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I didn't sleep well at all last night. It was Friday, so people were out all night long, and there was a restaurant right beneath my window. And again with the metallic clanging noises at 4:30! Oy!

Everything managed to fit in my suitcase, so I left the hotel at 8:20 a.m. and walked the few blocks to the bus stop. The airport bus turned up in ten minutes or so. It wasn't terribly full, but I did have to stand. It filled up along the route, but it wasn't packed or anything, and only a 30-minute ride. It stopped at Terminal 2, and I had to take a free shuttle to Terminal 1. I was at the airport early enough that I had to wait around for ten minutes before I could actually check my bag in. I was worried it might be overweight, but the agent sent it merrily on its way without demanding more money, so I guess it was fine.

I had a croissant and an espresso at Paul, a famous chain bakery. It was fine, and I think I really needed the caffeine to wake me up. I set off the metal detector going through Security, so I got patted down by a bored-looking French woman. I always want to tell them it's probably my underwire, but it wouldn't do any good anyway.

I looked around several of the shops and was tempted by a few things, but only bought some candies to take to the office. The flight boarded quickly, and we were able to take off ten minutes early. A flatbread sandwich of ham and cheese was served, and it was really, really good! We got a proper gate at Heathrow, which surprised me because it seems like nothing ever gets a gate there. Went through passport control and security and got to the shops. I bought a couple of books -- but could have bought several more -- and a Lion bar for John.

The flight was called for boarding, and we had to take a bus from the gate to a stand because, like I said, nothing ever gets a gate at Heathrow. I settled into seat 30H and then an Indian woman came along and indicated that she was at the window. When I checked in online last night, I noticed that there was no one booked into the middle seat, but the flight was looking pretty full. I asked the Indian lady if she knew if someone would be sitting there, and she said yes. But she nodded when she said that, and I think Indians actually shake their heads instead of nodding for an affirmative response. So I wasn't sure whether to believe her or not.

Then an English woman appeared and told the Indian lady that she was in her seat. So we both got up, let the English lady in, and the Indian lady asked me if the middle seat was her seat. Uh ... sure? We all got settled in, figured out which seatbelt belonged to which seat, and the Indian lady (I'm just going to call her Priya from now on) pulled out her blanket and put it over herself. Eventually she had moved around so much that the blanket bunched up, with quite a substantial bunch being on my side of the armrest. Oh, well. At least it was soft.

We were given dinner ... and I use the term loosely. I had "tortiglioni in pesto" and it was the saddest looking bunch of pasta I've ever seen. A tray of naked rigatoni-like tubes, and a blodge of green stuff in the middle. And thinking about it now, I believe the things that I thought were pine nuts were actually sunflower seeds. It didn't taste bad, but the presentation left a lot -- a ton! -- to be desired. It came with a side of potatoes ... I think they were potatoes. I tried a couple, but the seasoning was very strange, so I didn't finish them. Dessert was good at least: orange chocolate mousse.

So dinner was over and we were in the lull where you just wish the flight attendants would come around and pick up the trays already, when Priya suddenly started acting funny and looking ill. I asked her if she needed to get up, she said yes, so I picked up my tray, put up the seat tray (not easy because the guy in front of me was Mr. Recliner, who kept trying to make it recline more (though, to be fair, the flight attendant asked everyone to put their seats up during the meal service, and he did)), hauled myself out of my seat and stood in the aisle. Priya, meanwhile, is looking at my me like, <i style="line-height: 1.22;">What are you doing?[/i], and then wouldn't get up and indicated I should sit back down. Sigh. So I did. But then she looked like was going to throw up and she said "sugar" a few times. Maybe she's hypoglycemic, but she put her meal away pretty well, so I don't really know what her problem was, but I gave her the sugar packet from my tray. Then she said "milk," and I gave her my little tube of milk. She put the sugar in the milk, moaned for a little bit, and then seemed okay.

So then she decided that she did need to get up. I let her out and she disappeared for a while. Not too long after, the pilot turned on the Fasten Seatbelts sign, and the announcement came over asking everyone to return to their seats, blah, blah, blah. Priya reappeared with the flight attendant, who was trying to make her sit down. I got up, then Priya started acting like I should just move into the middle. The FA asked if I wouldn't mind doing that for a few minutes (what with the Fasten Seatbelts sign and all). By this time I was getting tired of Priya, so I said, "Okay, but that's my seat and I paid for it!" (True, I paid for it back in January when I booked my ticket.) So the FA said I should just sit back down and she'd take Priya to her jump seat.

The FA came back through the aisle several minutes later, so I stopped her and apologized for being snappy but, I told her, I was confused as to what exactly was happening. She said, "No need to apologize, darlin'." She said the Indian culture is so different and the concept of assigned seating isn't really a thing there, plus she realized Priya wasn't feeling well. So I'm glad the FA didn't think I was a complete bitch.

