It is during this time that Brian invited me to visit his London flat, and I gladly accepted. Soon after I arrived, we did what any sane local would do to avoid the wedding ceremony crowds: we fled London and left the city to the tourists. Our destination: the Côte d'Azur, a.k.a. the French Riviera.
MarseilleOur flight to Marseille was out of London Gatwick at 06:30, which meant we had to leave the flat at an ungodly hour, some time between way too late and way too early, when only London's taxis and 24 hour buses were stirring. At the airport, going through security was a breeze and the security personnel were incredibly polite, something American travelers are not accustomed to.
Courtesy and respect are actually pleasantly common among both public and private British servants. At the boarding gate, an airline representative even made the apologetic announcement that sadly only one of the jetway doors were open, and that we should “please bear that in mind.” Bearing that in mind, somehow we managed to overcome this inconvenience and get seated on the plane.
British Airways even served us breakfast and the 1h40m flying time went by quickly, especially considering we traversed all of France over a croissant and coffee. At Marseille International we discovered that having a non-EU passport was actually an advantage as most travelers were EU residents and the line for “other” at passport control/customs was nonexistent.
By 10:00 local time we were at the car rental office. I had shrewdly reserved a tiny Ford Fiesta diesel that magically gets a whopping 65m.p.g., putting hybrids in America to shame. But that's not the car Hertz actually gave us. Having run out of Fiestas (they knew how to take my reservation just not how to keep it), they “upgraded” us to the Cadillac-equivalent of Europe: the full size Opel Insignia 6-speed manual diesel. Hertz did us no favor — they signed our death sentence. Sure, the car was comfortable, and, at 48 m.p.g. on the highway, super efficient for its class, but its class had no place in France. The car was just not designed for the narrow roads, toy-size parking spaces, and crannied garage entrances of France. Were it not for the vehicle's parking assist feature, we would have scraped, dinged, and dented it beyond all recognition.
The city of Marseille is a short drive from the airport and our first order of business upon arrival was to park our monstrosity and get ourselves something to eat. My severely jetlagged stomach was still at an undetermined time zone. Reaching the Vieux Port, we followed the signs to the big blue P and many terrifyingly high pitched beeps from the park-assist later, we were safely parked underground.
Armed with Rick Steve's guide on Provence and the South of France, we followed his recommended self-guided walk of the Old Port, heading to the Marseille Cathedral and were treated to some good views of the Old Port.
Along the narrow streets and alleys of this poor neighborhood of Marseille, we saw a kaleidoscope of laundry hanging out of window panes. The residents in these parts seemed no strangers to theft as scooters and motorbikes were locked with the thickest and heaviest chains I'd seen.Rick (as we often referred to the guidebook) recommended any number of restaurants along the Quai du Port street at the Vieux Port, and, guided solely by scent, we settled on Chez Madie. While we were waiting for our lunch to come out we witnessed an all too common and disturbing parallel parking scene. Just as one car vacated a spot on the opposite side of the street, a station wagon immediately tried to seize it but could barely fit with maybe an inch to spare on both sides. Rather than give up (I would have said: “there's just no way”), the driver guided his oversize car in, and with a long series of bumps to the car ahead and the car behind finally reached an equilibrium and got out to have lunch too. This little scene convinced me that parallel parking of the Opel was out of the question and any parking was to be done underground. After lunch we left the convenience of exploring on foot and drove up to see the Notre Dame de la Garde. Signs to the Notre Dame were scarce, but it was a simple problem of gradient ascent as the church is very simply the highest point in Marseille. The only real problem was coping with the narrow streets, hairpin turns, and not stalling the diesel engine in the process. Rick Steves has one word to say about the view: Bam! And he is so right. At the top, one gets an unobstructed 360 view of all of Marseille. One could easily spend a whole day here just gazing and admiring. I wanted to capture it all and the best approximation I could achieve was the set of panoramas below. Feel free to mouse over the panoramas, and see if you can find Waldo. Yes, one could spend a whole day up here gazing at the beautiful city below, but we didn't have all day. There was still Arles, Nîmes, and the Pont Du Gard before we were to check into our hotel in Avignon. So, back down the hill we went and took the A7 towards Arles. When we approached Arles an hour and a half later, however, we missed the exit to go into town. Since at this point it was already mid-afternoon, we just kept going.
