Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Next... Montpellier

On New Years Eve, we drove to Montpellier. Montpellier turned out to be the surprise of the trip, because it is a beautiful city with much to offer and we were not able to find out much about the city in our initial research. We walked through the Christmas market, which was located in La Place de la Comédie, a large square and apparantly one of the biggest in Europe. It is known as egg square because of its shape. We found the tourist information office nearby La Place de la Comédie, got a map of the area, as well as information about city tours. The only thing running was a 40 min minitrain tour, with the next tour leaving in 1 hour. So we took a quick lunch break and jumped on the tour which passed the following sites: Les Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden) La Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, L'Ecole de Médecine, and Le Musée d'Anatomie (the first medical school in the world) L'Hôtel des Trésoriers de la Bourse Musee Fabre - a fine art museum. Rue de la Loge - main shopping street Post office built in 1883 The Prefecture building La Place Royale du Peyrou - a large square in the highest point of Montpellier containing a statue of Louise XIV. It was built in the spot because Loiuse did not want any building to stand taller than his statue. Also contained in this square is the Arch de Triumph - copy of the one in Paris. Built in 1691 in honor of Louise XIV. Standing behind the statue of Louise the XIV is an aqueduct 'Les Arceaux' (236 arches still intact), which brought water to the elegant Château d'Eau, a water tower, designed by Giral, with arches, pillars and carved pediments. An interesting thing we noted was that some buildings at large interrestions were designed such that it looked like someone had taken a large bite out of the bottom corner. This design was apparantly to facilitate passage of coaches. Another interesting street was the Rue d la ancient Courrier. This is one of the oldest streets in Montpellier. Its long, narrow, and windy and is filled with shops and restaurants. After the tour, we visited a covered market (Pl et Halles Castellane) and stocked up on provisions for New Years Eve. We then explored a few more places in detail before heading back home for a nice New Years Eve meal. We tried to stay up to bring in the new year, but were once again unsuccessful.

While driving in these little towns, this type of openings in the corners come handy

Place de la Comédie

Oldest medical school

Replica of the Arch de Triumph

Another view of the Place de la comedie

JP sucesfully listened to a guided tour for 42 mins, no interruption!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

to Toulouse

The next morning we traveled to Toulouse which turned out to be the disapointment of our trip.
The city at the Garonne river is located on the site of an ancient Roman settlement; even today many of the smaller streets follow their Roman counterparts and many of the red brick buildings are of a pseudo-Roman style. These buildings are also what gives Toulouse its nickname La ville rose (The pink city).
After hyping the kids about a pink city, we were disappointed to find that although there was a lot of red brick, the handle of "pink city" is a bit of a misnomer. In addition, the city was dirty and contained a high level of pan handlers and transients - not a comfortable environment. We quickly saw the sites the city had to offer - most were unimpressive, with the exception of the Capitole - this is an imposing and palatial townhall and theatre, its beautiful facade facing onto the grand Place du Capitole. We went inside the Capitole and upstairs found large halls with beautiful murals and paintings- very impressive. If it weren't for this trip inside the Capitole, we would have been really disappointed with Toulouse. We also gave the kids a few turns on the carousel, which was a ritual in all cities we visited on this trip since the Christmas markets are still in progress through the first week of January and the carousel is a standard element of all Christmas markets. Before going back to the hotel, we stopped off in the city center of Carcassonne. 

One of the many frescos in the town hall
One of the MANY rides

Town hall

Waitng patiently

Outside Town hall

We got to the cathedral 5 mins before they closed! Ufff! We were able to see the inside.

The Christmas market was in full force and there were rides and games for the kids at both ends of the main street in town. We walked end to end and then went back to the hotel to get a dinner recommendation. The hotel receptionist suggested a restaurant in the medieval city and it was a beautiful evening, so we made the 20 minute walk back up the hill. We ate at a restaurant called Bistro Fruits, and had the meal of our lives. Sandy had a local specialty called Cassoulet, which is basically pork meat in a bowl of beans - it does not sound like much, but the flavor is incredible. I had a 5 course menu starting off with escargot and foi gras, and then featuring duck in a red wine sauce. I am a huge fan of duck and this was the best I had ever had. The kids split a thin crust pizza, which was out of this world. The kids both fell asleep at the restaurant, so sandy and I each carried one back to the hotel. However, after such a great meal, we did not mind a bit.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Followed by Cacassonne

The next day we checked out of our hotel and traveled to Carcassonne. Carcassonne has a beautiful medeival town, complete with castle, cathedral, shops, and restaurants, built high on a hill. Surrounding it is a more "modern", but still historic city, typical of what you usually find in Europe. This was the only day that we were finally caught by the rain (which had been forecasted our entire trip), but it did not stop us from exploring. With umbrellas in hand, we trudged up the steep cobble stone slope leading up to the medieval city.Restored and saved by Viollet-le-Duc, this beautifully walled city with its pointed towers and gleaming walls is reminiscent of medieval tales of knights in shining armour. The name derives from a legend that when the town was besieged, the mayor's wife had a pig force fed with the last of their grain and thrown over the parapets so that the enemy would think they had plenty of food and could withstand the siege; depending on who you ask, the name is then either from the French carcase sonne (carcass sound) or the Latin carcas sona (ringing of the bells, in celebration of the wife, a Ms. Carsac). In reality, though, the town's name seems to descend from a 6th-century BC Celtic trading post called Carsac. Carcassonne is an amazingly well preserved medieval fortress that was featured in the movie, Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. Ville de Carcassonne is a beautiful castle and is the centerpiece of the medieval Carcassonne. After exploring the castle, we took refuge from the rain in a little cafe, had some soup and warmed ourselves by the fire. We did not want to leave this cosy place, so we just kept ordering snacks until we could convince ourselves that it was time to leave. The rain had subsided a bit and we were able to enjoy the spectacular view of the city on our way back to the hotel.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Then Marseille

