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The French and Italian Riviera

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If the smell of strawberry ice cream turns you on, then you’ll easily be allured to the aroma of a gelateria in Portofino, San Remo or Menton. These are the towns of the Franco-Italian Riviera and they bask in sun for two-thirds of the year.

If that sounds good to you, then the Riviera is the place for you. Whether it is the sunny ice creams, pizzerias and cappuccino’s in Italy, or Arabic cafes, bakeries and beaches on the French side, this place is truly enchanting.

It is full of all the glories of life in this part of the world. I remember about eleven years ago now, when my dad flew into Nice to see us. However, this was only because this was the nearest point to us that he could fly to. One problem.

We lived in Brittany…northwest…and not southeast…France. Why were we living there? A story for another time.

So we piled into our Volvo Estate and set off for the long journey across France. It was one to remember too. After we had left, we passed through France’s equivalent of the Canadian prairies. It is the breadbasket of the country, with wheat being the chief product and fertile soil lying in the land.

The Pays De La Loire and Poitou-Charente regions stretch from St Nazaire in the north to Bordeaux in the south and from the Bay of Biscay in the west to Clermont-Ferrand in the east.

An overnight stop was spent in Clermont in an Etap hotel for a good rate, about forty Euros, as I recall. It was a clean and well-dressed city. We left the next morning and spent most of the day driving south to Narbonne, a fun little town in Provence. Green trees line the avenue of this sweet, beautiful town.

We had to travel this far south to reach the main road, the E15 to Montpellier and then the E80 Salon-de-Provence, outside Marseille. Then on to Aix-en-Provence where you’ll pass through Parc Jourdan and straight on to our destination.

Now, about Nice. After a night in a seaside hotel, we entered the city in order to pick up my dad from the airport. The city didn’t make a good impression with me. Aside from that, though, we had a decent stay, punctuated by the beaches, or, namely, the topless women on them.

I was fourteen years old and, for me, it was paradise. As we crossed the border into Italy, I felt a distinct sense of adventure. My first impression of San Remo on the Italian side was one of surrealism. It was January and the christmas lights were  still up.

This did not gel at all with the  temperate beaches and sunshine that the city glowed in. I passed through Monaco twice to get there by train. The view of the water was dazzling! It only cost 5 Euros and the station was clean. Not so in San Remo.

The longest tunnel-walk in the world between the train and the station front door is here. It takes a few minutes. Happy days were spent there, as my dad purchased a flat in Ceriana, a tiny hill village just a few miles north of San Remo.

Ceriana (IM), 2010.

Ceriana (IM), 2010. (Photo credit: Fiore S. Barbato)

It was a sweet place, as is shown below, but the flat was uninhabited and unprepared. My dad had rather unrealistic ideas about renting it out to tourists.

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We met up with a real estate agent in the village, called Martina, who ran a real estate business with her husband, Klaus. We spent a day overlooking the flat and discussing terms. It wasn’t very interesting for me and I didn’t like the property. I think my dad was the only one who did.

But that was the first time I went down. Over the next few years, I grew fond of the flat, having stayed in it twice in 2005 for a week’s stretch and a two-week stretch. The first time I went down, my dad picked me up from the airport.

We crossed into France again one day as we headed for the seaside town of Menton. I’ll remember that day forever. There was a festival of oranges on and it was bright screaming sunshine. And as for the bakeries, there were fruit-flavoured pastries abound!

Menton

Menton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tried some oranges and they are probably the best I’ve ever had. I really appreciated my dad doing that for me. He was so impressed with the town. It was a really special week.

The bus trip…anyone who has been on the road between Ceriana on the bus  is either extremely brave, foolish or insane. A the bus veers close to the steep drop-off on one side, my heart leaps. My faith in the drivers is not well-founded either.

They gab on their cell-phones, talk to the passengers and throw their hands up in the air, completely oblivious to the concept that they might have to keep those things that have fingers on them gripped to the big wheel that steers the thing called a bus with loads of innocent people, whose life flashes before their eyes, in it.

Mine did. I was quite peaceful about that. Scared stiff about dying though.

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If you get there, though, this is what awaits. A calm, cosy square with cafes all around and a pleasant, gentle atmosphere to suit. I felt as though life could not be more contented. The marina was just adjacent to the square, leisure boats and the like.

Well I sure hope Mario enjoyed the English tea that I got for him and the strawberry jam, among with other items. It was only on later trips that I found out about all the eateries in the vicinity. The communities are tiny, but they have traditionally cooked, very palatable food.

One may dine at the pizzeria in Ceriana itself, run by Esmerelda and Dario. It has the finest Margherita’s around. Then there are, of course, numerous counterparts such as the Restaurant Vecchia Fattoria. Don’t be mistaken. Of the dozen or so items on the menu, you don’t get to choose one.

They’ll serve you the entire menu, one item after another. There was also a cafe in Bajardo, further north about two miles. I don’t recall the name. Portofino and the cove around the harbour are not to be forgotten. The colour of its sweet little cottages embedded on the hillside is an image that will last for decades in my memory.

