A Summer Weekend : Cannes/Monaco/Island of Sainte Marguerite

 

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During the 18th century when the British upper class was holidaying and chilling under the warm skies of the French Riviera, they couldn’t have imagined that in the 21st century, these spots would turn into holiday hubs, and people would fly in from all over the world, every day, every hour, crowding these beaches along the Mediterranean. The Cote d’Azur, known in English as the French Riviera, is definitely one of the most popular summer holiday destinations of our times. With the Cannes Film Festival pretty much endorsing it every year, tourists are buzzing around all year long. One among them, I finally booked myself in for a southern delight this summer.

Almost the peak of summer, I flew in to Nice on the first weekend of August. Although summer was at its peak in Paris too, but the sun in the South has its own feels. So I landed in Nice, and took the bus to the center from the airport, and took in the sight of people walking their dogs and running along the Promenade des Anglais. The first thing that really struck me was the architecture, which was nothing like what I’d seen before in France. Of course I wasn’t used to seeing house with huge balconies and terraces, because my home city in France, i.e., Paris is known for its almost non existing balconies. Which has its own charm, but let’s not get to that. Nice, on the other hand, was very, very different from Paris. I just couldn’t stop staring at the pretty houses, sometimes painted bright yellows and pinks, looking onto the beach.

But Nice wasn’t the place I was staying the night. I was somehow more excited about visiting towns other than Nice, mostly because I didn’t want to go to super hyped places. But yeah I know Cannes and Monaco aren’t less hyped either. But after a small walk around Nice, I headed straight to the station and boarded the train to Monaco. A cheap ticket, a short ride, but amazing views of seaside towns as the train passed along the French Riviera, towards Italy. Pretty much every small stretch of sand was packed with people. Somewhere hidden on tiny hills were houses, mansion rather, looking like a bird’s nest far from the hustle and bustle of the city ; looking out on to the bright blue Mediterranean, a perfect escape from the world so full of life and troubles. But like dreams, these houses passed out of sight, and soon the train entered the Gare Monaco Ville.

Of course, I should have known that this was another touristy little place. A small country, surrounded by France and the Mediterranean. Monte Carlo- a town straight out of a Hollywood movie set. With its yatch-lined harbor, the belle-epoque casino, and streets filled with high-end fashion boutiques, I did feel for a moment that I was in the wrong place. Monte Carlo is for the rich. But these days you don’t need to be rich to travel. SO, I was pretty happy not spending euros and euros like a typical tourist, but taking in the sights and observing a new place with keen eyes of a traveler. Not concentrating much on spending lavishly, I concentrated on walking around. But the most crazy (in a nice way) thing about this place was that most of it was hilly, and quite interestingly there were public lifts to take help you climb up! It took me 20 minutes to figure out where my airbnb was – even though it was just on the street next to the station where I got off! I thought I was pretty good with maps, but a new realization is that map skills work differently for hilly towns!

Well, I didn’t do much in Monaco except walking around in the old town, in narrow streets, admiring the architecture, window shopping brands that I had never even heard of, climbing till the highest point of the town for an amazing view, and visiting the entrance hall of the casion of Monte Carlo (You can’t go in to gamble unless you’re suited and booted and look rich enough). Drinks and dinner by the harbour, ofcourse, and that was the end of my time in Moncao. Next afternoon, I boarded a train to Cannes, and eager for a day at the beach!

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Post Office in Monaco.

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A view of Monaco.

Cannes, though still a rich people city, had its own charm. Much different from Monaco, Cannes was all about the beach life. I got off further away from the central station, and walked alllll the way from Cannes La Bocca to the hotel, along the beach. Pretty exhausted by the time I reached the hotel, but the beach had to be done. So poof! I was at the beach in no time! What I noticed there was that from where I had started walking, the beaches were pretty empty, but reaching closer to the center, it was a bazar! The beaches at the center seemed no fun – it was just tooooo packed! There was literally no place to sit. These are the beaches of La Croisette. So if you go to Cannes, avoid these touristy beaches and walk further away from the town, where it’s much nicer and peaceful for a beach day.

