On leaving Villard du Lans we started on a road that was literally carved into the side of a cliff, with massive rock overhangs above the car and steep cliffs dropping off to a running river below. Many little rock tunnels and a thick green forest below. I’ll attach a photo to this email. Words don’t do it justice.
We made our way to interesting place numero uno - Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe, a great little cathedral (if there can be such a thing) on the top of a very tall, very steep hill in the center of Le Puy. Le Puy. Really? Le Puy? Seems like a strange name for a town to me. Say it. Leee Puuuuy. Along the road to Le Puy we must have passed through 20 different little French hillside villages, each one more picturesque than the last.
Legend has it that someone, 1050 years ago, had no idea what to do with this enormous volcanic formation, 300 feet tall, that was sitting in the center of Le Puy. Someone else suggested that it was a perfect spot to build a cathedral to celebrate the return from the pilgrimage of Saint James (Thanks Wikipedia).
At that point I’m pretty sure that Someone Number 2 had Someone Else carry large stone blocks up the 268 steps that had been carved into the side of this 'perfect place for a cathedral,' and they successfully constructed an awesome little cathedral atop a massive rock, overlooking most of Le Puy.
The climb up the hill might be rough, but every time I stopped to catch my breath there was another great view and photo opp. So I was able to avoid humiliation by pretending to take photos. Works everytime.
After a brief overnight stay in a town named Aurillac, with another 20 picturesque villages before, and 20 more after, we made it to Rocamadour. Wow. A Castle, a Cathedral and a Town, scaling their way up a vertical cliff. In a deep valley. It looks highly defensible. I get it.
We spent the better part of the day walking up from the valley to the cathedral, and by the time we were done I was glad we started at the bottom, because there is no way I would have had enough energy to make it from the bottom up once we were done. It was fantastic, and even though it seems like Disney has gotten its hands on the little town, it is still worth a visit.
From Rocamadour we drove through another 20 picturesque French villages to the Dordogne region and spent a night in Sarlat, which sounds a little villainous, doesn’t it? Sarlat is the ultimate French Village, with the stone buildings and winding narrow streets, a church and a square every 2 blocks and a ‘regionally themed’ store, restaurant or service everywhere you look. It was nice for an evening, but there didn’t seem to be very many French people there, so we continued on the next morning.
To Castelnaud! A real, legit Castle, with armor, and swords, and catapults, and trebuchets. Tight spiral stairways made of stone, poorly lit with no handrails, and with videos on ‘how to storm a castle’ and ‘why peasants fear swords.’ It was pretty great. They had dioramas on how the castle was under siege from Simon de Montfort and taken from Bernard de Casnac, who then took it back and hanged everyone. Apparently it was a pretty busy place until the mid-1700’s, then it was used as a place to store rocks until the mid-1960’s, when owning a castle became cool again.
We had been driving a lot and had become so overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of quaint villages and amazing castles that we were actually relieved when we got to the apartment in the modern/noisy/dirty port city of Bayonne, which was not, in fact, named after the city in New Jersey near the Statue of Liberty. But I still felt a connection.
The apartment was on a river used as a shipping lane, and beside a highway, with nothing in walking distance, but we liked it. Bayonne is an interesting little city with a lot of French people doing their thing. I don’t think Disney has gotten involved there yet. With Bayonne as a base we spent a couple of days exploring nearby Biarritz, Capbreton and Hossegor.
Biarritz is swank. Fancy fancy. It has the forts and castles and cathedrals and all the other good stuff, as well as a Palace that Napoleon built for his wife Eugenia, which is currently the Hotel du Palais. No, we didn’t stay there. In fact, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have let me in.
Capbreton is where the Basques go to get tires, appliances and fast food, and Hossegor is where backpackers go because everywhere else is too expensive. It’s also a the base of the Landes forest, which is spectacular in and of itself. But the one thing all 3 places have in common is surf. Good surf. Nice beaches and a lot of surfers. We had a great time here for a few days and then the surf flattened out. No swell.
One of our friends from Mexico, an avid surfer, was coming to meet up with us and catch some waves, but we all got skunked. Luckily we were just over an hour away from Pamplona and it was the week of the San Fermín festival, or Running of the Bulls. Initially the 3 of us intended to go for one night, watch the Running and then continue on to Bilbao. But I’m well aware of my ‘poor impulse control,’ and I knew that I would choose to jump in to the fray. I did some research, ran some numbers and concluded that my chances of survival were pretty good.
Once I announced to Laura and Simon that I was going to do it they said they would too. Simon is in much better shape than I am, and is a much better surfer, and he actually runs. On the beach. I wasn’t too concerned about him. Laura, also a better surfer, and a runner. Also in better shape. But quite little, not terribly aggressive, and indisputably my better half… I was concerned. I asked her very clearly not to do the Running. Several times. But I received the ageless and effective reply of ‘you’re not the boss of me’ and ‘if you do it, I do it.’
