Adventures and misadventures in France.

Posts tagged ‘Europe’

The Dune du Pilat

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This past summer, Max and I took a road trip down to the Bordeaux region of France. Neither of us have spent too much time in France’s wine capital, so we packed up Smiley Dog and booked a one of the few hotels still accepting reservations for France’s most popular vacation period : mid-August. Jojo adjusted to hotel living immediately, waiting patiently in the elevator and greeting other travelers in the jobby.

Our first full day, we drove out to the Dune du Pilat, the largest dune in Europe located just West of Bordeaux along the Atlantic Coast.

Having visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, I was prepared to be unimpressed. The Great Sand Dunes cover about 19,000 acres and rise to a level of 750 feet – a mini-mountain range of sand. The Dune du Pilat only reaches about 360 feet at its highest point, and follows 2.7 kilometers of coastline. But honestly? I would recommend the Dune du Pilat any day. Parking was easy, the Smiley Dog was allowed in the park (but not on the beach itself), and the views from the top are incredible. We made our way past gift shops and cafés to a staircase leaing directly to the top of a MOUNTAIN of beach overlooking the sea, with a forest dwarfed behind us and tiny boats in the water below. It had rained the night before, so we were comfortable walking around and digging our feet into the sand. Families had brought picniks, and the more adventurous were “sledding” or parachuting off the face of the dune.

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The pitfalls of marrying an American woman

Celebrity gossip is not my first choice of reading material, but this week’s article about the Gwyneth Paltrow/Chris Martin split from the Telegraph offers a hilarious commentary on European-American relationships.

The Pitfalls of Marrying an American Woman

The evidence hits far too close to home :

To marry an American is to accept the word “woo!” into your life. The word is not in any dictionary, but is written deep inside an American’s heart and soul. To an American, if anything vaguely good is happening, one must emit a “woo”. Perhaps a baseball team has hit a baseball. Or a tray of cupcakes successfully made it from the kitchen to a living room table. Anything dimly positive can be greeted with a overly-loud, obnoxiously out-of-context: “WOOO! YEAH! Cupcakes! Awesome!”. It is insufferable.

Excuse me while I look up more recipes for cupcakes. Woo!

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Only the edible kind.

Only the edible kind

I had several pet fish in college. Allah, Siddhartha, and Simpleton were delightful roommates and travel companions during many long train rides home in their special travel cooler.

Somehow, despite years of successful pet ownership, I’ve never managed to keep a plant alive. I’ve attempted to follow proper watering instructions, provide ideal sunlight and soil, but inevitably I’d go on vacation or find a new hobby, and the plant would end as a brittle clump of weeds in the garbage can.

Finally (finally!) I’ve found the solution : edible plants. The promise of eventually eating something I’ve spent time and attention to grow has provided the motivation I’ve always lacked.

So today, I have a little pepper plant that we picked up in a gardening supply store. Max is convinced it’s only for decoration, and that it’s probably poison. That funny leafy green plant beside it is pineapple.

Over a year ago, I found some ridiculous Pinterest article with instructions on how to grow your own pineapple plant using the stem and leaves from a supermarket pineapple. So I followed the instructions, unhinged the leaves and dropped them in a pot from my latest plant failure. Surprisingly enough, it began to grow. When I moved to France several months later, I sacrificed precious luggage space to illegally transport the plant into Europe. Here’s what it looked like a year ago. And this is a a fruited plant I recently saw in the United States Botanical Garden. I’m hoping that within a few more months I’ll be able to grow a snack.

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Le Puy du Fou

 

If Disney World and a Renaissance Faire got together, the Puy du Fou would be their beautiful French love child. Le Puy du Fou is a historical theme park nestled in the heart of France that serves as a tribute to French and Christian culture throughout the ages. Add in thousands of eccentric employees and volunteers, animals, and over-the-top special effects, and you’ve got the attraction voted 2012’s Best Theme Park in the world.

BUT WAIT!  That doesn’t look like any theme park I’VE ever seen before! Where are the roller coasters? Who makes a family theme park that revolves around periods of war? Was that a colosseum? Where are the anamatronic woodland creatures, and whose idea was it to include gigantic flame throwers?

Le Puy du Fou was unlike any other amusement park (or Ren Faire) that I had ever visited. Instead of the usual rides and attractions, it’s filled with a series of reconstructed period villages and outdoor theaters built to accommodate 300-14,000 spectators.  We only visited for the day, and with six shows on our priority list, it took a bit of scheduling wizardry and hustling to see each 20-50 minute show.

Middle Ages

The first show we attended told the story of Marguerite, a shepherdess who must defend a castle from invaders. Plenty of cool horse tricks, an immense castle set disappeared into the ground, an another castle appeared in its place to spin around and shoot flames, and Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc) made an appearance.

