Transition to Germany

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With a heavy heart we packed our bags, said goodbye to our friends, and headed out of Paris.

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On the way out we made sure to stop by our favorite bakery and pick up a pile of delicious pastries for ourselves and the friends we would be meeting in Germany. Some of Natalie’s close friends from college were staying in Berlin and let us stay with them!

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On the way to the station we saw even more fantastic architecture! We hadn’t had a chance to wander up this way before – it was less quaintly Parisian and more industrial, closer to a concrete, business-type city. The people were still stylishly dressed, of course.

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At the East Station we saw an outdoor exhibit on some of the world’s strangest buildings.

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Bonus points for looking like a space colony. Many of these were in Japan, yet another mark for the mutual admiration that the two countries seem to have for each other. It’s such a big cultural exchange that Mariage Frères, a fantastic French tea company has a Japanese division – the only country in Asia that merits a full Mariage Frères store.

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After a bit of figuring out where our train was at the station, we got on and peacefully rode through the French countryside onward to Germany and Berlin. Along the way we had to change trains, and about fifteen minutes after we did, we realized that something had not made it with us in the transfer. Our bag full of delightful French pastries was spiriting away from us on another train! Natalie’s leggings were also in the bag, but those were replaceable. After a vain attempt to recover the bag by calling the train company, we let the treats go and continued on to Berlin. A quick walk through the residential neighborhood of Moabit, which borders the station and is surrounded by rivers, we arrived with the rest of our belongings to a warm welcome at our friends’ apartment.

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Sights and friends in Paris

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One of the best things about Paris (for me) is that a few of my good friends from college happen to live there. We were extremely lucky to stay at their apartment right in the heart of the city, and to have them with us as guides to the city.

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There are of course the monuments we found on our own, and the city is well equipped to handle english speaking tourists. There’s no issue getting around to see all the famous sights, but it’s really for the hidden shortcuts and small alleys that you need a local with you.

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None of these are hidden or secret, though I’m sure there are those as well. For the most part, all the interesting things are right on display, you just have to know where to look. Given how many tiny shops – cheese, pastry, antique, meat, tea, everything – and how many sculptures, beautiful buildings, and above all cafes there are, a friend who has a few favorite spots is extremely helpful.

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Dinner is the other important topic. In college we gathered for “family dinner” nights, and it was a blast to do it again. Despite being in the middle of a move, my friends hosted us for a wine and food filled evening, ending in a short and happy walk back to the apartment.

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On a different night we went out and wandered into a late-night cafe/restaurant. On order were salmon pancakes – a savory shortstack in true American French fusion cuisine.

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Outside of the monuments, Paris is still a living breathing city. It’s far from perfect, and is constantly under construction.

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There’s delicious, perfectly decorated food around every corner. There really does seem to be a pastry shop on nearly every street, often more.

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Giant sculptures dot the city, and in many places they act as playgrounds, especially for tourists, but also for locals.

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Other works of art are much less interactive but no less grand.

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We’re not sure if these dancers were filming a commercial, doing a photoshoot, or putting on a show. Either way, it was one of the many interesting things going on in Paris, on a weekday at that!

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Street-long indoor galleries dot the city. Some are famous and have tours going through them, some are out of the way and filled with unknown treasures. In one of the heavily trafficked ones, a wine shop window filled our eyes with these massive wine bottles. I’ve seen comically oversized champagne bottles for events before, but I’ve never seen so many at once, and given the price tag these are no joke.

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That same gallery, and many like it, have indoor cafes! They’re cozy and in inclement weather a delightful way to spend an hour or three. While we were visiting it never really got cold or wet outside for too long, so we never saw too many people at them.

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There’s all sorts of surprises around the city. In a somewhat lonely corner near a very popular Eiffel tower vista point, we found a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

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There’s lots to see and do, the city is beautiful, and the food is great. I was thrilled to see my old friends again, and with any luck we’ll have another chance to meet in Paris! Thank you Chloé, Antoine, and Axel, for being such wonderful hosts!

 

Paris (it’s pretty nice)

 

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Visiting the Louvre at dusk.

 

We said goodbye to my uncle and his wife, dropped the car in Limoges, and hopped on a train bound for Paris. And Paris is, as far as cities go, pretty nice.

 

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The Eiffel Tower. We’re such terrible tourists that this was as close as we got to it; we didn’t even bother walking across the bridge to the actual park.

 

I’m speaking objectively. I’ve never really been under the sway of the French obsession. Haute couture fashion and makeup? Don’t follow it.

French food? I can agree with them that butter = better.

Romance language? I prefer Italian, or non-romance languages Russian or Japanese.

