Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer Travels: Day 3


On our third day in Europe, we spent time exploring Marseille! The city and coast was so beautiful, living there would be a dream.

I will begin by explaining where we stayed. My dad's family had a foreign exchange student live with them for around a year and a half when he was in high school. We are considered his American family, and I call him my uncle, which confuses plenty of people. :) His family has come and visited us, and many of us have gone to visit them. This was my first time, of course. We stayed outside Marseille with his sister, brother-in-law, and 15 year-old niece. Their older daughter was in India during our trip.

We started out in the "Vieux Port", or the Old Port. The harbor was lovely! There were fish markets along the docks from fishermen who had been out that morning.

Then, we took le petit train de Marseille, literally, the small train of Marseille, to Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica. The chapel was originally built in 1214, then a new chapel was constructed in 1477. The current basilica was built in 1853. The views were absolutely magnificent!

Right along the coast, there were a few small islands. The smallest, Chateau d'If, became a state prison in the 1600s. It's now a national monument, but what made me most excited to see this island was the fact that it was the setting for Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.

After taking a ton of pictures, we walked down the hill to find lunch. I couldn't get over all the shutters. We don't use shutters like they do... There are no screens on the windows, and they close the shutters to help keep their homes cool.

We had our first true French restaurant experience for lunch that day, although I think the food was actually Italian. The menu had entrees in French, with English words underneath as translation. I somehow ended up ordering thin slices of raw beef... It actually tasted pretty good, and I ate most of it. I honestly wasn't sure that it was raw until that night when I looked it up.  I had crepes for dessert, and Alain insisted on ordering the cafe gourmet for Nick. He didn't want it, but he did eat it!

After lunch, we continued to explore Marseille. We walked around the new museum, and took plenty of pictures. We saw The Major Cathedral from afar, and went inside Saint Victor Abbey, built in the 6th century. Christine and Alain were actually married there! It looks like a medieval castle!

 Old Port and Notre Dame de la Garde
The Major Cathedral behind us

Views of the museum and The Major Cathedral

Saint Victor Abbey

We also visited Four des Navettes, the oldest bakery in Marseille, opened in 1781. They sell this special bread/cookie/cake type treat. I honestly don't have an English interpretation for it... but they use orange blossoms in them, and they have such a strong, unique taste, I've never tasted anything like it. You can see pictures on their website.

Then, we drove back to le maison and had dinner. It was our first time eating ratatouille, and wow, was it good! It was also our first experience with le fromage, or cheese, course, which quickly became Nick's favorite. One thing we noticed was that they eat dinner after 9 there! We ate on their back porch every night with views of the sunset over the mountains. It was so lovely! Then we slept really really well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Summer Travels: Day 2

So, we decided to take a bus instead of the train from London to Paris. The bummer about this was that the bus took 8 hours, while the train takes 3. However, there were a few reasons why we did this:
1. It was astronomically cheaper to take the bus.
2. The times that we could afford to take the train would have had us missing a good chunk of time in Paris.
3. We would have had to pay for a place to stay overnight in London.

So, we departed from London Victoria Coach Station around 10:30pm. If you ever want to do this, I definitely recommend IDBus. It was clean and cheap. We had wifi the whole time, which meant we could use our phones, and it had outlets so we could keep our phones charged! Nick slept most of the time. I've learned he's pretty good at sleeping in weird places. I did not sleep as well. Driving through London in the middle of the night was pretty cool. So strange being on the left side of the street, huh?

Our bus driver was very kind but did not speak English... Which I feel could have been helpful considering he was driving from London... He would say things in the monitor and we would sit there and wait to see what the other people on the bus would do.

I did hear the word "ferry" when he was on the phone, and realized that instead of taking the Chunnel, like I had hoped, we were actually going to be on top of the English Channel on a ferry. Now, again, public modes of transportation, including ferries, make me think I'm going to die. It's not like a panic, just a casual, "Welp, this is it!" kind of feeling. We got to the ferry boarding gate around midnight or so, and the woman there did not speak French, and our driver did not speak English. Apparently he normally just hands her a paper with the passenger list, but this woman wanted "the number of adults and the number of children." I am pretty sure the driver understood what she was asking, because I heard him talking to someone on the phone in French, repeating the phrase in French, but wasn't sure how to give her what she wanted. I'm not sure how it got resolved, but finally, we were allowed past. But then we had to wait THREE hours just to get on the ferry. Who planned this!? At this point, I actually did end up falling asleep for a while. Then, at 3am, we drove onto the most gigantic ferry I have ever seen. I was hoping they would allow us off the bus, I would have probably had a legitimate panic attack if they hadn't. Fortunately, after watching the other passengers who knew what the driver was saying, we realized that we HAD to get off the bus. We made our way up a few levels to the cafe and sat down at a table. Nick slept. I read. There was no way I was falling asleep on a gigantic ferry that was crossing the English Channel for THREE hours in the middle of the pitch black night.

