3:37 PM, 9-7-06
To say it’s been an interesting couple days would be a misstatement—“a trying couple days” is probably more appropriate. I’ve got a lot of time to cover, so expect this blog to be a long one. Simply put, I’ll begin with the beginning.
When we last left off, Greg was stuck in the little city of Tours after poorly navigating trains and resigning to visit the Loire Valley instead of Mont St. Michel. It was another early morning when I awoke in Tours to take the Loire Valley tour. (Got that—? Two kinds of tour…). The hostel provided a reasonably-sized breakfast, which was fortunate as I had no food whatsoever. Next I headed to the train station where I was to meet the tour group. The group was small, seven out of a possible eight.
Thankfully—and by thankfully, I mean “Oh thank you GOD!”—everybody spoke English. This meant, I could have my first real conversation since I departed Ashley’s company. On the way to the first chateau, I spoke with a fellow—whose name I neither remember, nor could pronounce, let alone spell—from Sri Lanka, who worked in London. He and his girlfriend/fiancé (not sure), who was from Poland, were taking a holiday in France after going to a wedding. Both spoke great English, which was a relief after the constant broken English + pantomiming I’d been doing for the past day. They seemed like an interesting couple and it was a delight talking to them.
On the way up the valley, we passed by several of these houses called [some French word]. These houses were built into the side of a small hill or cliff and they adjoined caves. Genuine caves. So when you looked at the houses, the garage, for instance, might go back under the hill and have a craggy ceiling and walls. They were pretty neat, though they paled in comparison to what we were about to see.
Chateau Chenonceau is the third most visited chateau in France after Versailles and some other one. It was plain to see why. The chateau was called the Chateau of Ladies, so named because its inhabitants mostly consisted of the wives, widows, and mistresses of former kings and princes of France. The chateau was built on the water. No—not on the water in the sense that lakefront property is “on the water.” The chateau actually stretched across a river (the Loire, perhaps?) and was connected to land only through a narrow bridge that spanned into a courtyard. Large arches supported the enormous chateau, allowing water to pass underneath it. Chenonceau was by no means Versailles, but it was truly beautiful, the stuff of fairy tales.
We didn’t have very long to explore, so I didn’t do much reading of the exhibits. I tried to hurry so I would have time to explore the expansive gardens that surrounded the chateau. These gardens proffer excellent views of the chateau, the river, and the surrounding forest. It was a peaceful place, relatively undisturbed by the presence of tourists, unlike Versailles.
But let me not dwell too long on one of the chateaus, for there are three more to go. The next chateau will go especially fast, seeing as I didn’t even go in. For the sake of costs (the tour didn’t include entry fees), I decided that the Chateau Amboise would be the best to skip over. Let me tell you though, it had some amazing walls! (seeing as that was all I could see). Amboise is actually the resting place of Leonardo DaVinci’s bones, though it was not where he was buried. The chateau has a large cathedral adjoining it; DaVinci’s bones were moved there after the monastery in which he was originally buried was destroyed. DaVinci spent the last three years of his life in the city, and I can see why. Although I didn’t go inside, I walked around the city, enjoying the quaint village atmosphere and beautiful river views. I had also resolved that if I wasn’t going to visit a Loire Valley vineyard, then I was most definitely going to do some wine testing. There was a great wine bar across from the chateau that let me sample wines. Eventually I selected one and spent the rest of our “time at the chateau” drinking wine instead. And no, I didn’t finish the bottle. (I did later that night.)
I also got to talking with a retired couple, Joanne and Gary, who were also sampling wines in the bar. Again, it was really nice having a genuine conversation. Gary, it seemed, had visited all over the world for his job, but the pair of them had never been to Europe. They were from the very northern part of New York state and made a strong point of distinguishing themselves from the inhabitants of NYC.
The next chateau was Chambord. I think the best word to describe this one is simply: big. Big big big big big big big big. I suppose it was smaller than Versailles, but that wasn’t how it felt. The chateau was being refurbished, but it still afforded fantastic views of the estate, which must have been hundreds upon hundreds of acres. Apparently some people still hold hunts in the surrounding area because wildlife is abundant there. One of the coolest features of this chateau was a thing I had heard of but never witnessed. Now right now, you’re expecting something spectacular and amazing, like a two-headed elephant with purple tusks and that breathes fire. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you. The simple, yet delightful thing, was a double-helix staircase. That is, it was a staircase that had a path leading up and down, which spiraled around each other, and that never met. I thought it was damn cool. The fact that it lead to the roof with a beautiful view overlooking the estate was just an added bonus. Unfortunately several sections of the chateau were off limits for refurbishment.
Here I also made the mistake of thinking we were supposed to be back at the van by half past three, instead of half past four. Oops. I was standing there for about five minutes before I thought to myself, well surely everyone can’t be late. Exactly. No one was late and I realized my mistake. Instead, I spent the rest of the time exploring the woods in the area, which were quite nice, though nowhere near as beautiful as forests in the Northwest. I suppose that Europe, while containing buildings that hold the elegance and majesty of age, lacks the kind of old forests that contain similar qualities.
