Monday, June 22, 2015

Cities, Fields, and Roads

I'm writing a draft of this by hand in a cafe in the Bastide Saint-Louis section of Carcassonne, where I ordered a muffin, and I received this.

I've had a busy few days, though, so let me start from the beginning.

On Saturday I met with Anne Stevens, one of the English professors at UNLV, who's currently participating in a faculty enrichment program in Pau. I must say, it was more refreshing than I'd realized it would be to see someone that I know. It was like pressing a reset button; I'd been feeling a bit down and out, but encountering a familiar face tugged me out of my slump. We went to a cafe, meandered the city, accidentally stumbled upon the Pride Parade, and had dinner. All was lovely, and then it got lovelier with this sunset:

No filter, no photoshop. Just Toulouse.

For the record, it seems that French parades do not follow the same logic as American parades. If I were at the Pride Parade in Chicago, I know that I'd be faced with metal barricades and countless police officers ensuring that the floats move along relatively swiftly and undisturbed. The Pride Parade in Toulouse had no barricades whatsoever. People found a float they liked (I use the term "float" loosely--they were mostly just decorated trucks, sometimes with a DJ) and danced along behind it, drinking and waiting to catch whatever goodies may be tossed at them from the floats. I scored a popsicle.

Sunday was Fête de la Musique, a nationwide music celebration, because apparently France likes to show its citizens a good time. This means that there was music everywhere. Everywhere. A percussion group in Place Wilson. A flashmob playing David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" at métro Jean-Jaurès. Singing nuns on Rue du Taur. A reggae DJ in front of Basilique Saint-Sernin. Not to mention all the bars and restaurants that hired bands to play. The biggest stage was naturally in Place du Capitole; I stayed to watch a Toulousian band called Le Common Diamond. They were good--kind of like "Antics"-era Interpol mixed with Grizzly Bear, but with fewer harmonies. I enjoyed it very much.

The only downside of the day was that I experienced street harassment literally six times. And now a public service announcement for all men: it is never okay to follow a woman down the street. It. Is. Never. Okay. To. Follow. A. Woman. Down. The. Street.

Anyway, because two days of excitement wasn't enough, I decided to go for three: today I went to Carcassonne--a goal of mine since noticing that it was so close to Toulouse. As I mentioned earlier, I'm writing this while still in Carcassonne. I got here via BlaBlaCar, a fascinating service that I cannot thank Anne Stevens enough for bringing to my attention. It's basically a ridesharing service, like Uber or Lyft but for long distances. If someone's driving from Town A to Town B, they post their route on the site, and if you want to travel the same way, you can purchase a seat in their car. You can read driver reviews before you choose, and it is significantly cheaper than the train. I don't know if such a site exists in the U.S., but if not, someone should start one.

One of the people in my carpool today was an enthusiastic Carcassonne native, so he gave me lots of advice regarding how to get around--he even walked me and my driver to the tourism office so we could get maps. (My driver was offering her services simply so she could afford to travel around the country, so she wanted to see the city, too.) Pro-tip for those traveling to Carcassonne: the centre ville IS NOT the medieval city. Centre ville is in the Bastide Saint-Louis, the lower city that wasn't originally part of the medieval city. It was the medieval city I wanted to see, so I ended up having a longer walk back to the train station than I anticipated. Yes, I'm taking the train back, despite the slightly higher cost. I just wanted to do it once. Taking a train? In Europe? So romantic!

Actually, it's probably good that I didn't realize the two parts of the city were separate, because it would have been tough spending the whole day in the medieval city; it's very small, and aside from the castle and the church, there's not much to do there--just eating and buying expensive souvenirs. And being charmed by its quaintness, of course. It does look exactly like the pieces in the board game, which is why I wanted to come in the first place.

I started with the castle. False: I started with ice cream. Then I went to the castle, where I explored its medieval halls and traversed the ancient Roman ramparts. I even tumbled down a flight of wooden stairs, injuring only my finger and my pride. Here are select photos:

Turrets! 

Courtyard

The Roman portion of the wall

I left the castle with a strong desire to read up on the history of the Cathars. Time to purchase some more books...

I then decided to grab some lunch, where I sampled Cassoulet, the regional dish. I didn't have much of a choice; it's on every menu in town. It's essentially a sort of white bean stew. With a duck leg. And a sausage. And I think there was some pork in mine, too. It was brought to me bubbling. Very tasty indeed, but I couldn't finish the whole bowl. I'm only one person.

After that I explored the Basilique Saint-Nazaire, which was beautiful, of course. In terms of architecture, old churches beat castles every time. Also in terms of creepiness. Old churches are like castles but with more creep. I was lucky; a choir was singing when I went inside.

I mulled around the town for a while, staring at things I didn't want and/or couldn't afford, and then I walked down to the Bastide section of the city--which, to my delight, is lovely as well! The colors of the buildings are vibrant. Reminds me of Italy even more than Toulouse does. I went inside the Carmelite Chapel, which was unlike any church I'd ever seen--which is saying something for Europe. Take a look:

What church has statues like these? What even is that crown?

What church has walls like these? What even is that pattern mixing?

I also went inside the church of St. Vincent, which, while in a mild state of disrepair, is still stunning. And I was able to climb the bell tower! For those of you who don't already know, whenever I travel abroad, I like to find tall historic buildings and climb them. I've climbed to the top of St. Peter's in The Vatican, the Duomo in Florence, the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing, and more. I haven't found anything available to climb in Toulouse yet, so I was quite pleased that St. Vincent's tower was available to me. By my unofficial count it was 233 steps--and I was the only one up there! The only one in the whole church, for that matter. Normally when I climb things it's with hoards of other tourists. It was strange and thrilling to be completely alone. Got some gorgeous shots: 

The medieval city from afar

Can you spot the Pyrenees?

After what will have to serve as my daily dose of cardio, I decided it was time to find a cafe. And that brings me to the present moment. I left the cafe a while ago, actually, and am now sitting against a large fountain. There is a small child staring at me. Probably the tattoos.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

***

EDIT: Made it home safe. The train ride was sort of romantic; aside from the occasional telephone pole or grain silo, the countryside looked like a Van Gogh painting. Very happy to be in my bed, though. It's been a long day.

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