Paris and the South of France Tour

Day 15 Friday May 15, 2009
Nice - Villefranche-sur-Mer

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The upstairs television.

On the previous evening it had escaped my attention that our hotel room was supplied with not one, but two flat-screen television sets. One was near the desk downstairs; the other hovered over the staircase. In the middle of the night I was startled by the sound of a movie in which the actors were speaking Italian. The sound was loud enough to penetrate my earplugs. I arose from the bed, made my way over to the upstairs set, and groped around trying to find some way to turn it off. No buttons, dials, or switches were evident. I gave up, stumbled back into bed, and was back asleep in seconds.

What could she be smiling about?

I woke up again a little later to go to the bathroom. As I descended the stairs, Sue asked me something unintelligible, at least to me. I asked her if she had the remote for the television. She said that she had “a remote” and handed it to me. I aimed it at the upstairs television and pressed the power button. It shut up and went to black.

The two Barbaras, Nancy, and Phoebe.

I gave the remote back to Sue, went to the toilet, climbed back up to the bedroom, and then crawled back into bed.

Perfect weather for hiking.

It started raining pretty hard just about the time that I went down to breakfast at a little after seven o'clock. It appeared that the predicted deluge had commenced.

Phoebe was on her second cup of coffee when I arrived at 7:15. I officially ceded her the title of early bird of the tour. Barbara Postles and Nancy joined us shortly thereafter. The hotel had laid out a pretty impressive breakfast. The ham was the best so far, and my banana’s taste surpassed its appearance by a good deal. I also enjoyed some fruit cocktail and a couple of bowls of cereal. I did not care much for the coffee, but I managed to get it down.

No, we did not take the elevator.

Tom and Brad missed the article in GQ about umbrellas not being in on the Riviera.

The Foleys were the next to join us. I asked Jim what he did when he and Barbara were not touring Europe. He confessed to being an accountant for the state of Colorado, which, he claimed, made him a “dumb accountant,” not a “smart accountant.” I supposed that he meant that the “smart accountants” took home the big bucks from A.I.G. or Enron for providing official assurance that they were doing fine, but he could have been making some other point.

Jim also told us that he had left his rain gear, including a pair of rain pants that cost $200, either on the bus or at the last hotel. It did not seem appropriate to mention my tragic loss in Chinon of a four-year old shirt that I had bought at Marshall’s and a $15 pair of slacks from the Burlington Coat Factory.

The Côte d’Azur in the rain.

Nice was a city of satellite dishes.

When I boasted that on none of my previous three tours had even one activity been rained out, Nancy noted that she had never been rained out of anything on any Rick Steves trip, and this was her ninth tour. This might not be astounding if she went to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya every year, but over one hundred days in Europe without a washout was incredible. Unfortunately, it seemed incontrovertible that both of our streaks would end on this day.

Sue arrived at breakfast just as I was leaving. I went back to the room and sat in bed working on the journal. At one point the steel curtain on the window came down by itself. That was a Kafkaesque moment.

The mosaics were a modern addition.

My in box contained an e-mail with the results from the Wednesday night bridge game in Simsbury. My regular partner, Dick, had played with Peter Milliken and did not do too well. I could not avoid a touch of schadenfreude. I then checked the weather forecast for Nice, and it was as bad as ever. It still included about an inch or two of rain.

Tom took photos from time to time. I wonder if anyone will ever see any of them.

I again looked up the instructions for using my camera’s timer on Canon’s website. It was embarrassingly easy to do. I tried it a few times, and I felt confident that I had the process down just in time for the last day of the tour.

Rodents have only four teeth.

I did not notice it, but the steel curtain must have arisen at some point. I peered out the window and ascertained that it was raining as hard as ever. Figuring that the day was a complete loss, I concluded that a nap would be the best use of my time. Promptly at nine Tom came by the room with the news that the hike was on (!) for him and Brad, but Gigi and Roscoe had bowed out. I had a minute or so to decide whether I was a man or a mouse. I counted my teeth, quit when I got to five, and decided to join them. I threw some things in my backpack, donned my brand new poncho, and stumbled down to the lobby.

Some of the tombs were reminiscent of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

First we saw this little fountain.

