Out and About in France: The Southwest

7 Apr

I’m behind with my blogging with usual, but I need to scribble out a couple updates before vacation.

A couple weekends ago, Madeline and I took an overnight train to Carcassonne to kick off our exploration of southwestern France. We were in a compartment with 6 couchettes on the train; fortunately, we had the top couchettes so we could store our stuff easily and have a bit more privacy. Unfortunately, I barely slept a wink on the voyage. It simply wasn’t comfortable, and I had actually slept a full 8 hours the night before, so I wasn’t tired enough to fall asleep easily.

We got up around 5:30am and, after collecting our things, tried to open the door of the sleeping compartment so we could get off the train. For some reason, however, we could not open the door. We tried pushing and pulling the handle, pressing every doohickey we saw, but it wouldn’t budge. We spent a good 5 minutes trying to open it, even knocking with the hopes that someone in the corridor would hear us, but in vain. We started to panic a little. Only after all this did we actually try sliding the door open. We spent the next few minutes laughing at our own stupidity. But hey, we were tired!

At any rate, we quickly headed from the train station in Carcassonne across the dark, empty streets of the modern city towards the Medieval Cité. We found a riverside park that offered a view of the castle and ramparts and watched the sunrise whilst eating breakfast. Our breakfast consisted of “Hit Minis” (Choco Flavor), a jam-packed package of cookies sold in SNCF vending machines. It’s a great value and one of our primary sources of sustenance while traveling.

Anyway, the sunrise:

The streets of the Cité were practically empty in the early morning. We got to explore the city and ramparts without the hordes of tourists that must come there in the warmer months. We killed a couple hours just walking around before the castle itself opened. I was particularly enthralled by the orange- and blue-grey-capped Medieval towers, as well as the view of the distant Pyrenees.

From Carcassonne, we headed to the Mediterranean. The train ride was wonderfully scenic — for one portion, the train was on a strip of land surrounded on both sides by water. Even more impressive was the view of the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance, juxtaposed against the warm, sunny Mediterranean landscape.

Our destination was Collioure, a small seaside town near the Spanish border whose colorful architecture apparently inspired Picasso and other painters. Despite large groups of Spanish high school students on field trips, the town had a fairly sleepy, relaxed feel to it. The bright blue Mediterranean water, vibrantly colored houses, warm Mediterranean sunshine, and a respite on a sandy beach all combined to make the afternoon extremely enjoyable. Our hotel room even had a balcony overlooking the harbor.

Oddly enough, at dinnertime, the town seemed to shut down almost completely. We couldn’t find a single restaurant that was open, aside from a take-out pizza place. It turned out to be a good thing, because the pizza was delicious.

We had to get up early the next morning to catch our train into the Pyrenees. I snapped this shot of the harbor from our hotel room before we headed out. We got to see our second sunrise of the weekend as the sun came up over the sea and brought even more color to Collioure.

We headed to Perpignan to catch a connecting train — which, unfortunately, was delayed due to a mechanical problem. This was an issue, because we had another connection to make — the “Petit Train Jaune,” a scenic train that runs through the Eastern Pyrenees. Despite my worrying, it turned out that the Petit Train Jaune waited for all the passengers from Perpignan arrived before departing.

Our initial train was replaced by a bus service, on which we were accompanied by a class of ~3rd graders. The French kids made for an amusing ride, with their little games and so forth. One of them was distraught about the delay and started crying because he wanted to see the bridges and tunnels of the Petit Train Jaune. They were going for a picnic in the mountains.

Once on the little yellow train, the views were fantastic. We were in a car with an old German couple. We opened all the windows to let in the air and kept moving from side to side to take pictures. We started in a deep valley/gorge, cut out by the River Tet and dotted with hillside villages and Medieval ruins. We gradually ascended through pine forests and onto a high plateau with vast fields and uncanny views of the snowy Pyrenees.

We definitely weren’t in Paris anymore. Several of the train stations along our route were covered with Catalan graffiti, insisting that the region belonged to Catalunya and not France. That said, I think I only heard Catalan spoken once during our trip. More obvious were the delightful southern French accents.

