Saturday, August 14, 2010

Along the French Riviera

Our final day on the Riviera was no different from the others in terms of how busy we were, but it was made all the more special as we knew we were at the end of our time in France. Somehow, everyone sensed that we needed the soak up what the day had to give us.

We left Nice in the morning and headed along the Mediterranean coast for the medieval village of Eze. Eze is a medieval hill town - built on one of the rocky promentories along the coast. The original plan of Eze was similar to other medieval cities of the time - to protect the inhabitants from invaders from the sea. It was easy to see miles out to sea and prepare for attacks and invasions. Residents of the village would have plenty of time to build up their defenses. If the invaders happened to make landfall, they would still have a long steep climb to even get near the village. Today Eze is still a functioning community - full of shops, restaurants, and even residences. Flowers grow everywhere over the narrow, rocky, steep "streets" of the village.

We climbed the steps and winding alleys to the uppermost point of the village for a stunning view, then meandered around on our own to see the beautiful secretive alleyways.

After we had some time to look around, it was back to the bottom of the hill, where the Fragonard Perfume factory just happens to be located. The city of Grasse, which is nearby, is the perfume capital of France. Fragonard has a factory there, in Paris, and at the foot of the village of Eze. We were led into a beautifully scented room, where it was explained to us how essential oils are extracted from the flowers of France (and some from other places in the world). Those oils are selected and mixed by "noses" - a select few people who have a heightened sense of smell, and can tell the layers of scents, which ones will complement each other, and, which to add to perfumes, soaps, and other beauty products. We saw the labs, the soap stamper, and the bottling section. Finally, we were lead to, where else, the sales floor!

After lots and lots of sniffing, we all left the Fragonard factory smelling much better, and with little shopping bags of the scented stuff.

Since we smelled so wonderful, it was time to go to Monaco! We traveled on the famous Corniche highway winding along the high rocky coast and entered another country - the principality of Monaco. Monaco is a city and a country - and it takes up less space than New York's Central Park! We drove through the narrow windy streets where the famous Grand Prix is held. We saw the fabulous yacht harbor, and of course the famous Monte Carlo Casino.

Only people with a "certain income" level may become residents of Monaco - we are guessing that level is pretty high. Real estate is at a premium in Monaco, and so now the only way to build is up. People are getting pretty creative about how new levels are added to the already high high rises. Besides being a city for the very rich, Monaco is also a tax haven, which keeps the money rolling into this first class city. We went to the one large rocky promintory that is probably the least crowded - the royal castle of the ruling Grimaldi family. Currently Prince Albert is the sovereign of Monaco. This bachelor prince, now in his 40's is finally going to tie the knot this year. Also near the palace is the Oceanographic Museum, which was organized and run by Frenchman Jacques Cousteau (and now his family). We explored the area, taking in the changing of the guard (the 35 palace guards are Monaco's only military), the alleys of souvenier shops and restaurants, the beautiful cathedral in which Prince Ranier married the American movie starlet Grace Kelly, and the gorgeous royal gardens.

It was time to make the quick drive back to Nice, but one the way, one surprise stop - at a candy factory (bon bons!). We were showed how the fruit is selected and "candied", and then how this candied fruit and other flowers of France are added to the beautiful chocolates and candies - many purchases made here!

Finally - back to Nice! We took the afternoon to tend to some very important business - donning our bathing suits and sunning ourselves on the French Riviera! Everyone had a swim and lots of sunbathing (unlike many of the French, we kept our tops on!). After the hectic pace we've had, an afternoon on the beautiful beach was just what we needed.

Suntanned and relaxed, we headed out for our last dinner in France - an Italian restaurant in Old Nice where they made their raviolis by hand. This meal ranked among one of our favorites! Dinner was fun, and also a little sad as we had to say au revoir to many of the friends we've made within our bigger group -

students from California and Ohio who of course are now "Facebook Friends"!

Although we had an early departure early the next morning and needed to pack, we couldn't resist an evening stroll around Nice to take in the sights, the street performers, and of course have one last Nutella crepe! We sadly returned to our hotel around 10:30pm, ending a last wonderful day.

We don't want to say "au revoir" (good bye) to France, so we'll leave it at "a bientot" (see you soon) - because we HEART France!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finally - the French Riviera!

