Not Venice, Vence

Three kilometers up the road from St. Paul-de-Vence, through the hills northwest of Nice, past cypress and olive trees there is another beautiful, town perched on a summit.  Vence is a bit larger (and a bit more relaxed).  Although we didn’t do any shopping, its shops and art galleries are more affordable.  Locals (not only busloads of tourists) actually eat at its cafés.

Vence looks like an old medieval walled town, but underneath its ramparts it is really a Roman one. A section of the old Roman road cuts through the center of town.  The road, the Rue des Portiques ran right next to our hotel.  I couldn’t believe that nearby stones dated from the 2nd century.  Its cathedral, the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul, is built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars.

We checked into our hotel and were astounded to learn our hotel room had a rooftop terrace.  This was our view!  I went crazy snapping pictures up there.  We explored the medieval streets, patinaed squares and admired the Provençal architecture.

In Place du Peyra, the urn-shaped Vieille Fontaine is often photographed.  I liked how the mineral content and source of the water was mounted in the ancient city wall.  It tasted pretty good too.

After spending the last two days avoiding the crowds in Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze and St. Paul-de-Vence, it was a treat to sit a cafe and eat at a restaurant with locals.  The “local” below became really friendly once our snacks were delivered.  Believe or not, the puffs were actually peanut butter flavored!  In France!  We couldn’t believe it.  It was so nice having a dog around that we got permission to give him a bit of cheese.  He even did a couple of tricks for us.

Vence’s only disappointment was that the Matisse Chapel (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence) was closed.  If you want to visit, be sure to check the opening hours.  The nuns who run it have better things to do than cater to sweaty tourists like us.

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Everyone Loves St.-Paul-de-Vence

St.-Paul-de-Vence has been discovered.  Around 2.5 million people visit the tiny, 16th century medieval hilltop village each year.  It is filled with art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  The picturesque walk along the Rue Grande (aka Main Street) from Vence Gate to the Nice Gate, is way more beautiful and much more enjoyable than any shopping mall. Tourists love to photograph magnificent old medieval and baroque facades for good reason.  It is beautiful.   Scenic and charming, it is hard to take a bad picture here (unless other tourists photo-bomb you).

We found ourselves ducking into side streets and back alleys to avoid the hoards of tour bus passengers and students on field trips gushing down the streets like a lava stream.  St.-Paul-de-Vence is quaint and its backstreets are enchanting.  These who only shop the main drag are missing out.

I loved the potted plants outside doors, vine-covered stone walls, weathered squares, trickling fountains, narrow alleys, statues tucked into nooks, wrought iron gates, intricate door knockers and delicately worked wrought-iron shop signs .  It seemed as though there were adorable details everywhere I looked.  For example, the sidewalk stones are laid in patterns.  I’m just lucky to keep my floor relatively clean, forget about tiling flowers into it.

St.-Paul-de-Vence is built on a natural defensible spot, a rock outcropping in the Alps Maritimes on the Cote d’Azur.  French king Francis 1st made it a stronghold and ordered the construction of massive defensive walls.  Good call Frankie.  I wouldn’t want to lose this town to the enemy either.  Paul’s medieval fortress walls surround the town and are some of the most intact in the region.  We walked the perimeter taking in the breathtaking views of mountains and sea.

Yep. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance

The cemetery is just outside the city walls on the Mediterranean side.  The painter, Mark Chagall, is buried in the Saint Paul-de-Vence cemetery. His simple white tomb has small stones on top.  They are added by visitors as tributes pursuant to both Russian and Jewish tradition.

In case you were wondering, St.-Paul-de-Vence is also known as St. Paul.  Since there are a lot of other towns named St. Paul in France, it is typically referred to as the one by Vence.

Top Ten Reasons Why We Aren’t Going To The Olympics

Citizens can compete as athletes for the Unite...

We like to watch the Olympics.  When my sister and I were kids, we used to pretend to be Mary Lou Retton.  She (my sister, not Mary Lou) asked me if we were going to the Olympics and was surprised when I told her we weren’t.  Here’s why:

1. Crowds.  I hate them.  I can’t see anything.  Being short, my face is usually in someone’s armpit.  If someone is going to be trampled, it will probably be me.  The more personal space I have, the better.  Plus, London is such a great city that I want to experience it.  I don’t want to spend it waiting in line.