It’s gaudy-painted boats only add to this glamorous retreat. You can spend hours by the waterfront there and getting to it by car is a fun adventure of relaxing, winding roads and sunshine. Along with car honks. someone may be around the bend in front of you, so you’d better warn them of your presence!

There was Turin too, of course. I flew in there once to catch a train to San Remo. Two remarkable things happened to me. One, the first time I went there, the bus driver forgot to tell me when I was at the station. This resulted in me missing my train and having to connect via Savona.

It added about four hours to my journey. The second experience was when I went back. My dad and I took the train, kipping in the station. We got about two hours of sleep and decided to wander round at three a.m. Bizarrely, all the cafes were buzzing.

That morning, we checked into a decent hotel, shadowed a monastery above the city. We ate in a cosmopolitan restaurant and flew out the next day.

It was with sadness, therefore, that my father had to sell his flat, never having rented it to so much as dormouse. They were lovely days…

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Venice and Dubrovnik

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Dubrovnik“. The name conjures up images of a city so beautiful, many respect it as paradise. The town, as you enter it, sets a sight that you’ll never forget. The entrance to the old town from the north is very quaint indeed.

You walk slowly down a windy, s-shaped street that descends gradually towards the water until you reach the shaded area that has a waterfront overlooking the harbour from the south.

The 'old town' of Dubrovnik From the photograp...

The ‘old town’ of Dubrovnik From the photographer: Canon 5d + 24-70mm @ 45mm Slik Sprint Pro 2 tripod Redsnapper RSH-61 ballhead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many cafes stretch across fortified medieval city walls next to the water’s edge. It’s a lovely cool walk along the pavement down here and you may also find harbour tours. The sea was as turquoise as the word itself. The waters as calm as silk.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there.

There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot. It was here that we spent the day, drinking cold drinks, repeatedly saying how gorgeous it was and basking in the sun.

The drive home was uneventful. We dined eagerly by Split‘s Old Town harbour area and boarded the ferry for Ancona. The boarding process was long and laborious and the passage equally so.

 

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore ...

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore en route from Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia. June 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The unloading process was dreadful. The cars were being brought off the ship at the same time the walk-off passengers! Ancona.

The town of seagulls! Not much to see here…just a dreary port and its docks. Full speed ahead to Venice!

There is one thing that I will never forget about the day we arrived. The rain. Boy it poured! It I stared deep into the blue. I was thoughtful.

Happy. Contented. Many good things. After all, maybe life had a calling for me after all. I was, of course, in Croatia.

A country that must have some of the most desirable coast in Europe. Our location, at that point, was a hotel just south of Split. We were situated by the sea as well.

Always a plus. We sat out on the terrace and had a scrumptious breakfast. We set out around eight-thirty.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there. There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot.

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As for the hotel, very posh. It was quite a walk from here to the train station. And the trains were crowded too, cattle class. In fact, I recall my mother saying that she was quite claustrophobic.

The train stopped at a lot of stations before reaching Venice and we passed Marco Polo Intl. Venezia Santa Lucia is the main station and you’ll have, at some point, to pass through Venezia Mestre station on solid land if you wish to see the island city.

 

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venice-grand-canal-from-train-station (Photo credit: hartingale)

 

Once you’re there, then the fun begins. You’ll be able to enjoy the famous “Vaporetto’s”. These famous little boats are the buses and life-blood of Venice.

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The Rialto bridge . My mother spent some time photographing this as I eagerly looked on. The rain had abated and I had removed my raincoat.

It was really magical, despite the smell of the brown stuff. The sun began to shine from behind those dark and brooding clouds above.

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How about seeing the Piazza San Marco. Thats a wonderful place. You pay a small fee to go up the tower and have the most wonderful view. The centre of the tower stretches high above the square and you can see the whole city from here!

I took the sight in really well, feeling slightly giddy because of the height, and returned to terra firma.

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After this, we felt like having a drink. Why not stop off in a Cafe? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because two regular-sized glasses of lemonade will set you back six Euros! Yeah, its expensive here. Next, the shopping district. After a happy hour here, we headed again for our water-bus Vaporettos and casually made our way back to Central Station.

During our stay, a cruise ship came into harbour. Sacrilege if you ask me. Why couldn’t that hundred-thousand-plus-tonne monstrosity stay outside the city and boat its passengers into the city. The passengers were quite irritating too. Loud. Smelly. Overweight.

 

At least we left the next day. I never thought I’d say that about Venice, but I’d had just the right dose of holiday…

The Adriatic (Credit to Rebecca Cox for photography)

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It was a late August day. We set out under bright blue summer skies in what is generally acknowledged as warm weather in England. It was an eventful journey. After having stopped in a lay-by and bought the usual assortment of refreshments for a journey from Gloucestershire to Luton Airport.

