Medieval Towns and the Blue, Blue Sea

At the end of July/beginning of August, I went to the Côte d’Azur with my family for a week. It was a trip that was preceded by organisational difficulties that mostly came from the fact that we didn’t all book together and at once and that it is very difficult to distinguish between Saturday and Sunday. Also, my family on trips will cause chaos, period.

In any case, one of my sisters, V,  and her family flew in on Tuesday (which was planned), my parents flew in on Saturday (which was planned) and my other sister, A, her baby and me flew in on Sunday (which was not quite as planned). We flew to Nice and lived in Vence in two houses, one for V and family, the other for my parents, A, the baby and me.

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France is not only the land of ugly postcards, it is mostly the land of sexist postcards. The amount of naked (female) butts that you can send from there is staggering. So when I found these babies on my last day, I knew I had to throw money at them.

Unfortunately the rental car A and me had booked came without a GPS. We thought we would be able to deal without and didn’t want to spend 20 Euros a day for something we could read off our good old paper map and street signs. Grave mistake. Grave, grave mistake. Because for one, the French obviously think that street names is something you have to know anyway and generally signs are something rather optional, especially in roundabouts. Or, if they are there, it will be seemingly randomized which village names will be mentioned on signs and which not.

The first test was already finding our way to the holiday home. We had an address. We had a description from the people renting it out. We had hints from our parents (who were already there). We had the helpful comments from a guy at the gas station with google maps. But it took us almost an hour cruising around in Vence until we got there – and then we only got there because our dad set out to find us, happened to stop at the gas station where we had earlier asked for the way and we had decided to drive back there in the hope that somebody would be there again who could help us.

When we finally arrived at the house, it was late and we didn’t do much more than head to bed.

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Fondation Maeght

The next day we got a lazy start and then drove over to V’s house. Her husband and son had left for a daytrip to Monaco, but she and her daughter had stayed behind. We decided to spend the day at her house and mostly at her pool, sleeping and swimming and generally relaxing. But in late afternoon, we got our energies together and drove over to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to visit the gallery Fondation Maeght.

The Fondation is an art gallery specialized in modern art. A lot of famous artists – Chagall, Matisse and many more – had lived and worked in the area at least for a while and so they had started to collect it, resulting in a wonderful and varied collection of mostly sculptures. The current exhibition when we were there was of the work of Gérard Garouste. His paintings are sometimes really disturbing, sometimes very impressive. I particularly liked Isaïe d’Issenheim (the left half):

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Isaïe d’Issenheim

Though his paintings were overshadowed by his sculptures and those, in turn, couldn’t quite keep up with the sculpture garden that is the permanent exhibition of the museum. Unfortunately we didn’t have that much time until the museum closed – I wouldn’t have minded staying a little longer in the garden.

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Don Quixote

The next day was very uneventful. While the parents and V plus family headed to Marineland, a seawolrdeque theme park, A, the baby and me decided to enjoy the sea on its own terms: we spent the day on the beach at Villeneuve-Loubet. Once we found it, that is. We followed the street signs with “plage” (beach) on them until they led us into the mountains. Then we turned around and followed the signs to “marine” (harbor) until we got to the beach. Once more, we spent a good part of the day cursing French roads and started cursing French drivers as well, who are the most aggressive drivers I’ve seen since I was in Kinshasa. Plus, they are obviously also convinced that driving rules are for losers and should be ignored at every opportunity. Fun times.

Anyway, the next day, too, we started on the beach, this time in Beaulieu-sur-mer. Because what would have been a day in France without looking for the beach somewhere, we had to search for a bit until we found a way to get to where the sea hits the land and where you could still put a towel. But ultimately, we were successful and spent a very nice half-day lying around.

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View from Èze

In the late afternoon, we packed our things and headed over to Èze, a medieval village on top of a mountain. Its city center can only be discovered on foot, in winding, narrow little streets. The entire village is made of copperstone, cacti and angles and it’s pretty amazing. Additionally, they seem to have a flourishing artist community. The painting themselves are not necessarily anything special, but it gives the entire village a fresh, colorful feeling, despite grey stone actually dominating everything. I really enjoyed it – and next time we should try to be there earlier so that we can catch the famous garden there when it’s open.

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Èze

The day after that – it was Thursday already – we decided to finally take a closer look at Vence, which so far we’d only seen from driving the car in circles in the suburban area. We started with a visit in the Chapelle du Rosaire, a chapel designed completely by Henri Matisse. It is very Matisse-y and very much worth seeing. I loved his Virgin and Child in particular – simple and yet completely expressive. The chapel has rather restrictive opening hours which actually forced us to get going a little earlier than usual. That in turn allowed us a visit to the center of Vence, another medieval town made from stone, with narrow, twisting streets. It’s rather adorable.

After that much sightseeing, it was time to hit the beach again. V had told us of a beach she had passed amidst the red cliffs that looked pretty beautiful and was right next to the street, called Calanque du Maubois. We were supposed to meet her there which meant – as you might have guessed – searching for yet another beach. We knew that it was right next to the street and that it didn’t actually have any infrastructure. Turns out, right next to the beach turned out to be true – if you disregard that the street was about 30m above sea level. And no infrastructure made it almost impossible to locate.

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Vence

We had almost given up already and turned around to head back to a beach that we’d seen earlier when we finally spotted the sign. We even found a parking spot tolerably close. But it was completely worth it: it was certainly the prettiest beach we’d been on the entire trip. The water was completely clear. You didn’t even need diving goggles to see the fish. The cliffs gave natural shade, so you didn’t have to struggle with parasols. And I’d already started to become a fan of pebble beaches (despite the fact that it made exiting the water incredibly difficult), so that was another plus.

