Our sightseeing bus tour in Barcelona was pretty darn good and with so much to see I only made it through the first half of the ride in my last post! The bus zigs and zags through the small neighborhood streets, past shopping areas, pass the central transportation hub and on towards Montjuic park. All along the way we see outdoor artwork mixed in alongside new and old buildings. Just outside the central transportation hub was one of the first urban renewal projects done in Barcelona which included a “hard square”, a park that has no green. What we saw of it looked cool. A HUGE statue that incorporates a slide into it and a man-made boating lake with lighthouse-style towers.
From this area we entered an older section of Barcelona which includes the old Roman arena. I have mixed feelings about the arena, kinda impressed, kinda feel like its blasphemy, but they renovated it into a shopping, eating and entertainment venue. Just makes me crack up. Around the corner from the arena you get a great view of the Placa d’Espanya. This entire area was built for the 1929 International Exhibition (I’m thinking old-style World’s Fair). There is a lengthy expanse of fountains and pedestrian walkways leading up to the Palau Nacional which is now used as Barcelona’s main art museum.
Barcelona is surrounded by two large hills. We were on one when we visited Gaudi’s park and the other is on the opposite side and includes Montjiuc. Montjiuc is a large park, referred to as the city lung, and is built on a large hill overlooking the city. You can meander through the trails and explore outdoor sculpture gardens, Mediterranean style gardens and endless views of Barcelona.
At the top of the hill is the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Village. Barcelona hosted its first Olympic games in 1929 and another one in 1992. Signs of the Olympics are everywhere. There is a huge communications tower, the large stadium, swimming facilities and more. We read that the apartments built to house the athletes were later sold as private waterfront apartments. Barcelona appears to have benefited greatly from hosting the Olympics.
As we left the park and came down to the waterfront level we had a great view of the harbor. Barcelona has a two large ports for shipping, cruise ships and private boats. The harbor has been integrated into the city and includes shops, restaurants and lots of outdoor art. It invites you to walk and explore, which we did. I found it to be such an interesting mixture of old-style-buildings-and-art and new-style-buildings-and-art complementing each other, not fighting each other. The bus tour continued past the waterfront and turned down into the original medieval city. Barcelona tore down the existing city walls in order to enlarge the city so no walled-city here! We had a peek at another large church and in its shadows was a market area covered with a modernist roof. Such great contrast.
We continued to be surprised by how different the many neighborhoods are in Barcelona. If you only visited one you would think THAT was Barcelona. We drove through several and walked around a few but I suspect we only glazed the top. We read that many of the neighborhoods used to be their own village but over the course of time and annexation, all the villages became wrapped into Barcelona yet they maintain their own unique feel. One neighborhood is known for their cakes, another for the shopping, and another for their gardens. I think I could visit for months and not see them all.
Wow! It’s been easy to fall in love with Barcelona. The city is interesting to look at, interesting to run around, and interesting to eat your way through. We opted to take the hop-on hop-off bus tour of Barcelona. We’ve discovered that it gives us a good overview and helps us get our bearings. I didn’t realize Barcelona was so huge but the bus tour helped me to see that. We always rush our way to the top of the bus so we can get a good view and this time was no different. The tour started at the Placa De Catalunnya, a large city square. It’s a wide open park with two glorious fountains, lots of pigeons working their angles for food, statues, and tons of people rushing to their various destinations. All of this is surrounded by four large roads and I’m pretty sure all other roads in Barcelona lead to this square, so lots of traffic.
It was a short bus ride pass the “block of discord”, which showcases fantastic examples of Modernism architecture including Gaudi’s Cas Batillo. I swear Doctor Seuss lived in Barcelona because so many buildings and accents seem to have that “Seuss-like” quality, no square corners and parts of buildings projecting in ways no buildings should do. Gaudi’s other famous building, La Pedrera, was covered by scaffolding and net so we couldn’t get any glimpse of that one. It’s so much fun to hunt examples of the modernism architecture throughout the city. A highlight of the area is Sagrada Familia, a massive church designed by Gaudi and still under construction. (I’m going to do a separate blog post to highlight that visit!)
Our first stop off the bus was to visit Park Guell, another Gaudi masterpiece! The park was originally the beginning of a planned community but it was unsuccessful so the only thing that got built was the park – not a bad thing to happen. You have to pay to enter the area with the monuments but you can walk around the rest of the park at no cost, which is what we did. There are easy to follow trails that take you up and down hills and through pavilions and over bridges all designed by Gaudi.
