Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Nice.

When I was in Venice I booked two train tickets to take me from Milan to Nice over the night of the 22nd. I noticed that there was a three-hour layover in Ventimiglia from 1 to 4 A.M, but I thought that it was better to endure that than to waste a day traveling and to spend money for a night in a hostel.

It turned out to be one of those instances, pretty common while travelling a planned itinerary, in which the present self curses the past self for being so inconsiderate. I got very little sleep sitting on the floor of the train station in Ventimiglia, which was crowded with immigrants and fellow backpackers sleeping or smoking cigarettes. I took off my contacts and threw them away, because the maid at my hostel in Venice had thrown out the case for them.

I arrived in Nice at 5:30 the morning of the 23rd exhausted and half-blind. No one answered the door at the hostel I had reservations at, so I hung out at a park for a few hours.

Even in that state of being I noticed how clean and pretty Nice was. The empty streets were free of litter and graffiti, and the tram looked like it was made of stainless steel. All the buildings were painted with sunny colors. The park I relaxed in was decorated with palm trees and sleek modern art. In the picture below, taken in that park, you can see seven nude male figures, which I was told are supposed to represent the continents, on the tops of poles.

The park in the center of Nice.

At 7:30 I found a bakery that was open, and I bought a delicious piece of cake for only 2.50 euros. The realization that France isn’t quite as expensive as Italy raised my spirits.

Many people staying at my hostel, the Hostel Smith, didn’t like it. They complained that it was dirty and that the lady at the front desk was rude and confused. I thought it was a decent hostel, although it had its problems. The door to the bathroom wouldn’t stay shut, so you had to stop it with the door to the closet inside the bathroom, which would leave it open just a crack. And indeed, the lady at the front desk was a bit bewildered. She couldn’t find my reservation on the computer, so she accused me of being mistaken about the dates I reserved. When she did find it, she had to drag an extra cot into the dorm for me to use, because they were fully booked.

However, she let me change my reservation from four nights to three so that I could spend another day in Marseille, even though she didn’t have to. The hostel also had an excellent location in the crooked streets of the old part of Nice. But the source of my good opinion of the hostel might be their habit of leaving free bread and pastries on the table in the kitchen.

I spent my first day in Nice doing laundry, buying groceries, making hostel reservations on hostelworld, and writing my previous blog entry on the horribly slow laptops, with strange French keyboards, in the hostel’s lobby. It rained most of the day, so it was a good time to get chores done. That evening I played Gin Rummy (which someone taught me earlier in the trip) with some people at the hostel.

The next day I explored Nice. Like Venice, Nice is a city with a great atmosphere but few sights to see. There is a boardwalk with many beautiful casinos and hotels alongside it. On the other side is a beach. Unfortunately, the beaches in Nice consist not of sand but smooth, fist-sized rocks.

The beach in Nice.

To celebrate my first day in France, I treated myself to a Nutella crepe for 2.50 euros. Over the course of my trip, I’ve developed an addiction to Nutella that I will probably take home with me. I avoid buying Nutella because I end up eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon until it’s all gone, sometimes actually giving myself a stomachache.

A Nutella crepe.

For lunch, I bought a rotisserie chicken from a restaurant next to the hostel for 4 euros. I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, so it made up most of my dinner also.

The rotisserie chicken, as well as the remains of the free pastries layed out by the hostel employees.

The next day I followed the recommendation of an employee at the hostel and walked to Villefranche, a small town a mile or two down the shore from Nice. According to the employee, the French government built Villefranche centuries ago to protect Nice from the Turks. To get people to move there, the government made the city tax-free. Thus, “Villefranche” means something like “tax-free city” in French.

The path to Villefranche went up a cliff that offered a beautiful view of Nice, then went back down to the rocky shores, on which many locals were tanning. For better or worse, my stay in Nice coincided with the three-day Easter weekend, so public areas were always crowded.

After exploring Villefranche, I took a much easier walk back to Nice along a road.

The view of Nice from the cliff.

Part of the trail.

More of the trail.

Villefranche.

On Tuesday I took an hour-long train ride to Marseille. I considered stopping for the day in Cannes to check it out, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, especially since I would have to lug around my full backpack while I was there.

Marseille, with the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral in the background.

