For my five followers, ever loyal as you are, I apologize that it's been so long since I wrote last. For me, it's bittersweet. The root cause of my distraction was that I did more in March than I had done in previous months. If I wasn't somewhere else, I was recuperating from being somewhere else, and laziness ruled the day. Yet, one of the greatest things about France is that I get to write about it. More than I had ever thought would occur, this blog has been an activity from which I have realized what I have experienced. So often things just happen, and their explanations and appreciations lag far behind, showing themselves the moment I start to write and analyze them. Therefore, I hate to have not done something that makes me feel so good, and yet am very thankful for a month I will never forget. I'll try to get it all out here and do justice to a time that I will remember forever.
During the past month, my visitors arrived, and it was my task to show them a good time, as well as keep them out of any unfortunate situations. My girlfriend arrived the last few days of February for ten days with me in the south of France. We had planned on going to a few cities in different countries other than France, but, when the time came, I thought it would be best to take her to a few places I had already been and loved. First, we went to Nice. When I was last in Nice, I thought it could not have gotten any better. But, shortly after arriving, while we sat at our breakfast on the Riviera, I realized yes, the colorful buildings, the sea, the hill, the flower market are wonderful, yet the face staring across the table at me beats them by a wide margin. The first night we were there was the last night of Carnival. In one section of Montpellier, the streets were blocked and two grand stands were put up overlooking a passageway where those with enough holiday fervor would dress up as clowns, or as whatever else they chose, stood to be admired. For anyone who is squeamish of clowns, Carnival is no place for you. We saw the floats, mostly massive clowns with jester hats and face paint, and the whole event had a sea world type of a feel to it, in the sense of mermaids, not the amusement park. After walking through the confetti and silly string lined streets filled with dressed up parents and children, we made our way to the Riviera, where we were lucky enough to catch the closing ceremony, a firework show over the sea. I am not a huge fan of fireworks, but the setting was surreal, something of which you dream yet never expect to come to reality. To this day, I think the firework show was in celebration of our arrival, and not of Carnival. What a magnificent night! The events we saw we stumbled upon, yet, nonetheless, they made an excellent introduction to the city.
Day two in Nice was spent going to many of the places I had been my first time. I was eager to see them again and show them off to another. We started the morning off at a cafe on the Riviera for breakfast and coffee, as well as enjoying a view of the aqua blue seas. After breakfast, we ascended the mountain to the chateau at it’s summit for a panoramic view of the bay, the snow-capped Alps to the south and the red-tiled jungle known as Nice. There is something sublime about this hill/mountainside park. It serves as a transport from the chaotic to the serene, the calm, and the beautiful. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. After our descent, we walked the streets of Old Nice, shopping, sight-seeing, and meeting a very friendly orange cat on our way. We repeated this that afternoon, walk a little, shop a little, and be happy.
The following day we went to Monaco, a short 20-minute ride by train from Nice. The track ran along the coast, so we were able to see several scenic coastal villages on our route. Monaco itself seemed too perfect to be real, a truly fascinating place to walk around, which is exactly what we did while there. The city is constructed into the side of a mountain, so to get from one street to another, you must often walk up steps or, if you know where to look, catch an escalator. I loved the underground walkways which connect different streets. The city is literally built into, not on top of, a mountain. The buildings and streets were extremely clean and colorful. Decadent stairs led you to the parallel street below you, and fountains and engravings serenaded the journey the entire way. While there, the image I equated with Monaco was that of a gingerbread village. Neat, tidy, decadent, colorful, much like Nice, but with a stronger hint of richesse, not that Nice is lacking in that regard. I felt as if I had leaned too strongly upon a building, the construction would fall over and collapse, much like the set of a play. After walking around the city of Monte Carlo, and seeing the much famed casino, the Monte Carlo, we ascended a large plateau, where at it’s peak lay the old city of Monaco. The top of the plateau offered a wonderful panorama of the city of Monte Carlo, the bay and its beautiful yachts, and the mountains that lurch to the city’s rear. The plateau is completely different than Monte Carlo and its more modern atmosphere. The tiny village at the top contains the prince’s palace and many other governmental buildings. I was stunned by the amount of cannonballs aligning the peripheral walls of the village. Call me crazy, but I don’t see, or could ever imagine, Monaco being or ever having been a belligerent nation. Nonetheless, everywhere one turns lies a pyramid of cannonballs at the side of an old cannon. We saw the church where the current Prince of Monaco had been ordained, and walked the narrow streets of this most scenic and quaint of hilltop hideaways, all the while taking in beautiful views of the many spectacular harbors and homes. At this point, we were tired and foot-worn, so we headed back to Nice for chinese food and a night’s rest. I’ve been to many cities, and Monaco struck me as the most surreal, a place too polished and decadent to be real. It seems to be a place where life is played by its inhabitants and not lived, a seclusion and a haven from many aspects of the outside world.
