Friday, April 13, 2012

Catching up and April Vacation

So I know it's been a really freakin' long time since I wrote anything, sorry about that but it's been busy over here. Anyways, I'm now on vacation which means less schoolwork and more things worth blogging about. So here ya go...
About two weeks ago we had another AFS reunion, the last overnight reunion before Paris at the end of the year. We met up at some camping ground place and broke off into groups. Luckily, I got squeezed into the paintball group because I really wasn't looking forward to archery. So yeah, it ended up being a bunch of foreign kids, in the very sexy jumpsuit modeled below, running around in a fenced area with lots of wooden obstacles, desperately trying to snipe one another being being hit. It was pretty awesome...

We did a capture-the-flag version, the second of which I won, then we did elimination rounds and last-man-standing. Of course, it was more or less chaos since there weren't more than 5, out of 25ish, people who had ever played before and so there would be a group of people all behind one obstacle shooting randomly in the air, and then there's us, actually shooting at the other team and running around. It was awesome anyway.

Changing lines a little (I know there's an expression like that but it escapes me right now), the last Sunday was Easter or Pâques and so by midday we had all the family, numbering 16 total, at our house. It was a really fun day, we had some very intense family ping-pong contests, played around with the kids and did the Easter Egg hunt. Yes, it exists in France, but Easter is definitely different. Firstly, here in France, and I think all of Europe, there is no Easter Bunny (sacrilege!!) and instead theres a bunch of bells that fly from Rome with their wings and drop chocolate, candy and little toys into all the yards... It's not any more plausible than a giant rabbit that hops around chucking chocolate eggs, when rabbits don't even lay eggs but whatever.
Anyway, we had a giant Easter lunch, all cooked by my host mom, and it was fabulous! I didn't get pictures of everything but below is just one of the delicious appetizers we had, along with tons of other good stuff. I also got to try some really good wines, especially the white, sweeter ones.

The other day, we went to check out a castle at Saumur, le château de Brézé. However, on the way over there, we stopped in a little village with some beautiful old houses and mini-castles, like the one below. 

These kinds of villages are not at all uncommon in France, and actually very well known in the Pays de la Loire. In this region, particularly, many houses are made out of a certain kind of stone called tuffeau and because of all the stone they excavated for the houses and castles, as well as the industry started that is still popular today for its unique look, created a network of tunnels.

(Below) This looks like another quarry for tuffeau but it's actually a house under construction! It's being built into the ground so that it's more like a series of caves on one side and a real house on the other but the architecture is really cool.

So anyways, we went to see the castle of Brézé, and it's really a beautiful castle. From this view you'd think that it's just a normal Renaissance castle, but actually it's a château fort, which means it was a military castle.

What made this castle unique is its extremely intricate underground tunnel system. Like the whole region, there is a network below the castle but here it's a whole different level- in fact, the castle's motto is un château sous un château; a castle below a castle.

I don't know if you can make it out on the sign, but it warns about adjusting to the "gloom", the very low ceilings, and sense of claustrophobia that can be induced by the tunnels. Pretty dangerous, but we went for it anyway!

There are all sorts of little rooms, connected by long, dark, and occasionally steep descending tunnels. They tale you all over the castle and it's to wonder how many got lost there before the electric lights and path markers.

In fact, there is one whole section that used to be strictly a village, all underground, and although you can't walk around it because it's fragile, you can see that there are rooms that used to be kitchens and dining rooms. Of course this is all carved out of the stone by some poor guy with a chisel and hammer. I actually learned that before castles like this there was just a mason but the extreme use of tunnels created the job of tunneler with his inventory of 60-something tools (I read this all of a placard in one of the caves). Below, you can see how deep down the went. Where that bridge is, that's about level with the ground so from there you see just the castle but you cross the bridge, look down, and it becomes pretty clear that it's a heck of a lot bigger. This was a siege tactic to avoid enemies from storming right into the castle and it must have worked pretty well because they obviously never had their castle destroyed. I took this picture from a niche that I found in the caves: I thought I was still very much underground but I walked into this room and from the holes designed for the archers, I saw that.

It was very bizarre in some places because you're walking in the castle and suddenly your turn a corner and there's a tunnel that plunges straight underground.

Another perspective, from the lowest point of the moat- here it's pretty clear where it's a castle and where it turns into underground passages.

This made me think of Lord of the Rings, not sure why...

Now imagine, back in the day, there weren't any of those lights and there aren't even brackets on the walls for torches so if you happened to be in the caves looking for something and your light went out... well yeah, you're screwed.

Something else special about the château de Brézé is its wine. The castle is very famous pour the vineyards outside of its walls and one of the more reputed features of the tour is the wine tasting. This is actually it, but just one of the hundreds of caves in the underground network stocked with thousands and thousands of barrels.

Once you get out of the tunnels, there's the inside of the castle to check, which is all fancy and very Renaissance-ish. We weren't allowed to take photos inside but it's just a lot of portraits, fancy stonework, carpets and canopy beds: you know, your classic European castle.

Although you can't see too much of the details, there's also a lot of very intricate stonework framings around the windows and on the roof that make the castle famous as well.

No explication needed, as I'm assuming you can read English if you've gotten up to here without problems.

It brightened up a little in the afternoon but still pretty cloudy- typical weather around here.

So after, we decided to pop over to the town of Saumur for a little visit, as I've never been there before. It's actually a pretty good-sized city, smaller than Angers but not by much. There's still the Loire that cuts right through the middle.

They also have their very own castle, right in the middle of town on a hill. We didn't tour it (there's a limit to how much time one can spend in a castle per day) but we walked up and checked it out anyway.

The view from the castle's hill stretches very far out across the flat French countryside and although it's a perfectly modern city, it's gives an impression of being older, probably the similar architecture of the houses with the tuffeau and red brick.

Again, the castle of Saumur.

Now, this isn't even a special building, just a normal house but it's incredible anyways!

Again, something very European- the woodwork lattice that makes up so many little villages all across the continent.

And of course, who couldn't mention the Maison du Vin of Saumur, with its stain-glass map of Pays de la Loire, color-coded to wines and specialties by region!

A bridge.

Below is the Mairie; there's one of these at every town and city in France. It's like a city hall but not really a government function but a welcome place to the city. This one also doubled as the city hotel and it hasn't changed for the last half-century.

Looking back on Saumur as we headed back home, with the castle that sits on top of the city. Too bad it was such ugly weather.

So this is actually pretty old news, almost a month, but in SVT we did a dissection, the first I've ever done. And of course, I just had to take a picture for you guys! This was my mouse, still in pretty good condition. After a little, my lab partner and I decided to go all out on the poor thing and ended with a pile of remnants of mouse and a skull, complete with brain! It was pretty awesome.

So, that's about it for now but there should be some new stuff in a week or two (or three, knowing me) because next week we're going down to Biarritz in the south for a couple days, which means I might get to test out the surf in France! 
I'll keep you all posted, à très bientôt!

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