Next stop: Spain? Not quite.
Have you ever heard people talk about how amazing the city of Narbonne, France is?
Wait...you haven't? Can't say I'm entirely surprised! Kasey, Eric and I got to take a little side trip here on our way down to Spain and were less than impressed...
Backtrack to Tuesday the 22nd. The three of us arrive at the Toulouse train station about 40 minutes before our train was scheduled to leave - apparently this wasn't quite enough time. I stood guard over everyone's bags while Eric and Kasey went to go get their tickets printed (along with about 30 other people who were ahead of them), and thanks to a variety of factors, but mostly the fact that the man at the counter printed the wrong ticket for Eric, we stood at the platform and waved as our train pulled out of the station.
So, we all got to get back in line and explain what just happened to a different ticket agent - he was extremely patient and after about 40 minutes we all had refunds for the portions of our voyage to Spain that we hadn't used yet and got new tickets to get us there later that day. Originally, we were slated to take a train from Toulouse to Narbonne, have a 20 minute layover, then take a train from Narbonne to Figures Vilafant in Spain, and finally take a regional train from Figures to Girona. Well, we ended up with the same itinerary, but our 20 minute stop in Narbonne was now stretched out to 6 hours!! [Here's my map again so you can see where this was all taking place!]
|Narbonne: Never Again!|
Trying to be optimistic, we decided it was ok because we'd be able to see yet another city during our vacation - we were going to be stuck there anyways, so why not properly check out the city? So, weighed down with all of our luggage, that's exactly what we did.
The fifth train of our trip got us to Narbonne. After killing an hour and a half at a restaurant with some paninis and sangria (and listening to the bartender hack up a lung all throughout our lunch), we trudged down what appeared to be the main road towards the center of town. Thankfully we stumbled upon the Cathedral of St. Just and St. Pasteur which conveniently had a nice little park just outside its cloister where we sat in the cool, blustery weather for another couple hours. Eventually venturing inside the cloister and further inside the church itself, I was entertained for a little while at least, admiring the beautiful architecture all the while.
|The side of the cathedral with the unfinished transept|
|Inside the cloister|
|The Wall of Thanks inside the cathedral|
|At least there were pretty windows to look at!|
|The church is celebrated for its grand organ, an impressive sight to behold|
|Just in time for Halloween?|
We ate some snacks in the little park by the church and then once again hefted our bags all the way back to the train station - bound and determined not to miss our train, we got there an hour and a half before we were scheduled to leave. We were sure in for a treat when we spent the next hour sitting in the world's most depressing, run-down waiting room you could ever imagine! Needless to say, when the train to Spain finally pulled up, we were the first ones to get on.
|The building we got to stare at while we spent hours waiting in the park by the church - at least it was pretty!|
An hour later we arrived at Figures Vilafant and hopped on our sixth train to Girona, which thankfully was only a mere 13 minute ride away. Exhausted and hungry, we checked into our hostel and quickly found a traditional Catalunyan restaurant. (Catalunya is a very distinct region of northern Spain with its own language and Barcelona as its capitol. There's a strong movement here for Catalunya to secede from Spain and become its own autonomous entity, but that's another story...)
Both Kasey and Eric speak basic Spanish, but that was of little help to us at this restaurant where the menu was entirely in Catalan - similar to Spanish but essentially a whole different animal. Thankfully, our waiter was super friendly and literally explained the entire menu to us in English. After settling on a few traditional dishes and a pitcher of sangria, we were finally able to have a relaxing end to a stressful day!
|Part of my Catalunyan dinner: a hearty, spicy beef and vegetable stew|
Ever eager to travel, we decided to get up early again the next morning and take a day trip to Barcelona. Located only 100 kilometers from Girona (about 60 miles) and costing only 15 euros round-trip, we figured if we'd already come this far, it was worth visiting. So back to the train station we went, boarding the train once again for a 90 minute journey south through the picturesque Spanish countryside.
|Hola Barcelona! The view from Parc Güell|
Upon our arrival, we quickly sought out the tourism office in order to get our hands on a map of the city so we could cram as many sights into our day trip as possible. We lucked out weather-wise during our entire two-week trip, but in Barcelona the thermometer topped out close to 80 with a bit of humidity - perfect for soaking up some sun!
