September on the Cote D’Azur has been gorgeous! The weather has been warm but not too hot and has become cooler in the mornings, with a couple of windy/overcast days. The huge crowds have disappeared and the camping grounds are again full of retirees, rather than families.
We have spent most of the month of September based in Villeneuve-Loubet, between Nice and Antibes. We were perhaps 400m from the beach and surrounded by restaurants, a huge hypermarket and with easy access to such luxuries as the Apple shop and the Cap3000 mega-mall. We enjoy all the bike tracks, so we settled in, stayed for three weeks and started sorting out the insurance claim for our little dingle.
We were near the very monolithic apartments shaped like a wave. They are so huge they can be seen for miles and appear like a geographical feature. Built on reclaimed land (like much of Monaco) they took 25 years to build and are really quite impressive. They surround a marina with lots of shops and restaurants, although this coast seems to have such a marina every couple of miles!
We were very excited to have a short visit from our brother-in-law, JB Berketa who was on the way to present at a forensic odontology conference in Brussels. How great was it that he came out of his way and travelled for 40 hours to drop in for a few days! We entertained him with bike rides to Nice and Antibes for quick tours, beachside lunches and our camping car signature dishes (fish and duck) for dinner. It was like Christmas opening the packages Lindy sent to us from Australia! And it was wonderful to get all the news from home in more detail.
This month Michael lost a very dear friend in Graeme Shorland, who died of cancer. This made us both very sad and reinforced how important it is to seize the day, living life to the fullest. Michael shared lots of great memories of his fun times with Graeme, including Variety Bashes in the early days, Milang-Goolwa sailing races and two very memorable Sydney to Hobarts, as well as the fabulous trip on Braveheart in Greece. We sat on the beach and had a ‘coupe de champagne’ and toasted a wonderful man.
As well as trying to spend every moment we can, enjoying the sunshine as summer draws to a close, we have managed to fit in some sightseeing. We walked 3km through a park to the ‘old town’ of Villeneueve-Loubet. This is where Auguste Escoffier, the famous 19th C chef and food writer was born and it has a culinary museum. But for us the most amazing thing was how steep it was. How did it get built in the first place, and why are people still choosing to live there? We are in awe of the builders all those hundreds of year ago. It was similar when we went to the next hilltop village of Haute Cagnes. This time we rode our bikes to the base of the town and then walked up. It was so steep you almost needed a ladder and you definitely needed the handrails. At the top was a castle that used to belong to the Grimaldis, as well as a gorgeous square complete with boules courts. The views to the Mediterranean were spectacular.
One day we caught the train to Monaco for a day trip. Another very steep place! We remembered it quite well from our visit in 2006 but had great fun touring the marina, having lunch and walking for miles admiring the architecture, shops and massive super-yachts. This place just reeks of money! In the late afternoon it started to look like rain so we caught the hop-on-hop-off bus. And then, did it rain! It bucketed down for hours so we paid the ridiculous price of 6EU for a plastic poncho and headed for the train home. This was delayed due to a landslide on the track. On finally reaching Villenueve-Loubet we had to take off our shoes, pick up Grubie and wade through floodwaters to get out of the train station. Some days are more of an adventure than you anticipate!
Sue has been in heaven, having her ‘art fix’ in the Nice region. There are so many galleries in this area you could visit one a day for weeks. One day she caught the bus to Nice and went to the Contemporary Art Museum and saw an exhibition about the Nice School of the 60s-70s. Then went to the Gallery Beaux Artes for a fix of modern rather than contemporary art. She saw some wonderful works by Nikki St Phalle as well as artists less well known to her: Roul Dufy and Gustav Adolf Mossa.
On another day Michael, Grubie and Sue walked (a long way!) and then caught a bus from Cagnes-sur-Mer to Saint Paul de Vence, in the hills behind Nice. It reminded Sue a lot of Sante Fe in New Mexico because it was wall-to-wall private art galleries. St Paul de Vence is a medieval hill town – think tiny, steep narrow cobbled streets very high up with stunning views over the Provence landscape to the Mediterranean. Just gorgeous! Even though it’s late September, the place was still absolutely overrun with tourists.
While the quality of many of the galleries was not up to the standard of Sante Fe and there was too much tourist trash, there was still some stunning artwork to enjoy. The highlight for Sue was going to the Foundation Maeght, an architecturally brilliant art gallery on a hillside out of the town. Lots of Juon Miro, but what Sue liked the most was discovering a fabulous artist previously unknown to her – Eduardo Arroyo. Stunning works across several genres and styles including tapestry, rubber, drawings, paintings and stained glass. He was even a writer and acted as well! We had a fabulous lunch on the terrace and Grubie had a drink from the centuries-old fountain.
We quite often ride into Nice, a 30k return trip to the Port past the old town. Once we stopped at the centre of Nice so Sue could catch a bus to the Matisse Musee in the hills of Cimiez . There are quite a few ‘single artiste’ museums in this area such as the Chagall, Renoir galleries etc. The Matisse Musee really outlines his various painting periods and styles and has major works from each. Sue was surprised at how widely travelled Matisse was (especially through Asia and the Pacific) and you can see the influence on his work. Michael and Grubie spent a few hours in the ‘husband day care centre’!
