What France can be associated with? I don’t know how you see this, but just a year ago, my associations were limited to the picture of Paris shown in the movie „The Devil Wears Prada” and the fact that the Frenchmen eat snails and don’t like the Englishmen. It is possible that once I heard something about Marseille and the famous Côte d’Azur, even though I admit that just two years ago, I was not sure whether it’s the Mediterranean coast or the Ocean one.
It’s actually hard to be surprised by these limited associations since French tourism infrastructure covers almost nothing but these two cities. This is where the low fares airlines arrive, these are the two cities that are connected by the TGV line crossing the distance of 800 km between them in 3 hours. Paris and Marseille are undoubtedly the tourist label of France.
I spent last in Paris, however I haven’t reached Marseille yet. I know one thing for now – even though Paris is a beautiful city, each more or less average hiker will lose a lot if the only purpose of his trip to France is its capital. I don’t want to accuse this poor tourist about laziness though. All I can accuse him for is a lack of information. Although in this case the accusation should be rather directed to the French organization of transport than to the tourist personally.
If we accidentally don’t own the private helicopter, or we still mind crossing a few thousand kilometers by car a bit, then almost the most important matter in planning the trip to the places which are distant from the international airport is the transport that the country may offer us.
And although France is, as everyone knows, the holder of one of the fastest trains in the world, you still need to know, that the spectacularity of this information does not correspond too much with its practical usage. Apart from the price of this ultra-fast train, which equals sometimes well over 100 euros (which is excessive even for many residents of France), these lines link only the most important French cities, which is foremost… Paris and Marseille.
Are there no bus lines in France then? Of course, there are. But the private bus lines there were founded just few years ago and they are still being developed. And even if you can find very good deals (prices of French transport are determined just like airline tickets: their value depends on the day not the amount of kilometers) it’s a waste of time to look for the bus, which can blow us up somewhere in the middle of one of the oh-so-many areas in which there is literally nothing between the two major cities.
I immodestly admit that I managed (I can also admit that with a small help) to overcome these difficulties and thanks to this today I can take you to the European land of Narnia.
Dear readers, today I invite you to a journey to the French province.
EUROPEAN LAND OF DISNEY – IN THE FOOTHILLS OF FRENCH ALPS
Last year’s November was particularly grey and rainy. With my angelic patience, after a week of this weather I was ready to go even to Syria (I say „even” because this direction doesn’t particularly interest me in this moment) just to escape from the grey outside which didn’t let me be calm and which was destroying my mood day by day. I was uniquely lucky to, get an invitation for a project in France in the right time. The big advantage of these projects is that they never take place in large cities. It’s usually a small town which you are not even able to reach on your own. And even if we succeed to get there, the only option remains staying overnight in a tent on someone’s field illegally.
Happily, our (24 h delayed because of the fog (!)) flight landed at the airport in Lyon when it was already dark, so, as you can guess the view through the window of the car, where, after leaving the terminal, I spent almost an hour riding (as the hunch was prompting me) with rather higher than limited speed was not particularly overwhelming. Well, actually, there was just no views, unless you count my face reflecting in the glass, but I do not know if it qualifies as a beautiful landscape.
We settled in a small castle surrounded by fields of grapes. It turned out soon that behind these stone walls, at harvest, the workers of the fields who are in charge of collecting yields and producing local wine reside.
The landscape around the building was breathtaking. Extending endlessly areas of fields blurring in the distance into the indistinct ocean of colors were shut by the monumental Eastern range of the Alps on the horizon, among whom the raw top of Mont Blanc towered. Everything would have been exactly as in the fairytale, if the friend of mine hadn’t decided that she necessarily had to bought some souvenirs in a nearby village.
It actually took more to reach this village than exceeding it from one end to the other, but over few hundred meters you could find essential elements of the city such as one bakery, one restaurant and one shop.
Of course, while seeking „souvenirs” from this very extensive village (actually, I do not know what kind of „souvenirs” did my friend expect) it was necessary to go to the store, of course. Making small purchases should not be on the list of the hardest things on the Earth, if not the after-lunch „break” in the functioning of the shop which changes its length depending on unspecified factors. Therefore, we finally managed to do the shopping in the village distanced no more than 15 minutes from there after the third approach and waiting on the playground in front of the store for a total amount of at least 1.5 hours, of which a record 40 minutes I spent swinging on just a bit too small wooden horse
to eventually find out, from the extremely nice waiter in the nearby restaurant, that it was a national holiday that day and the shop was closed the whole day. But if you think about it, I am guilty myself , because the subconscious assumption that November 11 is a free day only in Poland was rather myopic…
THE DESERT IN THE CENTER OF FRANCE
About 400 km (so to French standards about three hours away) south from Paris, in the middle of „the French desert” – areas where there is virtually nothing except tiny villages and endless farmlands, there is Clermont-Ferrand, the largest city in this part of the country and the capital of the region of Auvergne in Central France. Just the placement of Clermont makes it seem a little lost and mysterious… This impression is extended by the expired volcanoes forming a low mountain range surrounding Clermont. These mountains are different from the monumental Alpine ranges at the Eastern border and densely wooded mountains regions of the South. The slopes are covered by the grassy expanses here and there drooping down to create the slight hallows. There are the flocks of free running sheep grazing with noisy bells around their necks.
The city is small, not very glamorous. There is the simple architecture that dominates there, such traditionally French, that it took my heart from the very beginning . The streets are narrow. Low buildings, full of equally stacked windows hidden behind the heavy wooden shutters are painted on a dark, a bit overwhelming colors. Although it is sunny, narrow inlets between the buildings are covered with shadow. The dark nature of the Centre is completed by the ubiquitous tattoo salons, small street pubs – students’ meeting places and some characteristic constructions composed of the black, volcanic brick. There is a monumental Gothic Cathedral among them, placed on a high hill in the Centre of the city.