Priya came back eventually and sat in her seat, fell asleep, and snored for most of the rest of the flight. (When she was awake, she'd burp.) I had planned to read one of the books I bought at Heathrow but I just couldn't. Ended up watching several episodes of "The Big Bang Theory," "Friday Night Dinner" (which was hilarious), and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." The good thing about watching TV shows on board is that you can be entertained over the course of two episodes while an hour of flight time goes by.

The flight itself was fine. Not too much bumpy air, not too many weird smells, only one crying baby somewhere in the back. The FAs weren't grumpy either.

I think we landed more or less on time at SeaTac. They've got a revised system for getting through passport control. U.S. and Canadian passport holders can go to automatic kiosks to scan their passports and answer a few questions. The kiosk then takes your picture and prints out a receipt with the photo on it. Then you go to an agent, who stamps your passport and the receipt, and you go downstairs to get your bags. The Customs guy collects the receipt and apparently doesn't care about the landing card you filled out while on the plane. I like the new system because it went very quickly.

But here's where I feel sorry for someone like Priya. She could barely speak English and answered "yes" to every question. I doubt that Border Patrol has a Hindi speaker handy to interpret. We are so, so lucky to be native English speakers. Even in France, famous for being ultra-protective of its language and reluctant to accept words from other languages, there was plenty of English signage, and nearly everyone I asked spoke English well and was patient with my French. How do non-English-speaking visitors manage in the U.S.?

John was waiting for me with my water bottle, and I was so glad to see him (and, to be honest, my water bottle). We got home and I saw for the first time the row of new mailboxes (a neighbor had organized the whole thing); they look good. Chloe didn't seem to care that I was home, though she did have a good sniff of my suitcase later on.

I've had a lovely two weeks, and I don't have to go back to work till Thursday (yay!), and I'm happy to be home. On the way back from the airport, John asked where I'd be going next year. Hmmm ...

Back in America?

Back in America?

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Terribly polite

I slept on the other side of the bed last night, so I could just barely hear the tick-tick-tick from the lamp. At 4:30 a.m., though, it sounded as if someone was putting up scaffolding outside. Never did figure out what that was.

After breakfast I walked up to Place Massena and took a tram (after having to get a Frenchman to help me with the ticket machine) two stops to Place Garibaldi. It took me awhile to locate the bus stop I needed, but I finally found it and was soon on my way -- standing, and with dozens of other passengers -- on my way to Monaco.

It was an absolutely gorgeous morning and ridiculously warm on the bus. I ended up standing by one of the back doors, so I at least had a good view the whole way. The bus took the coastal road (which I think is called the Lower Corniche), and it went by Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer (one of the filming locations for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"), and other beautiful villages. When we finally arrived in Monaco, the walking options seemed to be through a tunnel or face-first into a cliffside. Then the bus moved on, and I could see the actual town -- well, the part called La Condamine.

I walked up a switchback hill to the top of the previously mentioned cliffside to see the Palace. There's a large square that slopes gently downhill, and at the tippy-top is where the Grimaldi princes have lived for something like seven centuries. I'd always kind of assumed that the whole dynasty started with Prince Rainier's father or maybe grandfather but, nope! The family actually has a long history.

I bought a ticket for the State Apartments and got an audio guide. The man sounded English, but he occasionally pronounced things very strangely. Plus, at the end of each bit of commentary, he would repeat the phrase, "Now, step into the next room and press the green button." After the fifth or sixth room, I could tell that he was a little sick of saying that. I swear there was a touch of sarcasm sneaking in.

The first stop was along a loggia with a view into an interior courtyard. I had more or less reached the end of the loggia and was looking at the lovely horseshoe-shaped staircase that led down to the courtyard, when one of the guards came up and asked me to move along. If this had been in England, I would've gotten a rather abrupt, "Right! You all need to leave this area immediately!" In Monaco, it was more like, "I'm sorry, but I must ask you to continue to the next room. You may come back after, but I just need you to move for a few minutes. Thank you." So polite and apologetic. So I moved into the next room and was glancing out the window when a female guard asked that we not look out the window. Again, very polite, very apologetic. I had seen a black car at the far end of the courtyard, so I wonder if Prince Albert or another royal was going out for the day. So there's my brush with royalty! ;)

The State Apartments were pleasant and grand without being ostentatious. There were quite a lot of really beautiful 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century cabinets with inlays and silver decorations. One of the first rooms, however, in spite of having a golden clock, seemed to be a depository for ... well, royals get presents all the time from other royal families and dignitaries, and some of the gifts are flat-out tacky. I think this was the "tacky gifts we can't actually get rid of" room. I kept waiting for the voice to explain the pink crystal cockatoo and the silver crystal eagle, but it never did. The remaining rooms had pretty furniture and portraits, and also a bust of Princess Grace.

