Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Rouen.

After Dad left, Roland and I lugged our stuff to the other side of Paris, where we had a reservation at the Peace & Love hostel for two nights. Unfortunately, Roland’s first hostel happened to be the worst one I’ve stayed at so far. The room was crowded and dirty, with three beds in each bunk, leaving you too little room to sit on your bed and increasing your chance of being awoken in the middle of the night by your bedmate climbing the ladder. The only common area was a bar that doubled as the reception desk, where people partied all hours of the day. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom was dirty. The staff seemed more interested in pouring shots for the partiers than making your stay comfortable.

Alas, we were stuck with the hostel – we had pre-booked it not only for those two nights, but for another after returning from Rouen three days later to fly out of Paris the next day.

I decided to devote my last day in Paris to seeing Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. However, the train going to Poissy, the Parisian suburb where the building is located, was shut down – something I discovered only after a lot of frustrated waiting and wandering. By the time I found an employee of the Metro system who spoke enough English to explain to me that I had to take a different route to get there, it was early afternoon and I was too tired to go. Instead, I checked out Paris’s strangely peaceful central business district (where I happened to be when my plans were sidetracked). It wasn’t very charming, as you can see, but I liked La Grande Arche, a modern counterpart to the Arc de Triomphe.

La Grande Arche.

I spent most of the day reading next to a beautiful pond at the Bois de Boulogne park on the outskirts of the city. Like the Villa Borghese park in Rome, it was bereft of tourists.

The Bois de Boulogne park.

The next morning, Roland and I took a train to Rouen. There are no hostels in northern France, for some reason, so we were forced to stay in a hotel. Going without the social atmosphere of a hostel would have been a big problem if Roland hadn’t been with me. We ended up really liking the hotel – the Hotel d’Angleterre – thanks to its location next to the river, its friendly staff, and the fact that it costs only slightly more than the average hostel.

Rouen was a big change for me after staying in Paris for ten days. It was less crowded and noisy and fast-paced. We seemed to be some of the only tourists in the city. The people were less beautiful and stylishly dressed, which isn’t a complaint, because it means they were also more approachable. I was surprised to see so much Norman architecture there.

A public square in Rouen.

Rouen has three wonderful Gothic cathedrals – the Notre Dame, the Saint Maclou, and the Saint Ouen. The Notre Dame is well-known as the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, who tried to capture its colors at different times of the day.

The Notre Dame.

The Saint Ouen.

That evening, with the help of our hotel’s receptionist, Roland and I devised a brilliant plan to rent a car the next morning and use it to see Mont Sant-Michel and Saint-Malo in one day. We walked to the car rental store the next morning with optimistic smiles, having already fixed our lunches for the trip, only to have our spirits crushed by the employee who informed us that no cars were available that day.

Roland decided to stay in Rouen to do sketches. I debated the pros and cons of the three nearby cities I could get to for free with my Eurail pass: Caen, Dieppe, and Le Havre. I chose Le Havre, even though everyone told me it was an ugly city that wasn’t worth visiting. I was attracted to it for a few reasons: because its downtown, rebuilt with reinforced concrete after being destroyed in the Battle of Normandy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; because I had had enough of pretty French coastal cities after Nice and Marseilles; and because it was the underdog.

The Hotel De Ville in Le Havre.

My day in Le Havre was one of the most interesting of my trip, but the buildings there are horribly ugly. It was sad walking into town from the train station; as you get closer to the city center, there are fewer old-style buildings and more post-war ones made of exposed concrete. Even the city’s cathedral was rebuilt in that style. It was a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of World War II, which I haven’t seen much evidence of in the other cities I’ve visited so far.

Although the post-war structures are ugly, their architects constructed them with modern materials so that they could rebuild Le Havre and provide comfortable housing to its citizens as quickly as possible.

Le Havre’s concrete cathedral.

Le Havre is clearly eager to make sure its few tourists have a good time. It’s tourist office was the best I’ve seen, with English-speaking employees who gave me a free map and suggestions for a walking tour. Everyone seemed to be happy that I was visiting the city. I felt like an honored guest when I was there.

