We are spending the entire day at sea, bound for Souda Bay, Crete at the leisurely pace of about nine knots. Sea is all but dead calm, sky is perfectly blue, temperature is mid-70s.
The Ionian Sea is more than 10,000 feet deep here, so the water is darkest indigo blue, with shafts of sunlight streaming down, converging to an undetermined point far beyond sight. It reminds me of the water in the Gulf Stream when we crossed many years ago on our way to the Abacos.
I finish second in the putting contest.
Dress code for the evening is formal, so out comes the tuxedo.
So far, this has been the highlight of the voyage.
Ours was the only cruise ship to pull up to the small terminal, so we would not overwhelm the small town of Argostoli, the capital of Cephalonia, one of the seven and the largest of the Ionian islands off the Greek coast.
We had signed up for the natural wonders tour, because it warned of a high level of activity and we figured most of the older passengers would choose a more sedate leisurely tour. We were wrong—a total of four full size buses were filled to capacity for the trip. Our tour guide spoke fine English, since she was born in Montreal, and she pattered on with a historical survey of the island and the wonders we were about to witness.
Our first stop was the Dragorati Cave at the village of Sami. To reach the cavern, you have to walk down more than 100 steps, and early indications were that some of our fellow passengers would never make it back up. The cave is spiked with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites which display the subtle colorations of the minerals in the waters that form them at the rate of one centimeter every century.
After about an hour in and out of the cave, just long enough for everyone to gingerly step down and slowly crawl back up to the surface, our bus took off for Melissani Lake.
After more stairs and ramps down to the sunken lake, we alighted at a small landing where row boats met us for a quick tour of the tiny body of water. What makes Melissani worth seeing is that it is underground, with a shaft of light streaming from above where the ceiling collapsed some thousands of years ago. Scientists have since determined that the waters from Lake Melissani flow from one side of Cephalonia to the other—underground.
The effect inside the little lake is stunning as we floated across the clear deep water through the sunlit section, then along a small stream where the water shallows to about 10 inches before it leads to a sealed cave. The effect is not unlike the Indians in British Virgin Islands. The cavern here, however, is home to thousands of bats that sleep during the day in the ceiling and feed at night. We were not interested in staying around to watch them wake up.
Later in the trip, our guide slowed the bus down to show us where the waters that feed the lake drain out on the other side of Cephalonia. She also pointed out spectacular beaches that rival anything in the Caribbean, particularly Myrtos Beach on the northwest peninsula of the island.
Near the end of the tour, our guide gave us an emotional account of the slaughter of thousands of Italian soldiers by the Nazis during WWII and showed us the cliff where many of the former allied forces were gunned down by the Germans to fall into the abyss below. The incident was made into a movie starring Nicolas Cage based on a popular book that uncovered the gruesome story of treachery and savagery among enemy factions who started the war on the same side.
With that bit of cheery commentary, our guide followed up with a few stories of virgins who plunged to their deaths rather than being raped and sold into slavery by Barbarossa working for the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Great.
By the time the tour ended and we disembarked our bus, we needed a drink.
We also needed lunch, so we wandered along the waterfront street looking a block inward hoping to spy a welcoming establishment. But Argistoli’s commercial district is strung only along the waterfront at the port, so we settled for a nicely appointed restaurant named the Captain’s Table overlooking the Red Train central desk and the bay beyond.
The menu at the Captain’s Table features an entire page of appetizers and tastings. Against our better judgment, we ordered five—stuffed vine (grape) leaves, grilled sausage with fries, fried zucchini and eggplant, spinach pie and sautéed mussels. And bread.
Three of these would have been plenty. Four would have been piggish. Five were just sinful, stupid gluttony.
We washed all this down with a small 187 ml bottle of white wine for Lynn and a 500 ml pichet of red for us to share. The total bill was 35.50 euros. If not for our gluttony, the bill would have been about 25 euros.
We staggered out of the Captain’s Table and walked a short distance down the street to catch the ferry across the bay to the port city of Lixouri, about a 30 minute boat ride away. By now, the sea breeze had filled in quite briskly, and I reckoned it hit 20 knots, since we could see whitecaps on the back of the waves. Since our ferry was steaming ahead at 10 knots VMG, the apparent wind was a good 30 knots before we turned into the basin at Lixouri. Quite a boat ride for 5.60 euros. The trip back was downwind and a lot calmer, but still 5.60 euros.
Although our ship would not leave port until after 9 p.m., we concluded we had enjoyed enough adventure for the day. So we walked back down the cruise terminal but not before stopping at the 160-foot mega-yacht named Prana. I chatted with the crew for a minute, as the deck officer pointed out that the name on the boom was written in Sanscrit, so it was not likely we would ever decipher it. I should have asked but forgot, where they were off to, because I suspect the Caribbean is not likely to be on their winter cruise this year.
No fewer than four huge cruise ships, plus one smaller Greek cruiser, pulled into Corfu in the morning. Each disgorged its entire paying population almost simultaneously. Marching alongside the throngs of four ships for half-kilometer walk down the dock, we met our buses that would take us into the ancient town. For some reason, the Norwegian Star ship’s buses were much closer than those for all the other boats. We kept walking to ours.
