Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

After visiting Paris and Normandy we finally had the opportunity to share with Deb and Gerry our home in Carcassonne and to walk up the hill from our apartment to explore the medieval double-walled city, la Cité de Carcassonne. We enjoyed the three kilometers walk around the walls of la Cité, viewed its 52 towers, saw the count’s château, and visited the many shops, restaurants, and hotels within.  The citadel of la Cité is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For Tracy and I it is, “The view that never gets old.”

Deb, Gerry, Tracy, Alan, and Sami the MinPin at the Aude gate of la Cite de Carcassonne
Deb, Gerry, Tracy, Alan, and Sami the MinPin at the Aude gate of la Cite de Carcassonne

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We took advantage of having a car to see one of the many Cathar castles that are scattered throughout the region, the ruins of the Château de Montségur.  It is a legacy of the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229), a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to purge the Cathar sect from the Languedoc region in the south of France.  The ruins of Montségur are at the top of 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) pog (an Occitan word meaning “peak, hill, mountain”) near the start the Pyrenees Mountain range.

The trip had the double purpose of “warming up” Tracy and Deb for their upcoming trek on the Camino de Santiago across Spain.

After their climb to the top of Montségur, we headed over to the town of Mirepoix. The small village of Mirepoix has managed to retain the classic architecture and charm of its original town square but with updated shops and businesses. The city is known for its overhanging arcade which has 150 individually carved wooden heads.  A quaint place for a relaxing afternoon.

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The time had come to split up.  We drove to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port to deliver Tracy and Deb at the traditional start of the Camino Francés of the Camino de Santiago, the 1200 year old pilgrimage route of the 800 kilometers (500 miles) long Camino de Santiag0 (The Way of Saint James).  Deb was limited to only having two weeks to hike, so they planned to walk the first 164 kilometers (102 miles) over the Pyrenees Mountains and through the Basque country of Navarre to Logroño, Spain, then skip ahead by train to Sarria, and finish the last 107 kilometers (67 miles) hiking through the Galicia region to Compostela de Santiago.

Gerry and I (with a continuous “comedy of errors” of finding our way along the French highways) continued on to Paris (after a brief overnight stop in Limoges.) Gerry and I enjoyed a final evening in Paris with a “Steak frites” (Steak and French fried potatoes) in the Montmartre district in the 18th arrondissement.  We admired the sight of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur,  watched the unruly crush of bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and buses work their way (miraculously without a single collision) through the intersection near the Avner Métro station, and had a final ice cream.  The next morning Gerry took the RER B to Charles DeGaulle Airport for his flight back to California and I caught The RER A to Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy and my Ouigo TVG train home to Carcassone.

Deb and Tracy in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port at the start of the French route of the Camino de  Santiago.
Deb and Tracy in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port at the start of the French route of the Camino de Santiago.

Part 1:  Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

Part 2:  France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

Part 3:  France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

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France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

It is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion this year, and we wanted to visit the sites of the Normandy landings from June 6, 1944 during Deb and Gerry’s visit with us.  After seeing Mont Saint-Michel, we drove to Saint Laurent-sur-Mer to see Omaha Beach and Colleville-sur-Mer to see the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Signs to Omaha Beach
Signs to Omaha Beach

It was a beautiful day on Omaha Beach, the weather was perfect.  The ocean looking toward the English Channel was also perfect, not like on D-Day 70 years ago with 5 to 6 foot swells, 59 degree temperature, and force 4 winds. The day we were there we saw swimmers in the water, kitesurfers working the waves, and people walking the beach barefoot.  I kept looking at how exposed WWII troops would have been on the beach, thinking about the books I’ve read describing the D-Day landings, and seeing in my mind that horrific 25-minute opening scene to the film “Saving Private Ryan.”  Massive sacrifice and history was made at that location. Tracy said it was like seeing an old photo overlaid atop a recent one, an odd sense of realism and history merged together in your mind – both compelling and disconcerting at the same time.

We did get the opportunity to chat for a while with an author who had a display highlighting veterans of WWII whom he interviewed both for the display near the beach and his current book. He shared stories of the battle, some of which we knew and some we had never heard. Though we didn’t buy his book, we did enjoy talking with him for a while and appreciated his insight and suggestions.