That night, dinner was not touristy at all. Having taken some local advice from a friend from Cannes, I went to dine at a very fancy place, where apparently only the locals go. Situated in the heart of the touristy area, in a narrow street next to lanes full of exotic restaurants, this little restaurant, if you don’t know about it, you might never find. Its pretty much a local secret in the heart of the buzzing touristy quartier and is quite rightly called “Le Jardin Secret” – The Secret Garden. At the entrance, it doesn’t even seem like a restaurant. You go in, and you ask for a table, and then they take you in to the garden, which is decorated with candles, lights, and hippy stuff. A beautiful place to spend a summer evening, with French food and wine. And that was the end of day one in Cannes. But the next day was going to be the best adventure of this trip!

South of France

At a beach in Cannes.

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Another one.

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View from the hotel room.

I was pretty convinced that all these towns along the Mediterranean are super touristy and with no peace and calm. I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I still hadn’t found a beach where I could just relax, away from the crowds. And then – an island happened. I have this habit of checking google maps all the time to see what is around. Before the trip, when I was looking at Cannes in Google maps, I saw an island pretty close to it. I wondered if one could actually go there. So when I reached the hotel, I made it a point to ask the reception about this island. And turns out – we can go there! Now this island is not an island where people live. So pretty much an island-island! It used to be inhabited during Roman times, and was captured by the Spanish at some point and then recaptured by the French. During the 17th century, the fortress prison which still exists on the island was constructed and it was the home to many famous prisoners including the mysterious prisoner called the Man in the Iron Mask, who has been mentioned in the works of famous French writers like Voltaire and Dumas. The prison was shut down in the 20th century. Today, most of the island is a reserved forest with tiny rocky bays, umbrella pines and ancient eucalyptus forests. And of course, beaches all around! Although most of the beaches are rocky, there is a long stretch of sand beach too. But what makes it even more exciting is that you can pick any small stretch of rocky beach and make it your own private beach for the day!

How to get there? Well, there’s a ferry from the Vieux-Port of Cannes to this island every 1-2 hours from the morning till the evening. A 15-minute ferry ride. But the last one back to Cannes is around 6 in the evening, so if you don’t manage to get back, you’re stuck on the island and you sleep under the stars. Although the rides go pretty full during the summer, the island still seems deserted when you’re walking in the forest. The island is almost 3 kms in length and 900 metres across. So you’re not running into people when you’re walking in the forest. But occasionally you see families setting up picnics, someone reading in peace, and people setting up their own private beach parties on tiny rocky bays. This was definitely one of the most unique places I’ve been to till now, and I couldn’t help but think of Kaho na pyaar hai while settling down on my own private bay. I walked quite a lot during the day spent on this island, but it was impossible to cover the whole island in one day. Not knowing what was next, it was pretty exciting to take random narrow paths, and so often, there was the road-not-taken moment in the forest. I also ended up finding a cemetery of soldiers, and that was really, really spooky. But as the hours passed, the challenge was to make it in time for the last ferry, which I managed and made it back in time for the last evening in Cannes.

fkks

On the island – Read the signs!!!

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One edge of the island .

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Thats me 🙂

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On my private rocky bay , chilling in peace.

The next morning, the last morning before the flight back, I went to the terrace of the Radisson Blu, which has an amaaaaazing view of Cannes and the Mediterranean. Followed by a quick visit to the Palais des festivals where the Cannes film festival takes place every year.

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Rooftop of the Radisson Blu.

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But, well, the island being the highlight of my trip to the South of France, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t discovered it on Google maps. Thank Google for that!

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Italy – Part 3 – Verona

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“There is no world for me outside the walls of Verona, except purgatory, torture, and hell itself. So to be banished from Verona is like being banished from the world, and being banished from the world is death.”

– Shakespeare, Rome and Juliet, Act III, Scene III.

This is a quote engraved on one of the walls in Verona. And this is also the first significant thing I remember seeing, as I walked through the streets of Verona with a map and a suitcase in hand, trying to find the hostel I was booked at. The memories of this city are now fading with time, and I must write them down to preserve them better.

