Charting La Corse

A couple of Saturdays ago, Ben and I drove to Nice to catch a car ferry to Bastia, a town located on the northern tip of Corsica. The entire journey took about six hours.

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We spent our time eating lunch, playing cards, and touring the massive decks.

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We arrived in Bastia just as twilight began to descend upon the island; gigantic hills and mountains loomed eerily in the distance as we made our way south to our guesthouse in the town of Corte.

We spent the next few days taking advantage of what Corsica had to offer in the way of hikes, beaches and seafood, which is to say we enjoyed ourselves very much.

Although a part of France, Corsica seemed a world apart, with its wild terrain and impossibly clear water. I loved it for its beauty and utter lack of pretension. As we boarded the overnight ferry back to Nice, I felt distinctly sad to be leaving so soon.

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Bedtime on the sea

A Week in the Alps, Pt.2

We parted ways with Ellen after a day of skiing in Chamonix and a night in Lyon, a lively city we all agreed rivals Paris in beauty. The weather was especially kind to us as we strolled along the riverbanks of the Saône in the late afternoon.

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By the Saône

Continuing westward, Ben and I explored the medieval ruins of Chateau de Châlucet, a castle near Limoges occupied by the English during The Hundred Years War. 

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It was a cloudy day, and as we approached its crumbling watchtower I half expected to see the ghost of a wary sentinel inquiring as to the purpose of our visit. Parts of the castle were completely overgrown with ivy and bluebells sprouted freely along the crumbling ramparts.

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Later that night, we stayed in a creaky B&B in the nearby village of Solignac. At breakfast, our gregarious host regaled us with his supernatural experience at Chateau de Châlucet where he witnessed La Dame Noire (a lady in all black – counterpart to the famed Dame Blanche) traversing a field in front of the castle and suddenly disappearing before his very eyes. I don’t disbelieve him.

The final stop on our homeward-bound journey was a sobering one. Oradour-sur-Glane was a small village massacred by Nazis on June 10, 1944. They murdered 642 people, including 193 children, and abandoned the town in flames. While a new town has since sprung up nearby, the original remains of Oradour-sur-Glane have been reverently left untouched since that horrific day.

As we walked down the burnt ruins of the main street, we passed rusted cars and hollow storefronts, espying everyday household items scattered among the rubble.

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At the edge of town, an underground memorial listed the name and age of every victim. The youngest at 8 weeks had yet to be christened. I cried for them all.

Although an exceedingly somber site to visit, what remains of Oradour-sur-Glane is a powerful reminder of mankind’s senseless, violent tendencies that must be avoided at all cost.

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A Week in the Alps, Pt. 1

It’s been a whirlwind week, which I’ll try to cover over a couple posts.

Last Saturday, Ben and I packed our bags and drove 7 hours east to Saint-Étienne, where we met up with Ben’s cousin Ellen. Saint-Étienne is a UNESCO-designated City of Design, and every other year it hosts the Biennale International Design Festival, featuring design artists and projects from UNESCO Cities of Design around the world. This year’s highlighted city was Detroit, and as the point person for both Detroit’s UNESCO designation and its involvement in the festival, Ellen was in town for a week to oversee operations. It made for the perfect excuse to meet up and embark together on a mini adventure once her work obligations wrapped up.

(The Biennale was fantastic, by the way.)

With the French Alps as our general destination, we stopped for a couple nights in Annecy, a small town that sits prettily on the banks of Lake Annecy and makes eyes at the looming mountains in the distance. We rode bikes along the water and couldn’t help but stop every few minutes to marvel at the view.

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We found Annecy to be just as alluring in the evenings, as we strolled along the canals and watched the sun dip gently behind the colorful facades of the town.

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On Wednesday, we continued into the heart of the French Alps, lodging for a couple days in the quaint ski town of Chamonix. Our first order of business involved getting as high as possible. Literally.

We took a rather precarious cablecar ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, one of the highest peaks in the Alps, where we were treated with a 360° view of the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. At an elevation of more than 12,600 feet, the entire experience was breathtaking, in more ways than one.

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We ended the day with a quick visit to the Musée des Cristaux, a small museum display of dazzling crystals, many of which were discovered right in Chamonix.

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To be continued . . .