I returned at the correct time and we ventured off to our final stop, the Chateau Cheverny. This chateau, compared to the others, was wholly unimpressive, and it was certainly no Versailles. However, one thing that was really cool was watching them feed the hounds. You see, Cheverny was a hunting chateau (made apparent from the frequent use of anters for decoration in the rooms) and as such, it had a pack of hounds. And when I say pack, I mean like thirty dogs. All identical. I’m sure the trainers could distinguish them, but seeing thirty identical hounds in a pin, scrambling around for food, baying like a fox was on the loose, was a pretty unique sight. At least for about a minute before I got tired of it and decided to move on. Cheverny was beautiful, like any chateau, but one of the most interesting features of the place was that it still hosted a French family. They lived in the third story of the chateau. Until now, all chateaus have been unoccupied.
Now just take a moment here to imagine what it would be like to grow up in that kind of circumstances. Not only is your family extraordinarily wealthy, but they also have an enormous estate that would take half a day to walk from one end to the other. Weedless gardens, spotless rooms, etc. Needless to say, it would be hell!! (at least to grow up in.) Everything was just a little too perfect. And all the while, I was thinking how great it would be to play a game of ultimate Frisbee on the enormous grass expanses in the place. Now that would be cool.
So our day was done. I was completely exhausted for the majority of the day and had been falling asleep almost every time we drove around. This is a common thing for me on train trips and tours. I’m always sleepy for the time between places, but then as soon as I get out in a place, or get back to the hostel, suddenly I’m fine. I’ve probably slept as much on trains, airplanes, and buses on this trip as I have in actual beds. Hmm…what does that say?
Back at the hostel, I had a wholly uninteresting time. There really wasn’t much of a common room in the hostel, so that ruled out meeting people like that. I considered going out, but only momentarily, as I realized I stood about this |—-| much chance of actually finding someone I could talk to. And I didn’t really fancy sitting around in a bar, drinking and not talking to anyone.
Oh, I did finish that bottle of wine, and it was spectacular. I’d resolved to catch up on my blogs, but as I’m writing this now (two days later) you can imagine how successful that endeavor was. Also, I had to catch an 8AM train the next day, in what would turn out to be my worst day of travel yet.
Are you ready for this? Of the what—five trains?—I caught the next day, three were late. And not just a little late. A lot late. The first train, the 8AM one, that was fine. There was no indication of the suckiness to come. That first train was about 15 minutes long and took me to a nearby train station. Oh, and I should mention, I’d planned out my entire day of train connections, intending to go from Tours to Barcelona (check a map, it’s a long way). I even planned an alternate route in case I missed one of my connections. Ultimately, none of it mattered.
That second trains, the one that should have taken me to Bordeaux—40 minutes late. It got me to Bordeaux, but not in time that I didn’t miss the next two possible trains I could have taken. Okay, so I adapted. I accepted that I couldn’t get from Bordeaux to Toulouse so I found the next best thing. This took me to another train station, where, there was a chance, I could catch another train and get back on track (no pun intended). Well, I discounted the possibility that I could encounter another train that was late—this one, 15 minutes. My chances of getting to Barcelona that night were looking dismal. Still, I held out hope. Maybe, just maybe, one of the train stations had a late train to Barcelona.
I should mention that with my Eurail pass comes a guide to most major train stations, listing the connection times between a lot of cities. This is how I could plan out most of the trip. Still, some of the train stations weren’t on my list. So I hoped.
To absolutely, positively, no avail. Oh, I caught that train to Toulouse and from there, managed to catch one to Foix (also late, 5 minutes), which almost made me miss the bus from there to La Tour de Carol. I made the bus, trying brokenly (both in language and spirit) to explain that I needed a one-way ticket to La Tour de Carol. I arrived in La Tour de Carol, but there I hit the end of the line. I could go no further. With not a large city in sight, I briefly contemplated hitchhiking my way the rest of the way. I might have, but decided that it was rude to hitch a ride with someone when you can’t even keep them company by speaking their language to them. Instead, I sullenly departed the train station, eyeing the departure times one final, resigned time.
Okay, so now what. I’d made reservations at a hostel in Barcelona (a mistake that would cost me 22 euros) and I needed to find a place to stay in this small town in the Pyrenees.
For the record, the Pyrenees are really beautiful, but at that moment, I scorned beauty. I wore a defeated expression, though I found some contentment in the fact that I’d done the best I could and gotten the farthest possible with what I had to work with. I walked through the village, contemplating my options. I had a bed slip, basically a sleeping bag without the cushion. This made me consider finding a campsite and sleeping out under the stores, or else the more economical option of finding secluded bit of forest or field (which there were) and just crashing there. I ruled out both these options because in the distance, I saw a storm coming. Dark gray clouds roiled over the hills, growling with a distant thunder. I didn’t know how common dry thunderstorms are in the Pyrenees, but I didn’t want to take my chances.