The throne room (the throne itself really needs to be recovered as it's looking a bit threadbare) had a large family portrait of Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and their children that was painted a year before Princess Grace's death. The faces all look good, you can tell who everyone is supposed to be, but the poses are strange. There's no life in it, and I don't think the artist was comfortable with painting hands. Anyway, not a terribly good portrait.

After the Palace, I checked out the view over the harbor. Once again, there were huge yachts and normal-sized yachts. In fact, I didn't realize just how big some of them were until I saw a sailboat go by. As far as other forms of transportation, all the cars seemed to be Mercedes, BMW, Audi ... I didn't see any fabulous sports cars, but I did see a spotless white Bentley tootling along. Well, no, not tootling. People on the C&ocirc;te d'Azur drive like they're practicing for the Grand Prix. Even the bus driver took the curves like he was in a time trial.

I went into the Cathedral just down the hill from the Palace; pretty facade, inside could use a bit of a clean. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace ("Gratia Patricia") are buried there, along with other Grimaldis dating back a few centuries. Their graves both have flowers on them. I saw a tour group go through. There were probably 50 people plus a guide, and they all were wearing stickers with the number 18 on them. I saw another group later wearing 26 stickers. Hideous.

The Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium isn't too far beyond the Cathedral. It's built into the side of the rock going down toward the sea. It was opened in 1910 (a bit later than I had thought) by Prince Albert I, the current Prince's great-great-grandfather, and is sometimes referred to as the Temple of the Sea. He had an avid interest in travel and marine life and founded the Oceanographic Institute in 1906. The current Oceanographic Museum is dedicated to his wish of "knowing, loving and protecting the oceans." The Museum part is old-fashioned, but it does have a bunch of remarkably well-preserved specimens, as well as skeletons of sharks, whales, and also seals and a walrus.

(When I entered the building, I accidentally gave the guard my bus ticket. "Oh! I'm sorry, no. This is not ..." I realized my mistake and gave him the correct ticket to scan, and he laughed and again said he was sorry. The Monegasques are so polite, they're like the Canadians of the Riviera.

The current exhibition is called "On Sharks and Humanity," and explores how sharks are seen as nightmarish creatures of the deep (e.g., "Jaws") when, in reality, there are fewer than ten deaths each year that are caused by sharks. The predator that causes the most destruction? Our whiny friend the mosquito, with over 1,000,000 deaths a year. Sharks are a crucial component of the marine ecosystem because (a) they eat dead things, which helps to curb the spread of disease to other fish, and (b) they like to eat jellyfish, which would take over the oceans if sharks were wiped out. Either of the sharkless scenarios would end up destroying commercial fishing.

Yet more than 100,000,000 (yes, one hundred million) sharks are taken from the water each year, mainly to supply the fin trade. Sometimes, rather than bringing a shark back to land, it will be "finned" (the dorsal fin is cut off) and its body dumped back in the water. Without its fin, the shark cannot swim. And if it cannot swim, it suffocates and dies. Seventy percent of all shark species are threatened. I actually feel sorry for sharks now.

The aquarium is well done, though nothing spectacular. An octopus was pretty entertaining (they're very clever, and I think this one was playing with us), and I'd never seen -- nor even heard of -- a giant guitarfish before. The front half of him looked like a ray, and the back half like a shark. He mostly stayed on the bottom of the shark reef tank, but then he would rear up and sort of crawl up the glass so we could see his underside. I think he was tired of being stared at. A touch pool had little sharks in it, but I only managed to get a tiny swipe of a tail.

I walked back down to the bottom of the hill. There are parks on both sides of the road, and pretty Italianate buildings too. And Monaco is so clean! I could count the pieces of litter I saw on one hand. Not only that, the gutters aren't full of dead leaves and whatnot. It's like Disneyland.

I took a local bus across town (that took about three minutes) and up the opposite hill to Monte Carlo. The bus stop was at a park directly across from the Casino. I didn't go any closer because I'm sure in my capris and t-shirt I'm not exactly the clientele they want. It's one of the world's first casinos and was built in the mid-1800s. I'm not exactly sure what the architectural style is, but it's somewhat over the top while still being pleasing to the eye. Neoclassical baroque, perhaps?

I walked up to the Tourist Info office at the top of the park (ducks, doves, and a cocker spaniel who was so excited to be out for a walk) and got my passport stamped. They do it for free, and it's just a fun thing to have in one's passport (especially since nearly all of mine are boring entry/exit visas from Heathrow).

By that time I was exhausted, so I caught the #100 bus back to Nice. Managed to get a seat this time, only without a view. (Although when the bus was stopped in traffic, I glanced up at a 19th-century facade, only to see a husky sitting at a balcony a few floors up and watching everything.) The bus filled up quickly, and soon it was a festival of armpits. Fortunately, the afternoon ride didn't seem to take as long as the morning ride.