I was excited to get to my hostel in Marseille, the Hello Marseille hostel, because it had a spectacular 92% rating on hostelworld. It was an exceptional hostel. The furniture was so clean and modern that it looked like it had just arrived after being ordered from a Pottery Barn catalog. The kitchen was equipped with all the necessary cooking instruments, which is rare for a hostel (the one in Nice didn’t have a can-opener, so we had to run down to a restaurant to use theirs). The computer in the lobby was clean and ran well. It had a great location right next to Marseille’s port, the Vieux Port.

The hostel seemed to attract friendly, outgoing people. I found a couple of friends to play cards with, and we taught Rummy to a few more people. People drank and partied in the hostel every night – maybe too much. That was the hostel’s only significant flaw.

I could tell from the walk from the train station to my hostel that Marseille had a different character from Nice. It’s grittier, with more graffiti, more smells, fewer parks and palm trees, less public art, less color, and less extravagant architecture. The populace of Marseille seemed less affluent than Nice’s, with more immigrants. While Nice seemed like a resort town, Marseille seems like a port town. I think it’s more interesting than Nice, though.

The first bit of sightseeing I did in Marseille was to visit Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, an apartment building/hotel built in the late 1940s. It was one of the first examples of the Brutalist style which begat so many office buildings in the United States, few of which look as good as this one. Unfortunately, it seemed to be falling apart, with the concrete crumbling off in places.

Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation.

Another view of the building.

From there I walked to the Parc Borely, a park by the sea, and rested there for a while. I then walked on the Corniche walkway along the shore, stopping at beaches every once in a while.

The Borely Park.

A beach in Marseille.

The Corniche walkway.

Later, I headed back into the city to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral atop one of Marseille’s hills, which makes it visible from almost everywhere in the city.

Notre Dame de la Garde.

The view of Marseille from Notre Dame de la Garde.

When I got back to the hostel that evening, I was sunburnt, dirty, and exhausted from walking so far. During my stay in Nice and Marseille, the weather has, for the first time in my trip, been hot enough to make me sweat significantly during the day. I’m worried that this is the start of a new epoch in which I’ll have to take two showers a day, apply sunscreen constantly, and wear shorts, which will make it even more obvious that I’m a tourist.

I relaxed that evening by playing more Rummy with the people at the hostel (some of whom took it very seriously), and drinking La Cagole beer. I bought La Cagole despite the fact that it costs twice as much as other beers because it is a local Marseille brand. We all thought it was really good.

I’m still adjusting to being in France – I still say “si” instead of “oui.” It was easier in Italy because I know a little Italian; I’m afraid to even try to pronounce French words. When someone at my hostel told me she is going to Aix-en-Provence and pronounced “aix” like “ex”, I laughed because that’s not how I would have pronounced it at all.

I spent this morning walking around the old part of Marseille, distinguished, like that in Nice, by its short, crooked streets. I stopped by the beautiful Palais Longchamps park to read a little bit of my book. Then, I started getting ready to move on to Paris, my next destination.

Palais Longchamps.

Eurotrip 2011:  Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011:  Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

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Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

A canal from the east side of Venice.

I arrived in Palermo, Rome and Florence with long lists of things I had to see, but in Venice the only things on my to-do list were “see the San Marco cathedral” and “enjoy the atmosphere of Venice.” So instead of rushing from one historical sight to another, I spent my three days there wandering around the city, admiring the handsome Venetian architecture I came across, getting lost both willfully and accidentally. It was a relaxing change from my previous weeks in Italy, when I felt like I was wasting my time if I wasn’t on the way to a cathedral or museum.

Unfortunately, there was still a massive tourist presence there to stress me out. Like all the major tourist destinations in Italy, Venice’s awesomeness has led to an influx of tourists, which has canceled out its awesomeness. The major sights in Venice were even more saturated with picture-taking tourists than those of Florence and Rome. My hostel was located close to the city’s main tourist artery, which was packed from the earliest hours of the morning to the latest of the night.

The Rialto market, full of tourists and those capitalizing off them.

In the course of my wanderings, however, I discovered that the eastern portion of the city is almost completely free of tourists, so I spent a lot of time there. Judging by the amount of laundry hung out to dry, it is where the locals live.

A much quieter street on the east side.

Another of the east side.

A canal.

Another canal.

