Friday, March 27, 2015

adventure!

Looking back, had I known all that I now know, I wouldn't have done it. And that would be a shame. Because few things lift your spirits as much as pulling off something that could have sent you crashing.

It was a brilliant morning! The clouds are far, somewhere on the horizon, the sun is strong and warm, the Mediterranean gratefully puts on her best colors.


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Without question breakfast, purchased at the staid but exquisite bakery...


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... is outside today. I take it at the big table and I almost do not want it to end. The warmth seeps in, your muscles relax... But, I have plans.


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Knowing that there would be good weather, I put on the agenda another hike -- it would be in fact, my last big hike of the trip. I have a booklet of trails and loops and I see that at least three start right from the village along the coast immediately after La Napoule. The plan is to take the train over (a long three minute ride! I could have walked it!) to Theoule-sur-Mer and from there, I will do one of the suggested loops.

But which one? And here's where ambition and chutzpah get the better of me. Initially, I think the 2.5 hour one would be just fine. The guide rates it as "moyen" -- meaning middle of the road in terms of difficulty. But as I head out, the sun starts playing tricks on my reasoning capabilities. Why not the bigger one? I'm feeling sportif, not moyen and besides, the bigger one has three peaks with beautiful views. And my booklet tells me - the highest peak is only 440 meters. That's not quite 1500 feet. Baby steps!

And wouldn't it be grand to end with a bang? To match my first hike along the Cornish coast? So why not go for the big one?

Here are a few reasons "why not," which came to me just as I was halfway up the first peak on a particularly challenging ascent: I'm in my cross over shoes. In an effort to reduce luggage, I've taken to wearing shoes that can handle a simple hike and, too, not make me feel dorky on city streets. They're not meant for climbing rocks or going down shifting terrain. Whatever grip they had was lost on my first walk in them many trips ago.

And there's this thought that kept running through my head: why am I doing something difficult? Why not the simpler, the shorter? In three weeks I can start claiming my Social Security if I want. Shouldn't that slow me down?

But perhaps the most looming "why not" is a very practical one: I did not take water.

For a shorter hike, while not perhaps the wisest of moves on a sunny day, it would have been okay. Ed drinks a ton when he hikes. Me -- less so. And so I leave the water bottle at home.


But these reasons do not make themselves present as I set out. Once off the train, I admire the tiny village of Theoule-sur-Mer...


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...and then I search for the trail head. My little booklet, though in French, provides exact detail and besides, I have found trail markings in this region of France to be excellent. As good as in England and that's saying a lot!

Half an hour later, I am at the beginning of the official hike.


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The first segment takes me through a forest of mimosas. They're mostly past their flowering period, but every once in a while I'll catch one late bloomer and it is so very lovely...


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...especially as against a blue sky!


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(Numerous violets, especially pretty with a dusting of spent mimosa blooms...)


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As I leave the forest and increasingly come out into the sunshine I begin to have trepidations. Can I really do this without water? Shouldn't I go back and do the simpler walk? The devil on the other side begs me to continue. It's sunny, but not hot! I'm out of my jacket pretty quickly, but I'm not overheating. Besides, it's so pretty here! And I haven't even gotten to the panoramas!

Still, when a rough road intersects the trail and I come across two workmen talking about taking a lunch break, I approach them and ask -- do you have extra water you might want to sell? 
They look. They really look hard. Finally one says - I only have this in my canteen. But go ahead, have some of it! 


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I gratefully accept the offer. We exchange mutual germs and I get ready to move on, thanking him profusely.
He grins apologetically -- I wish I had a bottle of water for you, but the only bottle I have is with wine and I need that for my work day!
Perhaps he was joking. Probably not.

I feel refreshed. I try to not think about water. I am an hour into my hike. I have roughly four to go. People have walked longer miles under tough circumstances without water. I am not thirsty. I can do this.

(I ask myself: if I get really thirsty, what would be better -- drinking from a creek or pouncing with force on a fellow climber? It is in fact reassuring to pass other sportif types every half hour or so.)

When I reach the first peak, I exhale. Loudly. I even shout out to myself: no more ascents! The worst is behind me! (I feel somewhat foolish when I see a hiker sleeping near the peak's tower. I will feel even more foolish in a few minutes, when I learn that I am wrong.)

This (Col de la Cadiere) is the highest of the three summits and I celebrate with taking time out for a time release selfie. If ever there is justification for this kind of photo, it's when you've reached a summit after a particularly hard ascent.


