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Sunbeams of French Riviera

French Riviera: Day 15

September 12th, 2013 – Sunny

NICE TO PARIS

Our TGV for Paris was scheduled to depart in the late afternoon. After we returned to old Nice for some souvenir shopping/lunch/diabolo it was time to pack up and conclude our honeymoon 🙁

The weather in the capital city turned significantly colder than we last visited (15 or so degrees). It was hilarious to see Parisians in heavy winter gear (we even spotted a couple of fur coats) when I was oh so comfortable in my long sleeved sweat shirt haha.

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Monte Carlo Harbour from Prince's Palace

French Riviera: Day 14

September 11th, 2013 – Sunny

MONACO + VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER

I couldn’t believe it when we saw the same group of inconsiderate/obnoxious tourist who injured J’s wrist (from Eze) on the same train traveling to Monaco! Luckily there were ample standing room on the train and J didn’t get hurt from them… Instead of getting off at the terminus station (Monaco), we actually hopped off the train early at “Cap D’Ail” (translation: Cape Garlic hahaha). From Cap D’Ail station we embarked on a 40 minute seaside walk into the Principality of Monaco. The enjoyable walk took us through quiet residential neighborhoods while we hugged the Mediterranean coastline. The only downside to this journey was the scorching heat… which was quickly alleviated by soaking my T-shirt in cold water from public taps along the way.

By the time we reached Monaco my T-shirt was bone dry. It was actually a stunning transformation when we crossed the “border” from France into Monaco (there were no fences or anything… just an inconspicuous sign). The contrast between the quiet unassuming village of Cap D’Ail and the thriving independent city-state of Monaco was jaw dropping. The first structure we encountered was Monaco’s soccer stadium Stade Louis II (we didn’t visit the stadium but apparently it was possible for 5 euros… I learned this as I am writing this blog Googling for the name of the stadium). We stopped next door for a quick bite to eat (and to rehydrate) and proceeded toward the first tourist attraction of the day: Prince’s Palace.

Prince’s Palace of Monaco was situated on top of a hill (Rock of Monaco) that took about 5 to 10 minutes to hike up. At the bottom of the hill was a shopping center (consider buying refreshments at Carrefour), a miniature zoo, and an antique automobile museum… On the hike up we were treated to a marvelous view of the petite city-state: A glamorous thriving city situated against majestic mountains to one side, and deep blue waters (and mega-yachts) on the other. At the top a spacious square separated the Prince’s Palace with “old town”, and the famous Monte Carlo harbor can be seen in the distance. Interestingly, my favorite view wasn’t of the over-the-top Monte Carlo Harbor but it was rather the more intimate Fontvieille Harbor/marina on the opposite side of the rock. (Instead of fighting with other tourists for a photo spot of the Fontvieille Harbour at the top… consider going to the playground area below: same view minus ALL the tourists).

The Prince’s Palace was minuscule when compared to other palaces we’ve seen in France. Even though photography was prohibited within palace grounds, we felt the palace tour was well worth the admission price… it was both entertaining and educational considering I had trouble differentiating Monaco from Morocco before my visit.

From Prince’s Palace we continued down a walking path that extended around the perimeter of the “Rock”, and within 2-3 minutes we were in front of a meticulously maintained church (Saint Nicholas Cathedral). As we climbed the stairs toward the church’s entrance guess who we ran into? (actually we heard them first)… the same group of irritating tourists from the train earlier today! (and on the way back from Eze Village!). Saint Nicholas Cathedral was where many of Monaco’s royalties were buried but there were really nothing exciting about its architecture… except the gigantic modern organ above the church’s entrance. Midway through our visit “that group of tourists” got kicked out of the church by a security guard for ignoring the nun’s plea for silence. (I know it is petty but it felt good 🙂

It always surprised me how little tourists were willing to venture away from a major tourist attraction because we were almost in complete isolation no more than 200 meters from the church. Monaco’s old town was similar to old Nice and Le Suquet but it was perfectly maintained… as if Monaco’s “old town” was constructed yesterday. We serendipitously stumbled upon the Canadian Consulate and it must’ve been the smallest embassy in the world haha. We spent another 30 minutes around “Old Monaco” and then headed back down the hill for some less expensive cafe options to rest our feet.

Throughout our travels in France we noticed a green beverage being consumed by locals and we never knew what it was… and I regretted why I hadn’t asked the question sooner. Diabolo (pronounced dia-bo-lo not diablo) aka Diabolo Menthe was a popular hot summer drink that combined mint syrup and either Sprite or Perrier, and to be honest it was better than air conditioners haha. Refreshed and energized we embarked on a 20 minute journey that took us half way across Monaco to the REAL Monte Carlo Casino (not the one in Las Vegas).

