Location: Paris, France
Well it has been a long time coming and we hope we didn't leave too many of you on the edge of your seats, wondering how our European Extravaganza ends in Paris. It's now approximately two and half months since we finished our tour and arrived in London. Unfortunately London life seems to have taken over and what with trying to find jobs, a place to live and dealing with all the bureacratic hum drum of settling in the UK, we forgot all about updating our blog.
So with all the excuses over, let's get on with Paris.... With five nights in Paris, we thought we had plenty of time to explore all the sights. We could easily have spent another five nights there and still not seen everything we wanted to.
Along with the thousands of other tourists in Paris we took in the usual suspects of sights including the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Seine, Notre Dam, Champe D'Elyse, Jardin Tuleries, and a very quick walk around Montmartre - the list goes on. The Eiffel Tower apparently tops the list of the most disappointing tourist attractions, but we actually thought it was pretty cool. The view is amazing even if you only glimpse it through the fencing.
We of course couldn't miss the Louvre and even though we spent half a day there, we only caught a glimpse of most works of art and towards the end it felt like we were running through the museum just to see everything. Mona Lisa - tick, Venus di Milo - tick, hundreds of other amazing paintings and artifacts - tick.
Perhaps the highlight of our Paris experience was the Chateau Versaille. By the time we arrived in Paris we had seen our fair share of chateaus and impressive castles and palaces, but Versaille is in a class of its own - other than the palace itself, which is all gold, mirrors, marble and paintings, the gardens are spectacular. We took a row in a boat on the man-made lake, with Matt doing most of the rowing, then walked to Marie Antoinette's hamlet.
While we were in Paris, we became regulars of a local bar in the Latin Quarter, where we drank Martini and watched the soccer almost every night. We were quite sad to leave as the bartender would always say hello to us. He was perhaps one of the very few friendly Parisiens we encountered though!
So that's it. Our tour of Europe had finished and we headed off to London on the Eurostar train. We had such a wonderful time travelling around but we both couldn't wait to settle down in one place and stop packing and unpacking our backpacks and lugging them around everywhere!
Location: Tours, France
Well from the blustery beaches of Saint Malo we arrived in Tours, in the picturesque Loire Valley. One of the main reasons for coming to Loire Valley was to visit some of the chateaux in the region, so yesterday we went on a great mini-bus tour, which took in four of the chateaux. Firstly, it was the regal Chenonceau, which is built over the Cher river. Then it was on to the town of Amboise and the château there, where Leonardo Da Vinci is buried. Matt was quite taken with the Tuscan style gardens of the chateau!
The huge château of Chambord is without a doubt the most impressive of the lot, due to the sheer size. Built by Francois I, it has a double helix staircase and so many rooms we would have to spend all day to see them all! We finished the day at Cherveny, which is probably the best preserved château because occupants lived there until quite recently. The château is famous for its hunting hounds and we were there for the 5pm feeding, which was an eye-opener.
The master of the dogs lined up all the meat in one enclosure and the dogs (100) were in another fenced off section. They were quietly sitting there when all of a sudden the bell for 5pm went and they started barking and going crazy. He let them into the meat enclosure and they raced up to the meat but stayed about a metre away from it, barking at the master. He kept them there for about 5mins and then when he gave them the signal they pounced on the meat, jumping over each other to get to it all you could see was a sea of wagging tails!
Today we spent a leisurely day in Tours. It is right on the Loire river and we found an excellent cafe right down by the river, where we lounged under a big tree drinking sangria and reading for hours all in all a great day!
Location: Saint Malo, France
Wow that actually gets us up to date to where we are - finally - in Saint Malo! It is a walled seaside city in north west France and all who visit should be warned about the psycho seagulls! Now seagulls in Europe are not your little seagulls in Australia, they are much bigger and I dare say smarter! We were sitting in a park overlooking the ocean on our first morning in Saint Malo, enjoying a croissant, and a seagull flew up and stood in front of us eyeing our food. We ignored it and kept eating until it got closer and closer, then it made a swoop for my head, which I covered with my hands and croissant. It took half the croissant right out of my hand! A bit freaked out we made a hasty exit, only to be swooped on again byt the same seagull, who ahd a go at my head again!