Olympic Games Message

Olympic Games Message (Photo credit: chooyutshing)

2. The marketing.  Brands pay tens of millions of dollars to be associated with the Olympics and use its values to burnish their own.  While not a reason to avoid the games, it isn’t exactly a selling point for me.  I guess I can’t blame them though.  Ask Greece if they would have liked to have had more corporate money?

3. I’m turned off by news stories about the greed that surrounds it.  For example, landlords are evicting tenants in east London from their homes in trying to cash in on the Olympics.

4. HDTV.

5. The prices.  London isn’t cheap.  When they jack up their prices higher than Swiss prices…

Cropped transparent version of Image:Olympic f...

Cropped transparent version of Image:Olympic flag.svg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6. Tickets aren’t easy to get, especially for some of the sports that I’d really want to see.  Heck, you have to buy a ticket just to visit the Olympic Park.  We didn’t apply in the initial balloting process so we would have to get lucky to get some at the general sale.  If we had to resort to other means to get tickets, I would probably gasp at the prices.  Just yesterday, Volodymyr Gerashchenko, the general secretary of the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee, resigned after being filmed offering tickets for sale.  It’s a crime to sell Olympic tickets on the black market.

7. He works… a lot.  He probably couldn’t take the time off.

8. There are so many other wonderful places to visit.  It’s not as though we won’t have anything else cool to do.

9. The London games and their “legacy” has been so hyped that it seems impossible to live up to it.

Marion Jones - September 30th, 2000 at the 200...

10. Doping.  My disappointment was enormous after I learned of Marion Jones‘ steroid use.  I don’t know how the games can stay one step ahead.  Wondering whether the person who is killing it and ends up on the medal stand will later test positive takes some of the excitement out of it.

We’ll be heading back to London…after the Olympics.  We love the city and there’s still tons more to see and do.

Take It Eze-y, The Cote D’Azur Town Of Eze

Eze is a dramatic village perched 427 Meters (1,400 feet) above the Mediterranean sea.  Like many ancient hill towns, it is car-free.  We love car-free towns because they are more pedestrian and very peaceful.

Eze’s star attraction is the Jardin Exotique, a cactus and succulent filled garden planted around the ruins of a 14th century castle and filled with sculptures.   They had nice plaques explaining the sights and history of the area.  Very educational.  I loved the idea of filling castle ruins in with plants to make a unique garden.  It was really cool, but the real start of the show were the views.  Amazing.

Eze is so beautiful that it has become a tourist town…literally.  There are almost no full-time residents.  Virtually all the buildings are shops, art galleries, hotels or restaurants.  It has become a popular honeymoon destination.

The private terrace of one of the hotels

The Romans inhabited Eze.  Around 900, the Moors conquered the village, attacking from the door below.  They held it William of Provence took it from them in 973.  Like nearby Villefranche, its strategic position and proximity to nearby Nice meant that rulers built heavy fortifications.  Eze functions as sort of “eagle’s nest” overlooking the sea and surrounding mountains.   The Phoenicians, Turks and the Principality of Monaco also occupied the city at different points in time.

They weren’t the only ones who came to Eze.  The philosopher Nietzsche spent time here.  The trail you can hike down to the water (in the town of Eze-Sur-Mer) is called the Nietzsche Path in his honor.  We had on hiking clothes, but it was raining so hard that a hike down a steep (and possibly muddy) path didn’t sound like a ton of fun.  Walt Disney also spent time here.  He doesn’t have a path.

We Took The High Road – La Grande Corniche

Three roads link Nice to Monaco.  They are called “Les Trois Corniches” which translates to the three cliffs or cliff roads.  The word comes from the word “cornice,” the decorative frieze that runs on top of buildings.   They are some of the world’s great drives.  When the rain and cruise ship passengers chased us out of Villefranche, we decided to drive the Grand Corniche.  What better time to take a drive on dangerous, cliff side road than in the rain?

