When we originally planned the trip we decided to skip Italy. There is so much to see that we thought we would go on our next trip to Europe, when we have more time to dedicate to exploring the country. But then we researched how to get to Croatia and realized that train tickets from France to Croatia were quite expensive. We found a flight to Venice that was cheaper than the train and then we could take a train from Venice to Croatia. Thanks Ryanair! So we began our journey from Nimes to Marseille to Treviso to Venice, taking five different types of transportation: car, train, bus, plane, and boat.
Remy and I finally left France. We spent the past few weeks with Remy's family in Nimes. To say that we had it good would be an understatement. We had a great, wonderful, fantastic...a phenomenal time. We stayed at Remy's Aunt Francoise and Uncle Serge's home. We were spoiled with a beautiful, quiet home that has a wondrous pool that was extremely refreshing in the hot summer sun. It was here, floating on a raft, that it really sunk in that we are unemployed and living out of our backpacks for the next year, which is scary, but exhilarating.
Ever since Pierre Lallement first welded metal pedals and added gears to a 2-wheeled metal frame, the French have had a particular passion for cycling. It is their second most successful Olympic sport next to fencing. They host the Tour de France, a grueling 3 week race where cyclists compete to hide doping and to bike long distances. But the best thing about France's love for bicycling is the many clubs devoted to vélo tout terrain (VTT), literally all-terrain biking.
Various cycling clubs around France host periodic randonnées, or cycling excursions, and my uncle invited me to join him for two. After living in flat Florida for so many years and never having owned a decent mountain bike, I fell hard for this sport (both literally and figuratively). Both trips had participants cycling through valleys, up mountains, across fields of wheat and orchards of grapes, past castles and old stone maisons, and into forests and pastures. Quite simply, there is no better way to see the patchwork of landscapes that defines southern France. Did I mention this half-day excursion only costs 8€? And if you choose to run or walk the trail instead, it's 4€ (Note: prices may vary depending on the club, but these costs are good estimates). I had the good fortune to borrow a bike, but a rental should run you about 20-30€.
The first randonnée was in Lédenon. We chose the 35 km trail that had us navigating cliffs, stream beds, drop offs, and steep slopes. While I'm clearly no expert when it comes to mountain-biking, the trail was fairly technical. The second in Pont du Gard had us cycling over the centerpiece, the well-preserved Roman aqueduct, and the old stone quarries that were used to construct the aqueduct. Just to emphasize what a good deal this is, admission to Pont du Gard is 18€ per car.
So here we have a half-day excursion that costs next to nothing and takes you through beautiful landscapes and historical monuments, but I haven't even gotten to the best part: the food. If the French are serious about anything more than cycling, it is definitely the food. Your admission to the randonnée includes coffee and biscuits for breakfast before the event starts, fresh fruit, snacks, juice, water, wine, sandwiches, cookies at the pit stop during the race, and more fruit, juice, wine, sandwiches, candy, cakes, cous cous, etc after the race. Basically, you could sign up for a randonnée and not even bike/run the course and still get your money's worth in food! At the Pont du Gard randonnée, we had watermelon, peaches, oranges, tartines, tapenade, quiche, mussels (baked in a fire pit right in front of us), beer, and wine. For better or worse, it was all-you-can-eat. I was in a self-induced food coma.
If you're looking for something to do in France, definitely check out the VTTFrance.com site for events. Don't speak French? They have an English version. This has to be one of the best-kept secrets in France. It was one of the funnest things I've ever done in Europe and a great value.
"I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926
Running with the bulls is one of my bucket list things, and conveniently the San Fermin festival is July 7-14, 2013. A flight from Paris put us in Zaragoza late Saturday (7/7) night and from there a bus got us to Tudela, where we slept in a park because tickets onwards were sold out. Consequently, we missed the first run on Sunday, which might have been a good thing because locals told us the weekends are the most packed.
After dropping our stuff off at the left luggage lockers at the bus station, we checked out the town. It looked like anarchy: trash, bodies everywhere, and the faint smell of vomit/alcohol/urine in the air quickly revealed how out-of-control San Fermin is. (However, credit to the municipal workers for keeping the city relatively clean with their constant efforts) We got outfitted in the traditionally white and red outfits, grabbed some drinks, and joined the crowd, meeting up with local Couchsurfers in the evening. Because the city was so packed, swelling to +1 million people from a normal population of 200K, I couldn't find accommodation but decided to camp it with a bunch of other Couchsurfers in Media Luna Park.
Running with the Bulls
After a restless night's "sleep" (lots of drunks, thieves, and miscreants), we were up at 5:30a to make sure we got a place in the morning's encierro (bull run). Apparently if there's too many people, the police cull the crowd, kicking everyone out in the latter half of the course. The nervous energy was better than coffee: people stretching, newbies (including us) trading tips of what we heard from experienced runners, police pulling drunks and problem runners from the run, more stretching, a low buzz from the crowd...
After the culling we lined up just past Dead Man's Corner at the start of Estafeta, which is just past the halfway point. I had smuggled my GoPro + monopod in my pants and another guy told me to keep it there until the first rocket went off. He said people start running after the first rocket so wait at least 30 seconds after the second rocket.
All the tips and advice I got went right out the window. The surge in adrenaline was incredible, I could feel my fingertips flushed with it. I was able to focus on everything: jumping over the bodies falling in front of me, swatting arms out of my way, feeling the bulls thunder past, jumping over more fallen corredores (runners)...