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Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. It covers 172 acres (70 hectare) and commemorates the remains of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom were killed during the invasion of Normandy and the ensuing military operations in World War II. The names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located or identified are inscribed on the walls of a semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial. There is also a 22 foot tall bronze sculpture, The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.

Like all other overseas American cemeteries in France for World War I and II, France has granted the United States a special, perpetual concession to the land occupied by the cemetery, free of any charge or any tax. This cemetery is managed by the American government by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  The US Flag flies over the cemetery.

Deb and Tracy were able to locate the markers for the Niland brothers, whose story was part of the inspiration for the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Though they did have to wait for a bit while a group of French tourists finished visiting, they did get the opportunity for a few photos of the brothers’ markers which are side-by-side in the cemetery. There are 45 sets of brothers buried here, only 33 of them are buried side-by-side. In addition there are 3 medal of honor recipients, a father and son (also buried side-by-side), 307 unknown burials and four women.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the American Battle Monuments Commission’s most visited cemetery, receiving about a million visitors each year.

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Part 1:  Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

Part 2:  France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

Part 4:  Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

After visiting Paris, we picked up our rental car in Versailles and drove to Normandy to see Mont Saint-Michel, the ‘Wonder of the West.’

The car rental process was slightly more complicated than it sounds.  Prior to Deb and Gerry’s arrival, Tracy tried to reserve a rental car with the standard unlimited mileage option that is available from the US websites. However, the results she kept getting was a low mileage, not unlimited mileage quote. Tracy asked Deb to try making a reservation from the US and Deb was able to get a quote with unlimited mileage for the same car from the same rental agency.  Tracy wasn’t sure why there was a difference depending which country a rental inquiry originates from. Perhaps the rental agencies’ websites track the potential client IP addresses. In the end, Deb had to reserve the car while she was still in the US so that we could get the unlimited mileage package we wanted. Another oddity of life in France.

Mont Saint-Michel is a small tidal island with a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey, monastery, and city surrounded by fortifications dating back to the 8th century. The Abbey was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. It is located approximately 600 metres (0.6 miles) off the coast of Normandy, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. This island is about 100 hectares (247 acres) in size. One of France’s best known landmarks, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over 3 million people visit Mont Saint-Michel annually.

Located between the regions of Brittany and Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel’s unique location created a tidal causeway (a path uncovered only at low tide) that allowed early pilgrims to walk to the island’s abbey during low tide.  However, high tide made the island extremely defensible with the possibility of drowning or stranding attackers caught on the causeway when the tide would come in and fully surround the island. There is an impressive 14 metres (46 feet) difference between the high and low water marks. Mont Saint-Michel was unconquered during the Hundred Year War. In 1433 a small garrison was able to defend the island from an England assault.  The island, like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, was also used as a prison in the 1600-1700’s.

Tracy, Gerry, and Deb at Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Tracy, Gerry, and Deb at Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France

We stayed in a cabin at the beautiful Camping Haliotis in Pontorson. The cabin was only 9 km from Mont Saint-Michele, we liked the facility and its amenities so much we decided to stay an extra night. We were lucky to be visiting on the last night that Mont Saint-Michele was open in the evening, so we explored the island as it transitioned from daylight to night time.  We drove to the parking area and took the shuttle bus out the raised causeway to Mont Saint-Michele.  We had a great time exploring the Abbey, the town, the fortifications, and watching the resident nuns use a hoist to transfer groceries and supplies up a cable into the upper Abbey.

The sunset was absolutely beautiful over Mont Saint-Michele.  It really is a “wonder.”

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Part 1:  Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

Part 3:  France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Part 4:  Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

Paris with Deb and Gerry: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Love Locks, Arc de Triomphe, and the Luxembourg Garden

The end of August and into September we were lucky to have Tracy’s Aunt Deb and Uncle Gerry come and visit us in France.  Deb had come to Paris before, but always on business trips that limited her opportunity to tour the city.  This was Gerry’s first travel outside the United States except as a guest of Uncle Sam and the US Army with an all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia in 1969 where the locals were  hostile.

Gerry, Deb, and Tracy in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Gerry, Deb, and Tracy in front of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.