It's hard to remember that when we selected this trip, it was because the tour was bookended by two highlights - Paris and the Riviera. There have been so many amazing sights in between that we almost forgot what a big deal the Riviera was supposed to be - until today!

We began this morning in Avignon, and made a short trip over to the medieval town of Nimes. Nimes was an important Roman city over 2000 years ago - so important the Romans built one of their important coliseums there - just like the one in Rome.

Today it is known as the Nimes Ampitheater, and we spent the morning checking it out. We have been left speechless by the Renaissance architecture of the cathedrals, but the ampitheater, much like the Pont du Gard, goes back much much further than that! As we toured the ampitheater, we learned about how it has been a place of entertainment, a fortification, a small community, and served many other purposes over the millenia.

The citizens of the empire used to crowd into the ampitheater to see the gladiators and other entertainments. The arena was filled with sand to soak up all the blood that would collect from the bloody combat throughout the day, and the front row seats were reserved for the most important citizens and politicians. The upper areas (very high) were for the poorest citizens. That is just some of the interesting history we learned as we climbed all over the massive structure.

After we left Nimes, we went on to the heart of Provence, the city of Aix en Provence (or as the French call it, just Aix). The landscape and colors were even more vivid in this part of Provence, which is known for its lavender shutters. Aix was the home of the famous impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne. Other famous impressionist painters also called Provence and the south of France home, such as Matisse, Van Gogh, Claude Manet, and Degas. It is obvious from the colors in their paintings what their inspiration was - the colors of Provence and the south are beautiful! We wandered the narrow streets of Aix which are full of shops and cafes. Provence and the Riviera used to be a part of Italy until the end of the 1800's, when they became part of France. The Italian history and influence is strong in this region - and many people say it looks much like Italy. So, as a nod to Italy, we stopped at an Italian vendor's stand for lunch!

After some lunch and shopping in beautiful Aix, we headed south to our final destination - Nice! What a difference in such a short distance! The colors in Nice are so vivid - ochre and pink colored stones used in the buildings, and everywhere green shutters!

The Mediterranean Sea is a deep blue and the girls were so excited to see it I thought they would start jumping out of the windows of the bus! We checked into our hotel - which is an older but very traditional French hotel - lots of antiques, high ceilings, tall windows, and great little wrought iron terraces that look out over the street. Our tour guide, Alexandra, gave us a quick tour around what is known as "Old Nice" and then to the waterfront to give us the lay of the land. The next item of business for us was obvious - get our feet in the Mediterranean! We were surprised at the rocky beaches, but in love with the beautiful warm blue water.

It would have been nice to stay a little longer, but finally we had to return to the hotel - we had a Skype interview with the Fairbanks Daily News Miner so it was time to do some work.

Tomorrow will be very full, and sadly, our last day. So we are happy to be able to spend it in Nice!

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Day in Provence

The scenery changed for us again today as we entered the southern region of France known as Provence. We left Lyon early and as we drove south along the Rhone River, the scenery began to look different. The land flattened out a little as we left the more mountainous region. The weather got hotter, the sun brighter, and the colors more pink. We passed orchards of plum, pear, and peach trees, and fields of lavender which so strongly scent the air we could smell it on our coach.

Our first stop was to get our lunches prepared – we went to a local grocery store (super marche’) where we shopped for a “French” lunch. Our tour director, Alexandra, encouraged us to explore the store on our own, and to select items that make up a typical French lunch such as baguettes, pates, cheeses, fruits, and some French cookies. We followed her advice to a T and each toted out some good food. Next we drove to the famous Pont du Gard. The Pont du Gard is a Roman aqueduct that was built about 2000 years ago to supply the cities in the region with water. As a testament to Roman engineering, it still stands. The structure is huge – much larger than we expected! We took our picnic lunches and ate on the shady banks with a view of the aqueduct right in front of us. Quite a piece of history – we tried to think of all of the people over the centuries who have looked upon this – overwhelming.

After we left the Pont du Gard, we headed toward the city of Avignon in the heart of Provence. Avignon is a medieval city, with it’s fortified walls still standing.

