Music for your reading enjoyment: La vie en Rose
There are endless stereotypes about the French. They are sometimes righteously said, but just as often not. La clé, the key, is to go with the honest intent of making up your own mind based upon your own experiences. I try to do this in any country, because, after all, the memory you take away from a country and a trip isn’t what other people told you beforehand, but rather what you experienced yourself, digested in your belly and packed up in your suitcase for the flight back home.
Bon voyage! My friend and I flew out of Madrid on the day of a general strike in Spain. Numerous flights were canceled and chaos swept over the capital. We were fortunate enough to escape sans strike problems and even flying with Ryanair, our flight took off on time. The flight gods were merciful! We landed in the small airport in Marseille, France safe and sound.
Marseille: Marseille is an example of the rumors previously told to us being quite true. Both good and bad. We spent close to an hour trying to find parking in the dirty, congested city and then walked almost a mile to our hotel, which although conveniently located, was not in the safest neighborhood. We dropped off our bags and went in search of the restaurant the front desk employee suggested. We finally found it, after a bit of wandering through what felt like mini-Morocco, and were seated by a happy smiling man who spoke no English. We ordered recognizable food on the menu, couscous poulet, and were pleasantly surprised by the service as much as by the food. Stereotype come true: the French are quite friendly in the south. It is quite a torn feeling actually, because once you start talking to someone who is selflessly smiling at you and helping you with directions, the dislike you feel towards the shady, dangerous city melts away a little. After dinner we headed to the port just in time for the sunset.
Arles: A cute little village that we stopped in on our way to Montpellier. There were Roman looking ruins and even a collesium. We discovered that bull-fighting is quite popular in France. We sat in a sunny plaza and had a café au lait. (pronounced cafe ole) We sat down for lunch in an adorable garden and ate THIS:
Montpellier: Arrived to our main destination on time, even after parking our little smart car, grabbing a map from the tourists office and self-gps-ing our way to the apartment we rented in the center. We hiked 5 flights up a windy staircase and opened the door to our lovely little vacation nest that was to be our home for the next 4 nights. Montpellier is a lovely city, not too big and not too small. It’s full of restaurants, cafes, bars, sunny plazas and tiled streets.
It’s about 10km from the coast, with several nice beaches nearby. Saturday a friend of Jessica’s came down from Toulouse for a visit. We went sight-seeing in the city, seeing the palace, the cathedral, and other popular places until we exhausted ourselves enough to sit down for slushies (which are quite popular there). In the afternoon, we drove to Las Palavas les flots, a small beach town. We were plopped on the sand for a good hour or so until the cold later afternoon beach winds convinced us to leave. Later in the evening, our search for good night-life, post an Irish pub stop, led us to a French birthday invitation of a girl named Charlotte. We met them on the sidewalk, after I asked if one of them spoke English, which led me to meeting a guy named Henry, who had just spent a year in Australia. He put a glow bracelet on my wrist and charmingly convinced us to join the fiesta. We followed suit. The girl’s apartment was big and beautiful with a long terrace. We were handed mini-Heineken’s and made small talk. They all introduced themselves in English and later we danced to French music in the living room until the time and our tired eyes convinced us to head home. We headed to another beach on Sunday called La Grande-Notte, which was my favorite.
Monday we went to the last beach on our list, Carnon, after lunching on duck at Les 3 brassuers. We packed our bags into the smart car and departed the next morning.
Nîmes: A city half-way between Marseille and Montpellier. Nîmes is a charming gem, boasting a cathedral, collesium, and tons of pedestrian friendly streets. We ate lunch at a restaurant in a plaza and feasted on ratatouille and delicious kangaroo. (yes, kangaroo meat) This was another city that felt like it had previously been ruled by Italy. I could swear that I sometimes forgot I was in France while I was here.
Le cauchemar (the nightmare!) Not unlike the day we flew out on a general strike day in Spain, the day we flew out was an air-controller strike day in France. quelle chance! What luck! Our flight was canceled and we were told there were zero flights to Spain until Thursday and that was just to Valencia. We panicked, tried to see if we could rent a car to drive to Madrid (fail) or catch a train home (too expensive). We met two other guys from Madrid and tried to solve the problem together. Jessica and I headed back to the hotel we stayed at our first night and slept 3 hours till heading back to the bus/train station at 530am. We were hoping to buy tickets for the 6:30am bus to Barcelona but the office didn’t open until 8am… We sat there for 3 and a half hours until we could catch the 9am bus. Thus began the first half of the journey. After an 8.5 hr bus ride, we made it to Barcelona. The next challenge was getting back to Madrid. Lucky for us, one of Jessica’s roommates works for an airline and was able to get us free tickets to Madrid. We headed to the Barcelona airport and babbled on about our luck. But the adventure wasn’t over. Our 8:45pm flight was delayed 4 different times…until 1am. All i could do was laugh. We were in a desperate need of showers. I was repeating an outfit, we resigned to wearing colored socks with flats, and we had some serious travel-hair going on. We were a sight to see. I couldn’t handle the stress anymore and so we plopped down at a bar and ordered 3 beers each…then later a bottle of red wine (Sangre de toro!-Bull’s blood). We finally boarded the plane, only to regret the red wine later after waking upon landing. Two more bus rides into the center, and I finally arrived at 4am.
Despite the last leg of the trip, I had a great time. It was lovely to be out of Spain, eating great food in great company, and relaxing in the sunshine. Southern France, in my experience, felt like a more developed, sophisticated combination of Spain and Italy put together. In a way, I didn’t feel very far from home at all. The constant reminders though were the amazing food, French language and a different charm breezing through the tiled streets. The pastries looked at you with love in the window shops, begging you to let them love you, with quite an irresistible look. To me, Southern France is sunshine and tranquility. It’s sophistication without the snobbery. It’s friendly, inexpensive, and laid-back enough to let you spill the crumbs of your chocolatin and crêpes all over your shirt.
Au revoir France!