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  • Writer's pictureIlana Newman

Mountains and the Mediterranean

We left Paris on a gloomy Friday morning to take a train from the Gare de Lyon to Nimes, France. It was a 3 hour train ride through rolling green hills and farmland. Stepping out of the train in Nimes was like stepping into a sauna, an expected shock but vastly different from the cool drizzle we had left only a few hours earlier. While on the train my mom had the startling realization that she had left her drivers license in Giverny, when we had rented bikes to go see Monet’s garden. Since we were about to pick a rental car in Nimes that would transport us around the south of France for the next week, this was, to say the very least, not good. Thankfully, do to a very trusting rental car service, and the fact that my mom had, on a whim, memorized her drivers liscence number, they allowed us to rent a car as long as we promised to send them a picture of the license as soon as we could. Getting into our Ford (a ford in Europe?! We were disapointed, especially because it was automatic and I was looking forward to driving a manual car, it's been too long), which we quickly decided to name Beatrice because of the old lady English accent that the navigation system spoke in, we headed for Uzès, a little town about 30 minute away.

The drive to Uzès

The drive to Uzès took us through part of the gorge du gardon, down a small road winding through limestone cliffs ornamented with deep green trees and over a completely dry river bed on a bridge that connected to this beautiful old building that almost but not quite resembled a castle. That drive was the first hint of what was to come as I leaned out of the car window trying to capture it all in my head and with my camera lens. Coming into Uzès we were told by our Airbnb host who spoke no English that we would have to park down the road and should get there early in the day because there was a festival this weekend and the whole town was being cordoned off because of it. We got there and met Sylvie, our host, and Marie, her friend who was visiting and spoke English. We relaxed in the cool(er) house (it was nearly 107 degrees outside) and had an aperitif with Sylvie and Marie, conversating in a round about way. My mom and I would talk to Marie in English, Marie would relay that to Sylvie in French and then Sylvie would contribute in French or Marie would respond. I tried to understand as much French as I could, picking up bits and pieces of the conversation and sometimes adding a few garbled sentences in French to talk to Sylvie.

Our Airbnb

Our Airbnb window. Great people watching

It always amazes me how well many people speak English in Europe. Many young people do because they learn it in school, but many people speak nearly fluent English even without that. As I struggled but enjoyed practicing my rusty French throughout this time here, I was always thinking about what it must feel like for someone speaking English as a second language. Do they have to translate it all back into their first language like I have to do with French? Some conversations I can get through entirely in French, and yet others I struggle with the most basic vocabulary. It's becomes harder when I'm tired, exhausted from a long day of whatever we've been up to, trying to order dinner, baffled by whatever the waiter has asked me that I'm not expecting. It's pretty amazing. Maybe Americans just aren't as good at langauages because we don't have to be? Wherever I go I try to pick up at least a few words to be polite and at least show that I'm trying, but whenever I start speaking English I just feel as though I am being a great inconvenience to these people who suddenly have to switch to a language that they are most likely not as comfortable with.

We realized that evening that what Sylvie and Marie had been talking about when they said that the gates around town were put up due to “cows in the street” actually meant that there would be bulls running through the streets of this little midival town that night and for the next few days at scheduled times. We happened to walk out of the house at exactly the right moment to see 5 or 6 bulls running down the cobbled streets in front of us. My mom and I just looked at each other in shock. Holy shit. Where were we right now? The town itself was beautiful, quiet, narrow, car-less streets with white and tan buildings trimmed in pale green and burnt red. There was a castle in the center of town and a few other towers around, reminding us not so subtly that this town had been around since the 5th century with the building that we were staying in 16th century. The small town feeling was exactly what I wanted to be after the crowds in Paris, and the beauty and age of the town was a photographer and history lovers dream. We never ventured too far from our airbnb just a block away from the main square, besides a few rambles out the winding streets that spread away from the square just due to time and the fact that we were gone everyday, but what I did see of Uzès was pretty much the ideal small southern French town.

Fenestrelle tower and saint-Théodorit cathedral

The Duché palace of Uzès

Uzès on market day

The next day we set out to explore in our rental car with very few plans. We drove all the way to Gordes and visited the Abbaey Notre Dames de Sénanques, where I was hoping to see bright purple lavender but although it was a bit too late for the blooms, it was still beautiful.

