Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Spring in the South - Aix-en-Provence & Marseille

Aix-en-Provence
I visited this town for an afternoon while staying in Marseille, as it’s quite small so I didn’t feel I needed much longer. This is the quintessential Provence town, small and rustic and pretty, and it helped that the weather was lovely that day. First of all, I took a stroll down the Cours Mirabeau, the wide boulevard lined with cafés. There happened to be an antiques display on that day, although it’s not something that particularly interested me. Aix is known for its many fountains, the grandest being the Fontaine de la Rotonde, and there’s several more along this street, including a thermal spring.

Fontaine de la Rotonde
Cours Mirabeau
I then headed into the old town, Vieux Aix, which is the typical French old town, full of narrow winding streets and plenty of little boutique-type shops, not that I ventured in any, seeing as it was Sunday. There are lots of lovely buildings, although many are not significant places. The town hall was nice, and its bell tower made it a bit different, and it overlooks a small square with cafés and a fountain, where there happened to be an accordion player while I was there. The cathedral, while not the grandest I’ve seen, was still pretty stunning, inside and out.

Town Hall
Cathédrale St-Sauveur
Aix is also famous for being the home of the artist, Paul Cézanne. While I’m not an art expert, I’m fairly interested in it, and I happened to have studied Cézanne at school, which made this more interesting for me. There is a trail through the town about him marked by small ‘C’s in the ground, called the Circuit de Cézanne, but I didn’t follow it all the way. I expect it would be best to do with the guide book, as I kept coming across sequences that then vanished. However, I did visit the Musée Granet, which has several Cézanne paintings, amongst other works. It’s also spread over two locations, the original Musée and the additional Collection Jean Planque, only a few streets away and included in the ticket. I was unsure about visiting both, but I’m glad I did, as the Collection Jean Planque has works by Picasso and Monet, among others.

Paul Cézanne statue
There are a few other museums in Aix, but none that grabbed my attention, and other sites connected to Cézanne, including his former studio, but this was difficult for me to access, being further out from the centre. So, I finished up my day with a wander back down the Cours Mirabeau in the sunshine. It may not be a very big place, but Aix is certainly a nice way to pass an afternoon.

Marseille
I stayed in Marseille for three nights in total, but as mentioned, one day was given over to Aix-en-Provence. The day I arrived in Marseille, I was stuck with my luggage for a couple of hours, so I headed to the Parc Longchamp to sit in the sun for a while. I didn’t go into the museum housed in the Palais Longchamp, but it’s a stunning building to admire form the outside. Later, after dumping my luggage, I took a wander and wound up trekking the length of the Boulevard de la Liberation/La Canebiere. From what I could gather, this is one of the main shopping streets in Marseille, and although I wasn’t looking to do any shopping, it’s sometimes nice to see areas that aren’t solely populated by tourists. I also walked back to my hotel by going around Fort St-Jean and up the quay-side, to get some great coastal views.

Palais Longchamp
To start off my full day in Marseilles, I first of all went exploring the town district called Le Panier, which is made up of narrow twisting streets and tall buildings, and is very easy to get lost in. While I appreciate that this may be something different for some tourists, I didn’t find it that exciting. I also stopped by the Cathédrale de la Major, a stunning building from the outside, but which was unfortunately closed at the time so I didn’t get to see the inside. I then walked around the Vieux Port (Old Port), which I really enjoyed. It’s nothing very unusual, as ports go, but I like being by the sea and haven’t been round a port in a while, so I liked it.  I had intended to take the boat out to the Château d’If, on an island just off the coast, but sadly it was closed due to rough waters – it was pretty windy that day.

Cathédrale de la Major
Le Vieux Port
Instead, I trekked – and I do mean trekked! – up the hillside to the Notre-Dame de la Garde You can see the church from the port, serving as a nice backdrop to the town. The church itself was a little different to others I’ve seen in France, with fewer carvings/ornamentation and more paintings, so that was interesting. But the real attraction for me was the incredible views across Marseille and the surrounding area. It was such a clear day that I could see for miles, and as the town is surrounded by hills (a rare sight in the Loire valley where I’ve been living!), it was quite spectacular.