I read that nowhere else so successfully integrates his work into nature; his main source of inspiration. We followed a trail that led us down to the monument area so you can get really close without paying the entrance fee. This area is a large gathering place lined by curvy, mosaic covered benches, surrounded by stone walls and overlooking Barcelona. Such a fun place. And, in the palm trees are tons of parrots who have made their homes there. We could hear them more than we could see them.
I could have spent all day there but we wanted to check out other parts of Barcelona so we made our way back down to the bus stop, grabbed a quick lunch and then rode around more of the city.
Barcelona is a city made up of many neighborhoods each with its own distinct feel which we could easily observe from our bus ride. Barcelona is built on a gentle slope which quickly rises up to a high mountain. There is an amusement park on the top which was closed and we had already had a great view of the city from Park Guell so we didn’t feel compelled to make our way to the top again.
We continued on the bus and had a quick peek at the Barcelona Futbol Club stadium. I read it’s Barcelona’s number one tourist attraction. Madison said Patriot’s Place was way cooler but who are we to judge another country’s sporting arena. (We’re Patriot Fans – that’s who!!) After that we drove down the financial district which is also lined with palm trees filled with parrot flocks. Loved that. It was so striking to see the many different styles of architecture in Barcelona. From the medieval Barri Gotic to the Modernism Eixample to the modern high rises of the financial district, it was very interesting. We kept passing a building on our way into town that looked like a big bullet except it was really colorful. We never found out its story but it’s a definitive part of the Barcelona skyline.
Still lots more to share but enough for one post. This city is so full of color. Even the sound barriers along the highway have tiles of colored panels integrated into them. You see one color and then as you drive along another color begins to pop up and then you drive farther and now the tiles are all a different color. And outdoor art is everywhere. It’s a very walkable, enjoyable city but we discovered you can’t just see one part of it and understand it – you’ve got to see lots of it.
After Nimes, France we headed to Barcelona, Spain. We started out with a bit of clouds in the sky but nothing to threatening. After a stretch of sun, some light rain and wicked cool cloud formations the sky did open up at one point and dump on us. We had just pulled into a rest stop which turned out to be super good luck. This downpour brought with it wind gusts that were absolutely scary. When we stopped at the rest stop we had planned to go to the camper and eat lunch but after just being in it to use the bathroom there was no way we were going to sit in it as we ate lunch.
We kept telling ourselves that we really do weigh a lot and the wind wasn’t that bad. Plus plenty of semi trucks had puled into the rest stop and they didn’t look like they were blowing away. After about 1/2 hour of that the sky lightened up and the wind died down so we decided to continue on to Barcelona. It seems to us that the area we were driving through typically gets big winds. There were signs warning caravans to slow down and our snooper (GPS) kept telling us to be aware of wind conditions. We still had wind and light rain for the rest of our drive but nothing bad enough to cause us to pull over again.
We are camping at Camping Barcelona. It’s a lovely campground just across the street from the sea about 15 km north of Barcelona. We arrived on opening day for the season. What a nice campground. We realized we haven’t stayed in a campground for a while – we have mostly been staying at camper stops – the no frills, short-term places for campers. They have been nice but this place is full service. The biggest benefit to us is that they have a shuttle that will take you into the local town every 1/2 hour where you can shop or go to the train/bus station, and a charter bus that takes you to Barcelona each day. This makes things quite simple. They also have a restaurant, a small grocery store, great bath houses, 16 amps of electricity (which thrills us as we haven’t had that since, well, we can’t remember). They also have a small farm with a donkey, horses, goats, sheep, and chickens. We always like visiting the animals and on our first day here the caretaker gave us fresh eggs. Love this place.
We gave the kids Saturday off to do whatever they wanted to do. They were tired and like their weekends. Kay and I ended up walking into the close little town to wander around and see what there is to see. We misunderstood about the shuttle – it didn’t start until Sunday – so walking in and out was what we did. You walk a gravel path just next to the beach which sounds perfect. The drawback is that you are walking right next to the train tracks as well. When the train goes by, WOW, it’s rather scary. Especially that first time when we didn’t expect it nor did we see it.
