Thursday, November 8, 2007

Back from vacation!

So my October (Toussaint) vacation went fairly well. I spent entirely too much money that I didn't have but it's the memories that count, right? Right. Here's the recap:

Saturday, October 27: Arrival in Les-Eyzies. This is my first town, because I hadn't yet figured out how to get to Montignac. Upon arrival at Les-E, I discovered that the town consists of one road with the National Prehistory Museum, an ancient prehistoric encampment site, and three cute little souvenir shops. That's it. I found the tourism office (as Karla puts it, the "i" always saves you - it's the symbol for any information or tourist booth). At the tourism booth, and at the Les-E train station, I discovered that there is no mass public transport to Montignac. The dude at the train station said I could walk or bike. It's 25km, and not on roads I would ever walk or bike. Think Route 5 Auburn-Camillus. No. The lady at the tourism office, who looked like she wasn't entirely thrilled with her job, told me that I could take a taxi there for 40E one-way. No. I was very disappointed that I wasn't going to be able to see the famous Lascaux Caves, but comforted in the fact that there were other prehistoric sites to see in Les-E and that I'd have...FOUR DAYS to see them.

So in Les-E, I went to the Musee National de la Prehistoire (National Prehistory Museum). This visit took an entire morning. It was fascinating. So much ancient stuff. I took a picture of a stuffed moose because I thought it was funny. It was really cool, and I was really glad I went.
I also went to the Abri de Pataud (Pataud Shelter), which was excavated by a Harvard archaeologist who discovered a prehistoric encampment. You can tour the "cave" which has been modernised to showcase more prehistoric artifacts, and the archaeological dig itself which has long since been finished with but they still have all the markers in place. So neat. WOW! I saw something old and important.
Then I walked about 1km out of town to the Grottes de Font de Gaume, which are caves like Lascaux. The tour guide led us in to the cave, turned on lights, and showed us paintings and markings in the stones. And he would talk and explain what they were thought to have meant, the materials used to make the drawings and carvings, and so on, and then it would strike me: these paintings are 10,000 years old. In-CRED-ible. Just really impressive.
By this point I pretty much exhausted Les-E and wandered around taking pictures of quite possibly the more boring little French...crossing of unimportant roads (I'm not even going to call it a town). So I spent a good deal of time in my hotel room watching TV, trying desperately to get into my liberry book that is too hard for me, and doing Sudoku puzzles. Finally it was the day to go to Sarlat.

I arrived in Sarlat on Wednesday, October 31. Apparently, and my guide book didn't tell me this, but there's not much to do in Sarlat other than walk around. And walk around I did...on Wednesday and Thursday. I got kind of bored, so I went to see a movie. I saw Le Premier Cri, a French documentary I kept seeing profiled on the hours of TV I watched in Les-E about women giving birth all over the world. It was really fascinating. The French know how to make a good documentary. And then I got some ice cream because I like it, and it was delicious. Sarlat luckily had a HUGE market going on Wednesday which provided endless entertainment. Markets are funny places. Lots of people, some doing real shopping, some just looking, and tons of children getting in the way. And dog crap. Goodness I can't stand French dog shit. It's friggin everywhere and despite ubiquitous doggy bag stations all over the cities, no one ever cleans up after Fido. Rar.