This was February 2015. I have already written the first two parts about Rome and Venice, but somehow completely missed out on Verona.. Maybe I was lazy to pen down all my feelings about Verona, or maybe I thought I shouldn’t ruin the feelings by penning them down, because really, Verona enchanted me and no blogpost can do justice to that enchantment. But let me still try, because I want my favourite city in Europe (till date) to be a part of my travel diaries.

Verona.. Oh Verona! (Shakespeare much!) .. The only reason why I ever wanted to visit Italy was Verona.. and though it sounds stupid to me today, it was because of the movie “Letters to Juliet” that I had watched years ago when I was naive. I do now understand that there is a major difference between movies and real life (actually I still sometimes unbelieve it and slip into dreamland). Of course I didn’t end up finding the love of my life in Verona, like the actress does, but well, I did fall in love with the city!

Verona was different from Rome and Venice. Quite different. The latter being majorly hyped and for that reason, loses its charm when compared to Verona. Though Venice too enchanted me, for the same reason that Verona did.. the “slipping back in time” vibe that it gives. There is something about Italy and its narrow streets, its houses, its architecture, its food, and its people!

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So.. On our 8th day in Italy, we reached Verona via train from Venice. Smooth journey. Bought a map at the train stations, figured out where the hostel was, and started walking towards it. By the time we reached the hostel, we had already seen half of Verona – It was that far! And why we didn’t take a taxi or bus? Because duh! Save money!

After checking in at the hostel, we headed straight to where I had been dying to go ! Juliet’s house ! Even though its not Juliet’s house for real, it looks like something close to what it could have been. And so it has been converted into a monument for Juliet. Apparently, it also has links to the Capulet family. Well, I don’t know how true that is, but thats what they say ! Okay, now I had no idea that the Juliet’s house wasn’t just about Juliet’s balcony, but there was also a museum inside, which had paintings, antiques, and quotes from Romeo & Juliet on display. That was quite a treat for a history buff like me ! And coming to the main point – Yes, people do write their letters to Juliet, and there is a post box where you can put them in. There also a million notes stuck on the wall and of course love locks ! The ghost of Paris is everywhere in Europe ! I am pretty sure they can build an iron bridge with all the love locks hanging everywhere in Europe.

I wouldn’t say I was disappointed with Juliet’s house.. it did have quite a lot of tourists and wasn’t quite like that in the movie, but I was pretty satisfied with the experience – the credits for which go to the museum. I wondered if the letters were answered back though ? The answer to which I found later, when I met a Swedish girl at the hostel who had lived in Verona for quite sometime. She told me that there is indeed a group that writes back, and she herself had worked there. If I had a little more time in Verona, I would definitely have wanted to do it !

That evening, we treated ourselves to a lavish dinner (treat to ourselves for saving the taxi money) at a restaurant in front of the famous arena (which btw is the place where the beginning of Rockstar was shot). That evening, I tasted my favorite wine in the world for the first time – Prosecco – magical Italian white wine. That, and Lasagna. Life was at its best in that moment.

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The Arena where Rockstar (2011) was shot.

The sun in Verona was a breath of fresh air. The next day, we walked around the city and looked for things to do. We knew there was a castle somewhere on a hill, so we just ended up randomly walking towards it. We ended up walking up a hill with a forest full of ruins, and when we reached the top, the view was breathtaking. Verona from above looked gorgeous !

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Hey thats my back!

It was a chill two days in Verona. Went out for drinks with the Swedish girl and her local friends, walking around the city, contemplating by the river, and the like..

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At the end of it all, I was quite happy. I would have liked to stay longer in Verona, but I knew I would come back to this city someday. I had decided. I would come back to Venice and Verona, so I didn’t let disappointment set in, and said see you soon to one of my favourite cities !

Belgium!

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Belgium, a small country to the north of France. Every one who lives in Paris for a study abroad and wishes to travel Europe would 110% visit Belgium, for more than one reasons. The most important ones : Cheap trains/buses from Paris to Brussels. And one million (maybe I’m exaggerating) varieties of beers! Maybe not a million.. but thousand? For sure! Belgian beers are known world wide, and Belgians do love their beers, just like the French do their wine. If not anything else, I’ve definitely learnt a thing or two about wines and beers in Europe. You know, general knowledge that seems to be important when you’re studying abroad in Europe. So, let me not stray from the topic, and get straight back to talking about Belgium, and the two cities I’ve visited till now.. followed by some quick photographs.