Sunday afternoon we did take the train into Barcelona. We had read that the Picasso museum was free on Sundays and we wanted to take advantage of that. Of course there was a line to get in but nothing like the line we waited in to get into the Vatican museum. Just a mere 35 minutes and we were in. It was an interesting museum. It is located in the old quarter of town. The buildings used to be homes of wealthy people and are stunning. This museum showcases Picasso’s work throughout his lifetime and the works are arranged chronologically. His early works are the typical dark colors of many European masterpieces. As he ages his artwork changes as well. I thought it was fun to see the progression and obvious changes. Later in his life his artwork is full of colors and very abstract. I really enjoy it. Madison said she thinks what happened is that he was so bad with his early work that he finally realized it and said, “What the heck, I’m going to do what I want to do”. That may be a good lesson for all of us.
After the museum we found some yummy tapas and then walked around the Barri Gotic area – the old town. They were having Carnival celebrations in that area so we hung around watching the folks in costumes, listening to the music, and trying to understand what was going on. It was definitely fun. They gave out lots of confetti and Noah scored a HUGE orange balloon that takes up way too much space in our camper. Barcelona Carnival has shifted from one large parade to smaller parades held in the different neighborhoods. And there is something to do with color wars. I think each neighborhood has a signature color and they try to make that the predominate color of the parade. It was all very pretty. Can’t wait to get out and explore all the rest of Barcelona!
We said “Goodbye” to Italy and made our way to Nimes, France. The south of France looks like it has many places to explore but our plans had us heading to Barcelona. We worked our way out of the mountains of the Italian and French Riviera into the rolling hills and flat-lands of France. The French highways were wonderful! It all felt so civilized….6 lane divided highways lined with landscape trees, gorgeous, huge rest stops that are very much like small cities, and all so picturesque. If it wasn’t for the exorbitant tolls, France would be awesome. Seriously 54 Euro for one section!
We scheduled a two-night stopover so we didn’t have two back-to-back driving days and Nimes appeared to be about half way… AND there was this really cool ancient Roman aqueduct not far from Nimes. Show us a ruin and we head there! As we set up our campsite we noticed one of our tires was not flat but way too soft so Kay and I went to work to address that. We spoke to the woman at the campground reception desk and she sketched out a crude map to get us to an auto mechanic – she thought he could help us. The owner didn’t speak any English but fortunately for us one of his customers did! The customer interpreted our situation and the man readily agreed to come to our campground to see what he could do. Another kind stranger. He followed us to the campground and understood the situation. He drove back to his shop and brought back a huge jack and his tools and quickly took off the tire and replaced it with our spare. Between hand gestures and bad google translations we worked out that he would take the tire to his shop, try to fix it with a plug and bring it back to us tomorrow – which he did. Such a nice man and a big relief to us. Once we had that taken care of we could venture out to the aqueduct. A quick 30 minute drive from us (and without the camper behind us it always feels liberating) we easily found it.
Pont du Gard is a Roman aqueduct built in the first century AD. The aqueduct itself is 31 miles long which is amazing but the cool visual aspect of it is the bridge that spans the Gardon River. The bridge is a three-tier bridge constructed of arches all stacked on top of each other. Your entrance fee includes parking, entrance to the museum and movie and access to the grounds. The museum was closed for some reason so we missed out on some of the learning but we did get to see the movie to give us a bit of background.
It was an easy walk down to the bridge but first you pass a garden showcasing typical Mediterranean landscaping with incredible 900+ year-old olive trees. The first glimpse we had of the bridge really made us go, “Wow”. While we had seen pictures of it that doesn’t prepare you for just how large it is when you are close to it. When you walk up to it you approach the middle row of arches which are 66 feet high. This row had a road bridge added to it in the 18th century which is now part of the visitor experience.
The bottom level of arches is 72 feet high and the upper level arches are only a mere 23 feet high making the bridge a grand whopping 165 feet high! All of it made out of stone quarried from just down the river, moved by humans, rope, and pulleys and all of it assembled without the use of mortar.
In warmer weather it looks like people swim around there and friends of ours told us about canoeing down the river under the bridge. I like that this is not just a well-preserved monument but also an active area for modern-day living. We took time to wander the rocks on the river and found a nice spot for lunch.
We walked the stairs to the top so we could get a nice view of it all. In warmer weather they give guided tours through the top tier but when we visited that was not an option. That’s okay, we found part of the tunnel where the water went after it crossed the bridge and explored that instead. After a few hours of oohing, ahhing and exploring we headed back to our campground (our GPS had run out of battery power so finding our way back became a 3-hour expedition but we made it relying on the written directions I had to the campground and old-fashioned sign reading!)
