Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Venice, Verona and Italian Easter Fun!

I apologise in advance because this is probably going to be the longest post I've written so far. Partly because it's been a month since my last post, but mostly because there's so much to talk about. The highlights of the past month have definitely been my day trips and spending Easter Sunday eating lunch with an Italian family, so that's what I'm going to write about. Enjoy!

I've really grown into life in Bologna now. I know the city reasonably well and have been spending my time outside of university in parks, cafés and wandering the streets of the city. Last month, I decided it was the right time to go and see some of the rest of Italy, so on Friday 13th March my friend Jeri and I hopped on a train and went to the city of gondolas and canals: Venice.

Piazza San Marco

We arrived in the late morning and as soon as we left the station I was amazed by the city’s beauty. Domed roofs, pretty bridges and gorgeous canals leading to the beautiful blue-green sea. It was just as I had imagined it. We started by walking from the station to Piazza San Marco, Venice’s famous main square. I think we chose a good time to go, as the weather was gorgeous and sunny, but not so hot that the city smelt (as it is known to do at times), and not too crowded with tourists. The Basilica San Marco in Piazza San Marco is stunning. The architecture is beautiful and the inside is just as lovely. We explored the inside of the Basilica before heading into the labyrinth of side streets around the square to find a restaurant where we could have lunch. We found a cute place to eat close to the piazza, and I enjoyed a delicious seafood pasta. The ingredients were fresh, with a wonderful array of prawns, mussels, clams, octopus and white fish with a tomato-based sauce. 

View of Piazza San Marco from the Campanile
After eating, we paid 8€ to take a lift up to the top of the Campanile, the bell tower of the basilica, from which we were treated with gorgeous views of the piazza, the city and the sea from all sides. I think it was one of my favourite things from the whole trip. Next we went to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), formally the residence of the Doge of Venice, now a museum, full to bursting with institutional chambers covered head to toe in paintings, including the longest canvas painting in the world: Il Paradiso, based on the work of Dante. Whilst in the Palazzo Ducale, we also explored the Old Prison, known as Piombi as the cells were built under a lead roof, and the new cells, to get to which we had to cross the famous Ponte dei Sospire (Bridge of Sighs). The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge’s name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. Cassanova was one of those imprisoned in the cells, some time in the 1750s. 

Palazzo Ducale
On leaving the museum we took a stroll along the water front and looked at the souvenir stands. I decided to buy a shot glass to add to my ever-growing collection that my sister started for me a few years ago. We then walked back to the train station, stopping on the way to buy pane del doge, a sort of over-sized cookie made from flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and honey, topped with almonds with little pieces of dried figs and other fruit folded through. We sat on the steps of the station eating them and enjoying the sunset over the buildings, bridges and water, watching the gondolas go by. It was a perfect end to an amazing and unforgettable day! 

Bridge of Sighs

In Verona with Vera
After weeks of classes, the Easter break couldn't come soon enough. It was the perfect time to recharge and reorganise before the business end of term starts. I have to admit that I was concerned in the lead up to Easter, as I had made the difficult decision to stay in Bologna rather than to go home to spend the weekend with family and friends and was worried it was going to be lonely and miserable. Thankfully it was not! I'm blessed to have a very good Italian friend of mine, Vera, who I met at UCL, living in Bologna, and her family were kind enough to invite me to share lunch with them on Easter Sunday. Obviously I couldn't turn down the opportunity to experience Easter with an Italian family, and I was excited to meet my friend's family for the first time.

I received a wonderfully warm welcome from everyone (her parents, two sisters, brother, aunty and her sister's boyfriend), before we sat down to lunch. We started with various cheeses and salami, followed by ravioli with spinach and ricotta and tagliatelle with ragù. Then followed a meat cutlet with pasticcio, and finally dessert and coffee. It was so much food, but it was absolutely delicious and so nice to experience an Italian Easter lunch. It was a fantastic experience that I’ll never forget, and I'm so grateful to them for inviting me into their home for their family Easter! I spent the afternoon enjoying the glorious sunshine in a park, before going to meet some of my fellow UCL students to watch a film and have a relaxing evening together. It was definitely up there in my top three Easters, maybe even stealing the top spot!

My latest day trip came on 6th April, Easter Monday or Pasquetta in Italian, when Vera and I decided to go to Verona. It's only an hour and a half away from Bologna on the regional train, and the tickets are reasonably priced so it's well worth it. On arrival, we headed straight to Piazza Bra and then paid 7.50€ to go into the Arena, an old Roman venue, built in AD 30 to stage the ludi - public games - which is now used for concerts, theatre and opera. It was another day of gorgeous weather, so we sat there in the sunshine for a while, admiring the amazing ancient structure. 

