Saturday, April 28, 2012

Le Pays Basque

So, as promised, I'm putting up this post from the second week of vacation, in Le Pays Basque. It'a a region of the bottom-left corner of France and the top-right corner of Spain with its own language and culture, pretty well-known for it's beautiful landscapes and all that good stuff. Since I'm way too tired to write a book about the week, this'll be a mostly-pictures post. 

While driving down there, which takes around 8 hours (not bad for crossing the entire country, my state alone takes around 6!), we stopped at the Dune de Pylat, a naturally-formed sand dune. Except that it isn't just any old dune- it's 130 meters! Freakin' huge, if you didn't get the idea!!! And so we hiked all the way to the top, which is a lot harder than it sounds because it's sand that moves under your feet, and on top of it, once you get about half way up the wind hits you and that's the worst part! Because it's a lot higher than tree level and the countryside around is relatively flat, there's no wind block and it's like stepping in a tornado! 

And of course from the top the view is great! You can see, on one side, the forests that stretch as long as the eye can see, with occasional buildings poking up here and there, and on the other side a couple islands and then just the ocean- all the way to the other side, I'd say somewhere south of New York!

(Crappy photo of me with bad light positioning and so much sand flying that it makes the picture look blurred!) So the dune was pretty awesome, definitely not something I've ever seen before. It's like a part of Egypt got displaced onto the east coast of France, so weird and really cool!

So we did another couple hours in the car which I passed between my entire iPod music library on shuffle and Maupassant's classic Une Vie. Then we got to Biarritz. It's true that if you follow what I post (heaven forbid that anyone actually reads everything except Mom and Dad, but if you at least saw the last one where I mentioned Biarritz), you'll know that I've already been there but it was for a couple hours, not enough time to see the town, never mind to check out the whole region! Anyway, it's really amazing, especially coming from Mûrs-Erigné where it's been pretty ugly weather recently, it sure was nice to see blue skies, blue waters, white beaches and the green countryside, which is actually worth noting because we decided that it's definitely a different kind of green you see in the Pays Basque than at Angers- more green, more emeraldish, and all around a lot nicer! Of course, that good weather didn't last the whole week, it's got pretty rainy for the last couple days but it was still nice! Luckily I got this first picture from the apartment when it was sunny!

And this one, with less civilization in it. So we got ourselves installed there and the next day, after a little tour of Biarritz and lunch, went to check out some other places! We went to a pretty small but well known village...

... Espelette! Where, as you can see, they're known for the pimentos which they like to leave hanging out to dry on the walls of the houses!?! It's actually pretty cool and makes for a nice decoration, although I'm not sure if, when it rains, they have to pull them all inside?

Anyways, so as you can see, there are pimentos hanging all over the place... definitely something unique! Also, as you can see there's a very certain style of architecture here in the Pays Basque with the white-washed walls and the red roofs and shutters. 

In this town of Espelette, the specialty was of course the pimentos, but also cured hams and meats which is another very Basque thing. 

That's the Pays Basque flag, the people here are very proud of their traditions and culture and I understand why! If I had the landscapes, the food, and the beaches of the Pays Basque, I would be pretty damn proud too!

Walking into yet another specialty shop, we found something a little different. Not just all different flavors of homemade lollipops, but some very interesting flavors! Like pimento-cérise or pimento-chocolat. Course, we had to get a couple and at first it could have been just any old cherry lollipop. But then you start crunching on all the litte pieces of pimento inside and the spiciness hits pretty hard and pretty fast. A spicy lollipop; and it was actually really good, although I know a certain father who would die at the thought!

Then there's a whole different kind of sweet basque specialty- les gateaux Basques, a kind of shortbread-ish cake filled with either cream or cherry jam inside, the both of them really good! 

You might be looking at this and thinking that even though you might have learned some French in high school, you have no idea what the heck is going on here. Don't worry, it's normal, unless you speak Basque. Unlike most regional languages, Basque is pretty big and while I'm not sure if it's used or taught at school, it sure is used in everyday society and most citizens of this beautiful region speak the language. It sounds kind of like something stuck between French and Spanish, understandable because of the regional influences but it's written with a lot of double letters that you don't see very often and whole lot of x's and z's. I'm not going to say it's the most beautiful, as far as spoken languages go, but the French will definitely prefer that to German!

This is yet another very Basque thing: le pelote Basque. It's a very very traditional game played on a certain court that you see a lot in town squares and places. I'll explain a little more about this game later since we went to see a match. 

