I’ve been writing a short column, three or four times a year, for Island Parent magazine. It’s usually a light-hearted look at the struggles to be a “good parent”… and a chance for me to keep writing and publishing shorter essays, to exercise those creative muscles, while I’m working (or procrastinating about) larger book projects. I’ve often gotten far more feedback from my Island Parent columns than I ever have for my books, which shows the reach of the magazine amongst local readership. Writing the column, as our kids get older, has also forced me to reflect on the ethics of nonfiction writing and memoir — and mining my family’s lives for public consumption. (I spiked one column when our son wasn’t comfortable with what I’d written, and now I always run the drafts past both kids before I get close to deadline.)
For my May column (due in late March), I’d planned to write about getting a puppy before Christmas. Again, the focus would be light-hearted, even if being new dog owners had added stress to our lives. Then the coronavirus hit. I emailed the editor of the magazine wondering if I should stick to my puppy topic or address COVID-19 head-on…. and if I was okay with the latter, could I turn around a column in a couple of days. One of the other writers had filed his column before the corona-crisis had exploded and so she could rush mine into print, if I didn’t mind reflecting on this fast-moving and frightening subject.
I figured why not. It was all any of us were thinking about and talking about anyway — as parents and as middle-aged kids worrying about our parents. And so I did, and the article can be read here.
Today we tried to get to Spain but were stopped by thunder, lightning and a ton of rain so we had to book a hotel. I am finishing this post in Spain. We ended up bussing to Spain because the train aren’t running for 10 days. Yesterday we went to the beach. We had to leave a little early so that we wouldn’t get caught in the protests. The reason the people are protesting is because they want the Provence of Catalonia to be a separate country from Spain because the have a slightly different language and different culture
On every long voyage (and many smaller ones), there’s a moment when the best-laid plans go awry, itineraries get disrupted, Mother Nature wreaks havoc, and/or logistics get log-jammed. That’s when a trip becomes an “adventure”.
You can’t predict when you’re going to have an adventure. (But blogging about how your trip has been going smoothly is likely a good trigger for the karmic gods to mess with your journey!)
Adventures tend to be what we remember, though, even if they give us grey hairs at the time. I still recall an ill-fated expedition to renew my visa while living in the Czech Republic that involved a bus trip from Prague to some obscure border town, a break down in the snow, and a futile scramble to make it back to the city (without a new visa) before I was meant to teach my ESL class.
That’s just a segue to say: We had our first real adventure of our trip.
By week six of our travels, we had entered France and were enjoying what felt like the doldrums, especially once we settled in Saint Remy de Provence for a week. We slept in, we ate well, we did one or two activities in the afternoon, and then played ping pong or read on the patio in the Provençal sunsets. One day led smoothly into the next. A couple late-night storms and cloudy days reminded us that autumn was well upon us, but nothing to disturb our serenity.
The forecast called for several days of rain as we headed off to Palavas les Flots, on the Mediterranean coast, but when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the sun was out and surfers were riding the waves on either side of the town’s canal. The next day was more overcast and windy and a full-on gale swept through overnight, rattling awnings and driving the current of the canal back up-river. I double-checked on our rental car, parked a few minutes away in a municipal lot, to make sure it wasn’t getting flooded. The next day, it rained but we avoided most of it with a relaxing day trip to Espiguette Beach — a huge swathe of duney sand and sea (only AJ dared to take a plunge) and then an excellent aquarium (or rather “Seaquarium”) in Grau de Roi.
Then the next day the heavens exploded. First, massive thunderstorms illuminated the sky and shook our Airbnb over night. And then sheets of rain poured down for most of the day. AJ, Briar and I tried to venture out in what seemed like a break in the rain, to dump recycling and check on the car again, but we were soaked through within minutes.
Palavas is surrounded by canals that branch off the Rhône, and the highways out were already collecting water before the rain really started falling. I asked our AirBnb host, a tourism centre guide, several police officers, and even the woman at a nearby bakery if we’d be able to drive out the next day. Does Palavas ever get locked in by flooding? (I’d also googled the town and found an article about how likely it was to be severely affected by global warming.) Non, it will be fine, they all assured me. If you can’t get out the direct route, there was an alternate that would only add 10 or 15 minutes to Montpellier.