The Low Corniche running out to the peninsula to St. Jean-Cap-Ferat from Villefranche-Sur-Mer

The peninsula with the Low Corniche from above

The Low Corniche (La Base Corniche or Corniche Inferieure) runs along the water, 50 meters above the Mediterranean.  It runs through Villefranche, past the entrance to the Cape Ferrat (known as the peninsula of billionaires), into Beaulieu-sur-Mer (chic Belle Epoque resort town), into Eze-Sur-Mer (from which you can hike up the Nieztsche path to the medieval hill town of Eze) and Cap d’Ail before arriving in the Principality of Monaco.

View from the Moyenne Corniche

The Middle Corniche (La Moyenne Corniche) is higher, culminating at 472 meters above sea level.   It offers impressive views of the sea and the towns above.  We took it out of Eze, going over the viaduct.  The Viaduct of Eze is known as the Bridge of the Devil.

The Viaduct of Eze on the Moyenne Corniche

Built in the early 20th century, the Moyenne Corniche is the newest of the three roads.  Even then tourists were causing congestion on the Low Corniche.

The Moyenne and Low Corniches from the Grande Corniche

We took the Grande Corniche out and drove the Middle Corniche back.   It wasn’t easy to stop for pictures though as we had to cross a lane of traffic to pull off and then get back out.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but luckily it rained (so there wasn’t too much traffic).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop like that on a busy day.

The Tete de Chien outcrop from Eze

From Eze, you can see the Tete de Chien promontory which dominates Monte-Carlo.  Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), was killed when her car went off a cliff on the Moyenne Corniche near there in 1983.

The High Corniche (La Grande Corniche) is the highest of the three with a height of 500 meters above the sea.  It has staggering views and a historical pedigree.  It is the site of the Via Aurelia, the road used by the Romans to conquer the territory to their west (aka France).  La Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon alongside of the old Roman road.

Several movies have been filmed on the Grande Corniche.    Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly here.  In some scenes, you can see Eze in the background.  The James Bond film Goldeneye starts with a car chase on the Grande Corniche.  Pierce Brosnan as James Bond chases Russian female fighter pilot Xenia Onatopp‘s Ferrari, in his Aston Martin DB5.  It is also a popular spot to film car commercials (but so is Detroit).

Yep. That’s it way up there on top.

From the Grand Corniche, you can see some seriously expensive homes.  I’m pretty sure that this is Villa La Leopolda.  Built by King Leopold of Belgium (allegedly for his mistress), owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame and money), Bill Gates and then by the Safra family, it was put up for sale by Edmund Safra’s widow, Lily.  Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, pulled out of a deal to pay $500 million dollars for it after legal troubles with the French government, losing his $36 million deposit.  Oops.

The medieval hill town of Eze and the viaduct on the Moyenne Corniche from the Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is so high and steep that it doesn’t go through many towns (only the hilltop village of Roquebrune).  There are hairpin turns and low guard rails (if there are guard rails).   It wasn’t a relaxing road to drive, but it was pretty freaking cool.

Cycling it…even cooler.

Villefranche, Oui, S’Il Vous Plaît

Villefranche-sur-Mer is carved into a hillside on a bay between Nice and Monaco.  We chose to stay in Villefranche because it is smaller and more residential than many of the towns on the water.   That’s not to say that they don’t have the tourism thing down pat.  Cruise ships regularly put down anchor in the harbor and we paid more to park our car overnight here than we did in New York City!  As cheap as I am, I didn’t care.  The views were worth it.

I loved the pastel colored houses and church.  On the left is the Baroque Eglise St-Michel church.  While it seems as though every town here has impressive, serene churches, this one had interesting objects that appeared magical with the light streaming in on them.  The statue of Christ below was carved out of olive wood by a convict.

We fed our coffee addiction and had breakfast at a café on the docks.  People were readying their boats for a sailing competition that weekend and seeing fisherman returning with their catch provided great entertainment.  After gorging on fish the night before, we learned that the Mediterranean is almost fished out and most of the fish served in restaurants is imported from the Atlantic.  Many of the towns on the Côte d’Azur started as fishing villages.  Today, tourism is the number one industry, but Villefranche is still has a few people who still earn a living fishing.

Villefranche has been a port since Roman times and is strategically important because it could be used as a base from which to attack the port of Nice.  After the fall of the Roman empire, residents fled and built the hill towns that dot the mountains behind the water.  In the 13th century, the Duke of Provence wanted to defend the port from Saracen Turks and strengthen their hold on the coastline.  To get them to move, he made living there tax-free.  Gotta love tax-free.  The Duke of Savoy constructed the fort to defend the port and bay in the 16th century.