It might sound insane, but I’ve taken a train from Paris to Brussels a couple of times already, but I’ve never been outside in the city of Brussels. I mean, yeah technically I have, the metro and a climbing place I recently went to.. But never really the town center. I know thats insane, but I’ll do that soon 😛

So, after getting down from the “izy” Thalys (read Thalys for cheap travels and for people who are lost between France and Belgium and wanting to call both of them their home), I’ve been to two cities till now : Gent and Leuven.
[Quick note, if you don’t know about izy thalys – its the affordable version of Thalys train, takes a little longer than the Thalys, but its a blessing for its extremely affordable!]

About the cities – I absolutely love how cute, tiny (compared to my home country in Europe) and pretty they are. I know these are such dreamy adjectives, but its true! I think Belgian cities have a very relaxed aura to them. For some reason, the air in Belgium is different from that in France. Definitely there are more bars than cafes – well, thats what I’ve noticed. Of course you find bars everywhere in Paris too, but somehow you find more bars than cafes if you walk around in Belgium. Not to forget your nose would be on alert all the time, because DUH! WAFFLES and FRIES! Let me not say French fries, as we know it. But Belgian fries- the original fries.. and ummm, my mouth is watering! THEY ARE DELICIOUS. You have to come and try them. But let me just mention on thing about them, and thats the major point of difference from French fries as we know them.. Belgian fries are not like the thin almost dead McDonalds fries, which are competing with a size zero girl.. Belgian fries are thick and and and and… DELICIOUS!!!!

And what goes best with them? A drink in a beautiful bar, with friendly waiters who happily speak English if you ask them to (unlike in France). Shit, I seem to compare France and Belgium a lot. But I’m stating facts. Belgian waiters > French waiters. Not just the waiters, but everyone there seems to have a decent level of English. Okay I’m not criticizing the French or anything, they have great qualities in their own way, but when it comes to being multilingual, the Belgians win! (I think I need to write a post about three years of my life in France too –  maybe then I could put down in writing my real views about the French culture.)

Well, since I was talking about bars, here is one I would recommend for sure. This one is in Leuven, a small student city, 45 minutes by train from Brussels. The bar is called “De Blauwe Schuit” and is not exactly in the center but very close to it. And, why is it amazing? They have a pet PEACOCK!!! Now thats something different. A bar/restaurant with a pet peacock on their terrace. It absolutely looks like a summer paradise!!! With all the greenery, and the peacock quite literally doing a free show! He is such a show off bird, really. He isn’t scared of so many people sitting around. In fact he knows that everybody loves looking at him, so he’ll show off his feathers happily!!!

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And here’s a photograph for you!

As far as architecture and scenic beauty is concerned, I don’t think I need to compare France and Belgium here.. Both are equally rich in scenic beauty, history, and architecture. But there’s something about Belgium.. something unique.. The few times I’ve visited, I always tried to understand what it was.. In fact, every time I visit a new city, I always try to notice difference from the ones I’ve been to. Almost all the European cities might seem to be rich in culture, history, architecture and scenic beauty, but there is something different about the cities of each country. Maybe I need to walk around Brussels to figure out what it really is.. the capital is of course a must visit. But from what I’ve felt till now, I think its the happy faces and the difference in the lifestyle that makes it different. There’s a relaxing feeling, a happier feeling, a feeling that I never got while walking around in Paris.

 

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Watermael-Boitsfort.

 

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Gent city center.

 

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Me and my friend Yoko who lives in Gent.

 

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On the train from Brussels to Gent.. Probably the most famous coffee shop in Brussels?

 

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Brittany, France

I’m becoming slow in keeping the travel part of my blog updated. And now I already have two trips to write about! Starting with the first one – Brittany (Bretagne in French). This is a region in the West of France, famous for its beaches. I happened to be on this trip because of one of my really good friends (Jason) in Paris, whose mum was staying in this part of France. He was kind enough to invite us to go visit his place for a week, with his sister, who was going to drive us there from Paris. So thats how me and best friend, Shilpa, decided to hop on, with Anais, to Brittany! Girls roadtrip!