The rain tapered off a bit that night, although the lightning returned, and then the rain started again. We scrambled to leave as soon as possible. The car needed to be back in Montpellier train station for 10am, but we wanted to get there even earlier… We packed up the car, dodged a few major puddles leaving town and enjoyed a relatively brief window of rainless sky for the drive to Montpellier. Car dropped off. One less worry.
But then we crossed the street to the Gare Roch station and saw that the earlier train to Barcelona had been delayed by two hours… it hadn’t even left yet. Ours wasn’t set to leave until 1:40pm so we hoped we could be fine. We were wrong. A glance at the departures/arrivals screen showed extending delays and cancellations for almost every train. And then the skies broke open again… and unleashed more rain and wind than I’d every seen before. Some locals video’d the deluge from the safety of the station’s high ceiling… although that soon began to leak. Other travellers sat and cried, either due to cancelled connections or the explosions of thunder that ripped overhead. Finally, the arrival/departures screens just went blank.
We joined the line of puzzled travellers and learned that no more trains wold be running today, so we should switch our tickets till tomorrow. So we did, for a 9am train. We did a quick search and found a hotel nearby. We’d have to swallow the extra fee — we were already paying for an AirBnB in Barcelona — but we needed a place to stay. The hotel wasn’t far. In fact, I realized it was down the stairs and across the street. But when we rushed with our luggage in what felt like a slow-down in the rain, we arrived at the front desk as soaked as if we’d fallen into a wading pool.
The hotel was worth every Euro. The kids had hot showers and lounged in the fat white bathrobes. We were able to check the status of the storm — it was epic in other areas of southern France, especially Béziers, which had been hit with 4 months of rain, nearly 24 cm, in the span of four hours. We decided that perhaps a bus might be a better option, as it seemed unlikely the trains would run tomorrow morning… in fact, the staffer had said it might not be till Friday. Then I noticed a message online saying that the tracks had been undermined between here and the border and might not be repaired for 10 days—well, after we needed to fly home. Jenny phoned around to make sure the roads hadn’t been washed out too and then we booked seats on a a noon Flixbus for the next day and walked back over to the train station (the rain was finally calming by late afternoon) to get our tickets refunded.
Then we enjoyed a “bonus” visit to Montpellier… wandering through its big central square and park boulevards, and then through its old town, until we could finally complete a mission that the kids were fixated on since arriving in France: eat some authentic macarons! (We managed to sample flavours from the two best shops in town.) Then, after a return to the hotel, we went out for dinner (after much discussion and Yelp-scanning) and lucked in (after our first choice was closed) on a little French restaurant called La Tomate… where I completed a mission I hadn’t even known I’d accepted: try some frogs’ legs!
We had time to have a big breakfast spread and get packed up the next morning… and then suddenly hit the panic button again. I’d decided to book an Uber in advance, rather than a taxi. My mistake. The arranged time passed and passed. On my app, I could see the driver circling our location — 2 minutes away, then 3, then 4… If we didn’t get to the bus station by noon, our tickets were useless. I told Jenny to get the front desk to call a taxi as backstop and we thought about dashing to the station to grab one there… when our Uber arrived nearly 15 minutes late. “Get us to the station!” I yelled as we hurled our luggage into his trunk… and he did, with plenty of time to spare.
We’d paid extra to sit together on the bus, but the semi-chaos that is Flixbus rendered that fee meaningless. The two men in our seats said they’d bought assigned seats but the sullen driver had told passengers to just sit where they want, so they did. In the end, the kids sat a few rows behind us and we enjoyed a quick, sunny, smooth and quiet 4.5-hour drive from Montpellier to downtown Barcelona with the Pyrenees rising to our right as we crossed into Spain.
Once there, we grabbed an official cab and showed the driver the address of our AirBnb. The ride was faster and cheaper than I’d expected… but that’s because he’d dropped us at the address in Barcelona, rather than Llobreget Hospitalet, the suburb where we were actually staying. Thankfully, taxis are plentiful in the city and we jumped into a second one and (finally!) made it to our final accommodation of the trip.