Piazza Erbe
Next we walked to Piazza delle Erbe, the oldest square in Verona and once the town's forum during the period of the Roman Empire, to look at the fountain of the Madonna Verona, the Torre dei Lamberti, Palazzo Maffei, and the beautiful frescoes on the façade of the Case Mazzanti, before finding a place to have lunch on a small side street. I had some delicious tagliatelle with prawns in a tomato sauce. Another option on the menu was a typical dish from the region of Veneto (which Verona is a part of); gnocchi with a ragù made from tomato and ‘musso’, which is the Italian for donkey. If I return to the region in the future I’ll have to remember to try it because it looked really good! 

Casa di Giulietta - For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo
After lunch we went inside ‘Juliet’s house’, a building that the city has named in honour of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the story is fiction, but it’s a nice little tourist attraction and we were able to go onto the famous balcony. Next we went into the Duomo, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Matricolare. The outside is lovely but the inside is stunning, not over-decorated as some Catholic cathedrals can be. We sat in there for a few moments and Vera showed me the Catholic book of prayer and songs, which was really interesting to compare to the traditional Anglican books. We went to the river to look at the view of the old castle up on a hill before walking back to the station to catch the train back to Bologna. 

Duomo of Verona
The rest of my time has been that of a normal university student really. Other than classes, I've been enjoying the evening atmosphere of Bologna, trying plenty of tasty food and trying to talk myself into doing some studying. With the weather heating up and the sun appearing more often than not now it's been the perfect weather for getting out and exploring the city and I've been treating myself to the occasional gelato. It's my mission to find the best stracciatella flavour in the city, so I'll keep you posted on my findings!

Monday, 2 March 2015

La Vita Bolognese

It seems like only yesterday that I was packing my bags and leaving Lyon to set off on the next stage of my year abroad adventure. In reality it was five weeks ago, and after a blink-and-you-missed-it fortnight in Nottingham I arrived in my new Italian home for the next five months: Bologna, the city of porticoes and towers!

I had mixed feelings about leaving Lyon. As you all know, I love the city so much. I’ve now lived there twice, I feel completely at home and comfortable when I’m there, it’s B-E-A-U-tiful all year and I’ve made some fantastic friends who I hope will still be in my life for many years to come. On the other hand, I was looking forward to discovering a new city and experiencing a new university in Italy. I’ve now been in Bologna for three weeks, and they have flown by. In this post, I hope to update you on my experiences of settling into a new country, city, university and language, and show you what I’ve been discovering in my new home.

Le due torre
I count myself as being very lucky that I already have good Italian friend from here in Bologna, who I met while she was studying economics at UCL. As well as helping me to settle very quickly through already knowing one of the locals, she was also able to help me out back at the end of 2014 when I was looking for a place to live here. I’m so grateful that she was able to come and view the apartment I’m now living in back in November/December time, and so when I arrived in Bologna I already had my room secured and waiting for me. It’s one of four bedrooms in the apartment, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. I’m living with Amira, Esther and Eva, three Spanish girls who are all lovely and who helped me to settle in very quickly. The building I’m living in is on a street in between Via Zamboni and Filippo Re, two of the main streets for the Università degli studi di Bologna, and so I’m able to walk out of my door and be in my classes in mere minutes. It’s really handy, and is in a good position in the city for me to get to the places I need to be by foot. Bologna is quite a small city, and so most places are only about a twenty-minute walk away. It has a completely different feel to it, but as a university city it has a great student atmosphere.

Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca
Classes have started at the university, but there are some that don’t start until the beginning of March or even April, so at the moment I’m still in the process of deciding which courses to take. It’s looking like I’ll be taking a French language class to keep that ticking over, a political and economic geography class which has proved to be quite interesting so far, and then one of either Contemporary Italian Literature or a History of Art in Europe class which doesn’t start until the middle of March. Courses in Bologna are worth more credits than those in France or England, so I only have to take three here as opposed to the nine I did in Lyon!