Corfu is a larger city, so it is able to absorb the teeming masses from the cruise ships more easily. For us, this was the perfect place to buy tickets on the local HoHo for a quick roundabout tour of the town. Instead of the customary red bus HoHo, I chose the local Corfu City Tour, which offered a smaller, single deck open bus that would fit through Corfu’s narrow winding streets more comfortably. Massive double-decker buses overwhelm these little towns and their ancient streets that were designed for horses not mega buses.
We boarded our bus, fumbled with the language choices of the narrative, and started our tour—which took us exactly back to the port where we had started. At that point, we were instructed to get off the small bus and board the big bus, which by now was completely full. I complained that this is exactly what I did not want, that they had just wasted my time by taking us back to where we had started and making us ride on the lower inside level of a bus I didn’t choose.
The attendant listened patiently to my complaints, then directed me to the big bus, saying there was nothing to be done. I was pissed, to be polite.
The big bus took us to the large green space that the Venetians had cleared out some 500 years ago (at the expense of more than 1,000 homes), where we alighted from the large bus and waited for the small bus to come back. At least we could get half our tour on a reasonably sized vehicle.
Corfu can be toured in less than an hour. We returned to our origin and gladly departed the cursed Corfu City Tour bus to explore the streets of the village. By now it was late morning, time for a refreshing beer at an outdoor café shaded by smallish trees. The local beer is quite tasty, so refreshed, we embarked on further explorations around the colorful streets.
Corfu’s tourist streets present a panorama of clothing, leather goods, cafes, tourist trinkets and art. Lynn was in search of a blouse to complement her travel wardrobe, unable to find just what she wanted in Nice or any of the Greek islands we have visited. But lo, there it was in a little Corfu shop—and very reasonably priced at that at only 18 euros.
Delighted with her purchase, Lynn’s lunch appetite beckoned, so we started paying attention to the menus on display along the streets. Remember our rules—no photos of the dishes, no waiter hawking outside. One more rule is to move at least one block off the main square/street/boulevard tourist area. The food will be more authentic, the prices lower, the service more attentive. Our chosen establishment proved this true once again.
The best name of the restaurant I can transliterate is Tsinoyradiko. We were offered a table by an old gentleman who appeared to be the owner, then waited on by a young, very pretty Greek girl who appeared to be the owner’s granddaughter (maybe daughter—I shouldn’t prejudge).
The menu was extensive, impressive and inexpensive. Lynn chose an order of tzatziki and feta cheese with peppers and tomatoes “from the oven,” according to the menu description. I chose the sausage in red sauce, which I thought might resemble one of our favorite dishes in Barcelona. It did, though in a different type of sausage.
The wine was their house dry red, and I ordered a 50 cl, a pichet in France. Here in Corfu, it came out in a little metal pitcher. For red wine, this was the lightest color we had ever seen, But it was quite good, and the owner toasted me with his own jelly jar sized glass of the same juice.
The food was a delicious as the wine. We waddled out for another walk around the small town, then to the square to board the bus that would take us back to the Queen Victoria.
Back aboard, we lounged around with cocktails and wine, then decided to forego the more formal Britannia restaurant for the informal Lido buffet. Problem is, we are assigned to the later seating at 8:30 p.m. in the Britannia, which means we don’t finish dinner until 10 p.m. or later. At the Lido, we can eat on our own schedule from a most diverse selection. Lynn had a yen for pasta (sorry for the mixed ethnic metaphors), and I sampled the Indian cuisine that was the featured menu. The Lido offers a wine list as well, so we did not go dry through dinner, ate well and walked out at a more reasonable 9 p.m.
Life is good aboard the good ship Queen Victoria, as we expand our options. It was an early night, as we needed to be up relatively early for the next day and a tour of Cefalonia, our short sail of some 125 miles away.
I fear that our concerns about cruising are validated.
The Queen Victoria sailed into Dubrovnic just after sunrise, and we jumped out of bed to watch our huge ship approach the port and tie up to the terminal. The ship approached the dock at a nearly imperceptible speed, then spun around to berth just in front of the Aida Belle, which had already taken its space on the terminal. We watched the shore side crew take the messenger lines and lug the main ties to the dock and the cleats.
We had chosen not to take any of the organized tours, rather to eat a leisurely breakfast, then head out on our own into the old town of Dubrovnic. We were fortunate to be the last two on the bus, so no waiting at the dock and right off on the short trip from the cruise ship terminal to the drawbridge that delineates the old town.
Dubrovnic has been fought over and conquered by a number of countries and conquerors, as recently as less than two decades ago in the Serbian war that erupted following the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia. Today Croatia is a member of the EU but not before its most famous historical city was besieged, bombed and blasted. A large sign at the entrance to the old town maps the numbers of structures that were damaged and destroyed in the war of the early 1990s.