In the end, we only lost one day in Barcelona and one night of AIrBnb fee, although we made a little money back by cashing out our pricey high-speed rail tickets for the bus. For our final three days, our trip has included and will conclude by negotiating our itinerary around the political demonstrations — which got violent last week — throughout the city (we took a trip to the beach yesterday but made sure we were back in our AirBnb before the 5pm rally that saw 350,000 Catalonian protesters take to the city centre) and two potential airport strikes (security staff and baggage handlers) tomorrow morning.
Only then will our adventure be complete…
We’ve seen many new things in our first two days in Barcelona . Day one we went to the Sangria Familia. I enjoyed listening to the audio guide while strolling through the majestic basilica. The beautiful stained glass, the tall columns,the statues,the lettering made it more and more worth it. Antoni Guadi was a Catalan architect with most of his structures in Barcelona, but some in other parts of Spain. He knew that he would not live to see the Sangria Familia complete, but he left lots of examples of what he hoped it would look like one day. During the last few months before his death he lived in the cathedral. On June 10 1926 he died in the Old Hospital de la Santa Creu, after being hit by a tram. The Sangria Familia is still being constructed to this day , but is estimated to be finished by 2026. We arrived at the parc Guell an hour later. We sauntered through the park taken notice of the noisy vibrant green parakeets, and the lush nature. We visited the Warden’s house,another Guadi creation. Before going to the metro we stopped by a souvenir shop and I gotta pretty Barcelona shirt. Because I love souvenirs! Today we walked along the boardwalk for an hour before jumping in one of the many magnificent beaches. We made sure to get back before the protest started at 5. We are planning to go out for dinner at a close by restaurant tonight. Which will be our first dinner in Barcelona but will be our last dinner in Europe. Adios amigos!!!
We knew we couldn’t avoid rainy weather for seven weeks, yet we had an astoundingly good run of sunny, warm days right until our final week. After leaving St. Remy de Provence after a week there, we drove to Palavas-les-Flots, a beach resort town about a 15-minute drive from Montpellier. Our new apartment was right over the canal there, so we could see people coming and going, fishermen selling their wares, cyclists and some pretty impressive thunder and lightning, or orages and éclats.
View from our balcony in Palavas les Flots.
We stil walked around cloudy Pavalas (a faded starlet kind of beach town, which I liked) and found lots to do: an aquarium in nearby Grau de Roi, nature trails, a museum devoted to cartoonist and artist Albert Dubout, a museum featuring the old train that ran for decades from Pavalas (originally a fishing village) to larger Montpellier.
Some pretty serious weather blew in and we watched the incredible light show from the stage of our upper-floor apartment. My favourite thing bout Pavalas, hands down, was the dozens of flamants rose, or pink flamingos. Briar and I have been running together and seeing them was a highlight. The birds were so exquisite: cotton candy feathers with fuchsia-dipped wings.
Unfortunately, the rain kept coming and turned into full-on flood for the area. We became very concerned about driving to return our rental car in Montpellier and catch a train to Barcelona. While we made it to Montpellier without finding roads washed out, we discovered that many trains were delayed or cancelled. Then the rain became truly biblical, coming down in sheets punctuated by epic flashes of lighting and claps of thunder. The train station started flooding. This Mediterranean deluge brought four months’ of rain to the area in a single day! We know rain, but this was incredible. Unfortunately, lives were lost during the deluge, which affected Italy, France and Spain.
We spent the day trying to figure out what was happening, what to do about it, and speaking not-great French. In the end, all trains to Barcelona and a few other destinations were cancelled that day and the next. In fact, no trains will run to Barcelona until November because tracks are under water. The train was out.
Le gare became chaotic with the flooding and distressed people crying. Fortunately, our children were basically glued to their devices doing homework and not concerned. We bought them Nutella pancakes, so they were not exactly suffering during the delay. Nutella is like a shared religion in the EU, which is fine with A.J. He could bathe in the stuff.