After returning to Paris the next day, I had enough energy to make the many little train and bus trips necessary to get to the Villa Savoye in Poissy. It was a beautiful counterpart to Le Havre’s ugly modern buildings. Le Corbusier’s design looks clean, light and interesting. Thanks to windows that span almost the entire exterior walls, it was so sunny inside that I had to wear my sunglasses. There is a garden in the courtyard on the second floor and on the roof.

Villa Savoye.

Inside.

My trip to the Villa Savoye was also like the one to Le Havre in that afterwards I was glad I had strayed from the popular tourist spots and had a more personal experience as a result.

When Roland and I went to the Peace & Love hostel at 6 P.M. to check in, they told us they had given our beds away because we’d arrived more than three hours after the arrival time listed in our reservation – something that the other hostels I’ve stayed at haven’t paid attention to. We found a cheap room at a nearby hotel and tried to forget that the Peace & Love hostel existed.

Our last walk through Paris.

We took one final walk through Paris to the Arc de Triomphe and the beautifully-lit Eiffel Tower, where we stayed until late at night drinking wine. Although I had spent ten nights in Paris, I wasn’t tired of it at all, like I was when I spent the same amount of time in Rome.

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

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Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Nice.

When I was in Venice I booked two train tickets to take me from Milan to Nice over the night of the 22nd. I noticed that there was a three-hour layover in Ventimiglia from 1 to 4 A.M, but I thought that it was better to endure that than to waste a day traveling and to spend money for a night in a hostel.

It turned out to be one of those instances, pretty common while travelling a planned itinerary, in which the present self curses the past self for being so inconsiderate. I got very little sleep sitting on the floor of the train station in Ventimiglia, which was crowded with immigrants and fellow backpackers sleeping or smoking cigarettes. I took off my contacts and threw them away, because the maid at my hostel in Venice had thrown out the case for them.

I arrived in Nice at 5:30 the morning of the 23rd exhausted and half-blind. No one answered the door at the hostel I had reservations at, so I hung out at a park for a few hours.

Even in that state of being I noticed how clean and pretty Nice was. The empty streets were free of litter and graffiti, and the tram looked like it was made of stainless steel. All the buildings were painted with sunny colors. The park I relaxed in was decorated with palm trees and sleek modern art. In the picture below, taken in that park, you can see seven nude male figures, which I was told are supposed to represent the continents, on the tops of poles.

The park in the center of Nice.

At 7:30 I found a bakery that was open, and I bought a delicious piece of cake for only 2.50 euros. The realization that France isn’t quite as expensive as Italy raised my spirits.

Many people staying at my hostel, the Hostel Smith, didn’t like it. They complained that it was dirty and that the lady at the front desk was rude and confused. I thought it was a decent hostel, although it had its problems. The door to the bathroom wouldn’t stay shut, so you had to stop it with the door to the closet inside the bathroom, which would leave it open just a crack. And indeed, the lady at the front desk was a bit bewildered. She couldn’t find my reservation on the computer, so she accused me of being mistaken about the dates I reserved. When she did find it, she had to drag an extra cot into the dorm for me to use, because they were fully booked.

However, she let me change my reservation from four nights to three so that I could spend another day in Marseille, even though she didn’t have to. The hostel also had an excellent location in the crooked streets of the old part of Nice. But the source of my good opinion of the hostel might be their habit of leaving free bread and pastries on the table in the kitchen.

I spent my first day in Nice doing laundry, buying groceries, making hostel reservations on hostelworld, and writing my previous blog entry on the horribly slow laptops, with strange French keyboards, in the hostel’s lobby. It rained most of the day, so it was a good time to get chores done. That evening I played Gin Rummy (which someone taught me earlier in the trip) with some people at the hostel.

The next day I explored Nice. Like Venice, Nice is a city with a great atmosphere but few sights to see. There is a boardwalk with many beautiful casinos and hotels alongside it. On the other side is a beach. Unfortunately, the beaches in Nice consist not of sand but smooth, fist-sized rocks.

The beach in Nice.

To celebrate my first day in France, I treated myself to a Nutella crepe for 2.50 euros. Over the course of my trip, I’ve developed an addiction to Nutella that I will probably take home with me. I avoid buying Nutella because I end up eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon until it’s all gone, sometimes actually giving myself a stomachache.

