Category Archives: France

This Adventure Made Possible By…

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Anna Maria Esposita for finding us on the side of the road in Salerno, putting up with our feeble attempts at Italian, and magically making our luggage appear out of nowhere.  Maya, for introducing us to AirBnB in the first place…our travels will never be the same.  Our barista in Vietri Sul Mare (thank you for the doughnuts, we hope you made it to Australia!), and our wildly flirtatious maitre d’ (that wine was impressively strong!).  Fernando, for the ride to the Tiber (we’re sorry if we gave the impression that we wanted to boat back to Rome).  Pope Francis for instilling humanity into our visit to the Vatican.  University of Manitoba College of Medicine for changing the direction of our lives while sitting in a Roman burlap tent!  Jamie Pierce, for pointing us in the direction of Cinque Terre in the first place.  Kaya and Aeden for being the best roommates we could have asked for, and Sarah, Alicia, and Stacey for getting lost with us in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And for the calamari cones.  Genius.  The Lemon Man, for delicious homemade wine with a side of really disgusting jokes, and the Pizza Man for abusing/believing in your employees (either way, you made a pizza in record time, well done!).  Pak Kashmir Doner Kebab for starting a 3-month-long love affair with kebab…and for not judging us when we came back twice in one day.  The Sprachcaffe receptionist for helping two confused travelers find a place to sleep in a language school.  Pietro for being a (very charming) walking encyclopedia of Florentine espionage.  All’antico Vinaio for your legendary sandwiches and free wine refills (no, seriously, it’s for real!).  The lovely couple who shared coffee with us on the train to Venice.  Archie & sons…your front hall will forever evoke in us a sense of oriental mystery.  The kiosco girl (and all of Vienna, for that matter) for your patience as we realized we knew literally NO Deutsch (“Card!…48?”).  The Musikverien Usher for engaging us in a Viennese musical intrigue and, therefore, much better seats!  Our Bulgarian/Brazillian (Bulgrillian?) cellist hostel roommate.  We tried to find you on iTunes but alas we were…so far…but…so close.  The Heinrich and Kress families for welcoming us so generously into your homes (and travel snacks that nearly broke the bus tables!).  Artur & Irina, we feel like we have a real home in Germany thanks to you.  Robert, Christian, and Erwin, we hope we can jam and play Dutch Blitz again one day!  Johannes for an unexpected evening of German tango (we’ll bring our dancing shoes next time).  Julia & your roommate for making us feel so at home in Köln.  Viel Glück to both of you in your new jobs!  Oma for always talking about your home country and inspiring us to retrace your Sunday walks down the Rhine.  Maybe one day we can go back with you!  Linda, dankjewel for your bikes, your lovely attic, and taking a chance on us as your first AirBnBers!  Edwin and Farah, for taking the time to hang out with us even with your wedding being a week away.  Once a WOOFer, always a WOOFer (ps come to Manitoba, we’ll take you to the snake pits!)  The stars, for aligning so perfectly as to allow us to have a lovely lunch with Dorien.  The Alma Dixons for getting us to and from Europe in the first place (Mom, your axiom of ‘would you rather have stuff or memories?’ has successfully stuck with me into adulthood) and for showing us all the places you always talk about.  The Farnham Dixons for a lovely afternoon and some authentically British fish’n’chips (sans mushy peas, thank-you!).  Wendy for taking this whole motley crew into your home and showing us around Glastonbury. Elly for introducing us to your family (I cannot imagine a more adorable kid to blow bubbles with than your granddaughter) and an evening of reminiscing about icebergs and penguins.  Pete & Patricia for the most incredible Welsh hospitality, and for driving us all over the country at all hours of the night.  Mark Hanford for keeping us simultaneously amused and not dead as we threw ourselves off cliffs into the sea (still waiting for those carpets!).  The disembodied Welsh couple whose voices helped us find our way out of the mist and back to the path somewhere on Mount Snowdon.  Jack Johnson, for being you, and for entirely coincidentally being in Paris at the same time as us.  Andréanne, for showing us around your beautiful new Swiss home.  Irene and Martin for sharing so many things with us: your inspiring work and outlook on life and faith, the truly breathtaking landscapes, and yes, the little bears :P.  Andreas and Simone, also for sharing so many things with us (like mother like son, eh?): your friends, your family, your food, your car, your bike…. That night with the giant map (and the many road trips that ensued) is still a memory that we talk about regularly!  Aric and Gabriel, for being as excited about the high-ropes garden as we were and never judging us on our (lack of) Swiss German. Joël for sharing your beautiful pays et famille. Yannick for the best duck I’ve ever tasted, and Hélène for showing us the work you’re doing to help new immigrants become self-sufficient in Toulouse.  Ron, Nicole, Aimée, Sean (and yes, Cougar) for making us recognize the name Carcassonne, even if we’ll never pronounce it properly.  Les Cabys des Taillades (et oui, de Paris aussi!) for sharing your passion for history, many hours of games (we now have our own Möllky set!), French puns, and more wine and cheese than any North American could comprehend.  Mami Caby, for a beautiful afternoon in St. Jean du Gard, and the silk scarf that’s currently on display in our living room.  Isaac and Sylvia of JUCUM Barcelona for the generous hospitality, the 2AM tour of your majestic city, and showing us what we truly believe is the best beach in Europe.  Hind, Nour, and Adam for helping us finish off the bag of snails and confirming everything we’d heard about the welcoming nature of Moroccans.  Nour, of Sahara Desert Crew, for an unforgettable few days of sights and culture unlike anything else we’ve ever seen (also, your mad photography skills. ‘Nuff said.).  Cafe Restaurant Nora, for providing a literal oasis in the desert (Nothing tastes as good as Berber pizza and Berber whiskey at +50C!) The Samnoun family for taking us in when our hostel was suddenly infested with bedbugs, and Bousha for introducing us to the madness of the Medina (and many, many friends ;)…)