So there we were, the three of us. Outfitted in the white shirt and pants, red scarves tied around the neck and red sash around the waist. Looking good. As first time runners, never having seen the run before, we were total newbs, and the plan was to get up front, start at the head of the pack, get into the bullring with the first group and quickly jump into the stands, before the bulls even made it to the ring. Safety first.
This time I was smart enough to keep my big mouth shut regarding my plans and not plant more ideas into Laura’s beautiful, but obstinate head. Knowing that Laura and Simon were as safe as they could possibly be in this situation, I wanted to hold back a bit and try to actually run with the bulls, maybe even reach out and touch one as we were running.
When we reached the final waiting spot, and the police let the runners start to run I waved Laura and Simon on and yelled that I would find them in the ring, and then ducked into a doorway to wait for the bulls. I never actually saw the bulls, but the flood of runners got faster and faster and the eyes got bigger and bigger, eventually reaching a point I would describe as ‘full frantic.’ My flight instincts kicked in and I began fleeing in earnest.
As we reached the entrance to the tunnel to the bullring I looked back a few times and still didn’t see the bulls, just eyeballs and elbows as the other runners sprinted with me. I knew this was the choke point, where bad things happen, but I was pretty sure I could make it to the ring before the bulls did, so I put the hammer down and give it all I had to get there fast.
At the end of the tunnel, at the entrance to the bullring there was a wall of people, and I recall one man pointing at me and yelling in Spanish, like he was telling me to turn around and go away. I was having none of it. “Screw that guy, I’m heading for the ring!” Actually he was trying to warn me that the bulls were right behind me.
And there I was, pinned against that guy and many others, by a bull. A mildly upset bull that wasn’t terribly happy about the mountain of people in front of him, the other pushy bulls beside him, and that one jerk of a bull that kept trying to get a piggyback ride, or climb over him.
I was there for about 2 minutes, pinned so hard that I was able to lift my feet up so the bull’s searching hoofs didn’t step on them. I had enough time to realize I should be grateful we were all pinned so tight, because the bulls didn’t have enough room to actually do anything. And also to realize that once they did get some room it was going to get ugly fast.
There were people in the stands reaching over and lifting people out, and the people in the pack were helping push, and eventually someone reached down and grabbed my hand, and others helped push. Because we were so tight I couldn’t bend my legs to help, and had to literally be dragged up and over the wall.
Around the same time, a matador gate was opened so the bulls could get out of the crowd, and the mountain got small enough that 2 bulls were able to jump over the people. I made it to the stands, on the left side where we agreed to meet, and immediately found Simon and Laura tucked away in a setback below the seating. Simon had gotten out of the pile up early on and had been helping people get out, but Laura had been buried at the bottom the entire time and was pretty beat up.
I felt, and still feel, terrible that I wasn’t there to help and protect Laura. Logically I know that there is nothing I could have done, in fact I might have made it worse. But I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
We survived the Running of the Bulls. Obviously. A little beat up, but mobile. And we were on a schedule, we needed to see the Mundaka surf break and make it to Bilbao for a little Guggenheim cultural action. Which we did, but to be honest we were all a little shell shocked from our experience that morning, so neither spot made a huge impression on us.
Remember Laura’s buddies that we were going to see in Vienna, but changed to Lisbon? Scratch Lisbon, now its Cadiz. We took our time and drove down to Cadiz, stopping at Burgos and Salamanca on the way. France might win in terms of sheer quantity of quaint villages, but Spain makes up for it in incredibly well maintained old towns. We saw 2000 year old Roman ruins in Merida and phenomenal cathedrals in Salamanca, and some very authentic drunks passed out in the shade in Burgos.
Then we made it to Cadiz, founded by Hercules and the oldest standing city in Europe. We found it pretty underwhelming. It was nice. Cool little streets, some great tapas, many genuine Spaniards, but not terribly interesting or inspiring. We had a good time with Jamie and Lindsey, went to the beach once, talked about driving to Gibraltar to see the Barbary Apes, and then went to Madrid where Laura had an appointment to check out IE Business School.
Madrid is a great city, I’ll say it again. We really like it, but we had a rental car for another week and it needed to be returned in France, so we decided to go back to Biarritz and maybe get some surfing in.
Skunked again. Surf report- Flaaaaaat. So Biarritz was very relaxing.
Simon had taken off for London and Amsterdam, and Laura’s near death experience had opened her eyes to the wonders of collegiate testing, so we booked apartments in Paris for 2 weeks, which will culminate in her taking the GMAT test, our wedding anniversary the next day, and our departure from Paris the day after that.
We got to Paris two days ago, spent two hours finding the apartment and another two hours finding a gas station and returning the rental car. Adios Picasso!
Note- If I had to choose between Running the Bulls and driving in Paris I would need to really think about the pros and cons of each. Driving in Paris might not be quite as dangerous, but it is infinitely more frustrating.
We are in a great old apartment on a private cobblestone alley, with roughhewn wood beams, a strong internet connection and equally strong coffee. Laura is upstairs studying for the test, I’m trying to get my mind back on the ‘work track.’ and we haven’t yet figured out where were going when we leave Paris. Italy? Greece? Someone suggested Romania, but I’m still thinking about it.