Matthew and I just returned from our 2 week tour of France with my parents, grandma, and little brother, Dylan.  The time flew by so quickly that it almost seems like they never were here at all!  I am so thankful that they were able to see Europe and actually experience the life that Matthew and I told them about during our time here.  We started the vacation in Aix en Provence.  My parents and grandmother stayed in an adorable little bed and breakfast called Pavillion de la Torse, which was actually voted among the top b and b’s in the nation.  I think that they loved every part of their stay there, except for the 25 minute walk into town each morning!  My mom and grandma agreed that while on most vacations they tend to gain weight, they definitely lost weight on this trip!  On the night of their arrival, I went to Marseille and met them at the airport while Matthew picked up some food for them to eat after their long journey.  Unfortunately, the boulangerie did not have any more sandwiches left, so he came back with only a few baguettes.  Their hosts, Marie and Francois, were so gracious and offered to prepare something small for us.  We were amazed when they brought out a plate of 5 different French cheeses, wine, water, a basket of apples, and pâté!  We all sat around the table and ate to our hearts content!  Afterwards, Dylan walked back with us to our apartment and we fell asleep immediately!

My family did not have long to relax because the next morning at 8 am we met to go on our first tour.  A small tour company took us to the hill towns of the Luberon.  First, we visited a small village at the foot of the Luberon and spent a couple hours walking around the wonderful little market that is set up there on Friday mornings.  I really enjoyed showing my family a traditional market…I think that they loved all of the little handcrafted items that you can buy at them.  My dad bought a picture of a vineyard to hang up as a reminder of their trip to France, and my mom bought a few pieces of jewelry as souvenirs for our cousins.  They also had their first experience at a café in France.  Everyone adjusted to the different flavor of the coffee by adding more sugar!  =)  After this, we continued to Rouissillon, the Luberon village known for its ochre cliffs.  We spent a couple hours there, walking around the village with houses painted in various shades of pink, orange, and yellow.  The town’s buildings had all the colors of the sunset!  My dad spent his time photographing the quaint shops and narrow roads.  We also walked through the ochre cliffs…it reminded me a little of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, only even more beautiful!  Afterwards, our shoes were coated in an orange powder.  Dylan especially loved running up and down the sides of the ochre rock formations.  Our next stop was the Setanque Abbey, which was built in the 12th century AD.  In the summer, it is especially beautiful because lavender fields surround the Abbey.  We enjoyed looking at the abbey, but none of us really liked the tour.  It is only offered in French, but it is still required for all visitors to take the guided tour, French speaking or not.  Our guide told us that it is because the leader of the Abbey does not want to encourage tourists, especially foreign tourists.  However, they have to do tours because they need the money, so they choose to do them only in French to at least discourage foreigners.  I don’t think it is working, because most of our group was English speaking.  I felt bad for our guide because he obviously knew that no one in the group really understood his explanations.  Our last stop was the beautiful cliff top village of Gordes.  We only had forty-five minutes, so we just had time to walk around and take some pictures before climbing back into the van and heading home!  That night we ate kebabs at one of Matthew and my favorite restaurants in Aix en Provence.

The next morning we headed off on our second tour of Nimes and the Pont du Gard.  The Pont du Gard is an ancient Roman aqueduct that ran over 50 kilometers between the water source and Nimes.  Today, only 50 meters remain, but it is still amazing to see!  We started in Nimes, which many people refer to as the “Rome of France.”  We did not have a very good map and we were lost several times before we found our way to one of the churches in the town.  We toured the church, walked around town for awhile, then walked to the place where the water from the Pont du Gard went.  We expected a large impressive structure, but it really was not much to look at.  Finally, we toured the amphitheatre in Nimes.  It is the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world.  I enjoyed touring this much more than the Coliseum in Rome.  We were all given an audioguide and spent the next hour walking around the ancient arena and listening to stories of the Gladiators in ancient Rome and the bull fights that take place here even today.  I think this was my favorite part of Nimes.  Matthew and I had already toured the amphitheatre in Arles, but it is not the same without the audioguide.  This one was also much more beautiful.  Downstairs, they had small quarters where the gladiators used to get ready.  Today, it has a bunch of video screens where we were able to watch scenes of gladiators in movies and scenes of bull fights from today.  After Nimes, we drove 15 minutes to the Pont du Gard.  It really is an impressive structure.  It stretches across a body of water, and there are three tiers.  I cannot imagine how they built this in the year 1 AD!  Today, people were all swimming in the water underneath it and jumping off the small cliffs on either side of it.  We walked across it and then my mom and I dipped our feet in the freezing water!  Afterwards, we had a crepe at the cafeteria.

The next morning, we decided to stay in Aix en Provence for the day.  I think everyone was pretty exhausted from the two busy days we just had.  We spent this leisurely day “café jumping.”  =)  We sat at one café on the Cours Mirabeau in the morning, eating quiches and drinking coffee.  Then, we walked around the shops for awhile, before we sat down for lunch at another café!  Afterwards, we went on a small train tour of Aix en Provence.  It was really enjoyable to learn more about the city that I have lived in all semester.  After this tour, we showed my family the place where we go to school and then went back to our apartment.  My parents, grandmother, and I went to another café to have a pre-dinner drink.  We took them to our favorite restaurant in Aix en Provence, Jacques le Croquant.  We had a wonderful meal and everyone tried duck with either fig sauce or prune sauce.  The meal started with a large salad with five different cheeses on it.  After our main course and some wine, we finished with a dessert. Dylan tried Crème Brule for the first time!  He didn’t like it though….maybe it is an acquired taste!  I think this was one of my favorite days during our trip.  I did not think I would enjoy just staying in our home town for the day, but I really liked eating and drinking at the cafes and just relaxing with my family.  I really have not spent much time at the cafes here, and this day made me wish I had spent more time at them!

           
On our last day in Provence, we visited Cassis, a small village on the coast of the Mediterranean.  The highlight of this day was the tour of the Calanques, which are small rocky inlets from the Mediterranean.  We took a ferry and visited eight of them.  Along the way, we saw beautiful scenery and lots of rocky cliff-like beaches.  The water was a very pristine green color.  Afterwards, we walked around the city and visited the beach, where we saw some nude bathers.  Everyone tried to distract Dylan’s attention at this point!  We knew he would make a big deal about it, if he did see the people bathing.  Luckily, he didn’t notice!  =) These last two days were pretty relaxing and were a perfect end to the time in Provence.

           
After Provence, we took a train up to the French Alps, which our on the far east side of France.  The train ride was an experience in itself.  It was very stressful trying to figure out the system with so much baggage.  We had to move trains several times and we were always wondering if we were on the right one because they are not clearly marked.  We were all very happy when we finally arrived in Chamonix.  As soon as I saw this beautiful mountain village, I knew we had made the right choice.  We were in a little valley, surrounded by mountain peaks…some snowy and some a pristine green color.  My mom’s face just lit up when she saw it!  We almost decided to skip a day in Paris so that we could stay here longer.  Our hotel was perfect too…it was an apartment with several rooms and a kitchen!