|Plaça de Catalunya|
Not to far from the tourism office at Plaça de Catalunya are Las Ramblas, a tree-lined pedestrian mall stretching over a kilometer in length. Vendors selling everything from daily newspapers, birds, flowers, souvenirs, food and art punctuate the strip, and after a few minutes of walking we came to Barcelona's famous covered market, La Boqueria. This extremely crowded and lively venue is host to a wide variety of food products - butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetable stands, fresh cheese and eggs, deli meats...you name it, they have it! It's a great place to find a quick, delicious, and cheap lunch. After a quick pita filled with roasted veggies and a glass of fresh-squeezed mango & coconut juice (best thing ever!), I was re-invigorated and ready to do some more exploring!
|Produce vendors peddling their wares - including delicious juice!|
|Artfully displayed figs|
|Seafood anyone? Caught fresh daily from the Mediterranean Sea|
|Ice-cold mango coconut juice: tastiest purchase ever!|
Art history lovers such as myself will know that Barcelona is quite the cultural hub - Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí has left a big mark on the city. Next up: a trip to Parc Güell, the tropical park built along the side of El Carmel hill.
|Antoni Gaudí, master Art Nouveau sculptor and architect|
Covering 42 acres with architectural elements by Gaudí, the ensemble is considered to be one of Europe's largest architectural structures and is listed as part of the "Works of Gaudí" UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
|Tropical foliage along El Carmel hill|
The park was constructed between 1900 and 1914, focusing around a long, mosaic-covered serpentine bench on the park's main terrace, evoking the form of a sea monster. Interestingly enough, it is rumored that Gaudí got a model to sit in wet clay and used the form of her butt to create the sinuous, super comfortable form of his benches...to each his own?
|Enjoying the sunshine on Gaudi's benches|
|The park's famous entrance, with a view of the Mediterranean in the background|
Parc Güell's entrance is flanked by two "gingerbread houses" that help to set the whimsical tone for the garden. Gaudí even sculpted the walls which support the terrace in the form of palm trees with specific niches created among them for birds to build nests in. You can't help but notice the shrill squawk and green flashes of the parrots who live in the park as they fly from palm tree to palm tree!
|Palm trees and parrots!|
We climbed up to the park's highest point to get an amazing view of the city, but in order to do that we had to scale a rather frightening rock formation. The steps rotated around the outside of this cylindrical monument and couldn't have been more than 8 inches wide, with no railing and imminent broken legs awaiting you if you happened to slip off the side. The 6 foot square platform at the top with 20 tourists crammed together (again, with no railing) was even more sketchy, but the views were worth it! (Refer to the panorama near the beginning of the Barcelona section of this post!) After snapping a few quick photos we hastily made our way back down to the ground.
|View from the top!|
|Just a little windy up here!|
Three façades for the church were originally planned: the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory (which has yet to be realized). The oldest side of the church is the one sheltering the Nativity, whose construction has been the most directly influenced by the hand of Gaudí, while the Passion side is more recent and had to be based off of the few remnants of plans left behind by the architect which survived the Spanish Civil War and attacks by Catalunyan anarchists. The Passion façade is the most famous and is distinguished by its melted wedding cake appearance. Newer additions to the church are easily spotted due to their fresher, brighter, non-weathered appearance, as opposed to the darker polluted-looking stone of the older constructions.
|The Nativity façade|
|The Passion Façade, ever under construction|
|Details from the Passion Façade|
Eric, Kasey and I were content with just viewing the exterior of the church - the 21.50€ entrance fee seemed a little steep, especially to see a building that's not even done being built yet. That being said, I can appreciate that the admission fees go towards the continued construction of the church, but I think I'll save that expense for a future visit. Here's a peek at what the ceiling inside looks like...
|Designed by Gaudi, the pillars are meant to echo tree trunks reaching high up to the forest canopy|
Aside from a little souvenir shopping, that pretty much wrapped up our day trip to Barcelona. Although it was a last-minute decision to go, I'm really happy we went and would love to make a return visit someday as the city has lots more to offer - the Olympic Stadium and Village, numerous museums, a beach along the Mediterranean...