What a great stop-over. We really try to avoid doing two days in a row of driving so finding places like this make the “getting there” so much more enjoyable. There is no doubt about it, driving in a foreign country is stressful. Add to that the challenges of trying to understand the toll system (yes, we have been in the lane that only accepts credit cards but it wouldn’t accept ours so we just had to wait for assistance while who knows how many people were stuck behind us) and the uniqueness of our vehicle/rig and the driving days are stressful. Part of my job as Chief Navigational Officer is to find places like Pont du Gard along the way. Good thing I am naturally curious and a natural-born tour guide!
Here’s a link to the wiki page if you want more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pont_du_Gard
If all goes according to plan (that 4-letter word) we’ll be leaving Italy tomorrow morning. We’ll be heading across the south of France, stop in Nimes for two nights and then head on down to Barcelona. Our friends left us over a week ago and we had PLANNED to leave the day after they did. We needed to fill our propane tank and do a few other errands so we changed our PLAN and decided to stay another day. This place is really inexpensive after all. Then the next day it was raining, not a good driving day so we decided to stay a few days longer.
We’ll take advantage of the “stay 3 nights and pay for 2″ deal they had going and we’ll leave Sunday morning. That’s always a good day for driving. A new PLAN was made. All day Saturday and into Saturday night campers kept coming into the campground and before we knew it the place was packed. Turns out there was a big bike race scheduled for Sunday morning which started and ended at our campground. Now we were surrounded by other campers and couldn’t move. Our PLAN to leave Sunday morning was not to be. That’s fine – we’ll leave on Monday.
Well….we really should top off our propane tanks before we leave but that will take all day Monday. (See…we bring them our tank and they fill it and we can pick it up later in the day after 4 pm. That’s the whole day.) Now I’ve found a promising campsite in Barcelona that doesn’t open until Friday so we adjusted the PLAN yet again and we’ll leave on Wednesday. Drive to Nimes. Stay two nights there and then get us to the next campground in time for opening day!
So….a few more days hanging out in Diano Marina is not a hardship. We’ve taken more strolls through town. Do a bit of shopping. Do some laundry. Hang out at the beach. Not a hardship at all.
I’ve taken my bike out a few more times and continue to explore the area. Kay and I like to understand the economics of an area, you know, how is it that people make a living. This area is known as Riviera dei Fiori - coast of flowers. The area thrives from it’s flowers! There are acres and acres of greenhouses. The greenhouses are up on the hills, tucked behind houses, and line the streets. And now that it is constantly warmer flowers are blooming. This month they are celebrating artichokes and pesto, two of the local foods that pump money into the economy. The big olive festival is later in the year and the lemon festival is happening just over the French border in Menton. So food, flowers and tourism provide a stable economy for this area. On my rides I keep coming across construction sites. This area looks to be doing well in spite of the bigger problems with the Italian economy.
I’ve also taken some time to explore the local cemetery. I have found Italian cemeteries to be beautiful and interesting. Unlike American cemeteries most people are not buried in the ground but rather interred in a crypt above ground. On a drive back from Nice one day we passed a large cemetery in the early evening. I noticed rows of lights glittering from the cemetery and was drawn to figure this out. Many of the crypts have a everlasting light attached to the front of it. It was beautiful to see at night and beautiful to see during the day.
We did not PLAN on spending two months in Italy or one month in Diano Marina but this is one unplanned happening that has been thoroughly enjoyed. In Nimes, we PLAN on visiting the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built in the 1st century – or as Madison says – “Great, a Roman gutter.”
We are cat people and one of the things we were bummed about with this trip is that we could not bring our cats with us. They are in good hands this year and we will welcome them back into our home when we return. Who knew we’d meet so many cats along the way? Campground cats have been the norm on this trip. We happily buy cat food and feed any of them who will venture over to meet us. It’s funny, at this campground you can tell who feeds the cats the best. The cats hang out around those campers!
From time-to-time we retrace our journey as we talk about certain subjects and campground cats is one of our favorite topics. At the beginning of the trip we didn’t see many cats. We were in Belgium, Holland, and Germany where we camped with cows and sheep but no cats. In Switzerland we camped on a farm and they had cats along with lots of other animals. Once kitty would follow us around like he was a dog! Really no cats in Austria or Hungary. But when we hit Croatia we found cats (or they found us!) When we camped outside of Zadar we had one cat “claim” us for the two weeks we were there.