Sue said that she had left our copy of the contact sheet in the breakfast room. She went back down to look for it. She must have recovered it, but I never did find out how or why she took it down to breakfast in the first place.

Patrick pulled me aside before we left. He told me that he had made train reservations for us to Turin. We were to leave at 10:02 on Saturday. I would need to pick up the tickets at the train station by 4:26 in the afternoon on Friday. The connection was in Genoa. I asked him how he did this, and he said that he made the reservation on the Internet.

This one was a little more impressive.

I wished that he had let me in on what he had intended to do. I had considered making these exact reservations a month earlier. I rejected the idea because, based on what I had read on the Internet, there must have been a more direct, scenic, and adventurous way to get to get to Turin by making a left turn at Ventimiglia and heading north through Cuneo. However, I could not find a schedule for such a connection on-line. I did not know why. I had learned that Nice had more than one train station, and I wondered if perhaps we would need to depart from one of the other stations.

Of course, I could have been totally mistaken. In that case, Patrick’s reservation was probably ideal. I had no time to think about it at the moment. I recorded the information in my spiral notebook, thanked Patrick, and hurried over to join Brad and Tom, who had already been waiting for me for at least twenty minutes.

The view from the other side.

At first both Tom and Brad deployed their umbrellas. I must have looked ever so dashing in my poncho. Suffice it to say that when I had visualized vacationing on the Côte d'Azur, I never saw myself in a poncho. After just a few minutes, however, the shower seemed to be dissipating. I could hardly believe my eyes. The sky actually appeared to be clearing up. God must really love Nancy Kress.

Tom put away his umbrella.

We three hikers had no real plan at all. We basically just headed east. We walked past the sissies’ elevator on our way to Lou Castèu on the top of the hill overlooking old Nice. We decided to climb the hill just because it was there. Along the way we saw modern mosaics that seemed designed to give a Greek or Roman atmosphere to the place.

We followed signs for the cemetery. The one that we came upon was obviously Jewish. A lot of marble and granite had been extracted for its grave markers. We explored the place a little, but I, for one, felt a little weird about it.

Another example of shoddy French security.

Our next destination was a little higher – the large artificial waterfall that could easily be seen from almost anywhere in the old city. Along the way we had great views of the coastline and the city below. It was still raining, and Nice’s beach was nearly deserted. The roofs of many of the buildings were decorated with satellite dishes.

The café was behind the cactus.

One nice thing about hiking in the rain was that we did not need to deal with crowds. No one was at the waterfall when we reached it. Our unimpeded snooping uncovered a door behind the falls. It had a lock on it, but I noticed that its latch was not closed. So I removed the lock and opened the door wide enough for all of us to peak in. Our expectations were high, but we did not find any hidden treasure or clues to the secret location of the Bilderberg Group’s next worldwide meeting. At least, that is our story, and we swore a blood oath to stick by it.

Nice is a big city.

We came upon a café not too far from the falls, and we actually saw a car there with two occupants. Near the café were two huge aloe plants and a cactus. The café was not open yet, and we would not have been interested in it even if it were. We found what appeared to be a loudspeaker system ready to blast messages or alarms in all directions. The most interesting object that we saw was a stone wall in which a large dent from a cannonball was clearly visible.

We saw many signs in French, Italian, and English explaining details of the city, the port, and the old château. Using the camera’s timer I had no difficulty taking photos of the signs, and the text actually appeared to be readable. At this rate of progress I might soon be challenging Ansel Adams.

A park on the other side of the hill was designed for children. More mosaics on the nearby square snagged our attention. Written on one of them were the first two lines of The Odyssey in Greek. I wondered if scholars had speculated that Odysseus tarried here on the way back from Troy.[1] I also wondered what percentage of the visitors could possibly be expected to recognize the text for what it was. I have not encountered very many people who can read classical Greek.

We had a good view of the cathedral.

If the sirens had gone off, Tom would be deaf.

A cannonball visibly dented the wall about two-thirds of the way down.

We walked along the side of the harbor and stayed as close to the water as we could. Several large yachts were moored there. By far the most impressive vessel was a huge Club Med ship with five masts. Did they actually sail this monster? Surely it at least had a backup means of propulsion. Among the expensive yachts were also dozens of small boats.

