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French Flag at Arc de Triomphe

France: From Paris to the Riviera

Introduction

French Flag at Arc de Triomphe

Two years after getting married my wife and I finally found time to go on a proper honeymoon! The decision to choose France as our honeymoon destination came naturally as France offered everything we would appreciate in an adventure: Legendary cuisine, excellent variety of photographic opportunities, and of course being the romance capital of the world (I know it’s a cliché, but why not go for the gold?).

On our 16-day adventure we wanted to spend at least a week in Paris since this was our first time visiting France, and spend the rest of our time “sampling” different parts of France at a relatively leisure pace (we wanted to smell the roses too!). Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) emerged as an ideal second destination because it combined relaxation with an excellent public transport system. Upon departure our itinerary looked like this: Paris (7 days) -> Avignon area (2.5 days) -> Nice (5 days) -> return to Paris for our flight home (we did not have a daily itinerary because getting lost had led to many amazing surprises throughout our travels in the past).  Unlike our trip to China, my wife’s semi-fluent French turned out to be an extremely important asset.

AND… For the first time ever instead of staying at hotels we rented private apartments for both Paris and Nice… as for Provence… we opted to let fate decide our fortunes.

  1. Paris:  Love, Lights, Memories
  2. Provence:  The Relaxing Countryside
  3. French Riviera:  Sunny Glitzy Cote d’Azur

Itinerary

16-day France Itinerary Overview (exact route not shown due to Google Map limitation)

Conclusion

Our honeymoon took us from the French capital all the way south to the French Riviera.  Despite my frequent complaints about France’s scorching heat it was only a minor nuisance during an otherwise perfect honeymoon.  From Paris’ hypnotizing night lights and Provence’s rustic country allure, to Cote d’Azur’s lively atmosphere… combined together to form an once in a lifetime experience.  In addition, the legendary cuisine and limitless photography opportunities helped strengthen my favorable impression of France.

From our travel we brought home several souvenirs including wine and Pastis, but little did we know we returned to Canada with the most precious souvenir anyone can imagine: I am going to be a daddy!

Nice Harbour with luxury yachts

Sunny Glitzy Cote d’Azur

September 8th, 2013 – Overcast, then sunny + intense heat

Nice

For the first time on our trip the weather forecast predicted cloud cover with a 60% chance of rain, and more importantly… temperature in the mid-high teens!!! No need to bring a spare T-shirt!!

We hopped onto the tram toward old Nice. These air-conditioned Bombardier trams (Canadian company by the way lol) were frequent and easy to navigate. (For 1 euro per trip it was an inexpensive yet efficient method to travel around town. We bought the 10-trip pack so we didn’t need to buy tickets on every trip. Just make sure you validate the ticket once on board). We passed the TGV station (called Gare Thiers) and within 10 minutes we were near the waterfront where Old Nice was situated.

Nice was an extremely busy city packed with locals and tourists. Architectures around Nice were vastly different than other regions of France – a stark contrast between the conservative color schemes found throughout Paris and the bold eye-catching colors of the Riviera. Our impression of Nice was that it was younger, more eclectic, and grittier than other French cities we had visited previously. We felt safe throughout our entire trip through France, but we noticed there was a significant increase of loitering in Nice (especially at night).

Old Nice was absolute madness with pedestrian traffic and we quickly discovered the reason behind such craziness once we reached Nice’s famous waterfront broadwalk aka Promenade des Anglais. Apparently from September 6-15 was the Francophones Game! (Google taught us that the Francophones Game = Every 4 year event similar to the Commonwealth Games for French speaking nations). The cycling competition took place at the waterfront and it was extremely exciting to see the Canadian national team race… but for some reason there was a separate team for “Team Quebec”… WTF!

We walked down the waterfront promenade towards Castle Hill. On our left were busy shops of all sorts, and opposite of these shops were rows upon rows of beach chairs for rent on our right (crazy busy VS relaxation… separated by a road). In Cote d’Azur standard that day must’ve been a sub-par day for sunbathing because those beach chairs were mostly empty. (or maybe people finally woke up and realized that paying 30 euros to sit on a ROCKY beach was highway robbery!?).

