We checked out of the hotel in the morning and paid one more visit to the Marseille harbor to see the St. Jean fort (under construction, so just a walk by), then to the Cathedral. Along the way we stopped by a quaint French cafe for breakfast that was just right. The Cathedral also sported the striped stone building construction, and inside was quite lovely. I swung by a candy shop on the way back to the car (it couldn’t be helped), and then we hit the road for Monaco.
The scenery was magnificent! I had not realized that Monaco is its own country because it’s a virtually impenetrable piece of France literally a part of the mountains along the Azure Coast. We drove through a long downward-winding tunnel and roadway catching snippets of incredible scenery as we entered Monte Carlo. Monaco is the second smallest country in the world with Monte Carlo the only city (not even) fitting inside its mile length. After a considerable amount of time zig zagging through the expensive looking buildings, Herr finally found a parking ramp. We proceeded in the direction of the coast and left Herr’s friend at the pebble beach while we caught a taxi up to the Aquarium. The building was lovely, but it was very crowded and small; unique though, with a giant octopus hanging from the ceiling in the main foyer and a second museum with the recently added royal wedding outfits. Jean Jacques Cousteau was once the director, too, which might explain the giant squid/octopus thing.
When we finally squeezed out of the building we didn’t have enough time to tour the Prince’s Palace, so we hopped a mini tour train to get back to the beach. It stopped at the casino, one of the well-known landmarks if ever you heard of Monaco or Monte Carlo, then walked the waterfront stopping for ice cream a few times along the way. Herr and I waded in the Mediterranean for a short time (just as salty in this part of the Med) before we jumped back in the car, promptly got lost in Nice, then passed out when we finally made it to the hotel (or at least I did soon after we ate).
The epic driving day. We started off at a decent hour following the main route parallel to the Azure Coast, which alternated between tunnels and bridges over large valleys with the sea on our right. It was a very scenic drive (aside from the tunnels), but I was finding it difficult to do homework (sad, I know, but it was due). I gave it up shortly after. Right before reaching Genoa, we turned north, got lost (and a bit frustrated) in Turin, then found the Alps. What a sight! Admittedly, I was bouncing around in the backseat with the camera, going from window to window trying to capture it all. Herr finally pulled over in the town of Hone, where we had some tasty Italian food (honestly, every time I get a calzone in Italy it’s nearly the size of my torsoâ€¦ it became my lunch the next day as well). We took some backroads for a while before jumping back on the route for the St. Bernard Tunnel, one of the longest road tunnels in the world. Cost a bit of money to get through as well, just FYI.
Switzerland was one big traffic jam, then Germany was one big rain storm. We were quite grumpy by the time we returned having lost an hour driving “through” Turin, an hour in traffic, an hour driving slowly in sometimes torrential rains, and we did stop for lunch tooâ€¦ we had one night to recuperate before jumping back in the car the next morning for the Czech Republic.
Herr had an acquaintance request a whirlwind tour of Europe. We learned several lessons from this (the biggest being we aren’t travel agents, so bring your own plans if you come to visit), but we went through a lot of countries doing it.
Because of a sudden car issue, we picked up a rental car and made our way south stopping in Geneva, Switzerland for a two hour break halfway through our way to Marseille, France. We found the lakefront, walking across the many bridges towards the water fountain (more like a geyser). Along the way was a fancy shopping district and the English Garden with its clock made of flowers.
Hopping back in the car, we drove down the south of France (discovering a multitude of tolls) and landed in Marseille. We were placed on the top floor without an elevator in hot and humid weather, so we were feeling miserable by the end of the day.
We were out the door bright and early thinking to catch the first boat to Chateau d’If. However, it didn’t leave at 7:30 a.m. like anticipated but rather 9:15 a.m. So after buying the tickets, we hiked up the big hill to the Basilica. Great views (after nearly dying from the steep slope) from a garden just under it, then up around the Basilica’s terrace. I particularly loved the “striped” pattern caused by using green-colored stone, and the interior reflecting a very nautical theme. Pretty quiet that early in the morning too, and cool, making the walk pleasant (and tiring). We had to book it back down the hill (sometimes going down is more difficult!) to catch the boat to the little island with Chateau d’If. The fortress is quite bare, but we all felt it was interesting enough to visit.