Briar ordered a salad with smoked salmon for our last dinner in France.
But anyway, we called a modern (and not cheap) hotel, Golden Tulip, that was three minutes’ away and we literally ran there with our suitcases. We still got drenched as if by sprayed by a fire hose. The kids were delighted to be a hotel room. We were not excited to pay for accommodation in both Montpellier and Barcelona that night, but we were safe and dry, so felt fortunate. We ended up going back and forth to the station for updates, eventually a refund, and trying to figure out if bus travel was feasible and safe. We fly home from Barcelona, so we had to get there somehow.
A.J. digs into tarte tatin.
Once the rain let up (several hours later) we walked around Montpellier, and bought two styles of macarons from two different places—one the kind of colourful jewels made with cream (pinks and greens and corals) and one organic and homey. We later ventured out to dinner, after feuding about where to go, only to find the one restaurant we agreed on was closed. We randomly chose a place called Le Tomate, which had inventive, delicious food. I had herring as an entrée (appetizer in France). It was served on sliced potatoes with carrot medallions and sautéed onion. It was so simple and tasty. David was determined to make his meal as French as possible, and even had frogs’ legs. For dessert, we all attacked (like group hunters with spears) two traditional desserts: tarte tatin and Dame Blanche, which was a bowl of cream, almonds, ice cream and warmed chocolate. The day ended well for us, and it was nice to see more of Montpellier, with its cobblestone streets and ironwork—but the experience was frightening. Sadly, we later learned that some people in affected communities were swept away by the waters and perished.
The next day, we took a bright green low-budget Flixbus to Barcelona, where the sun was shining. As we entered the city, we could see many Catalan flags hanging in windows and yellow ribbons in support of jailed Catalan independence leaders. A few days earlier, half a million people had marched to protest the long sentences given to Catalan independence leaders and there had been much unrest.
Sagrada Familia outside.
We are staying in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a densely populated municipality of Barcelona, in a stylish apartment on the fourth floor. The current political situation is on our minds, but yesterday we travelled by subway to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, a basilica so unusual, towering and perfect that my eyes filled with tears as I looked around, bathed in the coloured light from the stained glass. A week earlier, the Sagrada had been blocked by protestors, but all was peaceful that day. From there, we walked to see Gaudi’s Parc Guëll, a public green space that was originally intended to be a housing developing for the wealthy.
The stunning basilica inside. It will be completed in 2026.
We spent six hours walking around and enjoying the sunshine. I admit that I did not know much about Gaudi, but found his work so intriguing. I have learned so much on this trip about politics, culture, art, architecture and even macarons. On that note, the second macaron shop in Montpellier we visited was family run and focused on traditional Provencal baking. The owner was there with his young daughter. He had lived in Vancouver, loved Vancouver Island, and said he had two favourite mountains in the world, one was in the Pyrenees and the other was Mount Baker, the peak we see everyday in Victoria, at home.
Our unexpected stay in Montepellier included a dinner at the Tomate, tasty macaroons, breakfast at the hotel and a calming walk. At the Tomate daddy insisted on ordering frog legs, little did he know that he would get a huge plate of them. Meanwhile mummy ordered trout with tapenade, as her main dish. And herring as a side dish. I ordered a salad which came with smoked salmon on toast, and herring. It was my first time trying herring, and I found it quite interesting. AJ had a salad and they’re famous tomato basil tiramisu. And we topped it off with a warm tarte tatin, and a Dame Blanche. Which was warm chocolate, almonds, ice cream and whipping cream. Before our meal we went searching for the best macaroons.First we got colourful macarons, that were filled with cream. We chose 5 flavours, vanilla something, chocolate, pralines rose, mojito, and something else. Secondly we went to another highly rated macaron shop. These macarons are made differently and are somewhat healthier. We got 5 different flavours and they were all delicious! It was impossible to choose a favourite. Then we burned of the calories by walking through the little town of Montpellier. The next morning mummy and I had a peaceful run through a couple local parks. After a quick shower we went downstairs to the breakfast. They served us petit tarte tatins baguettes,madeleines, hot chocolate, coffee, yogurt. Then they allowed us to have anything are heart desired at the buffet. So of course we had to have some pain au chocolat, croissants, fruit cups, freshly squeezed orange juice, pancakes and tons more. Once we were full to the brim we dragged our bellies upstairs. And quickly got ready. We made a good chose to take the bus because trains to Barcelona are canceled till November 4. Unfortunately we made a bad chose by taking an Uber that was 20 minutes late. We nearly didn’t make it to Barcelona again. After 4 hours and a half we arrived in Barcelona. But we still did not make it to our Airbnb because they are two Buenos Aires. And our taxi driver took us to the wrong one. So finally after 2 taxi rides and a long bus ride we made it to our place. Yeah!!!