Roman ruins.

The harbor was on the other side of the hill.

The Club Med ship.

A park for the youngsters.

This colorful square was on the Old Nice side of the hill.

A memorial to the fallen soldiers.

We thought that these sailboats must have been partaking in a regatta, but they never seemed to move much.

I did not expect to see real estate signs in Nice in Russian.

I had proposed Villefranche-sur-Mer, the next town up the coast from Nice, as a reasonable destination for our hike. I did not know how far it was, but Patrick had assured me that it was an easy walk. On the other side of the harbor we came to the intersection at which we had to choose between following the sign to Villefranche or continuing on our coastal road. As usual, Tom argued for the adventurous route, and the vote was the expected 1-0 with two abstentions. So, we walked all the way around the point.

Nobody was using the diving platform in this weather.

The steep hill was peppered with mansions.

The journey required a considerable amount of climbing, but not nearly as much as the alternative, which was to take one of the staircases to the top of the hill. Most of them led to private dwellings that were quite large and appeared to be luxurious. We noticed that most of the staircases had gates at street level, and they may well have been locked.

The road along the coast was quite scenic. As we neared the end of the city limits of Nice, we came upon a set of signs dedicating the road to Princess Grace. I wondered if this might have been the road[2] on which she was driving when she crashed her Rover P6 in 1982.

The harbor and the Bay of Angels.

This sign meant that the speed limit was 30 km/hr, and this was the second warning.

Brad informed Tom and me about the letter that Rick Steves’s travel agency had sent to everyone who had registered for the tour about having twenty-nine people in the group.[3] Evidently each party had the option of withdrawing from the group and getting a refund. No one took them up on the offer, perhaps because of the assurance that the twenty-ninth person would be a “fun” addition to the group.

I disclosed the story behind the story. Twenty-five people were already registered in the tour when I sent in the forms for Sue, me, and the Corcorans back in November. The status on the Internet at the time was “Filling Fast.” ETBD called us up and told us that they had reserved places for Sue and me, and that they had put Tom and Patti at the top of the waiting list. They also had reserved a place for them in the next tour. According to ETBD, someone would probably cancel. Evidently at least one person almost always canceled. After all of this, the tour’s status on the Internet was still “Filling Fast.”

Someone was kayaking in the bay.

Some of the mansions definitely had a Russian look.

Nice was nice, but we were happy to reach the border.

The road was named after Princess Grace.

The plaque commemorating the official dedication.

A few weeks went by, and the status did not change. It occurred to me that if no one had dropped out, and a single person requested entry, they would probably allow them in. We definitely wanted to tour with the Corcorans. In the past this arrangement had seemed to work well for both couples. So, Sue called up the agency and harangued them into admitting the Corcorans even though doing so violated the sacred twenty-eight person limit.

We faced imminent peril for seven hundred meters.

Villefranche harbor was busy.

After we had turned the corner toward Villefranche, Brad began to get antsy. He let it be known that he planned to meet Donna for lunch. She had taken the train to Cannes with Patti. Brad decided to turn back so that he would be on time for their one o’clock assignation. We gave him instructions on how to get back to the hotel more quickly than the way that we came and which bus to take if worse came to worse.

After Brad had bid adieu, Tom and I speculated about whether he would reach the hotel in time to meet them. We both agreed that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that Patti and Donna would be at the hotel when Brad arrived. The over-under for how long he would have to wait for them was two hours.

Tom wanted to climb this (and every other) staircase.

The château or fort or whatever was really up there.

It was not long before we arrived at the sign welcoming us to Villefranche. The town was smaller than Nice and much more peaceful. It seemed like a very nice place. We did not see any tourists at all. I wondered why we were staying in Nice instead of Villefranche. The latter seemed much more like a “back-door” location.

Unfortunately, Tom had neglected to bring his guidebook, and mine was probably somewhere in Avignon. We had seen a sign for the TI office, so we decided to drop in there to see what was available and perhaps pick up a map. We located the office at the far side of a park. We walked up to the door and were taken aback to discover that it was closed for lunch.

This funny statue was in the same park as the TI that was closed during lunch.