En route to Paris, Tracy and I stopped for a short layover in Montpellier.  We enjoyed a coffee and a walked through the Place de la Comédie while waiting for the OUIGO TGV to arrive and take us to Paris.  We have become big fans of the French national rail system’s, SNCF, discount high-speed train.  The train gets us from Montpellier to Paris (465 miles [750 km]) in 3 hours and the cost is only €10 if you book your tickets early.

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When we arrived in Paris, we found that there was a problem with apartment that Tracy had reserved.  Since the apartment was unavailable we received an upgrade to a much larger apartment in the Trocadéro district in the 16th arrondissement.  The apartment was located behind the Palais de Chaillot in easy walking distance to the Eiffel Tower.  Great serendipity for our stay in Paris.  Tracy and I are getting to know Paris, its sights, its Métro (the second busiest subway system in Europe after Moscow), and the RER (Réseau Express Régional) system better with each visit.

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We met Deb and Gerry at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle) and zipped into town on the RER and the Métro to drop their bags off. Then is was out into Paris to see the city.  While in Paris we enjoyed the Eiffel Tower Romance tour and had a private view of Paris from above the Jules Verne Restaurant on the second level of the Eiffel Tower.  We enjoyed the daytime and nighttime views of Eiffel Tower and the city of Paris from the Palais de Chaillot near our apartment.  The Palais de Chaillot and its grounds over looks the Eiffel Tower and was built as part of the Exposition International of 1937.

We walked along the River Seine to the Île de la Cité (one of the two islands on the Seine at the city’ center) to visit the Cathédrale NotreDame de Paris.  It is always a stunning sight and Tracy and Deb conducted “zoom lens” wars searching for the most interesting gargoyle and detail on the Cathedral.  I always enjoy admiring the flying buttress and hearing the bells ring.  On the nearby Pont de l’Archevêché (Archbishop’s Bridge) we introduced Gerry and Deb to the “Love Lock” controversy of visitors securing a padlock to a bridge as a symbol of their love and their visit.  It has become such a popular practice many historic bridges are festooned with locks and suffer damage.  According to the Daily Telegraph in September 2014″ (All the love locks’) weight caused a section of metal mesh to collapse this summer on the Pont des Arts under the strain of some 54 tons of padlocks.”  While not illegal, Paris is responding by replacing the grates with clear plexiglass panel to prevent locks being attached.  Tracy and I became “part of the problem” by adding our own “love lock” prior to the practice being banned.

We walked the Avenue des Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées (that was originally built as an exhibition hall for the Universal Exposition of 1900) with its stunning glass and steel roof.  We spent time photographing the nearby Pont Alexandre III bridge’s Art Nouveau lamps, cherubs, nymphs, winged horses, and its view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.

Across the Pont Alexandre III,  Tracy and Deb enjoyed exploring the L’Hôtel National des Invalides. Les Invalides was originally a home and hospital for disabled veterans (a role it still serves), it now contains Musée de l’Armée (military museum of the Army of France) the Musée des PlansReliefs (that displays military models), the Musée d’Histoire Contemporaine (with non-military contemporary history), and serves as a burial site for many of France’s war heroes, including Napoleon’s Tomb.

We liked exploring the grounds of the Musée du Louvre.  Fantastic location to people-watch since the museum entertains nearly 10 million visitor from around the world every year.  Tracy led Deb down to the Carrousel du Louvre (the underground shopping mall adjacent to the Lourve) for photo ops of La Pyramide Inversée (the inverted pyramid.)

At Deb’s suggestion we visited the Luxembourg Garden, (Jardin du Luxembourg) for the first time.  Fantastic location to explore and a “must return” place for Tracy and me.  The 57 acres (23 hectares) of public park was originally built as a private garden in 1612 by Marie de’ Medici (the widow of King Henry IV) as part of her new residence, the Luxembourg Palace (which now serves as the seat of the French Senate.)  The Luxembourg Garden has amazing lawns, tree-lined promenades, sculptures, flowerbeds, playground, tennis courts, a large circular basin with children sailing model sailboats, and several fountains, including the stunning Medici Fountain.   On the ground is the original model of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty that has been in the park since 1906.  The park has chairs everywhere and Parisians and visitors alike enjoy relaxing at their favorite spots in the garden.