|One of Girona's many narrow cobblestone streets|
After our train back to Girona, we were in search of a traditional Spanish tapas restaurant for dinner and asked the receptionist at our hostel for suggestions. She referred us to her favorite place, El Didal ("The Thimble," in Catalan), tucked away on a cobblestone street behind the city's cathedral. We scored a great table outside on the terrace and enjoyed a pitcher of sangria and quite the spread of tapas, which are small plates of appetizers to share, including patatas bravas (fried potato cubes with spicy aioli sauce), calamari fresh from the Mediterranean with a drizzle of lemon juice, puff pastries bursting with scallops and asparagus, biscuits topped with slices of chorizo, the list goes on...
It was all going so well until a bizarre encounter with a woman we thought was our waitress landed us inside the restaurant-turned-sex-shop, where we found ourselves being painted with erotic chocolate sauce, covered in edible fairy dust, tickled with feathers and being playfully whipped...in front of other diners...while they were trying to enjoy their dinner. Needless to say it was an awkward and bizarre, yet hilarious encounter and will live in infamy as one of our unforgettable memories of Spain!
|La catedral de Girona|
Once again, we had amazing weather for our last day in Girona - we took full advantage of the warm, sunny day to explore the city a little better before our evening train back to France. Situated at the confluence of 4 rivers - the Ter, Onyar, Galligants and Güell - Girona is home to the gorgeous cases de l'Onyar, "river houses," reminding me slightly of Florence. Their warm, typically Spanish colors give the city a vibrant hue that contrasts brilliantly against the blue sky and its reflection off the rivers.
|River houses over the Onyar|
|More cases and the city's Cathedral|
Girona's old city is surrounded by fortifications originally erected in the 1st century BC by the Romans to protect the settlement from invaders. Rebuilt again in the 14th century, the walls and guard towers still stand today, and visitors can walk along the top to get some excellent panoramic views of Girona - so of course we did just that!
|The Great Wall of...Girona?|
Speaking of panoramic views...
|Looking into the city of Girona|
|Looking away from the city into the Spanish countryside|
The views from the fortifications are simply breath-taking. Clear blue skies stretch above the city and back to the Pyrenees as far as the eye can see. And when looking over the back side of the wall, the viewer is afforded an unrestricted view of the wild, cactus-covered countryside.
|Soaking up the sunshine high atop a look-out tower|
|So many cacti!|
|"The three best friends that anyone could have..."|
|Eric and Kasey on the Wall|
|Omnipresent Catalunyan flags display strong regional pride|
Next stop: Nîmes! Later that night we boarded our umpteenth train en route back to France. Eric had invited us to stay at his place in Nîmes, located in southern France, as our travels into Spain had brought us down that way anyways. A settlement known as Nemausus during Roman times, Nîmes was founded by Julius Caesar as a colony for retired veterans - though archaeological studies have shown that communities had already formed in the area beginning around 4000 BC. After serving as a soldier for 15 years during Caesar's military campaigns along the Nile in Egypt, he gave his veterans parcels of land to cultivate here beside the Via Domitia, a Roman road linking Italy and Spain.
|The seal of Nîmes depicts a crocodile chained to a palm tree, representative of the Roman Emperor Augustus' victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra's fleet on the Nile in 31 BC|
I was fortunate enough to have made a brief visit to Nîmes back in 2008 during a vacation through France, visiting the nearby Pont du Gard aqueduct and quickly passing through the city, but I was elated to have a second chance to discover the city more deeply, as I had closely studied its cultural and historical facets in various art history classes during college. It always feels good to put what you learned to good use!
|At Pont du Gard (2008)|
Eric lives in a house with a woman and her 12 year-old son, and upon arriving at their home I was very excited to discover that they had a cat! Although it might sound strange at first, sometimes I miss my pets more than people at home - at least you can call/text/Skype with the people you miss, but try as I might to train my cats to be tech-savvy, I don't really have a way to connect with them when I'm thousands of miles from home! Needless to say, the cat at Eric's house (who doesn't have a name) got lots of attention from me during our stay!
