Sunday, June 4, 2023

Visiting Eze-le-village

A view of the Riviera from the Exotic Garden atop Eze.

Yesterday I caught an early bus to reach Eze, a gem of a hilltop village, before the crowds. By the way, it only costs 1,50 euros to ride buses all over the region, and if you buy a multi-pass, it's only one euro per ride. Tram rides are the same price, and one ticket includes transfers between bus and tram rides. It's an amazing bargain! 

Bus 82 arrived at our destination about 8:30 am, with only a few people already ahead of me. But we had 30 minutes to wait before the main attraction would open, the Exotic Garden. So I wandered the steep, winding streets as the sleepy town started waking up, and vendors prepared to open their doors. Once the garden opened,  a small crowd ventured in to peruse the pathways and get to the top, where there are spectacular panoramic views of the Riviera.

A map of the gardens.

But rather than try to tell the same tale twice, please read the post I wrote about Eze when I first went there, in October of 2014. It hasn't changed much! (The entry fee to the gardens went up a euro: big deal.) Enjoy!

 (Click on link below)


Monday, May 29, 2023

Antibes, Biot, Picasso Museum


During the weekend of the Grand Prix, trains and buses were jammed with people headed east to Monaco. Instead, I went in the other direction, to Antibes and Biot. I took the train west to Antibes and quickly got lost, as the Tourist Info office had recently moved to a new location, and I was without a map (yes, I still use them!) to guide me. After wandering around for a while, I stumbled on it by chance, next to the city bus hub. Since I was already near the bus to Biot, I decided to head there right away, then return later to explore Antibes.

An artist's rendition of Biot. 

Unfortunately,  I got off the bus too soon, at the Biot train station rather than the village, and had to wait 45 minutes for the next bus. Arriving in Biot, another quaint hill town, was a pleasant surprise, with facades of the buildings adorned in natural ochre shades of yellow/orange, soothing to the eye. It immediately felt like an artist community. I had read something about Biot being famous for its pottery production,  but I misunderstood what that meant. I had envisioned a village filled with potters and their wares, but that was not the case. 

A scene in Biot

From the 16th century, Biot specialized in making large storage containers for alimentary use that were exported far and wide. These jars had the reputation of not altering the taste of the food inside, and their production brought prosperity to Biot. However, production began to wane in the 19th century and declined altogether in the 20th century. Artists began to settle in Biot, and the Biot glass factory , with its unique bubbled glass, was established in 1956.  

The work of glass artisans.
Biot is also well-known for the Fernand Leger Museum, named for the cubist artist who moved there to start working with ceramics. The glassblowing factory and the Leger Museum are not located in the village on the hill, but 30 minutes down the hill instead, so I missed out on seeing both of them. I don't mind so much about the glass factory, as I've seen outstanding creative glassblowing before, but the Leger Museum is another matter. Leger's ceramics are quite unique, continuing his focus on cubism, and I would have enjoyed seeing the museum devoted to his work. There was a Museum featuring the history of ceramics in Biot, but it didn't open for several hours, so I headed back to Antibes. 

Plage de la Gravette
Back in Antibes, I headed down to the port, where billionaires store their yachts, and walked along the ramparts that hug the area, passing a popular beach. 

Nomade sculpture, by Jaume Plensa, made of words.

A view of the ramparts on the left. 
For lunch, I stopped at an outdoor Cafe and ordered Salade Nicoise, a local specialty through the Cote D'Azur. It was superb, and only 14 euros!

I spent the rest of my time in Antibes walking around the old town, enjoying the ambience, with fewer crowds than in Nice, and saw two wedding groups near the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Next door is the Chateau Grimaldi, which houses the Picasso Museum, one that offers a good collection of his works. I'd seen a more extensive collection in Barcelona, but this one focused on works after WWII, when color and light were more evident in his work. I especially enjoyed the collection of his ceramic plates on display.

Faune blanc, 1946

All in all, Antibes and Biot are easy day trips from Nice, and well worth the effort. I wouldn't mind spending more time there someday. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

St. Paul de Vence, Vence: Home to Matisse and Chagall

A view from Vence

For my 73rd birthday, I wanted a special adventure, and that's exactly what happened. My destination: the hill towns of St. Paul de Vence and Vence, where the artists Matisse and Chagall lived and left their mark. Matisse lived in Vence from 1943-48, where he designed the now famous Rosary Chapel, including its vibrant and colorful stained glass windows. Chagall moved from Paris to Saint Paul in 1966 and lived there for nearly 20 years. As two of my favorite artists, I wanted to pay homage to them where they lived and created their art.

