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What It’s Really Like to Walk the Camino Frances

Everything you need to know about the Camino de Santiago, from the difficult first day to the frustrating ending — with all the serenity in between.

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

Walking for 35 days. A 500-mile trek through northern Spain. It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation. So what got our friend Susan to decide to take on the Camino de Santiago?

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Blame Oprah. At least in part. You see, Susan saw Winfrey’s special about spiritual belief, and was intrigued by the camino. She was going through a transition in her life and wanted to do something epic.

There are at least eight different routes to choose from, and Susan decided upon the Camino Francés, the most popular option.

Here’s what this intense pilgrimage entails.

 

Why did you decide to do the Camino de Santiago?

I had heard about the Camino de Santiago back in 2011 when I was living abroad in Ireland. I always had it in the back of my head that it sounded really cool. I was burnt out as a lawyer and wanted to do something that was completely out of my element. I decided to quit my job and go back to school. I had about five weeks from my last day of work before my master’s program started, and the camino seemed perfect because you can do it by yourself and it’s safe. You can walk alone, but there are also lots of opportunities to meet other people from all over the world. When I told everyone I was going to go to Spain to walk 500 miles, they all said it sounded crazy — but also really cool.

The first day was uphill through the Pyrénées. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!”

I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

When did you go?

There’s a ton of people in June, July and August, but not in May, when I was there. There are stretches where you don’t see anyone.

 

How long was the hike?

About five weeks. It took me a few days to get to the starting point. I flew into Biarritz, France. The walk starts in a town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The overall route took me 32 days to walk 560 miles.

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

What’s it like when you start the Camino de Santiago?

Scary. I didn’t prepare much. When I met people along the way, they had done so much research. I ordered hiking shoes and a backpack, and booked my flight. I got into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. The first day I got there, it was pouring rain. I got up at 7 a.m., put my backpack on…and just started walking.

 

How was the French leg of the journey?

You only spend about a day and a half in France. Unlike in Spain, where everything’s well marked, there are no signs in France. Within the first 500 feet, I took a wrong turn, which I’m gonna blame on this girl from Hungary. I followed her, and after a while, we were like, this doesn’t look right. So we had taken an hour-long detour.

The second half of the day was uphill through the Pyrénées, so it was very difficult. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!” I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the whole thing. And apparently, this was the easy route! We had heard horror stories from people who had done the harder route.

Things got so much easier after that. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about the huge incline ’cause I would have been really anxious about it.

 

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Was it easy to get lost on the camino?

There’s an app for the Camino de Santiago — which I didn’t realize until the third day. The app tells you all the different places you can stay, if it’s flat, if you have inclines or declines.

It’s called Buen Camino, which is what everyone says to you when you pass them. It means “good way.” You see yourself as a little yellow dot, so you can see if you’re straying off the path.

And once you get to Spain, it’s fabulous. The paths are marked with the shell that’s the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Every so often you’ll see a cement pillar with a shell on it. And when you’re in towns, there are yellow arrows.

 

What’s the terrain like?

At first it was a path through the mountains, but most of the camino is gravel. There are other days when you’re in the forest or have to walk on the street. It’s beautiful. At some points, you’re walking through vineyards. I liked the smaller towns more than the cities. It was so peaceful and nice. I tried to bond with nature and take in my surroundings.

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

Who else was on the camino?

I didn’t meet a lot of Americans — mostly Europeans, Australians and Koreans. You have all ages, women, men. Most people were by themselves, though you did have some couples. Some people did it for religious reasons, but most were doing it as a spiritual experience, trying to take a break from their lives. Some people were really fit; some people didn’t last the whole time.

People formed little groups. Most of them stayed in the albergues, the hostels.

 

How difficult was the hike?

About seven days in is a town called Logroño, and there’s a big hospital there. And that’s where they say a lot of people’s bodies break down. They have shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee injuries.

The declines are actually the worst. You’ve got a heavy backpack on, it’s gravel, and you have to support yourself and not fall forward.

Some people ended up taking shortcuts because they physically weren’t up for it. I didn’t take any shortcuts!

I was surprised I held up as well as I did. But I live in Chicago and don’t have a car. I walk a lot. I had some blisters, but that was doable — I just put some band-aids on those.

The training plans are pretty intense. They say you should walk an hour a day and then six hours a day on the weekend with your backpack. I didn’t do that.

I’m not a hiker, but I would say it’s a moderate trek. I’d say a third of it is more difficult: up or down, rocky terrain.

 

What kind of shoes did you get?

I didn’t have any light hiking shoes, so I ordered some cute pink ones. I did a lot of reading on discussion boards, and I knew I didn’t want anything too heavy. People thought they looked like running sneakers. I ordered them a month before, and wore them every time I’d go out to walk the dog to break them in.

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What was in your backpack?

They say to bring only two outfits — I brought three.

 

That would be the hardest part for us. We would’ve brought like 10 outfits.

There are services where you could have your backpack transported. I didn’t have a hiking backpack, so I bought one that was 34 liters. I brought tank tops, three pairs of stretchy yoga pants, small toiletries, a small sleeping bag — which I ended up ditching. You only need it if you’re staying at hostels. The second day I ditched a lot of stuff in my pack ’cause you just want to get it as light as possible. Bring a portable charger, just in case you’re in the middle of nowhere and your cell phone dies. I had a hat and an extra pair of shoes, one pair of pajamas, a rain jacket and a fleece, which I wore to bed a lot since I got cold. I had some pairs of thin hiking socks but ended up buying thicker ones when I got there that gave more support.

I ended up cutting two pairs of my pants and made shorts, ha ha. No shame! It’s one of those things you’d normally never do.

A lot of people that go in the summer get up early to hike before sunrise to avoid the heat. They bring headlamps to see in the dark, but I couldn’t imagine doing that on some of the terrain.

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Take us through a typical day on the camino.

I’d wake up — I’d have all my stuff laid out and I’d take a shower the night before. So I’d grab my backpack and go, around 7 or 8 a.m. The night before, I’d look at the app and all the towns and figure out how far I was gonna walk. I’d always book beforehand online. A lot of people just walked until they got tired and would find a place. I liked to have the security of knowing I had a room — a lot of these places were in the middle of nowhere.

I never ate breakfast, so I’d head out. Around 10 a.m., I’d find a place to stop and get a café con leche and a croissant. There wasn’t a lot of great food — these are tiny towns that cater to the pilgrims, as they call us. And none of the pilgrims are looking for good food; they’re looking for cheap stuff. The menu was the same at every place.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. and go right to bed. And then do the same thing the next morning.

It was kind of like “Groundhog Day” — but I loved every minute of it.

Every time you come up to someone — I’m a fast walker and would pass everybody — you would say hello, “buen camino.” If they seem like they wanted to chat, I’d walk with them for a bit. You’d see people you’d seen before, so it was very social. But I did spend a lot of the time by myself.

I would usually get to where I was going between 1 to 3 p.m. So I didn’t eat until I got there. A lot of people who stopped to eat breakfast and lunch got there much later. I liked to get there and relax — not that there was a lot to do there most of the time. But I’d walk around, and if I saw people I knew, I’d hang out with them.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. or so, and go right to bed because I was exhausted. And then do the same thing the next morning. It was kind of like Groundhog Day — but I loved every minute of it.

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Where’d you stay?

You can pay 8 euros for a bed at a hostel, and dinner was €10. You can do this super cheap — for about €30 a day. For me, getting a private room, I’d pay about €20. In a bigger city, like Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago, I’d stay at a hotel and pay up to €75 euros.

The smaller villages were very downtrodden and economically depressed. I wanted to tell these people, “You should raise your prices!”

 

How about pee breaks?

