After travelling for four years, people were always surprised to hear that I hadn’t ever been to France. Apparently it’s pretty popular, so I decided it was finally time to go.
The first time I set foot in France was last year. My travel buddy McKay came to visit while I was living in Spain. We rented a car and drove north through the Pyrenees to Oloron-Sainte-Marie (I assume people just call it “Oloron” or, in French, “Ugh”).
It was early November; the weather was a tinge drizzly and the leaves were the perfect shades of green, orange, and brown. A clean river ran through the town and there was a nice square surrounded by shops and restaurants. I could see for the first time why people rave about France.
The next time I was in France was for a three-week trip from Marseilles to Paris in February. After having such a pleasant trip to Oloron, I expected the rest of France to be just as surprisingly charming. Marseilles was surprising, but not quite charming.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas describes La Canebière, a large street in Marseilles: “If Paris had La Canebière, Paris would be a second Marseilles.” Back in his day, Dumas regarded Marseilles as superior to Paris. As I walked down La Canebière, however, I wondered what Dumas would think if he could see it now: instead of shops and restaurants, what draws the eye are broken windows, graffiti, and the homeless sitting in every vacant spot. It’s the worst city I’ve seen in western Europe.
Not that Marseilles is without any redeeming qualities. The protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo is imprisoned in the Château d’If, which is a short boat ride away and very worth the visit. The Massif des Calanques, a small series of mountains and hills next to the city, is also worth exploring.
Also in Marseilles, for the first time I felt the Mistral, a strong, cold wind that blows from the mountains down to the Mediterranean. I’ve never felt any wind so strong or miserable (and I served my mission in Russia). Even though it supremely sucks, feeling the Mistral really aids in understanding French literature and culture; it’s referenced pretty often.
From Marseilles, I took a bus to La Ciotat, a coastal village on the other side of the Calanques.
You know that old-timey feeling you get when you see someone wearing a swim cap with curls poking out or a lady wearing a sundress riding a bike with a basket? That’s basically what it feels like to be in La Ciotat. My only complaint is that it wasn’t summer and I didn’t actually see any of those things.
I got a ride from La Ciotat to Avignon.
Avignon is the former seat of the Catholic Pope (which I think means a bunch of them used to live here), making it a big deal in the Middle Ages. I sat at the Palais des Papes (the castle where the Pope once lived) looking down at another castle across the Rhone, imagining horses pulling wooden carts through the narrow stone alleyways below while peasants were herded into orderly lines in the courtyard to await execution. It was almost magical.
From Avignon, I took a train following the Rhone just a short way down to Arles.
Arles is interesting for several reasons, but the biggest two are its importance to ancient Rome (you know, 2,000 years ago) and because Vincent Van Gogh lived and produced over 300 paintings here. I spent a week taking pictures of Roman ruins and visiting the sites that inspired many of Van Gogh’s paintings. This is also the town where Van Gogh chopped off his ear. Neat stuff.
Paris and Versailles
The unfortunate thing about visiting Paris is that there are just so many things to see: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Paris Opera House, catacombs, Notre Dame (what’s left of it), Sacré-Cœur, Versailles, and that mini Statue of Liberty from National Treasure. Everything is so spread out that unless you plan to stay for at least a week, you’ll spend your entire visit surrounded by other tourists, most of whom are American; it basically feels like being in New York with an unusual number of French people.
On the upside, I’d always heard Paris was extremely dirty, but aside from a constant haze of pollution hanging over the city (Hello, Paris Climate Agreement.), it was as clean as any other major European city. The homeless and beggar situation wasn’t even as intense as I expected.
Versailles is actually a whole city. It was built by King Louis XIV for his rich friends. It houses the Palace of Versailles, which is adjacent to the Garden of Versailles. During sunset, the sun shines directly on the palace, which is gilded in gold; it’s nearly blinding.
I flew from Paris to the UK and spent two months living in Scotland, but I flew back down to Toulouse in May. I rented a car and drove through the south of France, visiting Carcassonne and Limoux, but there was one town that stood out the most.
Driving from Limoux to Fourtou, I saw a sign for hot springs. I pulled over and spent an afternoon chilling in a warm hot spring and the cool river beside it. When I came back to my car, I realized my tire was flat. This led to me spending the night in the little hot spring town where I was now stranded: Rennes-Les-Bains.
A small river divides the town in half, and a mix of bridges, side streets, and narrow passages connect guesthouses, shops, spas, and restaurants on either side of the river.
When I got the flat tire, I had no phone number or data (I’d only planned to be in France four days), so I had to hop in and out of different shops, trying to see where my wifi would connect and who had a working phone. Even though I can’t speak French and most the shopkeepers couldn’t speak English, everyone was really nice and accommodating, which was consistent throughout all my travels in France. The stereotype is that the French are very snooty to tourists, especially if you can’t speak French, but that wasn’t my experience at all. Maybe it’s because I’m so handsome.
You hear people talk about French food, but can you actually name a French dish aside from snails or croissants? I came to France with an open mind, mouth, and wallet. In each new place I visited, I tried the plat du jour of whatever moderately-priced restaurant I could find. I tried everything from aioli to escargot to polenta to fig pies to moelle.
Let me tell you: the reason you can’t name any French dishes is because they’re weird. They’re good (except for escargot — honestly tastes like a meaty, chewy, kinda fishy mushrooms), but nothing out of this world.
The only French food I really fell in love with were pastries, which makes sense; we already eat all those in America because they’re good: croissants, eclairs, beignets (donuts, basically). Buttery, flakey, sugary — America takes what it wants and leaves the rest.
So be willing to experiment, but save your money for the bakery.
You should go to France.