To reach the two towns in the hills above Nice without a car is a tricky challenge. My guide book stated that I could catch bus 655 to St. Paul from Parc Phoenix, near Nice's airport. However, when I arrived by tram at the the Parc, a sign stated that I would need to take another city bus to the town of Cagnes sur Mer in order to get the 655 bus. OK, I did that, along with several other travelers seeking the same destination. It was a bit convoluted and time-consuming, but doable.

Entering St. Paul

 I arrived about 9:30 a.m. in picturesque St. Paul, perched atop a hill and touted as one of the most beautiful villages in the French Riviera. I enjoyed walking through the narrow, curving streets that meandered up and down and around the town, admiring the artistic placement of plants beside and above doors. The crowds were minimal as I made my way to the other side of town to visit Chagall's tomb and check out the view from the top of the city walls. 

Chagall's Tomb

But all too soon, I heard the rumble of numerous voices and spied a large tour group headed in my direction, a sure sign that the tranquility of the town would soon be compromised. I spent the rest of my time in the quaint village avoiding ever-increasing groups of people as they flooded the town. But I still managed to enjoy the beauty evident in the vines of ivy and blooming jasmine draped over doors and climbing walls, as well as the mosaic designs on the cobblestone paths lining the streets. 

In fact, I was a bit mesmerized  by the playful patterns of flowers in the stones, taking numerous photos of them. By noon, it was getting hot and crowded in town, so it seemed a good time to move on to Vence, which required another bus ride.

Talk about blooming jasmine!

At the bus stop, a young woman from India joined me to await its arrival. She was traveling on her own in Europe for the first time, and we struck up a conversation that helped pass the time. When we got to Vence, we were a bit taken aback, as it was a sharp contrast to St. Paul. It seemed to be a large city that in no way resembled the quaint village we'd just come from. 

France's smallest cathedral, in Vence

I had heard that fewer people visited Vence, and I could see why. We managed to locate the Tourist Info office, picked up maps and helpful directions to reach the historic center. Then we parted ways, as she was eager to quickly view the town, then move on to visit Antibes and Cannes the same day. I had no other plans, so decided to take my time seeing what Vence had to offer. I came across a patisserie with outdoor seating, and ordered a serving of a Nicois specialty, pissaladiere. It's made with a flat crust, caramelized onions, anchovies and black olives. It turned out to be quite tasty!

After lunch, as I perused the map indicating points of historical interest, I decided to focus on finding the smallest cathedral in France, near the center of the old town. Little did I know that it has a mosaic created by Chagall, of Moses being found in a basket among the rushes by the Pharaoh's daughter. It was a delightful and meaningful surprise!

Chagall's mosaic of Moses

There's another great work of art in Vence, the Rosary Chapel that Matisse designed, including its colorful stained glass windows. I had hoped to visit the Chapel, as it's only open on certain days, and I was there on the right day.

The Rosary  Chapel that I missed seeing in Vence
But several other impediments were in the way of my goal. For one, I'd twisted my knee somehow and it was starting to hurt, so the 20 minute walk uphill (and 20 minute return downhill) to the Chapel seemed unwise. Added to that, I'd have a two hour wait until it opened. And it was getting quite hot. So, despite the fact that it was one of the main reasons I'd come to Vence, I decided to head back to Nice. Fortunately there's a direct bus from Vence to Nice, so it was a much shorter and simpler return trip, and one-third of the cost. (Still inexpensive, as bus and tram rides cost only 1,50 euros and include transfers.)

Matisse's stained glass windows enlarged
Back in Nice, I rested in the apartment for several hours,  then headed out to Vieux Nice to have a special birthday dinner. I chose an outdoor Cafe in Place Rosetti, and ordered Moules Marinieres with Frites (mussels cooked with wine, onions and parsley, along with French fries), accompanied by a glass of Rose wine. There were so many of the mussels, I was unable to finish them! However, after an espresso, I rallied enough to stop again at Fenocchio for gelato, choosing the flavors of rose and fleur d'oranger.  A delicious way to top off a wonderful birthday adventure.

