Black Saturday 2015: The Juillettistes Against The Aoûtiens

Today is Saturday, August 1, 2015, the biggest traffic day of the year in France.  Why?

Samedi Noir” (Black Saturday) is the changeover between the juillettistes (families that take their annual vacations in July) and the aoûtiens (families that take their annual vacation in August).Le chassé-croisé des juillettistes et des aoûtiens,” is the cross-over of July and August vacationers and an annual “event” usually on the last Saturday of July.

Traffic stopped on highway. Sous licence CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
Traffic stopped on highway.
Sous licence CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

It’s like the US Memorial Day weekend traffic, squared, because of France’s centralized highway system.  Millions of French travelers are on the road today, some heading home after holidays and others on the way to their vacation destinations. It is called “Les jours de grands départs” (the days of great departures) across France.

Bison Futé the French government agency that monitors traffic, reports numerous category “black” alerts (where “Black Saturday get’s its name) about traffic jams and congestions all across France. “Category “black” means that on all main roads and highways there will be at least 700 kilometres of tailbacks. That’s easily going to be the case tomorrow,” Cyrille Leblic, a spokesman for the national information road centre (CNIR). He estimated that the tailbacks would in many places exceed 900 kilometres, and, in some cases start as early as 4am Saturday.”

Real time traffic alerts on the Bison Futé website.
Real time traffic alerts on the Bison Futé website.

It’s a good day to be car-less in France. Enjoying a day at home!

 

 

 

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The €1 Bus in the Pyrénées-Orientales

One of the biggest bonuses with living in Argelès-sur-Mer within the Pyrénées-Orientales Department has been Le Bus à 1€ (the €1 Bus), a public transportation system providing bus service throughout the department with dozens of bus routes to scores of cities. This is an amazingly useful and economical way for Tracy and I to travel since we have elected not to buy a car.

Our transportation for the day.
Our transportation for the day.

With a €1 Bus stop 100 yards from our front door, it is actually more convenient for us to take the €1 Bus to Perpignan to go to the large supermarket shopping there than to walk to the smaller supermarket that is in Argelès.  The current bus schedule list 19 buses a day from Argelès to Perpignan, Monday through Saturday, starting at 6:50 am until 8:40 pm. There is a reduced bus schedule on Sundays. In July and August there are additional routes during the summer season connecting the small beach towns along the Côte Vermeille. Additionally there is an expanded schedules for regular routes during these peak summer months.

1€ Bus Schedules
1€ Bus Schedules

The €1 Bus service is provided by the Conseil Général des Pyrénées-Orientales, an elected board of 31 Conseillers Généraux (one for each of  the 31 Cantons of the Pyrénées-Orientales) and a Chairman. Members of the Conseiller Général are elected for a 6 year term. The Conseil Général decides public policy at the department level similar to the role and responsibilities of a county commission in the United States.

1€ Bus Map
1€ Bus Map

For the price of a single Euro each (currently about $1.11), we can reach nearly anywhere in the Pyrénées-Orientales.  The tickets also allow transfers for two hours to other bus routes traveling in the same direction within the €1 Bus system.  That means we can take the bus from Argelès to Perpignan for €1, do some shopping, get on a different bus still outbound within the two-hour transfer time limit, and go to Prade for lunch.  A return ticket for €1 each will bring us back to Argelès.  A traveler would spend more on gasoline than the €2 cost of a round-trip on the bus. (Currently gasoline costs about €1.37 a liter, about $1.50. There are 3.8 liters to a gallon, so gasoline would cost about $5.70 a gallon.)

1€ Bus Tickets
1€ Bus Tickets

The buses are clean, modern, and comfortable motor coaches. They are dog-friendly and Sami the MinPin can travel with us with the use of a travel bag while she is inside the bus. There are overhead racks for backpacks and under-the-bus-carriage storage for large suitcases or even bicycles.  There are even several “Réso 66” stops, “Park and Ride” locations where commuters to park their cars for free and let the bus drive them to work or school. The bus drivers are friendly and helpful, but pretty much they exclusively speak French (if the drivers do speak a second language it’s most probably Spanish or Catalan.)  But between our very basic French language skills, pointing at the stop we want on the map, or showing the driver a promotional brochure for a tourist sight, we have not had any problem communicating.  (And there is always the red “Stop” button to indicate that you want off the bus.)

€1 Bus Interior
€1 Bus Interior

Tracy and I have been making great use of the €1 Bus for our Micro-Adventures. With just €4, a camera, a bottle of water, an inquisitive MinPin, and a picnic lunch, we have an entire day’s entertainment exploring in the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Tracy enjoying one of our Micro-Adventures at Les Orgues d'Ille-sur-Têt
Tracy enjoying one of our Micro-Adventures at Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt, which we reached by the €1 Bus

 

 

Micro-Adventure: Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt

We have found that most of the staff in the tourist offices speak at least a little bit of English. Usually enough to get a map or directions. Ille-sur-Têt’s tourist office didn’t have printed city maps, but rather a large laminated map. When we asked for a map and directions to Les Orgues, the staff person pointed out the route and we jotted down the names of the streets. She said, “Just follow the signs, it is not far.”