After our stay in Provence we drove to Palavas les Flots, which is an hour and 15 minutes from Provence. It is a beach town with old colourful houses. Our Airbnb has two levels with the kitchen,washroom etc downstairs and our beds and tv upstairs. We also had a nice balcony which overlooked the canal. We read and worked well watching the harbour dogs attempting to bring death upon the pigeons. During our stay in Palavas we went to Espiguette beach. It is a big long beach. We did not plan on going swimming as we did not bring our swimsuits. But the water was surprisingly warm, so we waded as far as we could. Expect AJ who swam in his shorts! After we walked part way down the beach, before drying off and heading to the Seaquarium. The Seaquarium had lots of sea creatures such as, fish, turtles, sharks, creepy big eels, seahorses, sea lions,seals, crabs and more. I really liked the sharks as they swam above our heads. The eels were interesting but enormous and creepy. I would not want to see one of those well I was swimming! And of course the turtles were beautiful and emerald green. There was lots of fascinating fishes. The unicorn fish was cool. But it took us a long time to realize that the rock we were staring at actually had eyes and was a fish, though I don’t remember the name. My favourite part of our visited at the Seaquarium was the seal show. The seals would do little tricks and jumps for some fish. Then they put out four different shapes, and the seals were trained to go to a certain shape. I loved when one of the seals flopped a few metres across the floor, making the crowd laugh. They finished but jumping and turning in the air. It was very well done. Then we went back for the night. The next day mummy and I faced the rain and went running in the morning. And we thought that weather was bad, but later in the day it got much much worse. Along with more rain came tons of thunder and lightning. Forcing us to stay inside. Then we couldn’t stay inside anymore so daddy AJ and I went on little walk to get a baguette for our vegetable soup. After some lunch we got in warm clothes and watched some tv. We ended up staying inside all day, for we would be soaked within seconds if we went out. Finally we fell asleep to the sounds of pounding rain, thunder and lightning. The next morning was time to leave. We dropped of our rental car in Montpellier, then of to the train station. We were going to have to wait 4 hours for our train. But unfortunately the train got canceled till tomorrow and maybe till Friday, because of flooding in Béziers. So we booked a nice hotel a three minute walk from the train station. We got drenched even though we were only outside for 3 minutes! We are hoping to take the bus to Barcelona tomorrow so we don’t have to wait till Friday. Cross your fingers for good luck!