Moules Marinieres avec Frites

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Nice: There's more than beaches here

On my second day in Nice, I enjoyed a variety of activities,  which included sitting by the sea to watch the waves and hear the music they created when splashing onto the small rocks that comprise the beach. But that came after many other excursions.

First, I explored the residential district where my apartment is located, the Riquier. It's a good trek to the beach from there, but has easy tram access to most areas of Nice that I want or need to go to. The apartment was a reasonable expense for Nice, with a kitchen and washing machine, plus a balcony that overlooks a large park.

The view from my balcony.

It's comfy,  cozy and secure. There are many boulangeries nearby, and I stopped in one for a fresh croissant, then stepped in a cafe for an espresso, each purchase costing only 1,20 euros. A mere two blocks away is a small train station, which means I won't have to trek across town to use the main train hub. Even better, just across the street there are several useful bus stops, including one that will take me east to towns like Eze and Villefranche, where there are seaside walking trails I plan to tackle. These are wonderful conveniences that I hadn't been aware of when choosing the apartment.

Two blocks in another direction there's a "commercial center" or indoor mall, which includes a vast Carrefour grocery store, where everyone in the district seems to shop. To check out, you stand in a queue until a woman employee directs you to the first available checkout stand. I was surprised to come across a sign advising that during three different times of day the store has "silent hours", when sounds and lights are lowered to accommodate their neurodivergent customers. It's hard to imagine the same thing in the local grocery stores back home.

I bought supplies to make several lunches and dinners,  one of the ways I keep costs low on my travels. I took a break for lunch at the apartment, and it's lucky I did, as there was a brief rainstorm for an hour near noon. By 3 pm the sun was shining again, and I continued exploring. I headed toward a nearby park where I'd seen men playing petanque the day before. In this game, players throw small, heavy balls (boules) towards a target ball. Today there were 5 or 6 different teams of retired-age men playing, while other groups of men played cards at tables in the shade. It seemed to be a park that only men used (though I spied two women amongst the sea of men),  and where signs declared that dogs were prohibited.

Playing petanque in the park.
After that, I headed toward Vieux Nice, the quaint old town center where everyone goes to shop and eat. I'd been there nine years ago at night, when it seemed quite magical, but today it just seemed careworn, crowded with tourists looking for bargains in the many shops along the small, twisting streets. I stopped to buy a glace (gelato), of rose and lavender, at Fenocchio, known for their unusual and homemade flavors. Truly a taste treat! Next I wandered over to Jardin Albert 1er, a park that features a charming carousel and structures made from bamboo and rattan. Next week, the park will host a Book Festival on its grounds. 

Across the street lies the Promenade des Anglais, where everyone goes to hang out, to see and be seen, to walk, sit or stand and watch the sea. It runs from the airport west for 7 km.

Promenade des Anglais
I spent several hours there, soaking up the sun, enjoying the afternoon. At 7 pm, with 16000 steps completed, I caught the tram back to Riquier and my apartment. It was a rich and satisfying day.

Nice, France: A Tribute to a Creative Life

I have come to Nice to pay tribute to the creative and adventurous life of my brother Chris, who died too young in October, 2022 at the age of 66. Chris was an accomplished photographer, musician, songwriter, poet, outdoor sportsman and world traveler - many interests that we avidly shared. I had a special kinship with my youngest brother and was denied the chance to visit him during the last year of his life and to say goodbye, subsequently my grief has been profound and debilitating. To heal, I decided to revisit a setting where Chris and I met up in 2014 to share an adventure. I hope to create some sort of goodbye ritual while I'm here.

Back then, Chris had recently recovered from treatment for Hepatitis C, and feeling healthy again, he decided to fulfill a long cherished dream of riding a motorcycle through the Alps. I was living in Florence, Italy at the time, where he stopped in to visit me for a few days before touring through northern Italy, Switzerland and France. 

Chris arriving at my apartment in Florence

Happy times with my little bro.

At the end of his ride, we met up in Nice and spent a short time sharing our travel stories before he headed home. It was so glorious to finally share my European life with a family member, and Nice seems the perfect place to carry on Chris's penchant for creativity and adventure.

Lunch with Chris in Place Garibaldi, Nice.