|My cute little furry friend at Eric's|
Equally exciting, we had a gourmet lunch of moules-frites (mussels & fries) with some top-notch scenery - les Arènes de Nîmes! I developed a love for mussels during my travels through France, and when they're steamed in a mix of white wine, cream, onions and garlic, you can't really go wrong. Top it all off with a heaping plate of salty french fries and you've got yourself a delicious meal.
|Kasey and I, eager to dig in to our steaming pots of mussels|
|Mussels so fresh from the sea we found seashells and seaweed in our pots|
After stuffing ourselves with seafood, we headed across the street to take a tour of les Arènes. Constructed by the Romans in 70 AD, the amphitheater encloses an elliptical space 435 feet long by 330 feet wide, capable of holding a staggering 16,300 spectators. And while much larger Roman arenas still stand, the one here in Nîmes is considered to be the best preserved of them all. In Roman times the space hosted everything from gladiatorial battles to public executions, serving as one of the city's major entertainment venues. The arena is still used today, although the modern spectacles held here (concerts, bullfights, and other public events) are slightly less gruesome.
|Les Arènes de Nîmes|
We were on a Roman ruins kick, so we headed over to Les Jardins de la Fontaine to check out La Tour Magne, the sole remains of the ancient Augustan fortifications that once surrounded Nîmes. What a view from the top!
|La Tour Magne|
Also inside the Jardins de la Fontaine are remnants of the mysterious Roman Temple of Diana. Not much is known about its function or the origin of its name, though some say it once served as the Roman town library. Regardless, it is quite well-preserved and features intricate architectural carvings.
|Le Temple de Diane|
We went over to Eric's friend's apartment that night, and for some reason the three of us serendipitously changed into matching outfits. Normally, we would never leave the house looking this ridiculous, but we thought it was pretty funny so we just went with it - and got a few strange looks and comments from passersby along the way!
|"Are you all going to a color party?"|
The last thing left on my list of "Things to See in Nîmes" was La Maison Carrée (literally "The Square House"). Constructed in 16 BC under Agrippa and dedicated to his two sons (who became the adopted sons of the Emperor Augustus), this building draws on the temples of Apollo and Mars Ultor located in Rome and is the best-preserved temple found anywhere in the territory of the former Roman Empire. The Maison Carrée has served many functions throughout the centuries, acting as a stable, church, consular house and even an apartment. Today, visitors can enter the structure's small interior space (formerly home to a shrine) to view a 3D film about the history of Nîmes.
|La Maison Carrée|
The deep front porch, or pronaos, is nearly a third the length of the building, and the intricately sculpted Corinthian columns bring a regal air to the structure. Newly restored, the Maison Carrée's bright and gleaming stonework certainly steals the spotlight.
|Amazing sculpture has withstood the tests of time|
It was time to say good-bye to Nîmes and head back to Paris to spend our last couple day of vacation in the City of Light. After all of our adventures in new places, it was nice to be back "at home" in a city with which you're very familiar and don't need to rely on a map to find your way around. Eric and I got to spend a couple nights with Kasey in her apartment, and then headed back to our former host family's house to stay there for our last two nights.
|Hôtel de Ville in Paris|
[At the risk of sounding like a Parisian snob, I'll say that I didn't do very much that was noteworthy in Paris...ate falafel at my favorite restaurant, went to a movie, strolled down the Champs-Elysées, went to a couple parks, walked around by the Eiffel Tower, the usual...] Although Eric and I did go to the Parc aux Buttes Chaumont, a peaceful park in the 19th arrondissement which I had never been to before, and I played tour guide for one of Kasey's friends from home who was visiting one day while she was at work.
|L'Arc de Triomphe|
As much as I love to travel, after living out of a suitcase for 13 days and taking a total of 14 trains (never mind the countless journeys on various metros and buses), I was exhausted and couldn't have been happier to return to the sleepy little town of Forbach and finally sleep in my own bed again! I got back on Halloween, and tired as I was, I still mustered up enough energy to carve the pumpkin I had bought before vacation - I couldn't totally skip over Halloween!
|Cimitière de Montparnasse right before Halloween & La Toussaint (All Saint's Day)|
My next vacation's not until Christmastime, but I can't wait to find out where my travels will take me then!