Lunch at the Café Venezia was pleasant, but a little smoky.

It was 12:25. We would have to locate a place to eat on our own. We could see a couple of cafés on the main road near the TI. We selected one called the Grand Café Venezia mostly because it already had a few customers. Its secondary attraction was its proximity to a BNP Paribas branch.

We selected a table outside and looked over the carte. We both chose pizza, the café’s specialty. After all, we were very close to Italy now, and we were not about to order crêpes or bouillabaise at a place that called itself “Venezia.” Indeed, that was a strange name. “Grand” and “café” were definitely French; the former would be spelled “Grande” or “Gran” in Italian; the latter would have two f’s and a grave on the e. “Venezia,” however, was thoroughly Italian.

Cactus on the roadside.

While we awaited our food, Tom hustled over to BNP Paribas, but it was closed for the lunch break. The bank was closed for lunch! It did not seem to have an ATM either. Tom took this setback in stride, however, because he had seen at least one branch in Nice.

Even the low road was on a cliff.

I devoured my Pizza Regina, which featured ham and mushrooms, and I washed it down with a large Stella Artois. Tom tried the Pizza Gorgonzola again, which also was topped with speck. He started with a large Luffe Brun and then switched to Stella. The pizza was good, almost up to Italian standards. This continued an easily discernible trend: the closer that we got to Italy the better the pizza tasted.

The people at the other tables smoked continually. It became difficult to tolerate. I had to cough several times in response to the smoke. The guys closest to us were getting served as we arrived. They were certainly in no hurry. They were still there when we left, and they seemed to have no intention of leaving. They must have been regulars.

This ferry ran to Corsica.

These arches did not seem to support anything.

Tom lobbied in favor of climbing up the really steep hill that separated Villefranche from Nice. I thought that he was nuts; he considered me to be acting like a girlie-man. He finally relented, and we walked along the low road back to Nice. The scenery was less impresssive, but we found it much easier and shorter than the route along the shore. We left about 1:35, and we arrived at the hotel a little before three o’clock. The most interesting thing that we saw was a building that belonged to the French Foreign Legion.

I tried to talk Tom into enlisting à la Harold Ramis and Bill Murray.

My plan was to walk to the train station and either confirm Patrick’s reservation or obtain tickets for a better one. Since the hotel was not much out of the way, Tom and I went there first. It did not surprise us to learn that Patti and Donna had just returned from Cannes. Sue, armed with some information that she had garnered from Patti, wanted to walk “halfway” to the train station with me. It took her quite a few minutes to tape up her knee. Then we set out on foot together for a ways up Avenue Jean Médecin, the wide street that hosted the light rail train, and parted company when we got to a retail area that resembled the one that Patti had described.

Nicetoile was actually a mall.

As I continued walking up the avenue, I was surprised to see three consecutive department stores on the opposite side of the street. The largest one, Nicetoile, was as large as any store that I had seen outside of the U.S.[4] I kept going toward the train station. Even though I frequently consulted the map, I still overshot it by a few blocks and had to double back.

For one euro you could take the tram to the train station.

Mickey’s little hand was right on the four by the time that I entered the train station. I got in line at the billeterie. The lady at the ticket window did not understand my question about whether Patrick’s reservation was the best way to get to Turin. So I just purchased the tickets that Patrick had reserved and headed back to the hotel.

We have had bad luck with pet rabbits. Guinea pigs are better.

Across from the department stores I ran into Sue. We walked a ways together, and then she decided to rest her leg by taking the tram back. I retraced my steps down Avenue Jean Médecin. Between the train station and the fountain at Place Massena I spotted two McDonald’s, one KFC, a Subway, and a BNP Paribas. I was surprised to meet up with Sue again near the hotel.

The fountain at Place Massena.

All that walking had worn me out. I climbed up to our room and took a shower and a nap. Tom knocked on the door of our hotel room at 6:10. He said that Patti and Donna were not back yet from their trip to Monaco. Nevertheless, they and everyone else made it on time to the assembly in the hotel lobby at seven p.m. for the tour group’s final meal together.

Marching to our last dinner.