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When I leave, I am dismayed that the trail is heading straight down. And it's the kind of down that requires me to get on my butt and help myself with my walking pole (at least I had that -- I would not have been able to finish this hike without it), tree branches and anything else within reach. This is where I thought a lot about being nearly 62.

And of course,  since there was another peak, there was to be another ascent. And another selfie after a successful scaling of a particularly troublesome set of rocks.


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But let me not neglect the panoramas. Because truly, they are sublime! Volcanic rock formations jut out to the north and east...


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... mountains of the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes run along the length of the horizon. Forget about my troubles -- enjoy the views!


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(west)





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(north: with a hint of Alps at the horizon)





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(east: Cannes and Nice beyond)


And again I descend and then climb up the third and final peak. This time, I really feel the selfie is in order. I know now I will not perish from thirst. And I know I have not wilted nor shied away from adventure.


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When the trail once again intersects with a dirt road, I see again a pair of workmen (not the same as before). They've driven up in a small truck and are inspecting something or other at the side of the road. I wonder if they have water. I no longer feel I need it, but still, it would be a refreshing little moment. The two men glance up and regard me curiously as I peer closely inside their truck. I feel a need to explain -- I was just wondering if you were maybe carrying some water with you... forgot mine... it's been a long hike... I foolishly set out without it...

They are sympathetic, but they don't have anything. I wave and walk on.

A few minutes later, a fellow hiker -- another solo female, though quite a bit younger than me -- catches up.
I heard you ask about water.
Yes, you know, stupid of me... hiking mountains without it...
I have some. Would you like to take some of it?
She has a small bottle and it's half empty. I refuse it. I know I'm okay now. Probably not more than an hour left and the sun is so low by now, that we are walking in cool shade.
But she insists. I must look more wistful because she hands it to me and unscrews the cap. She explains -- I don't need it at all now. I have an apple in case I still get thirsty.

And so for the second time I rely on the kindness of strangers and help myself to a big swig which in this case I try to accomplish without imparting my germs onto her bottle, just in case she is fussy about that and as a result I spill it all over my face and shirt, but in the most delightful way.

My very last touch of adventure happens in the last hour of my descent. I hear a rustle in the forest. I pause. I listen quietly. Sure enough, another movement. And then a big loud grunt. Do I come closer for a photo? I do not. I speed down the path as if I had legs of a true French athlete. (It's likely to have been a wild boar. I'd seen their diggings in one of the forests. Usually not a danger, unless there are little boarling piglets near by, in need of protection...)

I topped five hours on this hike, beating my first day out on the Cornwall shore path (in more ways than one!). You feel so capable when you do something that is just a touch beyond your reach. You look up at the summit that you scaled and you tell yourself -- okay, I can still do more than I allow myself to think.

Only next time, please don't let me forget the water.


I return to the apartment, chat on my computer with people back home and pretty quickly notice that it's dinner time. Having had nothing besides bits of bread and a croissant, I am properly hungry and so I go up three Euros and settle in at a restaurant that is quite a bit more proper than yesterday's (in terms of setting). It's called La Pomme d'Amour and again I strike gold. It is, in fact even better than all the previous ones (or is it that I am that much more hungry for dinner?). The main course of duck breast with mashed sweet potato, all bathed in honey and ten spices (I asked the waiter to name them and he did!) is perfect enough, but the dessert -- a simple poached pear -- isn't so simple at all: it sits on a biscuit, with a florentine cookie on top, it has a layer of pistachio filling, and along with a pear sorbet and a chocolate mousse, it rests on a drizzle of raspberry coulis. It is, in other words, heavenly.)


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I meet the chef Jeanette and her husband Marc (who oversees the dining room) and I tell them how wonderful their food is. Like most of the eating establishments here, they go through a very slow period in the winter. A pair of women (mother-daughter?) are with me during the meal and though I admit I am again on the early side (at 7pm), still, I doubt that they will have a flood of customers on this day.


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Much will change after this weekend. Like in England and Italy, April and specifically the week before Easter starts the holiday season for many places in southern France. There is a beauty to the off-off season of course. So when would I come back? Because after the hike today, there isn't a doubt in my mind: I'll have to come back, if only to do the other hikes just west of La Napoule.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nice, today!

You get your mind stuck on something and there's no shaking it free: it's wedged stubbornly and you just have to give in to that idea, no matter how poor, ill-timed, ridiculous.

And so it is today for me with Nice: I really want to go there. It's about a forty minute train ride and I want to do this trip today. Never mind that the weather gurus have been saying for a long time that Wednesday may be wet. Oh, there's some discussion about which hours will deliver real rain, but rain there will be, though current weather maps tell us it will be later rather than earlier. So I must go and I must go earlier.