My hostel in Venice, the Residenza Santa Croce hostel, was unlike any other I’ve stayed in; I would hesitate to even call it a hostel. When I checked in at the address given at hostelworld.com, the owner gave me a key and pointed on a map to where my room was. There, I shared what was basically a single-bathroom studio apartment with five other people. There was no kitchen, no internet, and no area for hanging out. There are very few affordable hostels to choose from in Venice, and that was the best I could find.

Yet, it wasn’t as anti-social as I feared it would be. The first two nights, I shared the room with some friendly Belgians, one of whom was in a punk band that had toured America and played in Cleveland. On the last night, their beds were taken by some American college students studying abroad, and we played Gin Rummy and War (which I hadn’t played in years, and hopefully will not play again for years).

I’d planned to visit the San Marco cathedral the morning of my departure, but when I arrived there I learned that it didn’t open until 10:30 that morning. So, I could only admire the outside of the cathedral, which shows a lot of Byzantine influence (and even, I believe, some plundered Byzantine artwork) due to Venice’s sacking of Istanbul, the first city I visited on my trip.

The San Marco cathedral.

Instead of taking a train directly to Nice, my next destination, I decided to stop in Milan to spend the afternoon there. I’d considered spending a few days in Milan, but I decided not to because I heard from a few people that it is expensive, unpleasant, and industrial. I booked a train that arrived there at 2:30, and one that left from there to Nice at 9, leaving me enough time to see the city’s gothic cathedral and da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Downtown Milan.

A more charming area of Milan.

Although the area around the train station (which was built by Mussolini’s government in a sort of fascist-Art Deco style) was full of homely skyscrapers, the neighborhood by the cathedral consisted mostly of charming 18th- and 19th-century buildings beside clean streets in a grid layout. I walked through a beautiful park that was around, and inside, the imposing 15th-century Sforzesco castle.

The Sforzesco park, with the castle in the background.

Milan’s cathedral was beautiful, but full of tourists who were being rudely loud while a service was held inside, taking pictures even though they weren’t allowed to. I walked to the church that is home to The Last Supper, but I was unable to see see the painting because a reservation was required. I thought the church itself was interesting, though.

Milan's cathedral, the Duomo di Milano.

The church that is home to The Last Supper.

I decided to get one last meal before leaving Italy, so I stopped at a restaurant on the way back to the train station. Despite Milan’s reputation for high prices, the meal I got there was only 9.50 euros including a coke, which is less than a similar one would cost in Rome, Florence and Venice. I didn’t know what it would be when I ordered it, although I guessed correctly that “patate” meant “potatoes.” It ended up being pretty good.

My last meal in Italy.

Eurotrip 2011:  Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Venice Underwater

Venice is sinking and the surrounding sea level is rising.  In the last 100 years, Venice has sunk 11 inches.  It doesn’t sound like much, but 11 inches is a lot when every building and square is bordered by canals or open water.  If you visit Venice, you quickly realize that water is everywhere.  You cannot escape the sound of water lapping against a bulkhead, the smell of water in the canals, or the sight of water as you walk across one of the countless bridges spanning the canals.

The situation has become intolerable.  Venice now experiences 100 floods a year.  The Venetians and the Italian government have finally taken action.  Their plan involves construction of massive inflatable gates that will lie flat on the sea floor under normal circumstances, only to be inflated so as to block sea water from entering the lagoon when water levels rise.  The project is, as you would expect, controversial.  People have raised questions about its cost, its effectiveness and its environmental impact.  Amazingly, due to political wrangling it took four decades for construction on the project to get started — even though the situation is growing increasingly desperate.

Venice is a beautiful city, filled with fabulous architecture, art, and history.  Equally important, it is one of those cities that is a testament to the human spirit, human ingenuity, and human perseverance.  Imagine building a city on marshland and seeing that city grow and develop to the point where Venice was a major sea power and center of commerce!  Everyone should be interested in seeing Venice, in all its glory, preserved — and that means hoping that the project works.  Mankind would be poorer indeed if Venice, like fabled Atlantis, were to disappear beneath the waves.