Part 2:  France with Deb and Gerry: Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy

Part 3:  France with Deb and Gerry: Omaha Beach, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Part 4:  Carcassonne with Deb and Gerry: Le Cité de Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

“I thought to see fair Carcassonne, that lovely city—Carcassonne!” ~ Gustave Nadaud

Our return flight from Rome to Marseille via Ryanair went as smoothly as the initial flight.  However we did have some concerns since the French rail strike was still going on. But our train was one of the 60% still scheduled and running. At the “moment of truth” the train arrived and we had our assigned seats waiting for us with no overcrowding. All in all we had been extremely lucky working around the national rail strike.

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We enjoyed the trip west along the Mediterranean coast and made it back to our current home in Carcassonne.

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We took a day to hike to the top of Château de Montségur is a former fortress located about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Carcassonne near the Pyrénées mountains and the Spanish border. The ruins are the site of a razed stronghold of the Cathars. The fortress is referred to as one of the “Cathar castles” that gave shelter to Cathars during the Albigensian Crusades.

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We also visited the nearby village of Mirepoix which has a substantial medieval ambience.

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Casey and Megan were finally able to catch up on some much-needed rest in Carcassonne and enjoy the vacation part of their trip. And Casey discovered Ricard pastis as a traditional summer-time French beverage. At the end of their stay (with the rail strike finally over) Casey and Megan took the train back to Paris for a two-night stay with tickets for a day at Disneyland-Paris. Knowing he is a big fan of Mickey, it was our birthday present to him.

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We waited until the last possible minute to warn them that there was talk of an air-traffic controller strike. Our silence paid off as at the last-minute the strike was culled down to only 10% of planes and limited to those going to other European countries. The kids made it to the airport and their British Airways flight without suffering through any more of France’s transportation worker strikes.

All in all it was a fantastic visit. We enjoyed meeting Megan and seeing Casey. We were overjoyed to finally being able to congratulate him in person for his university completion. The kids followed up their visit with a nice long Skype date so that we could meet their daughter, Izzy. The best thank you ever!

 

Part 1:  Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Palace of Versaille, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

Part 2:  Marseille with Casey and Megan:  Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

Part 3:  Rome with Casey and Megan:  RyanAir, Pantheon, Colesseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

Part 4:  Vatican City with Casey and Megan:  Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

Part 5:  Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

Vatican City with Casey and Megan: Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

“St. Peter’s Basilica, the greatest church in Christendom, representing the power and splendor of Rome’s 2,000-year domination of the Western world.” ~ Rick Steves

Casey wanted to visit a micro-nation.  Originally he wanted to see Monaco (I believe because of his computer-like math capacities and  the world-famous casinos – see the film, “21“), but the idea of walking completely across a country in just minutes intrigued Casey too.  He enjoyed the concept and structure of a modern city-state, complete with its own military, police, broadcast facilities, and international ambassadors known as Nuncios.

We started with a visit to the famous Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museum) and the adjacent Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel.)  While we stood in line Casey and Megan went far to try real Italian gelato which they gave two “Thumbs Up.”  While waiting the clouds gathered again and we were rained on once more as we waited for entry.  True to our past experience, new immigrants arrived to the waiting visitor with a selection of folding and full size umbrellas, ponchos, and rain coats.  Fifteen minutes before the storm the same men had been selling souvenirs.  Our “entrepreneurs” worked the line almost to the point of aggressiveness, wanting to make their money quickly before the rain stopped.  Each of us were holding an umbrella, but that did not deter several of our impromptu salesmen.  “Would you like a poncho too?”  “A larger umbrella?”

For fun we overlapped our umbrellas like ancient warriors would overlap their shields on the battlefield.  Tracy selected one particular friendly, but persistent salesman as our principle nemesis:  “Poncho-man.”  Poncho-man would check with us every time he passed, about every 10-15 minutes if we were certain we didn’t need two umbrellas each rather than our paltry one.  The approach of Poncho-man would cause us to tighten our umbrellas into a “turtleshell” and a verbal response of, “No, Poncho-man, no!”  It became a game to pass the time with Poncho-man approaching with a smile and “Hello, my friends!” through the gaps in our umbrella and our cries of, “No, Poncho-man, no!”  Nice way to pass the time while waiting in the rain. Meanwhile, inside the museum, patrons were declining to exit considerably slowing the entrance of new patrons.

