What little time we've spent in Geneve was on the Lake, walking up to the Jet, looking around, and going back to the car
before it is towed away.
The jury's still out on what's the best place to stay around Geneve; we've sampled a reasonably priced and reasonably
appointed hotel in Gaillard (think of having a nice dinner in a working suburb), and exceptionally good and ridiculously
expensive hotel in Ferney-Voltaire (the dinner in the village matched the hotel in every respect).
After a halfway-decent night in Gaillard, we've headed up the mountains - to Chamonix.
They don't ski Mont Blanc in late May, but the air is still crisp in the morning, scenery still gorgeous,
coffee and croissants - perfect to round up the morning.
Our plans included reaching a little village in Italy, La Thuile, and weaving our way South through mountain switchbacks.
Unfortunately, the road was still closed due to snow; a few locals had no issues with it in their Defenders - and we in our
lowly rental Opel wagon only admired the scenery from the distance.
A roadside lunch of cheese, sausage, bread, and wine boosted the spirits, despite light rain.
This day, we've been blessed with a working TomTom; if one looks at the map of Western Italy, the idea to take
the highway all the way South-East to Genova just to avoid Torino appears anything but obvious.
We used it as an excuse to drive ourselves to Genova.
The driving itself was a pretty memorable experience.
I made a silent bet with myself on the odds of bringing the rental car back unscratched;
it sure looked like every schmuck in a beat-up Volkswagen fancied himself a Nuvolari. It was more engaging than
enraging; the only downside was that it took me about two hours of driving in France a day later to realize
that I was the only asshole on the road!
Nevertheless - the old town is very imposing. In the web of narrow streets, no fancy shades of peach so common in Provence;
it's all old, old rock and brick walls, shamelessly punctuated by intrusions of modern-day communications.
We've spent the rest of the day in Genova, and hit the road (west-ward along the coast) once the darkness fell.
The lair for the night was in Azure Hotel in Verrazzo, Italy.
Ventimiglia appears from semi-industrial landscape rather suddenly; we saw something that looked like a medieval town
from the freeway, and jumped off it as soon as we could. Having, italian-style, one microsecond to plan for the next
move, we just bravely entered the town's Eastern gate. Some interesting driving ensued, including having to fold the
mirrors to drive between the buildings, and driving over a foot-sized rock near the Western gate. That taxed my
feeble mind to the end, we've parked the car, and went for a walk.
It truly is an amazing town. Most tourists never venture to old town - the railway station is across the river; so the
streets were almost empty. It may be totally wrong, but the impression we had was this - ever since the town was
laid down within its walls (year 69 B.C.), there was no other way to build it but up.
A few centuries later, somebody had a great idea to create more living space by filling the voids between the
buildings, only leaving ten- to twenty-foot-high passages. Many of the named city streets are nearly catacombs,
climbing up and down between buildings in deep shadows. Should the reader end up there - take a tripod if you want to
take good photos, it is very dark, even on a bright and sunny day.
Having seen Ventimiglia, we (I) thought we've got an idea of what a medieval Mediterranean cliffside town looks like,
and pressed on to Monte Carlo to attend some business needs.
To say that Menton caught us off guard isn't enough; it hit us flat in the face, enough to stop us dead in our tracks
for two days.
It becomes visible once one crosses the border into France - towering layers of terracotta roof tiles, with every
shade of yellow, brown, peach, and orange used on the houses' walls.
We've parked illegally, and walked around for an hour before we could come to our senses. Took a deep collective
breath, and went to Monaco (a two-hour disaster of a side trip). Having taken all the photos of empty yesterday's Formula One
race grandstands, we just turned around and went back to Menton, to have a dinner and find
ourselves a place to stay for the night. Best Western, of all things, fit the bill admirably, along with the soccer
match between Barcelona and Manchester United shown on three big-screen TVs in the lobby and attended by a small crowd.
I walked back to the old town early in the morning to take photos from the jetty; it was pure Mediterranean, sunny, breezy,
all colors turned on full tilt.
