Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Travel like you're 30- From one Riviera to another

We live in a neighborhood in Cedar Park called Riviera Springs.  The neighborhood does not have one of those nicely landscaped entrances- the ones with the giant yuccas and the lights that shine up at  stonework that bears the name of the housing development. But, you can infer the neighborhood name by looking at the street signs. "Riviera" is the main street that cuts through the neighborhood. Streets named "Monaco," "Monte Carlo" and "Cannes" cut across it like a grid. Our neighborhood might not be fancy, but I can assure you that its namesake- the French Riviera- most certainly is.

We left Barcelona by train, but disembarked in Montpelier, France. There, we rented a car- a sweet little four-door with manual transmission, which Robin took on like a boss! :) Our intent was to drive from Montpelier to Avignon and then on to Marseilles, where we would spend the night. Avignon is a very old city that has a castle and some picturesque sites. Apparently, they also enjoy a good summer festival in Avignon, because when we arrived there, the city was overflowing with people. We later on found out that there was a theater festival going on and it attracts people from all over the region. We weren't loving the idea of fighting our way through the crowds, so we zoomed out of there and headed North, deciding instead to stop in a small village called Chateau Neuf du Pape.

Chateau Neuf du Pape got its name from the castle you see here... well, what's left the castle. It was a summer home for the popes when the papacy was still in France. It was quarried for some years after it was no longer used as a residence, and even used as a look-out station for the Germans in WWII. Since then, it's been claimed as a historic site. The view from here was remarkable, but I didn't bring my camera with me. I took this shot with my iPad as I huffed and puffed my way to the top of this hill.

Chateau Neuf du Pape may be named after this house on a hill, but what really has brought the village fame is what lies down in the valley below- the vineyards of the Cote du Rhone. Chateau Neuf du Pape is very famous for its wines. As we meandered the streets of this little village, we came across wine shop after wine shop. We eventually settled on the free tour at the "Musee du Vin" where we learned about how wine-makers here have been taming the rugged landscape to make famous wines for centuries. Since I've been home, I've spotted Chateau Neuf du Pape wines at both HEB and Costco.

In late afternoon, we decided to head on toward Marseilles. Getting to Marseilles was easy- driving the highways in Southern France is no big thing (well, if you're Robin and you can drive a stick), but getting to where you need to go in Marseilles, that is a completely different situation. Marseilles is such an old port town, and the roads are winding and confusing. Not to mention that we had some less than clear-cut directions from our hostel. After hours, lots of prayers, buckets of sweat and asking for directions two times, we arrived at our hostel. We ate a late "We made it!" dinner of pasta and salad and then took a walk along the harbor. We ended up at the Palais du Pharo, which I really know nothing about except that it was built by Napolean III for Empress Eugenie, but I have no idea why it is named the "Pharaoh's Palace." The building itself was something out of a fairy tale. Chanlder, Robin and I couldn't help but imagine what life would be like living inside its grand walls. Apparently it's used today for receptions and events. Despite the building's grandeur, the real show-stopper was the light itself as it fell upon the harbor. I think it was the most beautiful sunset we witnessed while we were traveling.

Robin had the artist's vision to take a picture of the light in one of the windows of the palace. I copy-catted. 

One of the benefits of getting lost in Marseilles was that I had to spend hours poring over maps of the city. On one of the maps, I discovered that the Chateu d'If stood just a short distance from the coastline of Marseilles. I was determined to see it. The last time I was in France, my brother got me so tickled by joking with me that I was going to be banished to the Chateau d'If. I do not know why, but that joke made me laugh uncontrollably while we waited for our tour of Versailles. Thinking about that memory still makes me chuckle, and the possibility of seeing the real prison made famous by Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo, was just too tempting. I woke up the next morning determined to climb high enough to see it. I set my sights on this Notre Dame church high up on a hill in Marseilles.
Robin was a good enough sport to climb up to the top with me. 

When we made it up to the church, the view did not disappoint. Here it is, the real Chateau d'If! 
After seeing the Chateau d'If, we climbed into the car for our last long journey of the trip. By early evening, we would be in Nice, our final destination. From Nice, we planned to take some day trips by bus to see some other sites, but the excitement and stress of catching trains and planes was behind us. On our way to Nice, however, we planned to stop in Aix-en-Provence, which, I think, was mainly to be nice to me. I had in mind that I was going to buy table linens in Aix-en-Provence. Years ago, I visited a booth at Fayetteville's Holly Day Fair that sold beautiful French textiles. I bought an unfinished round tablecloth, which I took to a seamstress on Yadkin Rd. who finished it beautifully for something like $3. She was probably grateful to sew something other than Army patches for once. It's my favorite tablecloth- bright orange with tiny yellow and blue flowers. I use it mostly in January and February, when the weather outside is gray- the cheerfulness of the cloth is a powerful contrast- a trick I learned from Mongolians, who paint the inside of their gers (yurts) bright reds, oranges, yellows and blues to contrast the long, hard winters. I think the rest of the girls could have skipped Aix-en-Provence, but I was thankful for their graciousness. We spent two hours there, so I only took one photo. Not nearly enough to capture the true likeness of the cheerful town. I must comment that, though I enjoyed myself a lot in Aix, it was not what I expected it to be. I thought there would be charming old shops selling olive oil and lavender candles and beautiful jacquard everywhere, but that was not the case. It was very crowded and seems to be nearly overrun by clothing boutiques. But it was still charming. We heard some amazing music from a band of young men, who stood on a street corner   playing old world music on instruments their grandfathers probably taught them to play. I regret not buying a CD- their music was fantastic! I did find a perfect textile shop, tucked neatly between two tourist stores. The selection was beautiful and the woman who ran the shop so helpful and friendly. That experience turned out to be just as I would have wanted- I got jacquard tablecloths for myself and my mom (mine is pink and silver, with poppy details and mom's is lavender with lavender bouquets detailed) , and some cream-colored placemats bordered by tiny olives. The sales lady threw in a jacquard hand towel for free. It's red and gray and says Aix-en-Provence and has details of this fountain.