I didn’t take a lot. There’s not a lot of places to go to the bathroom. Maybe every 15 kilometers, there’ll be a small coffeeshop you could go in. I’m not a person who can pee outside. So this is going to sound weird, but I didn’t drink a lot of water during the day. I’m sure a lot of people would say that’s really bad. When I got to where I was going, I’d drink a ton of water.

 

Most people do pee outside, though?

Yes! I saw a lot of people peeing outside. It’s acceptable to do so. I saw people’s asses. I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

 

Were there differences between the French and the Spanish?

I don’t want to offend anybody. The French just weren’t as welcoming, though I was only in France for a day and a half. They don’t want to speak English to you. I don’t want to be an ignorant American saying they should speak English, ’cause I don’t think that. I felt like they were, why are you in my country? But maybe that’s not representative of everyone one else’s experience.

In Spain, everyone tried to speak English. They know what you want: You get your passport in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and you have to get it stamped at the hostels and cafés. And that’s what they inspect when you get to Santiago de Compostela to prove you did the whole thing, and then they give you a certificate called the compostela. I waited in line for two hours to get this. You have to walk at least 100 kilometers to get one — and what annoyed me is that it’s the same certificate, whether you’ve walked 100 kilometers or the entire 800 like I did.

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

Was it a spiritual journey?

It’s funny — you’re walking 15 to 20 miles a day and are in your own head. But it’s not like I had all these deep thoughts and came to these epiphanies, which I thought I might! I was hoping to find myself, ha ha. A lot of your mind is taken up with thinking about the next town you’re getting to, following the trail, talking to people. I thought I’d have a lot of time to figure things out, but I didn’t contemplate life as much as I should have, maybe. You think you’re going to work out all the things in your life and come back perfect.

 

What’s it like when you finally get to Santiago?

It’s anticlimactic. You walk into Santiago and you think there’s going to be trumpets or a parade — you just walked 500 miles! It’s so crowded; it’s so commercialized. It’s very stressful. It wasn’t a good experience. Everyone ends up going to the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral, where they say your name. But I didn’t end up going because I was in line to get my certificate.

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

What then?

I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere else after Santiago. But I ended up doing it in less time than I had planned. You can keep going another 60 miles to the coast, an extra three days. And it was absolutely beautiful, a place called Finisterre. It’s right on the ocean and they call it the End of the World. That’s where the 0 Kilometer pillar is, so that’s cool. There wasn’t a lot of people there, and there’s a lighthouse and a guy playing bagpipes. There’s a beach with seashells. It’s very peaceful. It’s a great place to reflect and feel rewarded, rather than Santiago, which was so dispiriting. I got a room at a hotel that had a beautiful view of the ocean that wasn’t that expensive. It was such a fabulous way to end the trip.

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

A lot of people, if they’re not going to walk, they’ll take a bus. I took the bus back to Santiago since I was flying out of there. I ran into the Hungarian girl I met on the first day and other people, so I went out with them.

 

What surprised you about the Camino de Santiago the most?

I’m not a huge athlete or anything, so I was surprised by how effortlessly I was able to do it — apart from that first day.

I had always heard about the culture of Spain, but I was surprised by how poor a lot of the towns were. They’re all centered around the pilgrims. The places I stayed were acceptable, but I heard a lot of stories about people staying in albergues that weren’t. But when you’re paying €8 a night…

There was a lot of dirt and stray animals — it was a lot less glamorous than I expected. I didn’t realize how economically downtrodden this part of Spain was. But at the same time, the people were very generous and welcoming.

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

Siestas were crazy, too. Everything in town closes from 2 to 5 p.m. Hotels and restaurants tended to be open, but no grocery or clothing stores. I’d go to the store when it opened and get snacks for the next day.

Sometimes restaurants would be open, but the kitchen would be closed from 6 to 9 p.m. You could get drinks, but there wasn’t any food.

Religion was everywhere. Whenever you’d come into a town, the biggest building there would be the church — the first thing you’d see is that cross. So church bells were ever-present during my trek, which I really enjoyed. People would be there, trying to get you to go into the church.

 

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

What was the laundry situation?

I did a lot of sink-washing. But a lot of the places have washing machines, but not dryers. People would hang their stuff outside. But you’d have to get there first. Most of the time, I’d wash my stuff in the bathtub with shower gel.

It was simple. You don’t have creature comforts, but you have everything you need. Normally when I go on a trip, I bring big suitcases and all this shit. It was so nice to put everything into one backpack and that was it. I survived. Now I’m just gonna bring a backpack everywhere I go.

 

Really?

We’ll see.

 

Any final advice do you have for people who want to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Don’t plan too much. Take it as it comes — don’t overcomplicate things, because it’s all going to work out totally fine. –Wally

It’s acceptable to pee outside. I saw people’s asses.

I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

No Fooling: The History of April Fool’s Day and Poisson d’Avril

Learn the origin of April Fool’s pranks — and check out these bizarre vintage April Fool’s Day cards.

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

The flowers begin to bud, robins appear, and a few gorgeously warm days start to sneak their way in. Springtime in Chicago is wonderful — though Duke and I will never forget that early April trip we took to Switzerland, when they were harvesting the spaghetti from the trees. Our timing was perfect; one more week and the limp noodles hanging from the branches would no longer be al dente.

Coincidentally, Easter falls on April 1 this year, as it did in 1957, when the BBC aired a three-minute segment showing people plucking strands of spaghetti from trees. Some viewers even called the BBC, wanting to know where they could purchase their very own spaghetti tree. Of course, it was just an elaborate prank — the first televised April Fool’s Day hoax.

Because spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, silly.

The Amusingly Mysterious Origins of April Fool’s Day

This isn’t a joke: No one’s completely sure where and when April Fool’s Day started, but they’ve got some pretty good ideas.

A favorite theory is that it has to do with the switch from the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar, to the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII. The decision was made in 1563 at the Council of Trent. That meant the New Year shifted from the end of March to January 1.

A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

Some years later, in 1582, the French made the calendar switch. Those who didn’t get the memo or refused to play by the new rules were poked fun at and had paper fish (poisson d’avril, or April fish) sneakily placed on their backs. A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

It’s also thought that the ancient Greco-Roman festival known as Hilaria (the Day of Joy) is a precursor to April Fool’s Day. This pagan celebration began on March 25, shortly after the Vernal Equinox, to honor Cybele, Mother of the Gods, and the resurrection of her castrated lover (and in some tellings, her son!), Attis.

The festivities conclude on April 1, accompanied by feasts, games, masquerades and practical jokes — hence the association to April Fool’s Day.

Even the Indian holiday Holi, which takes place around this time of year, involves much mischief-making. Associated with the Hindu demoness, Holika, people celebrate the triumph of good over evil by throwing brightly colored powder on each other.

During the 18th century, April Fool’s Day caught on in Britain. The Scottish celebrated a two-day event that started with “hunting the gowk” (a word for the cuckoo, which represents a fool), during which people are sent on wild goose chases. This was followed by Tailie Day, where the butts of jokes had fake tails or Kick Me signs pinned to their backsides.

Have a laugh at these hilarious (and bizarre) vintage April Fool’s and poisson d’avril cards. –Wally

15 Best Articles of 2017

Our top blog posts cover the Paris Catacombs, India’s transsexual hijras, jinns, vintage Halloween, Fès hammans and more.

 

Duke and I tend to be drawn to the bizarre. We’re fans of the strange (chambers lined with skulls and bones, creepy vintage Halloween postcards and photos). We like to meet those who are societal outsiders (like India’s legal third sex, the hijra). We’re obsessed with the supernatural (jinns, gypsy love spells). But we also appreciate a good pampering (at a Fès hamman, say) and architectural beauties (such as the Milan Duomo).

