Wednesday, 26 February 2014

SUNNY GLITZY COTE D'AZUR (PART 1)




Cannes, France
This entry is part of "France: From Paris to the Riviera" series...

We kicked off our honeymoon in the romance capital of the world (Paris), spent a few days in the relaxing Provence countryside... the last portion of our honeymoon was by the Mediterranean Sea: Côte d'Azur aka the French Riviera.

Due to the amount of pictures/words this entry is posted in 2 parts

Detailed Itinerary: (what ended up happening) 

DAYS 1-7: Paris
DAYS 8-10: Provence (Avignon and surrounding areas)
... 
DAY 11: Nice
DAY 12: Cannes + Antibes
DAY 13: Nice + Èze Village
DAY 14: Monaco + Villefranche-sur-Mer
DAY 15: Nice TGV back to Paris








DAY 10: AVIGNON TO NICE
September 7th, 2013 - Sunny

Arles local Train Avignon TGV station
We left Arles with our stomach full of goodies from its Saturday market (click for details) and we caught a regional train back toward Avignon.  Ironically there were also coach buses for Avignon operated by SNCF that left from the train station.  On the way from Avignon it only took us 15-20 minutes to get to Arles since it was a direct train.  However, it took us almost 45 minutes for our return trip because there was a transfer required at Tarascon! (good thing I scheduled for some buffer time or else we would've missed our TGV train to Nice!). We picked up our luggage from our hotel in Avignon, caught the shuttle bus to the TGV station, and headed for the French Riviera!  Similar to our train ride between Paris and Avignon, our TGV was traveling at bullet speed until it reached Marseille.

From Marseille and onwards the TGV was significantly slower due to the winding tracks along the Mediterranean coast.  We actually welcomed the speed reduction because we were able to admire and appreciate our surroundings a lot more.  From Provence's rolling hills and rustic architecture, Cote D'azur was littered with jagged cliffs and dominated by orange-clay rooftops (Roman?).  As the TGV sped past minor villages/towns (some of which we planned to visit throughout the next few days) it served as a brief visual preview which just further fueled our anticipation for the days to come. (J absolutely adored the city of Cannes as our TGV dropped off what seemed like half of its passengers).

As our train arrived at its final destination of Nice, the city was far bigger than we had originally anticipated ("apparently" Nice is the 5th largest city in France).  We were pooped from all the traveling/early start (remember we actually went to Arles earlier in the day) and all we wanted to do was to get to our apartment and find a place to eat + sleep.  Unfortunately in order to get to our accommodation (around Valrose Université) another transfer onto the local tramway was required. (We had a ridiculously tough time figuring out the fare machine and the fare system.  The machine looked like a touch screen but it wasn't... make sure you master that turn knob selector because it will come in handy since these machines are used in train stations as well).

For supper we turned to the trusty Tripadvisor App once again and we struck gold... again.  We arrived at this TINY restaurant called "La Route du Miam" and it was easily the top 3 restaurant experiences of all time. (We couldn't believe our luck... we arrived at another top-rated restaurant with no reservation...).  When it was time to settle our bill 3 hours later we realized that it was a cash only establishment (I thought cash-only was reserved for dingy Chinese takeout places), and the owners Marie/Jean-Michel were completely OK with us walking back to our apartment for cash with no collateral!!!



DAY 11: NICE
September 8th, 2013 - Overcast, then sunny + intense heat

Nice Harbor, France Nice, France Nice, France Old Nice, France Nice, France
For the first time on our trip the weather forecast predicted cloud cover with a 60% chance of rain, and more importantly... temperature in the mid-high teens!!!  No need to bring a spare T-shirt!!

We hopped onto the tram toward old Nice.  These air-conditioned Bombardier trams (Canadian made by the way lol) were frequent and easy to navigate.  (For 1 euro per trip it was an inexpensive yet efficient method to travel around town.  We bought the 10-trip pack so we didn't need to buy tickets on every trip.  Just make sure you validate the ticket once on board).  We passed the TGV station (called Gare Thiers) and within 10 minutes we were near the waterfront where Old Nice was situated.

Nice was an extremely busy city packed with locals and tourists.  Architectures around Nice were vastly different than other regions of France - a stark contrast between the conservative color schemes found throughout Paris and the bold eye-catching colors of the Riviera.  Our impression of Nice was that it was younger, more eclectic, and grittier than other French cities we had visited previously.  We felt safe throughout our entire trip through France, but we noticed there was a significant increase of loitering in Nice (especially at night).

Promenade des Anglais, Nice France Old Nice was absolute madness with pedestrian traffic and we quickly discovered the reason behind such craziness once we reached Nice's famous waterfront broadwalk aka Promenade des Anglais.  Apparently from September 6-15 was the Francophones Game! (Google taught us that the Francophones Game = Every 4 year event similar to the Commonwealth Games for French speaking nations).  The cycling competition took place at the waterfront and it was extremely exciting to see the Canadian national team race... but for some reason there was a separate team for "Team Quebec"... WTF!

We walked down the waterfront promenade towards Castle Hill.  On our left were busy shops of all sorts, and opposite of these shops were rows upon rows of beach chairs for rent on our right (crazy busy VS relaxation... separated by a road).  In Cote d'Azur standard that day must've been a sub-par day for sunbathing because those beach chairs were mostly empty. (or maybe people finally woke up and realized that paying 30 euros to sit on a ROCKY beach was highway robbery!?).

By the time we reached the foot of Castle Hill the air was suffocatingly hot and muggy.  Needless to say the weather forecast lied and it was impossible to have anything but sunny weather in the French Riviera.  We had every intention of hiking up the Castle Hill to the top but since I was already uncomfortable with the heat we opted to cheat and utilized the elevator instead (The elevator was small and extremely slow so expect a long wait... there were no fees for the elevator ride but numerous online sources suggested otherwise).  Castle Hill was a misleading name because there were no castles to be found at the top.  Even though Castle Hill was castle-less, our disappointments were quickly dwarfed by the magnificent view of the Nice Harbor on one side, and the curving beach/cityscape on the other.