NîmesNîmes was easy enough to get to — follow the signs to the centre of town and lock in on the familiar blue P markings to garage parking underneath the arena. Getting out would turn out to be a nightmare, however. The main (and pretty much only) attraction in Nîmes is the arena, a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century that was converted to a bullring in 1863. Today, it's just a museum, and we weren't sure it was worth the €10 to see it from the inside. We were so dehydrated, we decided we'd first look for bottled water and flip a two-euro coin later to make up our minds. The coin determined we should skip it, which we happily agreed to as we were on a tight schedule. Rick recommended the scenic road to Uzès as a way of getting to the Pont du Gard, and being suckers for a scenic roads, we went for it. The trouble is, finding the darned road is close to impossible. Invariably every sign for Uzès led us down the wrong path, and we spent at least an hour and a half backtracking and going around in circles. What made matters worse was that making a U-turn in France is practically impossible because of the numerous one-way streets and roundabouts. At one point we thought we had it (at least we felt we were going in the right direction), but then the two-way road got narrower and narrower and started to resemble a one way alley. There was certainly nothing scenic about it — just stone walls on both sides. My hesitation and uncertainty behind the wheel was starting to get on the nerves of the two drivers behind us, and at a stop sign they raced past us only to find a truck heading straight towards them. With no where to go, they reversed back behind us to let the truck pass.
Pont du GardThe one good thing that came out of our meandering in Nimes was that we made it to the aqueduct past 17:00, when the €15 parking fee is waived and the parking lot is nearly empty. Many families come out here for a picnic and spend the whole day relaxing / swimming in the river, and it's easy to see why. At the end of April it was still too cold for swimming but one could still sit and marvel at the ever changing color of the arch stones bathed in late afternoon sunlight.
The Pont du Gard is awe-inspiring. To think the Romans constructed this massive structure two thousand years ago is mind boggling. Add to this the fact the aqueduct slopes at just one inch for every 200 feet, and you start to have a lot of respect for the Romans' engineering skills.
AvignonOur hotel in Avignon was the Hotel Bristol, just within the city walls. When we asked the receptionist the night before what we should do about parking, her response was that we're in luck — there is just one parking space left in the garage. “Do you have a small car?” she asked. I looked over to Brian, and we both chuckled. The Opel would have to find different accommodations. So, we ended up parking at the train station garage outside the city walls, only a ten minute walk from the hotel. Hotels in France often have an add-on option for a continental breakfast, which at €10-15 per person is usually a bad deal. You are far better off getting a baguette sandwich with coffee and/or juice at any number of boulangeries near your hotel. And that is what we opted for in Avignon on the morning of Day 2. We got it à emporter and while we munched, we were treated to some sweet outdoor jazz sounds at the Place de l'Horloge. Avignon is a quaint little town born in the 14th century after the Pope and his entourage fled Rome and was the center of the Catholic church for over a hundred years. To rule in style, they built themselves an enormous palace that has three acres of floor space and is largely empty on the inside.
By noon, we had seen all we had set out to see in Avignon and hopped on the A7 towards Cassis.
CassisRoads and highways in France are incredibly well maintained. One does have to pay an arm and a leg for tolls (which ended up being a good chunk of what we paid for gas), but those funds are evidently put to good use. The road surface is as smooth as silk — a real pleasure to drive on, almost fostering a lead foot, making the prevalent speed cameras doubly dangerous.
The diesel's torque really shined on the mountainous terrain as we approached Cassis. I was dazzled by the Opel's ability to pass trucks and other cars so effortlessly on an uphill.
When we arrived in Cassis, we did a quick drive-through of the harbor along impossibly narrow alleyways and not finding a space to park, we headed up the mountain to find the Route des Crêtes for some really great views of Cassis atop the Cap Canaille cliffs. In many ways, the tops of these cliffs are like Torrey Pines in San Diego, with the brush vegetation and the ocean views below, but taken to the extreme.