Seems like you do, too. Here are the top 15 blog posts from last year. What was your favorite? –Wally

 

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1. GRUESOME FACTS (AND HELPFUL TIPS) ABOUT THE PARIS CATACOMBS

No bones about it: If you think piles of skulls and hallways formed of bones are pretty effin’ cool (like us), then the Catacombs of Paris are for you.

 

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2. SECRETS OF THE HIJRA: INDIA’S LITTLE-KNOWN TRANSSEXUALS

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

 

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3. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM JINNS AND BLACK MAGIC

Black magic in Islam is a serious concern — and the holy writings offer numerous ways to negate magic jinn.

 

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4. THE BEST PLACE TO MAKE OUT IN PUBLIC IN DELHI

Not a typical tourist stop, the Garden of Five Senses is a whimsical sculpture park worth visiting. It’s also popular with local couples escaping societal judgment against PDA.

 

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5. 24 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN CARDS THAT ARE NOSTALGIC — BUT A BIT CREEPY, TOO

Halloween greetings from the past featured common Halloween symbols: the witch, black cat, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, devil — and one that has been forgotten.

 

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6. 21 VINTAGE HALLOWEEN PHOTOS THAT ARE SO CREEPY THEY'LL GIVE YOU NIGHTMARES

Halloween costumes of the past were scary as hell.

 

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7. WHAT’S THE BEST HAMMAM SPA EXPERIENCE IN FES, MOROCCO?

Reinvigorate yourself at the luxury hammam Les Bains Amani.

 

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8. 7 FUN FACTS ABOUT THE MILAN CATHEDRAL

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

 

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9. LOVE SPELLS FROM THE GYPSIES

How to cast a love spell to make someone fall in love with you — or fall out of love with you. Plus, secrets from the Roma that will reveal your future spouse!

 

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10. THE PISHTACO OF PERU

Why one of the world’s creepiest vampire legends lingers to this day.

 

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11. WAT RONG SUEA TEN, THE BLUE TEMPLE

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

 

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12. THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF LIVING IN QATAR

What’s it like living in a Muslim country that fasts for an entire month and limits the sale of booze? What do Qataris think of Americans? And how the heck do you pronounce Qatar?

 

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13. THE INDIAN CASTE SYSTEM EXPLAINED

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

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14. HOW ST. NICHOLAS BECAME SANTA CLAUS

The surprising origins of jolly old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

 

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15. THE BEST SHOP FOR BLUE POTTERY IN THE ENTIRE FEZ MEDINA

If you’re shopping in Fès, just off of Place Seffarine is a small shop with a friendly owner and great deals.

Petit Palais: 6 Fun Facts About This Paris Attraction

Looking for not-so-typical things to do in Paris? Visit this gorgeous palace art museum where the garden café and iron staircases are works of art themselves.

Le Petit Palais (and le Grand Palais across the street) were built as permanent fixtures for the 1900 World Exhibition

Le Petit Palais (and le Grand Palais across the street) were built as permanent fixtures for the 1900 World Exhibition

There are so many sites to see in Paris that even after a week, we felt we had barely scratched the surface. There are the biggies (the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Notre-Dame) and there are the ones that appeal to Duke’s and my warped sensibilities (the Catacombs, Père Lachaise Cemetery).

And then there are the attractions that make what I like to call the B list. These are the ones that are great to see once you’ve ticked some of the others off your list. Especially if you’ve visited Paris before, you’ve got an opportunity to hit some of the lesser-known sights. You’ll find that there are still so many of these that it can difficult to narrow down even the B list.

Beautiful bas-relief sculptures and amazing metalwork frame the entrance to le Petit Palais

Beautiful bas-relief sculptures and amazing metalwork frame the entrance to le Petit Palais

Le Petit Palais (literally, the Little Palace) is one such site. My mom’s friend had recently been to Paris and she raved about how much she enjoyed this smaller, gorgeous art museum. It’s one of those places we wouldn’t have added to our itinerary if we hadn’t gotten this word-of-mouth recommendation.

But we spent a couple of highly enjoyable hours in this ornate mansion and definitely suggest putting it on your B list.

Here are some fun facts about the Petit Palais.

 

1. Le Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Exhibition.

Like its big brother across the Avenue Winston Churchill, the Grand Palais, the structure was intended to stand the test of time, instead of the temporary buildings so often constructed for world’s fairs.

Both sit near another World Exhibition project to beautify the city, the bridge called le Pont Alexandre III. Designed by Charles Girault, the palace consists of four wings around a colonnade that borders a semicircular garden. It took over 20 years to complete.

Part of the intricate façade of the Petit Palais. (Duke and Wally have a soft spot for squirrels)

Part of the intricate façade of the Petit Palais. (Duke and Wally have a soft spot for squirrels)

2. Fair officials liked the plan because it dealt with what they viewed as an eyesore.

One of the leftover buildings from the 1855 World Fair, the Palais de l’Industrie, ran parallel to the Champs Élysées and blocked views of Les Invalides (where the tomb of Napoleon resides). So when it was suggested to demolish it and build two palaces that fit with the new development plans for Paris, officials green-lit the project.

La Vachalcade  by Fernand Pelez, 1896 

La Vachalcade by Fernand Pelez, 1896 

3. In 1902, it became an art museum.

The Petit Palais’ permanent collection of artwork spans from antiquity to 1920. In one room you may find a 19th century painting of a famous Parisian food market, while in another you’ll be looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts or ancient Greek pottery, Paris Perfect points out.

Porteurs de farine, scène parisienne  by Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, 1885

Porteurs de farine, scène parisienne by Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse, 1885

Sometimes we enjoy going to a smaller museum, where you can see the entire collection in a couple of hours, as opposed to the overwhelming Louvre, for instance, where you could wander for over a week and still not see everything. 

An added bonus? The Petit Palais is free!

The museum is truly breathtaking, with art to be found every direction you look, including up

The museum is truly breathtaking, with art to be found every direction you look, including up

4. Le Petit Palais is famous for its murals.

The Petit Palais is officially known as the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris (the Paris Fine Arts Museum).

Albert Besnard was given the task of painting four decorative murals for the entrance hall. He named his works of art Matter, Thought, Formal Beauty and Mysticism and worked on them from 1903 to 1910.

Heads-up! Some of the artwork is found on the ceiling

Heads-up! Some of the artwork is found on the ceiling

Don’t forget to look up. Not all of the artwork hangs on the walls. Some of the most impressive pieces are part of the palace itself. The painted ceilings took from 1909 to 1924 to complete. The North Pavilion’s were painted by Ferdinand Humbert, while those in the South Pavilion are by Georges Picard.

There are two main galleries that also have murals. One shows Paris of the past, from the Battle of Lutetia (fought at the bequest of Caesar) to the French Revolution, while the other illustrates a more modern Paris.

Also keep an eye out for the 16 plaster busts set into niches. They’re of famous artists, including Eugène Delacroix.

You have to make sure you see Girault’s gorgeous lace-like iron staircase

You have to make sure you see Girault’s gorgeous lace-like iron staircase

5. The spiraling staircases are true works of art.

Make sure you explore the spiral staircases at Petit Palais. We found one in the back corner and were mesmerized by its graceful metallic curves. The designer, Girault, is credited with creating some of the finest wrought iron work ever. He also designed the golden gate at the entrance as well.

Wally wouldn’t mind living in a place like this

Wally wouldn’t mind living in a place like this

Now  this  is the kind of staircase you can make a grand entrance on!

Now this is the kind of staircase you can make a grand entrance on!

Duke and I were absolutely obsessed with the staircase. The banisters and balustrade consist of curlicues and the spiraling tendrils of plantlife. How the heck did Girault take a hard material like iron and make it look like delicate vines? You have to see this for yourself.

