Woke up to a gorgeous day today, and it looks like all of Switzerland is taking full advantage of it.

We decided that the best use of our time would be a tour of the castle in Chillon, a stroll through Montreaux, and an enjoyment of the sunset over the Alps in Rivaz.

First things first: the Château Chillon.

Could there be a more beautiful setting for a castle?  While wandering the corridors reminded me of my meandering around the castle in Carcassonne, this Swiss setting was indescribably beautiful.  According to the plaques posted on the walls, Lord Byron himself was held in this castle’s prison quarters for a time.  But what a place to be held in prison!  The view out the prison window?

In the words of the inimitable Byron,

There by none of Beauty’s daughters

With a magic like Thee;

And like music on the waters

Is thy sweet voice to me:

When, as if its sound were causing

The charmed ocean’s pausing,

The waves lie still and gleaming,

And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:

And the midnight moon is weaving

Her bright chain o’er the deep,

Whose breast is gently heaving

As an infant’s asleep:

So the spirit bows before thee

To listen and adore thee;

With a full but soft emotion,

Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.

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Learned from Carcassonne:

– Let your history be haunting; illuminate it at night; let your hair stand on end as you hear whispers in dark corners…

– Let fat stay on the meat; the flavor is intoxicating.

– Be bold!  Make friends on the road! (People make wonderful companions…)

– Walk in the rain, even if it’s cold; don’t miss out on any experience because of “bad weather.”  There is no bad weather, only bad attitudes.

– Drink rose wine and eat good cheese.  Presentation of food is key.

– Some people are still really upset with the USA.  (Sidenote: Racism is not a uniquely American phenomenon).

– Drink everything in wine glasses.

Learned from Arles:

– A whistle is intended as a compliment.  Take it in stride.

– Be grateful always for your own bed, your own sink, your own shower, and — vitally — your own toilet!

– The French sure love their carbohydrates in the morning.  Tread lightly.

– Sometimes you end up at your destination by getting lost first.  And that’s ok.

– A dinner for one is not at all a lonely thing.  Eat alone more.  And eat well.

– Learn more about Van Gogh.  You might be soulmates.

– Get drunk on color.  Watch the light dance around you.  Marvel, and take pictures.

Learned from Avignon:

– Allow some time to become friends with a new place.  You always do.

– Your body can handle more than you think it can: walk, climb, push yourself!  You are sore everywhere, but you feel SO good.

– Views from on high are spectacular.  See them more.

– If the opportunity arises to live in a castle, you should really take it.  Even if you are a part of the clergy.

– People-watching is a cultural-immersion experience.  Partake liberally.

– Ask for help when you need it.  Don’t judge people based on how they look.

– Say “voilà!” more.

– Riding buses can be humbling.  Ride buses more.

Learned from Vaison la Romaine:

– Funky hotels are the greatest thing.  Always try to get a room with a view.

– Sometimes the journey is more difficult than the destination is worth.  Although, sometimes, they are about the same.

– Go to bed early.  And sleep.

– A boulengerie is a bakery.  It does not serve coffee.

– A quick jolt of caffeine can be all you need.  Then, start to hike.  All the good views are from on high.

Carcassonne.

26.04.09

I was right to remember France so fondly.  The stereotypes of the snobbish French who refuse to help Americans are so ridiculous, and I imagine that, nine times out of ten, the American comes at the situation with that characteristic American assumption of entitlement.  I do think the French are right to be proud of their language.  It is so beautiful, melodic, and full of a kind of quiet passion.  I have to learn it.  Soon.

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Carcassonne is an astonishing place, amazing in its continued existence and regality.  It was even magical as I walked away from it this afternoon, over Pont Neuf being showered with more rain.  Yesterday, I decided to venture out into the cold and rainy town, first stopping at the Vinothéque across the street, Comptoir des Vins et Terroirs.  There, I had the best glass of wine I have ever tasted in all of my life and all of my travels—a strawberry-infused rosé native to the region.  The woman working there was very kind and patient with me, even when I broke the characteristic French solemnity that seems always to accompany food by ramming my daypack into a metal sign.

I watched the rain fall outside on the slick cobblestone streets, as I sipped my wine and ate two cheeses with a biscotti-shaped herb bread, an olive tapenade, and a jam.  It was so beautifully presented that my raging hunger was the only thing that kept me from just enjoying its presentation for long.  Still, this is something that I would probably not have thought to eat in the U.S.  There is something about traveling that brings out a kind of courage and adventure in me that I normally don’t feel.  Maybe it is necessary to survival or maybe it’s just a silly romantic wanderlust.  I tend to prefer to think of it as the former…

After a wonderful time at the Vinothéque, I decided that I just had to take a walk around this town, even if I ended up with pneumonia from the rain and cold.  The theme of my last trip to Europe seemed to be something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll figure it out.”  So far, figuring things out doesn’t seem to be nearly as much a concern for me as does just living life to the full as opportunities present themselves.