Being a Hitchcock fan, it was a little too reminiscent of the film The Birds for my liking - it all started when a seagull swooped Tippi Hedren! Other than the seagulls, Saint Malo is a great town and we have discovered the wonderful cider and crepes and have been eating and drinking plenty! Yesterday we went to Mont St Michel - a fortified abbey located on a rocky island on the ocean. Even from ages away it stands out on the horizon like pointy triangular formation. As one of France's top tourist atttractions it was packed with tourists, but we had a great tour through the abbey on the pinacle on the island, with great views over the ocean and salt flats.
Today we took a walk along the Grand Plage - the big beach, which amazingly was quite similar to the beaches we know in Australia - real sand, not stones, and waves. It is a beautiful beach and a lovely sunny day, but nowhere near warm enough for a swim unfortunately - I am wearing a jumper and scarf!
The Euro 2008 soccer starts tonight, which is a big deal for every country in Europe, so we plan to watch the soccer in a pub drinking cider, but we may skip the crepes after three consecutive nights of crepes! Sorry that was a long entry!
Location: Bordeaux, France
Well we knew we were in for some intense wine appreciation in Bordeaux - and looking forward to it as well! The city lives and breathes wine, but it is also a very forward looking and happening place. We started off with a tour on another Petit Tourist Train, just to get a feel for the city, then had a walk along the River Garonne, where we couldn't resist a paddle - feet only - in the water mural.
The next day we had a bus tour of the Blaye and Bourg wine coutnry, including visits to two wineries. It was a great experience to walk through the vieyards and then see the huge concrete vats where they store the wine and let it settle, then the oak barrels where they mature the wine. Oak barrels cost about 600 Euros each and are only good for up to three years, after which all the positive properties they have for enhancing and maturing the wine are lost - the wineries then sell the barrels back to the cooper for just 20 Euros!
We also had a few tastings and bought a bottle of course! As part of the wider Bordeaux wine region there are some pretty strict regulations all wineries must follow - no irrigation of the vines, and no wine can be made from one type of grape - so no bottles are merlot or cab sav, they are always a mixture of grapes and are named for the chateaux, rather than the type of grape.
Back in Bordeaux we paid a visit to the Bar du Vin - the official house of wine for Bordeaux, where we enjoyed a glass of red accompanied with cheeses, meat and bread with sultanas and walnuts - what a feast!
Location: Carcassonne, France
I thought Carcassonne was going to be a small town and one of the quieter places on our trip - not so! Carcassonne is in the south west corner of France, near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. It is famed for its old fortified medieval town, which sits on a hill above the "new" town.
Despite the hordes of tourists in the old city, the medieval toan of Carcassonne is amazing. As soon as we walked in I said to Matt, this kind of reminds me of scenes from Kevin Costner's Robin Hood movie. Funnily enough, we went on an audio guide tour of the castle and found out that many films have been made in the old city, including Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Clearly, Courtney and I watched it way too many times! Bryan Adam's Everything I Do, song just wouldn't get out of my head the whole time we were there!
Walking around the old city, you could imagine the knights running along the walls to fight the enemy outside the gates. Carcassonne is pretty unique because it has double fortified walls - an inner and outer wall with a grassy space between where knights practised fencing and so on. We walked all around the walls and also through the old village, with the half timbered and stone houses.
Carcassonne was actually attacked during the crusades against the Cathars, because the Viscount of the city was tolerant of the Cathars and let them have refuge there. In 1209 the city was attacked and many people died until the Viscount offered himself up in exchange for the freedom of his people. Anyway enough about the city - it is such an interesting place and the history of the area is too!
Other highlights of our trip of Carcassonne - eating cassoulet, Steph drinking a red beer (beer with red syrup) and our many picnics by the river Aude. We also took a punt up the man-made Canal du Midi, which is the 250km long canal from Toulouse to Sete. It was a 2 hour tour and we went through two locks, which are pretty amazing to see how they work! We were inspired to hire a boat and spend a week or two cruising the canal - one day!
Location: Montpellier, France
We had an interesting time in Montpellier - started off not so well but we ended up loving the city! We thought we had ourselves a bargain when we booked our hotel over the internet, but when we arrived we soon realised the bargain was probably a fair price for the hotel! We only ended up staying the one night instead of the three planned. Let's just say the seedy neighbourhood, grubby bathrooms with plumbing that didn't quite work, paper thin walls and bed bugs were a little too much for a three night stay.