Instead of taking the tram back from Place Garibaldi, I walked. Turns out, it was only a ten minute walk from my hotel. I passed a bakery on my way and glanced in the window. They had fougasse! So I bought a piece, and it wasn't at all what I expected. It looks like an oval pizza, with a slightly chewy crust and onions and ham on top. It was good -- and incredibly greasy -- but not as tasty as I thought it would be.

I walked along the Quai des Etats-Unis for a few minutes before arriving back at the hotel. I've been trying to pack for the last four hours but just getting nowhere. Sigh. I keep thinking I didn't really buy anything, but apparently I did! I really hope my bag isn't over 50 pounds because I'm in trouble if it is. Pray for me.

Royal Palace of Monaco

Royal Palace of Monaco


Guard on parade

Guard on parade


Me outside the Palace

Me outside the Palace


St. Nicolas Cathedral

St. Nicolas Cathedral


Floor tiles in the Oceanographic Museum

Floor tiles in the Oceanographic Museum


Shark sculpture

Shark sculpture


Sharks in the Oceanographic Museum

Sharks in the Oceanographic Museum


Giant guitarfish

Giant guitarfish


Annoyed giant guitarfish

Annoyed giant guitarfish


Octopus

Octopus


Jellyfish

Jellyfish


Not quite ready to break the bank in Monte Carlo

Not quite ready to break the bank in Monte Carlo

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

Mayonnaise

I didn't sleep all that well last night because (a) it was still noisy outside, and (b) even though I turned off the bedside lamp, it still flickered all night long. I couldn't get it to truly turn off; I couldn't even take out the light bulb. And it made a continuous tick-tick-tick noise that was very, very quiet but just loud enough to hear. I finally fell asleep wondering if it was going to catch fire or something.

We had a walking tour this morning with Agn&egrave;s, a Parisienne who moved to Nice twelve years ago for the sunshine. And it was, indeed, very sunny and warm today. We stopped first at the town hall, where the mayor (who was recently re-elected and quite popular) lives and works. In the courtyard in front is a sculpture of a thumb. Yup. Nothing says local government like a thumb. In front of the thumb (temporarily) was a boat that will be used on Sunday for the feast day of St. Reparate. I'd never heard of her either, but she's the patron saint of Nice. The boat will be decorated with a ton of flowers and then paraded through the streets of Old Nice with a statue of the saint.

Agn&egrave;s took us by the oldest bookstore in Nice: it was used by Queen Victoria when she used to holiday on the Cote d'Azur. We also walked by the oldest shop, which sells umbrellas, parasols, and walking sticks. Most of the old town is already decorated with flags for Sunday's festival.

We went into Nice's cathedral, which, of course, is being restored. The outside ain't much, but the inside is Baroque and golden. Virginie was surprised to see it because she hadn't been inside for quite some time since it's been in restoration. She said it used to be very grey and dark, but now it's bright and light. One of the side chapels is dedicated to St. Reparate (with the statue that will be paraded) and her relics and to St. Teresa.

Agn&egrave;s then brought us to the Palais Lascaris. It was built for a noble family in the 18th century. It's on a nothing little street, and you'd walk right by it if you didn't have someone pointing it out. It's full of unusual and very old musical instruments, including a single instrument that is a harpsichord on one side and a harp on the other. It's also got some nifty doors that have the first automatic closing mechanism. The hinges are attached in such a way that if the door isn't held open, it will close. The rooms are so small and the door fits so well in the frame that not even a little bit of cold air can get in. This alleviated the need for fireplaces in each room. It can get cold in Nice, but not that cold.

We stood for a few minutes in front of the main courthouse, and Agn&egrave;s explained how lawyers must wear robes but they aren't allowed to go outside in them. There are exceptions of course: (1) if they want to step outside onto the porch for a cigarette (Tangent: I always forget just how much Europeans smoke!), or (2) if they need to cross the square to the other, smaller courthouse. As she said that, we saw three lawyers come out of the smaller courthouse to cross the square. I (and a few others) raised my camera to take a photo, but Agn&egrave;s was standing right next to me and said that they must not be photographed. Apparently, if they are photographed in their robes, they can be fired. This seems a bit harsh, especially since we learned that it's nearly impossible to be fired in France, but I put my camera back in my pocket.

We finished the tour at the food-and-flower market on the Cours Saleya. While Agn&egrave;s finished up her remarks, Virginie was buying us socca from one of the stalls. Socca is a popular street food in Nice and I'd been wanting to try some. It's sort of like a cr&#519;pe made of chickpeas, which is cooked in olive oil and then seasoned with salt and pepper. It's usually served in a paper cone, but Virginie brought us a few that we cut up into small pieces. It was good, though of a different consistency than I expected. Socca is essentially pure protein, so one can fill you up for most of the day. (I'm hoping to try fougasse too, if I can find it. It's a lacy bread flavored with nuts, herbs, and olives.)

