Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Amazingly Awesome Trip to the South of France

It is without hesitations or reservations, partnered with the fondest of memories that I share with you that the French leg of our European holiday was my favorite part of our vacation. We set out for the south of France from Frankfurt. But we opted for an 8 hour train ride as opposed to a flight. Two factors weighted into this, the first was that the price difference was substantial, but the other piece was that our train ride would take us along the gorgeous and picturesque German and French country sides. And with an itinerary that made our train trek during daylight hours, we simply could not pass it up. Here’s a few pictures of us at the train station and during our embarking journey to the south of France.



The only downside to European rail travel that I could find was the meal offerings. I had genuinely expected full meals to be available for longer routes such as ours and while our train did have a cable car, I was underwhelmed by the sandwich offerings. Had we known this ahead of time we would have packed ourselves a lunch with a bottle of wine during our journey, as several of the seasoned European travelers had done that sat around us. But nevertheless the views were breathtaking and, although scary at times, the speed of the rail was impressive and I found it very cool and rather manly to be traveling at such high speeds.


Our “home base” in France was a beautiful and romantic town called Aix-en-Provence. Many years ago, thanks to a wonderful site called, my wife and I met and hosted a French couple that we have since become very good friends with. Of course they had visited and stayed with us in Chicago, we had met up in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this year, and felt it was appropriate to meet up with them during our European holiday. And they were the most incredible hosts that we have probably ever stayed with. From the moment we stepped off the train and met up with them we felt at home, welcomed and loved. I feel immensely blessed to have friends like this in my life.


And man were we spoiled. Our breakfasts consisted of delicious French pastries and what felt like an endless supply of nutella. And I must say that our French friends know their way around a kitchen pretty well and we enjoyed probably the best meals of our journey in their home for lunch and dinner. It was everything I could dream of, a picturesque setting in the south of France with great friends, wining, dining, laughing and catching up on life. I mean it when I say that I would seriously consider moving to the south of France.


Our friends lived within a reasonable driving distance of the city center in Aix, and the city center, just like the country side, took my breath away. There were endless streets in the marketplace with incredible architecture and I felt like every 5 seconds I was stopping to take pictures. And having our friends to help us navigate around town saved us so much time and hassle. I felt like we made a great use of time seeing the best sights and did not get lost one time, which definitely would have happened if my wife and I were left on our own. Admittedly, I have fallen in love with Aix-en-Provence. The city center goes beyond what I expected a bustling vintage European city to be like, and the rolling hills and lush green mountain sides, well, words on paper (or a web site) just do not do it justice!




From Aix our friends took us on a weekend trip to Avignon which, surprise surprise, left me speechless. The city center in Avignon felt a hair “more modern” than Aix, but the sunsets from this city were without question some of the best I have ever seen in my life. As if the sights were not enough, our friends also took us through a wine festival (a common occurrence I’m assuming that happens in France, which by the way needs to happen a lot more in Chicago), out to dinner for brick oven pizza that (and hopefully I don’t lose my Chicago card for this) puts deep dish pizza  to shame! And the highlight event during our visit to Avignon was a 3-d light show in the Palace of the Popes. Although the narration was in French and our friends did their best to translate for us, the views and images on the inside of the castle walls left my mouth agape for the entire show. It was without question the best visual eye candy I have ever seen and if you are anywhere near Avignon I highly recommend seeing the show.



And of course any trip to the south of France would not be complete without a stop in Marseille. Our friends pointed out that Marseille has an interesting reputation among French cities. Based on its location, Marseille is an immigration hub for the Middle East and North Africa for immigrants making their way into Europe. With that as a background, this city has seen its problems with trafficking, drugs and gang activity skyrocket within the last few years. So when our friends shared with their colleagues that they would be taking their American friends to Marseille, our friends were cautioned, “You must be careful, it is like Chicago down there.” To which our friends replied, “No, it’s ok, our friends are from Chicago!” To which our friends’ colleagues looked on horrified, wondering why they would make friends with American mobsters J!


All puns aside Marseille is a very interesting city. I think gritty is the best term to describe the city center. The center moves at a pace similar to New York with the external feel of Harlem. On any given block there are Islamic women dressed traditionally pushing  baby carriages, seedy looking characters walking from flat to flat and businessmen on scooters honking and speeding through like bats out of hell. Yet at the same time the architecture was stunning on every block. The Mediterranean influence was so much more present than I expected and really added to the flavor of the area. And once we were out of the city center and close to the Mediterranean Sea it felt as if the entire world had opened up. The streets were just a bit larger and the city center grittiness felt like it was replaced with a beach front metropolis, almost a healthy mix between San Diego and downtown Chicago. There we were greeted with even more stunning views that I’m more than positive made me look like a tourist every step of the way.



By the end of our French travels it was very hard for me to move onto the next and final portion of our vacation. I would like to point out that even beyond the food, the rich history and the picturesque settings, I really enjoyed France because of the company that we were with. I feel like friends that my wife and I both click with, let alone a “couple” set of friends, are very rare to come by no matter the continent. So I truly cherished every second we got to spend with our French friends. From the late night conversations, to the impromptu picnic to walking the street markets in Avignon, to seeing their hometown to the delectable breakfasts and dinners that our hosts prepared for us I genuinely enjoyed every second of it. Words alone cannot describe how humble and happy I am to have friends like these in our lives. And even though we live continents apart, I am positive that we will stay close and will see each other again soon.


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