Vikings

The vikings show came next, and I began to realize a common theme across each show – conflicts of the French Christians versus their barbaric enemies. A full battle ensued, including a viking invasion by boats that appeared out of the water (with living people inside! how did they DO it?) They had wolves attacking people not 10 feet from the front row, someone got lit on fire, towers exploded, and people were dragged behind galloping horses. Easily one of my favorites.

Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone, faces challenges, and earns the respect and authority he deserves. Except that the stone spurted flaming water (another SFX mystery), the round table emerged out of a lake and re-disappeared below the water, and a table spun around. Not to leave anyone unimpressed, they included an actual swimming mermaid.

Romans

Set in a 7000-seat colosseum, this show represented Christian Gaul rebellions against the brutal Roman empire. We got to see plenty of gladiators and wild animals roaming around. The highlight, however, was an actual full-speed chariot race. There are only a handful of people in the world qualified to race 4-horse chariot teams, most of whom are employed by the Puy du Fou.

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Birds

The Puy du Fou has its own falconry school. One show was meant to showcase their expertise, but also managed to include the story of…

Blah blah blah spirit of the falcons blah blah blah friendship and harmony singing singing…

Which was not particularly interesting until they unleashed 150 birds of prey simultaneously into the crowd. The birds are even trained to perch on spectators’ hats!

Musketeers

After char broiling in the heat all afternoon, it was time to visit the Richelieu Theater, the only indoor show at the Puy du Fou. As the name suggests, the show is loosely based on the story of the Three Musketeers. The stage is enormous – 80 meters long – 2600 square meters total. To put it in perspective, that’s half the size of an American football field. After some witty banter and fight scenes, we were thrown into a world of glowing horses, flamenco-dancing women – and the stage became a lake. The splashy dancing, horses, and crazy lights continued as the entire stage flooded with six inches of water.

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Mud and Le Mont Saint-Michel

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Max and I seized the opportunity of a free weekend day to visit the Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey located off the northern coast of France. The original structure dates back to 708 AD, and the abbey, surrounding city, and fortified walls were added between 966 and 1500. For centuries, the Mont Saint-Michel has served as a monastery, military outpost, prison, and site of Catholic pilgrimage. Today, it stands as a tourist trap and testament to enduring Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited in Europe, receiving over 3 million people each year.

I can remember seeing the Mont in French class videos almost every year of middle and high school. It’s been my top tourist attraction priority since arriving in France. Every weekend seemed like the perfect weekend to make the drive, but Max insisted on waiting until warmer weather. That finally arrived in July.

We left super early in the morning, dropped off Jojo, picked up sandwiches, and parked in the mainland lot. We chose the 45-minute walk over the shuttle. Soon we were standing at the base, with busloads of tourists flooding in around us. Inside the city walls, narrow alleys of souvenir shops and restaurants snake their way up to the abbey. There’s a scenic (and more spacious) walk along the ramparts, so we were able to bypass most of the crowds and view the low tide and salt marshes surrounding the island.

Normally, the abbey charges a small entrance fee, but we soon learned that the tour guides were on strike (typical France) to protest the lack of employee shuttles. One captivating 10-minute explanation from an employee later, Max turned to me and said:

If anyone else here tries to talk to us about the strikes, let’s pretend we’re both American and can’t speak any French.

So we were able to visit for free. The abbey is currently home to the friars and sisters of the Fraternites Monastiques de Jerusalem, who still run mass and other ceremonies throughout the week. We cruised through the self-guided tour of the different halls within the abbey- some of which featured spectacular views of the landscape, while others offered cavernous stone echo chambers.

Around noon, we had finished both the abbey and our sandwiches, so we descended back into the village looking for more fun-tivites. A kiosk offered inexpensive passes to (all four!) historic museums. Little did we know that this was a blatant tourist trap, so we spent the next two hours viewing “relics”, presentations, and videos that clearly hadn’t been updated since the 80s. Many “exhibits” featured mannequins dressed in medieval attire, presenting historic/legendary figures or life in the Mont Saint-Michel dungeons. Seriously, what is up with the mannequins? Yes, we attended every last “museum” – we were determined to get our money’s worth of shtick. Please, if you ever visit the Mont, DO NOT bother.

Clearly, after spending several hours crushed and propelled along by legions of socks-with-sandals, we were looking for a change of pace. The island is surrounded by miles of mud flats at low tide, so we kicked off our shoes and trekked around. Honestly, aside from the fantastic views and architecture of the abbey, this was the hilight of our day. Eccentric and sunburnt hippie-types lead guided tours of the mud flats- next time, I’ll be reserving tickets in advance.

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