Monday, April 27, 2015

South of France, whooot whooot!

I've made it to the Mediterranean! For all of my excitement abut reaching the southern coastal parts of France it apparently isn't so happy to have me. Or at least the weather isn't for the moment. But things are going to turn back around and it will all be good.

I've done a bit of a quick blow by of a few spots here just hitting them up for a night and seeing a few things around. Like everywhere I'm sure I could spend multiple days in each but that's not going to fit into the agenda. I've stopped counting how much I've been paying in tolls but good lordy it's a lot. I think yesterday alone it was over EUR20 and today there was just one but it was EUR14.20. If I had an actual real planned budget this would have been a missing item. Oops. 

Photos from this leg of the trip are here

First was Montpellier. This is a big university town and you can tell it's got quite a bit of life and variety of cultures as soon as you arrive. Of the few pictures that I did take here I found the street art most interesting. When there's not major stuff to see in a city that's what I'm drawn to. That tells the life of the city more than anything. 

I spent the afternoon I arrived wandering around and getting lost and all sorts of turned around in the small streets and alleyways of the old district. The one location that I was attempting to get to (the biggest tourist area none the less) took me multiple attempts of the map before I finally figured it out. But this old part of the city is filled with shops, cafes, plazas, and good people watching. I picked a spot and had some wine (ok 2 glasses and that about put me over the edge) and just watched the world go by while listening to some bluegrass tunes being played by street performers. 
That's painted on the sides of buildings, not the actual look of the buildings themselves!

From Montpellier I went south east towards Spain. As I was driving I was seeing signs for Barcelona and the Spanish border, I just kept thinking, ohh language I understand! I hadn't realized that I was only like 200+ km from Barcelona at one point until I saw the signs. 

The goal was to get to the small coastal town of Collioure and on the way stop at a medieval fortress Carcassonne. Collioure was to be the first stop of a true coastal town, yaay.  

Carcassonne was very cool. There's both a town (apparently nothing worth visiting) and then the old Cite. The cite was originally built by the Romans and then over the centuries it had many other occupants each who made various additions. Until the 17th century it was at the border of essentially Spain and France and was a daunting fortress to attack. There are two walls protecting the central buildings and loads of towers with witch hat like tops. The walls have openings of various sizes for arrows, cannons, etc to be fired. Then the land south and east was decided to be Frances it feel into disrepair and was no longer needed. Historians over the years have researched and help restore the structures to what's there today. You can walk into the walled area and see the touristy shops and restaurants and then you have to pay to see the Chateau and walk a section of the ramparts.
From fortress I headed to the sea. Collioure is one of a few small coastal towns as you get close to the Spanish border. It was inspiration to 20 or so paintings by Matisse and his colleague Derain. The town has replicas of the paintings posted throughout in the spots where they were painted. While things have probably changed a bit since they were painted you can still clearly see what the artists were seeing and inspired by. The town is now filled with small artist shops and apparently in the summer is immensely crowded. 

The weather wasn't great when I arrived, but no rain initially so it was good enough to walk around and checkout the town. I strolled along the port and checked out the painting locations and the sea views. I can definitely see how this would be a hot spot to be in the summer. But then again, I can see that for pretty much every coastal town here!

After a morning run and wander through the town and it's beautifully delicious Sunday market (see further below) I hopped back in the car and headed back past Monpellier towards the port city of Marseille. On the way I took a detour to check out the amazingness of the ancient Roman three tired bridge and aqueduct Pont Du Gard. I'd read about this in the travel book, seen a few pictures, and it totally lived up to my expectations. The only concession was that it was EUR18 to park my dang car. If you have multiple people that's a deal but for me that was a bit of a ripoff. Had the weather been nicer and I'd planned ahead I guess I could have taken advantage of the hiking trails around but I didn't so I watched the 15 minute video and wandered around the bridge trying to make the most of my EUR18. I also thought that I lost my ticket as I was heading out of the parking lot which was a few moments of freakout, stopping the car, searching for the ticket, walking back to my parking spot thinking perhaps it was dropped as I got out of the car to get cash for tolls out of the trunk, to of course find that it had slipped between the seats. 