The day after our return to Nice from Monaco, we left to return to Montpellier. Over the next few days, we visited the attractions in Montpellier. The Jardin des Plantes, the Musee Fabre and others were as wonderful as the first time I discovered them, only made more special when one is able to show them off to another, much like a souvenir or photo from a past voyage. That weekend we took a quick trip to Avignon, which is one of the great, hidden jewels of Provence. Of course, people know of the town and its palaces, but the crowds are subdued and the atmosphere is calm, it's truly one of the most agreeable spots in the south of France. It’s hard to describe, but the pace is more mature than many other cities. Everyone is nice, and the beauty and history of the city inspires a respectful disposition in its admirers. We went to the Pope’s Palace, where we traversed its massive interior and climbed to the top of its tower for a peak at the surrounding mountains and rivers. Seeing the city from a great height brings a new perspective to the town, as one can see the composition of the city, which made the town such a valuable piece of property in the past. The bridges of Avignon are beautiful as well as famous, being the subject of many songs both in Europe and elsewhere. The oldest and the most famous bridge, serving as the central lane of commerce flowing into and out of the town for many centuries, was, to my surprise, only half the length of the river, but, nonetheless, a most beautiful piece of architecture. I guess it was necessary to boat across the first half of the river. The bridges are necessary because the town sits at the convergence of two wide rivers, which form something of a river peninsula. Upon entering the gates forming the perimeter of the city, I felt as though we had entered a secluded piece of property where the beauty and history of its contents are all one needs to be content and engaged. For a few hours, the town itself takes over and operates separately from its exterior, a fully self-sufficient element of civilization without any urge or need to conform to the trends of other cities, holding faithfully to its image as a living relic of the past and of harmony in the present.
A week after my girlfriend returned to Kentucky, I met a few friends in Paris for a few days of traveling. Paris is the first place that people ask about when I tell them I'm staying in France for a year. I had heard many great things about the city, and yet I had had no real ambition to travel there. Whatever anyone had told me, Paris met and exceeded all of my expectations. It needs no description, like New York or Hong Kong, we all know the world’s greatest and largest cities often better than our own hometowns. My favorite place was the Louvre. I did not expect its size to be as large as it was, and the expansive park just outside its gates was a lovely atmosphere to pass a few hours, even without the art. The night before we went to the Louvre, I went to my first “real” night club, where upon arrival I promised to ban myself from all such venues in the future. You have your club people and your non-club people, and I am content with residing in the latter category. We walked around the city for the rest of our visit, seeing most of the important sites and missing some as well. Overall, I loved Paris. Like New York, I was blown away by its size. The grandeur of the streets, monuments, museums, bridges and towers are beyond comparison. Standing amongst the history of the city is a very special feeling, and its romance is easily discovered. The size of the city is different than any other town in France, especially in the south, and the mixture of languages was impressive. I felt as though I had left France and entered an internationally homogenized territory with no single claim upon it, where a population of every shade, creed and tongue makes its niche.
Our next stop was Strasbourg en route to Germany. We spent an afternoon, evening and night there, enjoying what the city has to offer. Quaint and laid back, Strasbourg is a town of timber-framed dwellings of a decidedly germanic persuasion, and an elaborately constructed sandstone Gothic cathedral, which rises above the town at a towering height. I can remember how ghastly and emaciated the church itself looked to me, not out of any lack of maintenance but by the rigidity and sharpness of its ornamental outer layer, much like a skeleton. Inside the church, we found an astronomical clock which rotates several characters involved in various activities, such as playing an instrument or operating a tool, around a spool and, at each hour, landing and holding itself upon one specific character, which puts itself on display with a dance or serenades the church with a tune or two. According to legend, the creator of the clock was forced to gouge his eyes out afterward, to keep him from reproducing the work. I think we should make many of our modern artists do the same thing. I loved the canals of Strasbourg. We watched a white swan fish for his dinner for fifteen minutes. When you put the two together, swans and canals, they add to the fairy tale atmosphere of a given location. After walking and seeing the streets for a few hours, we settled down for dinner and a few belgian beers, which put to shame what we consume in the United States. The timing of our visit to Strasbourg was perfect. It served as a natural breakpoint between two large cities, Paris and Munich, and as a healthy respite and breath of fresh air from the chaos and clutter of a large city. It is a less ostentatious version of Europe, more quaint and quiet than grand and opulent, a natural haven for a long, slow walk gazing at the beautiful modesty of its structures.