Paris as a dream destination? The closest I’ve come to learning about sightseeing in the city is listening to David Sedaris’ interview with This American Life.

 

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We came upon these columns on a road along the Seine; they’re strangely attractive for industrial grade metal pylons.

 

So with no expectations for Paris, here’s what I came away with:

1. The food is actually better than the U.S. Like in Italy, even the base quality food is better. You can still find places that are meh (especially bakeries), but the grocery goods are way tastier and there’s a fresh market stall for everything from produce and bread to meet and seafood.

 

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A kouign amann, which is basically just thin sheets of dough held together with butter and caramelized sugar.

 

2. Not everyone is dressed better, but the better-dressed are noticeably more stylish

 

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Look at this random guy. A thousand times more stylish than a random guy in the U.S.

 

3. Everything IS pretty. Forms of function have decoration and embellishment by default. Presentation matters. In this sense, being here reminds me of Japan.

 

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This is a random Metro entrance, apparently in the style of Art Nouveau because of course.

 

Oh, and someone told me that Paris Syndrome is actually a thing. Guess it was good I came without expectations.

Chateau

When my uncle first mentioned that my cousin had purchased a chateau in France, I imagined that a chateau was some kind of rustic country house. In this case, it turns out that chateau meant closer to ‘castle’, complete with a turret that houses the staircase from basement to attic. Though it’s in a bit of disrepair (and has salamanders invading the basement), everything seems intact.

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It also apparently came with several other buildings on the property, including a stone farmhouse and chicken coop. These buildings are also looking worse for wear, but they make for beautiful photos.

Nothing a bit of hard work can’t fix, right?

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The chateau also comes with a guardian in the form of Drago, the chubby dog owned by the farmer next door. He bounds up to meet us when we arrive, on the heels of my uncle. The entire back half of Drago’s body wags when my uncle pulls bags of treats from a drawer in the chateau’s kitchen.

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Drago follows us for walks in the nearby woods, which is the primary activity in our days. We wander through the trees, still verdant despite the increasing chill each morning, and forage for fallen chestnuts or document the fungi we find.

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Back at the chateau, we use the oven to bake our foraged chestnuts and huddle in the kitchen over bowls of warm chicken soup. We visited a nearby supermarket, Super U, when we first arrived and bought some chicken and vegetables. They don’t seem like anything special, but they taste far better than anything  from the U.S. supermarkets. The food really is just better in France.

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The scenic route through France

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Stoytcho and I have been invited to go visit my uncle and his wife in the countryside outside of Eymoutiers, a town in the province of Limousin. My cousin has apparently purchased a house there, where we’re welcome to spend a couple of days. But of course, trains (and buses) lead to Paris, making direct public transit nonexistent between Grenoble (in the south-east) to Limoges (the nearest city, in the south-west of France). So we rented a car and got this:

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Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure Stoytcho would be able to drive the tiny thing. But it turns out he fits fine.

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When we picked up the car, we asked the rental agency what roads to take and they emphasized that most highways in France are toll roads. And French toll fees make U.S. tolls look like spare change–the rental agency staff estimated our trip might cost 30+ euros! We opted for the scenic route instead.

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Our route took us ~6 hours and through two national parks (Livradois-Forez and Volcans d’Auvergne), past dozens of adorable towns scattered on plains and nestled in the hills, across forests clothed in warm autumn colors. (P.S. if you do the same drive, stop in Livradois-Forez National Park at the signs advertising fresh local cheese and tell me how it is! We did not stop and I forever regret it.)

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The castles made me wonder if we had fallen into some sort of fairy tale…

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We spent the night sleeping in the car somewhere in Livradois-Forez and woke pre-dawn to keep driving.

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Dawn was slow over the misty landscape, and it wasn’t until we stopped for a break that we realized that the thin veil of white across the fields was more than mist. It was our first frost in nearly two years:

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Summer is over. But the coming winter doesn’t look so bad.

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P.S. Here’s the route for those interested. It’s basically the Google Maps directions if you select “Avoid Tolls”:

Grenoble

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We really enjoyed visiting Grenoble. It’s a great mix of industrial, college, tourist, and residential. There’s a bustling downtown shopping area, a massive visitors’ center with maps and advice for hiking and skiing. It’s close to a trio of mountains and has a fairly extensive public transit system, but is also small enough that crossing the city is a half hour affair on foot.

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Its streets hold tiny cafes, repair shops, board game stores, and lots and lots of street art. Almost every area had at least something on the walls, usually fairly pointed at politics or the human condition, but often just plain colorful and weird.

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The city itself is clean with wide streets and beautiful walks.  Much of it is entirely pedestrian, night or day.

