Destination: Pau & Toulouse, France

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Boulevard des Pyrénées in Pau (Feb 2016).

After my two, eventful nights in Bordeaux were over, it was time for me to move on to my next destination over les vacances d’hiver back last February during my first year as an assistante. I would be heading even more south in the southwest of France, hoping to catch some more good, warm weather that I was lucky to have gotten back in Bordeaux, as a way to escape from the Normandy cold where I lived.

Unfortunately, my luck took a turn for the not-so-great, for the erratic weather in France during the winter was in full-swing as I took my BlaBlaCar ride from Bordeaux to Pau. Really, I’d never seen such vicious rain as that one: even the windshield wipers on the car didn’t go fast enough for the storm itself!

Pau, France

The journey took about two hours and we arrived in Pau (pronounced “poh”) close to noon. I was dropped off at the gare and thankfully by then, the rain had stopped. I headed out, and climbed the hill to get up to the city center. I’d been meaning to visit this small city, considering that I have a few friends who had studied there during university. I was aware that there wasn’t much to do there, especially it being Sunday when I visited, but it would just be a few hours in town before I caught my next BlaBlaCar ride to Toulouse. In essence, I was just passing through Pau.

Any case, I hiked the hill to the top and was rewarded with sunny weather, along with the iconic Boulevard des Pyrénées which is a 1.8-kilometer (1.1 miles) stretch of palm trees, beautiful architecture, and a view of the Pyrénées mountains on a good day (that day, unfortunately, was not). The boulevard reminded me a bit of Los Angeles, which definitely gave me some nostalgia for home- it really was that lovely.

I also checked out the Château de Pau and the Palais Beaumont: I ended up not going into the former, just because my backpack was too big to be let in and there wasn’t a cloak room to store my belongings in, so I forgone the visit and headed across town to the Palais Beaumont, the city municipal building and convention center. I didn’t enter the building, since it was closed on Sunday, but I checked out the fountains in front, which were not bad to look at.

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Château de Pau.
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Outside the Palais Beaumont.

I also wandered the main center, which was filled with shops, boulangeries, and restaurants serving different cuisines which I believed to be for the tourists and students alike (Pau is also a university town). Again, it was Sunday, so nothing was really opened. I ended up finishing my visit of Pau in about two to three hours and headed back to the train station to rest and wait until it was time to go meet my BlaBlaCar driver. The weather, unpredictable as it was, had turned for the worse once again, and it started drizzling.

Around 16h30, I left the train station and headed to le Crayon, which is literally a large statue of a pencil located near the E-Leclerc of the city. I met my BlaBlaCar driver over there, and at 17h15 left Pau. Overall, a very short visit- not much to see, but nevertheless a pretty, quaint town.

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Le Crayon.

Toulouse, France

After about two-and-a-half hours in transit (with beautiful views of the Pyrénées mountains in the distance), I arrived in Toulouse. The driver dropped me off at one of the metro stations at the city outskirts and from there I took the metro over to the stop near my Couchsurfing host’s flat. He picked me up from the station and took me over to his home, located in the city center. He was super friendly, a man in his mid-thirties who was the community music director and had plenty of experience living and traveling around the world, even to the United States. When we got to his flat, he’d rather made some dinner that we ended up having, all the while continuing to talk and get to know each other. Around 21h00, he turned in for bed while I took a mattress that he’d provided me in his living room.

My Couchsurfing host left the house at 9h00 the following morning; I spent the morning idling around the flat before heading out at 13h00 to check out Toulouse on my own. I took a small stroll in the Jardins des Plantes, which is one of the three main botanical gardens in the city center, before heading into the heart of Toulouse. Unlike with the rainy, turbulent weather in Pau the day before, it was super sunny and warm in Toulouse that day; lots of people were out in the cafes, shopping or otherwise just strolling around town. I popped into the Hôtel d’Assézat, a 16th-century building that’s considered a notable historic monument of the city and today houses a museum devoted to 15th through 20th-century art. Again, I didn’t go inside, but the outside itself looked visually stunning.

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Hôtel d’Assézat.

Next, I headed towards the Garonne River to check out the Pont Neuf (“New Bridge”) before wrapping around and visiting the old, historic quarter of Toulouse. Lots of narrow, winding roads, which led me to a few churches and eventually the Basilique Saint-Sernin, a Roman-styled basilica that’s considered the most-preserved church in Europe. It’s known for its distinctive architecture, especially its spiraled tower that gives it a rather sharp texture to it. Lots of young students and adults were out in front of it, hanging out and soaking up as much of the sun as possible, as I entered the basilica.

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Pont Neuf.
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Basilique Saint-Sernin.

After the basilica, I headed back to my Couchsurfing host’s flat, passing by the main plaza where the Capitole, which is the city hall and theater, was situated. I ended up running into my host at the grocery store just around the corner of his house, and together we headed back in where we had some tapenade as an afternoon snack break. My host got a call from his mother, who was last-minute visiting him the following day, and unfortunately, I couldn’t stay with him for the full three nights. An inconvenience, especially since I had a similar problem with a host in Glasgow over December, but thankfully I was able to contact another host with whom I would stay the following night; the current host was kind enough to let me stay that final night. We went out again in the late afternoon, wandering around the same places in the city center that I’d already visited: we popped into the Couvent des Jacobins (a convent) in which the inside was dimly-lit, giving off a solemn atmosphere to it all.

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Couvent des Jacobins.
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Inside the convent.

We also checked out a Japanese botanical garden located near the gare, and from there we took the metro back to his flat where we had dinner together and turned in for the night afterwards.

The following morning was my last day staying with my Couchsurfing host: I woke up, packed up my belongings, and said goodbye to him (who was still sleeping) before leaving around 10h00. I hung around the city center before meeting my other host near the gare, where he picked me up and took me over to his flat not too far from it. Just like with my other Couchsurfing host, he was also very kind and pleasant. He also had the very-distinctive Toulousian accent, considering that he’d been born and raised in Toulouse all of his life.

We had lunch together in his house, and also met his current roommate, a young Russian woman who was a lecturer at the University of Toulouse. My host and I decided to head out to town in the afternoon to see the basilica and a museum next to it. We drove into the center, but the weather was absolutely dismal and pouring rain, which was a huge contrast to the weather the day before.

Any case, we checked out the museum, then went over to the Capitole again where we popped into a book shop and then finished off the day by getting some groceries for dinner that night. We returned to his house where we made dinner, talked some more, and I got more acquainted with his Russian roommate, who had a small piano keyboard in her room and I, having played piano since I was young, played some melodies on there. Went to bed close to midnight, and woke up before 6h00 the next day to catch an early bus to my next destination. Said goodbye to my Couchsurfing host, who was already awake, thanking him for the brief, but pleasant one night, and headed out to the bus station near the gare to leave from Toulouse.

Overall, my experience in Toulouse was pleasant, if not somewhat idle: although it’s a large city, there really isn’t much to do or see there. I stayed a total of three nights, but I think one night would have sufficed. At the same time, however, what surprised me was just how kind the people were: having come from the north of France with cold weather (and I suppose cold people, too), the sincerity and openness of the locals were wonderful surprises. And the Toulousian accent gets me every time (in a good way!).

One more thing: weather in southwest France was definitely unpredictable with its on-off rainy days, but I would have to say that the times when it was sunny, it was also warm and so much better than the usual cold I was experiencing in Normandy. I would, however, be heading on to even warmer, more consistent weather, as I hopped the border over to Spain.

Stay tuned for the next leg of my holiday adventures. Coming up: Barcelona, Spain!

 

— Rebecca

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