Some typical Basque countryside...

Leaving Espelette, seeing a giant pimento, taking a picture just because it's a giant pimento, you know how it goes. 

Okay, although here it doesn't look to bad, the weather down here was pretty crazy. The first couple days it was at times sunny, at times cloudy. As the week passed, it got progressively worse, to our obvious pleasure but it was still a great visit. I'd like to go back during the summer but that's crazy tourist season and, according to everyone French, you don't wanna be around there in the summer- too much crazyness! 

This is the symbol of the Pays Basque and no it has nothing to do with swastikas, it just happens to be one of the oldest symbols on earth that our least favorite German dictator stole. Here in the Pays Basque, it has a very specific meaning, as my 8-year old host-cousin explained to me. The four directionals are symbolique of the elements; water, earth, fire, wind. You see it all over the place, carved into old buildings, on postcards, flags; all over!

Some more Pays Basque countryside... (there's a lot of that!)

We went to another city called St. Jean-de-Luz, a big fishing port...

... with some nice beaches and lots of cool shops. 

Next was St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, a little villages in the Pyrénées between pretty close to the French-Spanish border. Although it's a relatively small village, it gets an incredible amount of visitors, thanks to the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, a Christian pilgrimage that traverses France and northern Spain and culminates at the Santiago de Compostela basilica in Spain. Right at the France-Spain border, the path condenses and one of the big pass-points is St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. So, while walking through the calm winding streets of this little village, we saw many many groups of Italians, Belges, Swedes, Spaniards, Brits and people of many other nationalities, all with giant hiking backpacks, and on every backpack there's a shell like the one above, which is the symbol of the chemin de St. Jacques.  

Based around an old monastery (which is now an elementary school), the town is is a valley wedged between countless ranges of mountains of the Pyrénées. 

Looking out from the hill of the monastery, one can actually see the snow-covered peaks. I almost thought I saw a ski lift or two up there!

Again, the chemin de St. Jacques and it's shell there. All over this village, there were rooms for rent, cheaper meal plans, everything designed for the passerbys on their religious pilgrimage. 

Something else very Basque is their cheese, mostly the sheep's milk "brebis", which is what we see in this picture. We stopped at a farm and picked up a sizeable wedge to bring back to Mûrs with us. 

On the way home, we stopped by a glass-blowing studio. Unfortunately, the workshops are at this time of the year and there wasn't even anyone working on a piece at the time we were there, so we didn't get to see the creation of the masterpieces, something I'd really like to see. Honestly, whoever can use their breath and some basic shaping tools to make something like you see above has to be a freakin' genius. 

Another very big city we went to check out was Bayonne, very well-known in the Pays Basque. Although the pictures I took don't do it justice, there's something very particular about Bayonne and that's the architecture. It looks like they took a row of maybe 10 different houses and squeezed them into one block so that it makes a very unique puzzle of designs, all stuck together. It's hard to describe without seeing it in real life but go ahead and google search Bayonne and there's some other pictures that'll give you the idea. In any case, it's pretty awesome!

We went to a very big cathedral in Bayonne, where they had an exhibition about something I'd never learned about before. It's the Shroud of Turin, which, from what I picked up, is a a cloth found that was believed to contain Jesus. There's tons of little clues like imprints of the crown of thorns or evidence of blood staining from his hands where the nails would have been. It's pretty interesting and I think I wasn't supposed to take pictures but there ya go, it's more or less Jesus!

Something that Bayonne is really known for is it's chocolate, which we got to try. We went to get hot chocolate at a tea salon and it's their own hand-made hot chocolate that they froth a lot and it gets really light and bubbly and delicious! 

Heading back to the base at Biarritz, the weather was a little rough but it cut up some pretty good waves, which once again aren't well captured here. Since I don't have any picture of it, I'm going jump to the last day for just a minute here because the morning that we left, I got to hit the waves! I signed up for a lesson with a local surf school and at 10:30 I got into a wetsuit, grabbed a 9'0 longboard and hit the waves. I was with the teacher, a French girl a couple years younger than me and about 10 or 11 middle-ages Irish guys in the South of France for vacation who had stayed up until 8 that morning partying and decided to go surfing after. It was a riot watch them and now I can attest to the extreme usage of "fu**" and "bloody this, bloody that" that punctuates the Irish-English spoken. Anyways, becuase the last place I'd surfed were the sunny beaches of Maui in the Pacific, it was pretty different and took a little to get used to surfing again but, like riding a bike, it came back pretty quick. My last wave, and my far my best, was a pretty calm little barrel that took me from one wave to another to another and I must have been cruising on those for over a minute, right up to the beach! After, we all headed back, I taught the teacher how to say "wind" like "wind you cord around the fins" (it was so he could talk with the Irish guys) and we found ou that one of the Irish men lost his wedding ring. I can only hope his wife will believe him when he tells here he lost it surfing!!