Its about a four hour drive from Paris, and its a beautiful drive through the countryside, as in any region of France. Countryside drives are always beautiful anywhere in the world no? All that greenery, fresh air, clouds, blue sky, loud music and stops for coffee on the highway. I love roadtrips! Well, who doesn’t?

So we got to Brittany late Sunday afternoon and had a wonderful lunch at their first house in a small town in the region, I dont remember the name of. Lasagna, with bread and cheese. And some wonderful cakes from a patisserie in town to follow. Very, very French delicious! It was a nice cozy house; very quiet and calm, with two adorable doggies – Framboise and Jippy.

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The first house we stayed at.

In the evening we went out for a walk around the place. Green fields and narrow lanes. Kind of reminded me of Punjab, my ancestor’s hometown in India, where we go almost every year to visit relatives in the villages. Kind of made me think that life away from the city is kind of the same everywhere. Its all about being ‘en pleine nature’ – In the lap of nature. It was so quiet there, we could listen to the wind and the birds. That is one of my favourite kind of moments in life. When you can listen to even your own heart beating inside you, and the air so fresh, you cant help but breathe deep.

The next morning we moved to the main house, which was the one my friend in Paris had wanted us to see. He was really excited to know about our reactions to that place. And indeed, it was something that would have amazed us! A huge house right in the middle of a forest! For a nature lover like me, that was a heaven. That was my dream house! No doubts about that! I could have stayed their forever.

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The second house.

A white cat joined the family now, and we spent the evening cuddling the cat and dogs, while sitting close to the fire and sipping tea, since it was pretty cold. These few days felt like we were back in time, living away from the new age world. As soon as we stepped out, all we could see were green fields and huge trees. Everywhere.

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Fancy tea party by the fire.

We also went out for walks around the forest, learning about different kinds of flowers and trees. Aunty was really fond of picking and smelling the flowers. And I did the same! We discovered a lot of bluebell flowers, which smelled as good as pretty they looked! We also saw a deer running through the forest!!!! That was the first time I had seen something like that in real life, and it was indeed enchanting!

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In the forest with the cat and dogs!

During the day time, we drove into the city to visit the beaches. We went to around 3-4 beaches. And happily it was quite sunny for the first few days! All the beaches were really pretty, my favourite being the first one, which was completely stranded at that time of the day, and where we also climed a hill for a breathtaking view! The colour of the water was absolutely gorgeous! It always looks prettier under the sun!

 

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Me with Framboise and Jippy at the beach.

On our last day there, we went to the most hyped touristy place around that region. The Mont-Saint Michel. Which isnt really in the Brittany region, but in Normandy, which isnt that far. This is an abbey on the top of an island, which looks like a disney castle. I had actually read about it in one of the posts describing “must-visit-fairtytale-places-in-the-world”. And I wouldnt deny the fact that it actually looked like it had come straight out of a fairtytale. We went all the way up, walking through the narrow streets inside, which used to be a village where the monks lived. This was yet another delight for a history lover like me. But not to forget, the climb all the way up was really, really tiring!


We also went to visit one of their family friends in Dinard, which is apparently called the Monaco of Brittany, being an expensive town, and the beach looking similar to the ones there. No doubt the beach was pretty, with a view of Saint-Malo, where we had been right before getting to this town.

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The beach at Dinard.

Saint-Malo is another famous tourist destination. Its a city inside a fortress! Now really, I hadn’t heard about anything like this before. It was quite different and another good dose history. It was drizzling too, so the town looked even prettier, as we walked along the fortress wall. This area was quite touritsty with too many shops and tourists. I dont really like these kind of places, but you do have to tick off the famous places and see what the hype is all about! The town was also full of ice-cream and waffle shops and we had a dose of that in one of the most famous shops there. Chocolate ice-cream + Real hot chococate + Chocolate waffle = Chocogasm and no chocolate for a week atleast! Haha! It was delicious though! 😀

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Saint-Malo : The city inside a fortress, from the top of the fortress wall.

On the last day, we drove around the capital of the region- Rennes, since thats where our bus back to Paris was from! And that was one chilled out spring break vaction!! 😀

Le Havre and Étretat – France .