A Nutella crepe.

For lunch, I bought a rotisserie chicken from a restaurant next to the hostel for 4 euros. I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, so it made up most of my dinner also.

The rotisserie chicken, as well as the remains of the free pastries layed out by the hostel employees.

The next day I followed the recommendation of an employee at the hostel and walked to Villefranche, a small town a mile or two down the shore from Nice. According to the employee, the French government built Villefranche centuries ago to protect Nice from the Turks. To get people to move there, the government made the city tax-free. Thus, “Villefranche” means something like “tax-free city” in French.

The path to Villefranche went up a cliff that offered a beautiful view of Nice, then went back down to the rocky shores, on which many locals were tanning. For better or worse, my stay in Nice coincided with the three-day Easter weekend, so public areas were always crowded.

After exploring Villefranche, I took a much easier walk back to Nice along a road.

The view of Nice from the cliff.

Part of the trail.

More of the trail.

Villefranche.

On Tuesday I took an hour-long train ride to Marseille. I considered stopping for the day in Cannes to check it out, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, especially since I would have to lug around my full backpack while I was there.

Marseille, with the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral in the background.

I was excited to get to my hostel in Marseille, the Hello Marseille hostel, because it had a spectacular 92% rating on hostelworld. It was an exceptional hostel. The furniture was so clean and modern that it looked like it had just arrived after being ordered from a Pottery Barn catalog. The kitchen was equipped with all the necessary cooking instruments, which is rare for a hostel (the one in Nice didn’t have a can-opener, so we had to run down to a restaurant to use theirs). The computer in the lobby was clean and ran well. It had a great location right next to Marseille’s port, the Vieux Port.

The hostel seemed to attract friendly, outgoing people. I found a couple of friends to play cards with, and we taught Rummy to a few more people. People drank and partied in the hostel every night – maybe too much. That was the hostel’s only significant flaw.

I could tell from the walk from the train station to my hostel that Marseille had a different character from Nice. It’s grittier, with more graffiti, more smells, fewer parks and palm trees, less public art, less color, and less extravagant architecture. The populace of Marseille seemed less affluent than Nice’s, with more immigrants. While Nice seemed like a resort town, Marseille seems like a port town. I think it’s more interesting than Nice, though.

The first bit of sightseeing I did in Marseille was to visit Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, an apartment building/hotel built in the late 1940s. It was one of the first examples of the Brutalist style which begat so many office buildings in the United States, few of which look as good as this one. Unfortunately, it seemed to be falling apart, with the concrete crumbling off in places.

Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation.

Another view of the building.

From there I walked to the Parc Borely, a park by the sea, and rested there for a while. I then walked on the Corniche walkway along the shore, stopping at beaches every once in a while.

The Borely Park.

A beach in Marseille.

The Corniche walkway.

Later, I headed back into the city to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral atop one of Marseille’s hills, which makes it visible from almost everywhere in the city.

Notre Dame de la Garde.

The view of Marseille from Notre Dame de la Garde.

When I got back to the hostel that evening, I was sunburnt, dirty, and exhausted from walking so far. During my stay in Nice and Marseille, the weather has, for the first time in my trip, been hot enough to make me sweat significantly during the day. I’m worried that this is the start of a new epoch in which I’ll have to take two showers a day, apply sunscreen constantly, and wear shorts, which will make it even more obvious that I’m a tourist.

I relaxed that evening by playing more Rummy with the people at the hostel (some of whom took it very seriously), and drinking La Cagole beer. I bought La Cagole despite the fact that it costs twice as much as other beers because it is a local Marseille brand. We all thought it was really good.

I’m still adjusting to being in France – I still say “si” instead of “oui.” It was easier in Italy because I know a little Italian; I’m afraid to even try to pronounce French words. When someone at my hostel told me she is going to Aix-en-Provence and pronounced “aix” like “ex”, I laughed because that’s not how I would have pronounced it at all.

I spent this morning walking around the old part of Marseille, distinguished, like that in Nice, by its short, crooked streets. I stopped by the beautiful Palais Longchamps park to read a little bit of my book. Then, I started getting ready to move on to Paris, my next destination.

Palais Longchamps.

Eurotrip 2011:  Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011:  Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul