The French Riviera (Antibes, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, & Monaco)

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September 14th 2009
Published: November 16th 2009
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Day 18 (Monday, September 14, 2009)

After checking out of the hotel in Arles, we left the city and began the long two hour drive towards the Riviera. Along the way, we ended up having to pay three separate tolls, which totaled to a whopping 18 Euro (about $27.50 USD). Luckily, we didn’t have to purchase gas that day, so it didn’t take a huge dent out of our daily budget.

We drove directly to our hotel, which was located in the town of Antibes. I had chosen to stay at a place called Hotel de l’Etoile based on the positive recommendations it had received on, plus the fact that it had parking and Wi-Fi. Although we arrived shortly before noon, they had a room available for us, which was great considering that we were going to spend most of the day in the city of Nice and didn't want to worry about keeping the luggage in the car. When we entered the room for the first time, we both let out something like “holy cow!” in response to its massive size. While the room was nothing fancy or particularly nice, it was quite large, with two beds and tons of space to move around. It was actually one of the largest hotel rooms we have ever stayed in, and that is saying a lot, considering it was a European one. We were both also delighted to find out that the hotel beds were soft and comfortable; a very nice change from all of the hard and stiff mattresses we had been sleeping on for the two weeks prior.

From our hotel, we walked to the nearby train station in order to take a train ride into Nice. Along the way, we stopped in at a bakery to purchase a quick bite to eat of croissants and a tarte citron. The round-trip tickets we purchased to Nice cost a hefty 15.6 Euros ($23 USD), but when taking into account that we would have to pay for parking in Nice, use gas (which is quite expensive on its own), and deal with the stress of driving into a large city, the train fare didn’t sound so bad after all.

We arrived in Nice about 30 minutes later. Once off the train, we walked into the chaos of the Nice train station, which wasn’t the most pleasant way to enter a new city. I immediately asked Mike to grab the itinerary from the travel book; however, he soon realized that the itinerary was not inside the book. Considering that I work long and hard on those itineraries and that I consider them to be my bible for the day, I began freaking out as I had no idea what I had originally planned for us to do within the city. Mike was able to calm me down, explaining that much worse things could have happened. At least we still had the guidebook with us, so we were able to somewhat reconstruct what our plans had been. Our first stop was to the nearby tourist information office, where we grabbed a free detailed map of the city. Next, we walked down the street a short ways until we reached the Gare Thiers tram stop. We purchased two 1 Euro tickets, and then waited for the new and sleek tram to arrive. The tram saved us lots of walking time, and took us directly into the old part of the city.

We got off the tram at Place Messena, which was a massive pedestrian-only square that was surrounded by gloriously renovated buildings, all painted in bright and beautiful colors. From here, we walked to Cours Saleya, where we began a guided walking tour listed in Rick Steves guidebook. Cours Saleya has been the location of Nice’s main market for hundreds of years and is lined on either side by many pastel-colored buildings that shine beautifully under the sun. On the day we visited, it happened to be the Monday antique market, so we wandered through countless stalls of “priceless treasures” wondering if there really was any great finds hidden beneath all of the junk.

We continued the tour, walking through countless back streets that immediately brought me back to the time I spent in Italy. The narrow streets were flanked by tall buildings, which were at least five or six stories high and were painted all colors of the rainbow. Many of the building had the day’s laundry washing hanging from the balconies to dry. It felt as though we could have been walking down a street in Florence or Rome, which would make sense considering the fact that Nice was once part of Italy, and only changed into the hands of France in 1860.

After our walk had concluded, we decided to find a place to eat lunch and pizza was definitely the preference, since we were so close to the Italian border. The end of our walk finished in the very atmospheric Place Rossetti, which had several restaurants to choose from. After inconspicuously scoping out the food sitting on the patron’s plates, we decided on a place called La Claire Fontaine. I went the classic route and chose pizza margarita while Mike selected a calzone stuffed with artichokes, mushrooms, ham, cheese, and tomato sauce. The food was excellent and delicious; nothing fancy of course, but simplistically Italian. We were very pleased and satisfied to have finally eaten real Italian pizza after having sought it out so many times over the prior weeks.

After eating, we headed out of the square and walked towards the Promenade des Anglais. This four-mile long sidewalk hugs the ocean as it curves around the city of Nice and is a pleasant stroll that all visitors should partake in. The promenade was originally created by the wealthy English tourists back in 1822 who wanted something more refined to walk on so that they wouldn’t soil their clothing. Unfortunately, during our walk along the Promenade des Anglais, the sun began to hide behind the clouds, so I wasn’t able to attain the photos I had hoped for, but I still managed to enjoy myself.

Afterward, we had debated on touring two of Nice’s most popular museums (Chagall Museum and Matisse Museum). However, by this point of our trip, we had yet to visit any art museum that had impressed us, so we both thought it would be a better use of our time and money to avoid the museums and spend our time enjoying the city instead. And anyway, neither of us are fans of modern art, so we probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the Chagall Museum, even though it is said to be one of the best museums in the South of France.

Next, we headed back to Place Rossetti in order to purchase some gelato from a place called
Fenocchio. This gelateria is famous in the area as it boasts having nearly 100 flavors of gelato, from the standard vanilla and chocolate to the more exotic flavors such as lavender, black olive, and beer. We each ordered two scoops, both selecting our favorite of stracciatella (vanilla ice cream mixed with lacy chunks of thin chocolate) and I also chose vanilla while Mike selected white chocolate. No daring choices here, because when you know what your favorite flavors are, it becomes difficult to deviate from them. The gelato was perfectly light and smooth, just as it should be. We were two happy little campers, sitting in the beautiful square, feeling quite content with our relaxing day in Nice.

Shortly thereafter, we began the walk back to the train station, hopping back on-board the very crowded tram again. Once back at the chaotic train station, we had to wait about 20 minutes before the next train to Antibes arrived. Unfortunately, while we waited, we were joined by literally a few hundred others who also were planning on taking the same train as us. Needless to say, I knew it would be difficult to find a seat on the train, and that was assuming that the train would arrive empty. Of course, the train did not arrive empty; in fact, it arrived quite full. As a result, Mike and I had to stand on the train for a majority of the ride back.

Once back in Antibes, we decided to complete another walking tour described in Rick Steves guidebook. Just as we began the walking tour, the weather began taking a turn for the worse; there were extremely strong winds (at least 40-50 MPH) and the waves were crashing wildly against the seawall in anticipation of what was to become a very big storm. This definitely made for an interesting adventure as we walked through the town. At times, it was difficult for me to even walk straight, let alone take any photos as the water from the ocean was spraying up quite a distance and got us wet on several occasions.

After our walking tour, we headed back to the hotel, where we rested and relaxed for the rest of the evening. Since we had eaten quite a filling lunch earlier in Nice, neither one of us was hungry enough to eat out for dinner. Instead, we just snacked on a few items in the hotel room.

Day 19 (Tuesday, September 15, 2009)

Just as the weather channel had predicted, we awoke to a very windy, gray, and rainy day in Antibes. Usually, I’m not too happy at the sight of rain, but since we had been expecting it, I wasn’t too upset. Luckily, we had purchased an umbrella about a week prior in Sarlat, so we were prepared for the wet weather.

Our first stop of the morning was at Market Hall, where the daily market occurs. The market was of decent size and had enough variety of food to choose from; however, after our market experience in Arles, we have been permanently spoiled as nothing else will ever be able to compare. However, I did sample some olive paste, which I had not tried before and was quite tasty. Just outside the market stalls were a young homeless couple and four adult dogs, along with four of the cutest puppies I have ever seen in my life. The four puppies, who looked to be about two months old, were completely passed out in the front of a stroller. And when I say passed out, I mean the dogs were literally laying halfway over the edge of the stroller; it was both comical and adorable! I managed to eventually wake up one of the babies, and the three others soon followed. We both received lots of kisses from the very friendly and fuzzy puppies. Several people gave money to the couple to help feed the dogs, so we decided to throw in three Euro as well. I was sad to leave the puppies, but we had to get going and couldn’t stand out in the rain all day long.

Next, we walked just uphill from the market to the Picasso Museum. As I’ve indicated several times previously, neither one of us are huge fans of art museums. However, we decided to go ahead and visit the one in Antibes due to the very high recommendations it had received in the guidebooks. In addition, I felt bad about not touring the two major art museums in Nice, so I figured that I should make up for it in Antibes. We each paid 6 Euro to enter, and immediately began our tour on the first floor. As we walked from room to room, we wondered where in the heck the Picasso paintings, sketches, and ceramics were located that the guidebooks had mentioned. Instead of Picasso’s stuff, we saw the works of many other different artists, none of which captured our attention, and to be quite honest, none of which we had paid to see.

We toured two floors, and still saw none of his works. Finally, due to a confusing staircase, we eventually figured out that there was a third floor, where his works were located. Out of all of Picasso’s pieces, I most enjoyed the colorful ceramics, which were designed with lots of interesting figures and shapes. Overall though, we were not impressed with the small museum and did not feel that it warranted its six Euro entry fee. On the bright side however, we both agreed after this experience that we should make a point to avoid art museums in smaller cities as we are always disappointed with the lack of quantity. Out of the dozens and dozens of art museums we’ve toured over the last few years, the ones we have most enjoyed have always been those located in bigger cities (i.e. Louvre & Orsay in Paris, Prado in Madrid, Victoria & Albert in London, etc) the only exception in smaller cities being costume/clothing museums, which I always enjoy.