The historic old town of Dubrovnic is tiny but on this day the crowds from no fewer than at least five cruise ships filled it to crushing capacity. The steep narrow stairs leading to the walk around the old walls were jammed with tourists pushing to get in at the same time. As we made our way down the main street of Placa, we were slowed to a crawl by hordes of guided tour groups.
This is what happens when cruise ships disgorge thousands of curious tourists at once. And we were part of it.
We worked our way around the groups to explore the tiny town and found the Jesuit church dedicated to St. Ignatius, small but significant, simple on the exterior but tastefully Baroque in the interior. Being Jesuit trained for nine years, I enjoyed the visit.
Making our way through the narrow, steep streets and steps of the old town, we found a bar that promised a great view and cold beer. Just what we needed. What they didn’t mention was that they had no WiFi or working bathroom, took no credit cards and accepted payment only in a combination of Croatian kona and EU euros. I wound up paying 13.50 euros for two beers, about eight dollars US a piece. The official currency of Croatia is the kona, about seven to a euro, and they get you both ways on the currency exchange, because you can’t spend the kona anywhere else but right there. So you are nicked both buying and selling kona.
Our walks finally led us to the old port, where a row of young women aggressively hawked their harbor tour glass bottom boat excursions.
We finally chose one that was certainly not a traditional boat but was smaller than the rest. The boat itself resembled a floating spaceship with a glass bottom that revealed a foil under the bow. The boat was powered by a single outboard motor, and we quickly realized as we left the dock that there would be no commentary from the skipper, who simply pulled up his fender, slipped his line and took off on a wordless tour around the harbor.
The trip was about as interesting as a bowl of broth, but we did have a chance to view a few islands, all the while as I watched the bottom through the glass. But as pretty and clear as the water was, the bottom showed only nondescript rocks and grass, no fish, no corals, no reef, nothing of interest below at all.
After a couple of hours in old Dubrovnic, we had seen all we needed, so we made our way back to the bus and our ship to spend a delightful afternoon reading on our balcony while watching fellow passengers return in groups before we pulled away from the terminal at precisely 5:30 p.m. Almost imperceptivity, the Queen Victoria slipped her lines, and the powerful thrusters glided us off the dock.
Once free, the Queen Victoria quickly ramped up speed to 18 knots, nearly twice as fast as we have run before, for the 250 mile overnight journey to Corfu. I suspect we will inflict the same level of punishment to little Corfu as we did to Dubrovnic today.
Our boarding process was so smooth, efficient and fast that we found ourselves in our stateroom before our luggage arrived, so we went straightaway to our safety muster. We were assigned to muster station C, which happily was located in the Chart Room pub.
We gathered with about 50 fellow passengers, all carrying our bright orange life jackets folded tight into a cube as they had been stored in our stateroom closets. After the captain had recited the required safety speech, we were directed to don the toilet seat-style PFDs. I couldn’t resist trying the strobe light, then realized I didn’t know how to shut it off. Lynn was relieved I didn’t try the whistle too.
By the time we repaired back to our stateroom, our luggage had been delivered, so Lynn directed the process of unpacking. For the first time in two weeks we would not be living out of our suitcases. That’s unusual, because Lynn is the ultimate nester. Even if we are out for a weekend, she sorts our all the clothes in drawers and closets. For some reason, four days in Newport, one night in New York and ten days in Nice did not inspire her nesting instincts. Facing 14 days in the tight confines of a ship stateroom, she put everything in its place.
Happily, we found our smuggled load of wine and whiskey undamaged, so we celebrated with a glasses of the complimentary split of champagne waiting in our room courtesy of Cunard. We have been assigned a portside balcony room about midship on the eighth deck, which gives us a magnificent view of the ocean to the west side as we will head south from Venice to Croatia, Crete and eventually Athens. Undfortunately for our departure, the port side of the ship faces the terminal, while the starboard side faces Venice, so we missed the view of la serenissima as the sun set over San Marco.
Our stateroom on the QV is a bit larger than our QM2 room, with a much bigger flat screen TV mounted on the wall and a love seat couch next to the bed. Not that it matters to us, the shower is smaller. No fatties need squeeze in.
Since we had been assigned to the late seating at 8:30, we had plenty of time to do some preliminary exploration of the ship. Although the Queen Victoria is quite similar to the Queen Mary 2, there are some little and significant differences. For instance, the all-day buffet restaurant on the QM2 is called the King’s Court and is located virtually the entire length of the seventh deck. On the QV, it is named the Lido Buffet and is placed on the ninth level but very convenient to our stateroom. I would explore and discover other differences the next day.
We were assigned to dinner in the Britannia at table 516, a six-top. On the first night, two of our group did not show up. Our other dinner companions were an elderly couple from Des Moines, Carol and Chuck. She has a sister living in Hahnville, just outside New Orleans, and he used to be a radio announcer, so we have some professional experience in common. Unfortunately, Chuck is hard of hearing. More like deaf, even with hearing aids. So he was not able to contribute much to the conversation, since he could not hear much of the conversation.
