, the king at that time had a big party to celebrate his new bridge and legend has it everyone got really drunk. There was a sketch artist there doing portraits and everyone’s portrait of course looked ridiculous due to the high levels of intoxication. The next day, the king decided upon reviewing these potraits, to have the drunken faces carved into the bridge. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but what I do know is that each face on the bridge is unique and they all look crazy.

There is a lover’s bridge over the Seine that was featured in the Sex and the City movie, and ever since then, it has become a tradition to take a lock and key with your loved one and lock it around part of the bridge to “lock your love together”. The lovers then throw the key into the river. The weight of all of these locks has actually required that the city take the entire railings with (locks attached) down every 6 months and put up new railings on the bridge to maintain its structural integrity. So what all those lovers may not realize is that the symbol of their love doesn’t stay locked on this bridge forever, but instead ends up in a warehouse somewhere on the other side of town after only 6 months.

In the center of the Place de la Concorde is a large obelisk with heiroglyphs on it. This was a “gift” from Egypt to Napoleon (there are rumors that perhaps Napoleon stole it), and what is funny about it is that the glyphs are actually instructions on how to pack up and transport an obelisk. How convenient!

Our guide also told us the story of my favorite French history figure- Marie Antoinette. She has a bad reputation for being frivolous, extravagant, and not so great at being queen of France. All of these things are more or less true, but when you dig into her story more, it’s hard to dislike her. Marie Antoinette came to France from Austria when she was a child- just 15 years old- as part of an arrangement for her to marry Louis Auguste, dauphin of France and the future king Louis XVI. The whole reason behind this arrangement was to smoothe over bad relations between Austria and France. So, we’ve got this 15 year old kid showing up to France, which at that time does not like Austrians, to marry some guy she’s never met, with the weight of fixing the relationship between two nations weighing on her shoulders. When she arrives, they strip her naked and dress her in French attire, saying she must leave her foreign culture behind. I don’t know about you, but 15 year old Sarah would have been freaking out. Upon her marriage, her quirky husband does not take too much of a sexual interest in her, which aside from being a total bummer sexualy for Marie Antoinette, also puts her in a risky position, as it means she’s not producing an heir to the throne. So now all of the royalty of France are gossiping about how they haven’t consummated their marriage yet and this poor girl is trying to just get by while the weight of two nations are pressuring her to “do it”. To make matters worse, Louis’s father dies early, making her queen of France at 19 years old. Nineteen! As a wealthy, sheltered and restricted woman in the 18th century, she turns to one of the few outlet outlets she was allowed- shopping. When most of the country is starving, this isn’t the most admirable approach for your queen to be taking. She also developed the most charming estate, which you can visit at Versailles. Eventually she and Louis did have children, but by that point the monarchy was doomed anyway and the family was forced to leave Versailles in October 1789 because revolutionaries had arrived and really wanted to kill her. The doom of the monarchy was actually the fault of King Louis XIV building Versailles and sending the country into massive debt. But, because of the state of the economy and her percieved extravagant spending, she was known as queen deficit, and therefore wasn’t very popular with the people. Interestingly, she only had half of the allowance given to other queens before her time due to the state of France’s economy at the time. Either way, the public didn’t know this and perceived her poorly. On top of the spending, she was Austrian, which given the history, people did not trust, thinking she was a spy. Eventually she was beheaded during the revolution at the age of 37. I think all of this is incredibly interesting, and if you do too, I recommend watching the film starring Kirsten Dunst called, simply, Marie Antoinette. I think the film does a nice job of portraying the queen in a fair but sympathetic manner. Tim and I rented this film online a few days later and especially enjoyed being able to watch it after learning so much about her.

That evening the hotel was having a 5th anniversary party, so we attended for the free food and wine, but before that, since it was our anniversary, the reception invited us to write our initials on a lock and lock it into a metal R (for Renaissance) outside the lobby, as the hotel’s own version of that whole bridge lock thing I explained earlier.