We spent most of the day in Menton, including Jean Cocteau museum. We didn't have a vote for the best place - but if we did,
it could've tied with Barcelona.
This came completely unexpected, from my friend Michel (who I got to know, of all things, through International Full Size Jeep
Association) - having learned that we were in Provence, he mentioned Tourrettes-sur-Loup as a curious place to visit.
On the way from Antibes towards Aix, Tourrettes certainly looked right along the way (going pretty much backwards).
We went nevertheless, and enjoyed this trip immensely. The road snaked its way through the Loup river gorge,
past Bar-sur-Loup, and the town opens up with the same abruptness as Menton.
It is a pedestrian town - back in year 1024 or so - they couldn't care less for mopeds, so the streets are narrow, sometimes
steep. Very little of Provencal shades of yellow, orange, and peach, can be found here - the town's narrow and tall dwellings are
of gray rock, with frequent dash of bright red, pink, or white of geraniums and bougainvillea.
Very good bakery, and enjoyable beer, made us stay a few hours longer; here we've had our first hint that our no-plan, no-reservations
trip was about to run into the narrow straits.
We've eventually settled in - just outstanding - Miramar Hotel in St.Paul de Vence, about twenty minutes down the road.
Aix was the first town we've seen in Provence in the past - it was beautiful then, and the impression hasn't changed. A very old town, yet full of college kids and very festive atmosphere. This time, we've been treated to a sight of a reconstruction of a bridge span across the town's main drag, out of cardboard boxes. It was a Saturday, and two cathedrals in town were busy with wedding couples. This was also the first place where we found the downside of unplanned travel - not a hotel room in sight. Late in the evening, I've made my zigzag way back to the freeway, and a Mercure hotel near A7/A8 interchange provided us with a view of an olive grove and a place to spend a night.
Having read too many Peter Mayle novels, I was intrigued by Cap Ferrat - a secluded retreat of super-wealthy. So I've convinced my family members that they ought to see it as well, and we've spent a miserable hour threading from old town Nice through Villefranche-Sur-Mer to St.Jean.
The views of Cap Ferrat from Villefranche, and views of Villefranche from St.Jean, are outstanding. That said, there seems to be very little of Cap Ferrat a mere mortal can visit. Here's the complete list of two hours' of our activities: we've taken our stroll along six hundred feet of St.Jean's waterfront promenade, bought fruit and berries, checked out the yacht prices of the day, backed out from a half-a-mile dead-end windy driveway, and watched in amazement on manoevers of a concrete truck in an intersection barely five feet wider than the truck's barrel (some entertainment in a traffic jam!).
Then we've spent another hour back in old town Nice, visited the university at Sophia Antipolis, and headed out to greener pastures (somewhat scary-looking motel in Cagnes-Sur-Mer at Boulevard De La Plage). Cagnes appeared not to be the best place to have a late-night dinner...
After a night in a motel in Cagnes-Sur-Mer, the only way to start the day well was to drive to Old Town Antibes.
We've weaved our way to the peninsula, left the car right outside the town's gates, and walked in. Antibes is almost as much fun to walk around as Ventimiglia in Italy, but airier, brighter, and full of distractions. Too bad we've had breakfast - otherwise, a feast at the local farmers' market would have been inevitable. Picasso museum was fantastic - somewhat like Jean Cocteau museum in Menton: compact, with a small but very good collection.
We'd have spent most of the day there, but, fortunately, got kicked out due to lunch break. Time for lunch, coffee, and good siesta on the small beach.
Then, we've dragged outselves back into the car, and went on to Tourettes-Sur-Loup.
The beautiful mediterranean weather we've enjoyed for several days seemed to be coming to an end. We ignored the freeway and took a sequence of side roads from the hotel near Aix towards Arles. Chuckled a bit at the sight of an Aston Martin with a valise laced to the trunklid - that's why we always travel in a station wagon! By the time we've bounced our way to Rhone's banks, the sun disappeared, and the skies were about to burst.