But we made it.

We got back on our bus as the sun was coming up and slept the rest of the way to Paris.

I could not believe we were in Paris. Our first plan of action was to walk to the train station we were leaving from that evening to store our bags. After asking an information booth for a map, we made our way to Gare de Lyon. Train stations are so huge in Europe. I feel like since we don't use them as often in the US, they are not as big. But Gare de Lyon was massive. Three floors. Restaurants and stores. There was the metro station as well as the commuter rail station. We finally found the left baggage area, but could not figure out what we were supposed to do. There were not any helpful signs, so we had to ask the people at the desk if they spoke English (in French). The woman looked as if I had insulted her, but the man was helpful enough. We needed to find an ATM to withdraw some cash before we left our bags. I had looked up BoA's sister banks in both London and Paris, and since they were everywhere, I hadn't written a specific location down. There was a slight feeling of panic when we realized we didn't know where to go, but there happened to be one right across the street from the station. We got our cash, stored our bags, and were free to explore the City of Lights!

But first, a map. The map we were given before was a map of the public transportation, which, although not helpful at the time, ended up being a life saver later in the week. Nick used his limited French to ask for a map... "Bonjour, do you have 'le carte?'" The woman replied with, "A map?" Haha. I think she was amused with his effort.

We walked to Notre Dame first. It was packed. We were approached by a young scammer wanting us to sign her petition for the deaf children of Paris, but she left us alone when we said no.  We took some pictures and then walked through the Louvre. Again, packed, and again, more scammers. We ended up taking naps in the gardens outside the museum. We were both so tired, we slept on and off for an hour and a half.

After napping, we made our way toward the Tour route to find a place to watch. We were a little confused because there were already people everywhere and the street was blocked off. There was an announcer yelling over speakers, in French, and as soon as we got near the street, cyclists zoomed by and the crowd screamed. But they weren't supposed to get into the city for four more hours! 

We watched them come by another time, and then the crowds started to disperse. Police were yelling orders in French, it was a little overwhelming not knowing what was going on. After looking at some pictures we got, we realized that we had actually just seen the women's race. Later, we found out that we had seen La Course, the first women's race in the Tour since the 1980s! 

We found a clear spot along the barriers on Rue Rivoli to wait for the men. We still had 3 or so hours, and it was hot in the sun! I was actually on an antibiotic that had made my skin photosensitive, and the sun was absolutely excruciating, so I found a spot against a building in the shad and read on my kindle while Nick held his spot along the street. Meanwhile, huge trucks and vans pulled up on the race route and companies started handing out free gear like tshirts and hats... The silliest hats I have ever seen, by the way.

After a couple of hours, the trucks moved on, honking their horns to the screaming crowds. Then, like a parade, cars, bikes, and floats came through, all making tons of noise, pumping up the crowd. At this point, it was very crowded. The anticipation was crazy. The announcers may have been saying how close they were, but since we couldn't understand them, we had no idea. Finally, police on motorcycles came by, and then cars with bikes on top, and then finally, the cyclists! The crowd was screaming and pushing in, and they went by so fast. It really was pretty amazing to experience. We were in an area where they go around multiple times, so we waited for them to come by once more, then made our way to the metro.

On the way to the metro, Nick talked a man into selling him an "official" Tour mug for 5 euro less than marked. He was pleased. 

We caught the metro and took it to Gare de Lyon, picked up our bags from the lockers, and ate croissants while we waited for our train. We also paid 60 cents each to use the bathroom. 

Our train to Marseille was really nice. We slept and read off and on for the three hour ride. We had taken the blankets that were in our plane seats with us... I'm not really sure if that was allowed or not, no one told us otherwise... but it was probably one of the best decisions we made all trip. Those blankets kept us warm on one bus, 2 trains, and 2 planes for the rest of the week! There was a little boy around 3 in front of us, and we played peekaboo for a half of an hour or so. I love that even though we didn't speak the same language, we were able to make each other laugh.

The announcer only spoke in French, and we were so afraid we were going to get off in the wrong city. It ended up being the last stop. 

I was also nervous about finding Christine and Alain, our hosts, at the station in Marseille, since I hadn't seen them since I was around 10. I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have been able to pick them out of a crowd. And there was definitely a crowd. Fortunately, they brought their youngest daughter with them. I had never actually met her, but we are friends on Facebook, so I knew what she looked like! 

We greeted each other and they taught us how to do the 2 kiss greeting, which we were both pretty awkward at, let's be honest. They drove us around Marseille to see the city at night, and then to their home outside the city. They do not speak much English, and we spoke very little French, so conversations were short.  They fed us this delicious sweet bread with "coca" back at their house, even though it was midnight and we were barely awake. Celine, their older daughter, who had spent time in Texas with my family, came home and asked us some questions about how we wanted to spend the next few days. We didn't care, just wanted to see and do anything they thought was worth seeing and doing! 