Throughout France there would be some graffiti even around the best areas of the wealthiest cities (Cannes) however there were zero graffiti around Monaco despite my best efforts to locate them. (I did find graffiti in Monaco, but they were painted on a mobile graffiti canvas better known as the regional TER train…). We passed the Monte Carlo Harbor on the way to the casino, and some of the luxury yachts were beyond my wildest imagination. There were multiple yachts that were over 4 stories tall, and a couple of personal “ferries” that even had helicopters on its helipad!!! (I double checked they weren’t coast guards).

After we witnessed such excessive wealth we barely noticed the Ferraris or the Lamborghinis that littered around the parking lot outside of Monte Carlo Casino. Hilariously enough, it was the mini cooper and a couple of Toyota Priuses that stood out in the sea of mega supercars. In my opinion Monte Carlo Casino was a tiny and pretentious gambling den that we could’ve skipped because it simply was inferior in every way compared to casino resorts in Las Vegas. It was getting late (around 4-5 PM) by the time we came out of the casino, and it was time to say goodbye to Monaco for Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Similar to Antibes, I immediately fell in love with Villefranche-sur-Mer. This quiet coastal village was filled with character and it was the perfect location to celebrate our last night in Cote d’Azur. We explored the winding streets of Villefranche-sur-Mer and outside of a few souvenir shops the village remained mostly residential. To celebrate our honeymoon we enjoyed a romantic candle lit dinner by the ocean. For the next 3 hours we reflected on our life journey, enjoyed the amazing cuisine, and admired the unobstructed beautiful seascape.

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Nice on strike

French Riviera: Day 13

September 10, 2013 – Sunny

Èze Village + Nice

Like any other day in Cote d’Azur it weather was predictably sunny, but unlike its weather our day was furthest from predictable.

First thing in the morning, the frequent and dependable tram was no where to be found. We waited for approximately 30 minutes and the platform was jam packed with locals/tourists… until a fellow Canadian traveler informed us that all public transportation was halted due to job action. We left the platform disappointed and confused because we relied on public transits exclusively for our travels. Nevertheless we pushed ahead and chose to walk toward the train station (Gare Thiers) since TGVs and coastal trains might still be operational (our plans were to visit Monaco that day).

The 30 minute walk down Avenue Alfred Borriglione was uneventful but enjoyable. Our sentiments changed drastically when we arrived at the train station as our fear became an reality – TGVs and regional trains were also shut down! The train station was filled with frustrated tourists and I overheard some travelers that they had missed their flights back home (even though it was a major inconvenience we were grateful that the strike didn’t take place on our departure date). We had little choice but to wander around town on foot, and we ended up at a McDonald’s (the slowest McDonald’s in the world, but it was air conditioned lol) to do some last minute on-the-fly trip planning… and soon realized that we were attempting the near impossible. Since J had some work that needed done anyways (she is very dedicated to her work… in fact she was working on her laptop until late the day before we got married lol), so we decided to head back to our apartment and have a lazy day instead.

We cut through winding streets until we stumbled upon Avenue Alfred Borriglione once again, but unlike an hour ago the road was congested by pedestrian traffic instead! French slogans filled the air and brigades of angry citizens marched down the avenue in protest. I was initially upset by the protest for complicating our travels, but on reflection it was a blessing in disguise as the strike completed our genuine French experience! (France is famous for its strikes after all lol).

Later that afternoon (around 1-2pm) I stumbled across an English article online that suggested limited restoration of tram and bus service… since Èze was supposed to be only a 30 minute bus ride away, maybe our day could be salvaged after all! We arrived at “Garibaldi” stop via tram, walked through a short pedestrian tunnel 100 meters away, and there were only a few souls waiting for the #82 bus that would take us to the mountaintop village of Eze (the tram ticket was valid for the bus ride as well, and make sure to take a photo of the bus schedule because #82 only comes every 1-2 hours). The bus ride offered a beautiful view of the coastline dotted with villages and towns, and some private yachts the size of small ferries could also be spotted out in the water.

At Èze the sun was shining and the temperature was quite mild (18-20 Celcius?) aided by a cool sea breeze + elevation. Needless to say I was finally comfortable with the temperature for the first time in days! In front of us was an ancient medieval village that was constructed primarily of stone, and with its uniqueness & charm it wasn’t difficult to understand why Èze was such a famous tourist attraction. Although Èze remained popular among tourists, we roamed freely at a leisure pace without having our personal space violated (even with small pedestrian pathways that zigzagged throughout the village). Such tranquil atmosphere was greatly appreciated by both my wife and I because it is rare for popular locations to retain its original “flavor”. At the same time however, Èze was obviously geared toward tourists since most ex-residences (at least the ground floors) were converted into tourist establishments such as art galleries, small museums, souvenir shops, etc.