We named him Poysdorf after the town we stayed in for two weeks in Austria (you remember, under house arrest because of the problem with our international’s drivers license.) As soon as we would open the door in the morning Poysdorf would greet us with a super loud “hello”, and we could even hear him from across the road. He would trot over for food, lovings, and hanging out. He became very comfortable with us and was invited inside the camper at times. At every stop along the way in Croatia we hung out with cats.
In Montenegro there were cats and dogs hanging out in the campground living together, side-by-side, with little problems. (Que the Ghost Buster’s quotes.) We happily fed these cats, and the dogs would nose their way in for leftovers. There were times we would hear rather alarming cat and dog sounds in the middle of the night but all of our friends would be accounted for in the morning. In Albania we only saw a few cats and I would rather not think about why. In Macedonia we saw lots of cats in Ohrid hanging out by the fishermen on the lake. We saw one cat doing his own fishing but didn’t look like he wanted to get wet (clearly not a serious fisher-cat.)
We had heard about Greece and the prevalence of cats and it was absolutely true. At our first campground in Meteora there were probably 8 or so cats who regularly visited us. I couldn’t feed them enough! One was super friendly, the others, not so much. We did find one had crawled into one of our outside compartments in the camper one day as though he was happy to come with us. When we explored Athens we saw cats absolutely EVERYWHERE! One empty lot had a tree growing in it and some old building rubble and we counted 48 cats in that spot; in the tree, on the walls, on the ground, splayed out everywhere and all ages. And pretty much every where we walked around we saw cats – seriously – everywhere. I cannot reiterate this enough.
In Italy we’ve seen lots of cats as well. Two adopted us in Pompeii. And here? This campground has probably 16 or so cats hanging out. They seem to have the campground divided into sections and certain cats stay in certain sections. One or two look really picked on but most look quite healthy. We feed the ones who venture up to our camper but none of them are overly trusting or loving. Many campers travel with their dogs and we love dogs as well and take time to love on them and throw balls for them when we are invited to. But one man at this campground travels with his cat. He is an older kitty, gray, and probably about 20 pounds of chunkiness. The man takes him for walks around the campground. We see him venture out with the cat on a leash but once they get walking he takes the leash off and the kitty just follows him. It’s fun to watch and the campground cats seem to tolerate him just fine.
Getting to know the campground cats isn’t quite the same as having our big lumps of lard sitting in our laps but it is fun seeing who is going to greet us when we walk around the campgrounds and who is the brave one to come say “hi”.
What a week! We were excited to have friends come visit us this week. And then you add in birthdays and all-day excursions and man! we’re pooped. On Saturday we drove to Genova to pick up friends at the train station. It’s February vacation week back home so lots of people take off to get away from the snowy winter in New England. Our long-time friend, Bill and his daughter Melia found a decent price on a flight to Milan and decided to head our way. We went into Genova early to do a bit of shopping and to give ourselves time to find the train station and park. As usual, it was difficult to park but we found a spot and wandered the streets around the downtown train station before we had to meet their train. After they arrived we drove back to our campground, got them settled in, made dinner and plans for the week. They would stay with us for four nights and then take the train to Venice. That gave them three days to get a taste of our little haven in Diano Marina.
Sunday morning we walked around Diano Marina and checked out the beach, the surf, and the downtown area. Tons of people were out and about which is always fun. That afternoon we took them to the cave where Noah and I had gone previously. We did a little bit of hiking around the cave area and also explored the medieval town by the cave. More importantly, Sunday was Madison and Noah’s 14th birthday so we had presents, cake and celebrations for them. We had ordered each of the kids a birthday present and had them sent to Bill who personally delivered them to us. Good plan in theory except that Noah’s present didn’t make it in time. Noah was remarkably understanding about that. Madison and Melia have been good friends since they were both 3 years old and it appeared easy for them to fall back into their friendship with each other.
On Monday we went on a bike ride. I had read about a 24 Km bike trail that runs along the shore of the Mediterranean and really wanted to explore it. The trail is a decommissioned railway line that has been converted into a bike and pedestrian path. It runs from San Remo to San Lorenzo al Mare and has several bike rental places along the way – perfect for us. Melia, Bill, Madison and I ventured out for the day. Kay has been fighting a cold and wasn’t up to the ride. Besides we had a mechanic coming out to the campground to inspect the bearings on the wheels as a follow-up to our brake failure and repair work we had done in Albania and Greece. The ride was great. Beautiful views along the shoreline, sunny weather, tunnels to bike through, spur paths to stop and explore and lunch at a trail-side cafe. Bill and Melia could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance and I could easily showcase many of the reasons we are loving this area. And now, flowers are beginning to bloom everywhere!