Directional sign for Les Orgues
Directional sign for Les Orgues

And it really wasn’t. 2 kilometers from the bus stop, about 20 minutes of walking and we were at the Visitor’s Center for Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt. Most of the walk was on wide sidewalks. There were a few places with little room for pedestrians but drivers in our region are used to pedestrians, cyclists, runners so they just slow down and move over . . . well sometimes they slow down!

Alan on the walk out to Les Orgues
Alan on the walk out to Les Orgues

We went into the Les Orgues Visitor’s Center and while Alan purchased the entrance tickets (5 Euro/each) I browsed through the brochures they had laid out. Oddly they had more than the tourist office in town and I picked up several I hadn’t seen before.

Access to the site was gained by a short walk (800 meters) on a dirt path with an interpretive trail. The Visitor’s Center had guide books that included information about the flora and fauna, waterways and flooding, etc. We dutifully stopped at each of the numbered markers and read the information in the mini guide book, which was in English.

One of the interpretive trail markers.
One of the interpretive trail markers.

We were in the Têt Valley, an area called “Ribêral” meaning “river area” or “born from rivers.” In the distance is the Canigou Massif (2,784 meters) topped by the “dog’s tooth peak.” It is the last high summit of the Eastern Pyrenees, an important symbol for the Catalan people.

Earlier the area had another name, “El Val del Infern” (Hell’s Valley). The landscape was very dry. Along the interpretive path we read about the Mediterranean farming for this small area which mainly consist of vineyards, olive, almond and fig trees. A startling contrast from the rest of the Têt Valley which is well irrigated and known for its peach production. The peaches have vivid red coloring due to the reflection of the sun on the sand.

Part of the interpretive trail, an olive grove shows the types of trees that could grow here before the area was irrigated.
Part of the interpretive trail, an olive grove shows the types of trees that could grow here before the area was irrigated.

Right after marker 2 was a sculpture garden. The sculptures were made from a lot of different things, found items in most cases. The small statue of four girls dancing were made from old axe heads. My favorite was the T-Rex skeleton. Much larger than the rest and almost hidden around a bend in the path, it drew smiles from everyone passing by.

Alan and Rex
Alan and Rex

Upon reaching the entrance to Les Orgues, we handed our tickets to the young lady at the kiosk and entered the world of fairy chimneys. The site opens up like an amphitheater with walls of gigantic columns 10 to 12 meters high (30 to 40 feet).

Alan with the "fairy chimneys" in the background.
Alan with the “fairy chimneys” in the background.

It takes about an hour or so to walk through the small park, including time to take photos. The area is beautiful with white and tan columns topped by layers of rock and in some cases trees and shrubs. The columns look like chess pieces or organ pipes or chimneys. The formations are called by many different things, chimney rocks, fairy chimneys, organ pipes, hoodoos. Since individual formations had no official names we were making them up, such as the “amphitheater” or “chess pieces.”

The "chess pieces."
The “chess pieces.”

The guide book stated that the area is in a constant state of change. The sandy rock columns change with each drop of rain as they have for the last five million years. Areas like Les Orgues are scattered around the Têt Valley but nowhere else are the results quite as spectacular. However the name Les Orgues means The Organs a name which is typically used to designate basalt streams that have solidified into long pipes or columns. This particular area is not volcanic in origin, just named before the term was designated for basalt columns.

Close up of labyrinth wall detailing water run-off.
Close up of labyrinth wall detailing water run-off.

There was also a “Labyrinth” trail (about 100 meters long) that wound up through the ‘chimneys’ to a dead end. The guide book did state that it was one labyrinth that no one would get lost in!

Tracy on the labyrinth trail.
Alan walking up through the labyrinth.
Alan walking up through the labyrinth.

We also learned that the area was home to aurochs, cave lions, cave bears and cave hyenas in prehistoric times. No mention of dinosaurs . . . except the metal T-Rex.

I had brought my good Nikon with me, but my batteries died . . . both of them. I think after 4 years they aren’t up to the job anymore or perhaps it was just a bad day for batteries! But we had both brought our iPods, training ourselves to use them for our big hike on the Camino de Santiago coming up in just about five weeks.

Back at the Visitor’s Center we enjoyed the air conditioning inside while purchasing a couple of cold drinks then sat outside on the covered terrace. Once finished, we headed back into town for lunch and visits to the churches in town. St. Etienne was visible from the bridge across the Têt River and Hospice d’Illa is a few blocks away — more about them here.

In the photos you’ll notice strips of color in the columns. The white corresponds to clay, the ochre color to iron oxidation, the brown or grey spots are lichen and moss which will turn green again with enough water.

If you are ever near the area, it is definitely worth a stop. It doesn’t take long to walk out to the site and have a look around, but is definitely a “Do Not Miss” place in this region.

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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