On my first official day in France, I received a warm welcome from Cyril, Couchsurfing host extraordinaire, and his three adorable daughters in Carcassonne (each one a carbon copy of Madeline at different ages, with huge brown eyes and hair cut in a little French bob). Cyril and his girls were at a dance class when I arrived, so using a map that Cyril had emailed to me, I took an easy 30 minute stroll from the train station to reach his house, oohing and ahhing over every cafe, bakery and flower shop I passed along the way.
I only wish I spoke more French so that I could have connected more with his daughters, but with my limited vocabulary we barely made it past a few shy “bonjours”. After the girls were in bed, Cyril and I had coffee on his back deck, and he told me how he moved to Carcassonne from Paris and started his own marketing practice, a story he delivered in typical French style, with great animation and while chain smoking cigarettes.
The next day I ventured out to explore the old town and castle, which was absolutely dripping with juicy medieval history. The Languedoc region has historically played host to communities of religious dissent, not only to Protestants during the Reformation but earlier to the Cathars, a religious sect that the Catholic Church declared heretical. Although Cathars practiced all over Europe, in Languedoc in particular they developed a stronghold, building several beautiful castles and reaching majority status among the population of many communities.
In the early 13th Century, Pope Innocent III called for a full scale crusade against Cathars, and the castle in Carcassonne was the site of a dramatic battle between its Cathar community (who originally held the castle) and the Pope’s men (who eventually prevailed). After several days of siege, the Catholic forces took control of the castle, stripped the Cathars of their clothes, and forced them to flee Carcassonne in their breeches. Apparently the stories of Cathars being captured and tortured by Catholics, or their ruthless slaughter in the nearby town of Beziers, were not enough to persuade Cathars to back down, but the humiliation of being marched out of town in their undergarments was enough to cause the remaining Cathar strongholds to surrender after the fall of Carcassonne.
Here are a few snapshots from the castle and town:
Yesterday I woke up early, and treated myself to that quintessential thing everyone must do at least once while in France: breakfast in a cafe, with fresh bread still warm from the oven. After breakfast and a small shopping spree for postcards, I hopped on the train to my next destination – Avignon.
I wish I could say I was as in love with the city of Avignon as I was with Carcassonne, but the city itself left me a bit underwhelmed.
I took a walk through the old town and visited the Pope’s Palace, but my favorite things about this day were much smaller in scale: for example, roaming through boutiques, sniffing lavender soap and pawing gorgeous table linens. At several moments I had to talk myself down from splurging on the fineries of Provence, reminding myself that I was on a backpacking trip and and that a shopping spree was not only out of my budget but logistically impractical at this point in my journey.
Another highlight of the day, walking along the banks of the River Rhône and capturing this priceless lucky shot of a duck’s backside:
But the most fun of all was the evening with my host Aurelia, who spoke very little English but managed to convey several stories about her life growing up in Morocco and the Seychelles Islands through a hodgepodge of French, English and pantomime.
I got an early bedtime last night in preparation for what I considered to be a momentous event today: my first day behind the wheel in Europe! I really never considered driving as an option for this trip, but as I tried to piece together plans for train travel, bus schedules, bla bla cars, and the locations and activities I wanted to experience on my trip, I soon realized that the train was insanely expensive and buses were basically a nightmare.
(Having seen the way Spanish buses cut across lanes on the highway and swayed uncomfortably around turns, I assumed whether the danger was real or imagined I would spend any bus journey gripping my armrest and fighting back hyperventilation as my liver dissolved into a pool of acid. Not how I wanted to spend my trip!)
Eventually I looked into the cost of renting a car, and discovered that the daily fee was really quite affordable! I was feeling excited about how much money I would save as I booked my car in Avignon and planned to drive to Switzerland instead of playing hopscotch with the trains. And who knows, exactly, whether I’m actually going to come out ahead financially, but as the day wore on, I realized there were several major oversights in my logic, and driving was turning out to be far from a budget option.
Cost of purchasing insurance for my rental? Basically double the daily rate.
Need GPS? That will be another 10 Euros a day.
Total cost of highway tolls between Avignon and the Swiss border? 35 Euros, which is nearly $50 US Dollars.
Then there’s a checkpoint at the Swiss border, where they ask you to pay 40 Swiss Francs for a sticker that gives you the right to drive on the highways in Switzerland. Oh dear, I’d forgot they don’t use the Euro in Switzerland, and I didn’t bring Francs in cash. That’s alright, said the alarmingly handsome border guard, you can pay 44 Euros instead. Only later did I realize the Euro is actually more valuable than the Franc, and so the border guard made an extra 10 Francs off me just for accepting payment in Euros. (A fine example of why Switzerland is such a prosperous nation…)
Lastly, filling up the gas tank outside Geneva for a car roughly the size of a roller skate – 65 Swiss Francs, or $72 US dollars.
Total cost for a day of travel? Roughly $180 dollars, not even including the car rental fees. Ouch. Turns out driving is definitely not the way to save a dime when traveling through Europe.
The upshot of it is, by driving instead of taking the train I was able to stop and enjoy the gorgeous scenery as I passed the rugged “massifs” of the French Alps, driving through the countryside near Grenoble. I was also able to stop in Geneva and take a long walk around the lake, gawking at the swans and the crazy amazing fountain that shoots water so high it can be seen above the buildings in the city’s downtown. And I was able to roll down the windows and drive slowly past vineyards and farms and through the little villages along the lakeshore as I made my way to the Swiss highlands where I am staying.
So far Switzerland is proving to be an immaculate and beautiful country, and today was one great day for a road trip!