The next day we drove further south to the port city of Marseille. Marseille was founded by the Phoenicians in 600 B.C. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe. A famous saying states that Marseille is the first Arabic city in the Paris-Dakar race, because it has a very large population of North African immigrants. It is also said that there are more Comorian people in Marseille than in Comoros! Indeed, the people of Marseille have varying ethnic backgrounds, with a lot of Italians and Spanish having immigrated to the area after the second world war.
Some of the more popular areas of the city are the Calanques (a natural area of big cliffs falling into the sea - Calanque means fjord), the Panier area (the oldest place of the town) the Vieux-Port (old harbor) and the Corniche (a road along the sea).
Upon arrival, we visited Notre Dame de la Garde, a big church which overlooks the city. Old fishermen used to have their boats blessed in this church. You can still see many boat models hanging around in the church. From there it is one of the nicest view of the city including the Chateau d'If. In the late 17th century became a prison for political prisoners and Hugenots. The Man in the Iron Mask was kept here, as were other political prisoners. Alexandre Dumas set one of his great novels here, the "Count of Monte Cristo." The hero was imprisoned in the Chateau d'If, dug his way through a solid stone wall, and escaped. No such person existed (sorry) but you can still visit the Count's supposed cell, and see the tunnel he supposedly dug out.

We jumped on a bus tour around the city and learned that Napoleon's family took refuge here after they were exiled from Corsica.
We also visited the city's Cathedral built in the Byzantine style - it is called "the pajama" by the locals because of its stripes.
We went to see "Palais du Pharo", a palace built for Napoleon lll, but it was closed for renovation. We also tried to get on a boat to see the Calanques (the cliffs overlooking the seas), but the three hour trip was more time than we wanted to invest. We instead drove back to Avignon for an early dinner. An additional consolation was the beautiful sunset we saw on the way back.

A different view of the new port
The inside of the cathedral, keeping the pijama style (more like a jail suit)

The Cathedral


More love

A view of the city from Notre Dame de la Garde

Friday, December 26, 2008

On our way to Provence, FR

We started the day after Christmas on our tour of Southern France. We drove for about 5 hours to the city of Lyon where we stayed overnight. We had been to Lyon on a previous trip so we did not bother to do any sightseeing this time around. Early the next morning we were up and on our way to Avignon, reaching it after another 2 hours.

Avignon is one of the major cities of Provence, in Southern France. It is located on the banks of the Rhône river. Avignon is famous as the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The Palais they built, 'Le Palais des Papes,' is the world's largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries, and its vast stone rooms are filled with little more than old frescos, but it is still an imposing building. The Ramparts themselves were erected to keep the plague and invaders out during the turbulent middle ages, when Avignon belonged to the papacy and not the French crown. It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in Avignon, 16,000 of which live 'intra-muros,' or within the ramparts built in the 14th century. Avignon has been continuously inhabited since the stone age, when troglodyte inhabitations were built in caves in the Rocher des Dames, a massive outcropping of rock rising over the banks of the Rhône. The Romans had a presence in Avignon, though the walls they built lie buried somewhere under the modern streets.

The stone bridge spanning the Rhone was one of only three between the Mediterranean and Lyon. It was undoubtedly for its strategic location and ease of travel that it was chosen by the papacy as home within the then kingdom of Provence. The presence of the papacy made Avignon into a city of great political and economic activity. We spent the afternoon exploring the main sites of the city, which included the Palace of the Popes, the Cathedral, and the stone bridge described above. We did an audio tour of the palace and bridge.

The story behind the bridge is an interesting one: after completion of the cathedral, a large stone was left over that could not be moved. A young shepard received a message from God that he was to build the bridge. The idea was laughed off by the leaders of the city who told the shepard that if this was a request from God, then move the huge boulder and lay the first stone. Without hesitation the boy picked up the stone and hurled it into position. The leaders seeing this miracle believed that it was truly the will of God and provided the resources to build the bridge. The shepard was canonized as St. Benedict. We had a nice meal in the old city called Les Artistes. Sandy had a traditional dish called La bouillabaisse. La bouillabaisse is an excellent fish-based soup served with la rouille (a garlic-saffron sauce) and bread similar to crostini. After the soup comes the fish...delicious.

The palais de papes on the back

View of the city

Inside the palace

On the Bridge

Fouling around until the tour was over

Listening intently ...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Finally Christmas Eve

This year we were lucky to celebrate Christmas eve with very good friend here in Zurich. While being away from family can be sad, good friends make up for the lack of family. The McDolands, The Munches and the rest of friends that we celebrated with are just fantastic. The kids had a blast, we enjoyed the company and of course the delicious food. Thanks so much for including the McKenneys in the celebrations. Our families back in NY and Mexico can rest assure that we are in good company over here; expat life can be difficult sometimes but when you have friends and coworkers like the ones we have, every seams as good as home.

Possing next to the tree

This year we were lucky to celebrate Christmas Eve with very good friend here in Zurich. While being away from family can be sad, good friends make up it. The McDonalds, The Munches and the rest of the friends that we celebrated with are just fantastic. The kids had a blast, we enjoyed the company and of course the delicious food. Thanks so much for including the McKenneys in the celebrations. Our families back in NY and Mexico can rest assured that we are in good company over here; expat life can be difficult sometimes but when you have friends and coworkers like the ones we have, its almost as good as home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas trees

Beautiful ornaments form the CM

Wind mill Christmas tree (3 tiers)

A singing Christmas tree (Thanks for the picture Megan)

4 tier CT, German made

Frozen tree in Colmar

Swarovski tree in the Hb - sparkly and expensive! Decorated with Swarovski crystals