Casey hadn’t realized that the Vatican Museum had 55 galleries and was the fifth most visited museum in the world with more than 4 million visitors a year.  He was very pleasantly surprised at the size and variety of the collections.  Casey and Megan were especially impressed with Michelangelo’s 500-year-old paintings the The Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Sadly no photos are allowed inside the chapel.

 

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Coming out of the museum we headed inside Vatican City, behind where most visitors get a chance to see.  Tracy had arranged for us to take the “Scavi” tour.  It is a tour of the excavations of the underground necropolis that lies beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Our guide was a Ph.D. archeologist who is one of the supervisors in the work. He shared amazing insights into the excavations, the controversy of Saint Peter’s tomb inside the necropolis, and the history surrounding the basilica.

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After exiting the Scavi tour, we visited Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter’s Basilica), the largest church in the world able to hold over 80,000 parishioners at a single service.  Afterwards we explored Saint Peter’s Square outside the basilica and just outside Vatican City we followed the Passetto di Borgo (the covered fortified corridor) to Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) and the Ponte Sant’Angelo (after a stop for adult beverages to re-hydrate from all our hiking.)

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Although not nearly a long enough visit to Rome and Vatican City, it’s time to show Casey and Megan our current home in Carcassonne, France.

 

Part 1:  Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Palace of Versaille, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

Part 2:  Marseille with Casey and Megan:  Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

Part 3:  Rome with Casey and Megan:  RyanAir, Pantheon, Colesseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

Part 4:  Vatican City with Casey and Megan:  Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

Part 5:  Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

Rome with Casey and Megan: RyanAir, Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

“All roads indeed lead to Rome, but theirs also is a more mystical destination, some borne of which no traveller knows the name, some city, they all seem to hint, even more eternal.” ~ Richard Le Gallienne

Arriving at Aéroport de Marseille Provence (Marseille Provence Airport) we intend to fly Ryanair for the first time.  Tracy has seen several reality TV shows which featured Ryanair’s uncompromising rules which allows the airplane to offer its cut-rate fares.  When Casey and Megan were still in the US we had sent Ryanair’s strict carry-on baggage rules:  one carry-on bag no larger than 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm (21.6″ x 15.7″ x 7.8″) plus one small bag of up to 35 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm (13.7″ x 7.9″ x 7.9″). (Tracy and I purchased new backpacks specifically to meet Ryanair’s requirements.)  But even this these notoriously small bag requirements, Ryanair does not guarantee that your bag will be allowed in the cabin.  If there is no more room in the overhead bins bags are stored in the hold for free.  Oversized luggage will be charged at substantial additional fees.  The reality show Tracy watched had numerous incidents of displeased passengers with oversized bags being billed additional fees or denied boarding and some passengers missing flights due to Ryanair’s strict check-in policy.  Ryanair has a 98% on-time departure record that comes with a requirement to have passport visas verified, passing through security screening, and admission to the boarding area at least 45 minutes before departure.

We were pleasantly surprised.  Although we showed up substantially early (concerned about an overflowing airport due to the train strike) we passed through easily and were treated very professionally by the Ryanair staff.  Horror stories aside, we were pleased with traveling Ryanair and decided to make use of their discount flights in the future.

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It was a quick flight to Ciampino–Aeroporto Internazionale (Rome Ciampino Airport) [about 12 kilometer (7.5 mi) south of Rome] we took the bus to the tram into Termini Station and a street car out to our hotel.  Tracy found a wonderful hotel in a suburb of Rome, while it was about a 30 minute ride outside central Rome, we had large comfortable rooms, a breakfast buffet, and paid “locals” prices at wonderful family trattorias in the hotel’s neighborhood.  We were treated wonderfully, paid a quarter of the cost for meals in Paris, and we kept wanting to return to try different dishes on the menu.  All that and the carafes of vino della casa (house wines) were inexpensive and delicious.

Roman Street Car
Roman Street Car

The Metropolitana di Roma (Rome subway) with only two “crossed” lines are not nearly as comprehensive as Paris, but most of the major sights are accessible off the subway.  Although Tracy and I have used the Rome bus system, we didn’t use it this trip.

We had a great time exploring the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Although the rain would start and stop during the day, it helped to minimize the crowds.  It really is a “small world,” our friends Ron and Cyndy Coscuna just happen to be in Rome and we met them near the Fontana del Pantheon for lunch and later watched the rain fall through the oculus in the ceiling of the Pantheon.