I should have argued with myself: Nice is so beautiful on a sunny day! I have two sunny days in store, why not wait?

No, somehow I have convinced myself that it must be Nice today.

Breakfast first, of course. Not on the balcony, no way! Too damp, cloudy -- all of it (though in the high fifties F, so not cold).  At the bakery, I buy a demi baguete and a croissant. I will continue buying from this bakery, even though I think madame the sales person doesn't really like me (possibly because I take five minutes to decide if I want the pain au chocolat and baguette or almond croissant without baguette or croissant with baguette and maybe something else...), or maybe she is just a very formal kind of person, in any case it doesn't matter -- the products are so great that I'll ignore the fact that I will never in my week here get her to crack a smile.


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After breakfast -- the train ride. And now I am in Nice.

I have a plan: to walk first to the water. I love the sea coast here! True, the long stretch of shore is all pebbles, but the color of the sea here is unique and stunning and it once gave me days of pleasure (that would have been in the summertime) and I want to pay my respects and take in its beauty once more.

But as I leave the station, I feel a few drops of rain. Not the kind that would cause anyone who has an umbrella to use it (I don't have one, btw), but still, enough to have me hide my camera. (And take it out for the moment when I see a hand of a dad do a multitask: navigate and provide comfort all at once...


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...and then, I catch them again; this time the dad adds another task -- a smart phone -- to the others.)


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I ignore the occasional drops of rain. I walk all the way down to the Place Massena -- which I think is one of the most beautiful squares (here, you see only one side to it; it expands to misty fountains and parks and arcades, making it really one of the loveliest city spaces anywhere)...


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...but I do not pause now. I go to the water's edge.


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I know it's the same sea I have a few miles down where I am in La Napoule, but here, the water lights up and glimmers -- despite the occasional drops of moisture from very pouty skies.


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I then walk to the market. I do love the flowers here -- ah, I see that yesterday's blooms are well represented: the mimosa...


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...the freesia...


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...and jasmine, too, though that belongs more to my perfume tour of the previous day. There was no jasmine growing or blooming along my La Napoule hike path.


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As for the rest of the market -- well, it gets a lot of praise because it really is quite colorful. Honestly. I think it's the buildings surrounding it that add that punch of color. If I lived here, I don't know that I would be a regular shopper.  The vendors are tired and exasperated and most of the items here are likely found in stores around town.


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I'm not surprised that the vendors are exasperated. There are always far more lookers than buyers (every Nice guide book will tell you to go to the market) and on a half wet day like today, they just don't really have much patience with the lookers and so they use their two favorite words: "don't touch!" and they say them again and again to people who come and feel for some reason compelled to finger the oranges. I think about our own Capitol Square market in Madison: it, too, draws more lookers than buyers and still, vendors put out free samples and generally maintain a cheery attitude and believe me, Wisconsin weather isn't nearly as pleasant as Nice's weather. Nice, after all, boasts of having at least 300 days of sunshine each year. Today, in all fairness, is not one of them.

But let me interject here this very important comment: I hold none of this against the city. It's my fault that I chose this day to visit it and in fact, though I would have preferred the sunshine, I still love Nice, even in the stubborn half shower that keeps following me around the city.

Let me list a few reasons for being so fond of this place: you already know I love its shore. But I also love the city colors -- golden, orange, red, green shutters -- all so Provencal, but also very Nice!


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I love, too, its mixture of peoples. So many have that Corsican toughness, the weathered, darkened skin, the very dark hair -- it's common here. And this is a city where people have always come and gone -- from Russia, from Africa, from Italy. You feel that energy from distant places: Nice, like Marseille, has a touch of the world in it.

And I love the walks here. They're better than in most cities. There is the water front. And the maze of the old town.


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And there are hills to climb and I do that, of course. And panoramas to admire.


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I feel a touch nostalgic because the last time I was here (2008), I had dragged Ed with me and he was already feeling that indifference towards travel and so even though I thought he should like it, he seemed only mildly enthused. I had especially wanted to show him the old port -- what, with all those boats, surely he'd perk up -- here it is, photographed today:


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And from another angle:



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... but again, he seemed only lightly buoyed. Feeling his reluctance to engage the city I suggested we pause for lunch. He shook his head and offered one of those  -- "you go ahead, I'll just watch" comments which always made me wince, because I only like eating alone when I am alone, not when I am with someone.

