A trip to Southern France
My wife wanted to go to France. She’d been there before but I guess this time she wanted me to go along. I’d rather stay closer to home and avoid the stress of airports, rental cars, luggage, traffic, unfamiliar culture and surroundings. I just like to relax, and a trip to France really didn’t sound all that relaxing to me. I thought I could nix this idea and at the same time seem like I was being somewhat cooperative and accommodating with a few simple, but reasonable demands. I would only go if we could visit Southern France and if we could find round trip airfare for less than $500 per ticket. I should have done some research. It wasn’t long before she found tickets on Lufthansa for a few dollars less than $500 AND had the trip planned.
The plan was to fly to Paris, stay overnight then drive a rental car to Southern France where we had a budget hotel in a small town reserved for 5 nights. We would then drive back to Paris for one more night before returning home. Sounded simple enough, I thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
The flight to Paris was fairly uneventful except when changing planes in Frankfort Germany. While sitting on a bus waiting to be transported to the plane taking us to Paris a woman from the airline came aboard and spoke a few words of German. Now I know a tiny bit of German but I didn’t need it to understand “Das aeroplane ist kerputten”. We made it to Paris with only a little delay and after gathering our luggage and finding the rental car we were on our way to a lovely hotel for our first night in Paris.
As I left the parking ramp in my diesel powered Opel mini-van I entered the expressway and a level of hell I never knew existed. This level could be named “Driving in Paris”. I know more French than German and can actually read some, but at 62 mph, I mean 100kph, my brain just doesn’t translate road signs fast enough to navigate successfully. None the less we soon were in rush hour traffic on the surface streets. I found out that low speed collisions were actually a normal and acceptable driving technique for maneuvering your vehicle into traffic. After circling our hotel several times while trapped in traffic and unable to exit the chaos, (geez! I could see our hotel on the other side of the intersection), I finally decided to drive like a Parisian. I used the old bumper car maneuver to ride the tail of a police car and made it into the lane I wanted. I parked near the hotel in a gated lot and walked the lobby.
The hotel was indeed lovely. The room was about 8X10 ft, rather about 3 meters by 4 meters. The mattress was form fitting with a deep crevice to snuggle in. The neighborhood was just as alluring. If I didn’t know better I swear I saw Osama bin Laden walk by with a newspaper under his arm. We made the best of it and had a nice dinner then took the subway to the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, Montmartre. Being one of highest points in the city we could see the Eiffel Tower and lights of the city. It was magical.
Walking back to our love nest for the night we managed to find ourselves lost in the streets of Paris. As we argued about which way to go, which by the way, spoiled any chance of “romance” that night, I saw a short man with a goatee and wearing a beret approaching. I thought to myself, “great I’m gonna be mugged by a man with a goatee and a beret”. He spoke perfect English, was very polite and offered proper directions. Lovely!
The next morning, after some espresso and croissant we were soon sitting on the highway in a traffic jam. It only lasted an hour or so and then we werecruising toward the Provence area of France’s Mediterranean coast, but in the wrong lane. I quickly learned that I should drive in the right hand lane unless passing then return quickly to that lane. Like I said, I learn quickly. It only took 3 or 4 obscene gestures from faster drivers. The drive was really not too bad and before midnight we were at our hotel in the quiet little town of Le Lavandou. The hotel was small, the room was small, but it was clean and the proprietor was friendly, Armenian not French, but friendly. My wife had come to experience the culture and speak the language, hmmmm! I think the room was about $60 a night, not too bad …or was it 60 Euros? Well I was here, not a time to pinch the wallet. I was ready for a few days of randomly and leisurely wandering around Southern France.
Mon Dieu, I could hardly wait.
Our first morning in Southern France! We slept in, which I usually hate to do because I didn’t need to come to France for that. Exploring the little town of Le Lavandou was on the agenda. We perused the merchandise in the small shops, had lunch in an outdoor café and strolled on the boardwalk along the beach. It was April and the temperature was not swimming suit warm but the sun was nice to feel and being the off season for tourists, there were not throngs of people on the beach. In the warm season I hear that the beaches in this area are popular for topless sunbathing. My wife stated adamantly that she would NOT be topless on the beach. I told her that’s fine but I don’t care, I’m in France, if I feel like it, I’m taking mine off. Speaking of attire, while strolling along the boardwalk in my T-shirt, shorts, white socks and tennis shoes. I noticed a group of young men marching toward us, almost in formation, their feet stomping the boards almost in unison as they approached. They were all wearing dark leather jackets, jeans and dark leather shoes or boots. As they passed me I presume my attire inspired one of them to comment “cee cee boy”. A few of his comrades let out a little giggle. Now I know a few words of German but I didn’t need it. I wanted to reply with something silly like "Now is zie time on Sprockets ven vee danse!", but that would have only reinforced their impression. I just laughed silently inside as I watched them goose-step along in double wide formation to enjoy the remainder of their day at the beach.
