Wednesday, August 31, 2016

French Driving Adventures

I would say that both me and David are not particularly gifted when it comes to driving- not incompetent, but not super accomplished. I've always been content to be chauffeured around by other people, and I avoid driving on the freeway like the plague. David lives in the Alps in a town surrounded by scary windy cliff roads (so it's understandable why he didn't always jump at the chance to drive), and then he didn't have a car during his college years in Nancy.

However, for some reason in America David isn't shy about driving at all. He successfully drove to UTAH and back alone. We also did smaller road trips to Minnesota and Missouri. So I think there's hope for us that we won't be trapped in Wisconsin too anxious to go on road trips ;)

Of course, roads in France are a lot different from roads in America. David bought a car a few weeks ago, so now he has his own car for the first time! And he has to get used to tiny and confusing French roads. Thankfully, it's an automatic car...unlike 95% of cars in France, so that makes it a little easier.

Unfortunately, I didn't take any video of the crazy driving in Cannes (because that was so much worse), but here's a few clips of the roads in Mandelieu. Including dramatic music.

Seriously, wish us luck for next year. I have lots of European road trips planned.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Discovering the Riviera: Monaco

As soon as I bought my ticket to France and the trip was official, I told David that he had to bring me on a date to Monaco. Mostly because I liked the way it sounded haha. Our day trip there was the second last day of my trip, and my last sightseeing expedition.

We got in the car to drive to Monte Carlo, but when the GPS stopped working before we even left the parking lot, we decided it probably wasn't worth getting lost, and hopped on the train instead. 

Even though Monaco is less than 1 square mile in area and is completely surrounded by France, you can surprisingly still tell that you're in a different country. When you get off the train in France, you're usually greeted by cement walls and graffiti. However, in Monaco all you see is wall to wall marble. If you weren't aware, Monaco is dripping with $$$$$

When we ate lunch at a mall food court (which doesn't sound glamorous at all), it looked like this.

Another sign you're in a different country- the flags! 

Since there's not a lot of space, there are a lot of high-rise buildings- something you don't see too much of in France.

The first place we wanted to go was the palace, but by mistake we ended up at Casino Royale instead. Cue the James Bond theme music. I know exactly zero things about cars, and even I could tell that every car in that lot cost way more than my college education.

We asked someone how to get to the palace, and their response was that we needed to take the bus because it was too hot. Merci for that. We decided to walk anyways, and lived to tell the tale. Although we were almost defeated when we saw the hill/rock it was on. Somehow I forgot about climbing this hill back when I was here 6 years ago. Probably because I had youthful energy back then.

Picture taken from on top of the rock we climbed

Even though we made it there alive, when we saw the line we opted not to do the palace tour on this trip. That's a reason to come back next year, I guess! Instead we just enjoyed the views and the exterior of the palace. And spent about 10 years standing in line to buy water.

I'm fascinated by tiny countries like this- especially one as small as Monaco. Somehow its managed to stay independent for something like 8 centuries. I just finished a book about the Grimaldi family and it was fun to know things about the people all the streets are named after. I'd love to hit up some more tiny countries next year- Andorra? Liechtenstein? San Marino? We'll see!

We tried to see the cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried, but we got there just as a wedding was starting. Another reason to come back.

This little door is on the steep ramp going up to the palace. 

I had to take a picture there since I remembered it from 2010. I stole Brittney's spot ;)

Streets of Monaco on the way back to the train station:

Even though the weather was a little too hot for walking around and we didn't see everything we planned on, it was still a great day. I can't wait to travel so much more together in the next year. This was our 6th country we've been to together. Not bad for not even being married yet.

The following day was spent laying on the beach, and sadly the day after that I traveled through London all the way to Chicago. Today marks exactly 1 month until the wedding, and I'm ready! Well, not ready concerning the wedding preparations, but so ready to not live in different countries anymore. Let the countdown begin.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Discovering the Riviera: Ventimiglia

I try to see someplace new on every trip I take, and my day trip to Ventimiglia, Italy checked off that box for me last week.