Once back, we jumped in the car for Avignon. Avignon was once a home to popes and was the initial cause for the Great Schism (when the pope relocated). We were pleasantly surprised; Avignon is a walled city along the Vaucluse River. We were melting as soon as we stepped out of the car, but that didn’t stop us from seeing the charm of this city. We visited the Palais des Papes (papal palace) and walked around town a bit, seeing the Avignon bridge with a chapel built in it as we followed the riverfront back.
But we weren’t done there. Hopping back in the car, we drove half hour west to see the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct. Herr had visited it over a decade ago and was surprised to find shops and a swimming area under the bridge. If we had known, I think we all would have joined the swimmers it was so hot!
That night we determined we should move our third night in France closer to the Italian border and go back north via Italy instead of France like originally planned (somewhat in hopes of avoiding more toll roads, to no avail). The hotel was okay with this, so Herr found a place in Nice.
Mont Saint Michel is one of those places you have to go. At night we were able to see the tides wrap around it like a protective blanket. It is the natural tides that kept this stronghold, founded around 708 CE, so safe for so long. When we arrived early in the morning (we made sure to get there just as it opened), the tides were still pulling away. I really wished we could have stayed on the pseudo island, but maybe some other time. 😉 The tides had sunk one of the parking lots, so cleaners were out to remove the salt that would erode the road away. In fact, you are not allowed to leave your car in any of the parking lots after a certain time because it may not be there when you get back, having been washed out with the riptide.
We walked the narrow winding road to the top, where the abbey watches over the French countryside. What a sight! Herr and I fought over the camera, and luckily Ozzy was easygoing enough that it didn’t bother him. After spending a few hours there, we traveled down the now packed narrow street to a restaurant that overlooked the tidal plain. I went all out and ordered grilled lobster and Herr got the standard three course French meal. My lobster came out halved with everything still intact, so I think that will be my last lobster experience for a long time. 😛 It was good, but creepy. We left late after waiting quite a while for Herr’s dessert, which made the trip back into a crazy escapade!
We left around 1:30 p.m. and needed to drop the car off in Versailles before 6 p.m. then catch our ICE train by 7 p.m. We got Ozzy to Bayeaux (about an hour out off the path and back) and back on the road by 3:30 p.m. I was really stressing out at that point because we had nearly three hours left of the trip to take. Google Maps listed it as three hours total, but I knew from the day before it would take twice as long. That in mind, Herr did the only thing he could… went fast. Through rain and construction zones, but luckily no heavy traffic. He was extremely tired and we were both very certain we were not going to get the car back in time.
It was at this point we both decided to stop thinking negatively and turned our energy towards hope and optimism. I just had to stay calm and think it was all going to work out in the end. We hit the outskirts of the cities around 5 p.m. (our car was technically due back in fifteen minutes at that point). The directions I had in hand were incomplete and required an hour trek through the city. Herr decided to take an earlier exit that rendered those instructions useless. Amazingly, we took a road that led directly to the Versailles chateau from the north. Incredible! We knew exactly where we were, and there was even a gas station a few blocks before the rental place. We turned it in, running, ten minutes before closing.
But we were still in Versailles (south west of Paris) and needed to be in north eastern Paris. Fortunately, an SNCF train station was two blocks from the rental place. We ran there, waited as patiently as possible in line to get tickets, found out the metro to Montparnasse was leaving in less than a minute, ran to it, and the train pulled away just as we sat down.