This is a place my father would have loved. It's right up his alley. The historic and architectural detail of it is totally amazing. Built in the first century as part of a 50km aqueduct created by the Romans and then used for various purposes over the years it's just amazing that it's still standing at 50m high and 275m across. Of course I took loads of pictures from all different directions and just hope that my dad was there in spirit watching. He had to have been there somewhat because just as I was wrapping up it started to rain so I was glad to be getting the heck out of there. 

As for Marseille. Well, let's just say Marseille and I didn't get off to a very good start. The first issue was my arrival and attempt to drive to the hotel which is right in the core of the city. My friend Donna and Google Maps had me so confused and I ended up being that tourist driving down what were on a map a street but in reality a street market with people and goods/food everywhere. HORRIFYING! I had to have the side mirrors flipped in and I got more than a few crazy looks. It was obvious I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going so a few people were quite nice to attempt to point me in the right direction. As it turned out the hotel is on a street that the tram line goes down so you can't really drive on it. At numerous points in my half hour of driving around I almost just picked a random parking lot and pulled in. I eventually made it and found a parking lot just across the way. 

I had a relatively nice evening stroll along the old docks area of the city and things started to look up a bit. It's true what they say about Marseille, it's definitely a dirty port city, but you can see that they've been throwing money at it and there are areas and sights to see. Have I been won over by it, not so sure, but I can see how if the weather was nice I could have had a lovely stroll today through some of the neighborhoods and even out to the beaches. But that was not to be. 

I woke up to pouring rain and it was fairly steady all day with moments of downpour, this was my second issue. I figured I couldn't just up and leave without giving something a chance so I checked out the fancy new Mucem today which is down at the end of the old port and is a museum dedicated to the Mediterranean civilizations. I figured it would be interesting enough for an hour or so. It's a modern building straddling old fort buildings and between the old and new ports of the city. I probably should have sprung for the extra EUR2 to get the audio tour but I figured I'd go without and make my way through the exhibits. Probably a mistake since very little of the signage was actually in English. Oh well. I read what I could and got my EUR5 out of it - mostly because it was pouring rain and I was inside so I felt like I accomplished something for the day. I thought about sitting and just having a leisurely breakfast and coffee to pass the time so at least I saw something!

So many boats you can barely make out the buildings

On a random final tangent of food, do not go to a French market while hungry! Worse yet, don't go first thing in the morning after you've been for a run and then are planning to get into the car. I made this mistake on Sunday morning and almost found myself with a roast chicken, sausages, massive loaves of bread, and goat's cheese to feed a family. All looked so delicious and amazing but I held off! My regular pain aux raisin was calling me. Seriously I don't know what I'll do come next week when don't have those! I'm sure I'll find something to take its place. But sadness! 

I have had some pretty yummy food over the last few days. That has been a strong suit as I try and eat one legit meal a day with baguettes, cheese, crackers, and other nibbles filling in the gaps. A struggle some times just out of sheer laziness and a late afternoon drink or two can lead to just falling asleep :) 

Back in Tours I had a fricken amazing duck with duck foie gras sauce sandwich. OMG heaven. Seriously! The wine that I got with it was pretty damn good too. 

In Coullioure I had delicious three course meal with a few glasses of wine at a cute little place that I found from TripAdvisor. I knew I was close to spain when the starter was deliciousness of thinly sliced jamon taking up a majority of the plate with a little bread :) Then the fish was delish too. I figured seafood was in order when I'm sitting steps from the water. 

I'm now making my way along the coast between Cannes and Nice. Once night in Cannes to scope the scene and then two nights in Nice to round out France. It's bittersweet but I'm also excited to move on. I will say thought the last two days have gotten me quite ready to ditch the car! 

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