Bread and Bathrooms: April Travels

April is nearly over. I hesitate to say I’ve been on holiday, because my revision books followed me like the time you broke your leg and the new puppy just wouldn’t take ‘no walkies’ for an answer. Okay, it was nothing like that.

My journey with a far-too-big suitcase and my boyfriend’s new saxophone passed smoothly. The sax didn’t talk much over lunch, and didn’t pay the bill either (my boyfriend is a musician, but I live in hope), but we bonded over a zealous security search at the airport. Two planes, a bus and a tram later, Simona the Sax and I arrived in Bordeaux.

simonameal

Simona the Sax

To put this in context, my BF lives in the South of France, about seven hundred kilometres from my uni on the Scottish border. I could talk about LDRs, being eighteen and not seeing your BF for four months at a time, but I’d rather talk about France. Because Bordeaux was beautiful.

~~~

BORDEAUX

1. THE TOILETS

I always start here… French toilets haven’t impressed me in the past. Something about squatting over a hole waiting for your own filth to spray your legs seems a tad misogynistic to me. (Its hygiene is contested.) But in Bordeaux, every hundred yards along the river, ‘TOILETTE‘ flashes green from a big panelled box. You step in and a lovely lady explains in both French and English that the door will automatically unlock after fifteen minutes. Then the lift music (or ‘waiting music’, as the French call it) starts up. How nice! Did I mention these toilets are free?

Bordeaux has spent a fortune making the town a pleasant place to be. The river is flanked on the town side by a strip of pedestrian land, including gardens, kiosks, a beautiful fountained plateau called Miroir d’Eau, and an outdoor sports complex with free courts for tennis, football, basketball, racquetball, rollerblading, a massive skatepark and beach volleyball. Never seen a bigger (or cleaner) sandpit. The city is massively cycle-friendly, and cars are often banned from the centre of town.

miroirdeau

Miroir d’Eau

 

2. THE CHURCHES

Lots of churches. Big ones. Very nice. Just accept that I enjoyed the churches because I’ve seen so many in the past two weeks I’m really regretting not taking any photos.

I loved all the squares, equally with the narrow streets, all beautifully paved—no, tiled. British streets are stone cobbles or concrete slabs. In France the streets are tiled with diamonds. Even the architecture was beautiful. Instead of red brick all the buildings were warm beige and sedimentary, with big windows and four or five floors. But open. It didn’t feel a closed city to me. I’m the first to admit I’m not a city girl. But this city wasn’t claustrophobic. I felt more at home there than I’ve ever felt in any city.

3. THE FOOD

When you spend a whole term’s budget on travel costs to see your SO (and it costs the same just to get home for the holidays), fancy meals are off the menu. But oh, gosh, the bread(s). We more or less lived off bread. And such bread… The mark of the best bread, for me, is when the crust is the best part. The way it breaks in your mouth, the flavour that ekes out with every chew, and how the texture blends with the mie: that is the soul of the bread.

Other than bread, we got our vegetables at the market, window-ate our way through a metric ton of pastries, and waxed extravagant with a tin of chestnuts to make our favourite soup.

4. THE ATMOSPHERE

KIWIpavlova

Kiwi Christmas Pavlova

There’s a huge student population in Bordeaux, many of them international. We got into a big museum free with my boyfriend’s Erasmus friends, who were German but quite happy switching to English for my sake. The rest of the week we walked the river, enjoyed the sun and went to random soirées with smoking non-English-speaking French musicians.

One afternoon we met up with a New Zealand girl my boyfriend also met through Erasmus. A bunch of transactions led to her spending Christmas at my house in Guernsey, so I knew her, too. Fortunately she wasn’t that constant thirdwheeler totally interrupting our chemistry. We made kiwi pavlova, took her to midnight Mass and talked brass bands and she brought presents for my entire family. It was great to see her again. She’d joined a French drama club, and had to learn her lines for a sketch in which she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She was acting the whole thing as if it were a clown show, and didn’t understand a word. “Now I know why they laughed,” she said once we explained. But I can just see it: the foreign girl with the twangy French accent telling her boyfriend that ‘l’amour, ca ne suffit pas!’ They must’ve doubled up laughing.

~~~

ITALIA

We both left Bordeaux this time. Tram, bus, two more planes, another bus, and we found ourselves in Pisa. With my family we drove from Pisa to a villa in the stunning Chianti countryside, where we spent a week visiting Florence, Siena and the local sites. None of us had been to Italy before, but I have a family of language nerds and my boyfriend’s Italian beat them all.

1. THE TOILETS

Yes, I’m using the same headings. Yes, as a tourist I always compare toilets. Consult Freud if you must.

One of the nearby towns was San Gimignano, famous for its towers each some two-hundred steps high and just a few metres across. Coming from Guernsey, I’m no stranger to defence towers with walls several feet thick. These were narrow, square and very tall, like breadstick boxes, built as an expression of power but later a near-impregnable defensive strategy. Between 1199 and the end of the medieval period seventy-two towers were built between rivalling families, and a dozen of them still stand today.

publictoilet1

Rough translation: ‘What you have in hand is not a fire hydrant and there is no fire on the ground!!!’

