A la française!
I learnt French (and continue to do so-it’s a process!) in my second semester in law school, and somewhere along the way till my trip to France last month, I just really fell in love. In love with not only with the country, the cities (je t’aime Paris and all that), the charming towns but also with the food (j’aime la crêpe!) and most with the language. Language, I strongly believe, is the single most revelling factor in getting to know a culture. I struggled to form complete sentences, often taking my time to recall words that I learnt during class or duolingo. But the most amazing memories of the trip were just how warm people were just because you spoke to them in the most broken French and not in English. There is some thin silver thread, almost invisible, that just forms, because of a recognition of something that is theirs, and your attempt is rewarded by them welcoming you into their (French) world.
Over the course of 12 days, I visited Paris (because as Audrey Hepburn says, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’), Blois-Chambord and Amboise (in the Loire Valley), Lyon, Côte d’Azur villages and Nice. I had initially planned Rouen (in Northern France), but fell sick so stayed back in Paris for a day.
12 days seems like a whole lot, but honestly? It just isn’t enough to really travel through France. I figured this mid-trip, and it’s safe to assume that I will be making atleast another trip to France.
Day 1 (Paris)
We took the train from Geneva to Paris, covering a bit of scenery from both countries. In many ways, Paris has some of the ways of Calcutta-an unsolicited pride for the language, an absolute belief that French is most superior language on the planet, rich and with culture and streets brimming with dirt. Since my hotel was at Porte de Montmartre, I decided to explore the area, that was founded out of abandoned mills and become attractive to struggling artists and immigrants, only to give birth to the art hub of the city. A climb (or ride) up the Montmarte hill to see the Cathedral de Sacré Cœur and get an excellent view of the city. Montmarte makes for a beautiful stroll as well-along the narrow cobbled streets-the Place du Tertre is worth mulling over. My last stop was the famed cabaret dancing club-Moulin Rouge.
Day 2 (Paris)
I explored the Île de la Cité for the whole of day 2 in the city of lights. My first stop was the Cathedral de Notre Dame, an impressive overwhelming structure that is sure to leave you wondering how such intricate architecture is built. The church is also home to the Krypt of the Île de la Cité, and gives a great insight into the history of the Île de la Cité and traces its evolution from the medieval ages. I continued my history lesson on the medieval ages by walking into the Latin Quarter’s Museé du Moyen Age (or the Museum of the Middle Ages). The tapestries at the museum are a must see! My last stop for the day was the Panthéon, a building symbolic of the ever-lasting conflict between the church and the state. The crypt of the Panthéon also serves as the resting place for famous scientists of the Renaissance and the 20th century and include Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Pière and Marie Curie. Another interesting thing in the Panthéon is the 29 kilogram pendulum that swings in the middle of the main hall-it’s amazing to watch!
Day 3 (Paris)
My third day in Paris is when I did all the clichéd touristy stuff. It started off with a visit to the Arc de Triomphe, which also gives you a great view of the city and the famed Champs Élysees. The arch is a symbol of victory, but recognises the hurt and pain that is often subdued in the aftermath of war. Braving my growing cold, I walked by Champs Élysees and caught the bus towards the Eiffel Tower.
I was given a guided tour of the tower (there was no other way I could have gotten tickets otherwise) by an enthusiastic guide named Cèline. She guides both in impeccable English and Spanish. Fun facts about the Eiffel Tower? It is painted a different colour every 7 years, the French hated it at first (kind of have to agree there. I do not see why so many people go gaga over a radio tower) and it recovered its entire cost in 6 months. The view from the tower was fantastic, but the tower itself? Meh, not so much.
The Louvre was our final stop for the day, and even half a day is just not enough to truly appreciate the museum. The Mona Lisa is great, but there’s so much more to the Louvre than the painting made most famous by Dan Brown.We did the touristy things because of the lack of time, although in all fairness you need two full days to truly appreciate the majesty that is the Louvre.
Day 4- Paris (day trip to Versailles Palace)
Day 4 was a half day trip to the sprawling grounds of Versailles, which houses the famous home of the erstwhile French royalty. The palace is royal enough, but I wasn’t impressed with grandoise bed chambers and never-ending gardens, it was almost like I was intruding a rich guy’s private home (the entire thing reminded me a bit of the estate tours in Pride and Prejudice).
