Versailles: The picnic and the palace

IMG_1725VERSAILLES, France – On our second day in Paris, we traveled south of the city to meet Versailles and oh how she seduced us. We first picked up a pair of bikes and rode to the famous city market to pick up the following supplies:

  • 1 dozen oily French olives
  • 3 types of stinky cheeses (one in the shape of a heart because why not?)
  • 1 roll of water crackers
  • 16 shiny red cherries
  • 1 extra large flaky croissant
  • 4 brightly colored macaroons
  • 20 juicy blackberries
  • 1 container of cold pasta salad
  • 1 bottle chilled rosé

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This was the picnic of a lifetime, I tell you. Mr. Wonderful rode beside me with these French treasures in a saddle basket as we cruised through the chateau’s enormous grounds, riding along the vast network of trails and tree-lined paths.

First, we got a good look at Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, along with the petit and grand trianons. And once we arrived at the end of the Grand Canal, we settled in on the banks of the lake for our French feast. The memory of this meal on this day with my beloved is wildly beautiful and a good reminder to be still and take it all in.

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Later, we walked through hordes of tourists to get a look at the incredibly opulent Hall of Mirrors, the central gallery inside the Palace of Versailles and also where King Louis XIV greeted guests. This is where (centuries later) the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War I.hall of mirrorsJust outside this extravagant palace full of ornate sculptures and paintings is a meticulously manicured garden and a set of gilded gates. See that line? Hundreds of people waited in uncharacteristically high temps for a peek inside. Thankfully, we were allowed to bypass the line since we were with a guide. And we won’t soon forget the crowded walk through many of the 350 sprawling apartments inside this lavish royal chateau.chateau linechateau gardenschateau gilded gate

 

Le tour de Paris

notre damePARIS, France – For our first evening in Paris, we planned on a leisurely bike tour around the city with our guide. We’d booked a highly regarded tour after all. Come along for an unforgettable evening, they said. Unforgettable is a good word for weaving in and out of terrifying Parisian traffic in an attempt to avoid becoming roadkill. But this is all dangerously charming, right? Because … Paris.

For four hours, Mr. Wonderful and I biked warily through the City of Light. We rode through the Latin Quarter and on to the Île de la Cité, stopping to marvel at Notre Dame and on past Sainte Chapelle.

We stopped for salted caramel ice cream at Berthillon – the apparent grande dame of glaces.  We cycled around the Louvre at sunset past the pyramid, past the carousel, past the Tuileries Garden. And then we locked our bikes together and marveled at Paris aboard a boat cruise on the Seine as we floated right past the grandest monuments of Paris, lit proudly in blue, white and red.

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The Bastille Day attack survivor

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TOULOUSE, France – We met this Japanese woman at our hotel bar in Toulouse last night. She was in Nice during the Bastille Day terror attack, and her eyes filled with tears when she told us how she and her host family were watching the fireworks when they saw the refrigerator truck coming down the promenade. She struggled to describe the frantic scene of people scattering in all directions. The screaming. The chaos. She told us how they ran to a local restaurant, banged on the doors and begged to be let inside, but the restaurant was already full of others who’d fled and they were denied. She said no one really knew what they were running from, but they just kept going until they made it back to her host family’s home. Eventually, texts started pouring in from Tokyo. Family and friends had seen the news. It was then that she realized how lucky she’d been.

Floating the Garonne

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TOULOUSE, France – We cruised the Garonne River and the Canal du Midi (recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO) on an old barge for a 75-minute tour of Toulouse, aka, The Ville Rose, from the water. The tour guide handed us an English booklet to follow along on our own because the tour was in French. Oy. Aside from that – and the fact that we were seated next to a little girl with chicken pox – the float suited us just fine.

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Dining on word soup

winter garden toulouseTOULOUSE, France – On our first night in Toulouse, we dined al fresco in the center of the city at Winter Garden (pictured) on Rue des Gestes. Terrible name. Wonderful food. Oddly enough, we were seated next to TWO OTHER PEOPLE FROM AUSTIN. Life is weird sometimes.

The problem with visiting France right after Spain is that my brain is still defaulting to Spanish, so I’m living in a mixed up world of starting a sentence in Spanish, switching to English as I realize this is France and then ending with extra emphasis on a terribly enunciated “s’il vous plait” in an attempt to make up for the this hysteria.

The good news is that when speaking real shitty French at a restaurant, the waiters seem to feel sorry for us, so they switch to English. This is working well for us since the mister and I know a collective 12 French words.

The plan so far: Stand across the street from a place we need to enter and practice a couple sentences via translation app or phrase book. Then attempt to replicate what we just heard/read to get to the next step. Sometimes people just stare at us in disbelief, in which case we move on to Plan B: Charades.

The garden that grows brides

IMG_1642TOULOUSE, France – On our walk through the Jardins des Plantes (botanical gardens) on a steamy summer Saturday, we found the Japanese Garden, rife with bamboo groves and bonzai. On this vist, we spotted THREE couples who were taking post-wedding photos against the lush backdrop. “Felicitacions a vous!” I told one of the brides, excited to offer a French congratulations since I’d literally learned the phrase a few hours prior. She thanked me – which means she understood me. Ah, the little things.

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Fear is loud. Travel with earplugs.

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Candles line the Capitole de Toulouse in remembrance of those killed in the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France.

TOULOUSE, France – We woke this morning to the tragic news in Nice. At least 84 families  have lost loved ones on a day reserved for celebrating unity after a suspected terrorist drove a refrigerator truck onto a well-known promenade and into a crowd after a Bastille Day fireworks show.

The fact that this is beyond horrifying is easily understood, but the question in my mind now shifts from “When will it stop?” to “WILL it stop?”

President Hollande called up 10,000 military and police reservists to boost border patrols at airports and rail crossings into the country – which would explain the dozen or so armed soldiers we saw patrolling the train station upon our arrival in Toulouse. Not to mention the four steely-eyed men in black berets and camo who walked past our dinner at a sidewalk cafe tonight with rifles in hand.

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The front-page headline today reads “Nice: Horror and panic.”

It’s an incredibly strange feeling to visit a country in the wake of so much pain and suffering. And yet, there’s an oddly formed solidarity there because as Americans, we too, continue to experience grief on multiple fronts.

Hollande ordered three days of mourning – as though you can put an expiration date on grief. I read today that the psychological unit within the local children’s hospital that took in some 28 injured kids is also caring for scores of young siblings in a state of shock after witnessing their brothers and sisters who were hit in the attack. Not to mention the 50 others “between life and death” and their devastated families. The effects are far-reaching.

My husband and I both received emails today from the U.S. Embassy urging U.S.citizens in France to maintain a high level of vigilance, exercise caution at large gatherings and bolster personal security.

Understood. But fear is loud and I brought at least two pairs of earplugs on this adventure.

Welcome to France.

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The Capitole de Toulouse is lit up in blue, white and red in remembrance of those killed in the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France.