The campsites were 16 euros (ridiculous, I know), which was ironically the price of a room in the little hotel I found. The proprietress called it a hotel, but I was really staying in a hostel. She only spoke a wink of English though, so I had to try and arrange a room and ask what questions I could using my broken French and little pocket phrase book. Once I found this place (and wow, was it out of the way) and got into my room, I began feeling better. In fact, after a shower, I was feeling quite chipper. The rooms were quite spacious and I had a room to my own, once again. (I think I’m getting spoiled). The next and very important matter was food. I’d tried in vain to locate a restaurant and having failed at that, I decided more drastic measures were in order. Securing a few key French phrases in my mind, I headed down to petition the proprietress for food. I wasn’t looking for handouts; I was going to pay. I just had to find a way to explain that. Well, apparently I didn’t, because she ran off and acquired one of the other guests who spoke French, Spanish and English.
He translated for me and we all had a good laugh over my plight (the whole not-eating-in-10-hours-and-missing-train-thing) and she graciously offered to make up a meal. The other guests had already gotten meals though and I explained that all I needed was a little something to snack on. Well, I don’t think the French understand the principle of “a little something to snack on.” Soon I was heading back upstairs with half a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a bowl of lasagna, and a bowl of some cooked tomato-onion-potato dish. Even if I wasn’t starving, it would have been delicious. I ate until stuffed and then stowed the remains away for breakfast. Without internet for the first time in a few days, I thought to catch up on my blogging, but that idea was quickly dashed. When I hit that bed, I realized just how exhausted I was from my day of travel so instead I did some reading and then fell soundly asleep.
Okay, now we’re getting caught up. I got up and reached the train station the next morning without difficulty. Nothing could go wrong today—after all, I only had one train to catch. Hmm, that sounded ominous. Well, it wasn’t meant to be. I caught the train (on time) without any problems, except for a couple sketchy guys who flashed a badge and wanted to look at my passport. They didn’t even look at my picture, but for whatever reason, I guess I wasn’t interesting or didn’t look trouble-causing enough. Pleased to finally be on my way to Barcelona, I relaxed, listened to an audiobook, and waited for the train to take me there.
The Pyrenees were beautiful, especially now that I wasn’t tired and grumpy. In the morning light, the hills glowed orange and red; they seemed to hover in the distance, disconnected from the earth. The cliffs and mountains rose high, surrounding the small villages along the train route. Caves blotted the vast cliffs, suggesting secret places. Some of the caves did look easily large enough to go spelunking in, and I idly wondered if there were still caves in these mountains that were hidden and unexplored and might hide natural treasures yet to be discovered. Watching the wild wind along, I drifted in and out of sleep until gradually a change overtook the landscape. Buildings and roads replaced mountains and trees. I realized I’d crossed over into Spain and that along with this shift had come a more urban landscape.
The scenery was not particularly beautiful, and there were signs of poverty in the districts outside of Barcelona. Then again, the area around train tracks always seems to attract a certain squalor that is not present elsewhere. I carefully watched the stops once we entered Barcelona until I spotted a sign for the metro line I wanted. Then it was a quick and easy process to get to the correct stop and come topside. I came up in the middle of a bazaar. Well, more or less a bazaar. Animals and plants, meats and vegetables—sideshow solo artists—La Ramblas (the street I was on) had all manner of things. I navigated my way around and fairly easily found the hostel.
I was getting a bit grumpy and impatient while waiting to get checked in at the hostel (it didn’t help that I’d paid for a room I didn’t use the previous night), but after I got my key and put away myself, all irritability vanished under the sheer relief of being where I wanted to be. After a shower, I set myself to the task of catching up on emails, which is when I discovered that Ashley’s flight had been cancelled and she was not in Barcelona but in Florence. This wasn’t much of a concern, though. I was looking forward to having some real conversations in English again, but otherwise I’d intended to come to Barcelona all along, so I was simply glad to be here. The hostel seems like a pretty hip place, though there seems to be a large assortment of the “dude, let’s do a eurotrip and get totally wasted every night” backpackers. It takes all kinds, I suppose.
Hungry from having only a meager breakfast, I went out in search of food. This idea quickly devolved into ice cream. So far, of the two times I’ve had ice cream in Europe, both encounters have far outstripped any other similar glaciery encounter back in the States. It’s sooo good. Words cannot express. The quantity you get is meager, but what you lack in quantity you make up in quality. Feeling elated at the ice cream, I ventured into an open air market selling all manner of meat and produce. I resolved that despite my weak Spanish skills, I would go to several stalls and assemble a meal. And apparently the market vendors must be used to dealing with poor-Spanish-speaking tourists like myself, because I actually made them understand what I wanted. Pleased at my assembly of bread, meat, cheese and most importantly, wine, I hurried back to the hostel to indulge.
Which is where you find me now, writing all this, not that anybody is probably still reading my loquacious account. Ah well, I enjoyed writing about it at least.
Tags: Europe, France, language, Loire Valley, Spain, Trains, Travel