When we were released, I took a bus to the Marc Chagall Museum. (European buses -- with the exception of England -- are made more for standing than sitting.) The museum building is modern and reminded me of the Cro-Magnon information center in Beynac. I arrived just after the film started so I decided to do that first. I'm glad I did because it was mainly an interview with Chagall in the 1970s, in which he talked about his process and some of his works. He was a cheerful guy, so it's no wonder his paintings are so full of life and color. The museum has 17 murals that he painted specifically for that space. They depict various books of the Bible, including the Song of Songs, and show his love of Russian folklore, his Jewish heritage, and his feeling that he lived between heaven and earth. Someone on the Rick Steves' Helpline had said the museum was disappointing because all it had were black-and-white drawings. Maybe she was in a different museum because all I saw were surreal swirls of color. It was beautiful, and I'm really glad I went. (I had originally thought about not going because I don't like taking buses in foreign cities. You never know when they're going to veer off onto the highway and take you to another city 40 minutes away!)

I took the bus back to town and found the Monoprix. Wouldn't you know it: two days left and I run out of toothpaste and floss. So I bought those and some chocolate, and then went to the mall. I know going to the mall seems ridiculous when there are all kinds of other things to do in a city like Nice, but malls have restrooms and all sorts of different shops. This particular mall also had a Starbucks. Yay! The girl asked me my name so she could write it on the cup, and she actually spelled it correctly. Gasp! Anyway, my mocha was good but a bit too sweet.

One thing I noticed while sitting there -- and someone on the tour had pointed this out too -- is the lack of tattoos and piercings. At home, I sometimes feel like I'm the last person without a tattoo (even though I know tons of people who aren't tattooed), and I feel like my single-pierced ears are so uncool. In France, I've only seen the occasional small tattoo, and discreet piercings. But who knows? Maybe under their clothes the French are inked like circus freaks!

I went into the Mephisto store after spending a great deal of time looking at the window display. I tried on a pair of shoes and actually bought them. The lady was very nice and even walked me back to the front of the store after I'd paid to open the door for me. I feel guilty about buying the shoes, but I guess this will be my one extravagant purchase on this trip.

I also went into the Galeries Lafayette to see if I could buy a scarf, but they were all made in China or India. So I bought some earrings instead. They're also made in China but ... whatever. I like them.

I rested in the hotel for a while and then went out to walk along the Promenade des Anglais. I found where the bus stop is for the airport, so now I feel good about that. There's a pleasant park a few blocks away from the hotel that has a carousel and several sculptures, and also nearby is a building with an empty lot next to it, so the side facing the lot has been painted trompe l'oeil style to look like it's got balconies. I crossed the very busy street to walk back along the water. The beaches here are rocky, but there were plenty of people out sunbathing and swimming. There were also sailboat races just off the shore; I couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on. The views over the Baie des Anges (the Bay of Angels, so called because that's where St. Reparate's body and head were brought to shore in a boat that had been set adrift (thus, the boat for the festival)) are mesmerizing. I love being able to see the horizon. The sun was warm, the sea was glittering, there was a soft breeze, and there's that moment where you think, "I could live here." All I need is a little villa up on the hillside ....

Our last supper was at Le Grand Balcon (not sure where this alleged balcony actually was) just around the corner from the hotel. Tr&egrave;s pratique! I sat with Virginie, Barb and Mickey, with Vicki and Stan on my other side. We had kir royale to start, and little toasts with tapenade. I had saumon marine maison et salade de fenouil &agrave; l'huile d'olive to start, followed by dos de dorade &agrave; la ligurienne, pomme pur&eacute;e maison (that's salmon salad with fennel, and sea bream with mashed potatoes). Dessert was cr&egrave;me br&ucirc;l&eacute;e. Everything was really good and washed down with a glass of ros&eacute;.

Afterwards, Virginie took us over to the water and thanked us for making her job easy. I have to say, we were a pretty easygoing and obedient group. She compared a successful tour to making mayonnaise: blending the egg and oil together is difficult, but when you have the right proportions, it all comes together. So, I guess we're mayonnaise! She handed around cups and then poured champagne (not Champagne) for everyone. She toasted us, we toasted her, and then we all toasted each other. She also handed out bookmarks on which she'd written personal messages, and she also gave out lavender sachets. I hope the drug-sniffing dogs know that lavender is not a Bad Thing!

So, except that we can have breakfast tomorrow, the tour is over. Despite feeling a bit lonely at first, I've really enjoyed it. We had a good group of people, and Virginie was a fantastic guide. The only bad thing is that this tour didn't have as much walking, so I'm likely to return five pounds heavier than when I left. Quelle horreur!

Tomorrow (hopefully): Monaco!

