Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sud du France

This is the part where I tell you about the Route Napoléon.

I have this not so secret desire to live in France one day. I want a 600-something year old chateau with crumbling yellow walls and white Rococo molding around the windows. I want a massive rustic kitchen with solid beams of oak in the ceiling and a heartland classic stove with a warming drawer and six burners. And I want our curly-haired cafe au lait babies to ramble around grounds covered in pines and lavender. I mean, we are all entitled to dream, right?

Well there would be no more perfect place for such a home than in the South of France. And Justin and I were about to explore it via the Route Napoléon.

This fantastic road stretches for miles, springing from the azure waters of the French Riveria and meandering inland through the foothills of the French Alps. It is the route taken by Napoléon after returning from his exile on Elba and ends at Waterloo. It is rich with a dynamic tapestry of landscapes varying from mountains of wildflowers to deep craggy gorges.  

Armed with google navigation maps, some cocoa covered almonds, and a full tank of petrol Justin and I hit the road.

As we drove along narrow mountain rounds and through the cobblestoned streets of tiny villages we dashed in and out of storm clouds thick with rain. The tops of mountains were barely visible, hedged in by a breathe of ash colored fog. Small towns sat nestled in the shadows of cliffs and perfumeries littered the countryside. Stone houses sat beneath the boughs of pines looking fit for fairy tale characters.

We stopped in Castellane for lunch, sharing a pizza in small medieval alleyway and purchasing a chocolate tarte for the road. Hushed voices chattered in French, bouncing between the tight town walls and our server took turns doing tricks on a skateboard with a group of local children. It was quiet, remote, and perfect.

Along the Route Napoléon sits the Gorges du Verdon, a river canyon filled with water tinted a shade of eye-searing turquoise. It was wild to drive along this tightly cornered road, catching glimpses of the river a jaw-dropping distance below us. We were far from Nice at this point, but the call of lavender fields on the nearby plains of Valensole called to us. It so happened that we were two weeks from blooming season but the endless expanse of perfectly aligned plots was mesmerizing.

Our hearts were full of the beauty of southern France when we returned, road-weary, that evening in Nice. We filled our bellies with pub food in a smokey tavern on the warf and returned to Villa la Mouline smelling deeply of cigarettes and seaside.

The next morning we awoke to the gray haze of an early dawn. The air was chilly and fog hugged the coastline. It was going to be a busy day. We planned to drive along the Riveria to see the beautiful and medieval village of Èze and pop into Monaco on our way to Italy.

Èze is a fabulous little town, set high on a mountain with incredible panoramic views of the French Riveria. We had arrived early enough that the grounds were very quiet; sounds hushed by the fog and dew dripping from the myriad of climbing vines and flowers that adorned the stone walls. At the very top of the village was the Jardin botanique d'Èze, which housed a maze of cacti, succulents, and carved marble statues that stood like sentries above the epic vistas that awaited us.

 As we were leaving Èze we ran into the sight of 10-15 gorgeous vintage cars. They had lined up along the curvy hillside and were in the process of being parked by attendants. Everything from chrome-edged Ferraris to shiny Porsche Speedsters gleamed in the sunshine breaking through the clouds. Justin inquired to the occasion and learned that a local company had gifted their employees with a road trip along the South of France in vintage rentals. Not a bad job perk, eh?

Feeling abashed and homely in our little Yaris we set off from Èze for the quick 15 minute drive into Monaco.

Oh, Monaco! Home to princes, princesses, castles, casinos, and more millionaires and billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world. Close to 50,000 people commute to Monaco each day from France and Italy for work because it is also home to the most expensive real estate in the world. And if perfect Mediterranean weather, incredible scenery, and an abundance of luxurious homes aren't enough, it is also the site of the Monaco Grand Prix of Formula One racing. This prestigious race had taken place just the weekend prior to our arrival to France and the grandstands, signs, and roadblocks were still in place. In fact, Justin and I sat eating lunch in the grandstand seats that looked directly upon the start/finish line. A week ago, we wouldn't have even been allowed to buy tickets for such a view because these seats are the kind that are gifted, not bought.

It was a little overwhelming to be in Monaco, if I can be honest. After Nice, the plains of Valensole, and the charming sights of Èze, it was like I had seen too much of something amazing. While Justin and I sat sharing sandwiches in Monaco he remarked that he felt like he needed to sit in a room with blank white walls so that he could just absorb all he'd experienced. 

But now it was time for Italy.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Côte d'Azur

Côte d'Azur.

