Au Revoir!

Trip in pictures.

Day 1- Paris
Day 3- Versailles
Day 4- Rennes
Day 5- Sainte Malo
Day 6- Mont Sainte Michel
Day 7- Amboise
Day 8- Chenonceaux
Day 9- Bordeaux
Day 10- Toulose
Day 11- Albi
Day 12- Carcassonne
Day 13- Nice
Day 14- Monaco
Day 15- Villefranche-sur-Mer
Day 16- Lyon
Day 17- Annecy

 Until next time!

France’s best kept urban secret?

Despite being very well known in France as the gastronomic capital of the country (for a few dissidents, maybe even of the world), Lyon is not a city likely to feature heavily in your average travel guide books. For a big urban city, Lyon seems surprisingly small and manageable; and with tourists mainly from other parts of France, feels ‘French’ even! The good connections with Paris (despite the distance, it is just about 2 hours by the high speed TGV trains) made Lyon the perfect stop for the last leg of my 18 days France tour.

Panoramic view of Lyon

At the risk of sounding derivative, Lyon’s old town is charming and worth spending some time being lost in. The claustrophobic long narrow passageways, known as the ‘Traboules’ have no trouble sending visitors down the memory lane; where many years ago, these streets- vital for goods transportation, planted the early seeds for Lyon’s powerhouse economy of today. The uneven cobbled streets may test the sturdiest of shoes, but it’s a small price to pay for the inspired views of the next gorgeous courtyard these passageways frequently encourage.

The Traboules of Lyon

Maps are useless in Vieux Lyon (Old town), for the most confusing of Traboules will be easily undone by the scent of crêpes or other goodies sending the lost for the main streets. It is not difficult to see why Lyon is known as the food capital in France- the most obscured of vendors seem to have watery-mouthed tourists queueing eagerly for. My own gastronomic adventure is limited by my general inaptitude with all things food, but it was a joy joining everyone else window shopping for the best bouchon to satisfy their growling stomachs.

Be encouraged to join in the queue

Paris’ La Seine they may not, the 2 magnificent rivers of Lyon, the Saone and Rhone, are great resting places to admire the city when it illuminates at night. The designation ‘City of Light’ does not appear to apply solely to Paris alone.

St Jean cathedral emits a lovely glow at night

For those wanting to experience a piece of urban life in France far away from the jostling tourists in Paris, Lyon is a tantalising treat of a destination.

Charmed by the Riviera

I am ready to move to the French Riviera for good. I really am.

Arriving on a harsh 7-hour midnight train from Toulose, Nice (pronounced ‘Niece’) made my journey a non-matter, immediately brightened up my day with its cheerful composition of wonderfully coloured streets and trendy beaches. Situated in the South-East part of the France, bordering Italy; this marvellous Mediterranean city rubs off visitors with its unique blend of French elegance and Italy’s laidback attitude to life. Locals and tourists roam the streets of Nice alike, the latter seemingly welcomed with open arms, as if taunted to envy the brilliance of a city the former calls home.

Beautiful streets of Nice

The adage that ‘Nice is nice’ is competent, yet terribly inadequate.

The old town of Nice, as is the case with many European cities, is worth a visit just for. The scent of life that exists in the local marche forms an interesting contrast to some of the narrow alleys round the unexplored corners. Forget the cafés, explorers are always reminded that the 4-mile beach is just a pebble (quite literally) throw away for resting their tired feet, with the sun and gentle Mediterranean sea breeze being their worthy hosts.

Activities in the morning markets
Pebbled beach

I especially enjoyed the colours its streets exhibit. From bright pink to yellow, splashes of paint colour the buildings with no apparent logic, a fantastic testament to the life these lucky folks lead. Nice is perhaps most beautiful when the sun is about to set, when the golden globe casts its gentle shine onto these quirky buildings, as if eager to expose the inadequacy of the underlying paint jobs.

Catch the sun set in Nice

The appeal of Nice does not lie solely in this city alone. As the capital city of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice offers fantastic access to nearby areas. I had the opportunity to visit some.

Monaco needs no elaboration. If a comparison to Nice is called for, this glamorous country tunes up the glitz volume, and consequently lowers the casualness. Visitors are invited to gorge at the beauty of this famous rags-to-riches story, but without the depth of their wallets, never seemed especially welcomed. The rhetoric of “What will happen if I am rich” is well answered within the columns of multi-million yachts so unashamedly on display at the docks of Monaco.