By the time we reached the foot of Castle Hill the air was suffocatingly hot and muggy. Needless to say the weather forecast lied and it was impossible to have anything but sunny weather in the French Riviera. We had every intention of hiking up the Castle Hill to the top but since I was already uncomfortable with the heat we opted to cheat and utilized the elevator instead (The elevator was small and extremely slow so expect a long wait… there were no fees for the elevator ride but numerous online sources suggested otherwise). Castle Hill was a misleading name because there were no castles to be found at the top. Even though Castle Hill was castle-less, our disappointments were quickly dwarfed by the magnificent view of the Nice Harbor on one side, and the curving beach/cityscape on the other.

To be honest I was instantly drawn to Nice’s bold colors on arrival. Bright yellow, orange, green, and all color permutations in between… such contrast in color was simply a photographer’s heroin… But to see such variety of bold colors mesh together so harmoniously from afar was actually a little surprising. The relentless sun, in addition to our ill prepared outfits (remember it was supposed to rain so we dressed for rain) accelerated our departure from Castle Hill. On principles alone we took the stairs instead of elevators on our descent (can’t be too lazy!). Once at the bottom we actually decided to head back to our apartment first to change and shower instead!

Refreshed and relatively sweat free (I swear to god it was so muggy I was sweating while showering lol), we returned to the streets of Old Nice. We wandered aimlessly for 3-4 hours within the winding streets of Old Nice, passed numerous gelato establishments each claiming to be the best, and basked in the bold colors of this intriguing city until night time.

Gallery

 

Avignon Cafe

Provence the Relaxing Countryside

September 5th, 2013 – Sunny

AVIGNON, PALAIS DES PAPES

It was finally time to say goodbye to the city which captured our hearts from day 1 as we couldn’t believe that 7 days had passed already. Once again we took our time in the morning to enjoy our breakfasts and finished up packing our luggage (aka threw everything into our suitcases in under 30 seconds). Next destination: Avignon, Provence!

Our high speed train departed at “Gare de Lyon” station, and it was connected to the metro system which simplified our transfer. It was so easy and efficient the whole process took less than 30 minutes… at J’s insistence we left the apartment extra early so we had plenty of time to kill at the station. In fact we arrived at Gare de Lyon so early our train wasn’t even assigned a departure platform yet lol! (For some reason train departure boards in France often don’t indicate the departing platform until minutes before the train arrives… unlike air travel… I don’t know why)

This was our virgin voyage traveling on high speed rail and we had no idea what to expect. We bought our train tickets online exactly 90 days in advance for the best deal (feel free to ask me in the comments below for further details) and it only cost 25 euros per person. Our economy seats were comparable to business class seats on plane travel (I’ve never been on business class flights before but I would imagine that they were similar). The train departed on time and we knew we left Paris as the scenery drastically changed from the graffiti-infested inner city to gentle rolling hills.

The train cabin was surprisingly quiet considering we were traveling at 300 km/hr. I spent the next 2.5 hrs researching and booking our accommodation for the next 2 nights on my iPhone. Compared to Iceland France’s 3G coverage was inferior because mobile internet was intermittent at best (EDGE most of the way). We emerged from our TGV train refreshed (again J slept like a baby the entire way) and we had our “homelessness” situation rectified. Avignon TGV station was about a 10-minute bus ride from the city center (Gare d’Avignon-Center is for regional trains DO NOT CONFUSE THE TWO). We followed the line of passengers to the appropriate bus stop and the bus ride was simple/inexpensive. The bus dropped us off shortly after entering the city wall at the post office (final stop) and our hotel was only 150 meters away.

We wasted no time once we settled into our hotel room and found a local pub still opened for business for lunch (it was 3PM). As we walked down a main avenue toward Avignon’s main tourist attraction “Palais des Papes” we immediately recognized some differences between Paris and Avignon: Avignon was much more casual in terms of both dress codes and culture… and it was a lot more French as very few locals spoke English lol. The 20 minute walk towards our destination took us through countless open-air cafes and patisseries on ancient cobble-stone streets… until we reached a spacious square and behind it stood an imposing structure “Palais des Papes”.