Church of San Petronio, Piazza Maggiore
There are lots of nice little cafés and bars dotted about where we often go for a coffee between classes, and the quality of the pizza you can buy here is undoubtedly, but not unexpectedly, so much better here than at home. I admit I’ve given in to temptation and bought myself a hot slice for lunch once or twice, but at about 1.20-1.60€ a slice I don’t really care! I’ve also had some great pasta made for me by Italian friends of my flatmates, as well as learning some amazing recipes for myself to take home with me. I’m looking forward to being able to show off my new skills. I went out with a group of UCL students also here on exchange for  our first taste of aperitivo, which is a drink of choice and an array of light-bites served buffet-style in a bar for about 8€ in the early evening. The food is great and it’s a lovely, relaxed atmosphere. No one rushes you, and you don’t feel pressured to leave your table as soon as you’ve finished. We also went out for one UCL student’s birthday and we had dinner at an Osteria. Of course, being in Bologna I had to have the ragù, which is what we call Bolognese. I admit it’s not my favourite Italian dish in the world, but it was definitely the best plate of Bolognese that I’ve ever tasted so far. I've also experienced "late-night bakery". It's run by an old lady and her son, who open their kitchens at midnight to serve freshly baked and deliciously warm pizza and pastries to people who fancy a late-night snack in the early hours of the morning. It's cheap, it's friendly (although you go to a service entrance or a hole in the wall so it does feel a little like a dodgy deal), and the food tastes great so if you're out and about in the early hours after having visited a bar with friends, it's a great stop-off on the way home. This is a dangerously tasty country to be living in!!!

Neptune's fountain
Last weekend my friend from home (and youth leader at my church back in Stapleford), Beth, came to visit. Having only been in Bologna for two weeks at that stage, I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully explore the city or check out its attractions, so it was nice to be a tourist, rather than a student for the weekend. First up was a climb of the city’s Torre degli Asinelli. It was a lovely day with plenty of sunshine, so when we got to the top we were spoiled by a beautiful clear view of the city and the surrounding hills. It was breath taking and I think it was the first moment I actually appreciated the true beauty of Bologna, beside the porticoes and covered walkways. Next, we went around the church of Santo Stefano and then the church of Santo Petronio in Piazza Maggiore, before going to see Neptune’s fountain. After lunch we walked up into the hills to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Instead of taking the faster walk through the covered arcade (the longest in the world), we decided that as it was such a nice day, we would take the two-hour scenic route up a windy road. It was well-worth it as we were rewarded with stunning views of the hills and rural landscape around Bologna. The views from top were also fantastic, and the inside of the sanctuary was absolutely gorgeous despite the renovation work going on. We took the arcade route on the way back down which isn’t as picturesque, but gets you back to the city faster. That night UCL friends came round for drinks to christen my new home, though I was on diet coke because I’ve given up alcohol for lent – in a great wine-making nation…I know, what was I thinking?!?!

Church of San Stefano
Overall, I’d say my transition into life in Bologna has been pretty swift, with no real struggle or stress. I’ve settled into life at the university here, I’ve been making friends and tasting great food. I’m looking forward to discovering more of what the city has to offer and can’t wait to travel and explore more of Italy. I left Lyon behind, a city that will always have a very special place in my heart, but now it’s time for a new adventure…and maybe my heart has a little room left in it for Bologna to fill!!!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Let There Be Light, Travel and Glühwein!

It’s been too long since my last post, and I’ve been home for Christmas and New Year and come back to Lyon and still not actually had the time to sit down in front of my computer and write my latest update. I imagine I’ve already seen some of you back home over the holidays and filled you in on some of it, but if not, or if you want to see my pictures, please read on. I’m going to be talking about my experiences just before the Christmas break, and some of those that I’ve had since coming back.
Hôtel de Ville

The days surrounding 8
th December are a very special time of year in the Lyon calendar. Every year, thousands of people flock to the city from all over the country to visit and celebrate the famous Fête des Lumières (festival of lights), drink vin chaud (mulled wine), and take in all of the amazing illuminations. Four four nights between about 6pm and 1am, you can wander the streets of Lyon, and all over the city, there is something to experience, from flying kites, to fireworks, to massive projections, and there are candles lighting up the windows of many of the houses in the city. The sheer scale and creativity of the event is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

My favourite display

Now for a little history to explain why all of this happens. In 1852 a statue of the Virgin Mary was built on a hill overlooking the city of Lyon, next to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière.
 The inauguration of the statue and the planned celebration was pushed back from 8th September to 8th December, because the statue hadn’t been completed due to the flooding of the River Saône. Many Catholics in the city suggested lighting up the windows of their homes, as was the tradition for other events of importance, such as royal celebrations and military victories. On the morning of the 8th December, Lyon experienced quite a bad storm and the master of ceremonies decided to cancel the celebrations. However the storm eventually passed and the people of Lyon started to spontaneously light up their windows and take to the streets of Lyon, lighting candles and flares to illuminate the new statue whilst singing, and shouting "Vive Marie!" throughout the night. Every year, this has been repeated until it evolved into the massive festival that it is today. Pretty cool really!

