Friday, 16 November 2007

France

Sorry about making you wait for blog updates, but in an odd way, when I'm not pressed for time on the internet, I feel no rush to update the blog. And to be honest, I've struggled on how best to explain our time in France. That's right, through completely random and unplanned selections, we picked Marseilles as our next European destination...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way." Charles Dickens. Okay, so perhaps that quote is a little melodramatic and exaggerates our actual experience... but in some ways it fits perfectly. Don't worry, I'll explain. Or perhaps I won't explain quite so much as tell another portion of the story and allow you to extrapolate how the quote fits.

While we were in Madrid, Spain, we spent a little time every day checking emails and trying to secure a place to stay in Marseilles. Our trusted advisor, the old "Lonely Planet: Europe on a Shoestring" which had a few promising hostels mentioned in it, and there was one in particular that we wanted to stay at. So we emailed the owner asking if there was room. I must admit to having chickened out on using my french and instead went with the "easy" option of writing in english. We got back a response that there were no dorm rooms available for the first night. So we tried writing back that we would spend money on a double or whatever other room for the first night and then stay in the dorm the other nights. I could get into quite the story just on the emails sent back and forth, but suffice it to say it was generally non-commital, never giving us a good answer either way, I even wrote one response in french, and Laurie sent a scathing one... I don't know why but we still wanted this hostel. Oh, wait, I remember now, I had searched by every means I could think of on the internet and there were NO rooms available anywhere in Marseilles that first night. So we persisted. To the point that as we took off on the flight from Madrid to Marseilles, we knew only that the hostel owner had said he'd "find us room/make it work" if we decided to show up.

Our flight touched down in Marseilles on Saturday September 8th in the early evening. Suddenly, our way of interacting with the world around us changed. My knowledge of french and Laurie's complete lack of confidence in her french skills meant she stood back and pushed me forward to speak with anyone and everyone who spoke french. Normally I let her take charge because she has 5 more questions for every one question I have, and I figure it's simpler if she does the talking... also she's just a touch more outgoing than me. Okay, a lot more outgoing. So I went and bought shuttle tickets from the airport to the subway... and had to go back to the booth a couple of times for extra questions that I hadn't seen any need to ask. Once we got to the subway station, which was pretty much completely empty and deserted, we had to figure out where to go. Our lack of a definite place to stay, and the fact that it was already getting later in the evening, made us decide to try and head to the center of town where we might be able to find a large hotel that had a spare room. After a lot of staring at unfamiliar maps, I picked the "Vieux Port" as a probable good destination. It looked like it was about the center of town and it was an area I remembered from the Lonely Planet guide as being in the midst of a bunch of hotels. Our stress levels were pretty high at this point, and Laurie was forcing me to make a lot of decisions because I could do a better job of reading the various information that was posted. After some tense moments, we figured out what tickets we needed and how to get on the subway, and what line we needed to take. Laurie by this time was talking about doing something like the guy from "The Pursuit of Happiness" and barricading ourselves in a bathroom in the subway to spend a night there. I didn't really see that as a reasonable option.

We got off the subway at the Vieux Port (the Old Port) and realized we were right across the street from a big hotel... which looked much too pricey, and there was a hotel just down the side street. So we tried walking down the sidestreet, looked at the posted prices for the cheapest rooms. We moved on quickly once we saw the price, we were looking for something in a somewhat reasonable price range. The next hotel we came to had what seemed a not too bad price for a room. So we went in and I asked the clerk about a room. He said there was one room left. A double (as in a single queen sized bed). YES! excited!... how much? gulp. more than twice the price quoted on the door. Quick consultation with Laurie. We don't care anymore, so long as we have a place to sleep. Okay, we'll take it. The elevator to the floor we're on is so old and rickety, we even have to manually shut the door, and it gives a horrendous jerk! as it gets to our floor, as though it may have made it all the way up but it died once it got there (good news, it didn't actually die. It repeated the performance every time we used it). The room was barely big enough for the 18 inches of space on the sides and in front of the bed. The bathroom had been nicely remodeled, and yet it too squeezed all the amenities into a minimum of space. I found it interesting that there was no curtain for the shower, though I realized later that it had such a bare dribble of water that there really was no need to curtain it off. I should be careful how I describe it, because it was a nice room... I just don't think it was worth anywhere near what we paid.