The glitz of Monaco
Grand prix

It is tempting to describe Villefranche-sur-mer as the poorer cousin of Nice and Monaco, but such a statement would be of tremendous discredit to this town that is so unreasonably placed between the route of Nice and Monaco. Far less touristy, this quaint little town offers a peak of Mediterranean life without the glitz and glamour this region is so known for. As the local fishermen cast their last nets amidst sun’s final rays, I had to envisage the appeal of retiring in a town like this.

Jostle with the mainly local crowd at Villefranche's sandy beach
Kid and beach

I left Côte d’Azur with a heavy tinge of regret, but was made to wonder how long is ever enough in a marvellous place like this. It is remarkable how life’s simplest pleasure, when broken down to its bare basics, can be substantially described by so few a word- Sun, beach and people.

The red bricks of Languedoc

Bordered by such diverse countries as Spain, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, France is a country of many faces. However, as one travels from one of its region to another, this may not seem apparent (at least not for tourists who can’t see through the subtleties).

No such problem with the Languedoc region (formally, the Languedoc- Roussillon region), which lies in southern France.

When I arrived at Toulose, its capital city, I was immediately struck by streets and streets of its famed red-brick goodness. Heavily tinged with Spanish/ Moorish influence, the architecture of Toulose paints the city into a consistent sea of red, exuding a decidedly ‘un-France’ feeling to the stray travellers who transverse.

Gorgeous streets of red characterise Toulose
Blessed with good weather

Most people do not give Languedoc much chance when travelling to France, and justifiably so. Toulose, its biggest city, failed to re-ignite my interests after my initial fascination with the city’s distinct architecture wore thin.

A more interesting place to visit is Albi, a small town that is reachable within an hour (by train) from Toulose. It excudes the same Moorish charm, but never the big city factor of its bigger cousin. While geographically tiny, Albi is never boring as a day trip destination- being blessed with an impressive cathedral, a renowned art museum (which sadly, wasn’t opened when I visited), and some very nice town people (one of whom I shared some broken English- French conversation with).

Albi. Few would associate such views with France
The towering cathedral of Sainte Cecile

Carcassonne, the last city in this region I visited, traded much of Languedoc’s red-brick fame for its immense stature as a medieval fortress. The old town, the crown jewel of the city, was inscribed as a UNESCO heritage site recently, opening the flood gates to relentless tourism. It is a thrill to explore along the walls of this medieval site, a sobering thought knowing that just some thousands of years ago, knights in shinning armour could have had walked down the same paths. The inner city, now tainted with ubiquitous plastic armours and swords screaming for tourists’ dollar, is nowhere as exciting. It is rather ironic that the walls of Carcassonne have become more precious than the city they were meant to protect.

Fortress city of Carcassonne

It is regrettable that the initial enthusiasm I had with each of these cities could not be sustained. Languedoc probably rewards only the most patient of travellers, and even so, only just.

Adventures of the laundry man

Toulose's laundry- Conquered

One very practical consideration of travelling long period is that at some point of time, you would have to perform the glorious task of doing laundry.

A local laundry place is probably one of those last places on earth you would expect to find someone who can speak your language and to help you past the gibberish (foreign language) of an user instruction. If given a chance, no one likes to spend their time waiting for their clothes to be cleaned. The unwritten rule: get on with it and get out, as there is always someone else waiting to use the machine. It’s a harsh world out there in the realm of public laundry.

In other words, doing laundry in a foreign country can be an extremely stressful task.

Last year’s trip to Spain has prepared me well, where the royal city of Madrid was deemed fitting for me to lay my worn clothes down. As my hostel in Toulose is situated right in an university area, I marched purposefully along the streets, knowing that it wouldn’t take too long to redeem the freshness of my belongings again.

I pretended to know what I was doing for about 5 minutes before the glaring eyes of those waiting forced me to scurry for help. It wasn’t too difficult in the end. It’s nice knowing that certain things in life, such as putting dirty clothes in a washing machine, applying detergent, and then waiting for it to be cleaned are actually quite universal in nature.