Èze’s atmosphere and architecture allowed for some unique photography, however due to its enclosed nature there were limited opportunities to experience/photograph the immensely beautiful coastal view that Èze was surrounded in. In order to enjoy the coastal mountain views we reached “Le Jardin d’Eze” which classified itself as an “exotic gardin” but in reality it was just a nice relaxing space with a few cacti. Needless to say the content within the garden did not justify its admission, but the view from the garden was worth any admission price. An unobstructed, panoramic bird’s-eye view of the Mediterranean at the top of a charming medieval village, combined for a one-of-a-kind postcard landscape.

We quickly hurried through Èze as we realized that our #82 bus was due to arrive. By the time we reached the bus stop there was already a healthy gathering of tourists… an hour and fifteen minutes later the bus finally arrived (job action?), and there was NOTHING civilized about the degree of line cutting that went on. I was particularly angered by a group of middle aged Italian travelers (around 10-12 of them.. in their 40s) whom actually physically injured J’s wrist. I was about to punch that Italian not-so-gentleman but J refrained me from doing so… so for the next 45 minutes we were tightly packed into an over-capacity bus next to a group of strangers that I had no respect for.

We hopped off the bus early at “Le Port” partly because the bus was too crowded. We emerged from the bus and were greeted by a barrage of color and a comforting sea breeze. Unfortunately we had no idea where we were but we proceeded to leisurely stroll along the harbor walk anyway. Similar to old Nice the harbor-side buildings were painted in a variety of eye catching colors, and those colors were further accentuated by an orange hue during golden hour (first and last hour of sunlight). We continued along the waterfront path for another 5-10 minutes until we reached a familiar sight: the base of Castle Hill! By that time the sun was about to set and the deep orange orb was near the horizon. J and I found an empty bench and spent the next 15-20 minutes enjoying the sunset until the sun disappeared completely from the horizon.

We continued down Promenade des Anglais and enjoyed a lovely Italian dinner at “La Voglia” (nothing fancy.. good location with decent food). We encountered a fabulous older couple from Germany and shared some travel stories. Nice was a lively city and it was evident as we strolled through old Nice at night with street performers and numerous events playing simultaneously, but we were too exhausted from the day’s walk and decided to call it a night instead.

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Immaculate streets of Cannes France

French Riviera: Day 12

September 9th, 2013 – Sunny

CANNES + ANTIBES

We were never ones for the beach but since the French Riviera was famous for its beaches we thought we would spend half a day doing so. On principles, there were no way in hell we were going to pay any sum of money to have the right to lay on a beach, and we were still perplexed as to why Nice’s pebbly beaches were so famous… we headed to Cannes for its public SANDY beaches.

It was unbelievably easy to travel by regional train (called TER) between towns along the riviera (depending on distance and time of day, each trip usually cost ~5-9 euros). We arrived at the glamorous Cannes after a comfortable 30-minute train ride. Despite Cannes’ proximity to Nice, Cannes was vastly different and it was clear that Cannes was much wealthier when compared to Nice. We reached the seaside promenade called “La Croisette” where its sandy beach were littered with sunbathers. The public portion was at the western end of La Croisette (right next to “Palais des Festivals de Cannes”), and surprisingly it wasn’t crowded nor inferior to the private beaches next door! For the next 2 hours we baked under the sun and hopefully produced enough Vitamin Ds for our dark Canadian winters. We were approached by street vendors selling water and hats a couple of times while sunbathing, but in general we were undisturbed and it was an experience I don’t mind repeating. Eventually we got bored and the scorching midday sun encouraged us to explore Cannes instead.

On our walk down La Croisette we noticed numerous super cars that I have read about only in magazines, and helicopters transporting people to shore from their luxury yachts. After we stopped for a quick bite at a dumpy yet delicious pizza joint, we followed Rue d’Antibes westward. Rue d’Antibes was undoubtedly one of the premier shopping areas around Cote d’Azur as it was flanked by well maintained low-rise buildings with various immaculate high end boutiques at the street level. Unfortunately we neither had the funds nor the desire to linger around for too long, and instead we pressed forward to the “Le Suquet” district.