The vaulted Rue Obscure (dark street) provided shelter from bombardment.  Rue Obscure is a passage way under the harbor front houses dating from 1260.

Narrow, steep lanes climb up from the harbor.  They were blissfully quiet and relatively deserted until the cruise ship started ferrying passengers ashore.

We decided to pull the plug and head out to the Grand Cornishe.  Before we left, we stopped to check out this church.  Villefranche is known for the Chapelle St.-Pierre in which Jean Cocteau (a famous French artist, poet and filmmaker) painted lavish frescos with heavy black lines and pastel colors.

Oops, I almost forgot.  In Villefranche, we found a new use for a bidet.  It came in really handy to clean the mud off of his Dunks.

So I Got That Goin’ For Me, Which Is Nice

After Cannes and Antibes on our giant whirlwind tour of the Côte d’Azur, we checked into our hotel in Villefranche.  After dropping off our bags and trying to find a parking spot in the very steep and very crowded streets of Villefranche, we walked along the Boulevard Princess Grace de Monaco to Vieux Nice (old town Nice).

After so much time in the car, it was great to walk and move around.  It was a beautiful evening and the scenery was amazing.  These were the views we’d been hoping for in the south of France, a rocky coast with clear water and a gorgeous blue sea.

We stopped and watched this boxer workout.  It’s not a bad spot for a workout, I’d probably be distracted by the view.  I’m not sure who he is, but his t-shirt was in Russian.  Any ideas?

Nice’s harbor was peaceful and the boats were a bit more modest than in Antibes.

Being from the US, I’ve never really understood the concept of renting a space on the beach.  It’s common in the south of France.  Most of the beaches are rocky so I guess it’s nice to have a lawn chair that you don’t have to lug around and waiters who will bring you cold drinks.  Notice they even put down aisle-like mats so that you don’t have to touch the rocks!  I guess everyone has different ways they like to experience nature.  We have friends who like to tube down rivers with coolers tied to their tubes.  To each their own.

We so busy sightseeing that we missed lunch and hadn’t eaten more than an apple since breakfast 12 hours earlier.  Oops.  By the time we arrived in Vieux Nice, we were ravenous.  We headed to the Cours Saleya which has been Nice’s main market square since the middle ages.  Filled with cafes that spill out onto the square, there were plenty of options so that we didn’t have to wait for a table.

Luckily for us, France is a great place to be hungry.  We had a wonderful meal and gorged ourselves on French specialities.  I had salad (Niçoise, how could I not when in Nice), oysters (they don’t serve them with Tabasco Sauce), and bouillabaisse.  Near the sea, I felt pretty confident that the seafood would be good.  It was better than good.

Vieux Nice is a tangled mishmash of ancient streets and alleyways.  Strolling through them was a perfect way to end our amazing day in the south of France.

Picasso, Yachts And Ramparts In Antibes

You could drive the entire Côte d’Azur (aka the French Rivera) and see all the towns along it, but it would take you forever and all the traffic would drive you crazy.  We didn’t have the time (or stamina) to do it all.  Instead, we picked a few of the best towns on the coast: Antibes, Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer.  Antibes has sandy beaches (many on the Côte d’Azur are rocky), an agreeable old town, and a nice Picasso Museum.

When we get a yacht, we want one with a helicopter too.

Antibes’s port is filled with enormous luxury yachts.  We watched crews getting the yachts ready for the start of the season.  We didn’t see anyone famous, but in the past few days Jennifer Connelly, Princess Beatrice, Hayden Panettiere and Petra Nemcova have all been sighted there.

Before joining France in 1860, nearby Nice was under Italian rule. Antibes was the last French town before the Italian border. As a result, the French built a fort and some major ramparts.  From the harbor, you can see Fort Carre, in the center of the port.    We strolled the ramparts, enjoying the sun and the beautiful views.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote one of his best known works, Tender is the Night, based on life in Antibes.  Judging from the story, we thought Antibes wouldn’t be too laid back or plebeian.  Nevertheless, Antibes has a down-to-earth ambience.  Well, at least it’s more down to earth than many of the neighboring towns (Cannes, I’m looking at you).  Ramparts and towers wrap the old town and guard its medieval streets.