Dinner was fine, but this ain’t Nice. It’s not even Newport. Both Lynn’s chicken and my pork chop were well prepared though a bit dry. I ordered a couple of glasses of the house French red, which were so corked, we couldn’t drink them. When I notified the wine stewardess of our problem, she immediately replaced them and confirmed that she could smell the rot herself in the glasses.
By the time we finished dinner, it was after 10 p.m., and we were just a bit road-weary, glad to head back to the room for a good night’s sleep as the QV glided through dead-calm seas southeast toward Dubrovnic.
Up early the next morning (sun rises about 7:00 a.m. at this longitude), I took my usual morning walk around the ship. The promenade on the QV is on the third deck, as it is on the QM2, but there are no great views of the stern or the bow. It is the same length, three times around equal one mile, two times equal one kilometer. But without the bow and stern views, the walk is less visually interesting.
In fact, as I discovered all day long, there are several differences between the Queen Victoria and the QM2. The QV seems to offer many more outdoor seating spaces, which leads me to believe that she does not make as many crossings as the QM. This ship seems more of a cruise ship, while the QM2 is more set up for longer passages and crossings. The QV is a bit smaller (2,000 passengers, compared to 2,600 on the QM2) and of course younger, just ten years old with a refit last year. And the Queen Mary 2 offers a public viewing area of the bridge; the Queen Victoria does not, much to my disappointment.
Inside the hallways and stairways, the Queen Victoria plays on the tradition of Cunard, but nowhere near the level of the QM2, whose namesake predecessor was legendary in the maritime industry starting in WWII. The Queen Victoria displays photos of famous celebrities from the early 20th century, who of course could never have actually sailed on this ship that was commissioned in 2007. The QM2 devotes one hallway to the same stars. The rest of the QM2’s walls display moments from her predecessor’s storied history, as well as the history of the Cunard line all the way back to the first ship and the reason all the Cunard non-royal names end in “ia.” (Answer: they are all Roman names, e.g. the Carpathia.)
The Queen Victoria’s main lobby is equally elaborate to her older sister ship’s, and the public spaces are mainly the same—Britannia Restaurant (ours, the lowest level of formal dining); Chart Room bar; Verandah (specialty dining with a surcharge); Commodore Club (farthest forward) but without the view of the QM2); Golden Lion Pub (maybe the best food on the ship); and the requisite shops, gym, spa, pools (two large and four hot tubs), and sports facilities.
The QV has a limited, tented semi-tennis court but does not have the golf simulator that the QM2 offers. Both ships, of course, have shuffleboard courts. The average age of passenger absolutely dictates the last.
It’s getaway day, never the highlight of anyone’s voyage, trip or excursion.
We got up a bit early (by our standards), cleaned up the apartment, packed the last of the clothes, carried the luggage to the street and walked down to the imposing Assemblee building to hail Uber. Unlike last time, Uber arrived in one minute.
Our driver Kevin was no romantic or tourist guide. He wordlessly but compentently made for the expressway to get to the airport, even though the drive along the promenade is far more beautiful and probably no slower on an early Saturday morning. By 10:30, we were in the airport, a smallish but very stylish terminal that you would expect in a place like Nice.
I was concerned about the hassle of checking luggage on Easy Jet, and they lived down to expectations.
Easy Jet is one of those European super cheap airlines that charge virtually nothing for a ticket but exorbitant fees for everything else, like seat selection, food and checked baggage. The baggage fees are lower if you book them in advance online. The only problem was that when I checked in online for our fight the day before, Easy Jet’s web site gave me boarding passes but would not allow me to pay the lower baggage fees. The only alternative would be to pay at the airport, which is considerably more expensive.
A total of 94 euros for two bags, in fact, or about $113. Our tickets were only $118. When I pointed that out to both the ticket agent and the charging clerk (You have to go to two places to complete the transaction), both said, yes, that does happen., too bad. I will just have to deal with this issue when we get back to the U.S.
The fight was packed, but we were lucky to have drawn two exit row seats. The passenger on the window was from Red China and proved to be one of the rudest, most objectionable people we have ever encountered on a flight. Before we took off, he pulled out and ate an apple, the remains of which he deposited in the barf bag in the seat pocket. Then he proceeded to open and eat an entire large bag of potato chips, crumbs and shards everywhere and placed the empty bag in the same seat pocket.
When we landed, he tried to crawl over me in the middle seat and Lynn on the end, even though he had nowhere to go, because the aisle was full of people waiting patiently to get off the plane. Lynn was having none of that; she stopped our Communist companion in his tracks with a stern admonishment that he had nowhere to go, so stay where he was. He was cowed but unrepentant.
The Venice airport is about the same size as Nice’s thought not as stylish. But our passage was unimpeded, since we were moving from one Schengen country to another. After collecting expensive baggage, we walked through as if we had flown from New Orleans to Tampa.