By this time it's around 10pm, and the snack we had had in Madrid that passed as a supper was completely gone. I was beyond hunger, and would have been fine without a meal, but Laurie said she definitely needed something. So we set off to find some cheap food and to do a little exploring. Downstairs we asked the clerk where he'd recommend finding something to eat near the hotel so late in the evening. He recommended going just down the main street and finding a place that sold Donairs. He even wrote down for us what to look for. We explored for a while, noticed some men wearing "All Blacks" gear (the New Zealand rugby team), and stopped to ask them if they'd been watching the world cup games and if they knew how the All Blacks were doing. That is when we learned why we had had so much trouble finding a room for that particular night (and how they got away with exorbitant room prices). Apparently, the All Blacks (one of the most popular teams in rugby) had played a rugby game in Marseilles that night and won. People from all over Europe and the world were flocking to France for the world cup games, and we were in Marseilles on the night they were hosting one of the games. Horrible timing. (Laurie says it's horrible timing because we got in too late to watch the game... I say it's horrible timing because of the unavailability of room and prices they were charging.) That settled, we found Laurie a Donair to eat, walked the streets for a while until we got tired of the increasing crowds, and called it a night.

Hm, what I seem to have forgotten to mention is the fact that before we went out I phoned our overly-frustrating hostel owner to ensure that he would have room for us the next day. Once again I chickened out and used English. He was, as usual, completely non-committal. But there was no way we were spending a second night at a hotel at the prices they were charging. And so after a long walk around downtown and through the markets in the morning, we decided that we were tired of navigating subways with luggage. So we hired a taxi and gave the driver the hostel address. She didn't know that area at all, as it was far-far-far from the center of the city. The hostel was at one time a house, one of many row houses, each unique but all attached one to another. Laurie waited downstairs in the entry with our luggage and I went exploring upstairs. They were some of the most unique stairs I've ever seen. Narrow and winding, they branched off in a few different areas.
(I can't figure out how to flip the pictures in blogger, but these are two sections of the winding stairs! ) The first time they branched off led me to a short hallway on the second floor... no one was there. So I went back down a few stairs to where they split off and went up the other direction, and followed the next branching off up to the... third floor I suppose. Here I found an open door, and what appeared to be a sitting room of sorts. Just beyond a tight spiral staircase that was directly in my line of sight, sat a couple of low couches in an L shape in the corner. There were about 4 people on the couches, a couple of them using laptop computers set on a square coffee table. A middle aged man watched me intently as I walked in, and I had to force myself to be bold, walk right in and... okay perhaps not very bold... hesitantly ask (I can't recall if I spoke English or French at this point) if this was "la Cigale et la Fourmi" hostel and whether they had room in the dorm. The middle aged man with the cigarette in his hand confirmed both and introduced himself as "Jean" the owner of the hostel. After a short chat, he offered to show me around. We went back to the first landing I had found, and he showed me the combo to unlock the door, and grabbed some bedding for the double mattress we would be using. (If you look carefully, you'll note the kitchen on the bottom left, the bathroom to the right, and the loft just above the guy's head, mostly in shadow) Yes, I said matress, not bed. The room was like a tiny studio apartment, with a kitchen, bathroom and dining area in the main area you walk into, and two lofts, one above the kitchen and bathroom, the other on the opposite side of the room. The larger loft (above the kitchen) had two double bed mattresses, the other had one double mattress. You reached the lofts via ladders. It was cute. It was also co-ed.