Tuesday we took the train to Nice. I was happy to spend more time there and our guests loved the idea of checking off another country during their travels. Turns out both of the other museums I wanted to go to are closed on Tuesdays so we had to find something else to do. It is now Carnival in Nice so we looked at attending a parade but it was scheduled for 9 pm. Too late for us. But we did get to see several large floats while in the city, the grandstand all decorated and large groups of school children parading down the street in costumes. The theme appears to be something around food but I’m not totally sure of what sort of exact slant on food. We saw an enormous mural depicting what we thought were food and cultures from around the world. The American section showed a conveyor belt depositing all sorts of junk food into the mouth of some guy who was also straight-lining soda into his veins. Pretty sad depiction of American food.
I had read about Segway tours on-line and wanted to check them out. They always sound fun to me but the kids have never been old enough. Well – in Nice you only have to be 14 years old and the kids had just turned that. They were offering a special discount for Carnival so Madison, Noah and I went on a 2-hour Segway tour of Nice while Kay, Bill and Melia explored on foot. It was super fun. We had about a 5 minute lesson on driving it, then 5 minutes of practice then we were off. They took us down the seaside promenade, through the little streets of old town, up the gigantic hill to the ruins of the castle, down again, to the harbor and around the point and back down the promenade. So yet again, I feel like we only scratched the surface of Nice and I would love to go back.
On the train ride home we stopped at the Monaco station and got off for a quick – and I mean quick – peek/snack in Monaco and then headed back to Diano Marina. It was a long, tiring day but lots of fun (except for the part at the end where Noah vomited on the train). So in three days we packed in the beach, shopping, hiking, the cave, bike rides, medieval towns, day-trip to France, birthdays, catching up with friends, and fighting illness’. We’re actually happy to have the rain today. It gave us an excuse to go back to bed after we took our friends to the train station.
The rainy season appears to be winding down. I don’t dare say going away because I’m sure I’ll jink us and all the wet days will come back. But for now we’ve had three sunny, glorious days this week and with no planned outings we continue to explore the little town and catch up on camper chores. So why do we like Diano Marina so much? The Beach? The olives? The inexpensive living? Yes, yes, and yes. On Sunday Kay and I walked down to the beach just because we could. Our campground is about 800 meters from the beach, an enjoyable walk through the little streets of this little town. We walk out the campground road, turn right onto the main road, cross the railroad tracks, pass the square and then walk one final road to the beach. Just after the square there are apartments on either side of the road, probably 4 or 5 stories high and the road curves a bit so you can’t immediately see the water. When we walked far enough to see the water we could see white caps in the bay and some small black dots in the water. As we got closer to the beach we could see that those black dots were surfers. About 60 or so of them. I wondered if they have a text alert system to tell each other it’s a great day to hit the waves?
We spread out our beach blanket and enjoyed watching the entertainment in the water. Not just surfers, but kite surfers, wind surfers and paddle boards. After a while we walked as far as we could on the beach and then walked the road to the farthest spot we could see on the break wall. The break wall is constructed with huge rocks and the waves were crashing over it like crazy. Crazy? Yes we were. We walked to the end fighting the wind the entire way. Then we mosied back into town and enjoyed ice cream treats. Kay had a banana split and I had a Gelato Brandy float. My new favorite way to have ice cream.
I spent some time this week wandering the downtown area and window shopping. The stores here are generally open from 7 am – 12:30 and then from 4 – 8 pm. I decided to go into town about 2:30 and basically nothing was open so all I could do was window shop. That’s okay – I save money that way. I did ooh and aah over some really sharp looking Italian loafers. I went back the next day to buy them but they didn’t have my size. But just going through the thought process contemplating them has given me permission to find a pair I do like and buy them. Once I find them they will be my one significant souvenir from this trip. Not bad!
We have friends from back home coming to visit us, they arrive on Saturday. We’re excited to see them. I expect when they are here we will be out doing something every day. So for now we do chores, we lay in the sun, we do school and we plot the next bit of travel coming up. We’re on the downhill slide of our trip. I feel like since we arrived in Italy we’ve been heading home. From here we go through the south of France, stopping over in Nimes for a few days. Then onto Barcelona for Carnivale! We’ll travel up the west coast of France, then the Normandy beaches, then Paris and then ferry to the UK where we will visit with friends, seek out everything that is related to Doctor Who and Sherlock and ride the Ferris wheel. I am thoroughly convinced that everyone should really figure out how to take some extended time off in their lives. This has been great.