A fairly friendly and rotund taxi driver took us to our ship along the causeway that connects Venice to the mainland for a set fare of 45 euros for the 15-minute drive. He pulled us right up in front of the Queen Victoria, where we paid him, gave our luggage to an attendant and then passed through our registration for the ship virtually alone and without so much as a minute’s wait in the huge terminal. The entire process took less than ten minutes.
We walked aboard the Queen Victoria for exploration, dining and unpacking. Happily, we opened our bags to find our stash of wine and Scotch unharmed. Let the voyage begin.
(Note to faithful readers: we are now on the ship with limited, expensive and slow Internet access. Therefore, photos may have to wait until we get onshore to a WiFi cafe where we can drink wine and update this blog.)
After dinner the night before at our third Crespo restaurant, Comptoir du Marche, which hit and even exceeded the heights we expected (Lynn’s pork cheeks were from another planet), we planned to hit the road again for another city bus ride up the mountain to the medieval village of Eze, which is located on the planet at the geographical oddity of 43 degrees, 43 minutes, 43 seconds of latitude.
We had visited Eze the first time we came to Nice some 20 years ago, so we were eager to see if it had retained its charm or had changed with the times. The short answer is that it has not changed.
The Nice city bus 82 makes an hourly trip to Eze and beyond. The bus station is well into the back of town where we don’t generally go, so we took the tram and transferred at the Vauban terminal. It’s a good two block walk from the tram stop to the Vauban terminal, and it is not signed. We almost gave up and turned the other way until I spied several buses lined up to start their routes. Sure enough, the 82 was right there, with only about a dozen people waiting to board, and we departed right on time.
Three stops later, the 82 was jammed with tourist pilgrims in search of medieval culture. They poured on from two major stops right after the Vauban origination point, and we were mighty happy we boarded at the beginning.
The ride up the mountain offers the usual stunning views of the coves along the Mediterranean coast dotted with mega-yachts at anchor as if sprinkled from the hands of the gods of the super rich. So many, you can’t count them as the bus trundled up the mountain, passing the anchorages east of Nice in Villefranche sur Mer and other little communities of the mega-rich. The apartments and villas are cut out of the rock, perched to overlook the toys floating in the sparkling clear waters so far down below. You can breathe the money in the air.
The Eze Village stop on the 82 route is just a single post in the street. But everyone knows to get off there, and we recognized the parking lot and main entrance to the village, even though it has been nearly 20 years. Indeed 20 years do not much change a town that dates back to the Phoenicians.
Eze is small; you can walk through it in less than an hour. We climbed up the narrow streets to the church, Notre Dame de L’Assumption, a very modest affair as European churches go. The plain exterior was built starting in 1764 and encloses a Baroque interior that is sorely in need of restoration. The signs ask for donations, because a million euros are needed to restore the fading frescoes and the crumbling plaster walls.
Along the way up and down the narrow streets, we were forced to follow, stop and work our way around groups of tourists from another continent who are the plague of European travel everywhere we have been. They move in groups, they take countless selfies, they even take selfies of each other taking selfies, they think nothing of blocking en entire street, and they permeate every city, town, walk, promenade and attraction we have visited over the last two years.
You might say they are not our favorite.
Eze has two major hotels, the Chateau de la Chevre D’Or (Golden Goat) and the Chateau Eza, which was the former home of Prince William of Sweden from 1923 to 1953. Both are five-star hotels with room rates and menu prices to match. I tried to recall which one refused us service in 1999, but either one of them certainly could have and probably was justified in doing so.
We stopped along the way down to slake our thirst, as it was that odd hour of late morning when it is too early to eat lunch but the first hint of hunger is starting to show up. A beer is the perfect answer.
I checked my handy app for the bus times, since the 82 only runs once an hour, and it looked like a bus was only minutes away to take us back down to Nice and a nicer, cheaper lunch. I was misinformed. We thought the bus came at 12:10: it actually stopped about 12:50. In the meantime, the 112 bus showed up, and after everyone at our bus stop climbed aboard, I realized that bus went down to Nice too. But it was not on my app, nor on my map. So we waited.
By the time we returned to the city, we were truly hungry for lunch and stopped off at our little La Plassa restaurant to split a delicious pizza and a plate of roasted peppers washed down with a pichet of red wine. The perfect way to finish a half-day journey and prep for a mid-afternoon nap.
But it is almost time to leave Nice. We fly out tomorrow on EasyJet, a cheap ticket and expensive fee airline. Their web site frustrates me trying to check bags online, knowing that the fee will be higher at the airport. But we will just have to deal with that tomorrow.
Meantime, there remains one last bit of business in Nice, our daily walk down the promenade. It’s a short one this time and not a little bittersweet. There is a magic to the Nice waterfront that is unique to Nice. As much as we love Barcelona and the walk around its marinas, there is nothing quite like a stroll down Promenade des Anglais and Promenade des Etas Unis overlooking the beach of large gray smooth stones and crystal blue water. The sky was somewhat hazy today, which probably sends a message.
To finish off our latest (and certainly not last) visit to Nice, we hit the high spots. First, cocktails at Wayne’s, speaking English to perfectly English speaking bartenders from Latvia, South Africa and God know where else. They seem to gravitate to Wayne’s.