Notre-Dame de la Garde
Marseille from Notre-Dame-du-Mont
After descending the hill, I continued around the south side of the harbour, passing the Fort St-Nicolas, opposite Fort St-Jean on the other side. I didn’t go into either of them, but they are remarkable to look at, like guardians of the port entrance. I carried on until I reached the Plage des Catalans, a tiny beach just around the coast from the port entrance. While it is certainly not the nicest beach I’ve been to, it serves it purpose adequately, and it was just nice to relax there for an hour or two in the sun. I walked back into town via the Jardin du Pharo, and while I didn’t go into the Palais, the gardens do provide a great view looking in towards Marseille and the Vieux Port.

Plage des Catalans
Le Vieux Port
I didn’t go into many – or any? – attractions in Marseille, and mostly just spent my time wandering around the city, or relaxing in the sun. I enjoy this though, as you can soak up the atmosphere of the city, rather than an endless stream of museum and churches that can be found in any other town in the country. It’s for this reason that I really liked Marseille, for the city that it is today, rather than its history. While I don’t think I want to live abroad permanently, Marseille is the sort of place I would like to live in, rather than many of the other towns that I was content to only spend a few days in.

Part 1 - Toulouse & Perpignan
Part 2 - Carcassone & Montpellier
Part 4 - Cannes & Nice

Monday, 28 April 2014

Outfit of the Day - Easy Breezy

     It's so sunny! This may not be true for everyone, depending on where you live, but I'm on holiday in the south of France, and it's very warm and sunny. So, my outfits have to reflect that. I really like this skirt, as it's so light and flowing, and the pattern keep things interesting. I also like that this is summery, but still dark-coloured, which is my usual colour palette and I think makes things a bit less beach-y and more practical, as it is still only April. This is also why I had a cardigan with me, as the weather is still changeable. I also went with a plain top to keep things relaxed, and forsook tights for the first time this year. This outfit was paired with sandals too, but I opted not to photograph those, as they were new and ripped my feet to shreds and the result was not pretty.





Top - LaRedoute, Cardigan - LaRedoute, Skirt - H&M
Necklace - Gift, Earrings & Red Ring - Market, Silver ring - Etam

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Spring in the South - Carcassone & Montpellier

Carcassone
Carcassone is a town split into two distinct parts – La Cité and La Ville Basse. The walled town atop a hill is La Cité, but this is only a small portion of Carcassone as a whole. The day I arrived I first of all went for a look around La Ville Basse (roughly translates to the Low Town, as it sits below the hill of La Cité), where most of the town’s residents live. It’s a pleasant place, with lots of narrow streets and both a canal and a river running through it. I didn’t come across anything exceptional in it, being mostly homes and shops, but it was nice enough to have a look around for a while.

La Cité
View from La Cité of La Ville Basse
The following day, I headed up the hill to La Cité, which was unlike any other town I’ve visited in France. From afar, it looks like something from a fairytale, the medieval walled fortress, towers and spires standing above the rest of Carcassone. Inside, it is no longer a defensive site, but a tourist haven. Few people actually live within its walls, so it is mostly made up of shops and cafés now. However, after passing over the drawbridge, the cobbled streets thrum with the bustle of crowds, bringing life and vibrancy to this ancient town.

Château Comtal & Basilique St-Nazaire
Château Comtal
Basilique St-Nazaire
The main sight within its walls is the Château Comtal. Unlike the royal residences of the Loire Valley that I’ve been visiting all year, this is definitely a defensive structure. Its history and functions are all well explained, and there’s also a gallery of stonework, showing the artistry present in the town, alongside its practicality. The château also allows access to the inner of the city’s double ramparts, as far as the Porte Narbonnaise, the town’s main entrance, and provides wonderful views over the rest of Carcassone. The other main structure inside the town is the Basilique St-Nazaire, which is as grand and ornate as any of France’s other cathedrals.

