Over the recent Spring Break, I was fortunate enough to travel abroad with Wheeler High School’s French Club, led by Mrs. Michele Ault. We spent eleven days touring many cities, towns, villages, and landmarks in Southern France. From the unforgettable locations to the delicious cuisine, France was an excellent choice to visit during the springtime.
Moreover, the friendly people and interesting culture are a must see for anybody who would like to travel to Europe. I would like to give a general summary of some of the main French cities that our tour group visited.
Our first stop was the ancient French fortified town of Carcassonne. Occupied since the New Stone Age, Carcassonne is located in the Aude plain between two great axes of circulation linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea and the Massif Central to the Pyrénée Mountains. Its strategic importance was quickly recognized by the Romans who occupied its hilltop until the fall of the Western Roman Empire and was later taken over in the fifth century by the Visigoths who founded the city.
Also thriving as a trading post due to its location, it saw many rulers who successively built up its fortifications, until its military significance was greatly reduced by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. The castle was going to be removed, but theorist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the site in 1853. Currently, the town greatly profits from tourism, wine making, and manufacturing.
The next city our tour group visited was the port city of Bordeaux. It is the fifth largest region in France with a population of over 800,000 inhabitants. The city's titles are "La Perle d'Aquitaine" (The Pearl of Aquitaine), and "La Belle Endormie" (Sleeping Beauty), in reference to the old center which had black walls due to pollution; nowadays, this is not the case.
In fact, a part of the city, Le Port de La Lune, was almost completely renovated. Bordeaux is the city which has the highest number of preserved historical buildings in France, except for Paris. Along with its building preservation, Bordeaux is the world's major wine industry capital. It is home to the world's main wine fair, Vinexpo, while the wine economy in the metro area takes in 14.5 billion euros each year.
Bordeaux wine has been produced in the region since the 8th century. The historic part of the city is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble.”
Not too far from Bordeaux is the small French village of Saint-Emilion. It is a unique site composed of world-famous wineries, fine wine, beautiful architecture, and great monuments. Our tour group first signed up to see the monolithic church, ancient frescoes, and underground catacombs that date all the way to the 13th century. After we finished that, we snacked on various French macaroon and candy shops scattered throughout the town square.
Lastly, we visited a local winery and vineyard, where we learned about the wine making process, history, types of wine, and taste testing. Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion were my favorite places that we visited in southern France.
Once we finished touring the Bordeaux region, we visited the French town of Albi. Jewel of the Midi-Pyrenees region, Albi is one of the most well-known of France's small cities. The town center, with its remarkable medieval brick cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec museum, is a famous UNESCO world heritage site. Its magnificent medieval St. Cecilia's Cathedral has always been a remarkable and unique monument, being both fortified and built entirely of brick.
On the outside, it looks like a gigantic array of medieval grain silos, but on the inside, it is all delicate gothic tracery in stone and wood, one of the finest late gothic buildings in France. Of particular interest are the massive murals of The Last Judgment that decorate the whole of the cathedral's western wall.
Along with the brick cathedral is the renowned Toulouse-Lautrec art museum, drawing nearly 160,000 visitors annually and placing among the top museums outside of Paris. Our tour group had the privilege to observe the art, sculptures, and gardens within the grand museum.
The last French city that our tour group visited was Toulouse. Located on the banks of the River Garonne, Toulouse is the center of the European aerospace industry, headquarters of Airbus, the Galileo positioning system, the SPOT satellite system, and the Aerospace Valley. The city also hosts the largest space center in Europe: the Toulouse Space Centre (CST). Additionally, its world-renowned university is one of the oldest in Europe (founded in 1229) with more than 103,000 students, making it the fourth-largest university campus of France.
Our tour group greatly enjoyed the Airbus airplane museum, where we saw some of the largest airplanes ever manufactured. In conclusion, our Wheeler High School French Club was very thankful to conduct this spring break trip to Europe and learn all about the French culture!