After our scenic train journey, we headed towards Toulouse. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to explore the city, but I was left with a very good impression. Warm, full of life and activity. Neat, pinkish and orangey architecture. Seems like it would be a nice place to live. I’d like to go back someday.

From Toulouse, we continued on to Tarbes, the location of our couchsurfing host. Our host, Franck, was a very nice guy. He even made us dinner – lentil soup with fish and orange slices. Pretty good, and filling! He told us more about the Pyrenees than I could possibly recount here. He even showed me one of his Occitan textbooks. I wish I had the time to learn it (side note — many of the street signs in Toulouse were in Occitan as well).

The next morning, our luck with great weather ran out. Tarbes was drizzly and overcast. Still, we decided to continue to our destination of La Mongie, a ski resort town in the high Pyrenees where we could take a lift to the Pic du Midi, which offers an amazing panoramic view of the area. We were hoping it would be above the clouds.

No such luck. As our bus ascended the mountain valley, the rain turned to snow — a lot of it.

The road was virtually blocked by cars that were stuck in the snow. People were pushing their cars out of the trouble spots and putting on snow chains. Our bus driver did the same, then somehow managed to plow past all the stuck cars and make it to La Mongie on time — I guess the timetables account for mountain blizzards.

We soon realized that the the Pic du Midi was completely obscured in the clouds and there was no point in paying the money to make the ascent. Instead, we opted to have a relaxed lunch in a café in the ski resort village while the snow fell outside. I had a great sandwich (with huge chunks of cheese) and a blueberry / chantilly waffle. Mmmm.

We returned down the valley (the road had been plowed) and made our way to Lourdes. This part of the Pyrenees was quite distinct from the areas we had seen the day before — much greener, wetter, lots of stone buildings rather than the Mediterranean stucco. But Lourdes was a separate animal altogether, with its plethora of sanctuaries and unfortunate kitschy tourist shops selling Christian paraphernalia.

Our real interest in the area was the Grottos of Betharram — we had to take a taxi to get there, but our driver was extremely friendly and even offered to show us a sanctuary (free-of-charge) in the area after our visit to the grottos.

The caves were just awesome. Lots of cool lighting effects, a little boat ride over a lake in the cave, followed by an awesome train ride that took us out of the grottos. The train ride was almost roller coaster-esque, reminding me a lot of Big Thunder Mountain.

That night, we arrived in Bayonne — in Basque Country. Although we had booked a dirt-cheap hotel in the city, when we got there (around 8pm) we found that the hotel was locked and the reception wasn’t answering the phone. Such is the case with many hotels in province, apparently. We had to scramble to find an open hotel in the city, and stumbled upon a Best Western. Although much more expensive than the other hotel, it was a place to sleep, at least.

Our second problem was finding a place to eat. The city was pretty dead, aside from a handful of bars and fancy restaurants beyond our budget. We were suddenly desperate for fast food, and after Madeline consulted Google on her laptop, we discovered that there was a “Quick” on the outskirts of the city. After the stressful evening, I consumed many a calorie.

Despite losing an hour due to the time change, I got up early the next morning to take a few photos of Bayonne. I was really attracted to the traditional Basque half-timbered architecture, with its emphasis on red, white, blue, and green. The city looked particularly nice with the morning mist over the river that runs through it.

We had to hurry to the train station to catch a train to Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic coast, but our haste paid off. We stopped at a boulangerie in Saint-Jean to get breakfast, which we proceded to eat on the beach. It was strange being on the opposite side of the Atlantic, but there was something oddly familiar about it. The smell, the air… something just reminded us of home.

The weather was beautiful and we walked along the coast for a while, getting a great view of the city with the Pyrenees in the distance:

In town, we stopped at the Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the location of Louis XIV’s marriage. Very cool interior with dark wood balconies on the sides of the church.

The streets, lined with traditional Basque architecture, were very charming. I think I only heard the language spoken once or so, but it was just cool to have traveled through so many linguistic and cultural regions in a matter of days. Not to mention climate zones. Going from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in 2 days was amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed the Southwest of France, and it has moved to the top of my list for potential places to settle in for my teaching assistantship in 2010-2011.

Finally, les photos:

Carcassonne

Collioure

Pyrenees – Part I

Pyrenees – Part II

Basque Country

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