After we went through the walls into the city, we went to visit a military palace called the Palace of the Popes – the Palais de Papes. During the 14th Century, the Italian kings ran the popes out of Italy because of conflict and a struggle for power. For almost 100 years, the offical holy residence of the popes was in Avignon. The palace was built by two popes, and is a magnificent structure. Although the palace is fairly bare inside, there are lots of interesting details such as the hidden basements where the treasury was hidden so that the wealth of the church could be saved. During that time period, the Palais de Papes was in fact as holy and as important as the Vatican – it was the replacement for that period of time.

After we left the Palace, we got down to business – shopping in Avignon!

The entire town square is centered around the Palace with it’s beautiful cobblestone streets and medieval buildings. We scoured the streets and the square for lots of goodies and got a chance to see a lot of the goods the region is known for – lavender soap, olive oil, Provencal linens, and herbs – especially the namesake blend, herbs de Provence. We ended our shopping spree with a rest in the courtyard in front of the Palace and got a chance to do one of our favorite things – people watching!

We finally left for our hotel, a quaint little inn outside the city, where we ate dinner and the kids finally got a chance to hit la piscine – a swimming pool!

Tomorrow, more of Provence and finally – the Riviera!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Heading to the South of France

Today was definitely a travel day and we covered a lot of ground. We left Tours early this morning after breakfast and headed south. We passed through the beautiful countryside of the Loire, and watched as it turned more mountainous as we headed into the Rhone Alpes region. The towns we passed were small, and agriculture dominates the landscape - even in the more hilly areas it's not unusual to see hilltops covered with different fields. We stopped for lunch at a small town and got some sandwiches and snacks to eat on the grass.

It was during this time that we had our first travel "oops" of the trip - someone lost their camera. After all of the reminders to the girls about remembering to check and double check to make sure they don't lose anything, guess who lost their camera? I DID! Although I didn't realize it until a couple of hours down the road - but I left it sitting in the grass at that rest stop!

The good part is, all of the pictures have been downloaded, so there was only one on there for the day. The bad part? I'm left with a very so-so quality iPhone camera for the rest of the trip. Luckily the girls are also taking tons of pictures, so I'm sure we'll gather quite a collection. Unfortunately for the blog, you'll see picture quality suffer a little! Honestly though, I'd rather lose the camera than the phone!

Finally in the afternoon, we reached France's second largest city - Lyon. Lyon is a very old city, which got it's start originally when Julius Caesar came this way to conquer the Gauls. It's been through a lot in the past 2000 years, but has held up pretty well, and of course is full of medieval and Renaissance structures.

We stopped at the Basilica which overlooks the city and got the full view of Lyon.

Inside the Basilica we were quite surprised - we saw the same Gothic style architecture we have become accustomed to seeing in the cathedrals, but this one was also much fancier - decked out in gold leaf everywhere! As with all the cathedrals and churches we've seen, it was very awe-inspiring!

By the way, the Rhone River runs right through Lyon, so we walked across it to a restaurant called Flam and had dinner.

Although we didn't do too much sight seeing today, it's been a long day of travel, and we were all ready to relax this evening.

Tomorrow, we head to Provence - a very different part of France!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Beautiful Loire Valley

Another beautiful day - the weather is cooperating with us and extending our summer (minus mosquitoes). We left the hotel this morning and went into Tours to see their Saturday markets. The first part was an indoor market with many many different stalls and vendors selling bread, goat cheese (highly recommended in the Loire Valley),

meats, flowers, and all manner of spices and pastries. We hit the patisserie first and finally had a chance to try some French macaroons - delicious!

Connected is an outdoor fruit and vegetable market. This colorful market was filled with the freshest, best smelling produce! The girls were buying beautiful fraises (strawberries), grapes and peaches.

We all agreed that the strawberries were like none we'd ever tasted - fresh, sweet and almost flowery. The girls surprised me by buying me a beautiful bouquet of freshly cut sunflowers! I wish I could take them home with me!

The geography of the Loire Valley includes a lot of limestone formations - especially cliffs. Since Renaissance times, this limestone has been mined and used extensively in buildings, castles, and chateaus in the area. The mining of the limestone left deep caves in the cliffs. Over the years those caves have been utilized for wine storage, and even restaurants and homes! We went to one of the wine storage caves at a locally owned winery in Amboise.

The family controls all aspects of the process from growing the vines, to pressing the grapes, storage and fermentation, bottling and selling.

