Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mediterranean Madness Part IV, France

This is the part of the review where we are actually on the ship and visiting ports.  The story really takes off from here!  Oh, and I call the first port call as day one.  Some would call it day two, since we did start sailing from Barcelona about 12 hours earlier.  Tomato, tomato(e)..
St. Paul, France

Day One; Port One
French Riviera 
 A side note before I describe this port call.  You have several options when it comes to touring the Med (don't I sound sophisticated?  The Med!  Ha!).  Well, you can do anything from wing it once on shore, to organizing an elaborate, fully catered tour.  Some tours include wine and a meal.  It depends on what you want, and HOW MUCH you want to pay.  Ship sponsored excursions are sometimes the most economical and safest bet, as the ship will usually guarantee that you return on board if something goes wrong, but, you spend the day with 30 or 40 other people on a bus.  A private tour will provide you a tour guide, comfortable accommodations, and privacy, which is a big deal to us.  Plus, a private tour allows you to change your itinerary if you decide to do so.  If you wing it, then remember that God give grace to the fool and the drunkard, so good luck!  There is another option that is worth discussing.  You can book a tour package that includes multiple port calls.  Again, this is very similar to a ship sponsored tour in the quality of the tour and accommodations, but IT IS NOT a ship sponsored tour.  If something goes wrong and you are delayed the ship doesn't have to wait for you to return.  You could be left behind.  This rarely happens.  Really.  Some of our group booked all of their tours through this type of deal. Sarah's parents and sister/brother-in-law booked their Cannes tour through this company, and it worked out okay.  (I'll tell you what went wrong a few paragraphs further down.) Sarah and I had decided early on that we wanted to reserve some of the tours for just ourselves and our children.  Cannes was one of those tours.
Our first port call was Cannes, France (pronounced can, like a Coke can), and we initially booked a deal for a private tour with one tour company, but later we discovered another private tour group called, Riviera Premium Tours, which was 200 Euros less, and basically offered the same amenities.  Our guide met us at the gate as we disembarked.  As you exit the port, you will see the guides standing near the gate holding a sign with your name on it.  You won't have to search for them.  Our guide's name was Ingrid, and she was a pretty, slender blonde with a charming smile, and had a decidedly classy, European look to her.  And she occasionally commented, "Ooo la la" whenever something funny was said, or when someone cut her off in traffic.  We had a great day with her, as she asked us lots of questions at first, trying to determine if we liked big city shopping or small town explorations.  We told her that we wanted to visit Nice (pronounced niece), and explore Eze (pronounced ezz as in Esmerelda), and if we had time we could drive through Monaco and see Monte Carlo.  She nodded that she understood what we wanted from her and then we were off.  We had a charming drive along the French Riviera coastline, and stopped in Nice for an hour, where Ingrid told us to walk down to the beach, then tour the flower market, and explore the blocks surrounding an old cathedral.  We were to meet her at a corner near the flower market.
The kids loves the rocky beach!  Nice is in the background of the first shot.