View from my window (if I lean way out)

View from my window (if I lean way out)


Thumb boat

Thumb boat


Nice definitely has an Italian feel

Nice definitely has an Italian feel


Socca

Socca


Pretty little carousel

Pretty little carousel


Sailboat races on the Baie des Anges

Sailboat races on the Baie des Anges


Trompe l'oeil

Trompe l'oeil


Our hotel

Our hotel


View from our hotel

View from our hotel


My dinner; the orange thing is a carrot gratin

My dinner; the orange thing is a carrot gratin


Dessert

Dessert

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

Remembrance of the week past

Today was our last day on the bus. That's always sad because the driver is usually a big part of the group. We'll all be sorry to see Gilles go; he played a French version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on the bus, and it made everyone light-hearted again. So we started the morning with a visit to Les Baux, a centuries-old hill town. There's a massive ruined castle at the top, with a spectacular view of the valleys below. The town got its name from the bauxite that was mined there. There are still quarries, but they're only cutting sandstone now. In the Middle Ages, Les Baux was ruled by lords who claimed to be descended from King Balthazar of Magi fame. They were ruthless warriors, but eventually they lost Les Baux and control of Provence to nobles from Barcelona. In the 16th century, it was something of a haven for Protestants. Eventually, Cardinal Richelieu had the castle destroyed. The Grimaldi family of Monaco also owned Les Baux until the French Revolution, which is why Prince Rainier and Princess Grace received the key to the city in 1982. The town is one of those impossibly charming and medieval ones that makes you want to move there immediately. (Truth is, you'd end up being bored to death and sick of tourists clogging up the streets.) The streets twist off in different directions, most climbing up toward the castle, and there are stairways all over as well. The shops all sell tourist stuff, though there are a few that sell really lovely pottery and various olive products. (We've seen all kinds of different olives on our plates in France, but it turns out that they're all from the same variety of tree. The color just indicates the stage of ripeness. They've all been good though!) Les Baux has a little - tiny! - museum devoted to santons. Santons are figures of people dressed in traditional 18th-century costume. They can range from about an inch tall to bigger than a Barbie doll. There are other santons that represent Biblical figures, and it's very popular at Christmastime to create a creche of santons using both the Biblical people and the 18th-c. townspeople. My favorite santon is walking into the mistral wind, trying to hold his hat on while his scarf and coat blow backward. There was a pretty decent wind in Les Baux today, and I can only imagine what it's like when the mistral comes. They say it comes in threes. So if you have one, two, three days of mistral, and then a fourth day, then the mistral will be there till the sixth day. If it goes on to the seventh day, then you're in for nine days of ridiculous wind. Virginie says she would like to hear a mistral because apparently it's a sound that can make people go crazy. Anyway, I elected not to do the castle because there was a light show in one of the quarries at the bottom of the hill. The subject was Klimt, and the show itself was like the one on Chartres Cathedral, only this time I was surrounded by the light and color and trying to keep my balance as the floor swirled with patterns while I walked around. It was absolutely incredible. Austrian waltzes and opera music played during the show, which was about 40 minutes long. I took a bunch of photos because I just couldn't help myself, but I haven't checked my camera yet and I'll bet they all look like crap. The quarry was very dark, apart from the light given off by the show, and my camera just isn't capable of getting a good shot in such low light. C'est la vie. Virginie had offered an optional lunch in Les Baux, which 12 of us took her up on. We ate outside at La Reine Jeanne and had cod with aioli, a boiled potato, and multiple vegetables (I ate my beans and carrots). It was very good, particularly the aioli, and very filling. Back on the bus and, after two hours, a pause pipi. I bought some calissons, a specialty of Provence, to take to work. They're small, almond-shaped candies made of candied fruit and ground almonds and topped with a smooth layer of royal icing. This was also our last opportunity to say au revoir to Gilles, so we lined up and the men shook hands, while the women all did the kiss-kiss thing on the cheek. He's been very sweet. We had been playing "Two truths and a lie" on the bus during the week, and my buddy Jerry and I were the only two left. Most people thought my lie was the truth and one of my truths was the lie. They all (nearly all) thought it was true that I had been on "Jeopardy!" in 2009, and that it was a lie that John and I have been together for so long. That brought compliments at least: "You must be a lot older than you look!" :) We also had one last visit with Anne-Sophie. She retires at 62, when most French people retire. Up until a few years ago, the retirement age was 60. When the law changed, there was an uproar, mostly by young people. Anne-Sophie will receive a pension (and she probably has her own private retirement account too), but not as much as a public servant. A public servant's pension is based on his salary over the last six months, and most likely will be around 2000 euros per month. Many retirees buy summer (or winter) homes. When American GIs went home after the War, they left behind the barracks buildings. French people could then buy a barracks and put it wherever they wanted. Virginie's in-laws bought one and put it on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We decided that Anne-Sophie would have a winter home in Provence. So even though the French generally make less money than we do in the U.S., in the end it's pretty much the same. They have less money to retire on, but they don't have to worry about medical expenses. Their pensions will even pay for a retirement/nursing home if necessary. Today's treat on the bus was a madeleine. Marcel Proust wrote "Remembrance of Things Past" after eating a madeleine and suddenly recalling bringing his aunt madeleines on Sunday mornings. They're tasty, but I didn't have any revelations that would cause me to write a seven-volume novel. We are now in Nice at the Mercure Marche aux Fleurs, directly across from the Bay of Angels. Gilles had to do a bit of extra driving to get us right in front of the hotel, so we drove by the harbor and saw a couple of ginormous yachts. Even the small boats anchored there were big. My hotel room is upsy-downsy: my bathroom and a little sitting room are on the level of the hallway, but my bed is up a staircase. I even have two televisions! If I stick my head way out my window, I have a glimpse of the sea. Virginie took us on a quick orientation walk, then I went with several other tour members to La Voglia for dinner. Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes region are heavily influenced by Italy, so there are Italian restaurants everywhere. I just had spaghetti in a tomato sauce, and it was delicious. But the portions! Oh my God! They brought out a frickin' basin of pasta. Everyone else's dishes were the same way. We had talked about going for gelato afterward, but we were all too tired and full to actually go.