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The beach at Étretat. View from the cliff.

So, during my last few days in France, I decided to visit a few places in Haute Normandie – Upper Normandy region in the North of France. Apparently it is one of the most beautiful regions in France, and I was living in the captial of this region- Rouen.
I was living quite close to the train station, so it was good idea to do some day trips.

Me and my housemate, we decided to go to one of the many seaside towns in the region. The sea in the North-West of France is La Manche – The English Channel, which separates England from France. And there are many small towns that run along the coast. So we could choose to go anywhere for this sea.

Most of my colleagues had suggested going to a small seaside town called ‘Etretat’ . The word sounds beautiful in itself. I definitely didn’t know what they meant by ‘it is beautiful’. I didn’t know what to expect . But I took their word for it, and decided to give it a go.
Now to reach Etretat, we had to go to Le Havre, another seaside town, famous because the during World War II the British bombed the city to prevent its use by the Germans for an invasion of England. It is also a major seaport and inspired many French authors of the 19th and 20th century.
About this town, one of my French colleagues had said : ‘ Either you will hate Le Havre, or you will love it .’ And she was so right when she said that. There was no in between.

We reached Le Havre around noon and went straight to the stone beach, walking most of the distance from the train station.
It was gloomy, I’d say. No, it wasn’t the weather. But just the feel of the town. I knew in that moment that I didn’t like this town at all. Because there was no in-between. It seemed like a ghostly town even during mid day. And then I thought of the fact that this town was bombed during the second world war. .. Maybe places that have suffered reflect the suffering long after its over? Thats the conclusion I could come to.

The Le Havre beach was as gloomy as the streets of the same. Sea and stones. Sea and stones. And those were the only colours – Light blue, gray and white. There was sadness all around. A beautiful sadness. A sadness that touched my heart. I looked all around at the dry colours and mu thoughts turned to the emptiness of life. I wouldn’t say one shouldn’t visit this place. Because it is not everywhere that you get to see and feel the blandness and light shades of life.

Next, we had to take a bus for the much loved French town called Etretat. And what a bus journey that was! All around the French countryside, the small streets, the huge green fields, the pretty houses and what not! I didn’t realize it was quite far because I was loving the bus ride so much, accompanied by music. Music always adds much more happiness to the already existing feeling.

After a while, we reached the destination. Etretat, right in front of the Mairie.
I could already see so many tourists. As we walked into the pretty little streets, it seemed as if this town was only meant for tourists! So many of them! And to please them, you could see fancy restaurants and cafes and souvenir shops, selling the best of Normandy. Bottles of Cider, and the special cups to serve them. Ahem, by the way, I love Cider!

Just like many other towns that I had seen in Europe, this one too seemed like a fairtyale town. There’s definitetly something about these European towns and the streets! A complete contrast from India, the country that I come from.
Soon, we reached the beach, the main attraction of the town. And there, my heart skipped a beat. To say it was gorgeous would be an understatement. It was really, truly, breathtaking!
Now you’d wonder what could be so breathtaking about a beach. A stone beach, actually.
Well, the cliffs were what made the beach look absolutely gorgeous!
Those weren’t just any normal cliffs. They were artistic. As though someone had painted them such. Guy De Maupassant, the famous French author had said that one of the big cliffs looks like its an elephant putting its trunk in the sea. And it really did! Haha. Thats like naturegasm for nature lovers!
I stood there for a long time, looking at the beautiful views and the happy people all around. And ofcourse, since it was stone beach, we spent a long time throwning stones in the water to see who can throw it the farthest. Yes, I can be that kiddish. But come on, its funnnnn! 😀

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Étretat.

Next, we climbed the cliff. From far away down at the beach, I could see the greenery up on the cliff, and that ofcourse, inspired me to go up there, although we were already quite tired by then. But you see, views from cliffs are always worth the effort and energy.

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Climbing the cliff.

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Walking back from the cliff to the beach.

And definitely, it was. One could see the other elephant cliff from above and also, the whole town and the beach, which looked absolutely amazing. And there, I was high on nature. Both physically and metaphorically.