Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Ligurian Towns of Italy: Dolceacqua, Apricale, & Sanremo

For our trip to Nice we had flown into and out of Genoa airport in Italy, which is about a two hour drive from Nice. Since we had an evening flight on Sunday, we left Nice early in the morning and decided to spend the day checking out some towns that we found in our driving tours of Italy book. The book didn't go into too much detail about what was in these towns, but noted that they were quaint and beautiful to look at. What we came across were two hill towns that we fell in love with and were pleasantly surprised by.

Our first stop was the town of Dolceacqua, very close to the border of France. It is divided into two sections linked by an ancient bridge and at first sight you're not sure what to expect as you make your way towards the older part called "La Tera". What we found were very narrow, stone streets with the stone walls rising above us for about three stories, with a peak of sunlight streaming through here and there. Stone archways connected the walls together and every turn we made led us to a new direction, although all directions seemed to be leading upwards where a medieval castle sits atop. It actually felt like we were already walking through the walls of the castle. Tucked into the walls of each street are small shops selling food, artwork, and wine that is characteristic of the area.

As much as we wanted to stay longer in Dolceacqua, we wanted to get to our next destination, Apricale, which comes from Latin to mean sunny. Along with Dolceacqua, Apricale forms the La Strada dell'Olio (The Olive Route) because these villages see an exorbitant amount of sun where olive trees can flourish. Located in a steep valley, one can see Apricale for miles away.

The small streets were similar to Dolceacqua and everything in this small town was open during the dreaded 1-4pm time slot! We strolled around the car free town, losing ourselves to the small alleyways, churches, narrow tunnels, and bridges. After a number of turns we came upon the piazza, which was preparing for a small festival.

View from the piazza

The piazza

Getting ready for the festival. The huge frying pan is filled with oil!

We had plans to drive to Sanremo and then to Genoa with enough time to make it to the airport for our flight back to Naples, but Richard our GPS had other plans in store for us. What should have taken 40 minutes to get from Apricale to Sanremo took over 2 hours in which we were led through the mountains on a curvy one lane road with nowhere to go if someone came from the other way. Luckily, no one came! So as a result we got to Sanremo and had only ten minutes to walk around if we wanted to get to the airport an hour before our flight. Naturally, we walked around Sanremo much longer than that. The city sits on the Mediterranean coast and is a popular tourist destination. We walked along the water, some of the streets of the city, and searched for the casino, but had no luck finding it. With the clock ticking we really didn't have enough time to explore and take in the city like we wanted, but here are some quick shots that we took:

Leaving Sanremo when we did put us into Genoa airport 45 minutes before our flight, which normally wouldn't concern us, but we had to fill up the car with gas, return the rental car, check a bag, and go through security. We ended up hitting a lot of traffic, which made us get to the airport 25 minutes before the flight - yikes! Thankfully, Genoa's a pretty compact airport and we made it to the gate with a few minutes to spare and had a fast flight back.

We're really glad that we took the time to visit this part of Italy that seems to be rather untouched by tourists. Not only were we pleasantly surprised by the small towns that we saw, but we find it pretty incredible that these types of towns are spread throughout Italy, each having their own special character. You never know what you might find if you take the time to look!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The French Riviera: Nice, Cannes, Eze, Monaco

During our time in Europe we wanted to experience the French Riviera. September proved to be a perfect time to go... summer weather is still in full force, but the huge crowds have dissipated (though there were still plenty of people there). The French Riviera (known as the Côte d'Azur in French) is the Mediterranean coastline of southeastern France, including the small country of Monaco. We made Nice our base to explore the area. 

The Promenade di Anglais in Nice

As we made our way to the Old Town from our hotel, we came across a lively market selling fruits, vegetables, spices (both regular and exotic), soaps, paintings, and anything else a local or a tourist might need. We picked up some Herbs de Provence (we had just run out and can't find it by us!), and some other spices that would be fun to cook with.

A variety of salts

After some time browsing the market, we spent our time in the Old Town (Vieux Nice), walking through the old pedestrian passageways and alleys. We made our way to Parc du Chateau, a hilltop park with great views over Old Nice and the beachfront. We also came across an old Jewish cemetery next to the park. 

View from the top

Le Monument du Centenaire
In Old Nice

Jewish Cemetery


Waterfall at the top
Apollo standing 21 feet tall (it was previously banned from the square for 22 years because it was thought to be too well endowed for the public).

Plaza Messena

The water seemed to be calling out to us as we made our way back towards the seaside. After we changed into swimsuits and headed towards the beach we realized why so many people were wearing crocs or other water shoes; the beach was not sandy as it appeared from above while at the park, but made of medium sized stones that were not too comfortable on our bare feet. We took a swim in the clear water and hopefully were successful in our subtlety of glancing at some bare chested women on the beach.