We popped down to Nice, France for a day of exploring and we absolutely loved it! Nice is a good-sized city located just down the coast from Monaco. The towns of the French Riviera have a shared sense of good fortune and style, and Nice appears to be the leader of the group. We drove to a park-and-ride facility on the outskirts of town and rode the tram into the heart of the city. The tram appeared to be shiny new and must have been electric-powered, it was a joy to ride. The 15-minute ride into town gave us a view of several neighborhoods and a university. All of it looked to be clean, well-kept and very livable. I don’t think we saw any graffiti which has been very wide-spread throughout so many cities we have visited in Europe. We had planned to ride the tram to the MAMAC (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) but because they are busy setting the city up for the Carnivale celebration, the tram route was interrupted. So we disembarked when we realized what was going on and began to walk the city. We were on a main street so it was fairly easy to figure out where we needed to go. But first, it was lunch time! We found a busy and cozy restaurant, Hippopotamus, on a main thoroughfare and had a yummy lunch. It was packed with locals which we always take as a good sign. Steak, baked potatoes and creme brulee was their lunch special AND the least expensive meal on the menu! This was the first time on our trip where we had good beef and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
As we ate lunch we could see lots of people walking across the street and we could also see a fountain. When lunch was over we crossed the street to walk that way. The area we had been seeing is a block-wide promenade that is a city park. All of the pedestrian traffic moving on this street utilized the promenade. We saw a station where you could rent electric bicycles and there were bike lanes everywhere making it very easy to traverse the city. Where we entered the promenade was a fountain about the size of a football field. The fountain was a flat, open expanse with water spigots evenly spaced out. The spigots were timed to put on a show! We watched them produce the “wave”, watched them dance shooting up higher and higher, and watched the people interact with the water. It was great fun! And it was the way were heading anyway. We continued walking the promenade and admired the children’s playgrounds, the very large seating area covered by a wooden pagoda, and tons of people watching. Similarly to what we saw in Diano Marina, a large elderly population appear to live here and enjoy taking in the sunshine on warm days.
The promenade extends to the MAMAC and beyond. We walked up the one open stairwell we found and emerged to a large open courtyard with the MAMAC on one side, a theater on the other side and several large art pieces outside, very colorful and whimsical art pieces. Besides showcasing great art, the MAMAC is a fantastic building. It is an eight-sided building; four towers are connected by four enclosed walkways. Inside, each individual section stands alone as a room. And all of this is connected to form an open, interior cylinder. (Think like a five-story, eight-sided doughnut; open in the middle.) We entered the building and decided to begin our tour at the top.
Turns out the top floor is a roof-top gallery with sculptures on each tower. One section was a rooftop sculpture garden with caricature-like statues of several famous artists; Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Van Gough). And of course, the rooftop gallery affords fantastic views over the city. We could get a sense of the layout of the city from here, the promenade, the waterfront, the mountains in the distance. What a beautiful city. We finally tore ourselves away from the roof and worked our way down through the magnificent galleries.
We definitely prefer the light, airy feel of a modern art museum as opposed to the visually stimulating overwhelm we experienced in the Vatican museum. Noah loved it as did Madison, but Madison has always enjoyed modern and contemporary art and readily shares her opinion when given the opportunity.
After fully exploring the MAMAC we mosied back down the promenade towards the ferris wheel which had been beckoning Noah since he saw it. Noah and Kay took a few spins around while Madison and I watched from below. Then we all walked down to the waterfront and admired the view.
Another great coastal city with a stunning waterfront. The beach here is all pebbles but we weren’t planning on getting in so no bother to us. Nice has a very wide, waterfront promenade in addition to the lovely grassy one we had been traversing. They also have large art installations all through the city, I think I read they have a series of 22 pieces in the main downtown area. I enjoy how this city is made up of an old-town section but has embraced and integrated modern art throughout. In front of what I believe to be large government buildings that look a bit like grand palaces, they have about 10 street lights. The street lights are sculptures of men, sitting in different poses. I saw of picture of them at night when they are lit up – really cool.
