5.4: France: Partie Quatre.
I Wish I Knew How To Quit You.
Perhaps Margot had blurted out “Bordeaux” because she was tired of hearing me say I had no idea where I was going to go next, or maybe she was just demanding another bottle if I was going to insist on blathering on. Either way, the advice of friends and strangers would determine my final five stops in a country I just couldn’t seem to leave: Bordeaux, Biarritz, Arles, Marseille, and Nice.
I will try to be brief.
I will, of course, fail.
It’s safe to say that Bordeaux didn’t exactly start off as smoothly as I would have liked. A last minute cancellation by my AirBnB host (Je suis innocent!) would find me just minutes away from bedding down in the Saint Jean train station for the night. A policy conference had hotels filled for twenty-four kilometers, and there were no rooms at nearby hostels. The only available AirBnB room was $250 for the night – many, many times my budget – and besides, it was almost 10PM and the hosts had yet to reply. Add to that, I was just about exhausted enough to be perfectly fine sleeping in a goddamn train station.
I’d already slept outside one night (allegedly, Mom, allegedly), so indoors would at least be a step up from there. Besides, there appeared to be other travelers like me doing the same – though if I’m being honest, it was getting harder to differentiate through-hiker homeless from the more permanent ones. Maybe that’s how it all begins…
As luck would have it, however, I would hear from my last-chance hosts just as I was about to disconnect from wifi – Olivia and Daniel had an available room for me aboard The Tango Barge.
That’s right, a barge.
I was just happy I’d have a pillow for the night, even if that pillow cost me $250 and ended up being a burlap sack of sugar beets destined for some downriver molasses town.
But The Tango Barge would be no work boat, at least not in the traditional sense, and my initially sketchy walk to her berth along the Garonne River would take me across the historic, dreamlike, and aptly named, Pont de Pierre. Just a little more kismet, I suppose.
My wonderful and sweet host Olivia would provide a delicious breakfast to start my day, one which I would share on deck with a well-traveled couple from Wales. They were just finishing a tour of southern France, and were more than happy to suggest an itinerary for a backpacker on a budget.
Based on the current lack of affordable accommodations, I’d already decided it was best to leave Bordeaux behind. My new friends suggested Biarritz – not normally considered budget-friendly, but it was shoulder season – and once Margot messaged me, “You know Hemingway loved Biarritz,” the deal was pretty much sealed.
I would spend the next few hours taking in what I could of Bordeaux, its sights, its Old Town, and with help from Yasmine, a university-aged transplant from Spain, whose dream is to travel the world someday, I would be on a train less than 24 hours after I’d arrived. Even with such a short visit, I feel like I got Bordeaux. I would certainly come back, but with a bigger budget, on a proper vacation, with a visit to the vineyards on the list. Maybe even a room for two, whether it be in a Bed-and-Breakfast, or perhaps aboard a beautiful barge on the Garonne River.
I think Biarritz can best be summed up by saying, simply, that I had absolutely no business being there – certainly not on a backpacker’s budget – but I’m damn glad I went.
The good news is I was there in the shoulder season, in a studio AirBnB I’d found for 75 euro per night, which figures to about $87 USD. For some context, the daily cost for traveling reasonably comfortably in France is about $222 per person, per day, this according to an entirely unscientific website into which people are trusted to enter all of their expenses accurately. But I’d already been in France longer than I’d planned, and the average for my entire trip, for 352 days, if I wanted to stay in budget, is closer to $96 per day, including lodging, food, drinks, transportation and more. Keep in mind that includes some stunningly inexpensive future stays in a few African countries, Asia, and South America.
But this wasn’t just any studio. This was located in The Victoria Surf, 21 TER Avenue Edouard VII, apartment 405. Literally on Le Grand Plage, The Big Beach. My neighbors were the rich and famous guests of the Grand Palais hotel, built by Napoleon III for his wife, Eugénie de Montijo. The Grand Palais is the kind of place where when a guy like me asks if the bar is open to the public, the guard standing at the gated entrance of the secured grounds just stares, and then, realizing I am being serious, shakes his head with a look of such disdain that I feel as though I should go home, shave, shower, run a comb through my hair, maybe put on that clean shirt I’ve been saving for a special occasion.
But maybe more than The Grand Palais and Le Grand Plage, there is another reason this gorgeous beach is known the world over: the surf itself. Biarritz holds the honor of having the best surf in France, and is one of those places where surfing is raised to a level of literal religious reverence. For proof I had to look no further than the Kelly Slater signed board inside the Church of St. Eugenie. And once you see one board, you can’t help but see them all – on patios and porches, in cars, on bikes, and in hand. It became ho hum to see a wet and barefooted surfer walking among town shoppers and diners, four streets from the beach.
For the curious, Biarritz was also the first place I’d been to where I experienced a true language barrier, as there were fewer people here who spoke any English. Ordering dinner required a lot of pantomiming, smiles, frowns, points, shrugs, and hope, but then Spaghetti is the same in any language, and red wine has its way of taking care of anything that might not agree with one’s palate. Luckily, I didn’t need the wine, as the meal was fantastic – but in the event something didn’t agree with me later, I made sure to finish the wine. It was the responsible thing to do, after all.