Abbaey Notre Dame de Sénanques-would have been prettier if it was all purple


Then we headed towards Aix-en-Provence and because it was still over 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) we were trying to find a place to go swimming. After a bit of google map searching I found Lac du Bimont, which seemed fine to swim in according to google. We got there and I went to explore while my mom took a quick nap. The road was blocked to cars but it didn't seem to be completely closed. There were about 10 cars in the lot and a few other people milling around with swimsuits and towels. I found a small trail that led down towards the turquoise blue water a few hundred feet below, but because my moms not one for scrambling down rocky trails we decided to walk down the “road” instead, which of course was really just a torn up trail. It was swelteringly hot and after 15 minutes of walking I started to feel bad for getting us into this. “This is the kind of stuff you should be doing with your father! I'm not the adventurous parent!” My mom stumbled her way down the path in her flip flops. But when we finally got to the water we were both pretty stoked. It was cool and clear and blue and refreshing with no one around. My ideal swimming location. We did wonder if there was some reason to not be swimming here since it seemed too good to be true. When we finally got back to the car there were some sort of official looking people waiting for us to tell us that the whole area was closed because of high fire risk, and you weren't allowed to swim anyways, or that's all that I understood from the french I could comprehend. We drove away quickly, glad they hadn't given us the 138 euro ticket that was supposed to accompany the infraction, but I still wonder about all the other people I had seen going down to the lake to swim. I mean I'm not one to take fire risk lightly, especially while seeing constant posts from back in the Pacific Northwest about how bad it is right now, but I was just curious about why it was necessary to completely close an area instead of just taking precautions to keep flames out.

Lac du bimont

That evening we drove to Avignon and I definitely did sing the bridge of Avignon song though not on the bridge because it cost money and was definitely not worth it. It was pretty to look at from the sides, and the town was cute. The next couple days consisted of lots of adventures around Provence. We kayaked through the Verdon Gorge for a couple hours, tall limestone walls rising from clear turquoise waters and lots and lots of people. It was pretty worth it, even with the 3 hour drive from Uzes. We drove to Cassis, a small beach town and did a little bit of hiking through the Calanques, again just pretty filled with tourists, but wow it was pretty stunning. Definitely a place to return to for some incredible limestone ocean cliff climbing and more exploring. After swimming in the Mediterranean I ran around for awhile, scrambling up cliffs and peering around corners, always wondering what was around the next bend. But again, my mom and I have different styles of traveling and that kind of exploring will just have to be saved for another time. We drove to Marseille the next day and walked around the Old Port, looking at boats and enjoying the architecture. We ate a lot of delicious food and got a nice little peek into life in the southern French countryside and coast.

The calanques

Actual color of the water in this calanque

Backstreets of Cassis

Verdon gorge by kayak

Verdon gorge from above. So much limestone ahh!!

Our last couple days in France were spent based out of Grenoble, in an airbnb on the 10th floor of an apartment building near downtown, with a gorgeous view of the city and the mountains surrounding the city 360 degrees. We spent our day in the mountains driving to Chamonix under cloudy skies. I was disappointed that the incredible views were hidden behind the fog, but i was still pretty stoked because I love the feeling of fog in the mountains. The whole way there we wondered whether we would be able to see anything at all, but the drive through the mountains reinvigorated both of us. It felt like being back in the Pacific Northwest with all the fog and mist and green trees and windy mountain roads. I felt at home and so very happy, even though we could see no peaks through the clouds. The small villages we drove through were exactly how we expected villages to look in the Alps, and for both of us it was something we had always wanted to experience.

Three moods of Grenoble

When we got there we debated for a long time whether or not to take the lift up to Aiguille du Midi even though the visibility was shit, and the trip up was not cheap. After walking around the town for awhile we finally decided to just go for it, and I am so so glad that we did. Arriving at the top of the 2000+ meter cable car, two things happened involuntarily. My nose started bleeding, and tears started streaming down my face. People gave me weird looks but I didn't care. I was home. Sure maybe it could have been clearer, we could have seen more, but there's something about fog in the mountains that gives an intimacy that all the bluebird days in the world can't achieve. Because everyone was being told that the visibility was bad at the ticket counter down in chamonix, there were very few people up there compared to the crowds that I would imagine would have been there if it was clear. I couldn't imagine anything better. I even got to scramble around on some of the granite hallways, as the whole structure is built into the mountain. Got some very cold but pretty good finger locks!

It was kinda an interesting feeling to be above the clouds looking out at some of the most stunning alpine views I've ever seen, but having put zero work into getting there. I'm used to having to hike up mountains, or climbing to summits to get those views. It felt weird to be in a man made structure advertised to tourists but on the top of a mountain. In the moment I was just so overcome with the beauty and the filling of my soul that comes from the feeling of being so high and so much a part of that sort of landscape, but looking back it almost feels as though I cheated the system. It was nothing like the pure wilderness of the north cascades, but at the same time, it was so accessible and so powerful. My mom, who as I have said, is not one for trails or camping, felt it as well, and I think it gave her some insight as to why I do what I do, why I spend so much time looking toward the mountains. It's a feeling unlike any other.

Chamonix was a perfect way to end our time in France and we were both ready to move onto Italy after that. Now we're in Bergamo, a small town outside of Milan where my mom lived for a year in 1987 while she was doing her Montessori training. Tomorrow my mom leaves, and Sydney arrives, and I move onto another chapter in this trip! More beautiful places and fun experiences to come, at some point. If you made it this far, congratulations, this was a long one, and I've done my best typing and editing photos on my phone, but I do miss the ease of actually using a computer.

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