And of course, contributions from VIEWERS LIKE YOU!

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La famille française

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When my wonderful friend Kat disappeared to Montreal for three years, to study and work with JEM (Jeunesse en Mission, or YWAM), she came home with not only increased love for the French community in general, but also for one member of this community in particular: Joël, from the south of France. They were married in 2008, and much to my delight, moved into a house within walking distance of our apartment in Winnipeg. However, whenever I talk about these dear friends to others, the reaction is the same: “Wait… He’s from the south of France? And they stayed here??” While though there are many good answers to these questions, it was only after finally having the chance to visit his beautiful home and family in les Cévennes that I could truly appreciate the enormous sacrifice Joël made by moving to Canada.

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Les Cévennes, a low mountain chain winding between the Languedoc Roussillon and Auvergne in the South of France, are a unique region of France. The only French national park in the low mountains, the région Cévénol is filled not only with incredible natural beauty, like beech forests, chestnut trees, ancient oliviers, and the clear waters of the Gardon rivers; but is also home to many layers of fascinating history. From the brief but bloody Camisard wars, to the long years of peaceful resistance by the Huguenots against a tyrannical monarchy; from ancient trade routes with Asia and the silk worm industry that brought wealth to the Cévennes in the 19th century to ancient tombs of Celtic tribes dating from the last millennium BC, one would need a personal tour guide to thoroughly appreciate the richness of this region (and fancy that, we just happened to have one! :D)

A barrow (ancient tomb) of tribal Celts
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En route (well, “en route” in a “I’m a Canadian and have a rental car, so no distance is that far!!” kinda way) to Les Taillades, where Joël’s parents live, we stopped in Toulouse to visit Joël’s sister Hélène and her husband Yannick, and the third member of their household:

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Helene works as a social worker in a community épicerie, or grocery store, where we spent our mornings volunteering. At the épicerie, clients with financial needs can purchase good quality food at a fraction of the price, while receiving one-on-one financial counseling from the trained staff. It is an amazing alternative to a soup kitchen, since it not only empowers clients through the independence to choose their own food, but it also gives the clients tools to address the root causes of their difficulties in order to break the cycle of poverty.

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View of “La Ville Rose” from the seaside Ferris wheel:
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Our first (but thankfully far from last!) French cheese course:
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As we drove from Toulouse to Les Taillades, plains began to softly roll into hills. Joël’s parents, Mado and Michel, met us at the Anduze bus station. Michel just retired this year after twenty-some years of running Le Musée du Desert, a museum chronicling the history of the Huguenots (French Protestants) in the Cévénol region. It was evident that they were loving the luxury of retirement – sleeping in, long afternoons playing hilarious Scandinavian lawn games – but old habits die hard, and almost immediately upon greeting us at the bus station, Michel’s inner historian rose to the fore.

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Michel obviously knew his stuff: As we stood in the street receiving his history lesson, a young guy walking by stopped and exclaimed, “That’s true, man! I’m glad somebody knows the real history of this place!”

After so many years of friendship with Kat and Joël, it was so special to finally see the places and people that have inspired so many of their stories. Mado and Michel were incredible hosts, making sure that we experienced la vraie vie française.