Porte Narbonnaise
The outer ramparts of La Cité
La Cité is enclosed by a double rampart and you can walk between the two around the entire circumference of the town, and climb up onto the outer wall for much of this. I particularly enjoyed this, given that it was such a sunny day, and from the top of the outer rampart you get vast, uninterrupted views over Carcassone and the surrounding area. After I had thoroughly exhausted La Cité, I went back down to La Ville Basse and took a stroll along the River Aude to finish out the day.

Montpellier
While the first few towns on my trip had a considerable amount of Spanish influence on the architecture and language, as I’ve moved further east I’ve noticed this receding. Montpellier felt more like the French towns I’m used to visiting, especially with its large university population, which Tours is also noted for.

Théâtre - Place de la Comédie
Esplanade Charles de Gaulle
I arrived earlier in the day than usual, which unfortunately meant I was stuck with my luggage for a couple of hours before my room was ready, so I sat in the Jardin des Plantes, which is leafy and sheltered, with lots of hidden corners. Later, I went to the large Place de la Comédie, overlooked by the Théâtre, and the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which were buzzing with life - I do enjoy a bit of people-watching. I even stumbled upon some street performers, who were pretty amusing. I also went to the Musée Fabre, a large art gallery. I like visiting museums sometimes, but I’m not enough of an art of history buff to want to go them all, so this was my first this trip. It’s an excellent gallery, with a huge collection laid out chronologically. It was pretty quiet while I was there, making it nicer to walk around (apart from when security is breathing down your neck), but I did get a little bored towards the end, as it really is huge.

Ring-tailed lemur at Montpellier Zoo
Giraffe at Montpellier Zoo
The next day, I started off by going to Montpellier Zoo. This may seem an odd choice when trying to experience France, as you can go to a zoo anywhere, but this one came recommended in my guide book, and I fancied a change from all the old buildings I’d been seeing. The main park is free and mostly made up of huge enclosures, which give the animals and the visitors plenty of exercise! The only area with an entry fee is the Serre Amazonienne, a large hothouse building, which feels like entering a rainforest, and is home to creatures like crocodiles, piranhas, anteaters, sloths, birds of paradise and plenty of species of monkeys. It was great fun to indulge my inner child for a couple of hours.

Arc de Triomphe
Place Royale du Peyrou
Cathédrale St-Pierre
On returning to the town centre, I went around exploring a bit more. In amongst the streets of shops, typical to any French town, there were some “hotels particuliers” and the Préfecture and Palais de Justice are grand buildings, if not home to anything very exciting. Montpellier has its own Arc de Triomphe, and passing under it you reach the large, tree-lined open space of the Place Royale du Peyrou, which I took a wander around. The town has many churches, but the biggest and grandest (and only one I visited) is the Cathédrale St-Pierre. I finished my day by wandering through a few more streets, but didn’t yield anything very exciting. While it was nothing tremendously interesting, Montpellier was a nice enough place to spend a couple of days.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Spring in the South - Toulouse & Perpignan

     So, for anyone who hasn't been paying attention, or has never read my blog before, I've been studying abroad in France all year, in the Loire Valley region. However, I decided to try to see as many other parts of France as I could whilst here, and a 2 week holiday at the end of April sounded like the perfect time to head to the south of the country. This will be the first in four (I think) posts about my trip.

Toulouse
I arrived in Toulouse late on Friday, so I didn't go looking around town much. I've planned at least a full day in every place I visit, and I'm just taking a relaxed look around each place, not trying to cram loads in. Also, while I'm not averse to visiting museums, I've been to far too many dull ones in France already to bother with many more. Toulouse is known as "La Ville Rose", due to its pink coloured buildings, although terracotta was the word that sprang to my mind. It does feel much more southern and Mediterranean than the grey and white of the northern towns I've visited already.