Interestingly, over 700 km between Paris and Toulouse, Clermont-Ferrand (in size similar to Polish city Legnica which has just 97 179 inhabitants) is the only large town. It’s also the only University Center in this area. Something that seems to be a detail but it gets a bigger meaning when you imagine that on the distance of 700 km on the map of your country there is the only city which can be easily reached by public transport, and which can offer higher education is the city in the size of… Legnica.
BEYOND THE CÔTE D’AZUR – SOUTH-WEST OF FRANCE
Middle regions of the country are not the only deserted areas on a map of France. Similar characteristics stand out for a significant part of the South of the country as well. It’s huge, sparsely populated area extending from Marseille to located on the ocean cost Bordeaux, with the exception of one major city – Toulouse. The border with Spain is situated on the range of the Pyrenees, there is also no shortage of the mountainous terrains in the Centre of the region.
Getting to one of these tiny, lost towns of southern France, which (for some family reasons) was one of the objectives of my trip was extremely difficult. There are no trains, buses or any other means of transport. You can count on the drivers who would be ready to take hitchhikers.
Saint Pons-de-Thomières is one of such towns. Its central part is the Gothic Cathedral. In front of it, on a small square, there is a small local market open every day. Behind a bit unevenly stalls, smiling and hollering in French sellers offer different kinds of cheese, bread, fruit and dairy products. Especially large space of stalls is occupied by the melons, one of the most popular fruit in France, produced on the south. Summer is its season and no French meal then may be deprived of this juicy fruit.
And since we’re already in this topic, you can get a taste of real French cuisine nowhere else than on the provinces. In these regions a venison is much more widespread, often hunted by one of the members of the family. An important part of the day are main meals- déjeuner (lunch eaten around 12:00) and the evening meal – dîner. Both are composed of sometimes even five dishes, what they say is normal and even children deal with these quantities of food. Well, in fact, I didn’t deal with it and my unaccustomed to such quantities of food organism refused obedience just a week after.
Daily meal is not deprived of the starter, which can contain for example baguette, kind of parma ham (I guess…) and a melon. Later there comes a time for a main course followed by a degustation of the cheeses given on a platter. Some of them, are eaten with stacked chocolate cubes on them. Later, the yoghurt is served. Yoghurts are so popular in France, that the store does not sell packaging smaller than 6 yoghurts together. The following dish is the dessert (although it’s not served everyday), which is typically the cake and everyone gets coffee in the end. Meal is mostly accompanied with wine, sometimes also other alcohols, even children often get it diluted with water.
The same ritual is repeated in the evening of the same day. I don’t know about you, but I, at this point began to wonder how do Christmas or Easter dinner look like in this case and how all of the Ladies which don’t not go beyond the XS size accommodate these huge bloody steaks in the size of half of the plate. Well, even though France is quite familiar country for me, some of the things I guess I’ll never understand.
Regions of Southern France are also the areas full of amazing views and landscapes. Seeming to be the fairytale land they are almost completely separated from the „big world”. The only considerative cities there are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Béziers. That’s where you can get by the official transport from places such as Paris or Marseille. Smaller towns as Albi or Castres are a bit more difficult, but also available. Apart from this, mountainous areas are mostly occupied by small villages, enermous sites pastures and farmlands. These people lead a very quiet, maybe even a little boring life. Lifestyle is more traditional too. The men work on the farm (sheep farming is common in this region), some maintain their own (often family) businesses, many of them hunt in their free time. Women rarely work professionally. Life in the countryside is not expensive, so the woman often have the ability to opt out of work for leading the household. Actually finding such work is not particularly easy, in small towns, they have a chance at the most on on the career on the administrative position or in a store or restaurant.
Despite appearances, leading the household in this area does not belong to the easiest. Some of the villages are distant even 10 km from the nearest mid-sized store, so you can’t expect that your teenage son will quickly go to the supermarket and buy meat for dinner. Therefore, you must always ensure that the needed products are at home throughout the week until the next shopping. I have a strange feeling that the necessity of such an organization is above my possibilities.
Young people living in this area have a chance to finish their education in high school in one of the larger cities, for example Castres. But if they wish to get a higher education, the only possibility is going to Toulouse. Young people who want to continue the education often leave homes after graduation to go to an entirely different region. The most ambitious look for opportunities for studies and professional career in Paris, which is unfortunately the only place in France which enables the real development of career.
France stays one of the most diversed and varied in terms of lifestyle of the countries which I have seen so far. It’s hard to even give an example of a traditional French dish, regional cuisines are so varied, the Residents of Paris often live the luxurious life in an enormous European metropolis (well, not always luxurious but still metropolitan) , while for the inhabitants of a small village of the South, journey to the capital of their own country is like flying to Mars. According to my observations, the strongest feature that connects the French is the admirable worship of their own language. Despite the fact that Paris is one of the many typical international cities where if you speak English can still communicate somehow, the French still invariably profess the principle, how in an interview the French rugby player Sébastien Chabal responded for the reporter’s question if he can be demanded for something in English-„We are in France. We speak French”
Finishing, I would like to share the small advice that if you, dear readers, decide one day to discover what is hidden between Marseille and Paris (for which, incidentally, I urge) do not only plan your trip well (I mean especially the case of transport of course) but be aware that you cannot count on your even perfectly fluent English, I guess it will be useless for you. However, if, accidentally, you speak French ( to which I also encourage by the way) you can expect the extraordinary warmth and acceptance which anyone going to France has hardly ever expected.
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