David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

France and Italy, November 1998

We were off to visit the Riviera, searching for a place to live when we retire. Should it be somewhere in France? or in Italy? We just knew we needed a city, the sea, and no snow! We landed in a beautiful sunrise with the snow-covered Alps in the background in Milan on November 2. After picking up the car, we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, by the scenic (we lost our way) route. It was sunny and warm in Lugano, a beautiful town on a big lake. We found our cousins, Mercier and Sally, Art and Fran, who had also planned a visit to Europe for this time. They had rented two apartments for a couple of weeks, sensational views, with a balcony hanging over the lake. They treated us to a great lunch at their place - olives, cheese, and salami as an antipasto; pasta with pesto; and three delicious desserts. Then we headed south, getting as far as Pavia, Italy. We found a hotel and crashed.

Tuesday was a gray morning that turned rainy as we reached Genoa. We drove to Portovenere where we had lunch i n a nice restaurant, Da Iseo, while we watched the driving rain. David had fritto misto and Ginna had grilled sole and we shared a salad. The restaurant was right on the waterfront on a bay where we had a good view of boaters. When the rain let up a bit, we made a mad dash for the car. We had planned to spend a couple of nights on Cinque Terre, a very isolated area of Italy, with some of the towns accessible only by train or boat or walking. But it was too wet for Cinque Terre and we headed back up to Santa Margherita where we finally found an open hotel, Hotel de Ulivia; they would take us for one night only as they were closing for the season the next day. The rain let up in the evening so we took a long walk around town, stopping for drinks - and free hors d'oeuvres (roasted peppers, ham and cheese on toast, etc.) - at a restaurant where we could sit outside as it was still quite warm, although wet.

There was more rain during the night and still gray and rainy when we got up in the morning. We decided that we would have to skip Cinque Terre altogether. This was devastating as it was one of the main goals of the trip. Instead we drove out the Strada Panoramica along the sea to Portofino. This is a darling, romantic town, although very expensive, and a very in-place with the 'jet set'. We explored it in a light rain and decided to head on toward Genoa.

We drove north along the coast road with wonderful views the whole way. We stopped for lunch in Camogli, finding a restaurant hanging over the crashing waves. Ginna had pesto lasagna, not really lasagna as we think of it but rather sheets of folded pasta with a very smooth, light green pesto. It was wonderful. David had seafood again. For dessert we went down the street for our first gelato - ciocolato, of course.

We got as far as Nervi that night and found a nice hotel with a balcony and a view of the sea. Since the rain had finally let up, we took a long walk along the Anita Garibaldi Promenade that goes for miles along the sea. We picked up provisions for a picnic which we had on our own balcony and then went to sleep to the sound of the crashing waves.

Thursday we woke to a lovely day. After breakfast, we took another walk along the sea and then headed off to the West Riviera. We drove through Genoa, but decided we weren't up to a big city. We passed through many beach resorts, following along the SS1, the Aurelian Way. This is one of the oldest roads on the planet, planned by Marcus Aurelius 20 centuries ago, and running from Rome to Cadiz, Spain.

We stopped overnight at one of the little towns along the coast, Spotorno, where we found a room with 2 tiny balconies and a view of the sea. Friday we visited Albenga, a town we had visited 11 years ago on our first trip together to Italy. We revisited the 5th century Baptistry and wandered around the wonderful old town. Instead of being on the sea, Albenga is on the alluvial plain, about a mile inland.

Saturday morning we were off to Cervo which we had also visited on our first trip. It's a medieval hilltop town with a favorite church in green and pink. We parked at the bottom and climbed all the way up where we wandered around the tiny, charming village which seems to have more craftsmen than before. The village is more covered than most medieval villages, with passageways rather than streets, all twisting and turning, and with many stairways. Very interesting. You can't help but try to imagine how people lived back then! Then we climbed slowly back down to the car and - Disaster! Someone had smashed the driver's window and taken Ginna's bag - passport, driver's license, credit cards, glasses, notes about the trip. We are always so careful about locking everything in the trunk but this shows that even seasoned travelers can have brain-fade! We had no idea what to do. We drove to the next town, Diano Marino, to make a police report, which took hours. While Ginna made out the report, David made the calls to cancel the credit cards. Afterwards we drove back, hoping that they had taken what they wanted and thrown the bag on the side of the road nearby, but no luck.

Feeling depressed and in need of a really good lunch, we drove to Imperia to the old Port Maurizio where we happened upon the Blue Lanterne. Such a pretty place a white building with windows facing the sea, beautiful linens, upholstered chairs, and the nicest maitre d' and waiter. We both had the wonderful sea bass and split a salad. The rolls with olives in them were especially good!

