Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Turquoise calanques once more

Boating with Éric was an experience to remember. But water is not my element. I need to move, walk long distances, change places. Why not walk the Calanques? Over 20 km over the mountains? I'm up for this!

On Friday Thierry and Jehane picked me up from Marseille and we headed for Grand Méjean, on Côte Bleue. We reached our clandestine place to sleep just before sunset - a rock with little space on the top enough for 3 sleeping bags. The red sun like an eruption and its rays reflecting on the rocks was an alluring view.

Our planned hike from Callelongue to Cassis became a hike from Les Goudes to Col de la Gineste. With moderate difficulty at the beginning, it slowly became more demanding when it advanced. First difficult passage came at Calanque de Marseilleveyre (3rd km). Jehane chose to follow a small passage and not the main trail and this way she led us to a precipitous slope with a drop right to the water. We had to be hypervigilant while crossing it but still it was a piece of cake compared to parts of the trail that were in store for us.

The path...

...and how it looked from the beach.

More difficulties came around Falaise des Toits (6th km). First time to climb into the mountains, which was demanding only because of how long we had to walk uphill on a steep slope. Still nothing to really make you think "hell, that can't be done." Yet when you see a mountain that is almost vertical in front of you, you'll for sure think how the hell it's possible to reach the top.

After Calanque de Morgiou (12th km) came the first chance to check our adhesion abilities. A vertical rock, with just enough holes to put your hands and tiptoes, nothing more. And the empty spaces were damn slippery with no edges to grip strongly. What if we had to pass it the other way, not seeing anything? It would probably be a slide that ends in the calanque.

The diagonal connecting top left corner with the bottom right corner is the way we made.

Roads just like in Alps! Everything resembles beloved Alps.

Mingling colors of Calanque de Sugiton (13th km)

Another difficult passage and the first point with chains. Holding to them, we had to make a U-turn in a tiny corridor (with our backpacks) and descend on the ladder. Too slippery and too tight to take photos of the corridor itself (13th km).
We didn't manage to complete the hike in one day. Around 14th km we started searching for a place to sleep. At that part of the trail it wasn't very difficult. Compared to some parts of the trail we encountered, this one was like an autoroute. Small rocks on the ground didn't bother too much; after entire day of walking on slightly demanding terrain anybody would sleep like a baby.

Have a close look!

The second day started with getting woken up by a runner passing next to our camp. Once again, mosquitoes ate us alive. No sunrise this time, too many rocks. But the improving weather and other magnificent views made us afire for more.

More obstacles on our way this day. More steep passages to traverse or climb. How good we didn't decide to hike the other direction, otherwise we'd probably be forced to change our route too many times. 5 hours on a safer detour or 5 seconds - the duration of a jump from the top of the rock?

Pas de l'Œil de Verre - even with chains and steps to support it's still a perilous place (16th km).

How much determination in Jehane (17th km)!

Around 1 pm we saw our destination from afar for the first time (20th km). But instead of getting closer, it slowly receded. We reached some road and I tried to figure out our location, futile. It turned out that we took the wrong trail and passed the mountains to get to Col de la Gineste, almost the same distance as to Cassis (24 km in total). But no regrets, the views were splendid too, and moreover, no sooner had we hitched a ride to Marseille than it began to rain. And that'd be even more lousy to be in the mountains at that time and climb even more slippery rocks.

Jehane was defnitelly the bravest person. This girl is almost 9 years old but did things that many grown-ups would quiver in fear to do were they in the same position. She never whined, cried or threw fits when we had to pass the most difficult parts of the trail. With her little hands and legs she reached for the best place to place them and safely pass the cliff. Sometimes the good spots were too far from each other for me (or rather because of our size, she had bigger choice to find the right spot) but she tackled them without any problem and even in some situation was the first one to run and make it happen. Never in my life have I seen so much courage in a child.

And Marseille itself? The first impression about it I had seeing Le Vieux Port and its surroundings two weeks ago was "It's so dirty." Worse was yet to come. After many walks in different parts of the city I thought that I'd never been to a place that looks quite nice seen from above and so disgusting when you walk its streets. At least in the center. Marseille resembles one big landfill. The oldest city in France that has nothing old about it, with the most lively part of the city inundated with trash, the old quarter Le Panier very quiet, with houses that not much different from derelict buildings in my home town, almost empty at nighttime, with steps leading to the beach that smell like sewers, with rats running on the streets!

But I don't travel only to see places! It was good to come and spend time with my host Stéphane and hist friends, use both English and French to communicate, listen to Stéphane's stories about hitchhiking in Sicily and his Mediterranean roots, discover the city at nighttime, talk to strangers on the street, receive smiles. However the city is disgusting, its people are one of the kindest I've met during my travels. Even if they insist on having a drink with you or getting your phone number.

Great team: Pierre, Stéphane and Endrik. Only Gersende, my French-speaking mate is missing.

I loved being back in touch with nature of real adventure! Hopefully the weather stays as good as it is right now, so we can do the second leg of our hike to Cassis!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sailing the Mediterranean Sea

Just after my return from my trip I met Éric, who returned from his one-month sailing trip on the same day I left for Spain. When you listen about sea, sailing and all this adventure from him, you immediately want to give it a go. I've never tried that before and my swimming abilities would exclude me from any water sport but when I heard "I'd like you to have a chance to try it" the astonishment came first but right after that big excitement of another opportunity to try something new.

