I know I haven't written in forever but as today is the French version of Memorial Day and as my absence was not in the slightest due to lack of things to write about, I shall use this holiday to catch up: on blogging, on sleep, on emails, and on homework (though I'm not really behind on that last one).
The last week in October all the schools in France have a break. My host family decided to use this break to start off the traveling around France and Europe that they've planned for me. This first trip we stayed in France, but saw two different regions outside of the North, which was fun for me, as again before this year I'd never been anywhere in Europe outside of Paris, and the suburb towns of Paris. First we went to the South, where Gilles' sister has a second house. Her house is in a little town called Barjac, and is ancient. Its built in huge slabs of white stone, which is very common for the farm houses in the South. Its probably about 400 years old at least. The inside has been redone of course, but there remains the original fire place big enough to stand in. I'm told that when it was built it was designed so that you could put two chairs, one on either side of the actual fire (probably being employed for roasting a large hunk of meat) in the fire place along with the fire to keep warm. The whole south looked like a setup for a postcard.
It wasn't like every now and then you could find a view fit for a postcard, the whole thing was postcard-worthy, everywhere you looked. It was so beuatiful, and I think that October was the perfect time to visit, because many of the leaves had turned and the landscape was a rich ocher color. Rows and rows of vineyards, where the leaves looked like they were dripping sweet honey. and next to the vineyards were rows of lavender. The farm houses were all in ancient white stone with little painted shutters and bowing olive trees. They had tall square walls and almost flat perfectly square tiled roofs. Every now and then you drive in to a town and the road would be covered with a tunnel of huge trees, the leaves of which were burnt umber, and fluttered in the thick mediterranean sun. It was 27 degrees (late 70's up to 80) the whole time we were there, and we were sunbathing on the terrace of the house every afternoon. The first lunch we ate a fresh roasted chicken with potatoes and farmer's market goat cheese with olives and white wine, and the most wonderful baguette (I love France!). It was really quite picturesque, which is why I have included a picture. That afternoon we got back in the car (Barjac is 9 hours from Marchiennes by car) and headed on down to Avignon to see Le Palais de Pape, where the Pope lived when he lived in France for a short time; I believe there where nine popes who lived there. It was beautiful, like being in the Tudors or some other period piece movie. Full of winding stone staircases and turrets and huge feat-halls and hidden pa
ssages leading away from courtyards and arched double doorways. Then there were the painted rooms which are frescoes on the walls, ceiling, and seem to extend by means of painted tile, to the floors. Most of the frescoes, which once covered all the major rooms, have faded but they've been restored or kept in good shpae in a few rooms, which are really remarkable. We also saw Le Point d'Avignon, which is quite famous. It has some religious connotations,
but I was much more taken by the sunset visible from the point then the history involving a shepherd and some miracle boulder moving. It was splendid, never have I seen such a sunset, and I l
ive in New Mexico which is quite renowned for its sunsets, though it was perhaps not my favorite ever, as I'm picky about color and backdrop, it was breathtaking: picture time. What I really wanted to do was walk through the evening streets of old Avignon, which were alive with shops open to the last of the warm weather, and little sidewalk cafes and gelato shops, but everyone was tired and hungry, and we had to drive all the way back to Barjac, so I said I didn't care if we stayed and walked or not. I think Isabelle wanted to walk too, but we decided to leave, which was fine.
The next day we headed down to Marseilles. We left the car in the parking lot of Notre Dame de la Garde, which is called La Bonne Mere, because the huge gold plated statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus mounted atop the Moorish style cathedral is supposed to protect the city and watch over it with a benevolent eye. We then took a little tourist tram down the huge hill to the 'vieille porte' or the old Port, which has been a functioning sea port since the Roman Empire owned it, and its biggest import was Salt. We walked around there and the streets around it for an hour or so before lunch. We stopped during our wanderings in a little confiserie, (or candy shop) and stalked up on artisanal cookies, lollipops, chocolates, bonbons, etc al in a variety of flavors. The shop displayed its goodies in a painted wooden front window with matching shutters and on the interior in large glass cases, with open tops and little baskets and cooke tine filled the shelves about them. A second story was visible from the first as it simply encircled the shop with an open middle. Everything was well lit and there were shop girls in matching aprons handing out samples to everyone. While the cookies were perhaps a little dry, and the bonbons were so-so, the lollipops and chocolates were wonderful and everything was so perfect you couldn't help but be impressed and cheered by atmosphere and merchandise alike. The raspberry cookies which were tinted pink and had soft, but not too chewy fillings of the real fruit were delicious. Then we went and had lunch outside a little cafe. I had the most wonderful salad, which was comprised of a small green salad, with a vinaigrette, and a small caprese salad. It was so hot though that I hadn't much appetite, and I only ate half of it to save a little room for the pasta I'd ordered which was so-so, I think I ordered the wrong dish, but I guess you live and learn. The other discovery waiting in marseilles was the specialty candy which was sold at the confiserie and given out with the espresso in the restaurant: Calissons. They are little almond shaped spongy things with a white icing glaze over the top. They have a kind of citrus-y taste, and are made from almond paste (which you can taste as well as the citrus) and candied fruits.
On the way back to the car the little tourist tram took a longer route and showed off some attractions the city possesses. I think my favorite of these attractions was the prison where the novel The Count of Monte Cristo is set, which can be seen far off on its island in the sea, looking dark and somber in a sea full of hot bright turquoise water, which makes you think of sunglasses and fruit juice and happy hours of vacation, not at all a dark cell and torture. I like Marseilles, though I could tell it deserved the reputation of being France's dirty, industrial city from the surrounding area, the old port and the narrow lively streets leading up the hills around it were fun and full of the mediterranean spirit. On the way back to Barjac we stopped in Cassis for a half hour to see the little town, but mostly to see the ocean. It was spectacular. I have a special soft place in my heart for the sea, living as I do in a land-locked desert. I covet all glimpses of the calm vast expanse, and I have to tell you it had been almost seven years that I had not touched the ocean, though I'd gotten a chance two summers ago to eat on the board walk and be near the water for an afternoon, in California, which was wonderful. However, there is something about putting your feet in the sea which is a thing all to itself, and this feeling was magnified enormously by the fact that it was the mediterranean sea. I really liked what little I saw of Cassis. It seemed like the perfect place to spend a summer, as it possessed the desired mixture of calm beach own cool, and jet-setter excitement that one likes to have during the summer, though I'm sure this would not be a cheap summer, being so close to the sea, and in the South of France no less.
I still have to tell you about Gap, but its dinner time now so I'll have to finish this later. Not to worry though as I have no school Saturday so plenty of time, though Saturday is the night of the big Caribbean themed party my host family is throwing, which should be quite an event, and I must say I'm awfully excited.
a bientot e