Le Pont des Camisards
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One of the secret caves in which Huguenots would hold their forbidden church services
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One of Michel’s many riddles and word games (“Michel, t’es juste comme Joël!” :P)
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Gastronomical delights: Breakfast in a bowl, French barbeque with regional sausages, homemade digestifs…
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Quintessential afternoon activities:
Mökkly aka Scandinavian bowling
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Pétanque aka French bocce ball that is played intensely and everywhere from our backyard… (les Parisiens vs. les Canadiens – we only lost by 2!!)
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…to Nîmes’ centre square
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Our private tour of Le Musée du Desert
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Secret cupboard used by Huguenots to hide from the King’s soldiers
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“Résister!” The motto of the Huguenots during their long years of persecution
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Ps. Joël, I peed in your bedroom 😛
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Le Pont du Gare: the tallest aqueduct ever constructed by the Romans (1st century AD)
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Olive tree, providing shade since the year 908
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Marché du St. Jean de Gare
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Lunch with beautiful Mami, Joël’s grandmother
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Le Gardon
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Only a 10-minute walk to an oasis from the heat!
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And finally, bien sûr: le fromage. Oh, le fromage…
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Hélène, Yannick, Mado, Michel, Nico, Clémence, Laure, Mami… Merci encore pour une visite inoubliable. Votre générosité était un bénédiction énorme. On est hâte à vous voir bientôt – soit en Winnipeg, soit encore à la France! Gros bisous!! xxx

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Les miscellanées

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Those of you regular followers of saratreetravels may have noticed a few inconsistencies in these archives, and it’s high time that those were addressed. Yes, we were in Rome and Venice, in Vienna and Paris, and yes, those places were as beautiful and unique as everyone knows them to be. And that is precisely the reason they have not appeared here: these are places that belong to all of humanity and have already been well-documented elsewhere.

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Why bring this up now? Because the flipside of this coin is that sometimes a bizarre and incredible experience occurs off the beaten track and MUST be documented, despite not fitting into any logical itinerary. Renting a car and having multiple schedule-free days seems to invite these experiences, so here goes:

Carcassonne

If you batted even a slight eyelash of recognition at this name, odds are you are a board game fan of the Settlers of Catan variety. In Carcassonne, players strategically build towers, walls, and roads in order to edge their opponents out of valuable territories. The bottom of the game box offers a short description of the real Carcassonne, a walled city in France built over the course of many centuries, but most players are more concerned with keeping the cat off their neatly arranged rows of tiles.

When we saw that our route was going to take us within one exit of this difficult-to-pronounce city, we thought it was at least worth a stop. We followed the signs through a fairly modern and non-board-game-inspiring city, turned a corner, and suddenly saw exactly what we were looking for.

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The impossible abundance of castles in Europe can leave a visitor befuddled, particularly when they are used so casually as landmarks (“oh, you’re looking for a kebab stand? There’s one just left of that castle over there.”). Yet Carcassonne may well be the most awe-inspiring one we’ve seen yet, with the almost-eerie lack of tourists being an added bonus. We spent the brief time we had clambering up its turrets and through its endless rings of walls. We highly recommend it for your next road trip through the south of France (or at least your next board game night!)

2. La montagne des singes

As we sipped our welcome-wine with our fantastic Airbnb hosts in Alsace, they started informing us of the many interesting sights in the area. Concentrating hard to keep up with the rapid French (I’m okay in a sprint, but the endurance marathons kill me!), I vaguely understood that there was a mountain not too far away that caused Sara to make a rather surprised and bemused face. Once I pinpointed the mystery word in question, I nudged Sara and asked, “Quel est ‘singes’?”, to which she quickly muttered, “Monkey!” and continued the conversation.

So, somewhere in France close to the German border there is a mountain of monkeys. And that was after translation!

Upon actually visiting this mountain, however, we can confirm that there is indeed a mountain filled with an endangered species of Moroccan monkey. No cages, just a big park where the monkeys can safely swing from trees and enjoy the popcorn that is given freely to visitors at the entry gate.

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Human parents really need to perfect this one-handed babysitting technique:
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This adorable puckered-lip face, I later learned, is how monkeys signal that they are about to attack. The big fangs-bared face, meanwhile, is how they show affection. Obviously my lack of French was not the only translation issue.
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3. From Here to Now to You

Maybe it’s not off the beaten track (downtown Paris is pretty sufficiently beaten), but it certainly doesn’t happen every day. As Sara previously mentioned, buying Jack Johnson tickets in Paris was actually the first concrete travel plan we made, way back in February. The man is not only rhythmic genius and guitar god, but his inspiring words of love, for his family and for the world as a whole, make his music addictive on a much deeper level as well.

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Merci beaucoup, Jacques, for an amazing evening! And merci, Europe, for all the unexpected finds!

The right place at the right time

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Throughout our travels, Sara and I have often thought about how great it would be to arrive in a new city just as some big significant event is beginning, to witness the locals celebrating something they are legitimately passionate about. Alas, this has never happened (save for an incident involving prom queens hurling watermelons at crowds and shirtless men with tridents) …until now.

