Pérouges

We’ve been in Lyon for about three weeks now and while we love the city, we’re going a little stir crazy. Classes don’t start here until the 17th, which means that I’ve been effectively “off duty” work-wise since the beginning of May. (I don’t count teaching online, as that wasn’t really an everyday commitment like grad school/full-time teaching.) We moved back to Michigan at the end of July, so Dani has also been off for the last two-plus months; while it’s been nice, we’re also both very much feeling the need to get back to a routine.

So in an effort to keep ourselves occupied until we’re back to the long-awaited “real world”, we decided to take a day trip to Pérouges, a medieval town just up the road from Lyon. At first I was a little bit skeptical, as I thought it might be packed with tourists and totally inauthentic as such little towns can be (I’m looking at you, Frankenmuth and Mont-Saint-Michel) but much to my surprise, we had the place (mostly) to ourselves!

There wasn’t much to do in the cité itself other than take in the scenery and eat which is, let’s be honest, not a problem for either of us. There are some walking trails that circle Pérouges and then go out into the surrounding countryside that vary in length from 30 minutes to about 2.5 hours. Since Lucie came with us and we were operating on a semi-strict timeline because of the train schedule, we picked the 1.5 hour long trail. We ended up not finishing the whole thing because it was blazing hot and poor Lucie was wrecked, so after not quite an hour we took a shortcut back to Pérouges, had an absolutely enormous lunch, then milled about the town until it was time to had back to Méximieux to catch the train to Lyon.

You can click on any one of the photos below to see a larger version!

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The healing waters of Vichy, France

France wasn’t really in my 2016 travel plans, but last year an opportunity came up that I knew I had to jump on. It was a scholarship for American French teachers, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington D.C., for a two-week pedagogical “internship” at a language school in the city of Vichy. Very nearly all expenses paid – tuition for the language school, room and board with a host family, a round-trip train ticket from Paris to Vichy, a $600 allowance to defray the cost of a plane ticket, and 200 euros in spending money.

Um, yeah. Sign me up, please.

The only problem was that the scholarship is super competitive. Like, only 20-teachers-nationwide-competitive. Added to that, I didn’t even find about it until literally three days before the deadline Still, I figured I’d give it a shot (it didn’t cost anything to apply – but I did pay to overnight my materials to Chicago) so I cobbled together the application materials as best as I could (realizing that I had lost my passport in the process – thank goodness I had made a copy of the first page for my records!) and crossed my fingers until the day the notifications were to be sent out to the recipients (it was a Friday).

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CAVILAM – Alliance Française

Well, the day came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I let myself feel disappointed but ultimately moved on – I had rushed to get the application together, after all, so I couldn’t be too surprised – when Wednesday arrived and so did the e-mail that started with Félicitations!

I may have cried a little in front of my students. They were nice about it though!

A few months later I was on a train from Paris to Vichy.

Vichy is an interesting place; it’s in the center of France, right in the midst of a chain of dormant volcanos called Puy-de-Dôme. For literally centuries, Vichy has been known as a place of healing and restoration – there are numerous natural springs that provide the city with mineral water. Some is freely drinkable, and you can fill up as you like at a couple of local wells. The water is naturally carbonated and tastes slightly salty. The others are found in a beautiful art nouveau building in the center of town and can only be drunk with a prescription from the doctor citing your specific ailments and what variety of mineral water you need to drink to cure them.

There are also hot springs and spas are in abundance. Likewise, outdoor activities are in abundance – rowing, biking, horseback racing at the Hippodrome, a lovely riverside park for jogging or rollerblading. It’s a place that values health, quietness and calm. It was lovely. I was surprised at how much I loved it there, particularly considering Vichy’s more recent history.

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La source des Célestins, just steps from my host family’s house

While Vichy has long been known as a sort of “resort town”, just slightly more than 70 years ago Vichy became known for something else. The French government, on the eve Germany’s invasion of Paris, packed up and left the City of Lights while simultaneously assuring her citizens that there was nothing to fear. Yet the Parisians awoke one day to bombardments, and also to find that their leaders had fled – to Vichy. Vichy became the new capital of France, and forevermore a symbol of the French government’s ultimate collaboration with the Nazi regime. Maréchal Pétain, the president of the Vichy regime, was complicit in the deportation of thousands of Jews – including children (originally denied by the Nazis, Petain sent them anyway) – to ghettos and ultimately, death camps such as Auschwitz.

 

In Vichy, there are no traces of the war years. No museums, no memorials, no commemorative plaques on any buildings as there are in Paris. The quiet calm of the city makes it hard to believe that such atrocious ugliness happened there. Yet I’m sure the citizens of Vichy – largely made up of elderly retirees – must carry the memory quietly within themselves.

Or perhaps, just as the water of Vichy has healed the many thousands of people who have come to drink from its springs, the city itself has been healed, too.

Five Years Since France

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Five years ago today, I stepped on a plane and my life changed forever. I had just gone through a major transition in my life and wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when the plane landed in Paris. I was excited, terrified, sad, nervous – everything, as I faced the prospect of spending five months living and studying in a foreign country, away from my friends and my family and my familiar.