Left the car in a backyard near Pont De Tinquetaille, and walked into town.
Along with the Côte d'Azur sun, the bright beige-yellow-orchre-orange-red theme of the architecture changed with shades of gray. As we walked through narrow streets towards la Place Du Forum, drizzle fell and gradually changed to light rain. It did not look depressing, however; the flower beds in the yard of L'Espace (hospital where Van Gogh spent some time in 1889) sparkled with vivid colors.
The rain intensified, forcing us to exchange a 30-euro donation for a large Van Gogh-themed umbrella. We've walked around this part of town for another hour, then went back to the car and headed to Nimes.
The rain gradually let go on our short way from Arles to Nimes. Armed with a leaflet listing multiple Nimes' architectural wonders, we've made it close to the center. Dropped the car somewhere on Boulevard Gambetta, we've walked along Boulevard Amiral Courbet to where we expected to see the Arenes De Nimes (Roman Circus). The streets were nearly empty, most cafes and stores - closed, and the town appeared abandoned.
Right... Once we've turned the corner of the Boulevard Des Arenes, we saw where everybody went!
Apparently, there was a huge festival in town this very day, and we were lucky to land in the midst of it. Walked through the stalls of an art fair along
the Boulevard, we've come to see the Arenes. The mind-blowing impression of seeing a Roman Coliseum the first time diluted slightly after we've learned that we couldn't go inside, or see much more of it without the scaffolding. Scaffolding also greeted us a few blocks down at La Maison Carree (and would accompany most of the architectural wonders we'd see later on this trip). But the atmosphere was very festive; marching bands played, guitar music went along with flamenco dancers, and the smell of paella cooked in three-foot-wide pans permeated the air. Life was good! - and the mood chased away the clouds and the sun appeared once again.
On the way from Nimes to Avignon, architecturally-enlightened Jennie reminded us that we were now in Gard, and it would be plain silly not to see The Bridge. In the little village of Remoulins we've turned North towards the Pont Du Gard.
Judging by the sight of the parking lot, that was indeed a tourist destination. A short walk away, the Rhone opens up and shows the bridge.
It is one of those impossible to photograph things, like Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower. It takes up all of your field of view, and then some.
We enjoyed the walk across the river, eyed with envy the kayakers on the river; Jennie stopped to make a sketch of the bridge and surroundings.
Pont Du Gard is now very high on our list of places to go to - not just drive by, but spend time, hike, and kayak around.
Avignon nearly fell victim of our random, unplanned, drive-by excursion.
Half a year earlier, we've made it to the Palais Des Papes just in time to see the doors closing right before us. This time, the doors were closed right after we squeesed through - so we've only had about an hour or so to walk through the palace. Slightly redeeming this shortcoming was relative absence of tourists, and beautiful early sunset painting the town and the palace in soft Provencal colors. As imposing as the palace was inside, the most-remembered is still the first impression of its sudden appearance from "around the corner." We've climbed to the top, took obligatory photos of Pont D'Avignon, and were kicked out.
We've had a dinner at dusk; the prices in an only hotel that had two room for us seemed (then) outrageous, and we headed out of town in search of a place to stay. That was a mistake - we've forgot about the festival in Nimes. Deep into the night, we've paid our (no less outragious) dues in a hotel in Montpellier (about 70km away), and fell asleep.
Woke up early in our lair in Montpellier, had our breakfast, and hit the road West towards Spain. A nearly-400km stretch is a noticeable chunk of driving, even by California standards. Stopped at a nice rest stop just before the border for a quick bite, and marvelled at still-snow-covered caps of Pyrenees Orientales. Soon, crossed the border to Spain.
In about an hour and half, reached the outskirts of Barcelona. Here is where the fun began: navigation in Barcelona, without a good map and GPS, and with only Yuri proficient in a non-Catalan Spanish. Met some interesting people and drove through some interesting places, before finally reaching Avinguda Diagona.
