Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vacation in France - August 2009

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Melissa and I were in France on vacation. It was one of the best trips of our lives. The overview of the trip went like this. We departed Naples by car and started our drive to the Bay of Biscay on the west coast of France on July 31st. Day one we drove all the way to “X” or the actual French name is Aix-en-Province. Where we found a nice hotel in the heart of the town, and the guide book claimed that Aix had one of the nicest boulevard’s in all of Europe…. A bold statement, so we thought we should check it out.

Aix was a nice little French town, and to our surprise, it did have one of the nicest, “rues” that we have seen so far in Europe. Imagine a little town with a cute pedestrian center on a tree-lined street. As you walked down the boulevard it is lined with shops and restaurants. We found a place to eat, and I ordered (for the first, but not the last time in France) the “Moules and Frites” or Mussels and French Fries. The bucket of mussels held approximately 50 mussels… quite a meal. So, Aix was great, and it is someplace that we need to head back to soon.

The next morning we slept until 8AM and got up for a breakfast in the hotel, and then left around 9 for what we thought would be an easy 5 hour drive across France to the Bay of Biscay. Were we ever wrong. Aug 1st is the day that everyone goes on vacation in Europe, and we were stuck in traffic for the entire day. It took us 10 hours to reach Capbreton. And right before we got there we hit a ridiculous storm with 70 mph winds, driving rain, and lighting. It was crazy. The temperature dropped from 85 to 65 in about 20 minutes. But once we got there… just before dark, I was excited to see that the storm brought up the surf. And the next day we would be in for some head high waves.

So as I stated in my last blog post, we staying in a hotel right on the beach called the Cap Club. Capbreton is in a cluster of beach towns and just to the south of Hossegor, a famous surf spot and one of the stops on the world surfing tour. In fact several American pro surfers have retired to the area. The area is made up of little towns in a vibrant little beach community right on the ocean with lots of great restaurants and café’s. There are fantastic bike paths all along the beach, and through the ocean-side forests that connect the little towns. A stone “boardwalk” allows pedestrian traffic to get all around the area.

So, since I already talked about the surfing, let me describe everything else we did in the towns. French food and wine are fantastic. Every meal was a little bit on an adventure since Melissa speaks zero French and I was only able to use what came back to me from high school, which was actually not too bad. Crepes are fantastic for both dinner and dessert. If you get a crepe made with salt then you can stuff it with cheese, meat, and mushrooms and make a delicious French style calzone. If you make your crepes with sugar then you have the standard crepe that you can fill with chocolate, ice cream, or whatever delicious goodness you long for. In some meals I ate both a dinner and dessert crepe. It was fantastic.

To work off all that food we rented bikes and rode them all over the place. With bike paths connecting everything, and the French actually having respect for traffic laws it was easy and safe to get around town. We also spent lots of time lounging on the beach, I surfed, or we were able to just sit out on the fantastic deck in front of our hotel. The weather was good, not too hot, but nice. In the low 80's during the day, and then cooler at night. We actually were a little underprepared for the weather to be that cool. Overall it was a fantastic and relaxing first week of vacation.

For week two we were heading to the south of France. This time, we left our hotel on Friday Aug 7th, and we did not want to get caught in ridiculous traffic again. So, we woke up early and got on the road at 6AM… ugh. This time we made the drive all the way to Cannes, France without hitting any traffic at all.

The difference between the west coast of France and the south coast of France is significant. The south coast of France is like Vegas with beautiful beaches. The weather was warmer in the south of France in the 90's during the day and comfortable in the mid 70's at night. Cannes is unbelievable! It makes sense why the rich and famous go there to vacation and party. I think that one of my new life goals is to go on vacation to all of the places that George Clooney goes on vacation ie. Cabo (love it), and Cannes, also love it. That moves Lake Como in northern Italy higher up on my list. But how is the south of France when you aren’t George Clooney… It is still fantastic. The food in Cannes was probably better than it was anywhere else during the trip. And the variety was amazing. We had unbeleviable meals at “Chink’s” (Chinease and Japanese fare) and at Le Mesclun (French food). The bars were also very good. We were out one night after dinner and rolled into a bar called Au Bureau. Live band, big English style beers, and sand on the floor of the bar. The staff was as drunk as the customers, and they would pour you a beer, and then forgets to charge you for it. The bartender was more interested in jumping on stage and trying to sing with the band than collecting money for drinks, and she had a terrible voice. My god was she bad, but everyone in the place was having a good time.