That might seem like a tangent, and it was, but in all seriousness I found a couple of wonderful signs in a gelateria bathroom there.

publictoilet2

They must’ve had a problem. The floor was drain grating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. THE CHURCHES

Not gonna lie, I was churched out by the end of the week. Must’ve seen at least twenty of them. Big ones, small ones, bright ones covered in frescoes, sad ones with barely the remnants of their former glory. All incredibly impressive, don’t get me wrong. And so very old. Incomprehensibly old. Compared to British history, at any rate, wherein the Dark Ages after the Romans was either lost, regressive, or not interesting enough to go in school history textbooks.

santamaria

Santa Maria. No image quite captures its scale, ornateness or ridiculousness. But interestingly, the interior décor was sparser than most of the other churches we visited: the greatness on the outside, but inside just peace.

But when we first saw Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence/Firenze, we all stopped and gasped. For want of a better word, its size, its dome and décor and its extravagant decoration were silly. Mad and silly: Florence in three words. We loved that Siena fifty miles south had tried to rival Florence and double the size of its cathedral, but the work was halted due to the Black Death wiping out half the population of Tuscany. The outer walls remain and are now used as a carpark. Tragic, but I love a bit of bathos.

siena3

Duomo di Siena. White and green marbled, like Santa Maria, but on a saner scale. You can see the unfinished wing on the right.

3. THE FOOD

So the bread disappointed me. Apparently Pisa withheld salt from the cities inland to maintain control, which resulted in unsalted bread and butter. Even as a palate-cleanser it was unpleasant to swallow. Indeed, Pisa was the only place fish even appeared on the menu.

fibonacci

Found my hero! (Fibonacci)

As a semi-anorexic fussy eater with a phobia of cheese and a hatred of uncooked tomatoes, I struggled in Italy. I really struggled. I’m used to asking for weird things, plain rice or maybe some frozen peas. But it really embarrassed me to see the waiters’ faces when I asked what came without cheese in my selfish English. Even asking for a plate of vegetables didn’t satisfy me, because I’m not at all a fan of aubergine, artichoke, courgette, peppers or any of their relatives. And whoever first put garlic butter with spinach was trying to make me cry. I used up a lot of energy anxiousing myself over my mouthfuls, but did have one or two meals that I enjoyed.

The desserts, however, do deserve a special mention. English desserts are, by and large, almost nauseatingly sweet. French are excessive and complicated. But even the Tuscan pastries full of cream or chocolate mousse were as simple and delicate as you could wish. And very, very light. Would recommend.

Overall, I had more pizza and less ice-cream than I expected.

4. THE ATMOSPHERE

As I said, Florence was too big and too silly. Pisa was delightful, but a little run-down. Siena was my favourite of the three cities: every street a backbreaking hill, with custom outdoor seating with back legs six inches longer than the front, and a charming quirkiness to its general layout. In the country we spent our hours weaving through the vineyards, following game trails and playing tennis. We saw green lizards, a deer and several wild boars (jeez, they’re massive). A fleet of vintage cars stopped by in the walled village of Monteriggioni, petrol and sexy engines in the sunshine.

backgammonpisa

We’re backgammon nerds, too. By the way, it’s not a trick. The tower really does lean. The stairs up really screw with your idea of gravity.

One night we went to a local restaurant a few miles down the dirt tracks. The owners, Petra and Mario, did all the waiting, cooking and serving themselves, and chatted between courses about the trove of exciting artefacts lining the walls. As we were leaving, conversation struck up in French, which turned out to be the language of best mutual fluency between us all. It was beautiful, in the dark in the fresh Tuscan countryside, realising that we aren’t an unremarkable family, and that we have this French understanding in common with the restaurant owners in this tiny part of the world. I want to go back there someday.

~~~

Now I’m back at university with an eye to my first year final exams. Brits in Britain exclaim over the weather because the weather is to be exclaimed about: it’s seven degrees, blizzarding snow one hour and cloudless sunshine the next. Cold, but fresh. I didn’t want to come back, but I felt curiously uplifted stepping off the train, almost against my will. I like it here.

lilliano6

Lilliano, Tuscany. Closest village to the villa we stayed at.

Graphics links:

https://budgetparticipatif.paris.fr/bp/jsp/site/Portal.jsp?page=idee&campagne=C&idee=3352

http://www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/sijpkes/arch374/winter2001/sfarfa/ensayo1.htm

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3 thoughts on “Bread and Bathrooms: April Travels

  1. Super! I’ve never been too Bordeaux, but you make it sound like a wonder! And Bella Italia, of course!
    (Sorry I haven’t replied to your comment on my post, by the way. I wasn’t sure what to say, and then…revision.)

    • Yes! It’ll be another year till I go back to Bordeaux, most likely, but I’m hoping to become a regular visitor! Were I a drinker I would’ve mentioned the wine. Shame. For the first time I felt I missed out on a major part of the identity of both regions, not to mention culture in general.
      (Don’t worry about it. Hope it’s going well!)

      • I think it’s lucky you get to discover these places in the first place. And you can hardly give a good critique/test of the wine if you’re not a drinker, so I wouldn’t feel as if you’re missing out. Sure, wine may be in the identity, but it doesn’t comprise it. You’ve picked out other great and exciting things, and that’s what makes this blog post your experience and no one else’s.
        (I’m rather jealous; I can’t seem to put together an adequate travel post, despite the amount of travelling I have done.)

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