Towards the evening it grew a little cold in the shadow though and since I had a date that night with Arysuh and her husband anyway, I packed my things, got my parents’ GPS and made my way to Fréjus where we met (that was about halfway between where I was staying and where they live. There we wandered through the harbor – filled with almost as many boats as people, had dinner and took advantage of being able to talk in person.

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Fréjus

Too soon it was time for all of us to head back home, so we took our leave from each other and I got back into the car. Armed with an actual GPS system, I didn’t worry about finding my way back. But I hadn’t anticipated my difficulties with tollbooths. In Austria, we don’t have them. We have an electronic system and a flat rate for use of toll streets. In France, there are these booths where you actually have to have physical money to throw in to be able to pass. My first encounter with one ended with me missing the basket and having to get out of the car to pick up the coin and then throw it in again.

But on the way back from Fréjus I really outdid myself. When I hit the first tollbooth, I ended up at one where I could only pay by coin, but I only had bills. I called for help and they told me that on the right hand side, I could put in bills. But I couldn’t find a slot anywhere on the machine. The driver behind me got out of the car to tell me that I had to pay, and I told him that I couldn’t find the slot. He looked for it as well then called for help again and it turns out that they had meant the booth on the right hand side, not the right hand side of this booth. So I drove back out, drove over to the next booth, payed and was happy. At least until I got to the next tollbooth. There, I managed to drive to the right booth straight away. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough coins again and the machine wouldn’t accept either my bills or my card. Close to a nervous breakdown – it was getting close to midnight, I was alone in a strange country and my French is not that great, and I had to continually engage in slightly risky driving behavior because of those fucking tollbooths and now I was stuck behind one of these things, I illegally parked and after hyperventilating for a second I remembered that I still had my swimming stuff in the back. And I had earlier put some coins in that bag so I didn’t have to carry my entire purse on the beach with me. Relieved I jumped out, grabbed those coins – just enough to make it past the tollbooth – and drove on, hoping that I would not hit another one. And thankfully I didn’t. And the rest of the way home was uneventful.

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Old Harbor, Marseille

The next day we spent on the beach in Cannes and I had hit peak vacation laziness, because all day, I didn’t manage to set one foot in the city itself, but rather stayed on the beach until we drove home.

On Saturday I had plans again, though: I was to meet greefaery and jurieongames in Marseille for the day (another halfway meeting point). I caught the train rather early in the morning (my parents brought me to the train station on their way to the airport) and we reached Marseille more or less at the same time, around noon. From the train station (where they have a public piano anyone can play on, which really is a cool idea), we made our way to the harbor we walked around for a while, walking past the insane area of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations and headed to Marseille Cathedral which is really very pretty.

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Marseille Cathedral

Afterwards we spontaneously decided that it would be really nice to take the boat to Île d’If and Frioul, so we did. Île d’If, or rather the Château d’If is famous for being the prison where the (fictional) Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated and there really isn’t much there. The view is pretty though and once we arrived, we had a coffee and took it all in. Then we wandered through the prison itself, but it didn’t really manage to capture my interest or imagination. When the next boat came, we got on it, drove to Frioul but didn’t get off the boat. Instead we headed back to Marseille, had dinner and then it was time already to head back to where each of us came from.

I took the train to Nice where I spent the night in a hotel, since we had already given up our vacation home with our parents’ departure. The next morning, I got ready to do some sightseeing in Nice, which so far I hadn’t seen either. I started on my own, just walking around city center and taking it all in. It really did have some beautiful bits and a really nice city center.

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Apollo Fountain, Place Masséna, Nice

Around midday I met my sisters and we decided to spring for the Petit Train de Nice, a small tourist sightseeing train. That’s what I call traveling in style. It also meant a ride up the Castle Hill, which otherwise we wouldn’t have climbed, so that’s good. And honestly I love those audio guides, full of pathos and with weird music to set the mood.

After we came down from the mountain, V and her family stayed on the beach, while A, the baby and me headed towards the Musée Marc Chagall, which turned out to be on top of yet another hill that could practically only be reached by climbing quite a few steps – always fun with a stroller. Both of us were this close to just giving up and letting Marc Chagall show his paintings to somebody else. But I soldiered on and A, after taking a break to feed the baby, also overcame the difficulties.

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At first, we wandered through the current exhibition – on the relationship Chagall had with Nice, which was rather small, had almost only prints and those repeated the same paintings, which was kind of weird. But once we got to end of that part of the exhibtion and saw the stained glass windows in the museum’s cinema, it started to become worth it. And when we finally turned to the main and permanent exhibtion of Chagall’s Bible paintings, it really paid off. Those paintings are beautiful, expressive and tell entire stories within one frame. I really loved them.

I wouldn’t have minded staying there a little longer, but unfortunately, we had a flight to catch. So we braved the way and the steps down the hill again, said good-bye to V and her family (who stayed for another couple of days), grabbed my bag from the hotel and arrived rather early at the airport.

 

 

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Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite end there, because first we stood in line for a very long time to finally check in and then we stood in line even longer to get through the security check (despite priority treatment due to baby in both cases). Nice airport just isn’t big enough to handle the amount of people going through it. Then we were actually cutting it rather close to the departure time. Or we would have – had the flight not been delayed fro hours. In fact, it was delayed so much that I missed the last train to Vienna city from the airport (and not by a little either). My sister had pre-ordered a taxi the driver of which was not to be found when we arrived.

After a couple of tries to find the right number of the company and getting through to them (bless the internet), he did turn up and he was even kind enough to drop me off home as well, but that last bit of excitement I could have really done without.

Anyway. We made it home. And the trip itself was really nice. And I did get quite a tan. So I’m happy.

Summarizing: It sure is pretty on the Côte d’Azur.

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