After lunch we drove to Bordighera where we walked forever trying to find a hotel. Everything closes for November. Finally we stayed in a 4-star with a beautiful, gigantic corner room on the sea. The furniture was a lovely wood with marble tops on the bedside tables, the desk, and an occasional table. We went out for drinks and were served hors d'oeuvres with each round so we were full. Then home to bed.

The next morning the receptionist helped us by calling Hertz about our car. Since it was the weekend, nothing was open. We would go to the Hertz booth at the Nice airport on Monday, but she warned us that the French would probably give us a hard time, because the French were not helpful people! After a nice breakfast, we drove on to France.

We stopped in Menton for a walk along the waterfront, but didn't stay. On to Villefranche-sur-Mer where we walked around the old town with its covered alleyway. Then we chose a restaurant on the waterfront, eating outside on Nov. 8! Some people were bundled up but it was warm. David had his usual soupe de poisson and cockerel (chicken) while Ginna had an avocado salad and fish.

Between Menton and Nice there are three corniches, roads that hug the cliffs that fall to the sea. The Grande Corniche, built by Napoleon along the Via Julia Augusta, is the highest, and passes by the Alpine Trophey, built by the Romans to honor Augustus. The Moyen Corniche is a modern road with good views of the coast and the coastal resorts. The Basse Corniche was built in the 18th century by a Prince of Monaco. It runs at the foot of the cliffs, following the contours of the coast (bord du mer) and gives access to all the resort towns.

We took the Moyen Corniche to Nice, enjoying the fabulous views. We passed the medieval town of Eze, perched on its mountaintop, and Monaco and its famous gambling casinos in Monte Carlo. Then past Nice to Villeneuve Loubet where we checked into our timeshare exchange. It's not great - just a tiny studio, but it does have a balcony overlooking the marina, tennis courts. And no packing/unpacking for a week!

Monday morning we took the car with its missing window to the Nice airport, expecting a hassle, but the nicest Hertz fellow gave us no trouble at all. We quickly had a new car and a warning that those Italians would probably give us a hard time when we turned the car in in Milan! Italians are not helpful people!

We drove to Nice and explored the Chateau, actually a large park on a high hill in the middle of the city where there was once a fort and a church. We loved the footpaths, all made of stone mosaics of Greek and Trojan figures, fish, boats, and so on. There's a man-made waterwall and great views all around. We climbed down to the old town and its winding streets and many churches and shops of souvenirs, butchers, wineshops, fresh made pastas in a rainbow of colors, olive oils, soaps, everything looking delicious and inviting.

Next we explored Antibes, with its charming old town and pleasant port across from an ancient fort. There's a Picasso Museum, housed in an old Grimaldi palace, where Picasso actually worked. After lunch in the old quarter, we drove to Cap d'Antibes, a wealthy area of magnificent estates.

Tuesday we visited Cannes, home of the famous film festival. We had lunch and talked with the restaurant owner who promoted Cannes and Nice as places to live, saying that Menton is for old people and too quiet. We drove on to Frejus where we viewed the Roman ruins and then returned home over the mountains instead of along the sea. Again spectacular views.

Wednesday we drove back along the lower Corniche to Menton where we had hopeed to visit realtors. But it was November 11 - Armistice Day - we happened to be here on the 80th anniversary of the end of WWI (called Veterans' Day in the US). We joined a parade through the old town - just a band and people following along, ancient men in civvies with their medals from the many wars since then. We climbed up to the old church and wandered through the streets. We also visited the great market where we bought fish pate and olives for future picnics. What a great place to shop, even better than Whole Foods! We had lunch at the Grand Bleu right on the waterfront with a lovely cool breeze from the sea. Raspberry tarts for dessert.

On the way home we drove out to Cap Martin to see more beautiful estates. Then up to Roquebrunne, another medieval village perched high above the sea with some of the best views of all. Then home, a late snack, and bed.

Thursday we went in to Nice to find the American Consulate where they gave us the necessary paperwork to board the plane without my passport. We drove along the lovely Promenade des Anglais, admiring the Belle Epoch Negresco Hotel, across from the sea. We explored more of Nice, stopping at a couple of realtors' offices to get an idea of rental rates. For lunch we returned to the old town to find a place serving rabbit which we hadn't had yet and were determined to find. We both ordered it, sharing a salade chevre chaud. All was wonderful and the place was charming, with beams painted robin's egg blue with yellow in-between. Very Provencal. There were several dogs wandering into and out of the kitchen and a tape of Spanish music playing.

Friday we drove to St. Paul de Vence, another town we had visited that first trip. We explored the medieval village with its narrow stone streets inlaid with stone flowers and flower pots. The town is now an artists' colony and quite expensive for souvenirs. In the town there is also the world-famous Colombe d'Or restaurant where so many artists ate and paid with artwork. To eat there is an experience. The food is not outstanding but the rooms with all the artwork by Matisse, Chagall, Dufy, Calder, and on and on are unforgettable.