Tomorrow…up early for a full day on the Cote d’Azur, so I thought. Damn this sleeping in! I wanted to see some stuff while I was here. We finally got rolling along at about 10:00, headed for Nice. I wanted to get there early in the morning to see the fish market. Fisherman bring in there fresh catch early in the morning to sell, but it closes by 10:00 a.m. We were still munching on tartine(bread and jam) and sipping cafe at our hotel.That would have been interesting I think, but…we missed it. Nice was …nice, my favorite place. I said if I come back I will skip Paris and come straight to Nice. On the way we stopped in a little town named Cavaliere sur Mer. I liked that town. I think I could live there. Something about it was really attractive to me. We had lunch at a little crepe restaurant. Crepes and Rose wine (the area is noted for Rose). I ordered my lunch speaking in French of course! “Crepe de trois fromage”. Three cheese crepes. The wait staff thought that I was quite humorous with my command of the language. Now I know a little French, but I didn’t need it to understand they were laughing at me, not with me. It didn’t bother me too much, I just rolled with it, they realized that and it was fun. We finally arrived in Nice and found a place to park about a mile from what we wanted to see, Vieux Nice (Old Nice) It was narrow streets, lots of shops and lots of people. First we visited the old fort, Château Castle Hill which provides a beautiful view of view of the old town area and the harbor. On one side you overlooked the boulevard and I recollected a car chase scene from the move “Transporter” that I swear was filmed on that street. After strolling around the harbor and looking at the interesting architecture we made our way to old town. We strolled around, stopped for cafe, strolled some more, stopped for pastries, more cafe, more strolling, more food....then it was time for dinner. Not too special as I remember but we got back to our little hometown (for the week) and walked around some more.
Perhaps the next group of photos tells a better story about Vieux Nice than my words can.
back at home and a late night stroll to burn off some of the caffeine buzz and all those pastries
The next day....Monte Carlo, St. Tropez, Cannes then a late dinner and drive home along the coast. That was the plan.
We finally got an early start on this morning. We planned to drive the highway to Monte Carlo then return on a road along the coast line stopping in St. Tropez, then Cannes for dinner and a little walking around. Just a comment or two about round-a-bouts (traffic circles or manege tournant) This was my first real exposure, but I learned to just stay in the circle until you figure out where you want to exit. It usually went like this: 1st lap – read the French road signs, 2nd lap translate – 3rd lap re-read, re-translate if necessary, 4th lap – exit. We made it to Monte Carlo or at least onto a road that overlooked Monte Carlo which is actually a small country rather than a city. We couldn’t find a way to navigate into the city, er…country, so we decide to just drive the coast line for a bit. It was a cool rainy day anyway. We accidentally ended up in Italy, but after a quick U turn we were back in France.
We got back on the highway and drove to St. Tropez, a popular destination for the rich and famous, and today, for us too. We walked through a few shops, stopped at an outdoor car show near the marina, and spent most of the remainder of the day visiting the Citadel of St. Tropez. It is a walled fort originally built in the 15th century. It offers interesting architecture, a panoramic view and a nice park around the fortress in which to relax and watch strange people walk past. At least that’s what it seemed the people we saw relaxing there were doing as we walked through the park. I don’t recall much more about the city, allegedly there are some nice beaches. The sun was out but it was still cool so we decided to head for Cannes.
Strolling through the streets of Cannes I imagined walking by some movie star. Maybe I did but didn’t know,the list of celebrities I can recognize is pretty short. I heard it gets crazy during the famous film festival so I was glad we missed that! After strolling around for a while we decided to splurge a little and have a nice dinner. There were several little establishments along the drive with an ocean view so we selected one that seemed a little more elegant than the others. I ordered fish, don’t remember what kind but it was grilled and pretty tasty. My wife had pasta of some kind, I think the kind was like the spaghetti and meatball kind. She’s not too adventurous when it comes to food. Wine of course, Rose of course. Then desert. I had the best desert I’ve ever tasted, Poire Belle Helene. It is dessert made from pears poached in sugar syrup and served with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, and crystallized violets. I think the bill was 100 or so Euros, our most expensive dining experience of the trip, but I had no complaints.
We walked around a bit more before starting the drive along the coast to our hotel. On the map the road looked like it had a few curves and a few small towns to pass through but pretty straight forward. The road was nothing but curves, It was quite a lot of fun for awhile with but it then became tedious. We navigated the first few small towns without difficulty but after the third or fourth we found ourselves driving through the darkened rural French countryside wondering what happened to the Mediterranean. That slight detour cost us some time but we still made it back to our hotel before the doors locked around midnight. Looking back on the day it seemed we covered a lot of ground, saw some sites but didn’t really do much.
The last day on the French Riviera was relaxing and walking around Le Lavandou and CavalieresurMer looking at gardens, shops and shoreline. We also found a coffee shop with internet access and changed our reservations for our return trip to Paris. We chose a hotel close to the airport to minimize driving. I was happy about that. When we returned to Paris we drove straight into the rental car return and hopped a bus to the terminal where a train would take us to our hotel. Easy! My wife had come to France for the culture and to practice speaking French but when this bus came to the last stop and we never saw our terminal she was silent. The bus driver glared at us, gesturing to get off, then I spoke up, “Je ne sais pas, ou nous allons”. “I do not know where we go”. My francais was fluent. He said “NOOOO”, and told us another bus would be along, ”now get off”. We made it to our hotel, had a very nice horsemeat buffet with overcooked veggies and starchy potatoes We flew home the next morning.