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.

I had to catch a bus from Avignon to Orange and then from Orange to Vaison la Romaine.  The first bus ride was relatively uneventful.  I asked two ladies in front of me at the station which bus was the right one for me to board, and they took it upon themselves to make sure that I was safe and settled and knew where I was going.  Never underestimate the potential kindness in a stranger.

In Orange, the bus driver spoke no English, and so I stood at the front of the bus trying again and again to pronounce Vaison la Romaine correctly—or at least correctly enough so that he could understand me.  Instead, he kept giving me an irritated, “Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-mahn?”

“Eh?”

“Vi-zohn la Ro-main?

“Eh?”

“Vay-zohn la Ro-mahn?

“Eh?”

Vay-zahn la Ro-main?”

“Eh?”

Finally, I dug through my daypack until I found my guidebook pages with the name of the town printed on them.  “Ici,” I said.  “Here.”

I decided that I think the reason I find buses so intimidating is that you generally have to deal with a person up front, and, if you look foolish, you then have to ride in this small space with the witnesses to your humiliation for the duration of your journey.  It’s a little much, to be honest.  I sat on the second row, tried not to look behind me, and examined every road and stop to try to decode the schedule.  Fortunately, miraculously, I got off at the right stop, walked down the main road of the town, and found my hotel with no problem.

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The hotel was great—funky, urban-feeling, but small and intimate.  Hôtel Burrhus, it is called, and it seemed oddly out-of-place in this slow and ancient Provençal town.  After checking in, I asked the hotelier where I could get a good meal, and she recommended a restaurant two doors down from the hotel.  Though the service was great, the food was mediocre, a first for me in France.  But my waiter was extremely kind, and when he saw me wrapping my scarf around my neck, he said, “Oh, please, madam.  Come inside.  Warm up with your coffee.”  Then he brought me a small dessert—“from me to you, a gift”—and tried to impress me with his electronic waiter’s pad that allowed him to print my bill from a distance.  I played along.  Why not?  I love these people…

When I woke up this morning, I walked for about an hour trying to find the bus station and get information about my bus out of town.  I resorted to stopping people on the street and asking for directions, and, while everyone tried their best to tell me (complete with “et voila!” every time), I had a hard time finding it because it was in a strangely modern building.  Considering the surroundings—a gas station, a market, ancient Roman ruins—I just couldn’t recognize it for what it was.  When I finally got the information I needed, it turned out that I only had two hours to explore the town before my bus arrived.  I considered just sitting around and waiting, but I knew that this town had some incredible hikes surrounding it, so I set off—a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other.

I crossed the ancient Roman bridge and set to walking toward the chateau at the top of the hill, where, I was told, I could see for kilometers and kilometers.

And indeed, this was my reward:
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Carcassonne.

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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.