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.
Today is my last day in Italy. I am in a small water side town called Monterosso. Monterosso is part of a string of five towns called Cinque Terre. Tomorrow we will get on to a train and leave Italy for France. I am a little sad because Italy was really fun and gelato was amazing but France will be very fun too. The wifi is very bad so when this finally posts I will be in France.
We are more than halfway through our trip so far — four-sevenths to be precise. Much of our focus, of course, has been exploring the cities and towns, streets and trails of Italy… and now France.
But the promise of leaping into the water in September and October — something we can’t do outside of a rec centre in Victoria — held great appeal too. At first I’d worried about my trip planning: the first three weeks of our itinerary were mostly land-bound, in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice (briefly — and you do NOT want to swim anywhere other than the Lido) and then Chianti. We would only begin the the truly Mediterranean part of our journey in October. Would the sea be too cold by then?
I didn’t need to worry. We’ve managed to find water and immerse ourselves on a regular basis. And the weather has been so gorgeous that we’ve swum in the sea several times. Here are 7 highlights from our aqueous adventures.
- Ostia Beach: Day 2 of our trip, we escaped the heat and crowds of Rome to visit the Roman runs at Ostia Antica and still had time to take the train another 2 stops to the beach town of Ostia. The beach wasn’t the prettiest or the water the cleanest, but the locals knew this was the quickest escape from the city and the warm waters of the Mediterranean felt so good after several days of travel and two days of walking around Roman stones.
- Outdoor pool in Florence: The kids had only so much patience for the museums and galleries of Italy’s hottest city, so Jenny found an outdoor pool in an expansive public park 30 minutes walk along the river from our apartment in Florence. It will be the priciest swim of our trip (I hope!) after admission and buying the mandatory bathing caps. But the 33m pool was clean and refreshing and we all felt renewed and ready to hit the road to Bologna the next morning.
- Outdoor pool in Montegonzi. When we booked the farm “barn” AirBnB (recommended by friends who had stayed there 2 summers ago), I inquired if the outdoor pool would still be in open in late September. The owner said “probably” but warned that in the hills of Tuscany it would be getting colder and possibly rainy. The unheated pool definitely got our blood flowing, as we slowly immersed ourselves inch by inch, but the views across the valley were spectacular and we had the pool and the farm to ourselves. Paradise.
Pool near Montegonzi
- Spiaggia Barbarossa, Elba: If we have any regret, it’s probably not booking more than four nights on the Island of Elba. What a gem! Especially this time of the year, when the summer crowds have thinned to sprinklings of German families and Italian weekenders. Our “local” swimming spot, 10 minutes walk from our AirBnB in Porto Azzurro, was a picturesque smile of rocky beach with clear water and several types of fish to amuse the kids as they dove in the shallows.
- Spiaggia Livorno. We reluctantly said goodbye to Elba, traded in the rental car and took the train to Monterosso al Mare — the biggest (at less than 1,500 inhabitants) of the 5 cliffside towns that make up the Cinque Terre. Tourists must double or triple or quadruple that population. Even in October, the afternoon trains felt like rush hour in Tokyo and the narrow streets were thick with American accents. We hiked one day in the opposite direction, over the point to the larger town of Livorno. There we found a large rocky beach with crashing surf (and a small surfing scene) that offered a reward to the kids (and myself) for 2.5 hours of up and down hiking. Body-surfing in the waves helped clean out the sinuses and send us back to Monterosso (by train this time) happy and tired.
- Spiaggia Monterosso: The next day, we used the Cinque Terre pass to train-hop between the other four towns. We skipped opportunities to swim in the slightly sketchy waters of two other harbours to save time for a dip off the wide beach in front of the new town of Monterosso. We missed the afternoon sun, but we still enjoyed a dip in the Mediterranean in front of one of the most memorable backdrops of coloured house fronts and rocky cliffs.
- Nice waterfront: We arrived in France yesterday afternoon, but by the time we got settled into our AirBnb (still being cleaned when we arrived), it was too late for a swim…despite Briar’s protestations. We made sure we got one the next morning, though, and lucked into another perfect 22*C day. The whole Nice beachfront stretches for 2 or 3 miles, bisected into private and public swatches, and is made up of large stones and a steep drop into the surf. We saw a bull dozer drive the length of the beach this morning to reshape the angle of this drop into the water. The sea, however, was amazing to float and swim in, with one of the most visually splendid urban backdrops of any beach. I think only Tel Aviv’s seaside can compare… and that’s only due to its wide sandy beach. I could have floated in the Mediterranean for hours, where the colours turn from deep blue to bright azure before crashing against the white stones, but we had the rest of Nice (or at least its winding Old Town streets) to see. Still, the promise of more time in the Mediterranean awaits in 3 out of our 4 last stops….
Seaside of Nice