One would think the only way to scale these cliffs is along the twisty Route des Crêtes, but astonishingly, some brave (crazy) souls elect to climb them. I am normally not afraid of heights, but the edge of this 1,300ft precipice was dizzyingly terrifying. I can't imagine how rock climbers do what they do. Almost as astonishing is the fact that there is nothing in the way of a guardrail or barrier to prevent people from falling right off the cliff. Even Torrey Pines, which is on a toy model scale in comparison, has measures in place to protect visitors from doing something stupid.
In any case, this was another place we each decided we would be coming back to. Perhaps next time with a packed picnic lunch, and a safe distance from the cliff edge.When we came down the mountain all enlightened, we planned to get a quick snack and catch the last boat to the Calanques, the white cliffs Cassis is famous for. Unfortunately, giant cumulonimbi were approaching and the last boat that was scheduled for 18:30 was canceled. One could easily hike to the first Calanque in an hour, but I was afraid of being caught in the rain with nothing to protect my camera and our electronics. So, instead, we decided to turn the quick snack into a light dinner and relax before driving on to Nice. As we munched on our steak frite sandwiches looking over the harbor, we agreed Cassis would not be a bad place to live. If I ever took some time off work to go live in the South of France for a bit, this would be the place.
NiceFinding the Hotel de Suede in Nice was a bit of a challenge. We didn't have a detailed map and the one way, tram-ridden streets of Nice at night can be hard to navigate. Eventually, we found the familiar underground parking company and checked in. The next day was the royal wedding. You'd think given the historically bitter bilateral relations between France and England, the French wouldn't give a hoot, but instead, they were glued to TVs running non-stop images of the ceremony. We ordered baguette sandwiches and cafe au lait from the nearest coffee shop, which, on account of the shopkeeper's undivided attention to the wedding coverage on TV, took a good 20 minutes. It did, however, allow me to practice my broken French with the shopkeeper. I learned that the French were apparently also looking forward to the wedding of the Prince of Monaco in July. We took our breakfast to go and headed to the Promenade des Anglais, where we propped our feet up on the “made-to-order guardrail”. Sadly, the weather was not terribly nice for Nice but as we finished our sandwiches and headed toward Castle Hill (Colline du Château), it got progressively sunnier and more Mediterranean. Castle Hill itself was made-to-order. Nice is mostly flat, so having a place with a view makes one appreciate the city a lot more. It was hard work climbing all the stairs, but with all the training from the previous few days, we were getting quickly into shape. Castle Hill is a bit of a misnomer because there is no castle on top — there is only a little cafe restaurant and a park. But from here one can see the old town and the port.
AntibesWhen we arrived in Nice the night before, we overshot Antibes by about 20km but planned to backtrack along the coast to check it out. Finding public parking in Antibes was a bit harder than usual and after a loop around the town, we saw the big P sign at the last minute. I made a sharp left turn into it, prompting the first French curse of the trip directed at me from the driver behind us. Although it's much smaller than Nice, Antibes has just as long a history. Its cultural treasure today is the Picasso Museum, which Brian explored at length. Not being a big admirer of Picasso's work, which is actually a bit of an understatement, I ventured out on my own through the narrow streets and alleys. In parts it was seriously windy as the narrow streets channeled the ocean breeze into strong gusts. Antibes has little precious beach, so the few slivers of white sand were crowded, and some brave souls were even swimming in the April waters. The remainder of the coastline is lined with ramparts and is rather charming.