The city has quite a few other museums which I would have like to have visited including a Chagall museum and a Matisse museum but the kids were tiring out. We took the tram back to the park-and-ride and then went back to the campground. Kay and I would both like to go back to Nice. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of this city. We still have time here and may work on figuring out how to get another visit in. Did I mention the museums are free? Yup! Again, a city with some money seems to provide beautiful public spaces, readily available and clean public restrooms, public art, clean streets and clean energy public transportation. I’m not sure where they get the money for all of it but it looks like a great city to consider for retirement. There has been an exceptional amount of rain in the last four weeks but next week it’s supposed to be 67 and sunny!
When we stay somewhere for a month it gives us the opportunity to explore in a way we could never do in just one week. Even though we are here in late-January and early-February the towns are open and operating. Such a contrast to our stay outside of Venice. Lido de Jesolo and Diano Marina are both tourist towns. They have created infrastructures to support tourism and enjoy significant economic benefits from tourism. Both have great beaches. Both have lots to see in the surrounding area. Yet everything was closed at Lido de Jesolo (except for a grocery store or two, the laundromat, gas stations, and a few restaurants.) The beach even had a huge dyke of sand running the entire 15 km length of beach almost preventing you from just walking on the beach. Notice I said “almost”, I climbed over it. Lido de Jesolo has a 15 km promenade stretching from one end of the Lido to the other. I biked parts of it, walked parts of it and did some running on it – everything I passed was closed up tight for the winter. And yet Diano Marina is a vibrant, open town! It’s really quite cute. In the afternoon, if you walk down to the waterfront you will see probably 100 people out just walking around, visiting with each other, chatting, taking in the sun when it shines. Most of these folks are elderly and I suspect they have lived here all their lives. This town has almost everything you could want or need, nothing is closed up for the winter. I take that back, seems that there are no leisure boat rides this time of year. So why is one town open and one town closed? I suspect it has to do with year-round residents. Jesolo is clearly a summer beach community while Diano Marina is a year-round community.
So what are we doing? I’ve taken my bike out several times and just gone to explore. It’s easy to get to the next town… and the next… just by following the beachfront road. It’s a similar promenade to the one in Jesolo but with stores and cafes and people. I challenged myself one day to ride to a town overlooking us. I thought it was the highest hillside around us but turns out it wasn’t. It was however, a high and challenging bike ride for me and I got to enjoy the view from the medieveal town at the top (with snow on the other side of the mountain). Another medieval town. Good thing I like them.
Kay and I went to a local fair in San Bartolomeo Al Mare, just one town away from where we are staying. The fair turned out to be mostly vendors set up selling everything under the sun. There was one square set up with all sorts of local products; cheese, olive oil, olives, bread, honey, licorice! There was a very small section showcasing farm animals raised by children I suspect much like 4H at home. But mostly it was stall after stall of vendors selling clothes, shoes, sheets, cookware, and plastic items all made in China. Kinda like a big flea market. We like the animals the most, and the local product section.
Noah and I took an afternoon to visit the Grotto of Tiorano. Really COOL! We ended up having a private guided tour through two caves connected underground. The first cave has beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations along with other stunning columns. A highlight was seeing the fossilized footprints, handprints and knee prints of people who were in the cave about 12,000 years ago! There is a section where balls of mud have been thrown against the cave wall with footprints fossilized in the mud below. Seems like some game or ritual was done in the cave?!
The other highlight was the Cave of Bears. In this section there were hundreds of fossilized bones from prehistoric bears. We could easily see the jaws and teeth and the femur of one bear. There is a section about 30 meters long X 25 cm deep full of bones. They suspect that over the course of about 350 years, bears would hibernate there, sometimes die there and an underground river would wash the bones down to this area of the cave that had a natural dam which caused all the bones to settle in this area of the cave. The second cave had formations unique to Italy. In the way back past the cave had water in it, you could see the ring around the wall almost like a ring around the bathtub after the water drains.
When stalagmites would reach the point where the water was they became rounded as opposed to pointed. It looks like snowballs and snowpoles hanging from the ceiling as the main mineral is calcium based. Being the only two people on the tour we could ask all sorts of questions which made for a great science lesson for the day.
Other days we do all the non-glamorous things like grocery shopping, washing clothes, filling the propane tank and doing water maintenance in the camper. Typically we have some argument with the children about why they have to do math. And even on the rainy days Kay and I usually take long walks through town to wish “Buongiorno” to everyone we pass as we sit down in a little cafe for cappuccino and a bite to eat. Just some of the joys of lazing around an area for a month. Exploring Liguria!