We did get caught in a torrential downpour after leaving the Pantheon. Megan stopped at a little store to pick up a sweatshirt, Tracy and I headed next door to the bar to find refuge from the storm. When Casey and Megan joined us they found seats next to a couple from South Africa and had a nice chat while the bartender and owner tried to mix up a White Russian for Megan. With nearly four times the alcohol content, they finally succeeded. Megan stayed fairly warm afterwards. The owner didn’t quite believe that Megan was old enough to have the drink. Tracy reassured him that she was indeed old enough to order alcohol and though still a bit doubtful, he delivered her drink to the table. He did, however, need reassurance an additional six times. Yes, she really does look that young!

 

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Casey and Megan stopped to throw coins in the Trevi Fountain to observe the tradition that throwing coins with ensure you will return to Rome.  Unfortunately the fountain was largely covered with scaffolding for refurbishing.  But that gave Casey and Megan another reason to return to Rome in the future, to see the fountain flowing in it’s full glory.

After exploring Roma, it was time to visit the smallest country in the world, Vatican City.

 

Part 1:  Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Palace of Versaille, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

Part 2:  Marseille with Casey and Megan:  Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

Part 3:  Rome with Casey and Megan:  RyanAir, Pantheon, Colesseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

Part 4:  Vatican City with Casey and Megan:  Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

Part 5:  Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

 

Marseille with Casey and Megan: Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

“No, my dear Dantes. I know perfectly well that you are innocent. Why else would you be here? If you were truly guilty, there are a hundred prisons in France where they would lock you away. But Chateau d’If is where is they put the ones they’re ashamed of.” ~ Dorleac, The Count of Monte Cristo 

After arriving at Marne la Vallée-Chessy train station outside of Paris to catch our Ouigo high-speed train to Marseille we are told that a surprise rail worker strike has caused that train and two prior trains’ cancellation.  (The strike is eventually 10 days, the longest rail strike since 2008.)  Casey and Megan were getting a truly French experience of dealing with a large-scale rail strike.  We were told there was a chance of getting on high-speed TGV train still scheduled to depart in 2 1/2 hours.  IF it arrived we may be able to get on board.  IF we got inside and the doors were able to close we could go as far as the train continued to run. IF. We decided to “take the shot” at getting on that train.  In the mean time we “camped out” at the front of the line, talked, played cards, and worked on Soduku puzzles.

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The train did arrive and we were able to squeeze into the hallway of a first-class carriage.  Other passengers were friendly with the “Life Boat” atmosphere and we stood or sat on the hallway floor for the first 2 1/2 hours of the nearly 900 kilometer trip.  About an hour out of Marseille departing passengers allowed us to finally get seats and we enjoyed the first-class luxury for the final hour of the trip, visiting with our neighbors in the cabin who were en route to the Côte d’Azur.  They were very friendly to their “refugee” seat-mates crashing first-class.  One gentleman was a French engineer who Casey had an animated discussion about their shared profession.  We would later read in the newspapers about people being stranded in rail stations for days and marvel that we were able to “pull off the impossible” and get one of the few remaining working trains to Marseille.

Marseille was completely unexpected.  I thought the city would be a gritty, slightly run-down port town.  Instead in was a clean, intriguing city that reminded me of San Francisco or Seattle. After wandering through the city I now understand why in 2013 it was awarded the title of Europe’s Capital of Culture.

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Our literary adventure was taking the boat out to Chateau d’Id, the historic prison off the Vieux-Port (Old Port) of Marseille, to experience the setting of Dumas’ fictional “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The man in the Iron Mask” in real life.  Reminiscent of visits to the former Alcatraz Federal Prison Museum off the coast of San Francisco.

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Casey and Megan enjoyed taking the petit train up to Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde located at the highest point in Marseille, about 150 meters (490 feet) above the south side of the Vieux-Port (Old Port), visiting the Musée Cantini with a collection including Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne, and the strikingly unique Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée [Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM).]

Notre-Dame de la Garde
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM)
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM)

After a too-short visit and a sample of great seafood, we committing ourselves to returning in the near future and exploring more of Marseille at a future date.  We now headed by bus (the rail strike was still going on) to Aéroport de Marseille Provence (Marseille Provence Airport) to catch Ryanair for Rome.