Cap MartinAs we left Cannes and hopped onto the A8, we got our first (and only) dose of a bouchon, the French version of a traffic jam. It was really unimpressive actually, despite the many, many warnings on the electronic signs. It was more like midnight traffic in LA than a traffic jam. The faint bouchon uncorked itself and as we approached the city-state of Monaco, the terrain turned mountainous, and we started popping in and out of tunnels, getting just brief glimpses of the Mediterranean way below us. We decided to bypass Monaco completely and check into our hotel first — the Victoria Hotel in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a little coastal town in France, tucked neatly between Monaco and Italy. The Victoria Hotel was super trendy, right on the water, and although it ran for just €80 a night, it was by far the best we stayed at. The standard room with its oak hardwood floors and hip furnishings felt more like an apartment than a hotel room. Attention to detail was evident throughout. For instance, the LCD TV was all white to match the furniture. And a little step-stool was tucked underneath the sink to enable little kids to reach the faucet easier. Amenities included an ipod docking station and a high definition lighted makeup mirror in the bathroom (excellent for flossing!). The hotel was so trendy that even the quirky glass elevator had a special touch. It required you to keep holding the button of the floor you want until you get there. Let go, and the lift pauses. It was undoubtedly the most engaging elevator I've used. After check-in, we had some time to walk around town before dinner, so we started down a coastal trail that hugged the rocky shore. Although Cap Martin is just 6km from Monaco, a sign warned the Monte Carlo was a good 1h40m away on foot. Point taken. We did, however, want to at least get a view of the city-state and kept walking. My plan was to photograph Monaco in the early evening or early morning, but since the sun sets behind the mountains the city is nudged against, my intuition suggested morning would be better. So, we walked on to scope out a vantage point. The trail is really scenic. And the locals seem to take advantage of it fully. We passed many friendly runners, joggers, walkers, and strollers, and besides the scenery, the frequent ups and downs and gradual stairs offered another attractive angle for the health conscious. I decided I would join their ranks and go for a run after the photography expedition in the morning. We found the perfect vantage point just where the shore curved north. Satisfied with all the field prep work and hungry for dinner, we headed back to the hotel. It was getting dark and Cap Martin had turned on the lights, so we stopped for a quick pano at the risk of the restaurant closing. The Italian restaurant next to our hotel thankfully stayed open late, and we had some really good pizza. With its proximity to Italy, Italian influence is strong in Cap Martin.
MonacoSunrise over Monaco was expected at 6:20am. Given that the best colors come out perhaps 20 minutes before sunrise, and that our chosen vantage point was a 30-40 minute brisk walk from the hotel, I set my alarm for 4:45am. Brian chose to remain tucked in his trendy bed and experience the Monaco sunrise vicariously. So, I packed my camera gear and took off. On my way out, I startled the sleeping doorman in the lobby. “Checking out?!” he asked. When I told him I was just off to take some photos, he just looked puzzled and told me to mind the wind. I thanked him and disappeared into the windy darkness.
The trail was a bit spooky at this ungodly hour but 20 minutes into the walk, dawn started breaking through. When I got to the vantage point Monaco greeted me with its shimmering lights, and I set up my tripod. The sky was almost clear over Monaco, but behind me to the south east, it was cloudy, which meant I should forget about any good morning colors. I was wishing I'd chosen as wisely as Brian and gotten some sleep instead.
But seeing as I was already there, I started snapping panos. The pano below is one of the early ones compiled from a bunch of long exposures. You can see the light trail of a sailboat approaching its dock if you mouse over.
Our flight back to London was out of Marseille the next morning, so we booked accommodations right by the Marseille airport that evening. Even with the past four days of solid driving, Marseille was just 2.5 hours from Monaco, so we had time to stop for an early dinner in Aix-en-Provence. It was worth the stopover. The women of Aix-en-Provence were by far the most fashionably and seductively dressed. The town definitely deserves its nickname of Sex-en-Provence. Brian and I agreed this could also be a place we could live.
Solitary Women from the South of FranceWhile on the subject of women, I thought I'd dedicate a small section to the many seemingly solitary beautiful women basking in the South of France.
And with that our vacation comes to an end. Or, rather, holiday as the Brits would say. Back in Heathrow while waiting for our flights (Brian's holiday was actually continuing as he was headed back to California on the same plane to attend a wedding), I overheard an Englishman making fun of his friend for reading the local tabloids. His friend responded with: “what can I say, mate? I'm a culture vulture!” This prompted a discussion about the numerous funny quirks and peculiarities between British and American English. Our conclusion was that American makes much more sense. The only word we felt the Brits got right was toilet. Restroom is arguably equivocal.
When we landed in LA, we learned bin Laden had been killed during our flight. This seemed like the perfect ending to our holiday.