Then it was off to a farewell to Nice dinner at Chat Noir/Chat Blanc, where Giorgio and Sylvia in tandem but alone serviced a full house of diners on a Friday night. Lynn’s dorado was delicious and my steak with gorgonzola was equally pleasing. We kissed goodbye, all of us, and promised to see each other in about a year.
St. Paul de Vence is a medieval village an hour up the mountains from Nice. We had visited there last time we were here, but it had been winter, and the town was pretty much closed up. So we decided to invest a couple of euros for another trip up the mountain.
The 94 bus runs from the edge of Vieux Nice along the Promenade, then up the mountain through Cagnes sur Mer and finally to Vence, a trip of more than an hour. Foolishly, I had forgotten to check the departure times, and we arrived at the 94 bus stop ten minutes late, having spent those ten minutes in the local La Poste sending a postcard back to the U.S. The 94 bus has the second-longest intervals of all Nice transit, a whopping 45 minutes. So we waited in the park, watching the tourists and Nicoise walk by.
The trip up the hills is bumpy on the city bus but runs through the heart of Cagnes sur Mer, one of the many small towns along the Cote d’Azur. It’s always interesting to see the residents in their native habitats, not just along the beaches and in the bars and restaurants. The streets of Cagnes sur Mer are lined with car repair shops, clothing stores, cleaners, hair salons, small grocers (epiceries) and all the retail establishments that keep a town running.
The 94 route ends at a multi-line bus terminal, where passengers are let off to wander into the town of Vence. No sign of the medieval village we had visited the year before.
We walked down the street, hungry since it was mid-day by now, and found a square full of restaurants. We chose a simple looking one that offered–what else?–pizza! The smiling hostess welcomed us to our table and offered the menu, but she was followed by what appeared to be the owner, who was none too pleased to get an order of only one pizza and two beers. And one tap water, for which he could not charge. It may have been a language problem, but he basically set our table for one.
Pizza and beer consumed, we went looking for the medieval village that is supposed to be there. Finally, we turned down a narrow alleyway, and thought we recognized some features of what we had seen a year and a half ago. It was somewhat like the St. Paul de Vence we had visited, but somehow different, less interesting, less quaint and more commercial.
So after a short excursion into the old city, we walked back to the bus terminal to catch the 94 back to Nice. Another nice ride down the hill to the sea.
When we returned to the apartment, Lynn did a bit more research–after the fact–and learned to our surprise that we had taken the wrong bus. The 400 bus goes to St. Paul de Vence, not the 94, as the map said. Oh well, we didn’t see what we had before but saw something we had not. I swear the regular city bus took us to St. Paul de Vence 18 months ago. But not today.
So we washed down our regrets with some beverages from our favorite Cave, then walked to dinner at Bar des Oiseaux, our favorite among Armand Crespo’s restaurants. They gave us the same table we had enjoyed last time in Nice, a two-top right looking right into the open kitchen. Watching four guys cook and prep meals in a tiny space is a show in itself.
And the food was every bit as wonderful as we had remembered. We started by sharing a veloute of artichoke with truffle oil that was nothing less than sensual in texture and taste. We ordered it to share, and they brought it out in two bowls (no extra charge for splitting an order here), accompanied by toast points slathered with pate. Adults only here.
Lynn ordered the pork confit that fell apart into shreds of deliciousness, and I had what amounted to a seafood medley over little pasta shells. The featured item in my seafood was a large slice of perfectly grilled monkfish that complemented the flavors of octopus, clams, other little undefinable but savory seafood bits. We ate our dishes down to the last pasta shell and pork shred. No take home here tonight. As we left, the chef leaned over the counter to shake my hand in recognition of our appreciation of the show. We felt like regulars. Which could happen.
As a footnote, we learned that Armand Crespo is opening a wine and cocktail bar (a true rarity in France) just doors down rue Barillerie from our apartment. We’re already making cocktail plans for our next visit to Nice.
Marseilles is the second largest city in France, reportedly the oldest (although Paris was a thriving community in Roman times), and the largest French port on the Mediterranean. It is grittier, more culturally diverse and of course much larger than Nice. And it’s a two and a half hour train ride along the Cote D’Azur from Nice.
We had intended to go to Marseilles last year, but never got around to leaving Nice, where you can wander all over the area for a euro on the city bus. This time, we were determined, so I had booked train passage and a hotel before we ever left the U.S.
We simply following the normal weekday morning rush of workers in the two-block walk from the tram to the station. Alongside is under heavy construction to create a covered walkway for passengers to transit from the tram to the station, a welcome amenity in the case of inclement weather.
Nice’s train station is so typically French and so typically 19th century. There is something about train stations that I love as much as there is something about airports that I despise. Train stations are immediate; people rush to catch their train at the last minute. Airports are forever; passengers are herded through security well in advance of their flights and wait like cattle for their plane to arrive, load and leave. Embarkation that takes hours in an airport takes minutes in a train station.