Parc de la Tête d'Or

I went out to view the illuminations with friends on three out of the four nights. We started with a night time bike ride along the bank of the Rhône, before ending at le Parc de la Tête d’Or. There were some interesting looking kites and some really pretty illuminations on the lake in the middle of the park. We also headed to Vieux Lyon to watch the projections on the face of Cathedral Saint Jean which were quite special. The next day we wandered the streets of Lyon, watching the various projections, including those at Place Bellecour, Hôtel de Ville and Lyon’s opera house. My personal favourite that night was a combined projection and light show that explored space and the planets of our solar system. On the last night of the festival we climbed to the top of Fourvière hill to watch the closing night fireworks from the front of the Basilica. It was on this night that we also ran into the procession of people climbing the hill, singing songs and carrying candles, before attending an open air mass on the steps of the Basilica. It was a truly magical weekend, and one that I’ll certainly never forget!!!
With my friend, Molly

La belle ville de Lyon

I managed a weekend trip to Germany on the train the weekend before I returned to England for the break. I travelled to Cologne to visit Simone, my old German exchange partner who I hadn’t see in around seven or eight years. It made me realise how quickly time has passed since I was at school! It was lovely to see her after so long, and I enjoyed exploring the weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market), a very interesting Pop Art gallery, and drinking glühwein and feuerzangenbowle, which is essentially glühwein but with rum added for an extra kick. Before I knew it though, I was on the train back to Lyon, ready for my next adventure.

Christmas market in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

On Tuesday 16th December, I went to Strasbourg for the day with my Australian friend Marie-Laure (hi Marie-Laure…you got another mention!). I had been wanting to experience it since I got off the train in Lyon back on August 23rd and so naturally I was “super excited”! We got there just before the Christmas markets opened for the day so we treated ourselves to breakfast before heading out. Strasbourg is so pretty, and unlike anywhere else I’ve seen so far in France; the German influence is plain to see in all the Alsatian architecture, cuisine and accents! We wandered around the many markets spread across the city, bought Christmas presents, went in the Cathedral, ate flammeküche/tarte flambée and drank hot chocolate and hot spiced apple juice. Despite the early start, the late-night return and the very chilly weather, the day was absolutely divine and completely lived up to my anticipation and expectation!
With my travel buddy, Marie-Laure!
Strasbourg. How pretty is this!

I spent just over two weeks back in Nottingham for a very chilled out and peaceful Christmas and New Year with family and friends before returning to Lyon on 5th January. I have, as of Friday, finished all of my exams and handed in all of my essays here at Université Lyon 3, and now have just two weeks left before I travel to Italy for my second semester in Bologna. I’m excited to start the next stage of my adventure, but at the same time I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Lyon for the second time in my life. I truly love this city and all those who I’ve made friends with here. So two more weeks here in Lyon to spend time with now not-so-new but very good friends, and I’ve already started to make the most of it with joint lunches, dinners and film nights, coffees and shopping, as well as trips to various bars, and an evening of watching Lyon beat Toulouse 3-0 and go top of Ligue 1 this weekend! This week hasn’t been without it’s sad moments. The tragic events of the Charlie Hebdo shootings sent a shock wave across France and truly broke my heart. Nevertheless, the solidarity and compassion I have seen at the very peaceful candle-lit vigil (attended by around 10-15,000) and silent protest march (attended by 250,000) in Lyon have united the city and the country (regardless what people's stances are on the attack and aftermath in general), and despite the heightened security and police presence, there has been a very calm and nonthreatening atmosphere in the city.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Toussaint, Salsa and Geneva!

The past couple of weeks have flown by, and there is so much that I could write about, but I’ll try to stick to interesting highlights and important updates, and as always, the photos will be able to speak for themselves!

We had a mid-term break for Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) the week of the 27th October, so I decided to travel across France to visit some family friends’ who for the last few years have been calling a small village called Vergné home. It’s located in the west of the country, somewhere between Poitiers, Limoges and Angoulême, in the Poitou-Charantes region. It took me about 4 hours on the train with a quick change over outside Tours, and I was greeted with warm, welcoming and very familiar faces at the station. What was so lovely about my week away, was the time and freedom to do whatever we wanted, be it relaxing, exploring, reading, or walking through the beautiful countryside and farmland. We went to a book fair, made friends with a local donkey and walked a dog around a lake, and I got to spend some time in the fresh country air – which was refreshing after so many months of city life!