There’s a cute café in the central courtyard of the Petit Palais, along with a lush garden

There’s a cute café in the central courtyard of the Petit Palais, along with a lush garden

6. The courtyard garden is a gorgeous spot to have lunch or take a coffee break.

Our other favorite spot at the palace is le Jardin du Petit Palais, the enclosed garden café. Even though the building is on one of Paris’ major thoroughfares, you’d never know it. Lush plants and a curved row of columns draped in golden garlands provide cover in this secret spot in the central courtyard of the museum.

Grab a bite to eat or a drink (caffeinated or alcoholic) and soak in this peaceful oasis, with its reflecting pools, tropical foliage and stunning mosaic floors. What’s cool is that you’ll see the other side of the palace, where you enter, across the way, as if it’s an entirely different building. –Wally


Consider planning your trip with the TripHobo itinerary planner. Add in your airfare, hotel or homestay and the things you want to see each day — and it’ll even help plan your budget.


Wally attempts to blend in with the statue. Doesn’t look just like a nature goddess?

Wally attempts to blend in with the statue. Doesn’t look just like a nature goddess?

Le Petit Palais
Avenue Winston Churchill
75008 Paris, France

Discover the Charms of La Ciotat

A little-known port in the South of France, where you can hike up to Parc du Mugel botanic gardens and see the Eden Théâtre, where the Lumière Brothers screened the first moving picture.

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

The plan was to take a day trip to Aubagne in the South of France. But because of the all-too-common and unpredictable rail strike, we were unable to take the train. So Wally, his parents and I decided we’d try out the bus. We bought tickets and boarded the 72 bus from Aix.

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

During the ride, Wally struck up a conversation with an adorable young woman with large expressive eyes and chestnut-colored hair tousled in a loose braid. She asked us in French where we were going, and when she heard that our plan was to hit Aubagne, she instead suggested La Ciotat, saying, “It’s super!” pronouncing the word “soo-pair.”

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their movie, ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,’ which sent some viewers running from their seats in terror.
Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

We decided to follow her advice; after all, she knows the region better than we did. And so we got off the bus early, to explore La Ciotat.

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

The charming seaside town was the birthplace of cinema and the setting for many of the pioneering Lumière brothers’ first moving pictures. The quaint old port is now filled with luxury yachts and fishing boats bobbing upon the gentle waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Apparently the town also holds a yearly festival in October to celebrate its miraculous immunity from the Great Plague of 1720. Nearby Marseille did not fare so well and lost about 50% of its population! Historians believe that the ancient fortified stone walls surrounding the hamlet acted as a barrier to the wave of destruction caused by the bubonic plague, helping the townsfolk of La Ciotat to avoid a terrible fate.

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption

Once you arrive in La Ciotat, you have a choice of adventures. If you make your way from the port like we did, you’ll pass the town’s largest church, Our Lady of the Assumption, with its single belltower. Built at the start of the 17th century, it has a restrained Romanesque style façade. Pale rose-colored limestone used to construct the church came from the ancient quarries of La Couronne.

Unfortunately, we were unable to see inside, as the doors were locked.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption
25 Rue Adolphe Abeille

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre

Built in 1889 and facing the Mediterranean seafront, the landmark Eden Théâtre, with its butter-yellow façade, is the world’s oldest surviving public movie theater in operation.

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their black-and-white silent movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which shows a steam train pulling into a station. The scene certainly made quite an impression, sending some viewers running from their seats in terror as the image of an oncoming train hurtled towards them.

Eden Théâtre
25 Boulevard Georges Clémenceau

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

Parc du Mugel

Wally and I decided to check out the botanic garden of Parc du Mugel, while Shirley and Dave explored the small cobblestone-lined streets. The park is quite a hike but ended up being a highlight of our trip.

Since we weren’t completely sure where we were going, we stopped in at Au Poivre d’Ane, a bookstore, to ask directions to the park. A white cat named Dickens slept in the front window. The shopkeeper told us to follow the Avenue des Calanques until we reached the iron gates at the end and becomes Avenue du Mugel.

As we walked up the gradual incline of the road, we passed derelict port buildings covered in graffiti. A fine wire mesh, presumably to prevent erosion, covers the lower half of the cliffs like a hairnet keeping errant stones and soil in place.

When we reached the top, we were rewarded with the natural splendor of Parc du Mugel.

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

The Park’s History

In 1923, the land was purchased by Marseille coal merchant Louis Fouquet. A man of considerable wealth, Fouquet created a great arboretum, planting plane trees, cork oaks, chestnut trees, bamboos, mimosas and bougainvilleas.

The town eventually bought back the entire property, and in 1982, the nature preserve was opened to the public.

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Located at the foot of a massive calanque, or seaside cliff, the 270-foot-high Bec de l’Aigle, Eagle’s Beak, shelters the site from the mistral, the powerful, cold dry wind that blows through the Rhône Valley to the Mediterranean coast. The Bec is composed of a conglomerate called poudingue or puddingstone. The “pudding” is made up of a fine-grained sediment composed of silt and limestone, flecked with small round pebbles the color of pomegranate seeds.

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Wally and I followed a steep but shaded trail filled with chestnut trees, Aleppo pines and laurels before reaching the belvedere, a fancy name for a lookout point, to enjoy the panoramic view of the sun-dappled Mediterranean Sea. It was worth the effort.

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

The park has an impluvium irrigation system, which collects rainwater runoff for water-thirsty plants, and calades, retaining walls hidden by the lush greenery that act as ribs along the slope to hold back the earth in certain areas.

These lovingly arranged gardens contain wildflowers, cactuses, roses, aromatic and medicinal plants as well as a citrus fruit orchard.

Parc du Mugel
Calanque du Mugel

A pleasant stroll around the port 

A pleasant stroll around the port 

If you’re in the Aix or Marseille area and want to take an off-the-beaten path, follow our bus acquantaince’s advice and visit La Ciotat. The charming town, with its beautiful landscape and historic theater, deserves a visit for a few hours. –Duke

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

A Tour of the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur

Looking for things to do in Aix-en-Provence? Travel through time at this historic church.

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

Cathédrale Saint Sauveur
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Tucked amongst the pastel-colored 17th century mansions and narrow streets of the charming vielle ville, or old town, of Aix-en-Provence, France lies one of its oldest and most interesting monuments, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. (Try pronouncing it something like, “Seh So-Vurr.) Rising majestically, it occupies the site where the ancient forum of Roman Aquae Sextiae once stood.

During the French Revolution, the statues of the kings of France were decapitated.
Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

A Brief History of Saint Sauveur

Located at a point along what was the Via Aurelia, the principal highway from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor during the dominition of the Roman Empire, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur evolved in fits and starts, beginning in the 5th century. Delays between the laying of its foundation and its completion due to wars, la peste (bubonic plague) and lack of financing bear witness to the amalgam of ecclesiastical architectural styles that make up the religious landmark.

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Saint Maximinus and Mary Magdalene’s Voyage

According to Christian tradition, Saint Maximinus arrived in Provence from Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, accompanied by Mary Magdalene on a rudderless boat belonging to her brother, Lazarus. It was expected that they would perish at sea — however, the voyage brought them to the southern coast of France, landing in the city of Marseilles, where they achieved success in converting the French people to Christianity. In fact, Maximinus became the first Archbishop of Aix. He built a modest chapel here and dedicated it to Saint Sauveur, Christ the Savior.

There’s a popular theory (written about in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) that says Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of her journey — with the baby daddy being none other than Christ himself! The descendants of that child eventually married into the French royal family and started the Merovingian dynasty.

