Wednesday, August 08, 2007

 

French People: They're Actually Really Nice!

Check out Troy's fantastic pictures of France at our photo website. It also looks like this is going to be another long blog so I will try to keep it entertaining and not so boring!

Troy and I are really happy to say that despite what a large percentage of Americans think, the French are not rude, snobby people. For the most part we thought they were helpful, happy, kind, funny and skinny. Although there was the waiter in a small village of Monpazier that tried to stab Hoyt with a few steak knives and also tried to shoot Troy with his bottle opener (probably because they were mangling the French language), but other then that we were happily surprised with the French people. We only hope that when they visit the US they find us to be just as kind, helpful and funny, although probably not as skinny.

The one overall complaint we did have about France is their signage. Everything was in French. Call us picky or anal, but America is not the only country that speaks English. We went to a museum of Natural History and the only thing in English were these small laminated info sheets that covered maybe 1/3 of the artefacts in the museum. Even when we picked up brochures about exhibits, it only gave highlights in English and it was obvious there was a whole lot of info we were missing out on. The one place that we could not believe there was nothing in English was the Louvre Museum. This is not only a world famous museum, but also the worlds largest. Yes, you could rent an audio guide but this covered maybe 30% of the exhibits. All the signs for the remaining 70% were in French. You could maybe figure out the dates but even this was questionable because you didn't know if it was the date the object was found or created. It was very frustrating and honestly, very disappointing. We encountered many other English speakers (not just Americans) that felt the same way about France. But the one thing that shocked us regarding the lack of English signs at the Louvre was where we did find English signage - which was at the Catacombs. The Catacombs is a quarry of disused tunnels that now houses the exhumed bones from overflowing cemeteries from the late 1700's, but more on that later. Hmmm... English signs for art masterpieces or old, gross bones?

Upon arrival in France with my aunt and uncle, Troy and I couldn't remember why we chose France as a destination. But then we remembered our flight to Cairo departed from Paris so that was the only reason we could think of why we chose France. We obviously had no idea what to expect and were not really excited to be here. But we really liked it. We both agreed we would like to visit it again since there is a large portion we never even got near such as the north and south coasts.

Chamonix-Mont Blanc

Our first destination in France was just across the west border of Switzerland in an area of Chamonix-Mont Blanc which is surrounded by the most beautiful scenery of the French Alps. I have never heard of this area or the mountain range of Mont Blanc but in one word - AWESOME!!!!! The Mont Blanc peak is the highest peak of the French Alps and actually of all the Alps. Our first day in Chamonix (our hotel was actually in a small village called Les Houches) was spent hiking around the western side of the valley, making our way by lift to the top of Le Brevent which is the highest peak of the west valley. From there, we continued on a really easy hike to other lifts that took us up and down the mountain range. The views across the valley of Mont Blanc and the glacier called Mer De Glace, which is the second largest glacier in the Alps, is indescribable. You will have to look at Troy's photos just to see how spectacular it all was.

The next day we took the cable car to the top of Aiguille Du Midi which is 8km from Mont Blanc's domed summit. The cable car ride up was sketchy. I don't know how many people were allowed on the car, but I guarantee it was way beyond it's limit. People couldn't turn around if they wanted. All they had room to do was fart! When we first enquired about the cable car to the peak, the information lady said we would spend a few hours up there. The four of us looked at each other and said "yeah, right!" This lady was not wrong. After 2.5 hours at the top we actually were told to leave before we were ready because we hadn't made reservations to get back down. The cable car guy said "You have to leave now, you can't stay since you don't have a reservation!" Obviously hindsight we could have stayed longer because it wasn't like they were going to leave a few stupid Americans stranded at the summit!

Like I said 2.5 hours at the top was not enough. There were several platforms and levels where we could get views of the surrounding peaks, valleys and glaciers. Not to mention the various mountaineers, rock climbers and Mont Blanc summit seekers! Even though the elevation is similar to Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountains, this mountain range just brings out the "Holy Cow!!!" in people because it is incredibly beautiful with the surrounding glaciers and tons of snow and endless views. I kept saying to Troy "This is amazing! This is incredible! Wow, look at that!" After about the 10th comment he was about to throw me over the railing! Anyways, just look at the photos. "Holy cow" just doesn't do it! I honestly don't remember what we did the next day. I think a hike or something. I have no idea. All I can remember right now is the beauty of the Mont Blanc mountain range.

Dordogne Region

The Dordogne region is more toward the center of France far away from any coast. It is the center of one of France's wine region as well as home to hundreds of medieval and Renaissance chateaus and castles. Some of the villages we visited to see these castles was LeBuge, Limeul, Belves, Monbazillac, Lanquais and Domme. Of course since we were in France in prime tourist season, we had to fight the traffic and crowds to see some of these beautiful monuments. One of the great benefits of having a car (or my aunt and uncle having a car, we just tagged along) is that instead of getting to these towns by public bus, we were able to cruise the French countryside, discovering old, hidden villages.

We did spend one day going from winery to winery doing wine tasting’s. These were nothing like the wine tasting’s in Napa that are a little stuffy and are quick to make you feel like you don't belong there and have no idea what you are doing. One winery was on the land of a family home and the host was an older woman who didn't speak a lick of English (and of course, we didn't speak a word of French) but she was so kind and accommodating and tried her best to communicate with hand signals and gestures. The hosts at a few of the other wineries spoke a little more English so we were given a pretty good education regarding French wine.