Laurie and I set ourselves up in the room, claimed a mattress to ourselves, and went back upstairs to the room where Jean hung out. He offered us cappucinos and yogurt... Very friendly man. He also started talking about some beach that he wanted us to go to the next day... magical he said. (note Jean is on the couch in the background, and Laurie is overly happy to have real maple syrup to put in her coffee)
We learned very quickly that he had an obsession with beautiful girls. And that he never let people he didn't like the look of stay at his hostel. He never commits to letting someone stay until he meets them, and he rarely lets couples stay, unless he really likes the look of the girl. There were a couple random guys staying there, but more girls than anything. He spoke english, but not very well and frequently reverted to French. He was very taken with Laurie (he kept going on about the beautiful spot on her nose), and kept trying to convince her to go on his motorbike with him. She did eventually, believing he'd take her to the grocery store. He didn't. He took her touring the city. She burned her leg on the tailpipe, and he thought it was funny that she was going to be permanently marked and would never forget him. While she was out with him, I went on a solo walk around the neighbourhood and discovered a cute little park.
That evening we got to know a few of our roommates, a girl from Ireland called Mary and a guy from... uh... Latin America? called Phillipe. Anyways, the four of us decided to go out and buy pizza from a tiny little local take-out place recommended by Jean. The owner was a cute little frenchman who seemed more interested in our travel tales than in what we were ordering. He was incredibly efficient, rolling out the fresh dough by hand in front of us, throwing on all the ingredients and getting it into the woodfire oven. As one pizza came out the next was slid into the oven, and it was all done in the space of one very interesting conversation. I think it involved more french than english, but to be honest, the longer I spent in france, the more naturally the french flowed from my mouth when talking with the locals... and now I really can't recall where I was speaking english/french near the end, unless I was with an anglophone. So we got our pizzas, went back to the hostel where we climbed the narrow stairs to the big room, went up the spiral staircase, and finally up a ladder to the roof/balcony where we sat under the stars to eat our pizzas. (With a little local wine that came cheap with the pizza) Its lovely sitting under the stars to eat.
The next morning after a leisurely sleep in, Mary, Laurie, myself and two other girls climbed into Jean's tiny little 2 door car for a ride out to a national park in the "Calanques." (a specific range of limestone mountains with fjords carved through them, found between Marseilles and Cassis on the southern border of France) He informed us that it would cost us 2 Euros each to pay for the gas, and that this was a one way trip. In his opinion, we were all pretty enough to easily hitchike back, and apparently everyone is friendly around that area... he leaves people there to hitchike back on a daily basis. The ride included numberous hair-raising sharp corners at a much higher speed than any of us would have taken them if we were the ones driving. At the top of one mountain, looking down at the fjord, he stopped to point out the path we would take along the shoreline after he dropped us off. Just before we got to town, he dropped us off and reiterated that we were to go to the second beach, not the first. It was a little town, all bordering the one street that went to the small harbour. It was absolutely gorgeous. What we didn't have was proper hiking boots, which would have been helpful on the cliffside hike to the beach. Jean had told us that we didn't need anything more than sandals. Ha! I broke my sandals on the walk back!

