. We found the hostel without much trouble, and it was the nicest hostel I have ever stayed in. The décor was very colorful and modern, the employees were super friendly and helpful, it was very secure, and it had a fully operational kitchen that anyone could use. Since there were only three of us in a four-person room, we knew we'd have to share the room with a stranger, but she turned out to be a very sweet and quiet Romanian girl. After we dropped our stuff off at the hostel, we walked down to the Vieux-Port to buy tickets for the ferry to the Château d'If (which I had wanted to see the last time I went to Marseille but was unable to do). This time it wasn't so windy, so the ferry was running to the château, and we got to sit on the top so we could see the panoramic view of the port on the way to the island. Once we arrived on the island we learned that entrance tickets to the château are free for all EU citizens, so--and I'm not proud of this--we pretended like I was Greek like my comrades. The château dominates the tiny island, and since they used local stone to build it, it seems to blend in with the surrounding landscape. It's not really a château in the style of Versailles or the Châteaux de la Loire since it was constructed on the orders of François Ier as a defense against sea attacks, not as a royal palace. However, there were many Marseillais opposed to its construction since Marseille had retained the right to provide for its own defense after it was annexed to the French kingdom in 1481; they viewed the construction of the château as an unwanted imposition of the outside authority coming from the Île-de-France
. Its principal military value was as a deterrent, and it never had to defend itself against an actual attack. The Château d'If's next role was as a prison: the isolated location and dangerous currents made it ideal as an "escape-proof" prison. Marseille used it as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees, and it soon became one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. More than 3,500 Huguenots were imprisoned in the Château d'If. Gaston Crémieux was also imprisoned there; a leader of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary "city council" that exercised power in Paris for two months during the spring of 1871, Crémieux was shot in the Château d'If later in 1871. Prisoners in the Château d'If were treated differently according to their class and wealth--a common practice in prisons "à l'époque." The poorest prisoners were literally placed at the bottom of the prison, confined to the windowless dungeon under the château. The wealthiest were better off, living in comparative comfort in private cells higher up with windows, a garderobe (armoire), and a fireplace. However, they had to pay for these privileges--so they effectively funded their own incarceration. The French stopped using the château as a prison at the end of the 19th century; it was demilitarized and opened to the public in 1890. Of course, the island became internationally famous in the 19th century when Alexandre Dumas used it as the setting for his novel Le Comte de Monte Cristo
, possibly the first international bestseller
. The novel's protagonist, Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of "comte") and his mentor, Abbé Faria, were both imprisoned in it, but after fourteen years, Dantès makes a daring escape from the château, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. However, historically, no one is known to have accomplished this feat. After we returned to the mainland from the Château d'If, we decided to hike--literally--up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the basilica of Marseille: an ornate Neo-Byzantine church situated at the highest natural point in Marseille. Let me tell you, it was quite a hike. We had to pause to rest a couple times, as the hill seemed to be oriented at at 90° angle! But it was totally worth the climb since the basilica is gorgeous, especially the blue and gold mosaic ceilings and the gold-plated statue of Mary that tops it. The Marseillais commonly refer to the basilica simply as la bonne mère
("the good mother"), as Notre Dame de la Garde is traditionally regarded by the population as the guardian and the protectress of the city. The basilica was consecrated in 1864, replacing a church of the same name built in 1214 and reconstructed in the 15th century. The basilica was built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort constructed by François Ier to resist the 1536 siege of Marseille by the Emperor Charles V. The basilica is actually made up of two parts: a lower crypt dug out of the rock and constructed in the Romanesque style, and the upper church in the Neo-Byzantine style decorated with mosaics
. The belfry supports a monumental 27-ft tall statue of the Madonna and Child made out of copper gilded with gold leaf. Another interesting decorative feature of the basilica is the numerous paintings of ships that adorn its walls as well as "mobiles" constructed of wooden boats hanging on strings suspended from the ceiling. Like I said, well worth the hike. Also, since it's the highest point in the city, it offers an awesome view of the Vieux-Port and the harbor below. We were pretty exhausted after all this hiking, so we returned to the hostel and rested for a while before going to dinner at the first French Chinese restaurant I've been to. Please note the picture of the menu and the translation of "poulet aux champignons noirs" as "stir-fried chicken with fungus." Haha! After our Chinese food, we were jonesin' for some chocolate, so we went to another restaurant for some moelleux au chocolat avec crème anglaise. Yummmm! When we returned to the hostel, we all collapsed. Well, at least I did. I can't speak for Athena and Ariadne because I was out like a light.
The next morning we woke up around 8:00 AM so we would have time to grab the hostel breakfast and check out in time to make our train to Nice. I was so proud of Athena and Ariadne for getting up and moving on time; 8:00 AM is so early for Greeks! :) We made it to the gare in plenty of time and had a nice, stress-free train ride from Marseille to Nice, passing some beautiful countryside along the way
. Once we arrived in Nice we had no trouble finding our hostel, thanks to the directions on their website indicating a KFC as a landmark! Athena had heard about this famous flower market in Nice, the Marché Saleya, so we headed over there to check out all the gorgeous fresh flowers--Nice is
in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur département of French, which is the country's major flower-growing and perfume region. The flowers were beautiful, but overall the market was a little disappointing. Maybe we arrived after some of the vendors had already left or something. Or maybe I'm just spoiled from the wonderful Marché des Arceaux. The market was located close to the beach, so we walked along the gorgeous coastline after lunch, and Athena decided that she wants to move to Nice. :) Then came our ill-fated decision to go to the Musée Matisse. First of all, it was nearly impossible to find; then once we got on the right path, we discovered that it was straight up hill. Another day of hiking! After much huffing and puffing and winding and asking for directions and stopping for ice cream, we finally made it to the museum...only to see the sign that says, "Closed on Tuesdays." NOOOO! Flashback to winter break when Ashley and I climbed up the hill to go to the atelier of Cézanne only to arrive two minutes before they closed for the traditional two-hour French lunch break! We were already up the hill, so we decided to check out what else was there. We visited le Monastère de Cimiez, another beautiful Church (though not as beautiful as the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde). Attached to the church is a museum about the Franciscan Order, so we poked around there for a bit. Hey, it was free! And open. We were just about to head back down the hill when I caught a glimpse of some flowers out of the corner of my eye. It turns out there's a beautiful rose garden next to the monastery, so we admired and sniffed to our hearts' content. And had a photo-op! (Even though we were all sweaty from climbing the hill.) :) After our photo shoot, we walked back to our hostel, where we relaxed for a couple hours to regain our strength
. We decided to watch the sunset on the beach, and silly Athena wanted to touch the water. Unfortunately, she wasn't quick enough to dodge the tide, and so she got some sneakers full of sea water. We had a nice fancy-ish dinner at a restaurant overlooking the beach, and then went back to the hostel with our bellies full of good food and more than ready for a good night's sleep.