Italian Journal, Day 9

Russell and Kish on the Piazza San Marco

Russell and Kish on the Piazza San Marco

June 17, 2003:

We got up today at about 9 a.m. and went down for our complimentary breakfast at the hotel. All of our hotels — save the one in Florence — have included breakfast with the cost of the room, and the quality of the food and ambiance has varied widely. In Rome, the breakfast room was like a sauna (to me, at least), and Kish swears that the same food was put out on each of the three days of our stay. In Assisi, the breakfast buffet was much more complete and was served in a nice large area of the hotel restaurant. In Siena, the buffet was even more extensive, and we ate in a fine, shaded garden at the rear of the hotel with a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. Here, the breakast room is a small back room of the restaurant next door, with a less extensive food selection and more of a diner-type atmosphere. At least the room is cool!

This morning I also received my requested “report fax” from Janie, my secretary, notifying me that all is well on the work front, which is good news., I have to say that I have had no trouble getting away from work here. It’s impossible to think about work when you are navigating medieval streets or driving through the Italian countryside.

After breakfast we headed to the Piazza San Marco to see San Marco Basilica. Our guidebooks had said men could not wear shorts, so we had required the boys to wear long pants. When we got to the church, of course, they were allowing people wearing shorts to enter. C’est la vie. San Marco is an impressive church, and it definitely seems to have more of the eastern, Byzantine influences that you would expect from the principal church of the principal city on the eastern coast of Italy, and one that was a maritime trading power for centuries. The church features gold frescoes and a stunning gold screen, but it is a bit too eastern for my tastes.

We returned to the hotel so the kids could change into shorts, then went off in search of different vistas. We walked to the Chiesa della Salute, which is one of the spits of land at one end of the Grand Canal. It takes a while to get there — there being no direct routes in Venice — and we were thwarted in our effort to get to the tip of the land spit due to construction. Nevertheless, the view was good and the church located there was nice, too.

We walked back for lunch near the Accademia, then Kish went for a rest at the hotel while the boys and I searched for some t-shirts. Richard and I bought some at reasonable prices (for Venice) and then the kids decided to take it easy at the hotel, too. I elected to strike out on my own and visit two more churches — Chiesa dei Frari and San Giovanni e Paoli. Chiesa dei Frari is a neat, beautiful church with an extraordinary altar painting by Titian. Strolling through that church gives a very strong sense of Venice’s history and past glory. The walls are covered by monuments and tombs to past notables, and the floors are covered with marble insets marking the final resting spots of other worthies.

They say you must get lost in Venice at last once, and I got lost after receiving the Chiesa dei Frari. Before long, I found myself in some unknown, sparsely populated neighborhood, and in my search for wall signs to provide some direction I stepped in some dog droppings. So, I backtracked, found a fountain to wash off my shoe, and eventually got my bearings. San Giovanni e Paoli is another stunning church, located next to a hospital. It apparently was the preferred church of Venice’s elite, and has the tombs of a number of Doges. By this time, though, I had experienced church overload, and was ready to return to the hotel.

When I got back to the hotel, Kish and the kids were ready to head out again. We walked to Piazza San Marco via a very circuitous route and had outrageously priced drinks at one of the trattorias along the Piazza. You pay a pretty penny for the ability to watch pigeons being fed by tourists, but it is an entertaining sight. Why some people are attracted to pigeons is beyond me — they are filthy! But, some parents let their kids buy the bird food and then stand in the middle of the piazza, with pigeons on their arms, heads, and hands. Ugh.

We found a nice, moderately priced place for dinner. Kish continued her poor luck in dinner selection, whereas the boys and I had fine meals. Poor Kish — she always tries to order something healthy, and then ends up with a pizza that appears to be covered with grass, or something similarly strange. After dinner, Richard and I sat at a cafe next to the Grand Canal, then we turned in for the night.

I have enjoyed Venice very much. It is a languid, old, interesting place — well worth visiting. Unlike Florence, it does not seem to make much pretense, and it therefore becomes all the more enjoyable. We saw dogs walking the narrow streets, a gondola with a full-throated singer accompanied by an accordion, a mime dressed totally in white and standing on a box so that he looked like a statue, and other points of human interest. What a remarkable place!

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

Italian Journal, Day 8

The view from our hotel room in Venice

The view from our hotel room in Venice

June 16, 2003:

This day saw us travel from Florence to Venice and take our longest car ride yet. We left Florence at about 10 a.m. The drive out of Florence was not an easy one — we got caught in a bit of a traffic tie-up and had to navigate several traffic circles on our way out of town. I think it is fair to say that Italian drivers are aggressive, and the presence of the ubiquitous motor scooters makes even simple maneuvers more complicated, as the scooters dart in and out. I much prefer driving in the Italian countryside.