On Monday we went hiking in the Alpilles. This was just an hour and a half , because we all agreed we were tired. A little while later we hiked up a hill, to take in the view while enjoying our baguettes. The baguette long was my favourite because it tasted like a woodfired pizza, when you add a slice of cheese. Tuesday we went to the Saint Paul de Mausole. It was where Van Gough spent a year, he was there as a psychiatric patient. He created most of his famous paintings, including Starry Night. He only ever sold one painting, which was the Red Vineyard. Not as famous as Starry Night but equally beautiful. We visited a reconstruction of his room. His story is sad but also very interesting and inspiring. He will never know how celebrated and respected he is. Wednesday we went to the morning market. This was the biggest market we’ve been to yet. There was lots of cheese, meat, vegetables, fruit, clothing and sweets. We sampled cheeses, pesto and nougat. AJ probably took to many samples of nougat for the sellers likings. It was delicious! The original flavour of nougat is almond and honey. But later was made with pistachios, hazelnuts, chocolate, dried fruits and much much more. We also let in for AJ’s request for tapenade and olives.Which everyone loved , even I liked them and I’m not olive person. We also bought hummus, kale, paella which is a seafood and spicy rice mix for daddy, a Madeleine to share and a macaroon to share. Next we went back had a quick lunch and headed of to les Baux de Provence. We walked through a little town and bought some small things from the local market. Then we headed up to the castle. We saw some cool cannons and other weaponry, that I’ve never heard of. We learned interesting things from our audio guide, and enjoyed being there. Then we went to a gallery that make it seem that your in the painting. We saw Japanese paintings and Vincent Van Gough paintings. They had to use tons of projectors. On one painting it felt like we were swimming in the ocean. Because there was ocean everywhere, on the ground, ceiling and all the walls. Thursday we went biking for the day. We hiked along a canal. And my favourite part was when went down a bunch of bumps. We biked past majestic horses and other farm animals. It was a nice change to get away from all the cars and loud noises. Today we went to Arles a nearby town. We saw an old amphitheater and a theatre. The amphitheater is definitely not as big or historic as the Coliseum, but it has its pluses. Such as not being crowded by thousands of people. The amphitheater is still used to this day, for bull fights, gladiator recreations and so on. We also went to a museum with lots of old artifacts. And there was an old shipwreck that apparently still had all it’s money and things to bring. But it never made it. Tomorrow we our heading to Palavas des Flots. We did lots and saw lots in Provence, but we also took time to work and relax. I will always remember the smell of Provence, a light lavendery smell.
We are now in our third stop in France. Our visit began with a brief visit to sunny, stylish Nice. We tried two delicious local foods in Nice: socca, a chickpea pancake, and Pissaladière, a type of Provençal open tart resembling pizza that usually includes onion, anchovies, and/or olives. We then spent three nights in Cassis, a picturesque seaside town where we hiked the Calanques, narrow steep-walled inlets. Our somewhat challenging and rewarding trek ended included a frigid swim in breathtakingly clear Mediterranean waters.
It is interesting being able to communicate more effectively. Locals speak to me and I realize that I can understand them—albeit it takes me a moment or two. I found yesterday that I was wondering “what is that bruit?” Words are coming back covered in cobwebs: voisin, propre, brosse, tapis, gaspillage, usine. My accent is fairly tragic, but we are no longer in places where English is widely spoken, so people are not switching when I use French.
We are now in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and there is much to do here, though we are all winding down somewhat, missing friends and family and weary of the packing and unpacking. On our first full day here we walked to Glanum, a local archaeological site founded by the Gauls, then a Hellenistic period and finally the Romans. It is enjoyable to roam around en plein aire.
Statue at St. Paul de Mausole by Gabriel Sterk.
Yesterday, we visited the Saint Paul de Mausole, the Romanesque monastery where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year of his life as a psychiatric patient and produced an astonishing number of works while there, including The Starry Night. The institution still serves local residents and provides programs to help them make art—I was tempted to buy some that was on display.
I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. I was feeling wistful, and it made me sad to consider how much more content and stable he perhaps could have been had he benefitted from modern pharmaceuticals. St. Paul’s sounded (and, to be honest, made themselves sound) fairly progressive for https://davidleach.ca/wp-admin/media-new.phpVan Gogh’s times though they still used therapies that are horrifying today, such as forced feeding and regimes of hot and cold baths.
It was moving to stand in Van Gogh’s former bedroom, look out the window and see those colours and the landscape—the golden yellows, the olive trees, the wheat, the hills—that inspired his greatest works. As we walked back to town, I mentioned to A.J. and Briar that I hoped the stigma of mental illness is successfully reduced during their lifetime. We are far from there yet.
View from Van Gogh’s bedroom window.
Moving on to lighten the mood of this blog: we have an outdoor ping-pong table at our AirBnB. The condo is spacious and pleasant—especially after the cramped quarters in Cassis, where we occupied a tiny, eccentric main floor space between two restaurants.