ANOTHER “DA VINCI CODE” CONNECTION: Saint-Sulpice and the Mystery of the Rose Line

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

The Baptistery Rotunda

The oldest part of Saint Sauveur is the baptistery, which was built at the beginning of the 5th century and predates the current cathedral by almost 700 years. As the town grew, the cathedral was renovated in the 16th century in the Romanesque style, evidence of the growing economic clout of the Catholic diocese.

This is the area off to the right when you enter the cathedral, and indeed, it has an ancient feel to it.

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

Allegedly, French historian Jean Scholastique Pitton uncovered an artifact, the orphaned leg of a statue, while excavating the site. He presumed this to belong to the sun god Apollo, and this became the origin of the Provençal myth that the church was built atop a pagan Roman temple dedicated to Apollo.

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

Eight slender columns of granite and green marble with Corinthian capitals surround the octagonal Merovingian baptismal basin. It was fed by the warm waters coming from the Roman baths. Its eight sides are a symbolic number of regeneration.

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

A Tale of Three Naves

The cathedral consists of three naves, compositionally connected to one another but nevertheless clearly distinguishable. The north is in the Baroque style, the south Romanesque, which served as the main nave prior to the construction of the central Gothic nave.

 

Romanesque Nave

At the beginning of the 12th century, the principal nave was constructed next to the baptistery in the Romanesque style and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The front of the nave was demolished during the 15th century and replaced with a new Gothic façade and bell tower.

The cloister, just beyond the baptistery and accessed through the Romanesque nave, was built next to the cathedral between the late 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. It was reduced in size in the early 18th century to expand the west corridor. At the corners, pillars are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

 

Gothic Nave

About 200 years later, further expansion occurred, and a second massive Gothic nave and apse were added. The wings of the transept were begun in 1285 and completed in 1316. Bay by bay, the Romanesque church was embellished and transformed in the Gothic style. This is the area you’ll see first if you walk straight into the cathedral.

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

Baroque Nave

Just to the left of the Gothic nave as you enter the church, you’ll come to the small Baroque nave. To either side are green and gold organ cases in the Louis XV style, built by Jean-Esprit Isnard. The instrumental part by De Ducroquet dates from 1855. Both are listed historical monuments. An identical but false organ chest was built on the opposite side — just for the sake of symmetry.

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

A fascinating stone altarpiece commissioned by the Aygosi family, originally installed in the church of the Carmelites in Aix, can be seen in the Baroque aisle. Carved from stone by Audinet Stephani and installed in 1823, it depicts a variety of saints: Marcel, Anne with the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus and Marguerite of Antioch emerging from the shoulders of a dragon who had swallowed her whole.

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Apse and Artwork

The cathedral underwent extensive renovation in the 19th century. The nave was redecorated with painted and sculpted neo-Gothic elements added between 1857 and 1862.

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

The choir gallery of the Gothic nave contains the high altar with a pair of carved giltwood angels, a modern sculptural cathedra, or bishop’s throne, which looks a bit like a gray tankless toilet backed by three wavy, glittering bronze panels symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Nineteenth century stained glass windows feature the coats of arms of high-ranking church clergy.

Check to see if the  Triptych of the Burning Bush , by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

Check to see if the Triptych of the Burning Bush, by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

The cathedral’s most famous work is the Triptych of the Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment. Commissioned by King René for his funerary chapel in the church of Les Grands-Carmes, it is considered one of the most beautiful 15th century paintings in Europe. Painted in 1475 and 1476, it has resided in the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur since the 19th century. Due to its fragility, they only open the case on specific days; sadly, ours was not one of those days.

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Western Façade

With the completion of the nave, attention was drawn to the western façade, which was demolished and replaced in the Gothic style. Figures representing the Apostles flank the cathedral doors. Above the portal are the figures of 12 sibyls, pagan fortune tellers from antiquity, surrounded by foliage, fruit and flowers.

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

During the French Revolution, the statues on the façade, believed to depict the kings of France, were decapitated, and the heads were lost. The current ones are replicas.

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

The centerpiece of the façade is a statue of the Archangel Saint Michael vanquishing Satan with a cross, made in 1507 by sculptor Jean Paumier.

 

If you’re in Aix-en-Provence, pull yourself away from the delightful open-air markets to spend an hour or so exploring the choose-your-own-architectural-adventure of the Cathédral Saint Sauveur. It’s a bit like traveling through time, as you make your way from the ancient baptistery to the modern bishop’s throne. –Duke

The Secrets of Saint-Sulpice

Dan Brown got some details wrong in The Da Vinci Code, but this large church is still worth a visit — especially if you’re planning to hit the Luxembourg Gardens.

If you’re in Saint-Germain-des-Près or visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, be sure to stop by Saint-Sulpice Church

If you’re in Saint-Germain-des-Près or visiting the Luxembourg Gardens, be sure to stop by Saint-Sulpice Church

Église Saint-Sulpice
12 Place Saint-Sulpice
75005 Paris, France

It might be the second-biggest church in Paris, but Saint-Sulpice isn’t a major tourist attraction — now that  Da Vinci Code  fever has died down

It might be the second-biggest church in Paris, but Saint-Sulpice isn’t a major tourist attraction — now that Da Vinci Code fever has died down

  • Saint-Sulpice is the second-largest church in Paris, behind Notre-Dame.
  • It’s located in the 6th arrondissement, in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Près district.
  • The Catholic church is dedicated to Saint Sulpicius the Pious, a 7th century bishop of Bourges, who spoke out against the Merovingian kings.
  • Construction of the church ran from 1646 to 1745, dragging out for a century mostly due to inconsistent funding. It’s done in a muted Baroque style.
  • Saint-Sulpice was where the S&M enthusiast the Marquis de Sade and the poet Charles Baudelaire were baptized, and it hosted the wedding of author Victor Hugo.
  • It boasts iconic mismatched towers.
  • The church is home to one of the most magnificent organs in the world.
  • It’s known as the Cathedral of the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank.
  • Saint-Sulpice became even more famous by being featured in a scene in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code involving its gnomon, an astronomical instrument erroneously depicted as the site of the Rose Line.
  • How do you pronounce Saint-Sulpice? Try saying “Seh Sool-Peez.”
The fountain was built by Louis Visconti in the mid-1800s

The fountain was built by Louis Visconti in the mid-1800s

We had spent the morning wandering the Luxembourg Gardens. Our friends Kent and Michael, who live in Paris, suggested we make the short walk to see l’Église Saint-Sulpice. We’re glad we did.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown calls the gnomon the Paris Meridian, or the Rose Line — but apparently that’s pure fiction.
Wally never misses a chance to photograph depictions of lions

Wally never misses a chance to photograph depictions of lions

Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

A block from the gardens, we entered a small square with a fountain dominating the space. It’s quite an impressive work, with lions lying down but roaring grumpily, just like our cat Caribou. The Fontaine Saint-Sulpice was constructed between 1843 and 1848 by the architect Louis Visconti, who also designed Napoleon’s tomb.

The impressive fountain in front of Saint-Sulpice, with one of its mismatched towers in the background

The impressive fountain in front of Saint-Sulpice, with one of its mismatched towers in the background

Wally, far right, and his friends at the Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

Wally, far right, and his friends at the Fontaine Saint-Sulpice

At the top, in a rectangular structure built of arches, four assumably famous dudes sit majestically, starting out in each of the cardinal directions. Apparently, they were all created by different sculptors and represent religious figures who were known for having the gift of gab.

st-supliceinterior.JPG

Église Saint-Sulpice

The Church of Saint-Sulpice now stands where a small Romanesque church once catered to the neighborhood, long before the Saint-Germain-des-Près district was home to the existentialists (Sartre and the gang) or the posh hot spot it is today.