We marched to the Grand Hotel Aston, which was located near the Place Massena. Patrick assured us that this was the closest that we would ever get to a four-star hotel on a Rick Steves tour. The entire group was seated on the second floor of L'Horloge, the hotel’s clock-filled restaurant. For the first time since our very first meeting, the wine at supper was free.

I sat between Patti and Lee. Sue was on the other side of Lee. This threw off the people trying to take pictures of couples. For the most part they just skipped us. I took a fairly large number of photos, but I did not give anyone a chance to pose. I shot both tables from the corners, and I tried to take in many of the paintings of clocks.

Sue informed me that this was a bird of paradise. I thought that it was a plant.

L’Horloge had one real clock and a half dozen paintings of clocks.

The entrées were poached eggs with morels and asparagus and scallops St. Jacques. The main course required a choice of cod with pesto and ratatouille or chicken stuffed with dried tomatoes, fennel, and leaks with saffron. Dessert was some kind of grapefruit concoction or crème brûlée. I had the St. Jacques, cod, and crème brûlée.

Patti did not like her chicken, which was a roll of white meat. No one seemed to like the grapefruit.

There did seem to be plenty of wine. Tom Stan made it his business to prevent anyone’s glass from getting too low. Since the two main courses were fish and chicken, most people opted for the white. The people who drank the red had the rare opportunity to get rather plastered on Rick Steves’s dime.

This table seemed pretty somber.

Mike, Sandy, and Loraine.

At one point Lee asked me what my favorite part of the trip had been. Without hesitation I identified the cave drawings at Rouffignac. She agreed and told me about the copies of the cave paintings that she had seen at Lascaux. Evidently on our free day in Sarlat she rode there in a cab with the Foleys. This was news to me.
Tom took photos and kept glasses full.

Brad enlightened all of us with his theory about how to beat Vegas. It would be detestably selfish of me not to share this insight with my friends and fellow travelers:

The four members of the Connecticut contingent argued about which of us was the “fun person” specified in the letter from ETBD. The consensus was that it did not refer to me.

This must be the poached egg.

I guess that this is the St. Jacques.

The cod?

Crème brûlée.

The lights suddenly went out just as dessert was being served. I expected some kind of flaming presentation of the crème brûlée, but I was disappointed. It was just a routine power outage. Just as everyone was nearly finished with the dessert, the lights came back on. Evidently that fourth star does not require a hotel to maintain a backup power source.

I obviously should have taken these photos before the lights went out.

After supper the group followed Patrick back to the hotel. Tom, Loraine, and I hung back a bit to take photos of the fountain that was lit up in the dark. I was having fun using my timer.[5] We noticed that Jim kept going straight at one point when the rest of the group turned. Maybe he was following a lead in the case of the missing rain pants.

We gathered out by the harbor to make our good-byes. This was the part of each tour that I have always enjoyed the least. Patrick had some bottles of champagne, and he showed himself to be a world-class cork launcher. They really flew out of those bottles. I salvaged the one that he said was worth “ten points” as a souvenir. Sue and I were the first to leave the gathering. I have never known what to talk about at these affairs, and I dreaded the prospect of someone saying, “If you are ever in our area, be sure to stop in.” I knew full well that we could never reciprocate.

Waiting for Patrick outside the restaurant.

Tom shooting the fountain.

Ten points.

I was surprised that no one had taken up a collection for Patrick. I was also somewhat embarrassed, especially since Patrick knew about the one for Olivier. Olivier’s driving was fine, but every driver on every ETBD trip that I had been on was just as good. On the other hand, Patrick worked as hard as any tour guide in my experience. We should have gotten him something. I surmised that I should have assumed the responsibility myself, but I never even considered it.

When Sue and I got back up to our room, we packed up as much as we could. I hit the sack hoping that the TV would stay mum all night.

[1]  I could find nothing about this on the Internet.

[2]  I looked this up. I think that her accident occurred on a higher road.

[3]  I learned later that Sue and I had also received the letter, but it dropped into the “black hole” before I had a chance to look at it. I later found it amusing to speculate about what ETBD would have thought if we had taken them up on their offer.

[4]  I looked this up on the web; it was more of a shopping mall than a department store. There were many stores within its walls.

[5]  Unfortunately, the results were not noticeably better.