At first I considered going to see one of the French cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, or Menton- none of which I've seen before, but I ultimately decided it would be much more adventurous to go to Italia! My 2013 trip to Italy was amazing, and I've looked forward to going back to that beautiful country (and eating their food again) ever since.

Ventimiglia is the first town across the French border, so it's actually serviced by French train lines, and you can speak French there! That saved me from having to whip out my sad excuse for Italian too often. 

I learned that Ventimiglia is always crowded with French people on Fridays, who come to the big weekly outdoor market. Apparently fruit, cheese, fish, and other food is much less expensive in Italy than in the glitzy Riviera towns over the border. The crowds made it easy for me to follow the flow of people over to the market and and center of town from the train station. That was good, since I arrived with no map and no plan of what I was going to do ;)

I was more interested in seeing the old town than the market, so I headed that direction first. Thankfully it was on of a hill, so I knew where to find it! Sadly, I had to walk up that hill in the 90 degree weather. That was a theme of this vacation: hiking up hills to see the medieval parts of cities and sweating all of my makeup off.

It was very enjoyable to walk through the colorful and narrow streets. It seemed like a very off the beaten path tourist destination- I didn't see anyone else walking around with a camera. I almost felt like an intruder walking around in people's neighborhoods since it was such a huge difference from the masses of other foreigners in Nice and Cannes.

I actually got Jerusalem Old City vibes from these streets- possibly because some of them seem a little run-down and have exposed pipes and wiring, but also because of the layout. 

A lot of the houses had tunnels running underneath them to connect to other streets. Pro traveler tip: if you see a street like this, you HAVE to go explore.

It paid off- that particular tunnel led to this view!

Ventimiglia has not one, but TWO Romanesque-style churches from the 11th century.

At first, I just walked by this chapel (not part of the churches above), but I backed up when I heard music coming out of this open door on a residential street. I poked my head in, and I was surprised to find this!

That seems about right in Italy. That's just a random room you can walk into off the street.

After spending a while wandering the medieval streets, I headed back down the hill in search of food.  Here's a view of newer part of town and the market- you can see the white tops of the tents if you look really hard. By the way, I had no idea Ventimiglia was in the Alps until I got off the train.

I came away from the market with some colorful (uncooked) pasta to bring home and a cannoli to eat later that night. I also found a pizzeria (it wasn't hard) for lunch. I must say that while I'm not a huge fan of pizza in the U.S., I can't resist it in Italy with its fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce that isn't sweet, and homemade crusts. Did I just make you hungry? Of course, I also tracked down some Nutella flavored gelato before heading back to the train station.

The train station. Here's where the story gets fun. I immediately noticed a huge line of people at the ticket counter, which I thought was weird since there are automatic ticket machines. When I tried the automatic machine, it said that all trains going back to France were sold out until the next day. Cue some major anxiety haha

I decided to try the line, and after waiting for a while I was able to buy a ticket going to Cannes. Sigh of relief. But then I look up at the board, and the next train to Cannes is cancelled. The anxiety starts to return. Maybe there really were no trains until the next day? I could hear French people freaking out all around me too.

The next train to France left in 30 minutes, so I went to the platform to wait and hope that it came. When it did come, there was a mad rush to get on since the previous cancelled train left a lot of people waiting. The train was so packed that most people waiting on the platform couldn't get on. It was standing room only, and everyone looked miserable packed in like sardines as more people tried to stuff themselves on.

I decided to wait for the next train and hope that it got better. It didn't. After another 45 minutes of waiting, the air was very tense as everyone prepared for battle to get on the train. I wanted to get on because I was afraid of more cancelled trains and getting stuck in Italy with no phone that worked in Europe.

It was chaos when the train arrived, because everyone decided it would be a good idea to rush on, push everyone (including old ladies with walkers, true story) out of the way, and not even let anyone get off the train. Which is idiotic, because if you don't let people get off the train, then there won't be room for you. I was towards the front of the crowd, so there were French people screaming at me to get on and Italians screaming at me to stay off until they could get off. There was so much multilingual swearing happening! I tried to just laugh. I did laugh when I actually heard a few Italians say "Mamma, mia!" while waving their arms stereotypically.