Train stations are also centrally located. Even so, the cab ride in Marseilles after an aborted Uber attempt cost 15 euros to get to our hotel which was located on the main street leading to the Old Port a block off the waterfront. By contrast, once we knew, we took the Metro back to the train station for 3.30 euros, including a ten-centime charge for a new card when I could not find our old transit cards.
Our Hotel Escale Oceana was a three-star lodging. In France, the difference between a three-star and a four-star hotel is the amenities. In a three-star, you get plastic cups in your room. In a four-star, you get glassware for your wine, porcelain cups for your coffee. That’s about the extent of the difference. And breakfast will be better, bigger and much more expensive at a four-star hotel.
Our bed was most comfortable, and our room overlooked the busy Blvd. Canebriere with a straight view right down to the Municipal Opera house. We were exactly one block from the Old Port, giving us ample access to the boats, the tours and the restaurants.
Putting our knowledge of tourist traps to good use, we eschewed the restaurants facing out to the Vieux Port and bought beer at a little bar one block behind. Our beers were cheaper, colder and came with Marseillais commentary from our bartender/proprietor, a funny French Archie Bunker if there ever was one.
Marseilles fancies itself the tourist destination, but it has some ways to go before it reaches the level of sophistication as, say Nice, Paris or New Orleans. The little tourist train did not accept credit cards. And our route—unannounced—stopped and put us off for 40 minutes at the old Charity Hospital, which is now a museum.
The exhibit was on Jack London, and I would have visited, except that Lynn heard our stop would be 14 minutes, and I heard forty minutes. I know the difference between quatorze and quarante, and the driver clearly said quarante, which is 40. So we cooled our heels in the little courtyard looking at the spa that uses little fish to nibble on feet and staring at the the graffiti, which here is on a monumental scale.
The train ride finally returned to Vieux Port, so we eagerly jumped on the next item on our customary list of things to do on the first visit—take a boat ride. We signed up for the late cruise to Chateau D’If out past the harbor. Although it was clearly cocktail hour, the ticket seller told me that no alcohol is sold on the boat at all—it is forbidden. (I know that to be utter BS—we have been on more than one tourist cruise in France where the bar opens as soon as the passengers board.
The cruise out to Chateau D’If is fine, but the commentary was only in French, leaving us to guess at the narrative. It was a nice boat ride, but we didn’t learn much.
Our friends at Chat Noir had recommended we try Toinou, a seafood restaurant that happily was located only two blocks from our hotel, because we were starving by dinner.
Toinou is more than a seafood restaurant—it is a seafood experience. Part open air market, part cafeteria, part restaurant but all seafood and gargantuan amounts and variety of it. For instance, they offer at least eight different types of oysters and each type can be ordered in petit, medium, grand or super-grand. They offer at east three different types of mussels too, and even display Alaskan king crabs and Maine lobsters. Those last two are not cheap. Nor is the shrimp, which always gives us so much pleasure and amazement , considering what we pay at home.
We walked our trays down the line like a Piccadilly of the sea. I immediately and eagerly requested an order of fried Mediterranean anchovies, plus a dozen petit oysters from the Etang du Thon, just southwest of Marseilles and at the end of the Canal du Midi, where we have cruised before.
Lynn opted for the crab soup, an order of mussels and, of course, frites. We had to overcome a bit of language barrier, as the attendant explained that frites did not come with mussels, but must be ordered separately. We knew that. We were not in Belgium.
All in all, Toinou was a treat and if you ever find yourself in Marseilles, not to be missed.
Up the next day early, our plan was to visit the huge Cathedral de la Major the fort St. Jean, then take the 60 bus from there to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks Marseilles city and port from a tall hill that was built by King Francis I to protect the city from invasion and actually served as a military garrison until well into the 20th century.
Well, one of three isn’t too bad. Fort St. Jean and the cathedral were closed on a Tuesday so we went up the mountain on the 60 city bus to Notre Dame de la Garde. But first we stopped for lunch a block off the Vieux Port walkway in a tiny café, where Lynn ordered the richest Quiche Lorraine she had ever tasted, and I plunged into the daily special, which was beef daube over pasta. Neither of us could finish either order. With two beers, the total tab was 18 euros.
Notre Dame de la Garde is worth the trip. Even though the church itself is only about 150 years old, it stands on the site of a ninth century chapel that Francis I deemed insignificant for a location so critical to his empire. A golden statue of the Virgin Mary literally crowns the church overlooking the harbor. Inside, the Romanesque-Byzantine architecture features domes of golden mosaics that could rival San Marcos in Venice.
Even more interesting are the boat models that hang from the ceilings along the length of the nave and the many maritime paintings that are massed along the walls of the side chapels. Notre Dame de la Garde was the marker for incoming sailors, and they paid their respects at the side chapels of the church.
The 60 bus ride back to Vieux Port takes a slightly different route through town, since many streets are narrow and one way. Lynn’s fear height gauge told her that the ride down was more precipitous than the ride up, as the bus careened around corners of streets designed for horses.