Ping-pong remains the one game involving hand-eye coordination that I can actually play. I am not allowed to reveal the details of which individuals I may have beaten in ping-pong combat. The property also has an outdoor pool, walnut trees and fragrant flowers and shrubs that attract a very strange moth-hummingbird, a creature new to me. It looks just like a tiny hummingbird, but is technically an insect. Very étrange!
This week is my first week in France. Apart from some foods and the language it’s not too much different from Italy most likely because we’re still very close to the border. I think I like Italian cuisine more because of the pizza and pasta though the French baking looks delicious. I tried some lavender ice cream yesterday and it was good but gelato is much better.
As we enter week #6 — the final stretch — of our European journey, we have settled into a rhythm of almost perpetual motion.
We have gotten good at packing up quickly and leaving each AirBnb clean as we move on to the next — 11 stops in total. My pre-trip planning has worked out so far, with train connections and accommodations… some, admittedly, better than others. (My back is still recovering from a hard mattress in Nice and our cute but space-deficient boat-like cabin in Cassis.)
Anything to do with the rental cars spikes my anxiety. But the driving in France and Italy hasn’t been too bad, aside from a few Google Maps glitches. And we’ve let the car sit at our accommodations’ parking spot for severals days, so we can wander by foot. Most places we could shop for groceries and other essentials without the car.
We have suffered sleeplessness at times, but have all stayed (knock on wood!) relatively healthy, with only a half-day each for AJ and Briar when they felt out of sorts. We hadn’t lost anything until I mentioned that fact… and realized I’d left in the car my pricey attachable sunglasses when I’d dropped off the rental in Bologna.
Our actual day trips and sightseeing haven’t matched up with the ambitious plans sketched out on our trip-planning Google Doc. Often we don’t get out the door until 10 or 11am — or in the case of today, nearly 1pm. But we get out each day and walk and walk and walk and see something new…
We got tripped up in Nice, when every other city seemed to shut its museum and gallery doors on Mondays… except here, where things are shuttered on Tuesdays, our only full day in the city. So that meant no Matisse Gallery or the Mark Chagall Museum. (And there was much rejoicing from the kids!)
When we tried to make up for the lack of gallery time with a visit to the Picasso Museum in Antibes, on our drive to Cassis, we got caught in a massive traffic jam due to a highway accident… and just missed the last entry before the long lunch break, so we walked the old town and breakwater instead. France doesn’t want us to visit its galleries apparently. But its beaches and ruins and hikes and old towns and crepes are impressive too.
After five weeks, we miss friends and family back home, but our portable technologies at least allow us to stay in touch in ways that I couldn’t when I first went backpacking, to Israel, when I was 20. The familiarity of home will seem welcome, too, after struggling to figure out the odd functions of new bathrooms and ovens, locks and foreign TVs, to find peanut butter in the aisles of grocery stores, and bumbling through conversations with my high-school French and Duo Lingo Italian.
But aside from the odd scowl from a shop clerk or a driver, we have felt welcomed and warmed by the hospitality from all the people (and especially our various AirBnb hosts) who have helped us along every step of the road. We all agree with the words on the mosaic we found in a park that overlooked the spectacular coast of Nice: “Happy are those like Ulysses who have a good voyage.”
Our quick days in Nice were very nice. The place we stayed was not my favourite but the bath was enjoyable. And the sunsets over the ocean were stunning. We were very tired when we got there after a long four hour train ride. The next morning we had a swim. It was very hard to get in as it was sloped, but once we stumbled in the bright blue sea we knew it was worth the blisters on our feet. Afterwards we had a warm grilled cheese and cantaloupe. Then we went up up up a tower, and saw the rooftops of nice and the dazzling water from above. There was a nice park there were we quenched our thirst and replied sunscreen. Next we walked down the busy streets of old nice. We tried new foods we loved and some just for the experience. Socca is one of the foods that was for the experience. It is like a chick pea pancake. Pissalediere is one of the foods that we ate within seconds. It is a tart with onions and some times anchovies on top.When I saw it I had mixed feelings, but when I bite into it I thought don’t judge a book by its cover. It was mouthwatering. We decided it was time to head back. The next day we hit the road. Aurevoir Nice! We got stuck in some traffic, because of an accident. So when we got to Antibes we rushed out of the door for the sake of our butts. Antibes was a stop we made to have lunch and stretched our legs before the 2 hour trudge to Cassis. We walked through the town, but unfortunately the Picasso museum was closed. So instead we ate our lunch on the steps of a square, while the market dogs begged for food. It was hard not to give in. Then we walked on by the harbour and saw some impressive yachts. The Dillbar yatch is by far the biggest with its helicopter landing platform. It’s in between 800 million US dollars and 1 billion US dollars. We also saw a cool statue and Ferris wheel, sadly we did not have time to go on it. We went back to the car, not excited for the car ride but excited to visit a new place. Our day in Nice was fun, and our few hours in Antibes was a pleasure too.