Town Hall
Salle des Illustres
I tend to have a look online or in guidebooks for the main sights of a town first, so I have a rough idea of what to go see, but no concrete plans. The town hall is situated in the main town square, so it seemed like a natural place to go see. I had expected just to see the building, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is also home to a small collection of paintings, including the stunning "Salle des Illustres". It was sheer chance that I went inside and found this, and I'm glad I did. The building itself was nice too, as are so many in France, and as I said, it's nice to see some variation from what I've seen before. The Hôtel d'Assézat is a "hôtel particulier", which is a grand townhouse (not an actual hotel), and while these are not generally accessible inside, they are stunning buildings.

Hôtel d'Assézat
La Garonne
Like every town in France, Toulouse has plenty of churches, and even if you are not a religious person, many are worth visiting for the architecture alone. The Basilique St-Sernin and the Cathédrale St-Etienne are the grandest ones here, with high ceilings and ornate decorations. Les Jacobins is a much simpler church, and while the main building is obviously free, you can opt to pay to visit the cloisters. As a student, this was free for me too, which I was grateful for, since although the courtyard was very pretty and peaceful, the other rooms were restricted while building work was taking place, which was a bit disappointing.

The Cloisters of Les Jacobins
Basilique St-Sernin
Cathédrale St-Etienne
These main sights are all in the old town and the town centre of Toulouse, meaning I got a good look around the area whilst going from place to place, and it was lovely just to stroll around in the sunshine in such a pretty town. Unfortunately, I was wearing new sandals which (of course) ripped my feet to shreds. I ended up wandering down by the canal and then over to the large park, made up of the Jardin Royal and the Jardin des Plantes. It was pretty busy, being such a sunny Saturday, but I ended up just lazing about there for a couple of hours, with my book and iPod, and it was very pleasant.

Jardin Royal
As I'm travelling alone, I don't like to venture out much in the evenings for safety reasons. I was staying in an apart'hotel though, meaning you get a kitchenette in your room, and they're still pretty inexpensive. I'm not a big fan of cooking, but I feel uncomfortable eating out alone in the evenings, so I much prefer doing it this way and cooking for myself. I mostly spent the evenings watching films and reading and just relaxing in general.

Perpignan
I arrived in Perpignan fairly early in the afternoon which would normally mean more time for exploring, but in France everything is closed on Sundays, so there was very little available to see or do. I also find things are a little creepy on Sundays, in any town, because it's all so quiet. The weather had taken a cold and cloudy turn as well, so I opted to spend the remainder of the day in my hotel and venture out the next morning.

Le Castillet
One of the first things I noticed about Perpignan was the Spanish influence on the town's architecture, which would make sense seeing as it used to be part of Catalonia. Most of the signs around town are written in both French and Catalan as well. There's only a few tourist sights, so I headed to the main ones. Le Castillet is what remains of the town's defensive walls, and while the building was interesting to look out from the outside, I was a bit disappointed to discover it was closed for maintenance work that day, so I didn't spend very long here. I found that the cathedral looked much plainer from the outside than most others in France, but the inside was very elaborate, with stained glass windows and lots of paintings.

Cathédrale St-Jean
Cathédrale St-Jean
The biggest attraction in Perpignan is the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, overlooking the rest of the town. The building looked very grand and imposing, although I was disappointed that the grounds between the palace and the ramparts was not accessible. Inside, I discovered that I had coincidentally chosen to come while they were having an exhibition of antiques and decorative arts. While this may have been of interest to some people, it's not my cup of tea, and I found that I couldn't see much of any of the rooms due to all the objects crammed in.

Palais des Rois de Majorque
Palais des Rois de Majorque
Perpignan has not been my favourite town so far, and I actually felt a bit uncomfortable while I was there. This was partly due to the eerie quiet of Easter weekend (there were other tourists around on Monday, but not loads) and partly due to the many catcalls and car honks I was subjected to. I'm aware that as a young girl travelling alone I need to be careful, and nothing serious happened, but I've never experienced so much objectification ever, as I did on that one day. These reasons are circumstantial though (the grey weather being another), and perhaps I would enjoy the town more another time.