Unfortunately we spent half of our first full day in Montpellier looking for another hotel to stay in and luck wasn't on our side. There was a huge convention in the city and all accommodation was booked up for the next few days. We were fortunate to find a room in a great hotel in the old quarter of the city for one night so we decided to go to Carcassonne - our next stop - one day early because it was too difficult to find anywhere else to stay in Montpellier.
After we switched hotels we could relax and discover the city and what better way than on the ultra-touristy Le Petit Train - a tourist train ride around the city. The old quarter of Montpellier is beautiful with lots of classical-style private mansions, quiet squares, and antique shops (Mum take note!). On our last morning we walked through the Arc de Triomphe - a small version of the one in Paris, then strolled through the Chateau Peyrou and the gardens there.
Location: Aix en Provence, France
Located in the heart of Provence, north of Marseille, Aix en Provence is a great little city. Unfortunately we didn't get to experience as much of it as we would have liked because we had to get our CVs finished and had to spend part of one day doing that. The other problem was we were there on a Sunday, which means in France that almost everything is closed. Not to worry though because we walked the main tree-lined street, had a beer and wine in one of the street cafes, then wound our way through the narrow lanes of the old quarter. You might have noticed that most cities we visit have an old quarter!
Aix en Provence is known as a city of fountains, as there is a fountain around every corner! Most are covered in moss which is interesting.
With a bit of bad weather we decided it was the ideal opportunity to head to the cinema and see Indiana Joes - I had been driving Matt crazy singing the theme song every time we saw an advertisement or poster for the movie, so we had to see it at some stage! Luckily for us they actually subtitled the movie instead of the usual European practice of dubbing, so we could understand every word! I must say though that Matt is getting pretty proficient in French - well he can order for us at cafes and restaurants and get train tickets!
Location: Marseille, Italy
Marseille is a town of many sights mostly involving water beaches, the harbour and islands. We had a great time in Marseille, but had a small issue with our accommodation. We turned up to the hotel we booked and it turns out they had confused me with a Stephanie Tom who was booked in for exactly the same nights as us. As a consequence we had no room luckily they could give us a triple room for one night but the other two they had nothing. So we headed to the tourist office to find ourselves somewhere to stay. The problem was Marseille was full we tried everywhere. Finally the lady at the tourist office found us a room at the Ibis a bit out of the main harbour area but we had somewhere to stay at least!
After staying the night at the hotel we were originally booked for we packed up and headed to the Metro to catch a train to our new hotel as it was quite a way from the centre. We got to the Metro and wondered why all these people were chanting and marching and why the station was all locked up yes it was our first French workers strike. Apparently it happens quite a lot. So with no other option, off we went with our mammoth packs to walk about an hour to our hotel I don't think our shoulders recovered for days after!
Other than that Marseille was fantastic. We took a boat trip to the Château D'If of Count of Monte Cristo fame, where we walked through the cells and got up close and personal with the oversized seagulls on the island. We also walked along the coastline and lay on one of the beaches, which was nice. We also took a bus tour of the town during peak hour and got a first-hand experience of a French trafic jam a lot of angry French people in small cars with loud horns driving like crazy people!
We enjoyed the old Le Panier quarter of Marseille, with it's old buildings and quaint soap shops we discovered Marseille is famed for its soap.
Location: Nice, France
We left Italy behind and started our French sojourn in Nice. We absolutely loved Nice and originally were only booked to stay for two nights, but we did a little shuffling and managed to stay for three nights. Our manager at the hotel was extremely effeminate and hilarious he kind of reminded me of a gay Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers! When we left he kissed us on both cheeks Matt included!
We ticked most of the tourist check boxes in Nice we walked along the Promenade de Anglais and lay on the pebbly beach and Matt was brave enough to have a swim in freezing water. A highlight of the Promenade would have to be the man we saw doing an interpretive style dance to heavy 80s dance music in a Tarzan-like get-up. We wonder if he woke up the next day and thought, what on earth was I thinking! We also went on a bus tour and drove by all the huge mansions and villas on the hill overlooking the ocean - they really know how to live in Nice!
Nice has an old quarter, with narrow, cobbled streets and quaint buildings and we virtually lived in there. There are so many great restaurants, cafes and bars, plus a gelati place with over 100 flavours including beer, lavender, avocado etc... We tried our fair share and usually ate it sitting on the Promenade looking at the ocean in the moonlight.
They also have this great food and flower market in Nice, where we epxerienced our first taste of the French markets - we haven't looked back. You can get such good quality fruit, cheese, olives and bread at the markets.