Le Suquet was the old quarter of Cannes and it resembled old Nice in many different levels (architecture style, street layout, etc). Considering its proximity to the beach and other high traffic areas, it remained a surprise to me why Le Suquet received such little tourist traffic. Old cobblestone lanes made our climb a little more difficult (I was wearing flip flop sandals), but in my opinion the district’s historic character was plenty to justify achy feet. At the top of the hill was an old church in a moderate state of disrepair, and a stunning view overlooking Cannes and its mega-yacht filled harbor (akin to Castle Hill in Nice). Le Suquet was my favorite memory of Cannes because it wasn’t superficial like the rest of the city and it was even quiet enough for various portrait photography mini sessions! (J is super camera shy and she wouldn’t take artistic photos when strangers are present). Hesitantly we left Le Suquet and we worked our way back to the train station: next stop – Antibes.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Antibes. The walk from the train station to the city wall only took ~10 minutes, and the majority of the journey was along Antibe’s massive marina. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of marine vessels ranged from small rafts all the way to private luxury “ferries” (so large some had to be moored outside of the breakwater). Antibes was one of my favorite coastal towns along Cote d’Azur because it remained an intimate destination unlike much of Nice/Cannes. In fact, Antibes reminded me of Uzes in terms of its “countryside” character. One of the major attraction in Antibes was Musee Picasso but it was unfortunately closed for the day… we enjoyed the seaside hike nonetheless. Once again I put away my phone (Google Maps) and we explored aimlessly around this charismatic town… and stumbled upon a busy establishment “Gelateria del Porto” which served the most amazing mango sorbet I’ve had the honor of tasting (so far).

Regional trains were running infrequently at night and we caught the second last train of the night. J and I were waiting on the platform patiently and out of no where we heard a TER employee yelling across the platform at a group of drunk teens who ran across the tracks (instead of using the underground tunnel). The verbal exchange grew more aggressive until the train arrived… the same group of young adults went on to cause havoc in the train cabin (especially the bathrooms)… a fight almost broke out between a frustrated local in his sixties and one of the teens. As a tourist I was interested in the fantastic sightseeing, enjoyable cuisines, and rich histories that France had to offer, but I went to bed that night reflecting on some of France’s social issues (especially with the complete disregard of public properties I witnessed).

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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.

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TGV Arles back to Avignon

French Riviera: Day 10

September 7th, 2013 – Sunny

AVIGNON TO NICE

We left Arles with our stomach full of goodies from its Saturday market (click for details) and we caught a regional train back toward Avignon. Ironically there were also coach buses for Avignon operated by SNCF that left from the train station. On the way from Avignon it only took us 15-20 minutes to get to Arles since it was a direct train. However, it took us almost 45 minutes for our return trip because there was a transfer required at Tarascon! (good thing I scheduled for some buffer time or else we would’ve missed our TGV train to Nice!). We picked up our luggage from our hotel in Avignon, caught the shuttle bus to the TGV station, and headed for the French Riviera! Similar to our train ride between Paris and Avignon, our TGV was traveling at bullet speed until it reached Marseille.

From Marseille and onwards the TGV was significantly slower due to the winding tracks along the Mediterranean coast. We actually welcomed the speed reduction because we were able to admire and appreciate our surroundings a lot more. From Provence’s rolling hills and rustic architecture, Cote D’azur was littered with jagged cliffs and dominated by orange-clay rooftops (Roman?). As the TGV sped past minor villages/towns (some of which we planned to visit throughout the next few days) it served as a brief visual preview which just further fueled our anticipation for the days to come. (J absolutely adored the city of Cannes as our TGV dropped off what seemed like half of its passengers).

As our train arrived at its final destination of Nice, the city was far bigger than we had originally anticipated (“apparently” Nice is the 5th largest city in France). We were pooped from all the traveling/early start (remember we actually went to Arles earlier in the day) and all we wanted to do was to get to our apartment and find a place to eat + sleep. Unfortunately in order to get to our accommodation (around Valrose Université) another transfer onto the local tramway was required. (We had a ridiculously tough time figuring out the fare machine and the fare system. The machine looked like a touch screen but it wasn’t… make sure you master that turn knob selector because it will come in handy since these machines are used in train stations as well).

For supper we turned to the trusty Tripadvisor App once again and we struck gold… again. We arrived at this TINY restaurant called “La Route du Miam” and it was easily the top 3 restaurant experiences of all time. (We couldn’t believe our luck… we arrived at another top-rated restaurant with no reservation…). When it was time to settle our bill 3 hours later we realized that it was a cash only establishment (I thought cash-only was reserved for dingy Chinese takeout places), and the owners Marie/Jean-Michel were completely OK with us walking back to our apartment for cash with no collateral!!!

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