Thinking of changing careers? Pray to Saint Sulpicius, to whom the church is dedicated; he’s the patron saint of delayed vocations. ( The Martyrdom of Saint Sulpicius , Eugene Delacroix, circa 1847)

Thinking of changing careers? Pray to Saint Sulpicius, to whom the church is dedicated; he’s the patron saint of delayed vocations. (The Martyrdom of Saint Sulpicius, Eugene Delacroix, circa 1847)

Like many large churches, it took a long time to build — about a century — mainly due to touch-and-go funding, with various architects contributing different designs along the way. Construction began in 1646 but stalled from 1678 to 1719. It then resumed, mostly wrapping up by 1745.

A funerary niche at Saint-Sulpice

A funerary niche at Saint-Sulpice

Some of the statues at the church are simply heavenly

Some of the statues at the church are simply heavenly

Nicknamed the Cathedral of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank), Saint-Sulpice is one of the largest churches in Paris, second only to Notre-Dame. Its design is actually quite plain for the typically frilly and ornate Baroque style. You’ll also notice that it’s slightly asymmetrical, as the south tower was never finished. Construction was interrupted by the French Revolution and never completed. Stacks of open colonnades line the exterior, evoking the Roman Colosseum.

Light a candle and say a prayer, even if you’re not religious — it certainly can’t hurt, right?

Light a candle and say a prayer, even if you’re not religious — it certainly can’t hurt, right?

Saint-Sulpice Church is renowned for its massive organ, considered one of the finest (and largest) in the world. It dates back to 1781 and was the highlight of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s career. Because of this impressive instrument, concerts are frequently held in the church.

A down and out man in front of the church

A down and out man in front of the church

A wedding was taking place at the far front of the church. We caught the bride and her father as they headed up there

A wedding was taking place at the far front of the church. We caught the bride and her father as they headed up there

Nowhere near as popular as other churches, like Notre-Dame or Sacré-Cœur, this feels very much like a neighborhood place of worship, and chances are you’ll be able to wander it without many other tourists around. When we visited, there was a small wedding going on at the very front of the church, and we watched the bride and her father weave their way through the space, heading up the aisle.

There aren’t any pews at Saint-Sulpice…

There aren’t any pews at Saint-Sulpice…

…just row after row of small wooden chairs

…just row after row of small wooden chairs

One thing that particularly struck us is the lack of pews — instead, there are rows upon rows of small wooden chairs with woven seats.

 

The Da Vinci Code Connection

There it is.
Embedded in the gray granite floor, a thin polished strip of brass glistened in the stone … a golden line slanting across the church’s floor. The line bore graduated markings, like a ruler. It was a gnomon, Silas had been told, a pagan astronomical device like a sundial. Tourists, scientists, historians, and pagans from around the world came to Saint‑Sulpice to gaze upon this famous line.
The Rose Line.
…. It was an ancient sundial of sorts, a vestige of the pagan temple that had once stood on this very spot. The sun’s rays, shining through the oculus on the south wall, moved farther down the line every day, indicating the passage of time, from solstice to solstice.
–“The Da Vinci Code,” Chapter 22, Dan Brown
Look for the gnomon, which leads to an obelisk against one wall. This line marks the solstices and equinoxes

Look for the gnomon, which leads to an obelisk against one wall. This line marks the solstices and equinoxes

Saint-Sulpice has another claim to fame: It’s featured in Dan Brown’s fun puzzle romp The Da Vinci Code — both the book, quoted above, and the crappy movie version.

The narrow brass strip is used as a clue by Silas, the murderous monk, in his quest for the Holy Grail. One end is found near the middle of the nave on the right, by a stone statue with a Latin inscription. From there, it runs north, leading to an obelisk next to a statue of Saint Peter.

This is the famous gnomon — technically, the projecting piece on a sundial that shows the time by the position of its shadow. In this case, it’s a line that’s used as an astronomical instrument from the 1700s to determine the suspiciously pagan date of Easter each year (the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox — it doesn’t get any more pagan than that!). The sun’s rays enter the church through a missing panel in the south transept’s stained glass window and fall upon the line at various points throughout the year. On the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun hits a bronze table, and on the winter solstice, it illuminates the obelisk.

Brown calls this line the Paris Meridian, or the Rose Line, but apparently that’s pure fiction: Zero longitude of the meridian line is actually in Parc Montsouris, according to Travel France Online.

Because of the influx of Da Vinci Code aficionados (visitations increased 25% after the publication of the novel, apparently), Saint-Sulpice posted the following note in English:

Well, The Da Vinci Code version makes a good story. But even the facts are not without interest, in providing an example of the cooperation of science and religion. It would not be unreasonable to expect the church was built on a pagan temple; this was a regular practice. However, it seems unlikely that the sundial, especially if known to be pagan, would have been preserved or reconstructed in the new church building.

Despite the fact that Brown manipulated the facts a bit to make a more compelling story, Saint-Sulpice is definitely worth a wander, especially when paired with the Luxembourg Gardens. –Wally

La Cigale: Why the Cicada Became the Symbol of Provence

A Jean de la Fontaine fable helped the noisome cicada bug burrow its way into Provençal hearts.

The noisy (and let’s face it, rather ugly) bug the cicada became the chosen motif to represent the French region of Provence

The noisy (and let’s face it, rather ugly) bug the cicada became the chosen motif to represent the French region of Provence

Aix-en-Provence, France has all the trappings of a charming Provençal town, in particular its farmers markets filled with fresh produce, assorted cheeses, lavender sachets and freshly cut sunflowers. What we didn’t expect to find depicted everywhere was cicadas. There were brightly glazed ceramic ones, table linens with their likeness and pastel-colored cicada-shaped soaps. You can imagine our surprise and delight, when Wally and I learned that the people of Provence chose cicadas (which I call “ree-ree bugs” because of the sound they make) as their honorary symbol. We had to discover how this came about.

When summer arrives in Provence, cicadas, or cigales as they are referred to in French, dramatically announce their return, filling the air with their distinctive melody.

According to Provençal folklore, the cicada was sent by God to rouse peasants from their afternoon siestas to prevent them from becoming too lazy.

The plan backfired.

Cicadas have been featured in literature since ancient times. Greek poets were compelled to write odes to them. To them, cicadas symbolized death and rebirth, due to the bugs’ mysterious life cycle. Cicadas spend their nymph stage underground, and classical poets likely observed species that buried themselves for two to five years before emerging from the earth.

Only the male cicada “sings,” prompting the Ancient Greek poet Xenophon to quip: “Blessed are the cicadas, for they have voiceless wives.”

Only the male cicada “sings,” prompting the Ancient Greek poet Xenophon to quip: “Blessed are the cicadas, for they have voiceless wives.”

When the air reaches the right temperature — 77ºF — masses of male cicadas will stridently whine or serenade female cicadas; the females do not sing. For those more poetically inclined, each sings in unison by rapidly vibrating their tymbal, a thin membrane with thickened ribs located on each side of its abdomen. Because the abdomen is mostly hollow, it acts as a resonance chamber that amplifies the sound and broadcasts up to mile away. The din is the loudest of all insect-produced sounds.

In  Phaedrus , Plato muses that cicadas were once men who became so enraptured by music, they forgot to eat and drink, and their bodies wasted away

In Phaedrus, Plato muses that cicadas were once men who became so enraptured by music, they forgot to eat and drink, and their bodies wasted away

According to Provençal folklore, the cicada was sent by God to rouse peasants from their afternoon siestas on hot summer days and prevent them from becoming too lazy. The plan backfired: Instead of being disturbed by the cicada, the peasants found the sound of their buzzing relaxing, which in turn lulled them to sleep.