La Rochefoucauld
One of the best parts of the trip was going to a town called La Rochefoucauld, and seeing the stunning château, which looked out over the surrounding area. My favourite thing though, was on the birthday of one of my hosts, when we had the French neighbours over for apéros (drinks and nibbles). It was fantastic, I was surrounded by a generation of French people I don’t normally have the chance to socialise with, and not one of them could speak English! Their accents were a little tricky to understand at times, but they were all so lovely, and I think they quite enjoyed having a young English girl speaking French to them.

When I got back to Lyon, I went to see the Lyon women’s football team play a league match against Paris Saint-Germain. Amélie, the university team captain, invited me. She gets free tickets because she trained with Lyon women’s academy up to under-18 level. Despite playing football and watching women’s matches on the television during major tournaments, I had never seen a live professional women’s game, and I was surprised how many people turned up to watch. There were just over 10,000 spectators, which is more than some English men’s league teams can manage. To top it all off, the match was full of action, with Lyon eventually winning 2-1. (I sense a recurring pattern…as this was the score at the last Lyon game I went to see…)

I thought going back to university for the second half of term was going to be difficult after enjoying a week of not having lessons. However, I found myself missing my new friends, and anxious to get various exam results back. I’m pleased to say I passed all of the ones that I have received my marks for, and I’m particularly pleased with my mark for the oral presentation I gave on the British Monarchy in my French language class. Smug feelings lasted only a little while though, as I realised that this is the half of term where deadlines and exam dates are all the more frequent.

I decided to distract myself with various gatherings; namely for drinks, dinner or coffee. The best of these nights was by far a trip to one of the many salsa bars in Lyon. You walk in, have a drink…or not…or three…and strut your salsa stuff on the dance floor. I went with three of my Australian friends, we ended up befriending some French students who seem to go quite regularly, and they told us to meet them there any Friday as they would more than likely be there.

I also have a little confession to make. I had a moment on 5th November when I realised I wasn't going to see any bonfires or any fireworks... I wasn't going to eat baked potato or mushy peas with mint, or stew or pie, or rolls filled with roast pork, stuffing and apple sauce, or toffee apples (not that I like them much)...I wasn't going to be able to drink mulled cider or mulled wine, or hot toddy...more importantly, I wasn't going to be able to play with sparklers!!! I won't lie, it was a little depressing. It's one of my favourite times of the year, and the first thing (friends/family not included) that I've actually missed about the UK. That night, I turned on my heater, curled up in bed, watched an uplifting film and booked my train ticket home for Christmas...

Palais des Nations
One of the highlights of the past few weeks though was most definitely my day trip to Geneva on Saturday 8th November. It was my first ever time visiting Switzerland, and it’s only two hours away from Lyon on the train. I was accompanied by Emmanuelle, one of my Australian friends. We started with a fleeting walk through the botanical gardens, before heading to the United Nations. The square in front of the UN is home to a lovely fountain, and a giant chair with a broken leg, designed by Swiss artist Daniel Berset. I have to admit I had absolutely no idea what the meaning was behind it, but I’ve done some research and have discovered that it symbolises opposition to land mines and cluster bombs. It was erected in 1997 before the signing of the Ottawa Treaty, and has been there ever since to act as a reminder to politicians and tourists alike who visit the Palais des Nations. We ate our lunch on a bench by Lake Geneva, looking out to the Alps and the imposing yet majestic Mont Blanc – it really is a breathtakingly beautiful city. We spent some time trying to work out where the famous Jet d’Eau (fountain in the lake) was, before realising that it just wasn’t switched on that day. It was a relief actually, because before we realised that we were in fact in the right place, I was beginning to lose faith in my map reading skills.

Horloge Fleurie
Next, we headed to the Jardin Anglais to see the Horloge Fleurie (flower clock), before having a wander around the old town. We visited the Cathedral Saint-Pierre, and decided to pay to climb the towers so that we could see the view of the city from the top of one of the its most iconic buildings. We weren’t disappointed. The lake, the mountains and the tops of old and new buildings alike greeted us. I felt quite intoxicated by the city to be honest – I liked it that much! After catching our breath, we finished the trip with Swiss fondue for dinner, before catching the train home.