Then on to Vence where we saw the 400-year-old elm tree at the entrance to the old town. This is one of my favorite towns, less commercial than St. Paul. There are signs posted all over town, describing the buildings and sights. There are remains of a Roman road and an obelisk given to the town by the city of Marseilles in the year 300 AD! We had lunch at Chez Jordi; Jordi himself is the host, waiter, and chef, and probably dish-washer, all in one! David had the best lamb chops he's ever had, seasoned with rosemary and thyme while I had the salmon. The vegetables were perfectly cooked carrots, green beans, broccoli, and delicious ratatouille. For dessert an apple tart with nuts and raisins, served warm. And a nice house wine.

On the way back home we passed Tourettes-sur-Loup, a darling semi-circular perched village; the Loup gorges; and Grasse, famous for its perfume factory. At home, tennis, a crossword puzzle, and bed.

Saturday we took off on a gray, cloudy day. We stopped at McDonald's for Egg McMuffins, our first eggs for breakfast. This is certainly the McD's with the best view in the world, extending right out into the Mediterranean with big windows looking out to sea. It was going to be a long day, so we got on the autostrada to get as far as we could. David was getting tired of dodging traffic along the sea. We got as far as Casale, Italy, and found a pretty basic, but clean, hotel. We walked around the city which doesn't appear in guidebooks but turned out to be very nice, with a large square and many churches. We stopped in a pub for a drink, Guiness signs everywhere but Murphy's stout on draft. Ginna ordered a vino bianco and was asked "with gas or without?". This was a first - but we were very near Asti where many of the wines are bubbly. Then back to the hotel for a snack and reading. At 7:30 I said, "We can go to bed early or we can go out for a drink. It's Saturday night!" So we dressed and went out on the town. The passegiata was in full swing. We walked everywhere looking for another bar and just as we were about to give up, we spotted the Bar Savoie, right on the main square. It was so pretty with its yellow walls and darker yellow beams, wooden armoire by the entrance, and old-fashioned bar. We sat at a table and watched everyone else. The waitress was serving an interesting looking drink which she insisted was Irish Coffee, but it was mostly Irish with a thin layer of coffee and a thin layer of cream. David had to have one while I settled for a glass of port. With the drinks they served the prettiest hors d'oeuvres, five for each of us plus olives, on white, lacey china plates. We staggered home to bed.

The next morning we returned to the Savoie for breakfast. Everyone was there for after-Mass Sunday breakfast; definitely the place to be seen. There were baskets of croissants and other goodies in the armoire. We helped ourselves and ordered due cappucini and watched the high society of Casale have their typical Sunday morning.

Then we were off to Lago Maggiore. It is spectacular. We drove up the west coast to Stresa, a very expensive and beautiful town. We walked around looking at all the magnificent hotels. We didn't take the available boat rides to the islands since most things were closed. We couldn't get over the vegetation - palm trees, cedars, lindens, mimosa, holly. And all huge. The leaves were turning red, gold, orange, yellow, and brown and there were snow-topped Alps as a backdrop.

We drove back south looking for an open restaurant and found Il Milano, a Best Western hotel with a glass-enclosed restaurant hanging over the lake. They were having a big buffet dinner, something we've never done in Europe, and there was even live music. There were big Italian families there having a grand time. It was really a pretty good deal - 68,000L each (about $45 each) which included 2 bottles of wine, a red and a white. We tucked into the first table, loaded down with several kinds of proscuitto and other hams, cold fish, shrimp salad, several vegetable salads, and great tomatoes. The hot table was next, with whole tunas, roast beef, potatoes, eggplant, sausages, soup. And then the dessert table with cakes (all filled with liquor) and dolci and fruit. It got quite warm in the room so we had the waiter open the sliding door to the tiny balcony. I took the last of the wine out there and soon had several Italians join me, feeding the fish and ducks, singing along with the music. We even danced a little. Such a lunch!

We drove further south along the lake, looking for a hotel and finally found a 3-star with views of the lake. We walked along the waterfront to the square where they were having a small market. I bought a blouse from 1940, made of lovely old linen. Then we walked through the old town and had a light supper of proscuitto and cheese with wine at a cute bar with a barreled ceiling.

The next day we headed along the autostrada toward the airport. The airport had been completely rebuilt and the roads weren't done yet! We had decided it would be a good idea to stay near the airport for the last night, but it got dark earlier than we expected and the airport wasn't surrounded by hotels! We started to panic, but finally found a place, a business hotel, new and fairly expensive. But they had a bed for us. In the morning we turned in the car (with no problems - it turns out that both the Italians and the French are helpful!) and took off for home. A long trip - 9 hours to Dules where we went through customs (no problems with my Consulate identification instead of passport) and then another 1 1/2 hours to Chicago and home.


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