I would do little more in Biarritz than swim, walk the beach, sit in the sun, eat, enjoy a beer here, some wine there. There was a Latin festival taking place in town, so at night I enjoyed live music just a few doors down from my studio. It was the first time I felt like I was on an actual vacation, sitting on a beach over a couple of gorgeous days with no agenda. Anyone who has traveled with me knows that’s generally not my M.O., and as enjoyable and relaxing as it was – and I promise I gave it its full and deserved due – it also meant that it would soon be time for me to move along.
Why? That was a question more than a few friends asked about Arles. Well, in addition to it being a reasonably affordable destination – and highly recommended by my Tango Barge friends – it also happens to be where Vincent Van Gogh painted several of his masterpieces. And unlike Aberdeen and Bordeaux, it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d made the right choice – though getting there was more than a little challenging.
After a Eurail Pass glitch (Je suis innocent!), a late train, a delayed train, a related missed connection (and help from some wonderful train amis who acted not only as interpreters, but also as my personal rooting section), I would finally arrive in Arles, about an hour later than scheduled. But in my short walk through the Old Town to my flat, I already knew it had been worth the wait.
My host Valérie had left her nearby dinner to greet me and hand me the keys. And two minutes after dropping my backpack, I was standing in Place du Forum, where Vincent Van Gogh painted Café at Night.
The reviews of what today is a bit of a tourist trap café are hilariously terrible (and worth googling), but the square – and the very spot in which I stood – has lost none of its charm.
I would also find and stand in the spots where Van Gogh painted The Yellow House (and within, Bedroom in Arles), Starry Night Over The Rhone, Garden of the Hospital in Arles, The Trinquetaille Bridge, Les Alyscamps, Entrance To The Public Gardens In Arles, and several more.
Call it what you will – as every day we all walk in the steps of those who came before us – but to be able to stand in the exact spot where a masterpiece was painted, contemplate the image of people walking past the artist, easel and canvas, oblivious to the history that was being made – is something that for me falls pretty high on what I might call, for lack of a better term, my own personal Geekmeter.
Arles also had a surprising Roman history to it, something I didn’t expect, with a theater and a coliseum in which plays, concerts and bullfights still occur. Every walk was awe-inspiring, quaint, beautiful, laid back, lively, and utterly hypnotic.
I spent an extra night in Arles because it was simple and easy and it took it’s time. When your day’s activities revolve around taking a casual stroll to find a spot where a masterpiece was painted, sitting down, and just soaking in the moment, you’re doing something right. At least I am. The extra night would pay off in another, unexpected way, however…
On the way back to my flat on my last night, I decided to pass through Place du Forum one last time. Not the only picturesque square in town, but one of the prettiest, and certainly most famous.
It was there that I would pass by the inconspicuous Bar Tambourin. Something about its warm lighting from within made me stop and turn back.
I walked inside and up to the bar to order an espresso, only to find, among the handful of locals and tourists occupying the tables, walls filled with bullfighting posters, photos, and a full-sized bull mount.
The posters were traditional advertisements for various past fights. The pictures, I soon noticed, seemed to be of one particular bullfighter who went by the name of El Lobo.
By the time the proprietor came to take my order, I was curious enough to ask who was El Lobo.
“He…from Arles,” he said in broken English, waving his left hand toward the square, almost dismissively, before walking away to tend to other customers.
As I drank my espresso and looked closer, however, I began to piece more of the little clues together. On the nameplate of the mount, next to El Lobo, were the initials C.L. On another poster, the full names of the fighters were listed, including one named Charlie Laloe.
Above the bar, a larger framed photo of El Lobo, a handsome young bullfighter with a full head of hair, was dated July 4th, 1999. That’s when I noticed the nose. The ears. The cheekbones. Twenty-two years had softened some features, but the resemblance was hard to dispute. When he returned behind the bar once more, I stopped him.
“Pardon me, but, are you Charlie Laloe?” I asked.
He looked at me a moment, then around the café as if to see if anyone was eavesdropping. Then he patted the crown of his head, where the full head of hair of that twenty-something-year-old in the photo was now a receding hairline, as if to apologize for time itself. Then he smiled, and nodded yes, before walking off once again.
Charlie Laloe is clearly not too humble of a man. After all, his entire café is an homage to his younger self, but on this night, a Monday, possibly after a long weekend of playing to the part, he seemed to want some anonymity, and I was happy to oblige. I didn’t say anything more. I didn’t ask for a photo.
Upon leaving the café, I found Charlie standing outside, stealing a cigarette, while keeping a close eye on the tables inside. I nodded, thanked him for the espresso, and told him it was an honor to have met him.
Then I walked through Place du Forum one last time, away from the Van Gogh Café, away from Bar Tambourin and its famous proprietor, the bullfighter Charlie Laloe – El Lobo – and back to 9 Rue Barremes, for a final, restful night’s sleep in what had become one of my favorite towns.
Marseille In Two Pictures.
And people say I can’t be brief.