We walked two blocks to the beach and were shocked to see that the beach was rocky.  Not rocky like the Oregon coastline, but small river rocks and pebbles.  And people were laying on them and sun tanning.  To me, it looked as comfortable as a bed of nails, but hey, it was the French Riviera, and life is good.  We each touched the water and sunbathed for a moment, so we can now cross that off of our bucket list.  There were a few women who were sunbathing without tops, but it was not a hot day, so the area was not terribly overrun with sunbathers.  We had our kids with us, so I was a little concerned.  Well, since we didn't point it out, neither of them noticed the semi-nude sunbathers, all of whom were face down, so we escaped without being traumatized by the audacity of semi-nude sunbathers!  At this point, let me tell you that if you intend on swimming in the Med at all, this would be a good opportunity, as the other tours don't really take you to the shore line.  You can have the kids wear a bathing suit under their clothes and you can jump in the water and play.  But, an hour goes really fast, so you must decide if you want to swim or walk around.  Barcelona does have an actual sandy beach, and the water is warm enough to swim.  THAT would be your most strategic time to swim.  But this tour is about culture.  If you want swimming, go to the Caribbean, right?
From there we walked two blocks back to the flower market and spent another 30 minutes or so walking and exploring a very simple, but beautiful market.  We found several artists selling original works in the market, and bought a few pieces for incredibly affordable prices.  We bought two water colors at a price of two for 15.00 Euros.  There was a man selling very nice original oils for 30 Euros each, and they were on loose canvas, so they could be rolled and packed away easily.  Seth was on a mission to find snow globes at every port, and he found his first one quickly; things were off to a good start for us.  Caitie and I stopped and bought a slice of pizza that had anchovies and tomato slices, which was surprisingly tasty.  Our hour evaporated must faster than we anticipated.  We didn't make it any farther than the end of the flower market before our time ran out, so we returned to our meeting place, and Ingrid drove us along the coastline to the medieval village of Eze.
Nice has beautiful streets and is charming.  We would love to visit this city again!
Before I take you into Eze, let me pay homage to a particularly enjoyable and informative review of Serenade and the Med.  In preparation for our trip, we read the review posted by a woman named Sheri who calls herself the Middle Aged Drama Queen, and her review is awesome.  You should check it out.  Well, she refers to the other tourists as barbarians.  It's funny, and she includes herself and her family as part of the barbarian hoard that invades Europe.  It's all in fun.  And now, back to our story...
Eze quickly turned out to be one of our favorite stops.  There were few barbarians there, and we had the run of the town without feeling crowded.  Eze is loaded with simple shops that sell art and jewelry, and restaurants which sell anything from crepes, to sandwiches, to actual dinners.  We meandered along the narrow winding streets until we found ourselves at the very top, where the castle used to stand before one of the many King Louis destroyed it.  It is now a garden and we paid 6 Euros each to walk through the garden.  The kids were free!  It turned out to be more of a cactus garden, which surprised me, but the views of the Mediterranean were inspiring, and worth the money spent to tour the gardens.  Several historical markers with explanations in both English and French dotted the pathways, and we enjoyed a casual stroll to the top of the ruins. 
These pathways are the streets!  There are no cars.  You will only find winding streets and stairs leading from one level to the other.
At the top you will discover the ruins of an old castle.  This is all that remains.

From there we had 50 minutes left so we decided to find a place to eat.  First we went and sat at a restaurant just outside of the garden entrance, but by then, several score of barbarians arrived and everyone decided to sit at the same restaurant at the same time.  So, we found a sandwich shop that sold very tasty chicken and ham sandwiches on baguettes for about 6 Euros each, and a place where we could by some crepes for a great price.  We bought 3 for 6 Euros.  Sarah went with the kids to the crepe place, and I went to the sandwich shop and picked up a couple of items, along with some wine and cokes (standard American products) and we sat on the terrace at the sandwich shop and enjoyed our last few minutes.  And what a tranquil place for us to sit!  The wine was so good, and our lunch was very relaxing.
When we returned to our vehicle, Ingrid asked if we enjoyed our time at Eze, and when we assured her we loved it, she announced that she knew exactly where to take us next.  She suggested that we skip Monaco and go St. Paul.  It is my firm conviction that you trust your tour guide.  If the guide makes a suggestion, then go with it.  Don't over think their suggestions; unless it's something you had your heart set on.  Ingrid drove us to a hill that overlooked Monaco and we looked down upon it from a half mile or so away.  Monaco is the second smallest independent state in the world, the second richest in the world, and it's only commissioned naval vessel is an oil tanker.  And from where we stood, we could plainly see a cruise ship in port, and we knew there would be thousands upon thousands (not making those numbers up) of barbarians crowding the streets.  We discovered later that we would not be allowed to visit the Monte Carlo Casino without certain attire (the kids couldn't visit it at all), and Grace Kelly's gravesite was closed to tourists.  So we didn't feel cheated not to formally visit Monaco.
That hill side offered a double bonus, not only could we see Monaco, but we could also see Italy clearly from that vantage.  Three countries from one place.  Not too shabby!  
That blue peninsula on the left is Italy.
Then Ingrid told Seth to stand in the middle of the star diagram on the patio in front of us, and she instructed him to start talking.  He spoke and then he immediately recoiled in surprise.  Seeing his reaction, I tried it next.  That particular place on the patio offered a rather strange echo that could only be heard by the person standing in the middle of the star.  Each of us tried it and all agreed that was a very fun surprise.
And now on to St. Paul (below).
This is how you enter the village...