It wasn’t easy at first. Landing at the CDG airport was a shock – we (I was with two other girls from my same university) were greeted by a clearly homeless and mentally ill man with no pants or underwear on who was lighting magazine pages on fire inside the airport. The first time I ever spoke French to a real, live French person was to buy train tickets (I planned out everything I was going to say, word-for-word, before I got in line). The bathrooms were filthy and cost money to use. It was freezing cold in the train station, and the only area with heat was a closed-in waiting area that smelled so strongly of urine I could practically taste it. The jetlag caught up with me once I sat in my seat on the train, and though I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, I was terrified of falling asleep and missing my stop.

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And then we arrived in Angers, met our host families and went to our new homes where it really started to sink in – this is it. I won’t see my home or my family again until June. I cried the first night as I Skyped with my mom.

But slowly, Angers started to feel comfortable. My French exploded, and I felt more confident in my second language that my first, wanting to avoid betraying myself as an outsider. I made friends with my host mom’s daughter, fell in love with a little café and their amazing lattés, and even reconnected with some friends that I had originally met during my time in New York, who I thought I would probably never see again after they announced they were moving to Paris (life is so funny sometimes). I got to know people from all around the world. And then when June rolled around, I didn’t want to leave.

I’ve been back to France many, many times since then. I even revisited Angers in 2013 and had lunch with my host mom in that big, old house. It felt like slipping back into a favorite old sweater. Five years – it seems like so long ago but just yesterday at the same time. Even so, I can’t help thinking that I’m not quite done with Angers yet.

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The Middle Village: Corniglia

On our trip to Cinque Terre, our “home base” was the middle of the five villages, Corniglia. We actually came by our lodging a bit by accident; originally, we had hoped to stay in Vernazza or Riomaggiore. In fact, we had found an AirBnB that the both of us adored and in the time it took us to come to a consensus, the room had been snapped up! And so it goes with such popular destinations, I suppose.

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Well, we couldn’t agree on anyplace else in either Riomaggiore or Vernazza that also happened to be within our price range and so we clicked on the next listing we found which was a room in a B & B in the very heart of Corniglia (not that it’s that big of a town but really, it was the dead center of the village). Once we saw the pictures of the roofdeck, we knew – this was it!

When it came down to it, we could not have been happier with our choice. Our hostess, Lidia, was utterly charming and kind; she provided us with maps, directions, suggestions on where to eat, and checked in on us each day during our stay. It was clean, centrally located, had an amazing view and oh, yeah – was literally just steps away from the best gelato I have ever eaten in my life! I mean, we’re talking about a village that counts about 250 year-round residents, but still. If you’re ever in Corniglia, do yourself the favor of getting a scoop or two at Alberto’s – the basil/lemon combo (made with fresh basil from the garden!) was the stuff of which dreams are made.

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Corniglia is distinctively different from the other four villages in the Cinque Terre in a couple of ways. First, it’s the only village that doesn’t touch the water. There are two ways to get into the village:

  1. By hiking in from either Vernazza or Manarola.
  2. Arriving by train and walking up 245 stairs.

To be fair, there is a semi-reliable shuttle that runs from the train station to “downtown” Corniglia, but you do have to buy a ticket to use it and it only runs until about 5:00 PM each day.

Once you get into the town itself, though, it’s markedly different from the others. Quieter. Far fewer tourists. There’s no beach – just a man-made swim spot at the bottom of a steep, rocky staircase. More laid-back restaurants. None of the chintzy souvenir shops that make up the bulk of the businesses in the other villages. Corniglia just seems much more untouched – perhaps it’s the hassle involved in actually getting there, but something about its realness made me love it so much more. While we visited the other villages during the day, we returned each afternoon to Corniglia to enjoy our daily aperitivo and to eat dinner. We also couldn’t bear to miss the sunset from the roof of our B & B! I miss just sitting in the warm evening breeze, listening to the sounds of life down below – the cathedral bells, the rumble of a car rolling past, silverware clinking on plates, laughter. If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre, do yourself a favor and spend at least one night in Corniglia. I promise, you will not regret it!

 

Charming Cinque

I’ve got a thing for villages.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, too – I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go to New York or Paris. But there’s just something about tiny streets, quaint cafés and locals who all seem to know one another. The quiet and solitude. The realness of it all. I love villages!

The first time I saw Cinque Terre was in a photograph at a local art fair. It was Vernazza, I think, at dusk. Its colorful buildings and harbor with little canoes was lit up against a midnight sky and I turned to my Partner in Crime and said, “We have got to go there.”

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The view from our rooftop terrace in Corniglia.

At the time I saw the photo I didn’t think I’d have my feet in Cinque within a year but it just so happened that it worked out that way. We knew we were flying into Rome, and had to make the trip up to Lyon, France and Cinque turned out to be an easy stop between the two. We were there for about four days, which was just enough time to see each of the five villages. Each one was just as beautiful as I imagined it; I don’t think that I could ever, ever get sick of staring at the Mediterranean. I’ve never seen a more beautiful blue – it was just impossible for us to capture on camera. Sitting on the rooftop terrace of our AirBnB, with a glass of wine, staring out over the sea and watching the sun set beyond the horizon while the cathedral bells of Corniglia chimed from across town…it’s a memory I will always cherish.