Another thing we found out about the Dordogne area, is it is rich in pre-history and Paleolithic artefacts. I never would have used France and Neanderthals in the same sentence but this area is crawling with ancient caves, tools and Cro-Magnon history. The most significant find is the Lascaux caves located outside of the village of Montignac. This is the most famous Palaeolithic sanctuary in the world. In 1940, 4 boys and a dog were wandering the countryside trying to discover caves they had heard were around. The dog fell in a small hole and after the boys dug down several feet they came across a series of caves over 700' in total length that contained cave paintings that dated over 17,000 years old. This find reminded me of how the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, China were found when the farmer stumbled across them after digging a well.

The caves were open to the public for 15 years but when archaeologists noticed the decay of the paintings the caves were immediately closed to the public. An immediate reproduction was soon built, now known as Lascaux II. For the next 4 years after the closure, sculpturists used an old abandoned quarry and built an exact replica of the caves with only 1cm of difference from the original. In the following 5 years, painters came in and exactly copied 90% of the cave paintings. One section of the caves known as the Hall of Bulls is a painting of a bull which measures over 15' long and is the largest paleolition cave painting in the world. I was a little unsure if I wanted to see a reproduction of such a significant find. You have to admit, there is something about seeing the original. But then when I put logical thought to it and realizing there is no way something 17,000 years old could survive millions of visitors a year, I decided to go and see the replica. Even though it was not the original, it was fabulous (I really need to get a thesaurus so I stop using fabulous and amazing).

After visiting Lascaux II, we spent the remaining of our final day in this region in Sarlat which has a spectacular medieval town center and old gas lamps. Troy and I decided to splurge and have a fantastic French meal complete with Foie Gras and Truffle sauce. I don't know what was more entertaining, my aunt's duck which was served flash frozen or our young waiter who laughed at us for mispronouncing every French word we said.

Paris

Onto Paris. All of us expected the worse of the Parisian people. Everyone we talked to, including the French, said the local people of Paris are rude, have no tolerance of foreigners and are disgusted when you don't speak French to them. I don't know what Paris these people were talking about but we didn't come across one rude person. There was the occasional waiter who was just busy and didn't have time for chit chat but people actually helped us, answered our questions and drew maps to give us directions to places. Not at all what we expected. We did have mixed feelings about Paris. For as big a city as it is, it was fairly clean but every so often we would come across a dirty diaper, drunks and crazy people yelling and lots of dog pooh.

Our first full day in Paris it dumped rain and was actually a little cold. We decided to make a beeline to the Louvre and got in right away. We thought we were in the wrong line because it was so short and moving so fast. We thought the people in the line ahead of us had some sort of super duper secret Louvre pass that we didn't know about. Ended up that we were just early and that's what happens when the museum first opens. So in we went, got our audio guide and went straight to the Mona Lisa... and took a picture. That was one thing I couldn't believe about this museum. They didn't care if we took pictures. When we went to the Bourghese Museum in Rome, they took our camera from us. So click away we went.

Next up was Notre Dame. This was a stunning church and has the best gothic architecture we have ever seen plus being incredibly old(originally begun in 1163). We don't know what we loved more, the giant 30' diameter stained glass window, the 7800 pipe organ or all the gargoyles surrounding the church. This was one place we actually didn't have to pay to get into, unlike a lot of other monuments. One interesting fact we found it is distances from Paris to every part of metropolitan France is measured from Notre Dame.

Our last day in Paris we spent as what Troy called "The Day of Death". First up was the Catacombs which I mentioned earlier when I talked about English signage. To expand a little more on this place: in 1785, the hygienic problems posed by Paris' overflowing cemeteries was solved by exhuming the bones and storing them in the tunnels of the disused quarries. Along 1.6km of tunnels are stacked, and in a lot of cases thrown, thousands of bones of thousands and thousands of people. It was very creepy and a little unsettling. I don't know what was more weird, seeing femur bones and skulls stacked nicely or ribs, clavicles and pelvis bones thrown haphazardly in piles. Then there were the mothers who, for whatever reason, decided to bring their small children into this place.

Last stop, the Cimetiere Du Pere Lachaise which is the largest cemetery in Paris with over 70,000 graves. We originally went here because this is where Jim Morrison (lead singer of The Doors) is buried. We didn't go to see his grave but to see the people who come to visit his grave. I had heard stories about what fans leave at his grave and about the various people who camp out. I was surprised to see that his grave was small compared to his surrounding neighbours but there were many things that set his grave apart from the others: barricades surrounding it, whole cigarettes thrown on top, the Ozzy Osbourne look alike, two teenagers jamming out to their I-Pod and grown women crying. What surprised me the most were the teenagers. How do they know who Jim Morrison is? He was dead before they were even born. We were happy (for lack of a better word) that we decided to come to this cemetery. (I'm not sure happy is normally used in the same sentence as cemetery.) But this was like an open air museum. The sculptures on graves were scary, cool and amazing. Every so often we would turn around and go "Woah, that's so creepy!" The graves were also old, decrepit and for some reason broken apart. Tops of sarcophagus were tipped over and laying on the side and doors pulled off the hinges of mausoleums graves. It made your imagination go wild thinking about how these graves got to be in this condition.

Anyways, I have gone on way too long about France but in our short time we saw a lot and had way too much to share.

Onto Egypt next!!!!

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