Euro Top Ten: #9 – Carcassonne

#9 – Carcassonne

My name is Sally, and I am a giant nerd.

I’ve been this way my whole life, but this trip to Europe really cemented the title.  When Katie and I first started planning our trek through France (before we even knew who else was coming) one of us had the brilliant idea to go to Carcassonne.  We love the board game of the same name – it’s one of the best two-player games ever.  In it, you build walled cities, claim roads, farm fields, and complete cloisters.  You know, typical activities of the French countryside.

Because this isn’t some made-up place (ahemahemCatanahemahem) – it’s an honest to god city in France, and we planned basically our entire lives trip around going there.

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It was everything we dreamed it would be and more. The walled city itself was incredibly beautiful – cobblestones, winding paths where you have no choice but to get hopelessly lost. Abandoned fountains in courtyards, chip shops run out of literal holes in the wall, a beautiful cathedral.  Everywhere we turned we saw sunshine slanting between towers and over the stone walls.

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The main castle at Carcassonne – Château Comtal – was built in the 12th century.  Over the years, this French city actually served as the border with Spain (which is crazy, if you see if on a map today). The city had a turbulent history which mostly involved many phases of people taking over the walled city, driving out all the old inhabitants. and gradually developing suburbs (from which they tried to lure people back into the city to actually fill it).

The castle was restored in 1853, back when preservation/restoration was still a relatively new idea.  It was a challenge to find a single period to restore the castle to, so they went with a bit of a mish-mash and the result is fascinating.  Horseshoe shaped towers stand next to ramparts that are separated by hundreds of years. My favorite parts were the views from the top of the hill (way to pick a prime castle location, builders of yore!) and the simple, practical design of the entire place – like the carefully crafted yard by the drawbridge that was designed to give archers easy aim at anyone who snuck in.  Imagine shooting fish in a barrel and you’ll know how likely it was that the people on the ground weren’t going to make it to see the inner courtyards.

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Our day in Carcassonne was nothing short of spectacular.  It was a reminder of the value of the past – and the joy of the present, which lets NH nerds visit the land from their board game dreams.
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Tips for visiting Carcassonne:

  • You don’t need to stay overnight – we took a train in the morning from Toulouse
  • Spend some time winding you way up to the castle – the bridges leading there are gorgeous (but you can skip the museum in the city center)
  • Take the audio tour – it gives you some seriously amazing history
  • Splurge on some fun souvenirs – where else are you going to get a Carcassonne shot glass or tea towel? NOWHERE.
  • Generally, follow your weirdest, nerdiest dreams and you’re bound to find some pretty great adventures in the real world along the way.

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The #9 is brought to you from a playground in a schoolyard in Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

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Euro Top Ten : #6 – A weekend in Paris

#6 – A weekend in Paris

There’s nothing quite like meeting Paris for the first time.  Or being there when your friends do, which was the case for half our party on this recent adventure.  Yes, it’s touristy and such.  But it’s also beautiful and truly romantic and steeped in so much history that you can hardly breathe.

Shakespeare and Company - a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

Shakespeare and Company – a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

My favorite moments in Paris this time around were the moments, not the big scenes.  We didn’t go into the Louvre or Notre Dame (though I kind of regret it).  Instead, we walked down small streets and into old courtyards.  We hunted down the best chocolate shops.  Katie and I arrived and immediately ate one of the best three-course meals of my life, from the salad to the boeuf bourguignon to the crème brûlée (parfait!).  We walked by the Seine, even getting to a place where we saw more than a few rats and realized we should probably turn back…. but couldn’t find a staircase to exit the embankment. (Don’t worry mom, there were a few other people around!)  We picked “our cafe” and ate breakfast there multiple days.  We navigated ourselves around our neighborhood based on our proximity to an iPhone 6 sign posted on the side of the police headquarters.

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Our breakfast spot (we managed to avoid Paul, since they have that here in the US!)

My friends did indulge my touristy side a bit by agreeing to go on the Sandeman New Paris walking tour with me – I love this company and have been on their tours in Berlin and Amsterdam too.  I think it’s a great way to see a small slice of the city within a set structure – no one needs to worry about watching the time or holding the map (though we did get totally separated at the end and almost have to just go home without each other…).

Kate at the Louvre - please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

Kate at the Louvre – please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

It took us all over the city, to the monuments and bridges and parks.  We learned about the kings and queens and the French government’s attempt to keep their culture intact through actions like trying to come up with a French alternative to “selfie” (good luck!).  We also visited the Pont des Arts, which was made famous by Carrie and Big’s kiss in the final scene of Sex and the City and which has essentially been destroyed by tourists since then.  The idea is to add a lock to the bridge to symbolize your eternal love for your sweetheart and throw the key in the river (dozens of vendors sell locks nearby in case you didn’t plan ahead) – but our guide pointed out all the combination locks, which he said were from coy French lovers who make promises to women, then come back and collect their lock again the next day to re-use it on their next date.

Locks on the Pont des Arts

Locks on the Pont des Arts

It was a whirlwind trip – I think I could stay in Paris for at least six months and not get tired of it, even though our Airbnb was the size of a small camper.  The bubbling fountains and historic buildings – the late dinners and uneven streets – the artists and bookshops and museums galore – and these friends by my side, at sunset at the Eiffel Tower.

Best friends in Paris!

Sunset at the Eiffel Tower

What’s your favorite part of Paris?  I’ve still never been to Sacre Coeur and could spend an entire week in the Musee d’Orsay, which I’ll aim to do on my next trip back!

Katie and I also took a detour to Versailles – read about it here!

The #6 is brought to you from the street of our Airbnb in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

My day at Versailles

Last Saturday, Katie and I took a day trip from Paris to Versailles, home of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and you know, the entire French royal family while it existed). It was beautiful – you could picture her receiving (or rebuffing) people in those rooms, strolling through the hall of mirrors, dealing with the extreme dressing ceremonies each day. But the state rooms overall were exceptionally crowded. We preferred the gardens, where we watched dancing foundations along with ancient statues. Parfait!

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The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

This was my favorite part of Versailles, by far – the fountain at the end of the Grand Canal.

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My overall thoughts on Versailles:

  • If you do the palace tour, make sure to get the audio guide, but reconsider doing it at all and head straight to the gardens where you can actually enjoy your visit.
  • Leave time for the many parts of the estate, which are very spread out but all amazing (like the Petit Trainon and the hamlet).  And note that the tram will get you there without walking but it – and the line to get tickets – is excessively slow.
  • Eat before you go or at one of the tourist shops on the way back to the train station – not a lot of good options at the palace.

Overall, it was an easy day trip from Paris and a beautiful, historic setting – I just wish we could have had it to ourselves!

The state of things in France

Internet connections: lacking.

Baguette consumption: never been higher.

Wine drinking: see above.

Castle satisfaction: through the roof.

In short, we’re having such a good time out and about in France that I haven’t had a chance to update this blog in a bit – and the posts I’ve tried to write on the go haven’t come through.  Blame the lack of French internet infrastructure… Sara (who is going to cooking school here) told us that it was bad but it’s even worse than expected.  I’d almost prefer the sweet, old-school sound of dial-up some days when it comes to trying to check my email.

Still, we haven’t let that rain on our parade, only our posting frequency.  We have been zipping all through France.  First, three nights in Paris, then two in Montpellier, then here in Toulouse.  Along the way we’ve dealt with train delays, menu indecision, and weather that changes from street to street – it’s exactly the travel adventure I imagined.

More about the individual aspects later – we just finished a home cooked dinner made by our chef in training (salad and french onion soup!), now, onward to see what this city has to offer for nightlife!