Bold Colors, Nice France To be honest I was instantly drawn to Nice's bold colors on arrival.  Bright yellow, orange, green, and all color permutations in between... such contrast in color was simply a photographer's heroin... But to see such variety of bold colors mesh together so harmoniously from afar was actually a little surprising.  The relentless sun, in addition to our ill prepared outfits (remember it was supposed to rain so we dressed for rain) accelerated our departure from Castle Hill.  On principles alone we took the stairs instead of elevators on our descent (can't be too lazy!).  Once at the bottom we actually decided to head back to our apartment first to change and shower instead!

Bold Colors, Nice France Refreshed and relatively sweat free (I swear to god it was so muggy I was sweating while showering lol), we returned to the streets of Old Nice.  We wandered aimlessly for 3-4 hours within the winding streets of Old Nice, passed numerous gelato establishments each claiming to be the best, and basked in the bold colors of this intriguing city until night time.

DAY 12: CANNES + ANTIBES
September 9th, 2013 - Sunny

Cannes Beach, Cote d'Azur Rue d'Antibes, Cannes, Cote d'Azur France Le Suquet, Cannes, Cote d'Azur France Cannes Harbor on top of Le Suquet, Cannes Antibes Ice Cream Shop, Antibes
We were never ones for the beach but since the French Riviera was famous for its beaches we thought we would spend half a day doing so.  On principles, there were no way in hell we were going to pay any sum of money to have the right to lay on a beach, and we were still perplexed as to why Nice's pebbly beaches were so famous... we headed to Cannes for its public SANDY beaches.

It was unbelievably easy to travel by regional train (called TER) between towns along the riviera (depending on distance and time of day, each trip usually cost ~5-9 euros).  We arrived at the glamorous Cannes after a comfortable 30-minute train ride.  Despite Cannes' proximity to Nice, Cannes was vastly different and it was clear that Cannes was much wealthier when compared to Nice.  We reached the seaside promenade called "La Croisette" where its sandy beach were littered with sunbathers.  The public portion was at the western end of La Croisette (right next to "Palais des Festivals de Cannes"), and surprisingly it wasn't crowded nor inferior to the private beaches next door!  For the next 2 hours we baked under the sun and hopefully produced enough Vitamin Ds for our dark Canadian winters.  We were approached by street vendors selling water and hats a couple of times while sunbathing, but in general we were undisturbed and it was an experience I don't mind repeating.  Eventually we got bored and the scorching midday sun encouraged us to explore Cannes instead.

La Croisette, Cannes France On our walk down La Croisette we noticed numerous super cars that I have read about only in magazines, and helicopters transporting people to shore from their luxury yachts.  After we stopped for a quick bite at a dumpy yet delicious pizza joint, we followed Rue d'Antibes westward.  Rue d'Antibes was undoubtedly one of the premier shopping areas around Cote d'Azur as it was flanked by well maintained low-rise buildings with various immaculate high end boutiques at the street level.  Unfortunately we neither had the funds nor the desire to linger around for too long, and instead we pressed forward to the "Le Suquet" district.

Le Suquet, Cannes France Le Suquet was the old quarter of Cannes and it resembled old Nice in many different levels (architecture style, street layout, etc).  Considering its proximity to the beach and other high traffic areas, it remained a surprise to me why Le Suquet received such little tourist traffic.  Old cobblestone lanes made our climb a little more difficult (I was wearing flip flop sandals), but in my opinion the district's historic character was plenty to justify achy feet.  At the top of the hill was an old church in a moderate state of disrepair, and a stunning view overlooking Cannes and its mega-yacht filled harbor (akin to Castle Hill in Nice).  Le Suquet was my favorite memory of Cannes because it wasn't superficial like the rest of the city and it was even quiet enough for various portrait photography mini sessions! (J is super camera shy and she wouldn't take artistic photos when strangers are present).  Hesitantly we left Le Suquet and we worked our way back to the train station: next stop - Antibes. 

Antibes, Cote d'Azur France It was late afternoon when we arrived at Antibes.  The walk from the train station to the city wall only took ~10 minutes, and the majority of the journey was along Antibe's massive marina.  There were hundreds, if not thousands, of marine vessels ranged from small rafts all the way to private luxury "ferries" (so large some had to be moored outside of the breakwater).  Antibes was one of my favorite coastal towns along Cote d'Azur because it remained an intimate destination unlike much of Nice/Cannes.  In fact, Antibes reminded me of Uzes in terms of its "countryside" character.  One of the major attraction in Antibes was Musee Picasso but it was unfortunately closed for the day... we enjoyed the seaside hike nonetheless.  Once again I put away my phone (Google Maps) and we explored aimlessly around this charismatic town... and stumbled upon a busy establishment "Gelateria del Porto" which served the most amazing mango sorbet I've had the honor of tasting (so far).

Regional trains were running infrequently at night and we caught the second last train of the night.  J and I were waiting on the platform patiently and out of no where we heard a TER employee yelling across the platform at a group of drunk teens who ran across the tracks (instead of using the underground tunnel).  The verbal exchange grew more aggressive until the train arrived... the same group of young adults went on to cause havoc in the train cabin (especially the bathrooms)... a fight almost broke out between a frustrated local in his sixties and one of the teens.  As a tourist I was interested in the fantastic sightseeing, enjoyable cuisines, and rich histories that France had to offer, but I went to bed that night reflecting on some of France's social issues (especially with the complete disregard of public properties I witnessed).
 

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