The next day we slept in a bit because we didn't have any time-sensitive plans. Once we dragged our butts out of bed, we grabbed some breakfast from the Monoprix down the street and headed over to the train station to buy our tickets to Monaco. We thought that the trains from Nice to Monaco ran every thirty minutes, which they do...except on Wednesdays because of construction. Of course! Just our luck. So we had about an hour to kill before the next train, so we grabbed sandwiches from a café (since we heard that everything is super expensive in Monaco) and went to lounge around and people-watch in a nearby park, where we saw a fully grown man playing with a motor boat toy in the fountain in the middle of the day. When we went back to the train station we saw that there was a maaaassssive crowd waiting for the same train. We all shoved into the train somehow, packed in like sardines. Athena, Ariadne, and I weren't among the lucky ones who actually got seats. But then after a hot, swaying train ride, we were in Monaco
! Our first stop was the Palais Princier, so we asked for directions, and a lady pointed us in the direction of another gigantic hill! We climbed up leisurely, stopping to look at the water and the boats, but when we arrived at the top of the hill, there was no palace in sight. Instead, we saw the famous Casino de Monte Carlo, though we didn't go inside. I asked one of the casino guards where the palace was, and he said that we would have to climb back down the hill, go in the completely opposite direction, and climb up another hill. Awesome. We strolled around a beautiful little park by the casino to catch our breath before heading back down to find the palace. After trudging our way through construction barriers (they are currently building the track for the 2011 Grand Prix), we were at the base of the hill leading up to the palace. But we're vibrant young twentysomethings so we managed another day of hiking and arrived at the palace. The entrance fee was a little pricy (8€), but we got a student discount that knocked it down to a more reasonable 3,50€. Le Palais Princier, or the Prince's Palace of Monaco, is the official residence of the Prince of Monaco. Built in 1191 as a Genoese fortress, during its long and often dramatic history the Palace has been bombarded and besieged by many foreign powers. Since the end of the 13th century, it has been the stronghold and home of the Grimaldi family who first captured it in 1297. The Grimaldi ruled the area first as feudal lords, and from the 17th century as sovereign princes, but their power was often derived from fragile agreements with their larger and stronger neighbors
. Therefore, while other European sovereigns were building luxurious, modern Renaissance and Baroque palaces, politics and common sense demanded that the palace of the Monaco rulers be fortified; however, ironically, when its fortifications were relaxed during the late 18th century, the Palace was seized by the French and stripped of its treasures while the Grimaldi family was exiled for over 20 years. The Grimaldi's occupation of their palace is also unusual because, unlike other European ruling families, the absence of alternative palaces and land shortages have resulted in their use of the same residence for more than seven centuries. As a result, the Palace reflects the history not only of Monaco, but also of the Grimaldi family. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the palace and its owners became symbols of the slightly risqué glamor and decadence that were associated with Monte Carlo and the French Riviera. Glamor and theatricality became reality when Grace Kelly became the princess of Monaco in 1956. Today the Palace remains the residence of the current Prince of Monaco. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures inside the Palace, so no photos of the luxury here. The Palace is beautiful, but I have to admit, after Versailles, it was a bit underwhelming. :) We poked around the courtyard for a few minutes, and then we headed back down the hill and stopped to check out the cathedral. And we saw some beautiful views of the ocean. Then the usual routine: train station, train, back to the hostel to rest. On the hunt for a restaurant for dinner we found a place that claimed to be "American Tex Mex," and tacos sounded pretty good to me. Unfortunately, the restaurant was playing it a little fast and loose with the word "taco." They were OK, but I guess you can only get real tex mex in the States.
The next day we got up early again to make our train, and I slept during most of the ride because I was so exhausted from traveling and trains and hiking. :)
zNow that I'm basking in the post-exam glow, I have time to write a blog post about the second part of my Easter break when I went on another adventure through southern France. During winter break (if you remember), I toured some of the small towns of the "Midi" (what les Français call the southern provinces)--Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Nîmes, Carcassone, and Aigues Mortes. So for spring break, with my Greek gal pals Athena and Ariadne, I decided to see some of the larger cities: Marseille and Nice, with a brief excursion across the border into Monaco. Over winter break Ashley and I had visited Marseille, but we spent only a few hours there and didn't really have the chance to explore the city. Athena, Ariadne, and I arrived in Marseille around lunchtime on Monday, May 2, and our first task was to find our hostel, or auberge de jeunesse, so we wouldn't have to schlep our bags around. I learned from my traveling mistakes during winter break, so I had written down the address of the hostel and detailed directions to the hostel; plus, when we picked the hostel, we were sure to find one that was close to the centre-ville