The next day we visited Versailles, the famous palace known for its extravagance, luxury and magnificent gardens. In my opinion, Versailles itself is too crowded to be truly enjoyable, but visiting Marie Antoinette’s estate is what makes the trip worth it. Fewer tourists end up there so it has a more peaceful feeling, and my absolute favorite is an area that resembles an old farm. I absolutely understand why someone would want a rustic country escape from the strictness of French etiquette, and why a mock farm would be the perfect getaway to have some peace. The Grand Trianon that made up part of this estate was constructed from 1687 to 1688 as a recreational residence for Louis XIV and his family, and the nearby Petit Trianon is where Marie Antionnette really left her mark. Her husband gave it to her in 1774, and she built her hamlet in 1787. It is exceptionally well-preserved and only recently opened to the public.

One of the particularly interesting parts of her estate is the theater she had had built. Marie Antionette had taken drama courses while still in Austria in order to improve her French, and the hobby stuck with her at Versailles, where she acted in some of the performances held in her theater. Sadly, after her mother died in 1780, she no longer performed.

My advice if you ever go to Versailles- go early to beat the crowd, don’t be disheartened by the misery of rude homo sapiens shuffling through the palace, and spend the majority of your time at the beautiful, peaceful and unique Grand and Petit Trianons.

The next morning we checked out of our luxurious hotel in Paris and headed west to Blois, a small town in the Loire Valley allowing for easy train and bus access to many of the regions chateaux. The Loire Valley is known for being dotted with many chateaux that served as royal estates hundreds of years ago.

We started by visiting a chateau just a 10 minute walk from our hotel in town- aptly called Chateau Blois. Of the three chateaux we visited in the Loire Valley, this was our least favorite (that said, it is still plenty nice to visit). It is notably primarily for its impressive display of four phases of French architecture that coexist within this one structure. The oldest section of the castle is the Gothic section – the medieval fortress from the 13th century contains the Hall of the States-General, which is the largest Gothic hall from this time period in France. A few centuries later, from 1498 to 1501, Louis XII expanded the palace to add another wing, in a distinct Flamboyant style. Fifteen years later, Francois I added a wing in the Renaissance style. Francois I was actually the one to bring this style to France from Italy. The staircase in this wing is one of the notable examples of the French structure taking on a Renaissance style. Lastly, from 1635 to 1638, Gaston d’Orleans (Louis XIII’s brother) had another wing built in the style of French Classicism. Altogether, it is a rather odd hodge podge of styles and as such it is not quite as beautiful as some of the other palaces that are built in a single consistent style, but the display of various architectural styles through history is interesting.

That afternoon we took a bus to Chambord, which was a quite impressive castle, and the largest in the Loire Valley. It has an awkward history, as it was actually built in 1519 for King Francois I (the same king from the castle in Blois) as his hunting lodge. Again, he applied the Renaissance style he had observed during his conquests in Italy. Although Francois I reigned for 32 years, he only spent 72 days at Chambord and died before the project was completed. It was Henry II and Louis XIV who saw the project through to completion. The most interesting feature of this chateau is the double-helix style staircase. It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings influenced this staircase, which features two spirals that wind independently around a column, the result being that when two people take the staircase, one from each side, that can see each other but never actually meet, as it is truly two separate staircases winding around each other.

The next day we took the train to Chenonceau, by far our favorite chateau on our itinerary. This palace is particularly intriguing because it is built on a bridge crossing the Cher River, making it its own island in the river. Additionally, the history of this chateau spans beyond French royalty (although French royalty is how it began). It was initially built in the 16th century by the Marques family who demolished the original chateau on the property, leaving only the tower and a well, which are still standing today. The chateau itself is built on the piers of the old fortified mill. In 1547, King Henri II gave the estate to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who is the one responsible for building the bridge across the Cher that the palace was later expanded upon. Upon the king’s death, his wife Catherine de Medici kicked Diane out and expanded the height of the galleries for hosting social functions. Her son, King Henri III, eventually managed the estate but when he died in 1589, his wife Louise of Lorraine took on a reclusive, mourning lifestyle, keeping to her room on the top floor that was dark and gloomy. Fast forward to WWI- Chenonceau was used as a hospital to treat soldiers, and later in WWII, the chateau sat on the line of demarcation between Nazi-occupied France and non-occupied France. This allowed it to be used by the Resistance to pass large numbers of people across the river into the free zone.

