Saturday, October 20, 2012

Provence & Cote d'Azur: Part III

We woke up on our third day in France on the coast of Cagnes sur Mer to a lovely breakfast served on the beautiful terrace by our hostess, Daniela.

Breakfast was simple, but delicious, and we really could not have a better view
Our customary early wake-up call from little r introduced us to a plethora of bizarre French cartoons.  By the time we sat down to eat breakfast, our wild child was raring to go. So, we ate quickly, and Big R took the little man to the boat docks so he could watch the fisherman bringing in their catch for the day and throw rocks into the ocean (little r's new favorite pastime).

little r watching the fisherman unload their morning catch
beach time with Daddy
the little man no doubt contemplating the meaning of life
he became a pro at throwing rocks into the sea
and dancing among the waves
even the dogs got up early for fishing
My favorite part about the rocky beaches in Cagnes sur Mer was listening to the rocks sing as the waves came up to shore and pulled back out to sea.  I could have sat there all day meditating to the sound.  But alas, we had much bigger adventures in mind, and it was yet another beautiful day in Cote d'Azur.  So, we climbed back into the car and took the short coastal drive to Antibes.

As I mentioned before, every town we visited was different than the last.  Some places we were not terribly excited about, but others we were very fond of. Antibes was one of the latter.  What a beautiful little Provencal town.  It had all the character one would expect to see in this region, and it did not disappoint.  We got lucky with a parking space again, and we were quickly on our feet exploring this cute little gem.

small square in Antibes
street view in Antibes
Antibes' public beach
Easily, our favorite experience in Antibes was going to the Provencal market.  What a sight!  All of the fresh produce, spices, olives, and anything else that comes to mind when you think "French" you could find in this incredible market.

Overhead view of the Provencal market in Antibes
there were cheeses
colorful spices to allure the senses
olives of every variety
and of course, wonderful wine and meats
artful depictions of the Provencal market
there were so many options, how do you chose?
We made the mistake of leaving Antibes in search of the sandy beaches promised in our guide book between there and Juan les Pins, just a short drive away.  I have to make this one sidenote about guide books for this region, they are lousy.  It's almost as if the area is too grand for a proper description, so they skim the region with a little talk here and there about what you should see.  We found often that the recommendations were lacking.  This was especially true when it came to beaches in Cote d'Azur.  I have to say, when we booked this trip, we didn't intend for it to be a beach vacation, so that wasn't even our focus.  And I'm glad we chose to keep our eye on other things.  The couple hours we did spend searching for a nice public beach to play in the sand was a complete waste of time.  Juan les Pins was overly commercialized, and there was private beach after private beach.  We were told there were public beaches in the area, but we had no luck finding one.  The guide books said there was 18 kilometers of sandy beautiful beaches between Antibes and Juan les Pins.  Funny how they forgot to mention that the hotels owned them all.  So, if you do decide to spend a beach vacation in Cote d'Azur, either stay in a hotel with beach access, or enjoy the many rocky beaches in towns like Cagnes sur Mer instead. You'll be much happier.

We turned again to our guide book for the top ten beaches in the area.  At the top of the list was Point de Antibes.  Yes, it was beautiful, and the diving must be immaculate, but we were really confused how this landed at the top of a list of best beaches in what is often known as a summer paradise.  We stopped and went for a dip...well, the boys did.  The water was freezing, so I enjoyed the drier views and stayed warm.

small cove near Point de Antibes where the boys went swimming

We worked our way back to Cagnes sur Mer to do a little exploring at our home base.  We thought we might try renting bikes and taking a trip to Nice, but it was getting a bit late in the day, so we wouldn't be able to do much of any exploring once we got there.  Instead, we road a touristy double bike, and fought with our wild man the entire ride.  This was not one of his brighter moments.  We thought a few times that we might be able to hand him off to a gypsy, but despite his whining, he was a little too cute to give away.

little r insisted on driving, which made pedaling the crazy bike quite a challenge
We found ourselves instead driving toward Villfranche sur Mer for dinner.  It sits just to the east of Nice, and it came highly recommended.  I was really looking forward to seeing this fishing village.  Driving to Villfranche was an adventure itself.  The route winds through Nice as you climb and descend narrow roadways carefully navigating around parked cars.  Our GPS was our best friend on this part of our adventure.

Villfranche sur Mer is just as beautiful as promised.  The fishing village climbs the steep cliffs that ascend off of the coastline, and the hillsides and coastlines are spotted with pastel buildings with character from a much earlier time.  We literally fell in love with this place.  It was a quiet Sunday night in town, so parking was easy, and picking a perfect dinner location was effortless.  The servers at our restaurant were having fun practicing their English with us as Big R continued to practice his french. It was probably the only meal we had the entire trip that little r ate happily and seemed to really enjoy himself.

Villfranche sur Mer

harbor at Villfranche sur Mer

After dinner we strolled around town and took in the sights by nightlight.  We tested our GPS on several occasions to get back to Cagnes sur Mer.  Little r quickly fell asleep once we got to the car, so the choice to crawl into bed was an easy one when we got back to our B&B.

The next morning we enjoyed our breakfast on the terrace and took into some more of the beautiful coastline in Cagnes sur Mer before heading back toward Marseilles for our flight home.  We took a detour to visit a quaint hillside town called, Gourdon.  This was a gem buried deep in our guidebook.  The town is quite literally built into the mountain.  As we worked our way up to the town, we were impressed by the strength of the road bikers making their way up.

A view of Gourdon on the scenic drive to the town
we marveled at the athletes
Another beautiful photo of Gourdon
Once we reached Gourdon, we were pleasantly surprised by its quaint charm and it's quiet nature.  Although there were tourists, this was clearly off-the-beaten-path, and we were lucky to have found it.  It made for a perfect detour and last visit of Provence before heading home.

the main street in Gourdon

After a quick, but tasty lunch in Gourdon, it was time to head west toward Marseilles   We were in that awkward timeframe where we didn't really have enough time for another coastal or hillside adventure in Provence, but without an additional stop, we'd be stuck at the airport frightfully early.  So, we thought we'd try to squeeze in a quick visit to Aix-en-Provence, which sits just 20 minutes to the north of the airport.  We probably should have just opted to be early.  Our trip to Aix was unimpressionable and rushed.  In all fairness to Aix, this chic city should not be viewed in a mere 30 minutes.  I hope to give it a true visit some day, but I suppose there are other places in Provence I'd rather spend my time.  By all means though, please don't take our experience as a reason not to visit.  I've read and heard amazing things about Aix-en-Provence, and if you have had a visit there and want to share your stories with us, please do!

The trip back to the airport was uneventful except for a little struggle trying to figure out how exactly to get our rental car back. Apparently driving the wrong way on a one-way road is allowed if you play stupid.  HA!  The flight was delayed and the folks at the Marseilles airport were just a tad bit less friendly than our German counterparts in Munich.  They gave us grief about the carseat and glared at the size of our carry-on. Both of these were a non-issue getting to France.  None of this would have mattered one bit except that they nearly lost the carseat (that easily would have fit on the plane, by the way), so we had about 45 minutes of sheer panic.  Until that time I never gave it a moment of thought about what we would do if we got to our home airport and couldn't actually drive home because we were missing the most important element of our journey (maybe next to the car keys themselves?).  Luckily we didn't have to give that thought any additional time, and we did eventually get the carseat back (which is considered oversized luggage, by the way, for any of our friends that might be caught in a similar situation).

We made it home before midnight (barely), and enjoyed a good night's rest in our own beds dreaming about our wonderful time in France. 

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