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I walked and walked and even climbed the slippery wall a bit.  I took tons of pictures, tried to spot everything in my guidebook, took in the church and the posh hotel, and decided to head back to the hostel, soaked to the bone but feeling good all the same.  When I finished resting, I met another hosteller, Maartje, from Holland.  It’s always nice to make a friend in a rainstorm.  And she made me feel less insane by sharing that she had done basically the same thing I had in the horrendous weather, walking from the train station and meandering through the rain-soaked streets.

After our conversation, I decided to get some dinner at the Auberge des Lices down the street.  My dinner was incredible—a salad of romaine lettuce, slivers of meat and parmesan cheese, quartered tomatoes, and walnuts; Cassolet, the regional specialty stew with white beans, thick broth, and meat; and a “chocolate cappuccino,” which was utterly amazing and served with a perfectly round scoop of almond ice cream and a cinnamon-and-sugar stick of toast.  All of it was amazing, and the restaurant itself was beautiful and quiet.  So far, the best meal I’ve had in Europe.

Afterwards, I started wandering the spooky night-lit streets of Carcassonne, around 11:00 p.m.  Alone, I wasn’t brave enough to make the entire circuit around the town, but I got some wonderful photos nonetheless.  I was walking the first main road when I heard a clicking sound behind me.  But when I spun around, no one was there.  So I started to walk again.  Again, the sound: “click, click, click.”  I turned around again, sure that I was as pale as the lights that were shining in the town walls.  No one.  But then, a voice from far away on the wall.  “Bon-jour!” said a non-French speaker, snapping photos.  “Bon soir,” I replied.  It was clearly time for bed.

When I woke up and showered, Maartje and I decided to go to the Chateau Comtal together.  First, we wandered around town and found a place for a quick breakfast.  She told me that she was hoping to study to become a doctor and maybe work with Doctors Without Borders or some other non-profit agency.  Maybe it’s just our idealism, but I feel, when I meet someone like Maartje, that there is something special to our generation.  I hope we continue down this road, idealistic or not.  This world is in desperate need of some leaders with some actual ideals.

The Chateau offered some incredible and unique views of La Cité and the surrounding area.  It was nice to have someone to talk to after several days of solitude.  And it helped tremendously that she spoke some French.  While we were handing our tickets to the ticket-taker at the Chateau, he said something that made her laugh.  I just smiled and asked her later what he said.  “He told me to be careful with my head on the low ceilings.  But he said that you didn’t have anything to worry about.”  Nice.  Short jokes in French.

Sounds better than in English, at least.

I am sitting in my hostel in Carcassonne, and my bones are still shivering from the dousing that they received courtesy of the rainy weather on my 45-minute hike from the train station to La Cite.  But at least I am settled into my hostel, which is quiet and being gently serenaded by the rain pattering against my window.  It’s supposed to rain the whole time I am here, which is a major disappointment, considering that the greatness of this city is what it has to offer outdoors.  It is pretty spectacular, though, even in the rain.  The cobblestone streets surrounded by this incredible medieval walled structure… slippery, to be sure, but spectacular.

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The hostel worker here is a cheery French man who wanted to talk to me at length about my opinions on Barack Obama, Turkey joining the EU, and France’s purity.  (Note: Racism is everywhere…)  At least he was kind and hospitable and did not laugh at me for too long when I came in looking like a wet dog.

My train adventure getting here was rather interesting.  I drifted to sleep listening to “Hem” on my iPod, and then I woke up in a panic because the train was stopped, new people were all around me, and I had no idea where we were.  I turned to the man sitting next to me and practically shouted, “Town?!  This town?!  Here!”  I was too panicked to remember any French at all, and so it all came out in idiot.  Still, he understood.  “Narbonne,” he said.  Crap… this is where I need to get off and change trains.  So, I grabbed my bags and headed out, my earbuds flying out of my ears in the process.  I walked up to an official with a hat.  “Um… Carcassonne?!”  “Oui, Carcassonne,” he replied and pointed to the train the front of us.  I looked behind me at the train I had just disembarked like a lunatic.  It was still there.  Peacefully waiting.  Several of my train-car-mates were looking at me, alarmed.  Not that I blame ’em.  So, I gave ’em another show.  Unintentionally.

As I walked to my car (7), a gust of wind came by and blew my ticket right out of my hand… and underneath the train.  On the tracks.  Without thinking, I jumped– pack and all– down onto the tracks to retrieve my ticket.  And as quick as I was down, I was back up on the platform.  No one said anything to me– maybe no one else on the platform saw me– but I was mortified when I turned and saw my former fellow passengers looking upon me with horror.  Way to be an ambassador to France.

In any case, I think I will venture out into the rain and the cold.  You only live once… I think.  And I can smell the French food to be had… Ooh la la.