We arrived in Saint Remy Provence yesterday afternoon. The place we are staying is industrial, it is a complex with beautiful gardens, an outdoor pool and a ping pong table. It is very quiet with only the sounds of the birds singing. Today we walked through a local market and a car-show. They had all sorts of things ranging from donkeys to Nutella crepes ( which were fantastic). And there was lots of old and rusty cars. After we went to some Roman ruins. We saw some Roman baths, forum, and where romans lived their lives. We tried imaging what it would be like living there, which was hard. After we came back and had a quick swim in the pool, soaked up the sun, had a bath and cleared the fridge. It was a lovely day.
After three days in Cinque Terre staying in the seaside village of Monterosso, we are currently on a train bound for Nice. Monterosso and the other famous villages were scenic and interesting but also very crowded, even in October. My favourite time was spent hiking from Monterosso to the nearby town of Levanto. It was hot, uphill hiking, with a stop to view an ancient sanctuary at Punto Mesco. Luckily, Levanto (not one of the five villages) had a beach to make the kids happy after their hours of hiking.
I am sad to be leaving Italia, particularly as I have now mastered making espresso in a Mokapot. A.J. has become a self-taught expert in this and did considerable research about the best technique. He even bought himself a pack of espresso decaf. We are eating most meals in our AirBnB apartments—so far lots of pasta, beans and salad served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar), and out for an occasional dinner in a a restaurant. In Monterossi, we had pizza on an outdoor patio by the beach. The area is home to pesto, so we also bought a jar to try. Briar is a pesto maniac.
Street scene in Monterosso. Green shutters and laundry hanging.
Some things that will remind me of Italia:
- Mokapots. Every apartment we stayed in had one. Otherwise, there has been a real range of kitchen tools. One place had a panini press and a mezzaluna but no spatula or turner.
- Seeing people enjoy Aperol spritzes on patios. The spritzes are served in bulb-like glasses with a lemon slice and a straw. Aperol seems similar to Campari in flavour.
- Laundry hanging on balconies, everywhere, everyday. Sheets might be dangling right over people eating dinner in a ristorante. I respect that! All our apartments have had one small washing machine, usually a Candy model.
- Ochre buildings with green shutters.
- Apricots growing on vines over fences. Lemon trees.
A.J. with a cone. He had two gelatos on our last day.
A few things I will miss:
- Bottles of Italian milk. Even partially skimmed (scremato) it is inexpensive (to me) and delicious. This trip has actually made me realize how expensive food is on Vancouver Island as we have been shopping in some busy tourist areas and I have not been shocked by prices.
- Peaches from Sicily. All fruit has been delicious.
- Focaccia. I am not even the biggest fan (Briar again!) but it was particularly good in Monterosso. We shared some on the train.
- Gelato, a thousand times gelato. A.J. obsessed over it. His favourite was stracciatella, a traditional flavour with chocolate chip pieces. The names are beautiful. Last night I tried fior di latte (flower of milk).
- I will also miss seeing so many ancient buildings and places. Even the “barn” we stayed in in Tuscany was a thousand years old. The kids know well by now that I love ruins and exploring them. On my last night in Italy, I took a walk by myself along a stream lined by old lime mortar walls that lead to la Valle dei Limoni, the valley of lemons.
The last focaccia from Italy is unwrapped on the train.