Michael has loved his ‘marine fix’ along the Cote D’Azur. Every morning he walks along the Promenade and counts the maxi-yachts anchored out of Antibes or moored at Cagnes-sur-Mer. On the way he enjoys the beach art featured everywhere, particularly the sculptures. He loves to walk the marinas and look at all the boats. He also enjoys exploring the back lanes and chatting to Phillipe, the owner of the local wine ‘cave’ to discover new wines and places to visit in the Provence wine-growing regions. The wine cave has oyster night once a week, which was a must for us to attend. Michael and Grubie can spend hours having a red and people-watching on the Promenade.
When Sue was away in Nice one day, Michael and Grubie got bored and went for a ride. They ended up in a betting bar and Michael – who is not a betting man - placed a 20 EU bet on a race, on horse no. 6 (following the advice of publican Dean Sullivan, who said to always bet on no.6.) Michael won, but he couldn’t understand how much. Turns out it was $500AU!! A very nice little windfall.
Grubie has been happy to just be around the people she loves, have a couple of good walks every day and enjoy lunch. She likes being a tourist and especially enjoys the smells of old buildings, with their odors of rats and the possibility of lizards soaking up the sun. Occasionally there are cats to chase and she has declared a new vendetta against pigeons. Her days are so busy with sightseeing that she needs to take every opportunity to catch a few Zzzs when she can. This month she has caught buses, trains, taxis, lifts and escalators. She waits in queues and has spent hours in shopping centres. She is a wonder dog!
The Cote D’Azure is a busy and vibrant place with lots going on all year. One Sunday in Nice we stumbled across the bike leg of a Triathlon. The road along the Promenade was closed and there were lots of people watching and cheering. On another day we stopped our ride to watch a competition of historical fishing rowboats, with mens, womens and mixed teams from all the local villages. The course was quite short but the boats are heavy and it looked like a lot of work. It was the turn that sorted out the winners.
We have been struck by the heavy military presence in tourist hot-spots. France is still in a State of Emergency and has been for quite some time – years, in fact. We frequently see a number of well-armed and fully kitted out soldiers, anywhere between six and twelve, walk past. Its quite spooky – they are absolutely silent and alert and they look quite mean. We’re happy to see them and hope they deter the madmen.
Michael was really excited by the back-to-back win by Sturt in the Grand Final, winning against their archrivals Port. He spent the day celebrating by phone, email and FaceBook.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the Cote D’Azure and took off to Grasse, so Sue could indulge her perfume addiction. While Michael stayed home looking after Grubie, doing camping car maintenance and researching the next part of our trip, Sue caught a bus into the centre of Grasse and went to the Fragonard factory, where she had a tour and found out all about historic and modern perfume production. Then she went to the perfume museum and looked at artifacts including ancient Egyptian perfume bottles and some from ancient Rome and Greece. While she had time and was in the midst of all the free galleries she went to the Fragonard Gallery (the 18th century artist was born in Grasse) and to a really fascinating clothing museum. Lots of the skirts worn in the 18th century were quilted for warmth and all the hand stitching was amazing.
In the afternoon Sue did a perfume workshop at the Galimarde studio. Galimarde has been making perfume since 1747. At the workshop Sue got to make 100ml of her own Eau de Parfum, which she called ‘Vagabond’. She sat at her own perfumer’s “organ” which had about 100 fragrances organized into three levels –base, heart and peak notes. You start by choosing your base notes, then add your heart and finally the peak notes which are the first thing you smell and that only last about 20 minutes.
It was amazing fun and quite challenging to distinguish between the different scents and try to figure out what will complement each other. Sue made what the perfumer called a “warm, spicy evening or winter perfume, quite intense”. It contains 16 fragrances including: Oriental Amber, Lotus, Orange, Green Tea, Ginger, Tobacco, Licorice, Cardamon etc. Once the perfume is complete it must rest for at least two weeks.
We ended September with a hair-raising drive from Grasse through the Alpes-Maritime to Castellane and the Gorges du Verdon. OMG! Some of you may not know that Michael is scared of heights and here we were driving along winding roads up the sides of mountains, with huge drop-offs, probably more than 500m, as well as scary hair-pin turns. The scenery was off course amazing and Sue really enjoyed it. Michael had a white-knuckle grip on the wheel and concentrated on the road. Grubie had her paws over her ears trying to block out the fierce swearwords.
Castellane is a very pretty little village with a lovely market, lots of good restaurants and a calm, serene vibe. It’s dominated by a monolithic limestone rock with the Notre Dame Chapel du Roc on the top. Sue made the very challenging climb to the top. The pathway was incredibly steep and a mixture of large and small rocks, so quite slippery and there were no handrails between you and the drop-off. But the views were incredible!
We were incredibly disappointed to find out that the season ends at the end of August and nearly everything shuts down. There was absolutely no way to get into the gorges except under your own steam and this wasn’t possible for us, so we hit the road.
Michael did an amazing job of the drive from Grasse to Castellane, but was nervous about having to repeat the experience to get us out of there! Luckily the trip to Digne-Les-Bains and then the motorway was much less terrifying. In fact, it was stunning. Running alongside the famous ‘pine cone railway’ it was full of autumn colour, gorgeous blue lakes and rivers and even a UNESCO geological reserve with fabulous rock formations.
We are now out of the Alpes and heading back to ‘fill in the gaps’ of places we missed in our August rush to the warmth of the Cote D’Azure. Stay tuned for details in next month’s blog.