I hope I don't have to get up in the middle of the night because I will kill myself on these stairs.

Les Baux from a distance

Les Baux from a distance


Les Baux

Les Baux


Biscuiterie in Les Baux

Biscuiterie in Les Baux


"The Kiss" by Klimt

"The Kiss" by Klimt


Santons

Santons


Santons

Santons


Les Baux

Les Baux


Saying adieu to Gilles

Saying adieu to Gilles


The lower half of my hotel room

The lower half of my hotel room


Place Massena, Nice

Place Massena, Nice


Spaghetti

Spaghetti

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

The jambon's connected to the cornichon

Best hairdryer yet! We started out this morning with a walk around Arles with a local guide. Very grey skies, but not raining. Our hotel is between the Classical Theater and the Roman Arena, so we started outside the Theater. It was built by the Romans in the first century B.C. and excavated during the 18th and 19th centuries. In its heyday, it was much larger than what you can see today; it could seat 10,000 people who came for plays and other spectacles. It fell into disuse and was used during the Middle Ages as a quarry for building other buildings in the city (e.g., St. Trophime church). Whereas Greek amphitheaters were built in the best spots acoustically, the Romans didn't really care. However, the acoustics in this theater were so poor, that they invented the idea of a back wall for sound to bounce off of. So you had the stage where the actors were, scenery upstage, and then the wall. Additionally, to keep spectators dry or out of the direct sun, there was a giant semi-circular awning that could be pulled up from behind the audience toward the stage. We had to guess who operated the awning and, of course, we guessed slaves. Yes; however, there were also old seamen involved because they knew all about sails and riggings. Our local guide, Isabelle, led us to Place de la R&eacute;publique (prior to the French Revolution it was called Place Royale) and into the lobby of the H&ocirc;tel de Ville (City Hall). There were two lion statues from the Middle Ages -- St. Mark is the patron saint of Arles -- and a copy of the Venus d'Arles, the original of which is in the Louvre. But the really interesting thing was the ceiling. It's a "flat" vault. I can't really describe it, except to say that it's a very shallow vault decorated to look like a maze. Actually, I couldn't tell if it was decorated like that, or it was actually the position of the stones that made it look labyrinthine. Whichever, it was very interesting and I've not really seen anything like it before. We went into the St. Trophime church. It has an amazing Romanesque entrance but, unfortunately, just three days ago scaffolding went up in order to fix some previously and poorly repaired masonry. We could see just enough to regret our timing. The interior is very dark because there are no windows, and it's full of side chapels with saints' relics. As you walk farther into the church, it suddenly turns Gothic, and there is light coming through the clerestory. It's definitely the prettier section of the church, but the Romanesque part feels ... I don't know. Holier? Forum Square is where the Roman Forum used to be, though it was situated on an east-west axis. Now it's north-south. It's where Vincent van Gogh painted the Caf&eacute; la Nuit. The caf&eacute; is still there and something of a tourist trap according to Isabelle. For one thing, the owners have painted it a bright yellow to match the painting. However, the only reason van Gogh painted the exterior that color was because it was lit by gas lamps, giving it a soft yellow glow. Also in the square are two columns from the Roman Forum, which today support the north wall of a hotel. We briefly went to the Espace van Gogh, which is a lovely courtyard and garden (and some exhibition spaces) in the old H&ocirc;tel Dieu. "H&ocirc;tel Dieu" was a common name for a hospital, and this particular one was built in 1573 and used right up until the 1980s. After a terrible argument with Paul Gauguin, during which Vincent somehow managed to lose his earlobe, he was taken to the H&ocirc;tel Dieu. His doctor decided Vincent should be on a sort of day release program, but eventually he advised the troubled artist to seek help at the mental hospital in St. R&eacute;my. Vincent checked himself in in 1889 and stayed for roughly a year. It did him a world of good (probably because he couldn't drink himself silly on absinthe), but in the spring of 1890, after he had been out of the hospital for some time, he walked into a field and shot himself. He died two days later. Our walking tour ended at the Roman Arena, built 1,000 years ago. It's a lot like the Colosseum in Rome, but a little more intimate. The usual Roman entertainments took place there: chariot races, gladiator matches, wrestling, fights between exotic animals, executions via lion. We saw a little lion creeping around. In fact, it strolled into the sandy ring and proceeded to have a little poo. Best sandbox ever! Now they have the occasional rock concert -- both Sting and Elton John have played there -- as well as both bullfights and bull games. Bullfights are what you think they are: there's a matador, and his job is to kill the bull. Bull games are different. There are black bulls from the Camargue region (they look a lot different from the big Spanish bulls) and there are contestants. The bulls' horns are decorated with ribbons, and on top of their heads is a cockade. The contestants have little hooks, and the object is to try to remove the ribbons and the cockade. Successful contestants receive prizes, with the cockade bringing the biggest reward. The bull usually wins because, believe it or not, it's not easy to remove a ribbon from a running bull! When the walk was over, I went back to the Espace van Gogh to do a little bit of shopping, and then I returned to the hotel to get some lunch. They have counter service, and I got a sandwich Parisien (jambon, butter and cornichons on really good bread), which I ate in the very pleasant courtyard. We had been given a museums-and-monuments pass earlier, so I eventually went back out to see the R&eacute;attu Museum. It's housed in the former Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta. One wing contains mostly Neoclassical art (mostly by Jacques R&eacute;attu) and a little bit of modern art. They've got a roomful of Picasso drawings, as well as one of his paintings (donated by Pablo himself). The other wing contained an exhibition of photos by Lucien Clergue, who seems to have enjoyed photographing nudes, sand, and nudes in sand. Apart from the Picasso room and a few other pieces, the building was far more interesting than its contents. The Baths of Constantine were half a block away so I figured I might as well see them. They're mostly ruins, but you can still see fine examples of the hypocaust system and an intact semi-arch. On the way back to the hotel I decided to go inside the Classical Theater. Turns out that seeing it from outside is nearly as good as seeing it from inside. I climbed up to the nosebleed seats and looked out the back. Our hotel was right there, and the Roman Arena just to the left. Talk about a great location! It started to rain hard enough for me to put up my umbrella, so I went back to the hotel to rest before dinner.