Hotel Negresco

Along the Promenade di Anglais during our run - looks like sand, but it's not!

Along the Promenade di Anglais during our run

After our swim we got in the car and headed towards Cannes. Cannes is mainly known for its celebrity film festival that occurs during two weeks in May, but this town seems to attract tourists year round hoping to get a piece of the glitz that the celebrities leave behind. In all honesty, Jon and I aren't into the whole celebrity and high end shopping scene, but felt we needed to visit here because, well, why not? We took a look at the theater where the festival is held, and walked along a path where celebrities have imprinted their hands into concrete (similar to Hollywood, but not as many). We ate a spectacular lunch on the waterfront consisting of our favorite French sandwich (Croque Madam) with some white wine. We also went to Cannes' historic quarter, and took in some nice views from the top of the hill. 

The theater in Cannes

Sylvester Stallone's hand is huge!

View of the beachfront in Cannes

The next day we went to the ancient village of Eze. Eze lies on a rock 1,400 feet above sea level and centers on the ruins of a 14th century castle. The maze-like, narrow streets are home to some small art shops and restaurants. We found ourselves lost a few times in search of the castle that eventually gave us quite a site over the water and St. Jean-Cap Ferrat. The Jardin Exotique surrounds the castle ruins and consists of different cacti, citrus trees, and tropical plants. Eze was by far our favorite stop out of the French towns that we visited.

View from the top

Some of the gardens

The church

Inside the church

Our last stop on the French Riviera was to the second smallest country in the world, Monaco (Vatican City is the first). Of course our first stop here had to be the Monte Carlo Casino. At first site this casino dominates the view from far away, with beautiful fountains and gardens leading up to it. Before we even went into the casino we spent 20 minutes watching the parade of fancy cars line up, which was a spectacle in itself.  The architecture of the building is stunning and the interior is beautifully decorated. If you're expecting to have a James Bond-like experience though, you will be disappointed. It was basically heaving with tourists and was not very glamorous at all. We had thought about dressing up, but decided not to after doing some research (and I'm glad we didn't!). There is a dress code at night, but nothing as elegant as we would have thought. Even though we wanted to, we didn't gamble here because there were only two roulette tables open, which we weren't interested in, and slot machines, which again didn't peak our interest. We got our gambling fix in Nice though so all was not lost (except for our money of course). Overall, there wasn't too much atmosphere in the casino, but the building was gorgeous to look at.

From afar

James Bond?

A nice Ferrari

Overall, we're glad we visited this region, but we don't feel a need to come back again... at least in the near future. While we had a great time, we don't see what all of the fuss is about. Cannes was unimpressive and stuffy, Monaco is good for a quick visit to the casino - otherwise there's not much to do, and Nice while pretty, is similar to other beach cities that we've been to (with a higher price tag and uncomfortable beaches). Eze proved to be a pleasant surprise away from the hustle of the beachgoers and was by far our favorite. Nevertheless, we did get to swim in the Mediterranean, take in the amazing landscape of the mountains, shop at an amazing and vibrant market, and marvel at how some people live everyday!

Giovedi scorso, siamo andati a Nizza. Abbiamo preso un aereo a Genova, poi abbiamo affittato una macchina e abbiamo guidato a Nizza. Mentre eravamo a Nizza abbiamo camminato intorno alla citta, siamo andati al mercato e abbiamo comprato alcune spezie, e abbiamo nuotato nel mare. Abbiamo anche corso sul lungomare di anglais e era bellissimo (faceva caldo!). Molti dei ristoranti a Nizza offrono cibo italiano perche’ e cosi vicino all’Italia, quindi abbiamo dovuto cercare cibo francese! Durante il nostro viaggio siamo anche andati a Cannes, che era solo okay. Abbiamo sentito che dovevamo andare perche’ era li’, ma non e’ niente di speciale.

Il prossimo giorno, dopo la nostra colazione francese, siamo andati a Eze e Monaco. Eze era il nostro paese preferito del nostro viaggio. La citta e’ sulla cima di una montagna e ha vedute belle! Ci sono strade strette senza macchine ma con negozi carini. Eze e’ molto caratteristiche e le persone erano molto amichevoli. Dopo abbiamo camminato fino a sopra ai giardini per vedere le vedute, siamo andati giu e abbiamo pranzato. Poi, abbiamo guidato a Monaco. Siamo andati dentro al Casino’ di Monte Carlo, e poi abbiamo camminato in giro.