Then, we went to bed, and slept so so so wonderfully. 

I must admit, my first impression of Paris was not a good one. It was hot, I was exhausted to the point of tears, and it really didn't smell that great. Cat pee. Or something.  Luckily, we returned after 5 days of sleeping on real beds, and my opinion improved. But more on that later. 

Next up, exploring Marseille! 

Friday, August 8, 2014

summer travels: day one

We left the States on Friday, July 25. We were planning on heading to the train station right after work, so everything needed to be packed the night before. I ended up getting out of work early, which meant I had a few hours to sit around and wait for it to be time for us to leave. No worries, I sorted baby clothes and found this weird show on hulu based in Sweden with Amy Poehler and her brother.

Finally, it was time to leave! Our dear friend Chrissa picked us up and took us to the South Attleboro train station, so we could take the train to the airport in Boston.

Once at the airport, we did some waiting. If you know me at all, you are probably aware that I struggle a lot with anxiety, especially involving public modes of transportation. I was afraid they wouldn't let me on the plane because, even though my passport matched my tickets, it was still in my maiden name. I was afraid they were going to make Nick check his backpack because it was technically 3 inches too long to carry on. I was afraid the plane was going to crash in the Atlantic Ocean. You know, small things. I actually went to find some dinner in the food court, and while I was in line, the fire alarms started going off. I tried to stand my ground and wait for my sandwich, but I am a rule follower. I couldn't just stand there, but at the same time no one was leaving! I abandoned my sandwich and walked back to Nick and our bags, basically in tears. He laughed at me and went back for my sandwich. After a while, the alarms stopped. Not sure what happened, but security people were walking around looking(?) for someone?

Finally, at 9:00pm, I boarded the biggest plane I had ever been on. The ride actually went very smooth. I watched some movies, played some games, watched some tv, ate some food... slept MAYBE two hours. We watched the sun come up over Ireland, and landed in Dublin right in time for breakfast. Then, we got off the plane and learned that our flight to London had been canceled. Cool. After waiting in a line with grouchy New Englanders wanting to start their vacations, we got a new flight and had a couple of hours to kill. The Dublin airport is incredible, just so you know. There is a Victoria's Secret in Terminal 2. Why? I don't really know. This one lady gave us whiskey samples... It was 8am. She said, "Hey, it's Dublin!"

Our flight to London Heathrow was pretty short. We took the tube to Victoria Station and stored our bags there, then set out to explore London!

Our first stop was Buckingham Palace. It was so big! And so crowded. I couldn't believe how clean London was, though. There were so many people everywhere, but the streets were spotless.

Next, we walked to Big Ben and Westminister Abby. Unfortunately, there was a huge protest going on around this area, so we couldn't get very close. This actually caused me quite a bit of anxiety, but everything was fine. Then, we walked around the river and saw the London Eye. We had "lunch" at Giraffe along the river. There was actually a huge Festival of Love going on, which was kind of fun.

Then, we made our way to King's Cross Station, for Harry's sake. We walked through the West End on the way.

We walked through Hyde Park to see the Peter Pan statue. If you didn't know, Peter Pan is my favorite story. I love that JM Barrie actually gave this statue to the park.

We saw a glimpse of Kensington Palace, and walked by St. Albert's memorial. We also accidentally joined a "Walk for Syria" with hundreds of Muslims.

As it was getting dark, we made our way back to Victoria Station, got our bags, and got on a bus to Paris. Our bus driver did not speak English, but we made it ok. I will tell the story of the bus on the next post. It's a good one. :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

2014 Summer Travels- Intro

As you probably know, Nick and I were able to travel across the Atlantic and spend a week or so in Europe. We took a gazillion pictures, with our phones and our camera, and I'm excited to share the details of our trip with you, here! It was seriously a blur! I hope that writing everything out will help me process and digest the trip, and remember the tiny details that made it so magical.

Here is a little outline:
Day 1: Fly overnight to Dublin, then to London Heathrow. Spend the day in London, then take a bus overnight to Paris.
Day 2: Paris and the Tour de France. Then a late train to Marseille.
Day 3: Marseille
Day 4: Cassis and an epic French dinner party
Day 5: Avignon and Chateau de Baux 
Day 6: Monaco, Nice, and St. Tropez
Day 7: Early train to Paris: The Louvre and The Arc de Triomph
Day 8: Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and a late flight to Dublin
Day 9: Overnight stay in the Dublin airport, flight to Boston, try really hard to stay up till 8:30pm.

For the bolded part of the trip, we stayed with my French family at their home outside Marseille. They had mountain views and grapevines and and an outdoor eating area. It was so lovely.

Our hosts were so generous with their time and resources. They took us to so many amazing places and made sure we saw the best of southern France. Staying with them was such an incredible opportunity because it helped us feel like locals, not really tourists. We got to see how they live every day.


More later!