After our long search for a hotel the night before, we've decided to make it our first order of business. Booked a room in a really expensive place, left the car a few blocks from center, had (of course) paella on La Rambla, and headed into town for a walk.
... And one long walk it was! We've walked through the old town to Casa Batllo and La Pedrera, where Jennie and Yuri went up to the rooftop while we had coffee. Proceeded to La Zagrada Familia - which, to no particular surprise, was closed for construction work. (I don't know if it was closed ever since Gaudi started building it, or just for the day). The walk around the cathedral took a couple of hours, with occasional side excursions like watching girls in clown costumes dance on a balcony across the street. Did I say that Barcelona happened to beat Manchester United three days earlier? That's right. We could not possibly leave town without a mandatory purchase of FCB attire.
Then it seemed we could easily walk to the coast, through the Parc Ciutadella; by the time we reached Passeig De Colom, we were completely beat up and it became dark. A few long blocks later, we've retrieved the car, and started rounds in the center of the city to find better accomodations.
... Which we did find without much drama; the room was at the 3rd floor, reached through a maze of locked gates and two-foot-wide stairs. Dropped our stuff in the room, and headed out for a very late dinner.
Next morning, Jennie's first order of business was to find Frank Gehry's Fish (near Avinguda Littoral Mar and Carrer De La Marina). We took our time walking through the neighborhood of La Barceloneta, had a late breakfast, crammed back in the car, and drove to Parc Guell.
The Parc was all one could expect of Gaudi's mind-blowing fantasy - undulating tracks, balconies, and terraces, trees, flowers, birds; tree roots hardly distinguishable from Gaudi's elaborate slanted columns; mosaic of brightly-colored broken tiles, and very unusual statues. One cannot really spend too much time at Guell; I felt I could be spending many hours a week if I lived in Barcelona. Vicky and Christina would've been proud of me.
All good things should come to an end; time was for us to drive back to France, and on to Switzerland - for our flight back to the U.S.
Yet, we've had a good day ahead of us. Jennie booked a room in a hotel in Orange (France), five hours' drive away, and on we went.
On our way back from Mediterranean to Geneva, we've spotted something that looked like an old fortress; pulled over at the next rest stop, and walked about half a mile to the castle. It turned out to be a national monument, La Forteresse de Salses, built by Spaniards between 1497 and 1504, and taken over by French in 1642. It was a little late to visit it inside - but we've taken our time to walk around it and stop by the gift shop. Beautiful contryside - it made me feel bad about all the places we've blasted by on A6/A7/A8/A9!
Grenoble, as any city with more than 2000-year history (and nearly 700-years old University), drew our attention and respect before the trip.
We've missed our chance to visit the city on our way from Italy, since the mountain pass from Valle d'Aosta to France was closed because of snow. On the last day of our trip, we've had a leisurely drive from Orange to Geneva, and a stop at Grenoble was in order.
... Yet, we've taken our sweet time walking around an old Roman theatre in Orange, so we've arrived to Grenoble in early afternoon, and very hungry. Got off highway A480 at Boulevard Joseph Vallier; drove for some time through block after block of nondescript five-story buildings, dropped a car whenever an opportunity arose, and walked to the center of the city.
Impression 1: cold and windy... Another cold front caught up with us, the third in nine days.
Impression 2: hungry. I don't know how common it is for many French towns, but I cannot remember time or place in France when or where nearly all restaurants were closed between lunch and dinnertime. My ladies were about to eat me raw.
We've walked across the river, marvelled at La Bastille and Les Bulles cable cars, yet found no open places to eat. Went back across the Pont St.Laurent, and eventually stumbled to Place Notre Dame. Things were looking up; even if we couldn't have much more than pizza from a bakery and beer, we could save Grenoble's papers from news of cannibalism.
There seemed to be a sort of a festival, too - with local youths seem to be undefeated by chilly air, and parading around with a few articles of clothes on. We've enjoyed the view for a little while, then walked to our ride, and headed back to Geneve.