Part 2 - Carcassone & Montpellier
Part 3 - Aix-en-Provence & Marseille
Part 4 - Cannes & Nice

Monday, 21 April 2014

Outfit of the Day - Dressing Down

     I've gone for a very casual outfit this time. I tend to get lazy about how I dress towards the end of the semester, but I haven't slipped back into big t-shirts & hoodies just yet! I've strayed away from my girlier fashion choices though, with this simple shirt, jeans & Converse combination. However, although it's relaxed and low-maintenance, and the shirt still has a feminine cut to it. The handbag is very much a statement piece, and the colour doesn't match anything else in my wardrobe, but I love how bright and fun it is, and it's going to be my go-to bag for most of the summer.



Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Châteaux of the Loire Valley - Part 2

This is my second post about the various châteaux of the Loire Valley (part 1 is here), which I’ve been visiting while studying abroad this year. Aside from Blois, the châteaux in those post are all further out in the countryside than most of the others I visited, which means they have very large grounds attached, which are lovely to visit, but I did find some of them more difficult to get to. Chambord and Beauregard both involved a train to Blois and then a bus out to the countryside, and due to the bus timetable I only got a limited time at Beauregard and far more time than required for Chambord.  Both châteaux themselves were lovely though.

Chambord



This château is usually described as the grandest in the valley, and is certainly the largest. As a former hunting lodge (not that you’d guess, as it more resembles a palace), it stands in the middle of a vast park, isolating it from the rest of the world. It’s very peaceful, although rather than formal grounds, it is mostly forest and grass that make up this land. There is a small “village” near the château, made up of cafés and shops for the visitors. The château itself is stunning to look at, both from the outside and from within, with all the building work is ornately decorated, a double helix staircase standing at the centre and access to the rooftop where you can wander amongst its turrets. While only the central building is accessible, it still provides plenty of rooms to explore, including the chapel and an exhibition of carriages.

Blois



While not nearly as grand as the châteaux in its surrounding countryside, this one stands on a hilltop in the centre of Blois, giving a rather nice backdrop to the town. The château is built around a central courtyard, and there is a church and a tower as well as the main buildings, although only the basement of the tower is accessible. The most interesting section of the château is the royal apartments, well decorated and informative, and allow for views over the town. The château is also home to the town’s fine arts museum, a lengthy gallery of paintings – every town in France seems to have a fine arts museum, but most are in their own building, so I wasn’t expecting to see it here.

Beauregard



The day I visited here I think there must have only been three or four other guests in the grounds. It’s smaller and less well-known than some others nearby, but still very nice. The château itself is more like a manor house, and only one wing is accessible, but it’s superbly put together, and the portrait gallery is brimming with paintings. I was a little thrown by the exhibition of dog paintings on display, but they did make for something different! The majority of the grounds are open grassy space and the formal gardens were not yet in bloom; but there’s a nice pond, chickens and sheep and a sort of fun fact trail, which I didn’t have time to read much of, but seemed like it would be interesting.

Chenonceau




I think this may have been my favourite château all year. I got a beautiful day when I went, and although it’s out in the countryside, it’s easily accessible from its train station. The château itself is built in arches across the river, making it very memorable amongst all the others in the valley, and inside, this section is a bright and sunny gallery. The rest of the château is fully furnished and provides plenty of information, like all others, but I found it particularly interesting to discover the history of the women who lived there, given that most châteaux have a male-dominant story to them. The grounds are stunning, with two distinctly different formal gardens (created by different women who once lived there) in full bloom during my visit, a hedgerow maze, a waxworks gallery, a wine cellar, a farmstead, vegetable gardens and donkeys. While some châteaux can be covered fully in an hour or two, Chenonceau merits at least a full afternoon.
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