The French Riveria.

Nice. Monaco. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Cannes.

These names alone inspire images of pristine beaches, azure blue waters, and yellow and white striped umbrellas shading the throngs of stylishly dressed beach-goers.
The reputation precedes them in the best of ways.

Justin and I arrived in Nice, France after an arduous journey from the west coast. It is a 5 hour flight from LAX to JFK, followed by another 7 hour flight into France. We arrived early in the morning, exhausted but pleased, with Riveria sunshine blazing above us through the glass corridors of the airport.

Sounds glorious, n'est-ce pas?

Oh, but traveling abroad must always have its quirky challenges.

The first was the rental car. An unexpected $500 downpayment fee, a $30 "special equipment fee," and a three-way 45-minute international phone call later we finally had the keys to our scuffed but reliable Toyota Yaris in hand.

We just needed to exit the garage. But where was our ticket? With a cue 5-deep behind us and the irritated garage attendant shouting in French, Justin jumped from the car to run back to the main office for a replacement while I tried to avoid any and all eye contact from our peers.

At last…ticket entered…gate raised… and our little Yaris narrowly avoids being sideswiped in the  onslaught that is Nice traffic.

Sacré bleu!

The French driving style is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I say this having lived in Los Angeles and driving the 405 with painful regularity. The French are belligerent drivers, who take the extra 2 milliseconds that you pause before turning as a personal affront. "Allez! Allez!" They shout before skirting around you, cutting you off with inches to spare, all the while shooting you nasty looks. There is very little organization, their streets are a maze of one-way boulevards that involve 360 degree turnabouts, little to no signage, and four-way crosses that lack yield or stop signs.

Treacherous to say the least.

It took us 25 minutes, a few missed turns, and a winding journey through tiny streets to find Villa La Mouline, where we fell from the car in profound relief.

Villa la Mouline is a lovely bed and breakfast style spot in the villa district just a quick 5 minute walk from Promenade des Anglais. The rooms are comfortable and the host serves breakfast in the garden nook behind the villa, complete with trailing vines of wisteria, cacti, and a profusion of hanging air plants.

After a revitalizing shower and quick change Justin and I set off to explore the lovely and vibrant streets of Nice. It was noon in Nice but thanks to the time change, our bodies were telling us it was three in the morning, LA time.

Was it worth it, though?

A thousand times yes.

Justin and I ambled along Promenade des Anglais, admiring the sun's reflection on the azure blue waters of the Mediterrean, listening to the cry of the sea gulls, and snapping pictures of the myriad of lovely buildings situated along the Port of Nice like a line of pastel confections. 

Stepping off Promenade des Anglais we stopped for chilled glasses of rosé within the cool interior streets of the historic district of Vieux Nice. Vieux Nice is a fabulous place, all cobbledstoned streets, tall, linked builds in shades of rust, amber, and cream with jewel-colored shutters and a profusion of flowered planters. Patisseries, boulangeries, cafes, and gift shops line the narrow streets littered with small bistro tables and chairs.

It is the kind of place to get lost in.

It started to rain a bit, so Justin and I popped into the baroque Cathédrale Ste Réparate in Place Rossetti. I love visiting churches and cathedrals while abroad. They are restful and beautiful, a testament to the resolution, faith, and artistic abilities of people long passed. We ate dinner in Place Rosetti, watching the rain bounce off the cobblestones and fountain in the large courtyard and inhaling the scent of freshly made crepes emanating from the nearby creperie.

We were exhausted that evening and fell asleep shortly after 9 PM. The next morning our host Nicolas served us coffee, juice, and croissants on the patio before we set off for Castle Hill.

Castle Hill affords fabulous panoramic views of Nice and the coastal waters of the Mediterranean. Once the site of a ruined castle, it now serves as a park complete with a playground and dog run. Cacti, bougainvillea, palms, and olive trees offer shade to the park's visitors and the pervasive scent of jasmine fills the air.


Justin and I spent two a half days in Nice but I found myself wishing we could have more time there. It encapsulates all the beauty for which the South of France is so renown. We returned to Nice for our last evening abroad, driving along the cliff side roads at sunset to explore Villefranche and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. We dined along the water, partaking in traditional french cuisine which included a luxuriously indulgent dish of Grand Marnier souffle. Oh mon dieu, my taste buds sang like baby angels after the first bite!

Oh, Nice.

I feel saturated by the unfailing beauty of the sites from our trip. Nice was wonderful, but it was only the beginning.