The do not export and mainly sell locally. The family took us into their cave to tell us about their process and their wines - very informative. It has not escaped our notice that the French take their wine very seriously - it's more than just a drink with food. Wine is a cultural institution here! In the Loire Valley, wine is also a very important part of the economy and the region produces many different types of wines.

Next we had a couple of free hours in the quaint Renaissance town of Amboise next to the Loire River. As soon as we saw the river, we knew we needed to have a picnic on the banks - it was a gorgeous day, and we were looking forward to slowing down the pace for awhile. Busy sidewalk cafes are fun, but Alaska girls need a break from the crowds now and then! We went into a market and selected a few items for lunch - the girls tended to combine a few familiar things - Cokes or Pringles with some new items like cheeses, different deserts and baguettes. We had a fantastic picnic by the river, made even more spectacular by the backdrop of the grand Chateau of Amboise.

After we finished, we walked through the narrow streets looking for our new favorite treat - sorbet! We LOVE French sorbet and all of the wonderful flavors!

After getting our sorbet fix, we met the rest of our group and walked up to the Amboise Chateau for a tour.

The Chateau is small but beautiful - and the grounds and the view are gorgeous. The chateau grounds include a small chapel which contains the tomb of Leonardo Da Vinci - the French loved him and he was invited here often.

We then were ready to visit the largest chateau in the area - Chenonceau! Chenonceau is a very spectacular castle, which housed French kings - the grounds, river and forest surrounding it are beautiful. We had a great tour which was very informative, but were a little frazzled by the crowds - Chenonceau has become quite a popular tourist attraction, and the place was packed! We were quite impressed, but a little overwhelmed by so many people bustling to see the chateau on such a warm day!

We ended our day with a very unique dinner experience. Remember the limestone caves I talked about earlier? We went to a restaurant that is in one of those caves for dinner!

It was dark and intimate, and wonderfully cool after a hot two hours packed into Chenonceau! Eating dinner in a cave is definitely a different kind of dining experience but we really enjoyed it.

Tomorrow is a long travel day - we are heading to the south of France - to Lyon!

Friday, August 6, 2010

2 Busy Days!

Well since I didn't post about our last day in Paris, I'll start with that...

Paris - Day 2. Jet lag wearing off, we had a French breakfast in our hotel - croissants and cafe au laits (hot chocolate for some). We were then taken on a city tour of the highlights of Paris on a bus. The highlights? We saw them all - driving by the Notre Dame Cathedral again and the Louvre. We also drove through some very interesting districts (arrondissements) that were really interesting to see - the opera district and the high fashion stores, the Place Vendome with its monument to Napoleon, beautiful Concorde Square with its Italian fountains - the site where so many were beheaded during the French Revolution! Also the Pantheon - a monument where the French "pantheonize" certain honored citizens such as Marie Curie, the famous authors Voltaire an Victor Hugo, and many others. The French loved Benjamin Franklin and wanted to Pantheonize him but he wasn't French, so they have a statue to honor him on the site. We saw the Luxemborg Gardens, and the Tuileries (gardens by the Louvre). We also saw Les Invalides, the palace and hospital built by Napoleon to house and care for those who served in France's wars. An obvious highlight was a stop at the Eiffel Tower - we walked around it with our mouths hanging open for awhile.

We drove down the Champs Elysses, and around 11:30 were dropped off at the Arc de Triomphe and the start of an afternoon to ourselves in Paris! We decided to climb the 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe - what a view!

The monument itself is quite amazing and our view of Paris was great! After we climbed down, we set off down one of the main avenues that shoots off of the Arch. We took in the interesting architecture, and of course the people and finally found a little sidewalk cafe (there are so many) that looked inviting and the girls had the fun experience of ordering lunch - it was very easy! And despite the stories we always hear, French waiters have been extremely friendly! We had an excellent lunch and then set out to do some serious shopping in the Opera District. The girls had fun and made a few purchases that will become extra special come school time.

How many girls in Tok School will be able to say they did some of their school clothes shopping in Paris? Finally, after our feet were aching, we walked to the Opera Garnier (the "Phantom of the Opera" opera house), and did some people watching in the heart of the fashion district of Paris while we waited to meet the other kids.