Ryanair EI-DPC taxies at Luton airport

Ryanair EI-DPC taxies at Luton airport (Photo credit: bigpresh)

After a while, though, around Milton Keynes, my mother began to get agitated with “my navigation”. I was responsible for failing to identify three roundabouts that didn’t appear on the map. As it turns out, they weren’t on the map. Anyway, after a heated argument, we realised this and continued normally.

Upon arrival at Luton around six in the evening, we began the check-in procedure. No biggie. Neither was the flight.

We took off around eight and landed at ten. What WAS worrying, however, was that my father, who had set off across Europe some time previously to meet us at Venice’s Treviso Airport, was nowhere to be seen nor heard from. We tried calling his mobile.

No luck. While, initially, I thought this was probably a mobile phone reception problem, my mother began to worry. She began to fear he had had an accident and went frantic.

This lasted for a couple of hours, during which time I had to ask a cop, or carabinieri, for some money to use for a payphone. For the next hour or so, my mother seriously fretted due to the fact that we could not get in touch with him.

To clear my head, I stepped outside. It was then that my father, quite by chance, drove by. This was a great relief to my mother and I. It transpired that he had no signal and was lost. Right now. Time to hit the road.

Its after one o’clock in the morning and we need to rest so the first night will be a “pit stop” in an autostrada, their motorway, service station. The car we were using was a Volkswagen Polo and it was CRAMPED.

I had to stuff my foot through, then wedge my shoulder in and, finally, use levering force to get into the car. Good times! So we arrived at a spot just outside Trieste where the next four or five hours was a combination of restlessness and hovering a round in the shop with some hanging out under the stars.

That was cool! On the road again…We went to see the famous Lipizzaner Stallions at the Lipica 1580 Stud Farm. Lipica’s history is heavily influenced by the Habsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire for circa 650 years.

English: Favory Pallavicina, approved Lipizzan...

English: Favory Pallavicina, approved Lipizzan stallion, Australia Deutsch: Favory Pallavicina, gekörter Lipizzanerhengst, Australien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Horses, especially the Spanish Horse, were valued for both military and commercial reasons. Archduke Charles chose to build the Royal Stud Farm in 1578.

We hung around the stables while being given a guided tour and took photographs. The farm was a lovely place, greenery abound!

The port of Trieste was highlighted by bright Italian sunshine that laid the container ships bare in the light of day. We crossed the border shortly thereafter and promptly found a market on the Croatian side and bought the best grapes I have ever tasted from the lady depicted below.croatia 3 116

It was a hot day and I had my T-shirt off, (wolf whistles) after having stepped out of the car, and strode over to the barrier, from where we could see the brilliant Azure of the water in the bay. I can still remember the radiance of the sun against the tarmac. It was tremendous that day.

The first night at a campsite was spent at a reasonably cheap place on the coast that had a traditional style Slovenian seafood restaurant. Every meal I ate at a restaurant on this trip was dead seafood still looking at me.

Fish dinner

Fish dinner (Photo credit: The Hungarian Girl)

It was a lovely restaurant, surrounded by terracotta houses that, in turn, surrounded the bay. However, I didn’t finish my meal and never got to grips with the cuisine in the region.

The sea by the campsite was crystal clear. As dusk set, we decided to have a dip. It was a good choice. Water that seemed to come out of a hot spring greeted our feet and we were “bitten by the bug”. Pitching the tent was fun and games. It was a two-man tent, which meant my dad had to sleep in the car.

That was interesting. It was a noisy night. We had a group of teenagers for neighbours and they were four or five in number, shreiking till all hours. More than that, there was an equal number of guys to girls. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

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A little while later, we made a stop in a small Croatian town that struck me for two reasons. Firstly, because of the Croatian architecture. The buildings were made of granite and were quite different to those on the Slovenian side. At least in appearance anyway. This could have been Rovinj.

The second reason was that a woman behind the till in a shop was the only person we encountered who recognized my father’s North American accent. We stopped by the waterfront for a while and had a drink there, the cool stone pavement was a relief.

Street Walking

Street Walking (Photo credit: Let Ideas Compete)

We were sat by the harbour. I don’t recall if it was the one featured at the beginning, but it was lovely.

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Later on, in the city of Pula, we saw the roman amphitheatre shown above. The amphitheatre is amongst six of the largest surviving, out of 200, amphitheatres from the great empire and was constructed between 27-68 A.D.

It is also unique because no other survivor has four side towers and all three architectural orders, or styles, intact. Please don’t mistake me for an expert. In fact, that is information off the net and we never went inside. But we got a few good shots of it, laugh.

Split was the best! It wasn’t much to look at from afar. Lots of old soviet-style apartment blocks straddle it to the North and South. However, the harbour and old city were gorgeous. This is a typical scene.

We rested here for a night and spent some time around the harbour. It was paradise.There were tenors singing in the Mediterranean warmth. Heaven.

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Dubrovnik, nestled in the hills, afforded us great views…but it was the residents that were fascinating. The parking arrangement was crazy.

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And so, I’ll leave you there. Bye!

(Credit to Rebecca Cox for the photography)