 

Voie Verte

It’s a mild, sunny day and the chattering birds certainly seem convinced that spring has finally begun. I patiently wait for the trees to concur. Regardless, good weather is good weather, and I’ve planted myself in the backyard for the afternoon. As I am outside, I thought I would write about outside things; I’m in the country after all.

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Temporary workstation

Last week, Ben and I headed to the sports equipment store in search of ski gear for an upcoming trip to the Alps and ended up walking out with a pair of rollerblades and fold-up bike. Impulse buying at its finest. The next day, we took our new wheels for a spin.

France is blessed with a network of voies vertes (literally translated as “greenways”), which are pedestrian pathways linking towns and villages throughout the countryside. The one near our house, Voie Verte du Marsan et de l’Armagnac, is 31 miles (50km) in length, paved in some areas, and lovely in every aspect. We made it about 9 miles on our first trip.

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Hey there, tiny wheels!

 

 

Carnaval Biarnes

On Saturday, we visited the southwest town of Pau to attend its annual, infamous Carnaval Biarnes. I won’t pretend to know half of what transpired (the official language of the event is Gascon, not French) but I delighted in the lively festivities nonetheless.

As far as I can gather, the Carnaval celebrates the Gascon traditions of the Béarn region while also encouraging the town to enjoy the hell out of life before Lent begins. It’s a Gascon Mardi Gras of sorts. Sent Pançard, the vulgar and gluttonous patron saint of the festival, is the soul of the party, complete with pig nose and sausage necklace.

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Sent Pançard parades through Pau
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The mayor presents Sent Pançard with the key to the city

Ben and I followed the crowds through the streets of Pau, reveling in the beautiful ruckus of music, dancing, confetti and general merriment that surrounded us. My senses were overwhelmed in the best way.

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1r8c0782At one point in the procession, Pançard and Lent pantomimed a confrontation that eventually led to the highlight of the evening: Crémation.

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Not looking good for ol’ Pançard

As one would guess, fire was involved, specifically, the burning of an effigy of Sent Pançard, symbol of unfettered boorishness. The papier-mâché figure was notably adorned with the visage of Donald Trump.

1r8c0872More revelry ensued. . .

. . . ending with a tented carnival in the town square.

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On the Mont

A wintry fog shrouds the fields outside my window this morning, and so I have opted to stay inside and bake cookies. Also, I thought I would finally write a much-deserved entry on my visit to Mont St-Michel last week.

After our stay in Etretat, Ben and I traveled to Bayeux where we stopped for lunch and visited the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry. I have dreamed of coming here ever since I fell in love with medieval history in college. The 11th century tapestry is over 225 feet long and depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, in which William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold in 1066. It is gory, intricate, and glorious to behold in person.

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The 58th and final panel of the Bayeux Tapestry
My favorite tapestry tidbit: In one panel, a comet (to be identified centuries later as the Halley’s Comet) is stitched into the sky. At the time, it was believed to be an ominous warning of God’s displeasure.

At the museum gift shop, I couldn’t help but purchase my own tapestry kit, which includes an exact pattern from one of the tapestry panels, as well as wool thread made right in Bayeux. Here’s hoping that this rainy day project is more easily conquered than those pesky Anglo-Saxons.

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After our stop in Bayeux, we continued on to Mont St-Michel, a medieval island wonder that incidentally makes a brief appearance in the Bayeux Tapestry. The abbey, which dates from the 8th century, looms above the rest of the fortified town. We opted to stay overnight on the Mont itself so we could continue to explore its ramparts and labyrinthine alleyways once the day crowds departed for the evening.

 

Mont St-Michel is wondrous by day, and magical by night. It is hard to describe exactly how perfect the light is at any given moment in this extraordinary place, so I’m afraid pictures must do.

 

 

 

Taking a Hike

We awoke yesterday morning and felt like a hike. With the Pyrénées reachable by car in under two hours, we embarked on an impromptu road trip to the mountains. It was a bonafide adventure: we knew the general direction of where we wanted to go, but not much else. 

We stopped for lunch in Lourdes and eventually found ourselves on a road that led us over the initial foothills of the Pyrénées. That is how we discovered Cauterets, a quaint ski town nestled picturesquely in the mountains.


A walking trail conveniently began at the edge of town.


After hiking for an hour or so, we made our way back to the centre ville for coffee. It was a mild winter day and perfect weather for people-watching from a cafe terrace. We plan to return for a ski one of these days.