For some odd reason we had a tough time locating the entrance to this UNESCO historic site. A one time fortress and palace, Palais des Papes served as the official residence of popes during the 14th century. Once inside we were self-guided through 2 or 3 pre-designed routes and we toured the basement treasury all the way up to the palace guard towers. Even though most rooms were vacant with very little furniture and/or relics, the audio guide did a fantastic job educating and recreating the palace’s ancient glory. (I highly recommend the audio guide for a few extra euros because without it the palace would be nothing but boring/giant empty rooms). Once near the top, this ancient catholic relic also provided a marvelous view of the old Avignon city as it basically dwarfed over this entire walled city.

Another 2.5 hours later we reemerged from the dim palace and the unrelentless sun had started to give way and transitioned to a warm loving glow. With only a couple hours of daylight left we hiked to the nearby “Rocher des Doms” suggested by other travelers on Tripadvisor”. The ancient winding streets of Avignon did their best to prevent us from reaching our destination, but at last we found ourselves admiring the surrounding scenery after only a few minor setbacks (damn you Avignon streets maze!). Rocher des Doms was a spacious park situated at the top of the cliffs above the river Rhone, where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside of Rhone Valley. We basked in the warm setting sun of Provence until a couple of park officials notified us of park closure at 7PM.

Like a couple of well organized travelers we decided to stop for dinner at a highly rated restaurant called “La Fourchette” without a reservation. With our dumb luck and my limited charm I was able to secure a table at this packed establishment with a simple “comment ca va?”. J later told me that the lovely elder hostess (owner? mother of the owner?) told the wait staff to make room because it was “simply too cute” how I asked about how she was doing… hahaha. We retired for the night after having one of the most romantic meals of the trip.

Gallery

 

Sunset at Jokulsarlon, Iceland

A Magical Paradise Called Iceland

Introduction

Sunset at Jokulsarlon, Iceland

I don’t even remember why I wanted to go to Iceland in the first place (I wanted to go even before I picked up photography). To be honest I think Iceland caught my attention simply because I wanted to go somewhere different. Fast forward 10 years, I finally went ahead and googled this random rock in the middle of the Atlantic…. For so long the only thing I’ve heard about Iceland was that it was expensive (and indeed it was), but when I saw pictures of this place I knew Iceland was my next destination.

I had intended to visit Iceland on my own since my wife wasn’t all that interested (plus she couldn’t take time off from work).  I had just picked up photography as a more serious hobby and naturally I planned to spend more time in different locations for photography sake, thus I was completely OK with embarking on the trip alone.  I don’t know how but I guess one thing led to another and I ended up treating my mom to this trip (in a way to thank her, and something different for her as well)… I am glad I did.

Like any amateur photographer/poor traveler with plenty of time on their hands, I spent tons of time doing 3 things: 1) I went on Flickr to see if there are any cool photo ideas, 2) Tripadvisor to ask for advice regarding my trip plans, and 3) try to save some money with car rental/accommodations.

Itinerary

Overview of Iceland 10-day adventure

Overview of Iceland 10-day adventure

 

Conclusion

As I write this trip report almost 2 years after visiting Iceland, fond memories flood into my mind even though we were faced with some truly awful weather. However I believe that through those rough weather conditions I was able to actually relate to Icelanders and their culture. I learned to appreciate not only the beauty of nature, but also the intensity of which it can present.  This was essentially the point in my life where I officially caught the travel bug and really fell in love with photography…  Looking back there were many things that I could’ve done differently and more efficiently, but nonetheless I enjoyed the trip, the memories, and everything else tremendously.  On the flight to Iceland I learned that half of the country still believed in elves and trolls (ridiculous right?).  After my trip I’ve concluded that Icelanders might not be wrong after all…  Iceland is indeed a magical paradise.