I recently went out for another day trip, this time east to the coastal city of Toulon. It was once the site of a famous prison (where even Jean Valjean was supposed to have been incarcerated) and is still the home of a large naval base and a bustling port on the Mediterranean. I decided to start out by finding the office of tourism, which was right on the harbour, and they had maps for tourists. So I started walking from there toward the naval base, where I found the Maritime Museum. Student admission was four euros, which isn’t too bad, so I decided to check it out. The museum had lots of models of old ships and displays of the history of ocean travel, particularily in and around Toulon. It was apparently the site of an important naval battle during WWII, with many ships sinking and burning in the harbour. I found all the exhibits quite fascinating, but as the museum wasn’t too big it didn’t take me long to see it all and start moving along. I walked past a few monuments and plazas, including the Place de la Libérté, a monument to fallen soldiers of WWII, as well as the Place Victor Hugo, home of Toulon’s theatre and named in honour of the famous author. By this time it was starting to rain, so I took shelter in a café and had lunch. After the rain had let up a bit, I went towards the Porte d’Italie, an old gate of the city. I couldn’t see much of the gate itself, however there was an art gallery nearby so I decided to look around there. Following the maritime nature of the city most of the paintings depicted the sea or boats, but were still quite lovely. After that the rain had started again, so I decided to look around the mall near the Palais de Neptune. Even though Toulon is smaller than Montpellier, it seems they have more exotic stores… But I’m not really one for shopping so I used the time just to enjoy the similarity within the differences. Okay, maybe that doesn’t make much sense, but I find that when I see something that’s so close to American culture (like a shopping mall?) it’s much easier for me to notice the little differences that make it French. With something radically different, I know it’s different, so details always seem to escape me. The rain seemed to finally disappear, so I spent the rest of my time wandering along the harbour absorbing the sea breezes of the mediterranean – it was about 60° F with a light wind, so it felt wonderful. While walking back to the station, I took the time to admire the architecture and landscaping. Overall, it was quite the lovely outing!
On account of one of my ancestors on my dad’s side came from there, I knew one place in Europe I would have to go was Barcelona. Luckily for me it’s only about 4 hours by train from Montpellier, so I decided to spend my weekend there. My train arrived in Barcelona about noon on Saturday, after which I bought a subway pass and headed for the hostel I was staying at. The staff there was very friendly, and gave me a tourist map of the city, pointing out some of the places I should try to visit.
The first place was within walking distance; the Sagrada Familia, an elegant church designed by the architect Gaudi. Unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding, so it wasn’t as nice of a view as it could have been. Still, it was quite impressive. From there I took the metro towards the Passeig de Gracia, and walked to the Museu de la Xocolata: the chocolate museum. This was quite an interesting (and delicious) exhibition, telling the history of chocolate as well as displaying elegant sculptures carved from chocolate. Some of them were quite complex; I was impressed! I then headed to the nearby Parc de La Ciutadella, home of the Barcelona Zoo and the Catalonian Parlament building. It was full of gorgeous statues and monuments, and the archtecture was also quite stunning. From there I made my way to the Catalonian history museum, hoping they’d have some sort of record or document room where I could try to trace my roots… They did, but unfortunately it was closed on weekends so I didn’t get the chance to check it out. The museum itself was open and luckily free for students, so I did take some time to explore it. As I left the museum the sun was starting to set, so I headed towards the sea to sit on the beach and watch it go down over the water…
On the way back to the hostel I stopped to take a picture of Barcelona’s Arc de Triompf. After a good night’s rest I headed out Sunday morning for the Castell de Montjuïc. Since it’s located on the top of the mountain, there is a cable car service you can take to get there. It was closed for maintenance, so there was a bus replacing it. This was noted by a sign in Catalàn, Spanish, and English, but while waiting for the bus I noticed a pair of very confused Japanese tourists trying to figure out how to get to the top. I used a little of the Japanese I hadn’t yet forgotten (from spending some time in Japan during high school) to explain to them what was going on and how to get where they were headed.This is how I ended up with my travel companions for the day… Yumi and Masako came from Kanazawa, which is close to where I stayed in high school. We spent the rest of the day seeing the sights. From the castle on top of the mountain we walked down through some of the botanical gardens, past the sites of the 1992 Olympics. We then went to the Catalonian National Art Museum, and saw exhibits from the 10th century up through modern times, including quite a few pieces by Picasso. We went also to the port and the monument of Christopher Columbus, after which they treated me to lunch as a way of thanking me for help translating—written Catalàn is somewhere in between French and Spanish, and I was able to parse enough to figure out most signs and whatnot, whereas they spoke nothing but a small amount of English; not really that helpful. They walked me back as far as the metro station so I could get back to Sants Estacio in time for the train back to Montpellier. We exchanged email addresses so they’ll send me some of the pictures they took. It’s always nice to make new friends! It’s funny to think that this is one of the benefits of travelling alone.