In the end, I got on the train, and even got a seat... even though it was one of those crappy fold-down seats that's super uncomfortable for an 1.5 hour ride. Somehow, WWIII did not break out, although I thought for a minute that it might. Mediterranean tempers were going crazy.

I'm glad I went to Ventimiglia, even though I was happy to get off that train in Cannes. I definitely felt like I was in a different country for the day (sometimes border towns don't really seem that different). It was interesting to see because, unlike in most of the French Riviera cities, it's not a place where millionaires go with their yachts to spend their money. As a result, it wasn't touristy, and kind of felt more authentic in some ways.

I can't wait to spend more time in Italy next year! I'd like to go to Venice and Milan, since I've never been. We're also planning on doing a long weekend mini honeymoon in Cinque Terre and Lake Como- since it looks like our Athens and Santorini plans will be delayed until David can take more time off from work. He already has to take off over a week to come to the US for the wedding, and since he's just starting a new job it's not the best timing to take off more than that.

Last post of this trip coming up: Monaco with David

p.s. Shout out to Milo Ventimiglia, the Gilmore Girls actor who shares a name with this town. I thought about you often during my trip here ;)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Discovering the Riviera: Nice

My first day trip during this vacation was to Nice (insert joke about Nice being nice here and get it out of your system... I'm talking to you, mom). I remember really enjoying this city when we spent the last week of our Paris study abroad here back in 2010. It has a different feel from other cities in France due its history of going back and forth between France and Italy- kind of similar to Strasbourg and its German influences.

Nice was an easy 35 minute train ride away from Cannes. From the train station I hopped on the tram to Place Masséna, the main square of the city. It's a little hard to capture what it actually looks like since you can't fit the whole 360 view into 1 picture. I love the symmetry- reminds me of the big squares in Paris.

I might have cheated a little bit and stolen those 2 pictures above from the internet. All of the rest are mine ;)

From Place Masséna, I started walking through the old town, or Vieux Nice. It was busy with tourist crowds and beautifully colorful.

One of the fun places to walk through was the Marché aux Fleurs, or flower market. I bought Provence lavender-scented soup and sachets. Is there a word in English for sachet that sounds less pretentious? I can't think of anything better than "little bag that smells good" so I guess I have to go with the French.

My next stop was to walk down the Promenade des Anglais, which goes along the beach. It's a little sobering to think about the scary attack that happened there just over a month ago. Increased security was evident all over the city. My favorite part was that I heard 3 different security guards speaking Hebrew- looks like the French are hiring Israelis haha. I really surprised one of them when I said thank-you in Hebrew as he gave my bag back to me after checking it.

The water is actually this color- no editing.
Here's a picture of people doing something that I will never be caught dead doing.

After a little relaxing by the water, I made my way over to the castle (more like a fortress) that's up on a hill overlooking the city. 

The views:

After enjoying the views for a while I made my way back to Vieux Nice and did some more wandering. Place Rossetti was my favorite area I discovered- it reminded me so much of an Italian piazza.

I walked all the way back to the train station, popping into my favorite European stores along the way. I came away with a skirt from Zara and a shirt from a French store that I used to frequent back in Strasbourg. To avoid dying of the heat I also took an air-conditioning break to sit in Brioche Dorée and have a crepe and chug an entire water bottle.

I've got one last picture, for those of you that watch How I Met Your Mother ;)

"That's the puzzle." haha
I anticipated visiting Nice for 2-3 hours, but it ended up being more like 6! And I still want to spend more time in a lot of these places, so I sense a return trip or two in my future. The great thing about this vacation is that I didn't have to be stressed about seeing everything since I'll be in the area for the whole next year. I'm looking forward to going back when it's not hot and crowded!

Next post: my spontaneous trip to Italy.