We actually only have around three weeks of teaching left before exams start in December and I have three essays to write before then. I’m already planning what to do/where to go to celebrate after I’ve handed them all in and finished my exams. I’m determined to make the most of the time I have left of the French half of my year abroad, and I don’t think it would be complete without a visit to one of the world’s best Christmas markets: Strasbourg. As no UCL student has actually received our Erasmus grant yet, (three months in), I’ll have to wait and see nearer the time if I can afford it!

Friday, 17 October 2014

"She was a day tripper!"

The past two weeks have been a bit hectic. Aside from suddenly being swamped with work after being told that the year abroad “is a bit like a holiday”, I had two sets of friends visiting (first my friend Daniel came on Wednesday and Thursday, then Sophie and Lauren came for the weekend). I also had a little day trip adventure. This could only mean one thing: time to be a tourist!

Wall Mural at Musée Urbain de Tony Garnier
We started with the obvious attractions. The beautiful Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière never fails to disappoint, and the panoramic view of the city from the top of the hill is a perfect photo location. Whilst up there, you can’t miss a trip to the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre either, which on a bright and sunny day such as the ones we enjoyed, is a great place to stop and sit and catch up with life. One of the best things to see in Lyon, however, is the Musée Urbain de Tony Garnier, which is a collection of buildings in Lyon’s Etats-Unis district with fantastic murals painted onto their sides, and even the rain which fell on a biblical scale couldn’t dampen our spirits or ruin the impression the amazing artwork made. It was also nice to have my friends from home meet some of my friends here in Lyon. Daniel was treated to a university organised party, whilst Sophie and Lauren joined us for a much more relaxed bottle of wine at a bar by the Rhône. I also took advantage of having visitors by eating out and enjoying some of the food that Lyon has to offer. We ate at typical Lyonnais bouchons and I tried, although I admit it wasn’t my favourite dish ever (much to Daniel’s amusement), the famous Lyonnaise quenelle. It’s a sort of mixture of creamed fish, breadcrumbs and egg which is poached before being served with a lobster sauce. The sauce was delicious, but I couldn’t get my head around the texture. Try to imagine a fishy suet dumpling…yeah, that’s it…you’ve got it!

Aix-en-Provence market
I can’t tell you how brilliant it was to have some friends from home come to visit. It was as if they had brought a piece of home with them, and just being able to spend some time with them has re-energised me and given me a little emotional boost for the next few weeks of my stay. Last time I lived in Lyon I was here for over three months and didn’t really miss home that much. It’s funny, I didn’t realise how much I missed home this time until I saw my friends from England here in Lyon, and it’s only been two months!

Last weekend was absolutely fantastic too. A few of the girls decided to day trip to Aix-en-Provence and I’m so glad I agreed to join them. The town itself is pretty small and you can see most of it in a day, but the weather was beautiful and the surroundings even better. The best thing about going on a
Saturday was that there was a market, which of course meant I spent a ridiculous amount of money on soap and jam and chutney and chocolate-orange spread and all the other things in life that a girl can’t live without! We spent a little time looking at Paul Cézanne paintings in a local museum and took a walk up to the cathedral in the afternoon. It was so understated inside but had an alluring charm that was quite disarming. Often when cathedrals are elaborately decorated I find it hard to get past the aesthetic beauty of the building, but the simplicity of the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence and the beautiful organ music being played allowed me to connect on a much more spiritual level, which I really loved.

Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence
An ice cream and a coffee later and we were on the train home. Despite the long day, I actually found
my time in Aix-en-Provence quite relaxing, and came home feeling refreshed rather than drained. Spontaneous day-tripping is definitely the way to go, and with train tickets for only €10, it’s so affordable.

I’m hoping to have a couple of quiet weeks now. There are tests to tackle, presentations to give and essays to start planning, and whilst I've had my fun, I should probably start knuckling down. Then again…I am the queen of procrastination, so maybe I’ll have something else to write about sooner than I think!


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Au bord de la mer...

It’s official. I have now been in Lyon for just over a month, and it’s been a pretty great first month. But rather than talking about Lyon this week, I thought I’d tell you about my first real adventure: a weekend trip to Marseille.

There are a lot of rivalries between the cities of Lyon and Marseille. Arguments over the better football team, the better food, the better weather, and which city is France’s second city behind Paris. As a city, Marseille is France’s second largest, but if you include all the surrounding urban areas, then Lyon is larger. Food hands down goes to Lyon, the weather is debatable but Marseille stays warmer for longer in the year, and football changes from season to season. I had never been to Marseille before, and as an adopted Lyonnaise I was a little sceptical, but it was certainly worth a visit.