Anyways, one rainy afternoon we went to see a match of Pelote Basque. There are a couple different kind of ways to play, one (pictured above) is with a short wooden bat and a team of two against two. The other kind is called main nue (naked hand) where the player has a layer or cork or something glued to his hand and hits the ball just like that, but it's really incredible how fast and hard these guys play! I would suggest going to Youtube and taking a peak because pictures don't show much. The most traditional method is the third kind that we didn't get to see where they play with a crescent moon-shaped basket thing, I really don't how to describe it, just go look on Youtube quickly!!

What are you still doing here?? Go to Youtube and check out this crazy southern French ball game but after come back because now we head down to Spain and there's some pretty awesome stuff!

Because it doesn't take more than a half hour fro Biarritz, we went to Spain for a day, more specifically to San Sebastien, a fabulous Spanish city. 

The architecture down there is completely different from France, especially in town, and in some ways, it's more beautiful because in the streets of San Sebastien, all the buildings are kind of special, even just the appartement blocks. It might be something with the terraces, all lined with wrought-iron barriers that evoke Renaissance style. 

(As you can see, the weather was pretty funky that day, it went from pouring to sunny and back again in a matter of minutes so it fluctuates a lot in my pictures!) From this view just next to the old port, we're looking at the city hotel and further back a giant Jesus statue. I'll come back to this. 

Lining the beach is a boardwalk with the architecturally-fascinating buildings on the other side.  

There's also the old port and at the end the aquarium. We checked it out and it's probably one of the better aquariums I've seen in a while. They had all sorts of 3D representation of the old port, back in the day, and a big show up about the tradition of whale fishing that used to be so big in this area, as well as a section about the evolution of Spanish ships, from those big Man-Of-Wars and Galleons to the invention of steamships and all that. Besides the historic aspect, there was also the tanks which included a tunnel you walk through with hammer-head sharks, jellyfish, rays and tons of other fish that pass over head and all around. It was a really well-done setup and if you're ever in San Sebastien I recommend that aquarium. 

On the other side, heading back into town, is the extensive pedestrian-only old town that shows of a lot of beautiful buildings, of course, as well as Spanish culture. 

The Pays Basque flag again, it doesn't change even if everything around it turns into Spanish!

A not very-well done panorama by my camera but it's just to give you guys an idea about how the city spreads out. This is a view from the Jesus statue, which we walked up to, and found, as we came out at the top, that the sun had broke through for a good half hour, just long enough to snap a bunch of pictures. Talk about good timing!

It's really any incredible evolution of landscapes, from the tropical-blue waters and white beach to the bustling city life to outside the city where it's more green fields and then right up to the Pyrénées which stretch into the clouds as long as one can see. 

Kudos to the American couple who took this for us, I thought he was English at first but when I asked him his accent was very American, almost something from my region... Anyways, he obviously doesn't know how to use the stabiliser on the camera but whatever. 

After we headed back into town and I got a huge piece of delicious cake to eat in the pouring rain. We were sitting on the steps and some guy from the shop came out and bribed us to move with a giant handful of candy. Of course it was in Spanish so we just understand that he was giving us a lot of candy! It was pretty cool. 

We went to the Spanish FNAC where I was shocked by the prices- for those of you who haven't ever been there, everything in Spain is really cheap to the French because it's all in euros but just insanely cheap thanks to the declining economic situation. 

Yes, it's the same time but this time it's sunny.

The second-to-last day, we went to a place right across the border to go shopping. This is something that all French do, taking advantage of low prices especially on cigarettes and alcohol. We actually came home with 5 or 6 bottles along with clothes and cologne since that's also a lot cheaper. 

So that was my vacation, and now I'm back at school. Wednesday we took the Bac Blanc in Histoire-Géo and I pumped out a composition of 8 pages about the totalitarian regimes between WWI and WWII- I better get some good points for that! Monday I have the Bac Blanc in French but for now it's Saturday afternoon, Guillaume and I placed 4th in a doubles tennis competition this morning and now Louis, our neighbor/best friend, is over for the night so I'll see you all later!
À plus mes potes!

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!