We checked out of the hotel and walked across the street to the Metro, which took us all of five minutes and 3.30 euros to get to the train station. The two and a half hour train trip back to Nice was as quiet and pleasant as the one over, and we enjoyed the last of our bottle of wine craftily “snuck” aboard with the entire neck of the bottle protruding from the top of Lynn’s mom bag.
Back at our apartment for dinner we sought out La Plassa restaurant that we had enjoyed a couple of times before. It did not disappoint, as Lynn ordered the beef flank steak with gorgonzola sauce with vegetables, potatoes and salad for 15.50, and I had the spaghetti vongole for 14.50. With a pichet of wine (which is all we needed but oddly all they offered), the total bill for dinner was 38.50 euros. Homecoming was delicious.
Saturday started rainy, but that didn’t stop us or even slow us down. We toted up quite the list of accomplishments (for us, anyway):
Visit to Marc Chagall Museum
Drinks at the fabled Hotel Negresco
Dinner at Les Garcons
Before the rain slacked off, I ran around the corner to our excellent patisserie, where they bake their own breads, for one of their fresh, buttery croissants and a pain au chocolat, one of Western civilization’s more decadent breakfast treats.
Once the rain moved off to the Mediterranean, we ventured off to find the 15 bus to take us up Cimiez to the Marc Chagall Museum, which had been closed for renovations when we were last here in Nice.
Finding the 15 bus stop proved to be something of a challenge. The nearest stops for 15 are all in the main downtown part of Nice across from the park and promenade from Old Town where we are living. The bus map is not terribly clear. First we walked too far down the promenade before turning into downtown, so we had to walk back several blocks. As we finally walked up to the bus shelter, the 15 pulled up but barely slowed down, much less stopped to pick us up, despite Lynn’s attempts to wave it down. So we had to wait another ten minutes for the next bus on the Saturday schedule.
The next bus took us up a scenic drive to the hills of Cimiez for less than ten minutes to the Marc Chagall Museum. This is an unusual attraction, as Chagall designed the building during his life to showcase a series of large paintings he created about major elements of the Old Testament. The master personally supervised the construction of the place, including a large mosaic on an outside wall overlooking a reflecting pond.
Because the scope is limited to the paintings Chagall created specifically for the space, the museum is relatively compact and easy to get through in about 90 minutes. The audio guide that is provided free with your entry ticket explains the meaning and background of each of the major paintings in some detail. At only 10 euros per person, the Chagall Museum is well worth a visit, especially if you find yourself on the way to or from the larger Matisse Museum farther up Cimiez.
After lunching in the snack bar of the museum on a sandwich so big we easily split it and a couple of beers, we waited for the 15 bus to take us down, having just missed another by no more than 30 seconds. This time, we planned to disembark at a different stop that would leave us closer to our apartment. Instead, we got off one stop too early and found ourselves walking through another section of downtown before entering the comfortable confines of Old Town. Some discussion arose between the two of us about who called which stop.
Before returning to the apartment, we took our daily walk along the promenade up toward Castle Hill to see Nice’s hash tag sculpture and watch a fleet of antique wooden boats finish their weekend races.
Our dinner reservations at Les Garcons were set for 7 p.m., so we planned to walk down the Promenade de Anglais to Le Negresco about 5 p.m., have a drink in the fabled bar, then head back to Old Town with plenty of time to make our reservations. That plan worked just about to the minute, because the walk to Negresco and back was a little longer than we had planned, even though we have made that walk many times before.
The Negresco bar features rich, dark wooden paneling, soaring cove ceilings, huge paintings and large windows overlooking the Promenade des Anglais. The hotel no longer allows people to walk in off the street and tour their art collection, which is, to be polite, an ecletic amalgam of contemporary pieces and second-tier portraits of 18th century French nobility. Still, the Negresco is a landmark along the Promenade in Nice, more notable for its past than its present.
Drinks at the Negresco bar are ridiculously expensive: Lynn’s vodka and soda was 26 euros and my Scotch and water was 15. That’s $31 and $18 U.S. Compare that to:
Cocktails at the Algonquin Hotel in New York–$18
Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice–18 euros
Bloody Mary at the Ritz in Paris–24 euros (but that comes with a show of making the drink)
What makes the prices at the Negresco bar so stunningly extravagant is that you can get a room in the hotel for about 200 euros or less in January and about 250 or less right now, still at the end of high season. The 41 euro bill for two drinks was nearly what we would spend on a delightful, delicious dinner at Les Garcons the next hour.
At Les Garcons, I reveled in what the menu termed a veal medallion, aka a veal filet mignon, without question one of the finest veal dishes I have ever tasted. The waiter was a bit pushy in recommending a wine selection, but they had a Morgon on the list, and I was not to be denied. And be careful about ordering water–they charge for still water, the only restaurant we have seen in France that does so. Usually when you choose still water, you get tap, which is very good in France, so good that in Paris they label it. At Les Garcons, you have to ask. Still (no pun intended), Les Garcons is one of the very best restaurants in Old Town Nice.