Forget the vineyards in Bordeaux

I first heard about the French city of Bordeaux from its famous football club (‘famous’ could be a bit of an exaggeration these days; a quick check with Google reveals that the club is languishing at the bottom of the French Lique 1). During the time I have spent in Europe (increased appetite for booze and wine), Bordeaux took on a separate meaning of being famous for its vineyards.

Neither warrants a reason sufficient to plan for a visit (forget the wine, bring on the lager instead!).

The next stop on my itinerary was Toulouse, where I plan to use as a base to visit the nearby cities of Albi and Carcassonne. The train route from Chenonceaux proved quite stubborn, with Bordeaux being the obnoxious road block to my eventual destination. I had to relent.

Bordeaux turned out to be a tingling warm (quite literally) pleasant surprise.

Sun and life

The city is probably best described as being ‘livable’. Its streets are sprawled with joggers, cyclists and roller-bladers competing for road space with the hapless walkers. Facing the rather lacklustre view of the Garonne River, Bordeaux is blessed with excellent weather (if the day and a half I spent there is any indication).

(P.S: Take the last sentence with a pinch of salt. Having lived in London for a year, a place where any decent bout of sunshine might as well be declared as a national holiday, my expectation for ‘good weather’ is very, very low indeed).

It is difficult to pinpoint a single blockbuster tourist attraction in the capital city of the French Aquitaine region. However, its old town is a fantastic place to lose your directions in and to people watch. It might be worth noting that after Paris, Bordeaux has the most number of buildings on heritage protection in France. The city is also listed on UNESCO for its outstanding urban and architectural ensemble.

Explore old town Bordeaux

Because of the curved shape of its port, Bordeaux is also known as the ‘Port of the Moon’- aptly called in my opinion, as the city is most beautiful at night. Place de la Bourse, while painfully ordinary during the day, treats the patient onlookers with surprisingly spectacular sights when the sun sets.

Place de la Bourse shines at night
Night time Bordeaux is absolutely stunning

I left Bordeaux sunburnt and satisfied. Heading toward the sunny French Riviera, I am full of hope.

Loire’s charm

When in France, the first offence to commit would be to mistake Paris as France. While the French capital drives the heart beat of the country, elsewhere lies its soul. The second offence would be to neglect the appeal of the Loire valley.

Town of Amboise

Amboise serves as a very good alternative to the big city of Tours for exploring the beauty of this area. Pronounced as ‘Arm-Buahs’, this quaint village-town plays host to a decent chateau (manor), a little appetizer to some of the more glamorous ones this French region is famed for. As it is not completely ravaged by tourist activity (at least not during the early autumn season when I visited), Amboise was a welcomed respite from the intensity of the bigger cities I journeyed from- Rennes and Paris.

The town is elegantly split by the Loire River, and the bridge that serves both pedestrians and vehicles did the reverse of stopping my footsteps. It was difficult not to stop right there and admire the stunning view that greets the lucky pedestrians. I made an attempt to return to this bridge in the evening, hoping for a different sight. It did not disappoint.

Chateau of Amboise
Loire at night
Same view at night

What stunned me the most was how the town people would just carry on with their daily life, as if oblivious to the beauty of the Loire knocking on their doorsteps. Blending in with their surrounding, I suppose that is something urbanites such as myself can never truly understand.

The following morning I took a bus to the village of Chenonceaux (pronounced ‘Shuh-no-soh’). This sleepy village made Amboise look like a bustling metropolitan city by comparison. The crown jewel of this village is the Chateau de Chenonceau (without the ‘x’). Elegantly constructed over the Cher river, this manor feels like a real life replica of the Disney castles. Its interior is also impeccably designed.

Sleepy village of Chenonceaux
Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire's Pride

Most people day-trip here just for the Chateau, which is a real shame. While this place offers nothing else, staying overnight in a French village is an experience I can’t forget. The excellent family-run Le Relais hotel that I stayed in offered terrific value for money (€52/ night) and my first proper meal in France was well-spent here (€17 for a 3-course). It was a treat just observing how the owners run a bustling restaurant on a Saturday night (I imagined many who dined there were regular locals).

First proper meal in France

Amboise and Chenonceaux were never on my to-go list, and was originally planned to connect me to the other French cities. Both turned out to be delights I will savour for a very long time.