Thursday, April 7, 2011

Catching Up

The past few weeks have been quite chaotic, but I've been all in a frenzy about good things. I was offered an Iscol Internship for a Sustainable Future with the Environmental Defense Fund for the summer and I accepted! So come the end of May, I'll finish up with finals here, go home for a few days and then I'll be off to DC for the summer. Also contributing to the mass chaos of these past few weeks has been planning for spring break, which for me, starts today! I'll be leaving in a few hours for the airport to fly to my first destination: Barcelona. I'm fortunate to have two weeks off for spring break and a good friend from my program to travel with. As much as I love Paris, I am so excited to venture south to the sun-kissed villages of the Mediterranean basin and embrace a slower pace of life for a couple weeks. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures and update on my adventures when I return.

An overview of my itinerary - 
April 7-10: Barcelona
April 10-12: Madrid
April 12-14: Marseille, Aix-en-Provence
April 14-16: Cannes
April 16-18: Nice, Monaco
April 18-22: Florence, possibly visiting Cinque Terre
April 22: Return to Paris!

In the midst of all of this planning, I spent the past two weekends traveling in France with my program. Two weekends ago we went to the Loire Valley, and last Saturday we ventured to the Champagne region. First on Loire:
Chateau de Chambord

The Loire Valley is renowned for its wines, the purity of the French language spoken there, its historic towns and its countryside spotted by regal chateaus.  We visited four of these 15th and 16th century castles, once a home for France’s royalty and upper class. Our first stop was the Château de Chambord.  Chambord, also known for its famous liqueur, boasts the Loire Valley’s largest chateau, once a hunting lodge for king Francois I. The castle was enormous, and surrounded by acres (hectares?) of manicured lawns. Just to give you an idea of the size, there are supposedly 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces – you could light a different one every day of the year. Its outward appearance was much like a medieval fortification. The ornate turreted roof, larger windows and new architectural designs within the outer walls, demonstrated its construction during the Renaissance. The French Renaissance occurred after the Italian Renaissance and was thus very influenced by it. The Italians had much marble at their disposal and many Italian Renaissance buildings were constructed from the easily recognizable black and white stone. As there’s little marble to be found in France, the French mimicked the Italians by using chalk and slate (as on the chateaux roofs), to appear like marble. Another influence of the Italians was the architectural mastery of Leonardo da Vinci. At the Château de Chambord we saw a double helical spiral staircase, which was inspired his designs.
Another view of the chateau in Chambord
Our next stop, and my favorite, was the Château de Chenonceau. The Chenonceau castle grounds were covered in forest and ornamented by a labyrinth made from sculpted hedges, a farm and beautiful gardens. This château was surrounded by a moat and built over a river.  You could even go into the château kitchen, built in a leg of the bridge. The views of the river throughout the castle were beautiful, especially from the window-lined gallery spanning the river’s width.  Inside the château, the décor had a distinctly feminine touch, reflective of the many queens who took residence there including Catherine de Medici. After touring the château, we played in the hedge maze, patted some donkeys on the farm and headed to Tours, where we spent the night. This Medieval city was bustling, presumably with students from the local university. The city streets were narrow and winding, lined with tilting, Tudor-style buildings, and opening up onto café crowded squares.
Chateau de Chenonceau
The next day we visited the Château of Azay-le-Rideau. This château looked like it was straight out of a fairytale, especially with the castle's perfect reflection shimmering in the adjacent pond. We strolled through the Renaissance decorated rooms, and many of my classmates expressed their common desire to one-day call this modest, enchanting castle, home. We toured the town of Azay-le-Rideau, which could easily be covered in 5 minutes. Our teacher kept remarking that there was only one boulangerie in this town, which apparently is the easiest way for a French person to understand the scale of a city, given that in Paris there is at least one boulangerie on every city block (I probably pass 15 on my walk home from class). 

Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau
From there, we went to the Château de Villandry, which prides itself on its gardens, claimed to be some of the most beautiful in the world. The château itself was quite beautiful and regal, but the beauty of the interior was nothing compared to the expansive French gardens surrounding the castle. Behind the castle was a garden of meticulously sculpted hedges, next to which was an enormous vegetable garden. Other gardens jutted off of these ones, each with a different theme and style and each as grand and special as the last. I can only imagine how magnificent the gardens are in the peak of summer, with all of the flowers in bloom. 

Love Garden (there were heart shaped hedges) at the Chateau de Villandry
The following Saturday, we went to the Champagne region for the day. We started out the day in Reims. In Reims, there is a beautiful cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims, which has Chagall windows. We had lunch in the cute town center and then boarded the bus and went to see the monastery where Dom Perignon is burried. Our final stop was in Epernay at the Mercier caves. We took a tour of the underground champagne caves and ended our visit with a tasting of their brut champagne.

It's been a great couple weeks and I'm so excited for those to come. Hasta luego - I'm off to Spain!

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