At some point, I also saw the Cloister of St. Trophime, and the Cryptoporticos, underground arches that the Romans built to support the upper end of Forum Square. Most of the arches were at or above street level 2,000 years ago. It's creepy and pretty drippy.

When I went out again, I saw Vicki and Stan sitting with a man with a dog. I walked around the block to see what there was to eat, and came back to Vicki and Stan. Vicki told me that the man was selling postcards that he had painted. He lived just down the road, so many of the cards were scenes of the immediate area. He was awfully sweet, as was his dog, and the postcards were rather nice, so I bought one. I asked him if he would sign it, and here's what he wrote, slowly and carefully (in French, naturellement): "Best memories of Arles to Teresa. Marin Patrick - 30 September 2014." Not exactly earth-shattering, I suppose, but he was just so nice, and he was really happy that I understood what he was talking about when he couldn't find the right English words. Plus, his dog was soft. Around the corner was one of the restaurants recommended in Rick Steves' book, Le Grillon, so I went there. Nancy and John were already there, and after a bit George and Luvina came in as well. As I was finishing up, Steve and Lynel arrived. So, basically, one quarter of the group showed up. I had a tartine (open-faced sandwich that's a bit like a pizza) with jambon, Gruyere, and olives, and a beer. Yummy.

Now I have to try to repack my suitcase because it's getting a bit out of hand. It's truly time now for the expansion zipper!

I'm in the "Love Apple" room

I'm in the "Love Apple" room


Fountain

Fountain


Lion in the Hotel de Ville

Lion in the Hotel de Ville


Two ancient columns support a wall in Forum Square

Two ancient columns support a wall in Forum Square


Inside the Roman Arena

Inside the Roman Arena


The lion

The lion


The cloister

The cloister


Yummy lunch!

Yummy lunch!


Detail from a painting by Antoine Raspal

Detail from a painting by Antoine Raspal


Constantine's Baths

Constantine's Baths


Monsieur Marin Patrick and his dog

Monsieur Marin Patrick and his dog


Yummy dinner!

Yummy dinner!

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in France Comments (0)

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