Finding France: From Toulouse to Nice

Place de la Comedie in Montpellier France - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of adventures to say the least.

Europe has several small landlocked countries clutched tightly by others greater in size though not in spirit. Having traveled through most of the continent at this point, it is now time to find those smaller more intimate spaces and simultaneously get to better know their big brothers as I pass from one to the other.

Despite visiting France on several occasions, there was much more to see than what I’d been able to during previous visits. On my trip to visit Europe’s minuscule countries Andorra (West of France) and Monaco (in South East France), exceptional views and more exceptional people met me each step of the way.

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Beginning in London, I crossed over the river and through the woods to Toulouse, France. MegaBus offered a one-way ticket for just 35 euro, and despite shattering records for low cost transportation, it certainly didn’t shatter any records for speed. We crossed the border from the UK to France via ferry. An unexpected surprise, as I’d assumed we’d be traveling underground by way of the Channel Tunnel. Instead we pulled up to a dock on the English Channel and twice were let off the bus: once to pass through border control and a second time to roam around the ferry’s upper levels. It was there, at 1am, that families familiar with the journey pulled out picnic baskets filled with sandwiches, salads and drinks. Those of us less seasoned to the crossing were able to gulp down espressos from Starbucks, watch cartoons on the big screens, try our hand at slot machines and shop in the ferry’s duty free store. Time really had no effect on us as it was the best place to let children run freely and for adults to stretch their legs before returning to the bus en route to Paris.

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We arrived in The City of Light at 5:30am, as darkness was slowly being washed away. Many passengers unloaded having reached their destination, and a short time later others would join our journey south. Two hours in Paris provided the right amount of time to find a quiet cafe situated next to the Seine River and have a true Parisian breakfast. Men dressed in orange reflective gear came and went from the cafe, answering morning’s first call for workers. As I finished a buttery pain au chocolate and washed it down with café au lait, the city’s businessmen began to awaken, one by one replacing the road engineers at the cafe’s counter.

Two hours in Paris on a blustery Thursday morning served as an ideal reintroduction to life in Western Europe before I sauntered up the bus’s sixteen stairs and buckled in to the second half of a twenty-three hour ride.

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At 7pm on Thursday, we pulled into the Toulouse bus station. I knew little about the city but immediately sensed its uniqueness. Picturesque buildings, pedestrian streets galore, tan beige and gold facades, and two (two!) merry go rounds lit up by colorful lights. Through every door awaits either a cafe or shop, making this city an ideal destination for the French to open their pocketbooks. I spent the next day walking through the streets, trying my best not to follow suit but giving in when I saw the perfect pair of sparkly tennis shoes waiting to replace those I’d been wearing since university. (Nine years is enough, and my feet are quite happy at the adjustment.) The other sinful purchase made in celebration of the city’s name’s resemblance to a chocolatey morsel-filled cookie from the US. Toll House cookies are unknown to most Toulousians but I was still able to find a light pink bicycle sporting the name “Cookie’s Bike” and selling six types of homemade cookies right off the main square.

The Nutella-filled, chocolate topped treat was well worth the euro fifty.
Toulouse Toll House mission complete.

It was from Toulouse that I traveled to Andorra, and from Andorra to Montpellier. Not a direct path, but a scenic one.

Green rolling hills topped with coffee colored castles make up the landscapes of southern France in springtime. Past the walled city of Carcassonne and along the Balearic Coast, I found Montpellier. Its large public squares are the perfect place to people watch and its botanical gardens are fit for an entire afternoon’s worth of daydreams. Families were scattered all around, as one child rode his bicycle, another glided behind on roller blades, and mom and dad walked hand in hand.

Charming city after charming French city, I continued a day later to my brother’s home in Grenoble and a week later to Nice. After seven mornings of waking up with a view of the snow-dusted French Alps, I found myself in the south of France en route to Monaco. I’d accepted an invitation to stay with newly-made friends at their family’s winery and awoke to a mountaintop view of the Côte d’Azur. I can’t imagine a better goodbye to France.

Talk about a room with a view! Waking up on a winery in Nice, France
Talk about a room with a view! Waking up on a winery in Nice, France
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