There is a Provençal expression: Il ne fait pas bon de travailler quand la cigale chante, or “It’s not good to work when the cicada is singing.”

Jean de la Fontaine’s story “The Cicada and the Ant” is based on one of Aesop’s famous fables

Jean de la Fontaine’s story “The Cicada and the Ant” is based on one of Aesop’s famous fables

Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (“The Cicada and the Ant”) in 1668, an interpretation inspired by Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” In the story, the cicada passes the glorious days of summer consumed in song, while the industrious ant forages and stores food for the winter to come.

The ant works industriously all summer long, while the cicada lazes about singing. Guess who’s caught off-guard when winter arrives?

The ant works industriously all summer long, while the cicada lazes about singing. Guess who’s caught off-guard when winter arrives?

In 1854, together with six other local writers, Frédéric Mistral formed the Félibrige, a literary society to preserve the Provençal language and customs of Southern France. He coined the phrase, “Lou soulei mi fa canta,” Provençal for “the sun makes me sing,” usually accompanied by an illustration of a cicada.

A ceramicist from the Aubagne town of Provence, Louis Sicard, was asked by a wealthy tile manufacturer in 1895 to come up with a small keepsake gift symbolizing Provence for the man to give to his business clients. Inspired by the poets of the Félibrige, Sicard designed and created a paperweight with a cicada sitting on an olive branch bearing Mistral's epigram “Lou soulei mi fa canta,” earning himself the nickname “the Father of the Cicadas.”

If you startle a cicada, it might emit a spray of piss, prompting Provençal peasants of the past to thread the insects on a string, hang them up to dry and then boil their bodies into a tisane to cure urinary tract ailments

If you startle a cicada, it might emit a spray of piss, prompting Provençal peasants of the past to thread the insects on a string, hang them up to dry and then boil their bodies into a tisane to cure urinary tract ailments

The people of Provence adopted the noisy critters as their mascot, and the motif made its way into everything from regional fabrics to pottery displayed proudly outside Provençal homes. Like horseshoes or four leaf clovers, they’re regarded as good luck charms, and seem to burrow their way into many a tourist’s suitcase. In fact, we purchased a wrought-iron cicada trivet at the Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market and a bunch of perfumed ceramic cicadas at the Aix tourist center as souvenirs and gifts. –Duke

Where to Eat and Shop in Cassis

Spend a charming day wandering this pretty Provence port — and pick up a bottle of crème de cassis and marc while you’re at it.

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Built on a hillside, the 17-century medieval town of Cassis, in the South of France, is clustered around a harbor shaped like a crescent (or, one might say croissant). Many of the buildings have beautifully weathered shutters and the town’s warren of charming narrow streets are lined with cafés, restaurants, shops and residences easily accessible by foot, or à pied as the French say.

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.
With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

Time for Lunch

After our afternoon excursion on the Mediterranean touring the white cliffsides known as calanques, the Shirl, Dave, Wally and I had worked up an appetite and decided to have lunch on the seaside terrace of the Marco Polo Restaurant.

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

What appeared to be a regular diner was enjoying his meal near the entrance to the restaurant. When he finished, he lit a cigar. A waitress drizzled water across his lap and told him to put it out. When he refused, she threatened to pour a full glass over his head — and he finally acquiesced.
Each of us ordered the Marco Polo salad. The mixed greens included shredded chicken, Granny Smith apple slices, Belgian endives, cherry tomatoes, kernels of corn and a light mustard dressing. We all enjoyed them — a nice light break from all the fromage and cured saucissons.

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Wally and I also ordered Kir Royales, champagne with the addition of the syrupy blackcurrant apéritif liqueur crème de cassis.

As an interesting aside, the Provençal region is known for rosé and Sauvignon Blanc — not crème de cassis, which is a specialty of the Burgundy region.

 

Le Marco Polo
4, place Mirabeau


This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

Time to Shop

Should you decide to wander the streets of Cassis after lunch (and you really should), there are plenty of shops and boutiques to whet your appetite, offering local wares — but you may find many of them closed. Shops close up to three hours for lunch between 12 to 3 p.m.

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

One shop in particular that piqued our interest, the Cassis-Provence shop, allegedly resumed business at 2 p.m., but didn’t unlock its doors until 2:45 p.m. (We know cuz we kept checking back, we were so eager to get inside.) C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

The shop proprietor was wearing a voluminous pink cotton candy cloud of a dress which made her look like doll, earning her Wally’s fitting nickname Madame Poupée.

A Cassis courtyard

A Cassis courtyard

We purchased the following from this well-stocked shop, which featured wines, aperitifs and olive oil:

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

  • Margier extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlaban marc (a digestif Mme Poupée told us is a local specialty and drunk after every meal)
  • Crème de cassis
  • Château de Fontcreuse rosé
  • La Cagole (une bière blanche, or white beer, which Wally and I realized is our favorite type of beer)

Cassis Provence
9, rue Brémond


It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

Cassis remains a friendly, unspoiled spot on the Mediterranean coast, where you can easily spend a relaxing sun-soaked afternoon enjoying the picturesque landscape and tasty food in an enchanting Provençal village. –Duke

French Phrases About Animals

Why is having the cockroach being depressed? What does it mean when you say a drink is cat pee? Learn these and more beastly fun French expressions!

Just as in English, the French have their own set of colorful phrases that draw upon the animal world for inspiration — I won’t even mention frogs here. Here’s a sampling of phrases and expressions translated to English, inspired by our furry and feathered friends. It should give you an insight into the cultural nuances of French life and will helpfully prevent you from speaking like a Spanish cow! –Wally

The expression “La nuit, tous les chats sont gris” translates to “At night, all cats are gray.”

It’s attributed to Benjamin Franklin as a reason to take an older woman to bed!
Don’t waste that good jam on these pigs

Don’t waste that good jam on these pigs

Pigs

C’est donner de la confiture aux cochons.

What it translates to: It’s like giving jam to pigs.

What it means: That’s like casting pearls before swine, or that’s giving something valuable to people who won’t appreciate them.
 

Manger comme un cochon

What it translates to: To eat like a pig

What it means: To pig out

 

Un cochon n'y retrouverait pas ses petits.

What it translates to: A pig couldn’t find its babies here.

What it means: This place is a pig sty, a complete mess.

Would you dare wake up this lil guy if he was sleeping?

Would you dare wake up this lil guy if he was sleeping?

Cats

Ne réveillez pas le chat qui dort.

What it translates to: Don’t wake the sleeping cat.

What it means: Let sleeping dogs lie, or don’t interfere in a situation that’s going well.

 

Un chat dans la gorge

What it translates to: A cat in your throat

What it means: A frog in your throat

 

Appelez un chat un chat

What it translates to: To call a cat a cat

What it means: To call a spade a spade, to speak plainly even if it’ll hurt someone

 

Quand le chat est parti, les souris dansent.

What it translates to: When the cat’s away, the mice start to play dance.

What it means: When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

 

Donner sa langue au chat

What it translates to: To give his or her tongue to the cat

What it means: You might think this means “cat got your tongue,” but it actually means to give up.

 

À bon chat, bon rat

What it translates to: To the good cat, a good rat

What it means: To meet one’s match (some translate this to “tit for tat”)


Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter

What it translates to: To have other cats to whip (they better mean cat o’ nine tails and not actual kitties!)

What it means: To have bigger fish to fry

 

Les chiens ne font pas des chats.

What it translates to: Dogs don’t have cats.

What it means: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, like father like son (the kids are like their parents).

 

C’est du pipi de chat.

What it translates to: It’s cat pee.

What it means: This drink is weak or has no flavor.


Il n’y a pas un chat.

What it translates to: There’s no cat.

What it means: Nobody’s here.

 

La nuit, tous les chats sont gris.