In truth, it was a really great place to go. It wasn't overcrowded, the water was crystal clear, and the fish would circle you if you stood still enough. And apparently there was a gorgeous cave somewhere along the shoreline that you could only reach by swimming to it. This was where Jean recommended we go. I wasn't confident enough in my swimming skills to swim that far in the sea, and Laurie started swimming there but decided it was too far to go alone. The main drawback with the beach was the fact that it was all rock, you had to lay your towel out on the rock to sunbathe, so you had to pick a relatively flat spot and brush the loose rock away. After sunbathing, swimming, and letting the scorching sun dry us off, we decided to head back midafternoon in hopes of finding people willing to give us a ride. We also wanted to play it safe and leave early enough that we could possibly walk back to a point where we could catch a bus the rest of the way back.... in case hitchhiking wasn't working out for us.
We wanted to have full water bottles for our long walk, but found out pretty fast that there is no running water in the town, and that it was a holiday so the one restaurant was closed. Luckily, the owners were around and willing to sell us a few litres of bottled water. We also found port-a-potties. The essentials taken care of, we set off down the one-lane twisting turning all-uphill road. It didn't take long before someone approached us in a vehicle. We stuck out our thumbs, looked pathetic, and they drove on. Some men in a truck stopped for us but said they had no room for three. We walked for about 20 minutes before a family stopped and offered to give us a ride if two of us would be willing to ride in the trunk of their SUV-type vehicle. They spoke almost no english, and so I was translator. I also had to show them on a map approximately where to drop us off. My walk from the day before came in handy, because the park I had gone to was an easy landmark to pick out and was beside a major road. They totally went out of their way to drive us there, and we were extremely thankful. Laurie was amazed that I knew my way back from there. After returning, relaxing, and showering off all the salt from the sea, we picked up some fresh produce and made ourselves a salad for supper, along with our bread and cheese and left-over pizza.
Mary invited us to join her the next day, as she was meeting her sister and going to Aix-en-Provence. Having not made any definite plans, we were all for it.
Bright and early the next day, we're off with all our luggage to brave the bus system, the subway and finally a charter to the airport where we're meeting Mary's sister Naoise (pronounced NEE-sha). It was a comedy of errors to say the least. We decided it would be faster to go to the end of the line on the subway and catch a bus from there (where we were dropped off by our charter bus when we first arrived). We found out the charters don't pick up from there, and had to backtrack to a station where they would pick us up. By the time we arrived at the airport, we were distinctly late to pick up Naoise... thank goodness for cellphones. There we picked up a rental car that Naoise had booked, piled our luggage in the back, and took off for Aix-en-Provence. Our irish friends had never driven on the right side of the road before, so it was quite the experience for them, though they did very well. Whipping down the freeway, we missed the turn-off for Aix because we were talking so much. hehehe.. but the next turn-off worked well. Once we turned off, we realized we had no map of Aix, not even of the downtown area. So we followed signs that led us to downtown and did our best to find the hostel we had picked out. Unable to find it, I was given the phone to call the hostel and get directions. They answered but promptly told me the front desk was closed until 4pm and that if I wanted directions I should go to tourist information downtown. Gee thanks. It was only 1pm, and we had a lot of time so we decided to head for the centre of town, park, find tourist information and figure out what to do in this little town. After a bit of driving, we found the info centre and some underground parking where we could leave the car for the rest of the day. We got maps of the city centre, and figured out how to get to the airport the next day, and then went exploring on foot.
One place we made a point of seeing was the old studio where C├ęzanne did most of his paintings. We got a tour of the studio, and took a short walk through the garden. We stopped at a random bakery for some sweet breads as we walked back to the car. Once we got settled into the hostel, we all showered and spruced up, some of us napped. Then we talked with the people at the front desk asking where a good restaurant would be. We got a cab ride to the city since the hostel was a little too far from anything to walk there and back. Unfortunately the cab driver managed to get lost both on the way to pick us up and on the way to the city. We told him what street we wanted to get to, and thanks to our previous walk around the city we knew he was at the opposite end from where we wanted, but seemed to think he was close. He dropped us off when we told him we were "close enough"... even though we knew it was nowhere near where we wanted to be. We weren't about to pay for him to wander around the city. So we wandered around instead. We hadn't made reservations anywhere and just wanted a nice restaurant. When we came upon a realllly classy restaurant, with outdoor tables and fairly pricey menus, we decided to splurge. It was a gorgeous evening, with great food. How could we not splurge at least one night in France? When we ordered dessert, we also ordered our cab, since the hostel had a curfew and would lock us out if we were out past midnight. We walked into the hostel at 5min to midnight.
Our alarm clocks were set to get us up just minutes before the free breakfast finished the next morning. Mary and Naoise dropped us off at the bus station in town, where we caught a bus to the airport and set off for Germany.

No comments: