Friday, October 12, 2012

Les Pyrénées

As our time in France draws to a close, I have become more and more desperate to fit in as much travelling as our other commitments will allow. In addition to this, I have vowed to eat as much saucisson as I can before we leave.

Ag and Mom were gracious enough to come and visit us here one last time, so we decided to include a bit of whirl-wind week of travelling into their three week stay. And our destination was the lovely Pyrenees. Yes, I know we live right next to mountains here, but as Keith said; "They're not real mountains." For us real mountains means dense forest and snow. Lucky for us we got both on this trip.

We started our journey in Lourdes to visit the spring of St. Bernadette. The town itself is not terribly remarkable and is full of souvenir shops trying to sell you everything from rosaries and icons, to fridge magnets and post cards. Although the streets leading up to the sanctuary are crazy and completely commercialized, the sanctuary itself is quite peaceful. I was really impressed with the calm and sense of prayerfulness that encompassed the entire site. The main aspects of the sanctuary including the grotto and taps where you can access water from the spring are all outside. Surrounded by trees, hills and a river, the sanctuary is in harmony the nature around it. The chapel (below) is a dominant, but not austere, building with two long ramps that extend from it to form a semi circle which hugs the main square. This choice is not only architecturally interesting but also allows the sick to access the chapel. 

The sick are the VIPs of Lourdes. There are benches everywhere for people to sit down and rest, and you see volunteers everywhere pushing wheelchairs and carts to allow the sick to access the different points of the sites. They are given priority in lines to visit the grotto where St. Bernadette had her visions of our lady and where the spring appeared. Seeing so many severely ill people in one spot was a bit sad, but I also found Lourdes incredibly inspiring. People who visit this sanctuary are not your average tourists, they are there because of their faith in God and his ability to heal. Bernadette was so poor and so young that she had nothing but her faith in what she, and no one else, saw. She did not know who the white lady who appeared to her was, but yet she trusted her. This type of trust and hopefulness was really for me what Lourdes was all about.

The other thing that impressed me about Lourdes was its truly international feel. We witnessed processions and prayers in multiple languages, and saw people from around the world. Above the sanctuary there is a way of the cross, that has larger than life statues depicting each station staggered along a steep climb to the summit of a hill. As we ascended we heard groups praying in at least five different languages. I really appreciate being reminded from time to time about the universality of the church. This is truly a place of pilgrimage where crowds are present, but nothing is rushed and calm dominates.

We also took the time to visit the fort of Lourdes which had a dominant view of the sanctuary and surrounding countryside. Although it was a rainy day, the clouds just enhanced our views of the valley. The fort houses a museum of Pyrenees culture which included everything from traditional costumes to advertisements for skiing from the early 1900s. These were graphically interesting, but with slogans like "Only seven hours from Paris" gives incredible insight into how much travel has changed. 

Our next stop was Andorra. To get to this small country on the border of France and Spain we had to climb the continuous cutbacks to reach the Pas de la Cas pass 2000 m above sea level. The scenery was fantastic and we were amazed at seeing cows and horses grazing on the steep mountainsides around us. In fact just after entering the resort town of Pas de la Cas traffic stopped for the cows who were grazing in the middle of a traffic circle and on the grass growing on the meridian. So yes, the signs are appropriate.

Andorra definitely has "real mountains." When we got out of the car at the top of the pass, it was actually snowing and suddenly our shorts and sandals did not seem like the most appropriate apparel. Although the economy of Andorra used to depend solely on farming, since the 1970s it seems to depend on two things: ski tourism and duty free shopping. 

The mountains are beautiful and when I saw at least four ski resorts within a fifteen minute drive, I started to kick myself that we hadn't decided to visit in the winter. Instead of skiing we went on a couple of hikes through snowy mountain meadows and along winding cliff sides paths to a waterfall. 

The food in Andorra was also absolutely wonderful. After walking around all day, mountain fare of local saucisson, lamb and peas with streaky bacon was much appreciated. It is the best of both worlds a bit French, a bit Catalan. Really you can't go wrong. 

The license plate above shows the coat of arms which actually has two cows on it. The Catalan flag and Foix flag represent the combined cultures of the area and the Bishops Mitre highlights the fact that Andorra is a dual principality ruled by the Bishop of the region and the French President. 

As I mentioned above, Andorra is a duty free zone. People from France and Spain come here to get cheap alcohol, cigarettes, groceries and gas. The serenity and nature of the little towns and ski resorts is in complete contrast to the capital, Andorra La Vella, which is basically a shopping centre. Everything is new and modern  with high fashion stores lining the pristine streets. When we passed through Spanish customs and we said we had nothing to declare, the customs agent began to frown until we explained we were Canada tourists.

After some driving through northern Spain and many fun tunnels through mountains (the longest was 5km), we arrived at the Monastery of Montserrat. Perched on the side of a mountain, the monastery is accessible by a cog -wheel train or by an ancient cable car. The same mountain is home to various other small chapels and hermitages, which are now a bit more accessible from the two funiculars, but in ages gone by the whole mountain would have been a place of solitude and climbing up to any of these true penance.

Montserrat is the home of a religious community, but one who has invested time and money into preserving Catalan culture. With a museum and Catalonian boys choir, it highlights the independent spirit of the region. It also houses the Romanesque statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, otherwise known as the dark Madonna, who is the patron Saint of Catalonia. 

Although the main Cathedral and buildings were busy with tourist and bus tours, we found the walks to the different chapels quiet. It makes me reflect on the balance that needs to be struck in allowing visits to these magnificently historical yet spiritual sacred places. How do can the history be shared and at the same time maintain a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere?

All the buildings seem to tottering on the edge of the mountains.

So Barcelona, your will notice that all of my pictures are of the amazing Sagrada Familia Church. It is an exquisite building by an architectural master, Antoni Gaudi. It is really one of the most interesting buildings I have ever been in and I could have taken pictures there all day. In Barcelona, it was the only thing I took pictures of because it was pouring the whole time we were there! To combat this we took a bus tour to give us a sense of the city without having to get wet, but it seems like everyone else had the same idea and we ended up sitting on the top of a double decker bus with open windows and only a vinyl canopy covering our head. Every time we turned a corner the rain that had pooled on the canopy above us fell down and then blew onto us. It was a bit of an adventure. 

 Regardless of the weather, I did enjoy myself. The openness and architecture of the city is unique and I would love to go back to truly explore it properly. The highlight for us was actually the Museum of the History of Catalonia. It only cost us two euros each and had a wealth of information from pre-history to the modern era. We could have stayed for hours, but unfortunately these places do have to close. 

As I now deal with some of the realities of moving continents and the somewhat unplanned year ahead, I am already planning a few more escapes before we return to Canada! Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Invités d'été

So here is a quick overview of our summer visitors and adventures. As you will notice the majority of them have to do with going to the beach. Ah yes, summer in Marseille.

One of our most adventurous days involved five separate boat trips. We took the navette (public transport boat) from near our house to the Vieux Port, then from the Vieux Port to the notorious Chateau D'If, from D'If to Frioul Islands for a bit of a swim and beach sitting and then back to the Vieux Port and back on the navette home. I was so proud of Elise. She was able to handle all of the boats even though she has a bit of a week stomach.

Chateau D'If. Coud you escape?

Frioul Islands. These used to the quarantine station for Marseille. Your boat had to stay here for forty days without showing signs of illness, otherwise you were not aloud to enter Marseille.

Marseille from the water.

My favorite Calanque, En Vau! Yes the water is really that blue.

I took Elise and Aid to Nimes to discover the treasures along the Via Domitia. From Roman arenas, to Romantic fountains. Nimes is definitely one of my favourite towns.

Another typically provencale day of travelling up to the hilltop village of Le Castellet.

On the same day we visited the amazingly colourful seaside town of Bandol.

We also paid another visit to Pont de Gard. Yes that is us in front of an olive tree that is more than a millenia old!

More beach time with Pascal, Jacqueline, Elise and Aid.

A summer visitor of a different variety.

And of course more sight seeing at Notre Dame de la Garde. This time with Aerick and Willa.

The Panier District. The oldest section of Marseille.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tour de France

Living in a big city like Marseille, you sometimes feel like you are just in any other big city. I have noticed this trend during our travels that although many cities have defining characteristics (and trust me Marseille is unique), all big cities have somewhat of the same feel. Hence it has been that some of our most "French" moments have happened in little towns in the countryside. Add our viewing of the Tour de France just outside of Uzès to this list. It is almost as stereotypical as cheese, wine and baguettes, accept miraculously the Tour de France is not just about cycling but is actually about showcasing French stereotypes.

Yes little did we know that if you are under the age of ten the most exciting part of the Tour is probably not the cyclists and the amazing way they can do hundreds of kilometres day after day, but the Caravan! The caravan is basically a parade of cars and floats of the various sponsors of the Tour that come about two hours in advance of the cyclists. And let me tell you both the children and adults who were lining the route next to us were more than excited about the caravan because not only do they sail by at 50km/h with hilariously "French" floats but they also throw stuff into the crowd. The kids around us were jumping up and down each time a new sponsor came buy to try to get them to throw them a t-shirt, cap, wrist band, waterbottle or baked good in their direction. Here is a selection of some of the more interesting floats.

Yes of course a bakery would be a sponsor of the Tour because nothing says French stereotype like a baguette.


You are looking at one of the two packages of Madelines that were thrown out to us. Yes it does take talent to accurately throw baked goods out of a car moving 50km/h. Lucky for Keith we both got one of these packages. 

I'm not sure if you can read the writing below this mascot but it for "le coq sportif" and I think that this is almost as funny as the sixty-something lady who was standing three meters away from me but somehow managed to run over and block me so that she could get her hands on the haribo candy that landed in front of me. Who needs to see the cyclists when the pre-entertainment is so great?

The ambience of the whole event was fantastic. We were stationed on a small hill (which I'm sure the cyclists would simply consider a minor incline) so we were not only able to see the cyclists coming, but they also did slow down incrementally as they powered up the hill. Since we were close to the beginning of the stage there was only one larger breakaway group but it was very cool to see the peloton organized by teams. The riders really did fly by, but it was great to be there to cheer them on and to give extra encouragement to those behind the peloton who were getting nourishment or fixing their bike as they were riding it!

We stayed for the afternoon in Uzès and took in the market while admiring its architecture. This town was like so many in Provence inhabited by the Romans and is actually the beginning of the aqueduct which flows across Pont du Gard and into Nimes.  It also contains the Duché, which is a private chateau still used by the duke and duchess of Uzès. Below you can see their coat of arms on the roof. 

On the whole it was a very "French" weekend outing!