I would spend under 48 hours in Marseille, a city of utter, nonstop contradiction, one that Julia, from Florence, one of my bunkmates at the Vertigo Hostel, said was the European city that most reminded her of L.A.
Take that as you will.
“Do you prefer sandy beaches or rocky ones?
This was a question my Croatian friend Jelena had asked me the day we walked Omaha Beach in Normandy, my first stop in France. Omaha Beach is sandy, and with the images of Rhode Island’s rocky beaches in my head, there seemed to be only one possible answer.
The evening I arrived in Nice I walked straight to the beach, and almost immediately her question took on an entirely new meaning. These weren’t rocks like at home. These are miles upon miles of small, soft-edged, warm, almost, well, wait, can rocks be comfortable? Because goddammit, they are in Nice.
Jelena, I would like to change my answer.
Nice itself seems to take the best parts of the Biarritz waterfront, the best of the Old Town of Arles, the cafés of Paris, the bars of Portsmouth, and blends them all together and into the most wonderfully complete single location through which I’d passed to date.
On that first evening I sat on the beach in the glorious sun, as tourists and locals alike settled in at day’s end. One woman arrived after me, and sat down nearby. She was African, in a beautiful traditional dress of a country I couldn’t possibly identify. Her hair had been recently done. She was absolutely glowing. She kept looking from the ocean to the beach, over her shoulder at the boardwalk and restaurants behind, up at the blue skies, and the people all around, and then she would exhale, laugh, clap her hands and cover her face in what was clearly disbelief and utter joy about where she was at that very moment. I couldn’t have agreed more.
I would spend three nights in Nice. I would swim. Lie on the rocky beach. Have a cappuccino in the courtyard of the hotel where James Joyce started Finnegans Wake. I walked for miles along the shoreline, through the Old Town, again and again, through Castle Hill, its tower and park, through the stunning old cemeteries, the Old Port, and more.
I would meet Franzy, from Dusseldorf, a young woman living here on a study abroad program. She seemed to be making a career of that, having studied in California, Paris, the UK and now Nice. I would meet Josh, a young and very drunk investment banker here on holiday from London, who insisted on buying me a beer – which turned into a beer and a shot of Jaegermeister – on the patio of the famous Wayne’s Bar, which turned from a live music venue featuring a Beatles cover band, into a jam-packed College Covid Nightclub, seemingly within minutes.
I would take a bus to Monaco, though in hindsight I would have been better served going to the Matisse Museum in town. I’m happy to have seen it, the Prince’s Palace, the Monte Carlo Casino, and more, but those are most decidedly not my people, and I suspect they were as happy to see me get on a bus out of town, as I was to get on said bus.
As beautiful as Nice was – and is – I’d seen and done what I needed to there. Sitting in a café along the beach after a swim is blissful and wonderful and glorious, but it’s not what this trip is about, nor is it me, really.
My time in Nice, my time in France, I’d decided, had finally come to an end.
As I walked to the train station on my last morning, I felt content and confident in my decision to finally leave France. I’d done more than I came to do, and would take a lifetime’s worth of memories with me. But I also knew it was time, in part, because in addition to all of that wonderful stuff, Nice is also where I met Pascal.
Pascal was the only person I’d met in the past several weeks who fit the well-worn, clichéd description of a French connard. Pascal was my only experience with the supposed legion of French who react to Americans with disdain. Pascal didn’t like Americans, certainly. But Pascal also didn’t like anyone who wasn’t fluent in French. Pascal also, as you can probably guess, didn’t like me. Nor I, him. He was simply a miserable, unlikeable human, the details of how and why not of great importance here. Why Pascal was staying in a multi-person, international dorm room, in the Open House hostel, was the real question.
I’d run across Pascal on my first day in Nice, so his direct impact on me was minimal, but our interactions had lingered in the back of my mind, and their swirling negativity made me feel like a person who was on the verge of having stayed at the party just a little too long. Thirty years ago I most certainly would have stayed at that party. Age, however, has been kind enough to grant me just the slightest touch of wisdom.
But as I walked to the station, Pascal had gotten back into my head, and the idea that I would leave France giving Pascal Le Connard even a moment’s more thought was distracting and disappointing me. Goddammit, Pascal is not the person by whom I want to remember France, I thought as I walked along.
But then, as I approached the station, I saw a young woman walking toward me. As we got closer to one another, she veered off to my left, toward a building facade, where I then noticed one of the many homeless I’d seen along my travels. The man was wrapped in blankets, a hoodie pulled down over his eyes. The young woman stood above him a moment, speaking softly. He didn’t reply. Curious, and maybe a little concerned for her, I stopped to watch. She then crouched, and gently shook him awake. When he opened his bleary and glassy eyes, she said something I couldn’t hear, then handed him a coffee and the bakery bag she’d held in her hands. Then she stood and walked away, back in the direction from which she’d come, back now, toward me.
I’d stopped at the crosswalk, delaying long enough before crossing to turn and tell her how kind I found her gesture. I’m not sure she if she understood my words, but she understood their meaning. She smiled, and walked on.
And just like that, the French, and France itself, were saved.