When we were recovering from our nights out, we would go to the beach and rent some chairs and an umbrella and lay out. Cannes had beautiful sandy beaches. Oh, and did I mention yet that on all of the beaches tops are optional for women? Did I also mention yet that French women are beautiful? Of course, none as beautiful as my wife, but you can imagine the scenery. And it’s not just on the beaches. Normal going out attire for French ladies is a transparent shirt with no bra. It’s a little bit different than what you find in America, where you would be arrested for wearing what the French wear. Oh, and for the men, well unfortunately the speedo is in fashion, but the good news for me is that it is completely optional, so I was able to just wear the board shorts…. Who wants to see my creamy white thighs anyway. You can also see Facebook for those.

We did a day trip to St. Tropez from Cannes. We took a beautiful boat ride down to St. Tropez and spent the day walking around the town. St. Tropez is on my list of places that I need to go back to. We did not get to go to the beaches outside of the town, (which are rumored to be even more risque than the Cannes beaches) but we did walk around the town, go to the market, had a café by the water, and generally watched the people walk around. The boats, cars, and rich and famous were something to see. It is a total show with everyone dressed up to be looked at. And we did some shopping; I bought my first ever pair of white “man-pris” and several white shirts. We also met a nice couple from Washington DC that were on their honeymoon in France. It was good to meet some other Americans and enjoy the town with them. We ended up meeting them for dinner that night as well, and hopefully they will come back to Europe and visit us again in Italy.

From Cannes our adventures took us to Nice, but not without driving about and hour inland and going to the “Grande Canyon du Verdon.” I forgot to mention this up until now, but the landscape of the south coast of France reminded me of Sedona, Arizona or maybe Utah. Lots of red rock formations all over the area. The “Grande Canyon” is smaller than our Grand Canyon, but still an impressive sight. The south of France is amazing.

From there we headed back to Nice on the coast. Nice, while not quite as nice as Cannes was still very cool. Again the food was very good, and can really only be describe with this photo of Melissa as a huge plate of raw seafood came out one evening. The beaches had the same atmosphere as Cannes but were made up of pebbles and stones vice sand. That in and of itself made them not quite as nice as they were in Cannes. The interesting thing about Nice was just walking through the city. Really a much larger city than anywhere else we had stayed to that point. There were tons of fountains, sculptures, and art in the city and an amazing variety of shopping and food. The photo to the left is the main boulevard and is line with seated men on pedastals that glowed at night. Even being there for 3 days we didn’t see it all, and Nice would be a good city to visit any time of year.

We did a day trip to Monaco from Nice by train, and talk about an amazing train ride down the coast with beautiful views. Monaco is the description of what a city can be when the government basically has unlimited funds and cares about their city. The city was clean, actually polished is a better word, with only the nicest amenities. For those of you living in Italy, I would say that Monaco is the exact opposite of Naples, clean, well organized, and well policed. Just to give you an example the public tunnel from the train station to the place is lined in decorative marble. You would think that you are in the Bellagio Hotel/Casino in Vegas as opposed to a public walk way. The harbor was filled with huge, multi-million dollar yachts, and the streets were lined with expensive cars. It is the only place that I have ever been where you would see a Rolls Royce drive by, and the next car behind it was… another Rolls Royce. It was pretty amazing. For you high rollers out there, if you want you can take a helicopter ride from your hotel to the airport when you are coming or going… just FYI. Check out my Face Book photos for pictures of the cars and yachts in Monaco.

The day we left Nice, I got some sort of stomach flu, so from that morning on, I didn’t eat anything again until we got back to Naples… 2 days later. I’m not sure if it was a bad meal (probably not because Melissa didn’t get sick, and we shared everything), some kind of bug, or just the fact that I had been eating and drinking heavily for 14 straight days. We left the south of France (or French Riviera) to head to the Italian Riviera. We found a nice beach club near the town of Portofino. It was still a rocky beach set up Lido style with the chair, umbrellas, and of course, the Italian style coffee bar. After a day at the beach we decided to swing by Pisa since we were pretty close. Pisa is a dump. The only nice part of the city is within the walls of the duomo complex that has the church and tower. Note my Face Book picture of me holding up the tower… it was pretty funny. We spent that night at Camp Darby, a cute little Army outpost in the northern part of Italy, and then headed back to Naples the next day.

Overall, that two week vacation was fantastic, and we would do it again… perhaps next year. Until, next time. Ciao, Joe