We got to Montparnasse in south Paris at 6:25 p.m. No time to breathe, we ran nearly a kilometer to the other end of the Montparnasse station to the local metro 4 line that arrived ten seconds after we reached it. Crowded and hot (Europeans do not believe in air conditioning), we had to ride it thirteen stops to Gare de L’Est. Thirteen! With twenty minutes before departure, it was all we could do. Again, luckily, the metro arrived directly under Gare de L’Est, unlike Montparnasse. We had little under ten minutes, so we ran like mad up the stairs and to the long distance train platforms. We got on that train with five minutes to spare. I thought I would just cry at that point, but I was too thirsty from the heat and running. What a race against time!
I am ready to settle down for a few weeks and not go anywhere. I have done a ton of traveling, work and leisure (if running and being jet lagged can be called leisure). Mont Saint Michel was so worth it, but oy vei! What a trip!
After returning from a week of training in the States, Herr set up our third trip to France that included joining his old childhood friend to Versailles and Mont Saint Michel. I was not too enthusiastic about him setting it up on Tuesday and Wednesday with my jet lag and incredible piles of work with deadlines, but I really wanted to see Versailles and Mont Saint Michel, so we kept the dates.
Tuesday we got up bright and early to catch our 6:30 a.m. train to Karlsruhe, where we caught the super fast TGV train (it runs up to 350 kph). I found the TGV more comfortable than the ICE trains because of the extra foot rests, tray tables and cup holders, and a reading light. It was like an airplane except much more room and no need to wear a seatbelt. The seats weren’t as stiff as well. Once we arrived in Gare de L’Est station, Herr’s friend was nearly an hour late showing up, and we spent nearly another hour with me speaking and understanding minimal French chasing after tour-package tickets that no longer existed.
We finally just purchased standard metro tickets to Versailles and met a nice well-to-do man who spoke passionately on architecture and engineering and its representation of humanity and what we are capable of achieving. When we arrived at the palace, the lines were unbelievable. It snaked through the courtyard with improbability, and after several minutes Herr decided to go back to the train station to purchase tickets there. It took another twenty minutes (I had made it through a third of the line) when he returned with the tickets. We waited in another line to go through metal detectors and were jostled through the people-crowded furniture-empty rooms with painting reproductions hanging on the walls. As you can tell, I wasn’t terribly impressed by Versailles. I so prefer the off season!
The Hall of Mirrors was worth seeing, but the mirrors are extremely dirty, and again, so many people! I got to use my maneuvering skills quite a few times. Oh, and bring your own water!! None of the shops sell liquid and there is only the bathroom at the beginning of the palace. I was so parched having to stand in the sunny line and pressed in by so many people that by the time we made it to the gardens, I had no more energy. We sat on the stairs overlooking the fountains and man made lakes anticipating the musical watershow. But that never happened. It was absolutely beautiful, though. We began walking towards the larger lake when we noticed some small cafes in the large hedges. Yay!! We ate and I inhaled a full tea and ice cream.
It was getting quite late in the afternoon by the time we got back to the gardens. I felt so much better I started taking photographs of the flowers in bloom, but Herr was determined to pick up the car rental on time and was pulling us out. I was so sad!! If you only have a little time and are there in the spring/summer, go to the gardens, not the palace!
We made it to the car rental only a few minutes late for our appointment, so we struggled a few minutes in what Herr now calls “Franglish” to get the paperwork done. We ended up in a little Citroen C2, and Herr got his first experience driving in France! Luckily, it wasn’t Paris, but we hit Parisian rush hour as we tried to escape the city. It took us nearly six hours to get through Les Mans and Fougeres to Beauvoir, a small town near Mont Saint Michel. It should have only been four hours. Herr’s friend Ozzy decided to spend big bucks and call our hotel to tell them we wouldn’t be there in time. They were kind enough (and spoke English!) to leave our rooms unlocked for us. Oh, and I must add, there are a TON of cows in France! They are everywhere!
We didn’t make it in until 11:30 p.m. The hotel was definitely not classy, but it had a bed, which is all we needed it for. It smelled and felt like a musty cabin. We hopped back in the car to get some night shots of the mont before crashing for the night.