The next day we left the luxuries of chateaux and hotel reward points behind and made our way by train to Rouen, the capital of Normandy in northern France. We were renting a car there for the next few days in order to tour the WWII beaches of Normandy, but we unfortunately arrived at the car rental station during the two hour lunch break. So, we sat there, on the sidewalk, with our bags of canned food and our packs around us, until the place opened back up. It was a rude re-introduction back into our backpacker lifestyle, but it was only the beginning…

That evening, once we’d parked our car in parking spaces you have to pay for every two hours until 7pm (in order to avoid the slightly more expensive option of parking in a ramp for 13 euros for the night), we decided to treat ourselves to a warm meal. I had had the brilliant idea of heating up our canned stew, which we had been habituating ourselves to eating cold, in the water heater in our room intended for making coffee and tea. So there we were, cooking canned stew in a coffee pot, eager for the first warm meal we’d had in a week (and for the record, it’s been another week since this night and we haven’t had a warm meal since). The meal was great, but unfortunately, it left a pesky residue on the bottom of the pot. I decided to soak it in water overnight and deal with it the next day. The next morning, Tim made us each a bowl of cereal. As we had our first bites, we simultaneously made faces of disgust and spit it out upon the realization that our milk had gone sour. Like any sensible person, I dumped mine out in the trash can. Tim, on the other hand, poured his into the toilet, assuming with a few flushes our sour milk experience would be only a memory. Unfortunately, the little balls of honey flavored corn puffs refused to be gotten rid of, and remained bobbing about the toilet bowl until we left later that morning. Meanwhile, I had turned my attention back to the stew-stained coffee pot, and I had had another brilliant idea. I decided to put some hand soap and water in the pot, then turn the pot on to heat the water up and loosen the crud from the pan. My plan worked, but only after first overflowing all over the desk, soaking the telephone and dripping suds onto the floor. It seems I had learned nothing from that time I used liquid hand soap in the dishwasher back in Madison last year… After all of this, I couldn’t help but think- is this what our lives had come to? Desperately heating canned meals in coffee pots and dumping cereal and sour milk into the toilet, only for it to bob about reminding us of our complete and utter backpacker awkwardness?

Rouen wasn’t all awkward, though. We did enjoy an evening of walking around, visiting its famous cathedral and checking out the sites where Joan of Arc was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. Joan of Arc was one of my favorite historical figures as a child, perhaps because she is one of the few children, not to mention a female child, in history whose story gets told hundreds of years later.

Leaving our sour milk behind, we got in our rented Fiat 500 and headed west to visit the Abbaye de Jumieges. Founded by Saint Philibert in 654, the abbey underwent its greatest period of growth during the 11th and 17th centuries. Now only ruins, the abbey is a shadow of its former self, but is a mesmerizing space to explore and walk around. It is also well off the typical tourist track, so it was a peaceful and calming visit where we were able to explore freely and use our imaginations to recreate the greatness of this former monestary (Pillars of the Earth style).

Our destination that afternoon was the town of Bayeux, and after checking in to our hotel, we headed out to the most famous attraction in the town- a big piece of embroidery!? We were initially skeptical of the famous Bayeux tapestry- we’d seen plenty of tapestries hanging on the walls of chateaus and while pretty, we weren’t sure what exactly this one would have to offer us. But, every review we read said it is a must-see and amazing, so off we went to learn about this thousand year old piece of cloth. The museum was surprisngly cool. It starts by viewing the tapestry itself, which is a very long strip of fabric embroidered with the story of how William the Conqueror claimed the English throne. The audio guide makes the story come to life and it is truly impressive to see such an old tapestry still so well-preserved. The rest of the museum goes into what the tapestry tells us about how ships were built, how war was waged, and even how people ate 1000 years ago. Frankly, it is pretty cool stuff.

The next day in Normanday was dedicated to touring the WWII beaches and learning more about this part of history. This part of the trip was particularly meaningful for us, as both of Tim’s grandfathers fought in WWII, and my great uncle Herman fought in the invasion of Normandy, exactly 70 years ago this week. We started at the Memorial Museum for the Battle of Normandy, which was a great introduction to the sequence of events and had a particularly interesting exhibit on healthcare delivery during the war, and specifically its improvements and lessons learned from healthcare in WWI.

