Monday, March 5, 2012

J'adore la France

One of the many perks of being an exchange student is that your class choices don't have to be based on your future plans.  You can decide to follow a certain geography option, for example, because of the yearly class trip and the fact that it's average day at school is shorter than some other classes.

I did have some more legitimate reasons for choosing said option, like the fact that it included a lot of science, which I enjoy, but at the moment, I'm more focused on the trip.

The 21 students in my geography class left last Sunday evening in a massive 75+ person, double-decker bus.  It was a bit extravagant, but when time came to sleep and we were able to stretch our legs across the aisle, we were all glad.  Our driver, Manu (which everyone pronounced "Mahnooooooo"), made the 13-hour trek across Belgium, Luxembourg, and France to the city of Nîmes ("la Rome française"), where he left us to explore the city while he drove to our hostel to sleep.

Southern France was even better than I expected, reminding me of Spain, France, and the Western United States all at the same time.  We visited the Arènes, the Roman-style amphitheater in the middle of town, and heard all about the gladiators and bullfighters that passed through over the years.  We had a few hours for lunch before visiting the Maison Carré (literally "square house"), a museum, a famous garden, and hiking past the Tour de Magne (the Roman viewpoint for Nîmes) back to our hostel.  Even though we were exhausted, we found the energy to stay up to take pictures of the hostels many animals including the typical dogs but also ducks and goats.
          (For my family... the line "was that a goat?" is, unfortunately, much less amusing in French.)

Our second day was a trip to a town called Rustrel, famous for its Colorado Provinçal.  Basically, the same phenomena that caused the red rocks in Colorado and Utah occurred on a smaller scale in southern France, giving us some fun rock formations and lots of color.  Of course, being a geography trip, we spent a lot of our hike stopping for "Topo," or short lessons about the landscapes.  For anyone curious, the red rock is made of oxidized sand, brought by the ocean approximately 100 million years ago, solidified and transformed by the heat of the sun, and then eroded into fun formations.

On Wednesday, we visited the region of Camargue, the delta of the Grand Rhône and Petit Rhône, and saw the various human activities. On the coast, they produce salt by flooding the ground in the summer, waiting for the water to evaporate, and then collecting it.  Our teacher told us about the giant piles of salt you can see in the summer, and I pictured a salt pile about the size of the mulch pile my mother gets delivered every year.  And then we saw a real one, approximately 20m high and 800m long.  We visited a port (if only to buy baguettes for lunch) and got 11 trucks to honk at us, then moved on to the rizières.  It was still February, so the rice fields were still dry and unplanted, but it was still interesting to see: relatively small fields enclosed by 1-2 foot walls of earth and surrounded by channels for water to flow through for irrigation.  Our teacher pointed out that between the water brought in for the rice and for the salt, the entire delta was relatively wet in the summer (which is not natural for a Mediterranean climate) and therefore a lot of the beautiful color that can be seen in prime tourist season is completely human-caused.

Before heading home, we made a stop in a tourist village called les Saintes Maries de la Mer, where we had a couple hours to look around (i.e. go to the beach!).  It turned out there was one other girl in my class (a Belgian, too) who had never seen the Mediterranean sea, so the two of us had a lot of fun running around the beach and taking photos.  I convinced her to take off her shoes and come wading with me, but she wasn't as conditioned to cold oceans as I was (yay north Atlantic ocean for giving me tolerance) and couldn't stay in long.

Our last day in France we went to les Baux de Provence, which they call the prettiest village in France.  I'd believe it... it's set in lots of calcareous (for lack of a good translation) mountains with little evergreen trees and contains only cobblestone streets and cute shops/churches/etc.  Apparently in the summer you have to pay just to enter the village.  We had a picnic lunch overlooking some of the nearby houses (apparently only very very wealthy people (wealthy from exploiting the mountains) can live there) and took off on a  ~ 10km hike towards the town of Arles.  We walked a couple of hours through the mountains, seeing more red/striped rocks and great views while poor Manu had to rest up for the imminent drive home.  We got a lift the rest of the way to Arles, had one our very last Topo, then had a few hours to ourselves to walk around.  Even though Arles is called the second French Rome (after Nîmes), it was pretty small.  The three girls I roomed with and I walked around while most other people went to a movie, got some Chinese takeout, then went back to the bus to read the French Cosmo-equivalent that one of them had bought.  We left around 10 and were back to Liège early enough to have a good day to rest up.

I'm a bit late in typing this up, but between editing all my photos, typing up a resumé of the trip, and trying to figure out what I missed at school the whole week, I've had a lot of work.  Hopefully I'll get some pictures up soon.

À bientôt!

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