This year with the help of Gateway Challenges Funding, I finally made it to France. I did French from Year 7 through to GCSE at high school and have never stayed in France before. I wanted the opportunity to refresh my language skills which I had a little success in. Once in France I tended to find that, though I usually managed to make myself understood, most people either answered back immediately in English or in such quick French I didn’t quite understand. I did find however that my French reading skills significantly improved through reading menus, signs, train timetables etc. and have been using a flash card app before and since my trip in order to aid my memory.
We managed to visit several of France’s famous land marks in Marseille and also took a day trip to Avignon. On the first evening we ate out and had frois grois burgers at a restaurant close to our apartment on the square on the Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Ovres. It was a lovely area and in the evenings they held dances in the square. I spend ages watching the people learning and one night they were even teaching Lindy Hop which is something that I do at university. It was really interesting to see how it is taught differently – out doors for a start - and with a slightly different style to how I am used to seeing it. It was really nice to spend evenings watching the people in the square and looking down the alley opposite our apartment to see the harbour.
In the mornings we went out to a local boulangerie to get croissants for breakfast which were delicious and we bought fruit and ingredients to make our evening meal from a local store. When we got to the checkout, the store owner informed us that basil would go very well with the sauce and the pasta we had chosen. He pulled two bunches from a plant by the till and told us how to best use it. It smelled (and tasted) wonderful.
We visited Notre Dame a la Garde cathedral which was truly phenomenal. The cathedral is up a reasonably steep hill a little which looks out over the main city. The road up the hill was interesting as in order to cope with the gradient of the road, they have put steps into the pavement. However, the steps doo not occur at regular intervals nor are there the same number of steps each time. When we got to the top I was interested to compare this cathedral to the cathedrals and churches that I saw on my visit to Italy to years ago: they were similar though both are quite different to the cathedrals I have seen in England. Somehow in France and Italy the cathedrals seem far more grand, though I think this has more to do with the fact that there are often far fewer buildings surrounding cathedrals in Italy and Europe than we have here. It was very hot the day we visited the cathedral so I was glad to be able to stand in the shadow of the building. We looked up towards the steeple with the statue of Notre Dame on the top. It was an amazing sight as she appeared to have a halo as the sun was positioned behind her head.
We also visited two forts in Marseille, one of which is shut for maintenance being carried out by unemployed people and one of which is shut on Tuesdays (it was a Tuesday). Although we couldn’t get into the forts, it was great to walk around the walls and see Marseille from a rather different angle. We also visited a market and another cathedral (also shut on Tuesdays, also visited on Tuesday). We went to the site of the Palais de Pharo which was built for Napoleon III. It is now part of the university but has beautiful views across the old port.
We also took a day to trip where we visited the Palais des Papes. It is very very different to the Vatican. It is far more focussed on the history of the place and is much less grand, which is an element of the fact it is no longer a papal residence. I was surprised by how bare the rooms were compared to the Vatican which seemed to have artwork on every available surface. We also went to the famous bridge of Avignon (sur le pont d’avignon – like the song) which is actually called Le Pont Saint-Bénézet. I was surprised with how many times the bridge had been rebuilt using the same design. The bridge was never able to take goods across the river as it was not built wide enough as the structure could not support its own weight if it had been wider. The arches collapsed regularly and were often built up the same way as before rather than by a new design. It is relatively recent that the new bridge has been built which does allow goods as well as pedestrians to cross. I also discovered galettes in Avignon at a street side café. I had mine with four cheeses which was fantastic.
On the final day we went on a ferris wheel overlooking the Vieux Port. Last year I went on the Riesenrad in Vienna. This was very different in that the ferris wheel is far more modern and not noted as a tourist destination in itself. The wheel is decidedly smaller than the Riesenrad and goes round three times rather than just the once. It was an excellent way to look back over the various parts of the city we had walked around earlier in the week including views of the cathedral, the forts, the port, and we could just about see the square where our apartment was.