It’s not some dour medieval town.  Party animals like Rudolf Valentino and Charlie Chaplin partied here in the roaring 20’s.  Legend has it that water skiing was invented in Antibes in the 1920s.  In 1946 after World War II, 65-year-old Pablo Picasso moved there with 23-year-old lady friend, Françoise Gilot.  He experienced a surge in creativity, painting like a madman and partying hard.  The merry, festive atmosphere continues.  We saw lots of Brits enjoying a pint in the sun.

The 12th century Chateau Grimaldi, an old town mansion on the edge of the Mediterranean, houses the Picasso Museum (it’s where he stayed while in Antibes) and has stunning views.  We took a minute to enjoy the sculpture garden on the terrace before checking out the museum’s paintings, sketches, and ceramics.

Picasso said that if you wanted to see work from his Antibes period, you’d have to do it in Antibes.  Picasso was prolific.  One of the best parts about the museum was being able to see several versions of a painting or idea.  For example, we saw about 10 platters on which he’d painted bulls.  You could see his experimentation with styles and subjects.  Fascinating.

The old town is charming, sunny, relaxed and filled with Brits.  We wandered the craft market and the antique sales.  I know, I am such a sucker.

On the way back to the car, we noticed the yacht store had a Che painting on the door.  Where do I begin?

Yes We Cannes-ed

We just returned from our whirlwind trip to the south of France over the holiday weekend.  While we didn’t do much relaxing (there wasn’t much time as we were busy sightseeing everyday), we managed to see an incredible amount in a long weekend.  I picked him up and we headed out of Geneva.  Being a holiday weekend, the roads were pretty crowded (translate this to mean we hit a giant traffic jam and took back roads through the middle of nowhere France for about an hour in the dark), but we made it to near Orange where we spent the night.  Driving late into the night had an upside, we woke up in the south of France.  We woke up to this beautiful view of olive groves in the morning.  Yeah baby!  Let the vacation begin.

After downing more café au lait than anyone should be allowed to drink, we were on our way to the Côte d’Azur.

Cannes is home to little film festival, the Cannes International Film Festival.  It is held for two weeks each May.  During this time, the city is packed with film producers, celebrities and paparazzi.  We decided to drive through Cannes and see what all the fuss was about.  Having faithfully watched Entourage on HBO and seen the Cannes episode, he wanted to hang with Turtle.

Cannes is built around the Bay of Cannes and its palm lined seafront drive.  We drove through Cannes toward the beach, passing tons of cafes, luxury boutiques and hotels.

We drove past the exclusive hotels lining the Boulevard de la Croisette across from the beach gawking.  We weren’t the only ones.  It took about an hour and a half to drive through the town.  It wasn’t calming, but we didn’t mind.  We were busy people watching.

Although celebrities like Eva Longoria, Sean Penn, Sasha Baron Cohen, Gerard Butler, Jennifer Connelly and Alec Baldwin were in Cannes, we only saw tourists gawking and film types barking into their cell phones.  I guess that’s not entirely true, we also saw a few bodyguard types in suits with earpieces.

We saw signs of ridiculous wealth everywhere.   Like Geneva’s Auto Show, there were some insane cars.  I especially enjoyed how this one was parked next to a “No Parking” sign.  I guess you can do that if you have a Rolls.  If you do get towed, you can probably afford to get your car out of an impound lot.

It was hard to get good shots of the harbor, but it was filled with enormous yachts.  Sorry these shots don’t do it justice.  We decided that the best place to stay in Cannes is on a yacht off the coast and away from the crowds.  If it is good enough for Puff Daddy (or whatever his name is now), it is good enough for us.

Although it wasn’t relaxing, the sheer scale and craziness of it all was a sight to see…once.

P.S.  Cannes sister city, not surprisingly, is Beverly Hills.   Too perfect.

Thanks Freshly Pressed!

Thank you Freshly Pressed for selecting the post (Everything You Don’t Need And Can’t Live Without) for Freshly Pressed.  We left our families and friends to move over here and started the blog to share our lives and everything learned with them.  It’s nice to know that someone other than my mom likes my pictures and is entertained.  Thanks for checking it out.