From there, we went to a restaurant for a nice dinner, then began our evening tour of Paris. We went to the Montparnasse Tower - up 58 stories in 37 seconds - for a beautiful view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower.

Next, a boat ride down the Seine as the sun set to see the major sights of Paris by boat - everyone loved that.

It was back to the bus for the sights at night - Paris is known as the City of Light so we had to see it all lit up! Back we went to the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysses - beautiful lit up at night. Just when we thought the day couldn't get any better, we went back to the Eiffel Tower, at about 5 minutes before 11pm. It was all lit up and looked beautiful. There was a band playing on the square and everyone was enjoying the view. Then, at 11pm sharp, the tower lit up with thousands of moving sparkling diamond lights - everyone was blown away! The light show happens on the tower every evening at the top of the hour after darkness.

What a way to end the day - it was well after midnight by the time we returned to the hotel. It was all I could do to get up to my room, so blogging was not going to happen!

Today - Leaving Paris and going to the Loire Valley -
This morning we left beautiful Paris and headed into the country. Our first stop was fantastic - we visited the town of Chartre and the Cathedral of the same name.

Chartre Cathedral is much much larger than Notre Dame.

We spent an hour walking around it and could easily have spent more. We then went into the quaint little town of Chartre and had lunch at another little sidewalk cafe. The girls are being brave with the food and enjoying everything - we all ooohd and aaahd over everyone's lunches - especially the French onion soups and the Nutella Crepes!

Back to our bus again as we headed south into the Loire Valley. We made a stop at a beautiful Chateau - Chambord, which is a palace built in the 1500's and was a hunting lodge of a French King.

We wandered around the grounds taking in the magnificent chateau, lazed on the lawns, and bought some ice creams and sorbets. On the bus again we drove along the Loire River, seeing many medieval towns and Renaissance chateaus, until we arrived in the tiny city of Tours, which is the capital of the Loire Valley. We had a nice dinner, and then retired at a decent hour. Things will get much quieter now that we are away from the hustle and bustle of Paris. The countryside of the Loire is beautiful - picture perfect!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We've Arrived!

Wow - what a whirlwind we've had for the past 24 hours! We had a nice uneventful flight from Anchorage to Salt Lake, then boarded another loooong flight - 10 hours from Salt Lake to Paris.

We were met and taken to our hotel, and were then met by our lovely tour guide Alexandra. She is great and will be with us the whole time we are here! We stored our bags at the hotel, and Alexandra put us on a train and took us to the Louvre - what a way to begin!

We had time to get through just 1 wing (there are 6 or so) in a couple of hours - but we hit the highlights. All the Renaissance painters - and sculptors. Naturally highlights were the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. What impressed us as much as the art was the massive courtyards of the Louvre. As we rested under a statue of Napoleon, staring out at the massive courtyard and famous glass pyramids, we kept repeating to each other, "I just can't believe we're seeing this!".

Later, we met more of our group - a small bunch of 5 from Ohio, and a larger group of 12 from California. We all joined together for a scenic stroll across the famous Pont Neuf (very famous bridge over the Seine)

and then over to the beautiful cathedral of Notre Dame.
Looking at it from the outside kept us plenty occupied and our jaws hanging open as we waited in line to get in. The line moved quickly and soon we were staring at the most famous example of Gothic Architecture in the world! What struck us more than the vivid details of the stained glass, the rose windows, the vaulted ceilings, and the flying buttresses was the history. The cathedral of Notre Dame was completed in the 1200's! That kind of close-up history is going to take some time for us to get used to! "Point Zero" of France is located in the cathedral courtyard - it is a brass disk and it marks the point from which all distances from Paris are measured. Superstition has it that if you touch the disk it means you are coming back to Paris - of course we all made sure to do just that!

Finally we met the rest of our group - another group from Ohio of 18. We all went to dinner together at a buffet place, then hopped on the Paris Metro for the ride back to the hotel. Everyone is exhausted. I have to say, I almost skipped writing this because I was falling asleep fast!

Tomorrow is another fun-filled day - a city tour of Paris in the morning, an exciting afternoon of sightseeing and shopping, and a Paris by Night tour that our tour guide added which sounds really exciting.

More tomorrow - everyone is having a great time - did you expect anything less?!