It felt like I kept up for awhile, but in reality the bulls were gone in seconds. I calculated they should be running a 5-6 minute mile pace, so needless to say I didn't keep up for long, especially while trying to hold the camera. Soon after, the third and fourth rockets went off (first bull in the arena and all bulls secured at the arena, respectively). The fall from the adrenaline was only matched by the euphoria of not having been gored, trampled, or smashed. A light jog to the arena, past an unconscious body lying face-down in the street (good thing his friends formed a wall around him or he would have been trampled even worse), and it was over. People congregate in the arena where young bulls are released to chase and knock over corredores for the crowd's amusement. A tourist jumped on the bull's head and rode it about 50 m before getting punched off and beaten by the Spaniards. Apparently, they don't tolerate disrespecting the bull (jumping on it, pulling it's tail), and that's an easy way to get beaten. This fact really isn't advertised to tourists because through the week tons of tourists pulled the same stunt with the same results. I didn't enjoy this part of the festivities because people just swarmed the bull and in their rush to escape it they often pushed or stepped on you because they weren't watching where they were running. At least in the encierro, you run a straight path.
Day 2: I ran the beginning of the course this time, Santo Domingo (right side). While still exciting, the encierro lacked some of the novelty of the first run. I made the mistake spending too much time watching for the bulls after seeing a steer leap 6ft in the air. I tripped over another fallen runner, scraped my knees, and got a knee to the face from the runner behind me as he tried to hurdle over us. Needless to say, that run was disappointing.
Day 3: The middle of the encierro, Ayuntamiento and Mercaderes (right side). I didn’t take the GoPro this time- it was all about the run. I learned my lesson from yesterday and didn't look back. That's a bit of a rush, not knowing where the 600 kg (1300 lb) beasts are or how close they are to you. At one point, I spread my hands out to steady myself and felt the warm, scratchy hide of a bull running next to me. Ajo!
Running of the bulls was A LOT of fun! That was the sole purpose of the excursion into Spain, and we didn't really party much, choosing instead to sleep or hang out with people in the park. San Fermin would definitely be better with a large group of friends for the partying and atmosphere.
Click here for the video from the first run.
Click here to see videos/photos from all the runs on RTVE.es.
Photos from Pamplona.
Videos from Pamplona.
Here are the things I learned from the runs:
Here are some tips for San Femin in general (assuming you're camping):
Paris is a beautiful city with lots to see, do, and eat, but for us there is an additional perk of visiting with friends. Our second and third nights in Paris we stayed with my old roommates, Guillaume and Marion. It was great to catch up with them since it has been a few years since we have seen them and we got to meet their son, Tiago. Guillaume, Marion, and Tiago thanks for hosting us!!!
The next day we met our friend Clement for lunch in Jardin des Plantes, a beautiful and large garden next to the university he works at. Clement then graciously rented bikes for us. Remy and I had tried to do this on our first day, but the Europeans have a chip in their credit cards which is needed to rent bikes from the Vélib (name of the bike rental system) stations. A big plus of the Vélib' system is the first 30 minutes are free so Remy and I just rode from station to station as we made our way around the city. We were extremely grateful for the bikes because we didn't have to walk miles through the city to see the sights.
First we biked through the gardens behind the Louvre until a policeman made us walk it. Then we had to hustle to a Vélib station before our time expired.
We then biked up the Avenue des Champs Elysees while Remy sang to me Champs Elysees or at least as much as he remembered. This was a bit precarious since there were TONS of cars and few other bikes. I'm sure we looked like silly tourists. But the real entertainment came when we tried to recreate the National Lampoon's European Vacation and reach the Arc de Triomphe by cutting through traffic going around the roundabout. Amazingly we got across on the first try, but getting back across the roundabout took a little bit of patience. Then it was off to the Eiffel Tower. We planned to climb up to get a nice view of the city, but when we got there the line was extremely long. So we decided to lay down in the grass next to the Tower and rest a bit after our bike adventure.
To end the night we went up to an area called Belleville for another beautiful view of the city. We met one of Remy's friends from Couchsurfing and had a happy hour picnic in another wonderful garden. The French really know how to make many, charming gardens. In France the summer sun doesn't set until around 10pm so for a few hours we chatted over bread, cheese, and beer. The next day, a little sad to leave Paris, we headed to the airport and caught a plane to Spain for our next adventure, running with the bulls.
Click here to see more photos from Paris.
The adventure has begun! On July 3rd I met Remy in Paris, France, our first stop on our journey around the world. I met Remy in front of Notre Dame, then off to our hostel to drop off our bags, followed by a lunch of delicious crepes. We immediately began touring the city, which meant lots of walking! We walked over Lover's Bridge with all the locks, through beautiful gardens, Unt Pont Neuf (another beautiful bridge), past the Opera House, and then made our way uphill to Sacre Coeur. Sacre Coeur overlooks the city and has beautiful vistas. The streets are also filled with artists drawing portraits for all the tourists. Remy and I spent some time watching them and then found another tasty meal. Paris is such a beautiful city. Then, exhausted we went back to the hostel. In all of our research we found that is recommended to stay awake, outside, and active to beat jet lag so that is what Remy made sure I did on my first day in Paris.
The next day was spent in the Louvre. It can be summarized as:
3 out of 4 (painting)