 

Part 1:  Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Palace of Versaille, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

Part 2:  Marseille with Casey and Megan:  Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

Part 3:  Rome with Casey and Megan:  RyanAir, Pantheon, Colesseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

Part 4:  Vatican City with Casey and Megan:  Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

Part 5:  Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix

Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Château de Versailles, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

“Paris is always a good idea.” ~ Audrey Hepburn

Our son Casey and his fiancée Megan became our second set of visitors to France.  The trip was to celebrate Casey’s graduation with his Chemical Engineering degree, his hiring as an engineer with the State of Nevada’s Chemical Accident Prevention Program, and his engagement to Megan.  So many important milestones to celebrate, but we were mainly looking forward to seeing Casey and meeting Megan for the first time.  Tracy had extensively pre-planned the trip in the attempt to try to visit everywhere Casey and Megan wanted to visit.  Tracy had the reservations made and confirmations organized to minimize the stress of traveling.  Tracy and I subscribed to the  “Fast and Light” school of travel with lightweight backpacks and making use of discount travel options as much as possible.

Tracy's collection of tickets, passes, reservations, and confirmations.
Tracy’s collection of tickets, passes, reservations, and confirmations.
Tracy and my "Fast and Light" backpacks that are "Ryanair" size approved.
Tracy and my “Fast and Light” backpacks that are “Ryanair” size approved.

We left Carcassonne the day prior to Casey and Megan’s departure from the US to be able to meet them in Paris.  We took the SNCF train to Montpellier and transferred to the Ouigo TGV high-speed train to Paris.  We love the economy of the Ouigo where we can often get a trans-France train trip for as little as €10.

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The Ouigo rolled into the Gare de Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy train station outside of Disneyland-Paris and caught the RER A (Réseau Express Régional) regional train into Paris proper where we used the Paris Métro system to picked up the key and settle into our apartment in the Belleville neighborhood of the 19th arrondissement.

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The next morning Tracy and I walked about the Île de la Cité and Latin Quarter visiting the Panthéon to see the photo project that we took part in Carcassonne and hoping to spot our photos in the display used to disguise the scaffolds used to refurbish the monument. (Carcassonne – Au Panthéon Photo Project)  Then it was off to Aéroport de Paris-Orly to wait for Casey and Megan’s arrival.  It was our first time at the Orly Airport so we took the RER B line early in order to figure out international arrivals.

Aéroport de Paris-Orly
Aéroport de Paris-Orly
Aéroport de Paris-Orly
Aéroport de Paris-Orly

We were excited to see that Casey and Megan arrived without any problems.  We skipped the baggage claim area since they both joined us in our “Fast and Light” method of having a single backpack each for luggage and we were off to the RER for the ride to Paris talking all the way.  We headed back to the  Île de la Cité 

 

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We “barnstormed” Paris trying to visit as many sites as we could squeeze in.  Megan had her first experiences with a subway with the very busy, but useful Paris Métro.  She was the only one of us not to be reversed and turned-around using the street and subway map.  We visited Notre-Dame de Paris (a must for Casey who  is a major fan of Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), explored the Renaissance and Egyptian sections the Louvre Museum, walked the Avenue des ChampsÉlysées from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Casey and Megan added a “Love Lock” to the Pont des Arts bridge, and enjoyed a chautauqua-type tour of the Eiffel Tower visiting the historic military radio room in the foundation and getting an “insider’s” view of the elevator system with a view paris from above the second level’s Restaurant le Jules Verne.  

Next venue on our itinerary:  Marseille.  A first for all of us.

Part 1:  Paris with Casey and Megan: Notre Dame, Palace of Versaille, Eiffel Tower, Love Locks, and the Louvre

Part 2:  Marseille with Casey and Megan:  Train Strike, Chateau d’If, Vieux-Port, Phare de Sainte Marie, and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde

Part 3:  Rome with Casey and Megan:  RyanAir, Pantheon, Colesseum, Roman Forum, and Trevi Fountain

Part 4:  Vatican City with Casey and Megan:  Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Necropolis Tour, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Saint Peter’s Square

Part 5:  Carcassonne with Casey and Megan: La Cité De Carcassonne, Château de Montségur, Mirepoix