Afterwards, we drove to Omaha beach, one of the sites of the Allied invasion on D-Day in 1944. This was a truly remarkable visit- with it being the 70th anniversary this week, many men and women were dressed in military uniforms from the era with authentic WWII equipment (for example, an ammunitions case, and many Jeeps). Additionally, we were lucky enough to see four V-22 Ospreys (I didn’t know the name of this helicopter/plane until a Google search just now) in formation landing on a plot of grass right beside the memorial at Omaha beach. This was absolutely stunning to see and completely unexpected, and while I don’t typically ascribe to the “America, f*** yeah” flavor of patriotism, it was impossible to see this display of the US Marine Corps and not feel both proud to be American and humble in light of the bravery of the soldiers, reporters, and medical staff who lived on the front lines of the war in order to defend, as one quote in the museum put it, “the liberty of the world.” I found this quote particularly powerful, since when we learn about history after the fact, it is easy to take the outcome for granted, but the reality is that when the Allies planned this invasion they were at serious risk of losing the war. Have you ever stopped to think about what our world would be like today had Nazi Germany won the war? It is absolutely terrifying, and it makes me so grateful for people like Tim’s grandfathers and my great uncle that they were brave enough to embark on true battle, losing friends daily and risking their lives in order to stand up against what most of the world acknowledged as pure evil in Nazi Germany.

Watching the aircraft and listening to the thunderous noise of their props breaking through the air, I couldn’t help but imagine how tremendously loud the D-Day invasion must have been. They had hundreds of aircraft, as well as the sound of thousands of guns and men, all the while trying to listen out for instructions from their commanders. In this setting, 70 years later, the noise was deafening to the point of becoming silent. The repetative whip of the propellers was almost meditative. So there we sat, for nearly a half hour, just observing this display of US Marine Corps strength and appreciating our heritage and our history. It was a beautiful and unexpected event in our day.

After watching the air craft take off and depart, we made our way to the American Memorial cemetary, where 9,000 who lost their lives in the battle of Normandy are buried. It was a powerful site to see the sheer size of it, and also humbling to observe workers setting up a red carpet and seating area for what I assume is a ceremony honoring WWII veterans later this week for the 70th anniversary. This led me to realize that this anniversary is likely the last major anniversary that some veterans would be able to attend. Assuming the men were between 16 and 25 on average in 1944, they are nearly 90 and older now, meaning that many of them will pass between now and the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

We also visited Utah beach and stopped by an American camp reenactment, both of which were interesting but neither as powerful as our morning experience, before heading further west yet to Le Mont Saint Michel.

That night we checked into the most adorable B&B called Au Fief des Amis du Mont, run by a very kind woman who had wonderful recommendations about the area. The room was splendid and there was farmland all around, and cows in the front yard. It was absolutely beautiful. She recommended that we visit Le Mont Saint Michel that evening to avoid the crowds and experience a more intriguing ambiance. Le Mont Saint Michel is a fortified town on a rocky island, peaked with a beautiful and famous abbey. Tim and I had a wonderful time walking around and exploring, but the best surprise was watching the tide come in, turning the marshy land around the rock into ocean. Over the course of an hour, we watched the rock go from being located on a wet beach to being a true island with water all around. It was a spectacular evening.

The next day we enjoyed the delicious breakfast, which included organic goat yogurt and honey from the farm next door, and I had a nice conversation with the owner in French. As an aside, one thing being in France has pressed upon me the past few weeks is the desire I have to go back to school to obtain my PhD in Comparative Literature. I have been thinking for several months now about attending grad school to study literature, and this trip to France has really confirmed for me my desire to further my French language and literature studies as well as my literature studies in other languages and in English translations.

We then departed for the train station to head to our next destination- Belgium. Which brings me to where I am now, eating cold canned food and being judged by strangers, but being completely happy with our odd position, on a junction between a true backpacker lifestyle and that of a luxury vacation traveler (thanks to our reward points). What I know for sure is that these past few weeks have not only encouraged my academic goals, but also made me even more appreciative of the sporadic luxuries we get to experience on this trip, as well as appreciative of the awkward, painful and embarrassing debacles that come as a result of truly roughing it on this trip the majority of the time. And with that, I am going to finish this post and my Belgian beer. Goodnight!

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