Calanque de Sugiton
Getting up at 5.30am on the Saturday, I met two of my Australian friends at the train station to catch a 7.20am train. I drifted in and out of sleep during the journey south, but the times I managed to keep my eyes open long enough I was rewarded with the views of beautiful hills and sparkling lakes. We arrived at about 10.30am and after finding our three other friends, stopping by the hostel and grabbing some lunch, we headed straight to one of Marseille’s most naturally beautiful attractions: the calanques. A calanque is a steep-walled inlet, cove, or bay often surrounded by limestone mountains and valleys, and the only two ways to get to the ones in Marseille is to either pay €9 for a boat to take you right there, or to catch a bus to the end of the line and then hike down the valley. Naturally, being an adventurous group we decided to go for the hike. It’s a massive cliché to say I felt at one with nature, so I’ll just say that the views from the top of the valley down onto the Mediterranean Sea were incredible, and the hike itself was a fantastic bonding experience. The terrain was a little tough, it was quite warm and at times I felt like we’d gone rock-climbing instead of hiking, but what we found at the bottom of the valley was well worth the effort. Beautiful blue sea surrounded by trees and rocks to jump from, and it wasn’t overcrowded either. The water was a little chilly to begin with, being sheltered from most of the sun, but after the climb down it was refreshing and so welcoming!

After another hike back to the top which made me think I was travelling to the Eyrie in Game of Thrones, we went back into the city, made ourselves some dinner back at the hostel and then went out to find a nice bar where we could reward our day’s exertions with a drink.

Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Inside the Basilique
Sunday started with breakfast from the boulangerie around the corner from the hostel, and then we headed off to visit Marseille’s cathedral on the hill, la Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. Looking at it from the outside, you can see the southern/Mediterranean influences on the building. The colour of the stones wasn’t that dissimilar to the Duomo of Florence. There was also a very obvious marine theme inside, with paintings of boats and the sea on the walls, and model boats hanging from the ceiling. It was beautiful, and unlike any church décor I had seen previously. The views of Marseille from the church weren’t bad either, despite it being a rather misty morning.

Vieux Port
The call of lunch brought us back down the hill to the Vieux Port, where we bought scented Marseille soap and spent the next hour or so eating at a restaurant in a little square just off the main tourist area. I then spent a bit of time enjoying the scent of fresh sea air and admiring the yachts and boats that were docked in the harbour, (goes with the territory of being from a naval family), before we headed to the station to catch our ride home.

On the whole I really liked Marseille. It has got a lot of things going for it, never mind the fact that it’s right by the sea, but I prefer Lyon as a city to live in. I was glad that after a really enjoyable weekend away I could come back to somewhere I’m really happy to be able to call home. I’m also especially looking forward to this next week as I have some people coming to visit and I cannot wait to show Lyon off to them. 

Left to Right: Marie-Laure, Me, Johanna

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Fun, food and football!

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post and I’ve done quite a few things in that time that I think are probably worth a mention. So if you’d like to know what I’ve been getting up to, please read on!

I guess the main change I should talk about is that the international student orientation classes have ended, and real university classes started last Monday. It’s a different system to get your head round, as the course commencement dates are staggered here: lectures started on 8th September, my French language class starts on 15th, and my seminar classes don’t start until next Monday (22nd). September is what’s known as the opt-in/opt-out period at Université Lyon 3. I can turn up to any lecture or tutorial I want until I ‘validate my choices’ online, which has to be done by the end of the month. I’m pleased to say I have about 80% of my classes chosen, with just a few seminars left to try. Another difference is the style of teaching over here. A lot of the lecturers prefer to use over-head projectors, something I haven’t encountered since my primary school days, and something that no one in this day and age should even contemplate using - mainly because it relies on you being able to understand the lecturer’s writing, which half the time is a sprawl of illegible mess. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of the spoken lecture I can understand, and by the amount of notes I’ve been able to take in French…although at times I do have to revert to my reliance on fluent franglais. I quote, “personne n’est vraiment capable de dire ceux qui sont the boarders/exact boundaries of the Islamic State’s territory”. Hey, I said I took notes in French, not that those notes were in good French!

Generally, all of the lectures I’ve been to are very interesting. I’m going to be studying a mix of history, literature and culture, as well as attempting some French-English translation and vice versa. I’m also taking an Italian grammar class to keep up my (poor) standard ready for my second semester in Bologna. 

In other news, I opened a French bank account and was rewarded with a nice new piece of shiny plastic to play with. Now I won’t have to take so much out on my English card and I won’t get oversees transaction charges.