Once we got out of Florence onto the Autostrade, it became an easier trip. We stopped almost immediately for food and gas, and it was quite an experience. The Italian roadside stops are not at all like an American fast food outlet and gas station. Kish and the boys loaded up on some Italian junk food — Russell finally got to try the “Happy Hippo” candy he had seen on TV — but what was really amazing was the quantity and quality of food and alcohol choices that are available. The place we stopped at had a large sandwich area and bar, plus a restaurant where you could select pasta dishes or salads, or ask them to grill fresh meats. We got sandwiches and had our lunch, and all around us people were loading up on wine and beer. What a change from the prevailing views in the USA!

From Florence to Bologna our ride was hilly, with lots of tunnels and switchbacks. The variety of vehicles on the Autostrade is amazing, including all manner of trucks and delivery vans, high-powered German cars, and grossly underpowered, flimsy little cars that struggle up the inclines. Our Opel seems to stack up nicely. From Bologna to Padua the road flattened out, and there was no apparent speed limit. On the straightaways my top speed got up to about 160 kmh, which is probably around 100 mph. We made it to Venice in good time.

At Venice, we faced on of those tourist/cultural decisions that makes these trips interesting. As we parked in the garage, an attendant came up and told us that we would need to leave our car unlocked with our keys inside. We initially agreed and started to walk away, but obviously felt a lot of trepidation about leaving the car unlocked. So, we asked if there was a place where we could park the car and lock it, were directed to a stop six stories higher, and ended up parking there — with a lot more comfort now that our car was locked and the keys kept securely in my pocket.

We then negotiated a ride on a waterbus into Venice, which takes a bit of persistence. The ride into Venice was crowded and stuffy, but we got off at only the third stop, so the ride wasn’t too bad. Our hotel is a charming place immediately adjacent to the Rialto Bridge. It was about 10 yards from the waterbus stop. When we got to our room, we discovered that it had a balcony that looked directly out over the aptly named Grand Canal. What a view!

We promptly walked out into Venice. The concierge gave us a “map,” but it is wholly inadequate other than indicating general directions. My guess is that the map did not have the names of more than 90% of the “streets.” Fortunately, most of the streets show the way to two of the big designations. In our part of the city, the two locations are the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco. We walked to the Piazza San Marco and found it without too much trouble. It is an impressive, strikingly large square with the Basilica San Marco at one end and large municipal buildings on the other sides. On one side of he Basilica is the Palace of the Doge and a view of the islands off into the distance. It was a hot day, so we decided to skip the Basilica, where there was a long line, and save it for tomorrow.

Kish wanted to see the Guggenheim Museum, so we headed toward the Accademia — another one of the signpost destinations — and found the Guggenheim after a bit of wandering. It is a fine collection of modern art, with Picassos, Pollocks, and other assorted cubists, abstractionists, et al. Many of the works seemed to be from the artists before they hit their peak — such as Pollocks from his cubist-type period. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but the color and form of the artwork made a refreshing change from all of the religious icons and “annunciation”-type paintings we have seen on this trip.

The Guggenheim just about did us in, so we headed back to the hotel. We enjoyed the view from our balcony, then did some exploring to try to find a restaurant. We ended up at a place at the foot of the Rialto Bridge. A bit touristy, and therefore more expensive, but the view was very nice and the food was good. As we ate the wind picked up, but the rain held off. After dinner we took a stroll and found that, at the Piazza San Marco, the restaurants ringing the piazza hire musical groups to serenade the diners. We walked past to the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, and the Godfather theme.

The night also seems to be a prime time for gondola rides. Many of the gondolas were booked, and it was entertaining to watch some of the more obese travelers struggle to get into the gondolas. I have to say that I have not one bit of interest in taking a gondola ride, but it was pleasant watching the boats glide past.

Kish and I watched some Italian TV before turning in. TV seems to be the same the world over — Hollywood movies, infomercials, game shows, and mindless cop dramas. In Florence, I had seen Popeye cartoons dubbed in Italian, which indicates how desperate the Italian networks are for product.

A disconcerting and not particularly reassuring Venetian sign

A disconcerting and not particularly reassuring Venetian sign