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There’s also a delicious array of food. We’re not sure if it’s particularly varied for a town this size because of the college scene, or if this is normal in France, but we were able to find cheap, delicious food at all hours. A Turkish kebab and pita shop filled us right up one night, when the fancy but apparently affordable french cuisine restaurant was booked full. Since there are so many people out and about, the smaller places tend to fill up. France continues the Italian custom of eating and talking for hours.

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Another great place we went to was a pasta shop on the main drag. A definite french twist on the Italian staple, we tried a variety of their sauces – the bolete and almond was our favorite!

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Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely pastry shop. Not only were the desserts and drinks amazing, the staff was also super friendly. When it became clear we spoke barely a word of French they were happy to chat in English, and even let us practice our pronunciation! French coffee is not as good as the Italian, but they more than make up for it with their tea and pastries.

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The people around town were genial. This gentleman waved me down to come help him carry his cart down from the truck. Smiles and waves later, I figured out he was a knife sharpener. We could have really used that, but by the time I ran back with out little kitchen knife, he was gone into town.

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We’re not sure if most French cities are as nice as Grenoble, but we really want to go back. It was just the right size to explore, and full of friendly people. There were lots of trails around town, and the food was always good and often affordable. We couldn’t find a hostel, but the hotels we saw were neat and not overly priced. It was a great first stop in our journey through France.

Hiking Chamechaude

 

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Hundreds of trails weave through the mountains surrounding Grenoble, several only accessible through villages nearby. But planning a weekday getaway hike can be a challenge without a car, as most of the buses out to these trailheads only run on the weekends outside of the summer holiday and winter ski months. There is one trail, though, that takes you up and away from civilization to the highest peak in the Chartreuse mountain range: the hike up to Chamechaude that starts in Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse.

At 9 miles, hiking Chamechaude is a pretty straightforward day hike for the intermediate or experienced hiker, though the uphill may take you a bit longer if you haven’t hiked in a while and the top might be challenging if steep slopes and sheer edges make you nervous. We took our time and the whole hike took us around 7 hours. We didn’t need any special equipment; just food, a few liters of water, and sunblock. We also picked up a map at the Grenoble Tourism Office (Office de Tourisme Grenoble-Alpes Métropole).

We wake before dawn to catch an early #62 bus to Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and in minutes we have left the city for behind. The bus trundles along on a neatly paved two-lane road and we watch as dawn spills across the swelling hills and forests. Near the end of our ride, we see a steep cliff jut from the landscape to the left. This is Chamechaude, what we’ll be climbing today.

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The bus drops us off in the center of town, less than half a mile from the trailhead. The morning chill has yet to dissipate, so we zip our jackets and start hiking to warm up. The path immediately slants upward, and with few exceptions, will continue uphill for the next several hours.

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The first part of this uphill hike is through thickly wooded forests, and wayfinding is made difficult by the profusion of trails sliced through the forest, a combination of hiking and ski trails marked with heiroglyphic patterns of colors. We imprint on our trail’s symbol of a red and white flag and follow it, learning on the way that an ‘x’ in these colors means don’t go this way, it’s not the same trail. I’d wager in the winter these ‘x’ symbols also mean “Do no enter. Downhill only.”

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An hour into the hike, the forest thins and we break into a broad meadow at the foot of Chamechaude’s steep side. Chamechaude is on this side is a sheer cliff of a massif, a deformation in the Earth’s crust that might be made if someone dropped a cosmic sized bowling ball onto the ground. Climbing it from here is not a hike but an actual climb, and we’re not equipped for that.

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Instead, we follow the trail to the left and around the back of Chamechaude, once again into forest, across small streams and through handmade livestock gates maintained by those who still graze their flocks here. There are even signs asking that we not disturb the cows and sheep.

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Finally, we find ourselves on the other side of Chamechaude, a steep but climbable slope cut with a narrow switchbacked trail. Three hours after we began our uphill hike, we begin to hike uphill in earnest, planting one foot in front of another, plodding up and scrambling over small piles of limestone rock. I pick one up to examine it and find traces of fossilized clam and snail shells. This area is a protected park, so I put them back.

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While in distance summiting Chamechaude should be only a mile, it takes us more than an hour to climb. We’re exposed here, above the treeline, and are thankful for extra sunblock as the noontime sun glares down on us. But we rest only at the top, heaving and sweating. Was the climb worth it?

You decide:

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A view from the cliff’s edge down toward the meadow.

 

 

 

Downhill, while precarious, slips by faster than the uphill and we are back at the foot of the mountain in forty minutes. We take the long way back, savoring the cooling shade of the evergreens and brilliant colors on the deciduous trees in the forest. It’s 5 pm and the day is done by the time we again reach the town center of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, and we’re just in time for sunset on the bus ride back to Grenoble.

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