I plan to spend my time here doing the things we both enjoyed most - having adventures, being creative and recording our experiences to share with others. In this way, I can best keep him present in heart and mind. 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Corno alle Scale, Rochetta Mattei

 August 31, 2019

Once settled in my apartment in Bologna, my friends Massimo and Sofia invited me on a hiking excursion. They picked me up at 7 am one Sunday morning and we drove 2 hours to the Appenines, to the park Corno alle Scale. Their dog Millie was an avid companion along for the ride.

Massimo walking along one of the hiking trails.

It’s a 12 - thousand acre park with a variety of hiking trails. Massimo chose an “easier” route for me, which still involved hours of climbing to reach the ridge where you can step into the region of Tuscany along its border with Emilia-Romagna.

The first part of the hike traversed a dense forest, which emerged into an area called Valle del Silenzio (Valley of Silence), with verdant green hills.

Further along, there were wild raspberry and blueberry bushes, and they stopped to pick as many as possible, always sharing their bounty with me.

Sofia and Millie among the blueberries.

The last part of the hike involved a steep climb, so we chose a lower destination, which turned out to be a longer route. (But the higher route was in the clouds, so we were happy with our choice in the end.) We stopped at a rifugio by a small lake, Lago Scaffaiolo, where we rested and shared a plate of polenta con funghi (mushrooms). 

Then we climbed up to the ridge and walked along the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. We rested again until we heard rumbles of thunder in the distance. 

Walking along the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna

We walked quickly down a rocky, street-like path, which seemed to take forever, but we were loathe to get caught in the rain, which would have turned the path into a slippery, muddy surface. We made it back to the car and stopped at a café bar in a nearby town just as it started to pour.

On the way back to Bologna, we headed to Rochetta Mattei, an unusual castle built by an odd man, starting in 1850. 

Rochetta Mattei

Count Mattei, whose wealth came from  creating a form of homeopathy using electromagnetic waves (electrohomeopathy), created a castle complete with a household court, and lived in isolation, getting more paranoid and crazy as time went on. 

Some of the intricate detail in a castle courtyard.

After he died, attempts were made by various people to turn the castle into a tourist attraction, though it was damaged by German troops in WWII. The castle was finally bought in 2000, restored by a local group, and opened in 2015 for tours. 

The count's resting place in the midst of the castle.

Massimo had made reservations online for the tour, which cost each of us 10 euros. The tour was in Italian – I didn’t understand much of it because the tour guide talked so fast – and it lasted about an hour. Nevertheless, I enjoyed roaming through the many unusual and interesting rooms in the castle. We got back to Bologna about 7:30 pm and I had another walk back to my apartment. I stopped to get a gelato on the way, a treat after walking nearly 10 miles and 24,000 steps. What a jam-packed, rewarding day!

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Villa Taranto in Verbania

 August 18, 2019

Though the weather forecast promised rain, I decided to take a chance at visiting Villa Taranto, an hour north from Stresa on Lago Maggiore, and caught the 8:10 a.m. ferry. Founded in 1931 by an Englishman, it is one of Italy’s most famous botanical gardens. 

Once I arrived, I discovered that I practically had the 60 hectare park to myself, and I saw more workers than tourists. 

Near the entrance, there was a dahlia garden with more than 350 varieties of flowers, and thousands of blooms. An amazing and beautiful display!

Unfortunately, many of the more dramatic flowers - wisteria, camellias, and rhododendrons - had already bloomed. But there were many other large floral displays that were impressive and colorful, along with waterfalls and a waterlily pond.  

When I’d walked halfway through the park, there was a short thunderstorm, but I was near a shelter , so I ran for cover and stayed there for 20 minutes with a young French couple and their toddler son.

By that time, I’d seen most of the displays, but there was a long walk to get back to the exit. Near the end of that walk, the sounds of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” filled the park from a score of well-spaced speakers. Though I love that music, I was glad to have been able to enjoy the park’s tranquil atmosphere for most of my stay.

Like the gardens on Isola Bella and Isola Madre, many large trees had been damaged or uprooted by a severe storm the previous week. I lucked out on the timing of my stay on Lago Maggiore, as there were storms before I arrived and rain was forecast for the following week, while I’d enjoyed mostly clear weather during my stay.