As plans with our incredible Swiss cousins took shape, we realized that we were taking a very serendipitous detour. Instead of heading south to the French Riviera (where hostels and train tickets had already been scooped up by throngs of tourists), we were very nicely positioned to rent a car and hit not one but THREE events of extreme national importance.

We bid a fond farewell to Andreas, Simone, and their boys at the Basel airport, since we’d have to pick the car up in France in order to avoid border-crossing fees. Fortunately we didn’t actually have to fly anywhere:

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Our faithful steed
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After enjoying a glass of local Alsacian wine with our lovely airbnb hosts, we headed to our first stop: Germany. No particular destination, just anywhere with a screen, some Deutsch brew, and some patriotic football fans. In the town of Kehl, just across the Rhine, we found exactly what we were looking for:

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The crowd thinned a bit after halftime, when the torrential downpour started growing increasingly cold. Fortunately it left only the most hardcore fans (and us, but I suppose that makes us hardcore).

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It was pretty tearing to see the country we were IN (and had grown to love) going up against the country we’d long adopted as our second home. Ultimately I’m glad Germany won, not only because the chorus of horns honking echoed behind us the whole way back into France, but let’s face it, the winning goal was REALLY impressive.

Our second stop was an hour drive south, to the small city of Mulhouse (pronounced muh-LOOZ), where stage 10 of the Tour de France was departing. Despite the banner-waving crowds and adorable tweens running around with notepads hoping for autographs, we were able to get right up to the makeshift fence as the cyclists took their place at the starting line.

The starting line. Full disclosure, the in-town starting lines are purely for show…the cyclists will bike a few kilometres out of town, where they will legitimately start the race with a little less pomp and ceremony. If you’ve ever wondered how the race works (when most of the images we see on TV involve cyclists packed together like sardines, unable to pass each other), check it out here, it’s pretty much the most complicated thing on earth!
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Locals appreciating the scene from the comfort of their own balconies.
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The yellow jersey, the race’s most prestigious symbol, worn here by the current first place contestant, Tony Gallopin (alas, he would be forced to give it up at the end of the day!)
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The day happened to be the 14th of July, known throughout the world as Bastille Day, but in France simply as fête national. We were told that Strasbourg had some of the best fireworks around, but some less-than-accurate directions steered us the wrong way. As we finally found the right exit off the freeway, however, the sky exploded in front of us. A convenient construction barrier on the side of the exit ramp provided the perfect place to watch the celebration.

Strasbourg’s fireworks display, celebrating the victory of reason over monarchical insanity.
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The closed exit ramp was a pain to most, but it afforded an excellent view for us!
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In sum, Glückwünsch, Deutschland; bonne voyage, cyclistes; and heureuse Fête Nationale, France. Thanks for a ridiculously eventful 48 hours!

Vimy

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As a recently graduated Canadian history teacher, it was difficult to justify passing through northern France and NOT paying a visit to Vimy Ridge. Being in the middle of nowhere, as battlefields often were back then, we opted to rent a car and make the two-hour drive from Paris on our own. Driving a car in Europe was an experience in and of itself, but that’s another post.

After WWII, France (understandably) took on the task of restoring the battlefields from hellish wastelands to useable property. Only Vimy remains, dedicated to Canada as a token of thanks for the sacrifices made in April 1917. The Canadian government maintains the area, preserving the site of this gruesome battle in order to remind all of us of the cost of war.

The view from the Ridge. It’s easy to see why this was a strategic point to capture, with invaders having nothing to protect them from the artillery on top. The Vimy Glide was Canada’s strategic response, and remains one of Canada’s most significant military strokes of genius.
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The memorial. The looming clouds of that particular day were an excellent backdrop to the blinding white of this awe-inspiring marble monument.
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Though now covered with grass, the pounding of artillery shells is still visible in the unnatural craters that mark the landscape.
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Both the Canadian and German trenches have been preserved, creating a shoulder-high labyrinth that crisscrosses the ridge.
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The gap between the white signpost on the right and the hilltop on the left marks the closest point between the two systems of trenches. Both sides were fully aware of how near they were to the other, and yet they refrained from attacking until the orders came. We’re reminded that these soldiers, brave as they were, were pawns in a game being played very far away.
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Beneath the trenches ran an equally immense system of tunnels used for delivering supplies and carting away the wounded. As the battle progressed, the tunnels became yet another theatre of war, with each side literally ‘undermining’ the other and collapsing their lines of supply.
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The Vimy Ridge Memorial does an incredible job of confirming exactly what we as history teachers try to convey to our students: the battle was incredibly significant for Canada as a sovereign nation and a necessary victory within the context of the war. More importantly, it honours the sacrifice made by each of these soldiers, while at the same time acknowledging that war is insanity and must never be considered as an option for resolving conflict between nations.