After Aix, we journeyed on to Nice, said good-bye to our little car and headed to our second apartment rented through AirBnB. It turned out to be just as great as our apartment in Barcelona- and you didn't have to climb seven flights to get there- but you did have to pass by the neighbor, an older man probably in his 60's or 70's who enjoyed watching TV in nothing but his boxer shorts and did not enjoy closing the door to his flat.

In Nice, the days blended together in a seamless patchwork of sun-bathing, trips to Mono Prix (the grocery down the street) and walks along the Promenade de Anglais. We did take two bus trips. One to Grasse, a town in the hills above Nice. Robin lived in Grasse two summers ago and made friends with Marjorie and Harry. Harry is a hair-stylist who coifed both our hair one morning. And afterwards, Marjorie took Robin and I to lunch, where the conversation was pretty much entirely in French, but I kind of caught on... a little bit. She also took us to Fragonard, a well-known French perfumerie. We finished our visit by catching up with another of Robin's friends, Fatiha- who speaks three languages and bubbles with joy.

Robin looking very chic after her haircut at Salon Harry. 
Another day was devoted to traveling to Monaco. While Grasse was quaint and welcoming, Monaco was lavish and a little intimidating, but amazing, just the same. The bus ride over there was spectacular. We were the last people to board the bus, which meant that we stood at the front, near the driver for the 45 minute ride. But the openness of the front of the bus made it more than worth standing up for that period of time. As the bus snaked its way along the Cote d'Azur, each vista was breathtaking. In Monaco, we all had lunch and walked up to the famous casino in Monte Carlo.

The harbor in Monaco

Apparently this is an amphitheater. I thought it was a helicopter pad at first. There are a lot of those in Monaco, too, but I later saw it on a post card and the caption read that it was an amphitheater. 

The back of the casino in Monte Carlo. 

A side entrance to the casino. 

The front entrance mirrored. 


Hotel de Paris, in which Selena Gomez stayed in the movie "Monte Carlo" which Chandler and Nicole insisted we watch during our time in the Cote d'Azur.

After seeing the casino (I didn't go in. You have to pay and you have to check your camera, neither of which I was willing to do) we all went our separate ways for the afternoon. On Marjorie's suggestion, I decided to visit the Jardin Exotique, a succulent garden way up in the hills. I marched my way through the sunny afternoon, pausing every now and then to enjoy the views. 

I loved this full lemon tree in someone's yard. 

Panorama taken as I neared the Jardin. 

The Cote d'Azur certainly earns its name. 
This is the peninsula that houses the royal palace. 
Some succulents up close. 

Another view from the Jardin Exotique. 

Jardin Exotique

The royal palace 

This one was for Andy. The official starting line of the Monaco Grand Prix starts near the Automobile Club Monaco. This is the entrance to the club.

After our trip to Monaco, we stayed in Nice for a few more days and just took it easy. We enjoyed the rest of our time in our apartment, but also were excited when we got to check into the Hyatt for one of our last nights. Nicole's dad secured these luxury accommodations for us and we took full advantage. Nicole and I lounged poolside for hours, soaking up the sun and doing absolutely nothing. Being able to sit back and think about the beautiful places we'd been and the interesting people we met was a perfect way to end our adventure. 
Dusk on the beach in Nice


This waterfall used to be a water supply for the fortress that protected Nice.
Old Nice 

View from our amazing room in the swanky Hyatt Nice Palais de Mediterranee. Five star luxury accommodations to celebrate the end of an amazing trip. Big thanks to Nicole's dad for making that happen. :) 

The beach in Nice is made of rocks. Not quite as nap-friendly as Myrtle Beach, but really not as uncomfortable as it looks. 

When we got home, Naemen sent Robin a message, asking if we had the "European Blues" upon returning to the States.  I'll confess that when I got back to this Riviera (the neighborhood) and went for an early evening run, there was a part of me that missed that many-blued sea and the wind that sweeps across it. I miss hearing the voices of so many people, the languages I wish I understood.  I miss wondering what new place my feet would carry me to the next day.

A little over a week after coming home, we went over to Preston's house to watch the last stage of the Tour de France- a return to the scene that inspired this trip one year ago. We watched an interview with Jens Voigt, 42, who raced in the Tour de France this summer. It was his 17th and final Tour, tying him for the record for most Tours completed. When asked about retiring, he answered that he was going to, "not be sad because it's over but be happy because it happened." Jens Voigt's optimistic expression, his voice filled with the satisfaction of accomplishment and dignity of gratitude, was an inspiration to me. He's right. What an amazing adventure. What an amazing world we live in. What an amazing gift to be able to see it and then return home to share it with those we love. My heart is filled with gratitude for this summer's adventure. Thank you, God. All is grace. From one Riviera to the other.

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