I arrived in Cahors on Sunday evening. It was only on the bus from Sarlat to Cahors that I discovered the private bus route that links Montignac and the Lascaux caves to the rest of the world. WTF, guys. No one could tell me about this? Annoying. Anyways. Cahors was a welcome sight. About the size of La Rochelle, there was a huge carnival (arcade games, about twenty versions of bumper cars, and all the delicious carnival food you could want), an organ recital at the beautiful cathedral that had painted rather than carved walls (this was interesting), a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a bridge (gorgeous!) and tonnnns of shopping. It should be noted that by this point, my newly purchased French boots had broken in and were also breaking my foot. So I had to buy new shoes. Sounds more fun than it was, as I'm trying to stay on a budget (haaa that's funny) and French womens' shoes are unnecessarily pointy and heeled. But I managed to find some inexpensive and reasonably sensible boots that I would never have bought in the States, but when in France...Cahors also had a really cute old town which was fun to walk around in. I had my own room in the youth hostel, and it was 30E for two nights, two breakfasts, and sheets and blanket rental. What a steal. Especially considering my two previous rooms in Les-E and Sarlat...oops. There was also a lookout point from a hill on the other side of the river that basically encircles Sarlat...but after walking nearly an hour in the direction of what I thought to be this lookout point, I saw no sign of it, nor a sign. So I turned around. I was cold and it was getting around 4:00pm, and I don't like to be out and alone in cities where no one knows where I am. Safety first, sort of. Cahors also had a Museum to the Resistance (don't laugh) and Deporation and World War II, which was not very well profiled in my guidebook, I must say. For free, I wandered around the admittedly small museum that had six small rooms with the most text I've ever seen in a museum. It was more like a library with documents and pictures and articles and exposes on so much. There was a model plane collection that showed the different models of American, British, and German war planes; there was an amazing room dedicated to the deportation of the French (from Cahors even) to German concentration camps; there was an enormous section for the French resistance in Cahors (seriously, it wasn't much but the fact that there was even the idea of a Resistance gave some hope to the French who were feeling pretty betrayed by their leader Petain). Such an amazing place. I'm so glad I got to see that.

Then to Lourdes. Lourdes is known for a 14-year old girl named Bernadette Soubuirous who, in the early 1800s, saw visions of the Virgin Mary in a cave. The water in the cave turned out to be healing, the visions told her to build a church on the site, and Bernie became a nun and later a saint. Her body is actually in perfect condition 150 years later. No more than 10 years after her visions, the grotto where she saw the visions became a pilgrimage site for Catholics, and when the church was built, an enormous religious complex (I'd say bigger than San Pietro in the Vatican) sprang up. I mean it's huge. About 2/3s of the town of Lourdes is hotels and their attached restaurants and crap shops (think plastic bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary for collecting the holy water at the spring). But the church that was built is absolutely beautiful, and I have to say that even I was moved to tears. It was partly the enormity of the site, and also homesickness, fatigue, loneliness, and just overwhelming emotions of being in's really something. I mean, this is really the most amazing opportunity of my life. I get to live in culture that I've studied for ten years now, get paid, access one of the best social security systems in the world, and pretty much do as I please. It's amazing. So Lourdes was pretty cool. Other than the extensive religious complex, there is also a castle on a hill with amAZing views of the Pyrenees mountains and the town (although that isn't so interesting). There was also a little museum of traditional Pyreneen life that was cute. The town of Lourdes also has a private wax museum, and after remembering Casey and my experience at the Joan of Arc wax museum, I couldn't resist. My favorite scene was a wax recreation of Da Vinci's Last Supper. This was monumental for me because I missed out on seeing the original in Milan, and also because my new favorite comic, the British Eddie Izzard, does a hysterical sketch about Jesus and Pals (Jesus and the twelve Apostles) "posing" for the picture. "We can't all do big arms! Ok, now a fun one..." I laughed the entire time I was in that room, and it was not at all appropriate. Wax museums are funny. There is also another lookout point in Lourdes, just as there was one in Cahors, but it was closed "exceptionally" the day I tried to go. Thank you France. I was more disappointed because I didn't have anything else to do, rather than missing out on a view of the mountains.

Anyways. The vacation was nice but I was SO glad to be back in Ussel finally. I had been text-messaging my roommate Rocio the entire time while we were on vacation (she went to Paris) and when I finally got home, I gave her a big hug. Oh was it good to see her! I'm really happy that I got to see what I did on this trip, and while it wasn't necessarily the most productive trip in terms of patrimony and history, it was interesting nonetheless. I took about 100 photos and have yet to figure out where to post them. Apparently it's possible to for non-members to access Facebook photo albums, so that may be a possibility because that's a really simple and familiar platform. I'll let you know.

Anyways, I hope you received my postcards. You were all thought of, I promise you that.

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