Day 5-the chateaux of the Loire Valley (Blois-Chambord-Amboise)
Few Indians have visited, or know of the insanely beautiful Loire Valley, let alone the two charming towns we visited-Blois-Chambord and Amboise. Our hotel, the Hotel Louise de Savoie is a cute set-up a few steps from the Gare du Blois-Chambord. It is run by an impeccable French woman who wears tortoise shell rimmed glasses and owns a dog named Bichét, a white Yorkshire Terrier. Everything about the hotel is romantic-the wooden staircase, the creaky floors, windows painted white and looking out to a flower plant or a tree, the white of the bedsheets that often contrasts with the dark wood décor.
Blois is home to the Chateau Royal. Amboise, that is a 20 minute train ride away houses the Chateau Royal d’Amboise, which also served as a residence to the celebrated artist, scientist and engineer, Leonardo Da Vinci, whose final resting place is in a chapel in the chateau. Both chateaux import you to another time and space, engulfing you with Renaissance royalty. As I strolled by the streets of Amboise, we were greeted with sounds of fleeting Italian music, played on the harp and the violin, clearly illustrating the French town’s far deeper connection with its neighbour.
There is something about the ‘Vielle Ville’ (French: Old Town) that I always get attracted to-I’ll probably never tire of it (I hope not). Blois’ old town makes for a nice evening stroll-with good restaurants and bistros. However, they do close early and rise early. The hotel’s breakfast was far beyond excellent-fresh produce from the nearby farm-something as simple as bread and butter seemed so much more healthy!
Day 6 -Lyon
The next stop was Lyon, and I took the craziest train ride to get there! However, I do congratulate myself on successfully changing THREE trains with a suitcase and with less than 15 minutes of waiting time in-between. Who’s a winner now?
Lyon makes for a short half day to one day visit-there is quite a bit to see, but nothing that will take you over two days. Sights include the Cathedral St. Jean, the river cruise is nice enough, and there is great food! The river cruise goes by the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers.
Lyon is like any other Western European city-honestly it was the Vieux Lyon that I really liked. I saved money by purchasing the Lyon City Card, although it isn’t really worth it if you’re there only for half a day.
Day 7, 8 and 9 (Nice and the Côte d’Azur)
The train from Lyon to Nice provides some of the best scenic views, especially of the Côte d’Azur. It passes by Marseilles, Antibes, Cannes and finally Nice. The journey charts through Bourgogne (the plains) before moving to give flirty glimses of the French Alps and finally the breathtaking Côte d’Azur, that peeks out shyly, at first, before giving you the greenish blue of the ocean.
Nice is easy to get around-my hostel was bang opposite the Gare Nice Ville, and I basically hung out with a group of Americans for my final few days of the trip. Nice is a city that reeks of sex and money, best illustrated by the fact that there are condom vending machines right next to ATMs almost every 100 metres in the city centre. Also the fact that there is a statue of a naked man in the Massena Square just to get everyone in the ‘mood’ perhaps?
Vieux Nice isn’t too bad, and I tried the socca which was pretty yummy. Of course, there was some strolling along the Promenade des Anglais and general lazying around. In many ways, Nice is just probably the Goa for that part of Europe (actually I can’t really think of another Goa equivalent for the French, Italian stretch apart from Ibiza probably).
There isn’t too much to do in Nice (well, other than party and hook up with someone you met at Wayne’s Bar, a hotbed for tourists (read, mostly Americans) to drink). I spent my second day exploring the Côte d’Azur villages of Eze (which has the famous Nietzsche Chemin or Nietzsche path) and Villefranche sur Mer (French: French village on the sea).
I took the bus from Nice Ville all the way up to Eze village-and what a wonderful ride it was, all along the mountains! Eze is home to the medieval village, and it makes for a great walk. Villefrance sur Mer is more about the journey-you have to climb about 400 steps up and down to go the tiny village and back.
And with that I wrapped a dreamy vacation! Who is not waiting for the next one?
Au revoir! 🙂