Afterward, we walked to the parking garage where our car was located, and then headed off to Villefranche-sur-Mer. This small Mediterranean town is located halfway between Nice and Monaco but appears as though it should belong across the border in Italy as it is filled with many pastel-colored buildings that are piled up against one another along the steep cliffs of the sea. Upon our arrival, I immediately regretted not having spent the night in this gorgeous and atmospheric town instead of Antibes.

With the exception of wandering through the narrow streets and enjoying views of the beautiful water, there isn’t a whole lot to do in this town, but that is its whole allure. After enjoying the quiet town for awhile, we settled on a place for lunch called La Piazza. I had read that pesto was a popular food option in Villefranche-sur-Mer, so I was on a quest to find my most favorite pasta topping for lunch. Mike ordered a pizza covered with ham, tomatoes, and cheese while I of course selected penne with pesto. The food arrived promptly, which was great because we were both quite hungry. My pasta was absolutely delicious, with a coarsely-chopped mixture of basil, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. Mike’s pizza was also good, although I only took one bite since he later doused chile oil on top of it. Just as we were finishing lunch, it began to lightly rain, which I figured was probably a sign of things to come.

From Villefranche-sur-mer, the plan was to stop in the town of Eze-le-Village in order to visit the Jardin d’Eze and the Perfume Factory Fragonard. Unfortunately, it was pouring down rain at this point, so the thought of going outside to “enjoy” a garden in the wet weather did not sound appealing to either one of us. Instead, I wishfully thought that maybe the rain would let up in an hour or so, and that we could come back after visiting the next place on our list.

As a result, we then drove to Trophee des Alpes, which is located in the small town of La Turbie. This Roman monument was built in honor of Augustus Ceaser’s conquest of the Alps. Just as it had been 15 minutes prior in Eze-le-Village, it was also raining cats and dogs in La Turbie, so I still had no desire to get out of the car. In addition, we were both extremely exhausted at this point, so when I suggested to Mike that we park the car and take a nap instead, he jumped at the offer. I can’t say that I ever remember napping while on vacation, but we were so tired, and the weather was so dreary and crappy outside that it lulled us both right to sleep. In fact, we slept so well that the next thing we knew was that two whole hours had passed by! We both kind of freaked out, knowing that as enjoyable as the naps had been, we had just slept away two valuable sightseeing hours and needed to get a move-on pronto. As a result, we opted not to tour Trophee des Alpes nor the sights back in Eze-le-Village as we would not have time to also visit Monaco, which we were both much more interested in seeing.

From La Turbie, it should have only been a 15 minute drive into the Principality of Monaco. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to us, the traffic going into Monaco was horrendous, and the 15 minute drive ended up turning into one hour and ten minutes of stop and go traffic, which was not at all pleasant, especially in the rainy weather. This tiny nation is home to only 30,000 residents, of which only 10,000 are true Monegasques. The majority of its inhabitants are wealthy people from other countries who seek refuge in Monaco due to its well-known status as a tax haven. The country is so small that on average, it takes a person just one hour to walk the entire length of Monaco.

Although we got lost a few times on the crazy streets of Monaco, we were eventually able to find the parking garage that we had planned on parking in. From there, it was just a short ten minute walk to the old part of town, where both the Prince's Palace of Monaco and Saint Nicholas Cathedral were located. The exterior of the palace was rather ho-hum and boring, probably the least interesting of all palace exteriors I have ever seen. The views from Palace Square of Monte-Carlo on the other hand, were absolutely stunning, with a sight of the famed casino in the distance surrounded by a massive build-up of brightly-colored condominiums. As beautiful as it all appeared on the gray day we visited, I could only imagine how much more pretty it would have been on a sunny day.

Prior to leaving, our last stop in Monaco was Saint Nicholas Cathedral. We were unable to tour the interior of the church, so instead, we were only able to appreciate its exterior. The church was built in 1875 and is the final resting place of many members of the Grimaldi Family, including Grace Kelly.

We eventually left Monaco and headed back to Antibes. Thankfully, leaving took much less time than our arrival had. Once back in Antibes, we decided to eat dinner at a restaurant called Le Chrono. We both ordered pizzas, which were delicious. We made sure to enjoy every last bite, and then said goodbye to real Italian pizza, as we knew it would be quite some time until we had it again since we were headed north the following day.

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