What it translates to: At night, all cats are gray.

What it means: In the dark, physical appearance isn’t important. (This is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin as a reason to take an older woman to bed!)

 

Un chat échaudé craint l’eau froide.

What it translates to: A scalded cat fears cold water.

What it means: Once bitten, twice shy, or to have been burned before (to have had a bad experience and be overly cautious in a similar situation).

Would you ever need a drink so badly that you’d harm this adorable Frenchie?

Would you ever need a drink so badly that you’d harm this adorable Frenchie?

Dogs

À boire, ou j’tue le chien!

What it translates to: A drink — or kill the dog!

What it means: I need a drink!

 

Un temps de chien

What it translates to: Dog’s weather

What it means: Bad weather

 

Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe.

What it translates to: Dogs howl, the caravan passes.

What it means: Let them say what they want; I know what I’m doing.

 

Le chien qui aboie ne mord pas.

What it translates to: The dog that barks doesn’t bite.

What it means: His bark is worse than his bite (he’s all talk and no action).

You can’t drown a fish, sillies!

You can’t drown a fish, sillies!

Fish

Noyer le poisson

What it translates to: To drown the fish

What it means: To bamboozle somebody

 

Le petit poisson deviendra grand.

What it translates to: The little fish will get bigger.

What it means: The child will grow up one day, or a little bit can go a long way.

 

Avoir des yeux de merlan frit

What it translates to: To have a fried merlan’s eyes (a merlan is a type of fish — a whiting or merling)

What it means: Bloodshot, runny eyes

 

Comme un poisson dans l’eau

What it translates to: Like a fish in water

What it means: To be comfortable in a particular situation (funny that we have “like a fish out of water.”)

This gals will grow teeth when Hell freezes over

This gals will grow teeth when Hell freezes over

Birds

Quand les poules auront des dents

What it translates to: When hens have teeth

What it means: When Hell freezes over (or when pigs fly)

 

T’es comme une poule qui a trouvé un couteau.

What it translates to: You’re like a chicken that’s found a knife.

What it means: You’re very confused.

 

Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps.

What it translates to: One swallow doesn’t mean it’s spring.

What it means: Don’t jump to conclusions.

 

Faire un froid de canard

What it translates to: To be a duck’s cold

What it means: To be really cold

 

Avoir la chair de poule

What it translates to: To have hen’s flesh

What it means: To have goosebumps

 

Une poule mouillée

What it translates to: A wet hen

What it means: Someone who’s easily scared (we say chicken or scaredy cat as well)

 

Petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid.

What it translates to: Little by little, the bird makes its nest.

What it means: A little bit goes a long way.

 

La bave du crapaud n’atteint pas la blanche colombe.

What it translates to: The toad’s spit doesn’t reach the white dove.

What it means: It’s water off a duck’s back, to not let an insult or criticism affect you.

If you don’t know what “la vache” means, you speak French like a Spanish cow

If you don’t know what “la vache” means, you speak French like a Spanish cow

Livestock (Cows, Horses, Donkeys, Sheep)

Être franc comme un âne qui recule

What it translates to: To be as frank as a backtracking donkey

What it means: To lie
 

Parler français comme une vache espagnole

What it translates to: To speak French like a Spanish cow

What it means: To speak French poorly

 

La vache!

What it translates to: The cow!

What it means: My god!


Passer du coq à l’âne

What it translates to: To go from the rooster to the donkey

What it means: To jump from one topic to another


Brider l’âne par la queue

What it translates to: To bridle a donkey by the tail

What it means: To do something lacking common sense

 

Avoir une force de cheval

What it translates to: To have the strength of a horse

What it means: To be strong as an ox

 

Une queue de cheval

What it translates to: A horse’s tail

What it means: A ponytail

 

Ce n’est pas la vache qui crie le plus fort qui donne le plus de lait.

What it translates to: The cow that cries the loudest isn’t the one that gives the most milk.

What it means: The ones that protest the most do the least amount of work.

 

Qui vole un œuf, vole un bœuf.

What it translates to: He who steals an egg steals an ox.

What it means: Stealing is stealing, or a small crime leads to a bigger one.

 

Revenons à nos moutons.

What it translates to: Let’s get back to our sheep.

What it means: Let’s get back to what we were doing.

 

Mettre la charrue avant les bœufs

What it translates to: To put the cart before the oxen.

What it means: To put the cart before the horse, do something in the wrong order, or expect too much

 

On ne fait pas boire un âne qui n’a pas soif.

What it translates to: You can’t make a donkey drink if it’s not thirsty.

What it means: You can’t force a stubborn person to do something they don’t want to do.

 

Laisser pisser le mérinos

What it translates to: To let the merinos piss (merinos are a type of sheep)

What it means: To not react to a provocation (we might say, “It’s like water off a duck’s back.”)

Are you as depressed as this cockroach?

Are you as depressed as this cockroach?

Bugs

Tirer les vers du nez

What it translates to: To pull worms out of the nose

What it means: To try to get someone to talk, reveal information

 

Avoir le cafard

What it translates to: To have the cockroach

What it means: To be down in the dumps

 

Avoir une araignée au plafond

What it translates to: To have a spider on the ceiling

What it means: To have bats in the belfry, to be a little crazy

 

On n’attrape pas les mouches avec du vinaigre.

What it translates to: You don’t catch flies with vinegar.

What it means: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (if you want something from someone, be nice and flattering).


Avoir des fourmis

What it translates to: To have ants

What it means: To feel pins and needles


Une écriture en pattes de mouche

What it translates to: Fly’s leg writing

What it means: Writing that’s too small to read, chicken scratch

Gross! Nobody likes a badly licked bear!

Gross! Nobody likes a badly licked bear!

Bears

Vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué

What it translates to: To sell the bear’s skin before you’ve killed it

What it means: To count your chickens before they’re hatched

 

Un ours mal léché

What it translates to: A badly licked bear

What it means: An unsociable or uncouth person

Speak of the wolf and the Devil appears (or something like that)

Speak of the wolf and the Devil appears (or something like that)

Wolves

Quand on parle du loup (on en voit la queue).

What it translates to: When you speak of the wolf (you see its tail).

What it means: Speak of the Devil (and he appears).

 

J’ai une faim de loup.

What it translates to: I have a wolf’s hunger.

What it means: I’m starving (hungry like the wolf, à la Duran Duran?)

Marmots, like this fellow, really know how to get a good night’s sleep

Marmots, like this fellow, really know how to get a good night’s sleep

Miscellaneous Animals

Dormir comme une marmotte

What it translates to: To sleep like a marmot (a giant, chubby squirrel, apparently)

What it means: To sleep like a log


Se faire poser un lapin

What it translates to: To be given a rabbit

What it means: To be stood up


S’ennuyer comme un rat mort

What it translates to: To be as bored as a dead rat

What it means: To be bored to death


Mémoire d’éléphant

What it translates to: An elephant’s memory

What it means: Similar to our expression, “An elephant never forgets.”

 

C’est la montagne qui accouche d’une souris.

What it translates to: The mountain gave birth to a mouse.

What it means: The big event turned out to be a major disappointment.

 

Ce n’est pas aux vieux singes qu’on apprend à faire des grimaces.

What it translates to: It’s not with old monkeys that you learn to make faces.

What it means: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Apparently the French and English agree that foxes are sly 

Apparently the French and English agree that foxes are sly 

Same as in English

Rusé comme un renard

What it translates to and what it means: Sly as a fox

 

Prendre le taureau par les cornes

What it translates to and what it means: To take the bull by the horns


Têtu comme une mule

What it translates to and what it means: Stubborn as a mule

 

Sources: Babbel, elearningfrench.com, Immersion Place, Voulez Vouloz