Having seen Monaco from the hill side, we then journeyed further inland and visited the town of St. Paul, another medieval village.  This town was remarkable in every aspect.  It was similar to Eze, but it was much larger.  The entire town was within walls built by the King during the 13th or 14th century.  He ordered 700 homes to be demolished and used those stones to build the walls and fortifications.  They stand to this day.  St. Paul is a charming and comfortable village to visit, and its shops are just as charming.  If you're into gelato (and who isn't, right?) you will discover a gelato store as you enter the village and look to the left.  I've tried gelato in many European cities, and I can say with all confidence that the gelato in St. Paul is the best I've encountered, and is only rivaled by Fargii in Barcelona. 
This gelato was so good the kids dropped to the street and started eating!
This fountain is near the village center.  The water is potable!
Chocolates, caramels, and art.

We spent an hour and a half walking the streets.  If you like narrow, quaint, charming, and inviting, you will find St. Paul to be the quintessential French medieval village.  The streets are too narrow for cars, so you will see a few scooters and many push carts moving throughout the shops.  We stopped at a candy store named Le Cure Gourmande and bought some incredibly rich caramels and sampled several varieties of chocolate covered nuts.  And, if you like art and wine, this is your next favorite haunt.  Every other shop was either wine or art, and the quality of these products is unparalleled.  The clerks were friendly and inviting, and seemed to appreciate our interest in their products.
We could walk these enchanted streets all day!

If you walk to the end of the city, which is where the city wall forces you to turn to the left or right, you will see a commanding view of the sea and the rolling hills of the French Riviera.  And you will also find a cemetery, where Chagall is buried.  Another interesting point about St. Paul is the lack of bright colors you would notice in Nice or Cannes.  The drab stone colors are more consistent with the traditional French look.  I can tell you without a doubt that an hour and a half is insufficient amount of time for a visit to St. Paul. 
View from the end of the street with Mediterranean in background.
This is also where we discovered our first pay for service restroom.  It's common in Europe to pay for access to the services.  It is almost always less than a Euro, so keep some spare change in your pocket for just such an opportunity.  But, if you buy something in a restaurant, they will generally allow you to use their services for free.

Sadly, our time was exhausted and we were forced to surrender our delightful tour of France and return to the ship.  I will give you a little of Ingrid's background, so you have an idea who she is, and you might choose to request her as your guide.  She has a degree in archaeology, which gives her a very broad foundation for historical information and theories.  She was very concerned to know that we were happy with the progress of our tour, and she continually adjusted her presentation to match our interests.  She is from Paris, but prefers to live in the Nice area because she prefers small town living.  She is very fashionable and knows how to outfit any shopper who wants to experience shopping for the bling offered by the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  At the same time, she knows how to connect with tourists who want a quaint and introspective tour of the Riviera.  You won't regret having her as your guide.  Trust me!
Ingrid was a wonderful guide!
Do we look like we just returned from a medieval village or two?
That night we had a formal night on the cruise.  We made it back to the ship in time to get ready, but if you have formal attire that is a little less formal, this would be a good night for it.  If you require more than an hour to make your grand presentation, then you might be pressed for time if you have the first seating.  That evening we heard the horror stories of our family members who were on that group tour I mentioned earlier, not the ship sponsored one.  They had a family group in their tour that was left behind in Monte Carlo because they simply disappeared.  The guide waited for them until the last possible moment, but eventually had to get the other cruisers back to the ship (Our family made it back on the last tender…Whew).  That couple had to take a cab from Monaco to Cannes.  I'll wager that was an expensive ride.  Barbarians!  Private tours are worth the expense...  

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