The primary plan was to sail for 3 days, from Monday to Wednesday. As it often happens with plans, they change a lot and this time our trip was two days shorter - first because of too much wind (even in Lagnes the mini-mistral made me think I could fly), second because the owner of the boat who wanted to have it Tuesday evening. However, even one day spent entirely on the boat was an experience to remember and to repeat one day.

We started from Le Vieux Port in Marseille and took a shuttle to Frijoul Island, where Éric's boat was anchored.

Le Vieux Port

Harbor at Frijoul

Éric's boat

After some rest on the shores of Riou Island we visited a few calanques - deep, steep-sided valleys comprised of limestone and granite.

The scenery is stunning. The calanques are wild, rugged terrain whose rocks reflect the sunlight. Some of them are vegetation-free, on some shrubs and tiny trees succeed in growing. The contrast between the turquoise and blue water is astonishing. I loved tiny harbor villages and little chalets perched on the rocks. I stared at the jaw-dropping formations, stared at as many clefts, furrows, scratches and changes in the color as I could (impossible to note everything when the rock in front of your eyes is massive). I recalled my memories from another climatic zone - observing the snows of Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc through Jim's telescope in his apartment at Le Coupeau. So many details in both of them...

Our day started very early, that's why everybody was happy to enjoy the siesta. I bathed in the sun on the bow of the boat and when I woke up, I had the beautiful panorama of Marseille in front of my eyes and sun shining right above me.

I loved my time spent on the boat and I loved how carefree it was. As if you leave all your problems and worries behind once you leave the safe harbor. While peacefully swaying on the azure sea, with the best views imaginable in front of me, I wondered how surprising life can be; we fall in love with places we never intended to love...

Some months ago I thought I'd be living in Copenhagen now. I stayed there only for 2 weeks and was relieved to leave the place where I felt terribly lonely. My excellent host from Sweden, Katrine, told me other paradises would come. And it came, in the form of paradise I had never left: sunny Provence, lashed with mistral, with its green hills, mountain-perched villages and houses made of brick with pastel shutters. Every single place I see here is like falling in love again; so much to fill your eyes and fuel your soul.

I remember studying for a retake of a difficult exams, during my holidays in USA in 2008, when thinking about the university was the last thing I would like to think about. I whined about not being able to memorize stupid data and doubted that studies were something for me. There were tears and desperation too. More or less, pushed by my teaching relations, I decided to continue, still never being sure that it's exactly what I want to do in my life: connect my future with what I'd studied. My mind has always been somewhere else but now my body is there too. The studying time is over and I'm sure as hell I'll never take it up again. You could ramble on about better job, money, prestige, you could try to bribe me and none of these would work. I'm living my life my OWN way, with little money but with plenty of freedom. Freedom I never had still being a student, bounded by exams, land researches and trainings. Then prevented from progressing, now I feel I can develop, flourish and grow.

During last year I've slept under the stars and close to major monuments, got invited by locals into their houses, shared their everyday lives with them, helped with harvest, walked hundreds of kilometers in the sunshine and in the rain, met hitchhiking drivers who became hiking partners, got drenched and sunburned while hitchhiking, talked to people in all languages I know, felt uncomfortable but how excited at the same time, managed to see good part of Europe thanks to the generosity of strangers, traveled to 16 countries (more than in previous 8 years of traveling), out of which 8 for the first time. All just because of never being afraid to follow MY WAY.

Friday, September 9, 2011

With outcasts in Albi

I don't remember the last time I was so spellbound by a city. Tiny, cute villages took my breath away but bigger cities seemed to look all the same, apart from some characteristic landmarks. Time to change this came in Albi. My gosh, this city was a gem for me; and if I had picked with my eyes closed, I wouldn't have chosen any better.

The best way to discover Albi was to get lost in the chaotic jumble of narrow, winding streets lined with houses made of pink or red colored brick and wood. I wanted to incessantly stare stare stare at them. How I wish I could live an a building like that, with crooked floor and a wooden side cantilevered over the street. Wherever I went, I always found some hidden charms. And the best thing: the more adorable, the more empty the street was!!!

There's even more splendid view when you look at the tight cluster of red houses from the other bank of the river Tarn.

One of the highlights of my stay was visiting this man:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or rather faithful friends of this miserable, crippled man - prostitutes, dancers, pimps, clowns and other outcasts. Simple women, without idealization portrayed in the most intimate moments of their everyday life - bathing, combing their hair, resting, pulling on their stockings, waiting for medical check-ups,

I see a prostitute wracked with alcohol, wondering about her life drinking on a side of a table, a mother prostitute talking to pregnant daughter who is a prostitute herself.

His women aren't beautiful; on the contrary, they're unattractive, sleazy, with humdrum faces and withered bodies, as if all energy, hope and attractiveness have escaped their bodies and minds.

A prominent feature observable in his paintings is lack of eye contact between the characters, their dull eyes look into nothingness but never at the person who looks at the painting or at any other character in it.

But in their own way, the women Toulouse-Lautrec grew so close to living in brothels and indulging in prostitution, are beautiful, they are real people with character, painted just the way they are, and their appearance tells more about their life than you can read from a face of young and gorgeous girl who hasn't experienced the hardships of life.

I planned to be on the road for a little more but eventually decided to come back home earlier, give my legs some rest, meet friends and listen about their recent adventures. I don't want to jinx but next week I might try something I've never done in my life. One thing I have to admit, some of the stories I heard today inspired me enough to take the plunge!