I also signed up for sports at my university. I can now join the women’s football team…no I can’t live without it even for a semester, take zumba classes and play badminton. I think it’s a pretty good deal, a great way to meet people (hopefully more French people), and if it means I can work off some of the extra baguette and cheese calories, I can’t lose really. Well, except for the loss of some weight…which I won’t really mourn that much!

Other things worth mentioning…

Café Théâtre
I went to a café théâtre with some of my new friends. It’s essentially a bar with a stage where you go to have a drink and watch some kind of performance. It’s very popular in Lyon, pretty cheap, and you get to soak up some of the local atmosphere and culture. We saw a comedian called Jeremy Charbonnel. A decent looking chap; he was actually very funny. If you ever find yourself in Lyon and can understand the language, a café théâtre should be near the top of your list of things to experience!

Trips to the bar and the park with new friends have been wonderful, and with all the warm sunny Lyonnais weather we’re having, I find myself out and about most days and nights. The relaxed, warm evenings and the promise of a red (berry flavoured) beer is an added bonus, but I promise, that’s not the only reason I’m going out…no…really.

Stade de Gerland
I also went wine and cheese tasting. I don’t need to tell you how good that was…it was WINE and CHEESE tasting. Now you know why I signed up for sports!

Of course, my visit to Lyon wouldn’t be complete without a football match, so on 12th September I went with some of the international students to Stade de Gerland to watch Lyon play Monaco. I went to a game back in 2011 to see Lyon play Caen, but that was as exciting as watching paint dry. This match was completely different: end to end football, some world class players on display and to top it all off, Lyon won 2-1. Lyonnais, Lyonnais, Lyonnais!!! Is it too early to invest in a new football shirt??? At €80 a ‘maillot’…I think so…

Life in France would also not be complete without trips to the market, and I LOVE markets. Fresh produce, the chance to meet some real characters and know that your food came from a good place. Not to mention it’s so much cheaper than the supermarket. Obviously there are some things you just can’t get at a market, but for most food, it’s the only place I would go in France. This week was a trip to Montplaisir market with my Australian friend and new found market buddy, Molly. I could have spent the whole day there, but alas, it only lasts the morning. Still, I managed to buy heaps of fruit and veg, half a roast chicken, apple juice fresh from the farm and some fine looking strawberries, and I didn’t break the bank to get it all! This is how food shopping is meant to be!

Last week some of us decided to have a girls’ night out at an Erasmus party held in a local club. The party itself was fun. My friend decided to take part in the dress up sumo wrestling, which resulted in me nearly dying from asphyxiation due to laughing so much I couldn’t breathe. Actually, the best part of the night was before we went to the party. We went to buy food at Carrefour, that queen of French supermarkets, went to my friend Marie-Laure’s apartment and had burritos and homemade guacamole courtesy of my Colombian-Canadian friend Daniela. Words cannot express how good the food was, and the company was even better!

On Saturday, some of us may also have managed to accidentally crash someone's private party at a venue near the river whilst looking for a loo. There were no bouncers/security on the door, we were pretty desperate and it wasn't until several minutes of dancing later that we realised we probably shouldn't be there. We politely shuffled/danced our way out of the door, and cycled home on the Vélo'V bikes, (Lyon equivalent of a Boris Bike). Honestly, it is impossible to find a free bike late at night, and when we did, it then took us hours to find a free space to put our bikes near our homes. A good, if somewhat surreal time was had by all, and we will never speak about the party crashing ever again...apart from when, in a few months time, one of us says, "hey, remember that night we went out and couldn't find a bathroom, and walked into the private party and then couldn't find anywhere to put our bikes so cycled round Lyon until about five in the morning?"...absolute rebels! (This blog is called Abby's Year Abroad Adventures...I guess it wouldn't really live up to its name if there wasn't an accidental party crash thrown in there at some point!)

Oh, since arriving in Lyon I’ve also been described by others as a BNOC (big name on campus) and 'cool' for using the word ‘fit’ to describe a good looking guy whilst talking to my Irish and Australian friends. Me…cool…I know right?

After all of that excitement I thought I’d bring you crashing back down to earth with a bang: someone I know got mugged in Paris, another of my friends snatched her phone back from a pickpocket on the Lyon metro, and another of my friends had her purse stolen by the same pickpocket (the fiend). Needless to say I’ve been walking home alone in the early hours of every morning and walking around with my bag open and all my valuables out on show. Vive la France!

Left to right: Johanna, Marie-Laure, Katrina, Samuel, Molly, Me, Kathleen, Emanuelle, Daniela