Still, I ate alone,  and he watched. I did not eat a whole lot: just a salad, with a glass of wine. And here's the thing: I'll never forget that salad. It was a great salad. And since that day, when people ask me for advice on where they should eat in Nice, I always say -- there's a restaurant along the old port that has the best salad, but I don't recall the name of the place. (I've grown wiser in recent years and I now always note restaurant names on Ocean.)

Today I searched for this place. And I found it! It's called La Marie Belle and here I am, inside (that's the table he and I sat at so many years ago...):


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And here is the same salad today:


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And you can compare it to the salad I ate years ago, as displayed in this post.

It is altogether a delightful small lunch break and it will be the only restaurant lunch that I will have eaten on this trip. Madame at the restaurant is tickled by my story of the crazy search for the salad (it has mâche and arugula and a few baby tomatoes and most importantly -- raw baby artichokes, trimmed and lightly sprinkled with lemon and a good olive oil and finished off with slivers of parmesan cheese).

Actually she has another reason to be tickled today: her other guests are three women friends who are celebrating a birthday. And it turns out that madame, the restauranteur also has a birthday, though not until tomorrow, but all this is reason for them to order glasses of champagne and madame joins them in this...


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... and now everyone is buoyant and jovial and this spills over into the dining room because you know what? Happiness is contagious.

I leave with lovely images of my few minutes at La Marie Belle.

But now it's raining bigger drops and they're coming more often. People who have umbrellas are using them.


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(The Place Massena again...)


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I manage to stay more or less dry by doing an awning walk (where you basically stay very close to the buildings) and occasionally I go inside shops. For example, the Nespresso store to pick up more coffee. And to the department store to buy a cute little summer jumper for Snowdrop and a pair of pants for myself because I HATE one of the three pairs I brought with me (purchased especially for my travels) and would very much like to throw it in the trash even as I know that's wasteful, so I won't.

And now I have to decide: linger in Nice? Take a long walk along the coast? Or catch the afternoon train home?

I don't hesitate for long. The rain is such that most everyone has an umbrella by now and since this is the only afternoon that will produce any amount of wetness on this trip, I don't want to buy one and so I hop on the train just as it is about to pull out of the station.

Except that it is the wrong train.

I sort of knew that when I hop on: the direction is correct but it doesn't go all the way to La Napoule, it stops at Cannes. No matter. I get off at Cannes and indeed, the rain is letting up again so I walk a tiny bit and then finally catch the correct train to my home town. And my apartment by the sea. Where I indulge in a coffee and a macaron.


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Dinner. Despite the noon salad, I'm hungry. I pick a restaurant with an uninteresting name (Cote Place) and with an uninteresting ambiance. Walls, sparsely decorated with random signs, one in English, announcing something in Texas. The tables have little bamboo shoots stuck in ceramic pots with Asian lettering of an unknown to me language. I ask the waiter if the chef/owner is somehow tied to Asia and he says no -- he, the waiter picked the bamboo things for decoration. Because he liked them.

But the menu -- posted as always outside -- I couldn't take my eyes off the menu. It looked great! And you can eat a whole three course dinner for 21 Euros (that would be around $23), taxes and service included.

And the food? Oh, wonderful! Well, actually beyond wonderful!  I went up just a few Euros and ordered the home made goose liver for an appetizer, because the French do these SO WELL! And then a fillet of turbot over a mushroom risotto with meat infusion for a main course. Just superb!

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Again I have to order dessert (it's included) and I let the waiter -- a really nice guy who is just this year is going to begin to study English...


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...I let him pick one for me: the Tarte Tatin (upside down apple cake, of sorts). I have no complaints.


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I'll end with the photo that I took just heading out to dinner. The lights are starting their night dance over the Cannes harbor. It's cloudy still, but there is a promise of warmer air. It is a fine evening to be walking along the shore of La Napoule.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tuesday in la Napoule

How quickly weather here can change! They'd been predicting this wet front coming in mid week, but how much and when exactly and for how long -- those are mysteries that apparently only time can solve.

One thing's for sure: the start of the day is to be nicer than the end of it. And so I am happy to repeat yesterday's breakfast: outside, on the balcony, by the flowering rosemary, looking out toward the boats.

Though not a total repeat. The best bakery -- one just around the corner from me -- the one that had been closed on Sunday and Monday, reopened today and so I had my first introduction to their better than best baguettes and, too my chosen extravagance -- an almond chocolate croissant. (But it was a tough choice. These were in close competition: )


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The breakfast, by the rosemary bush:


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There is enough sunshine to make it a pleasant experience, but I'm wearing a jacket. It's a bit windy today. Maybe not mistral winds windy, but certainly gusty.

And sure enough, a hazy cloud cover comes in and I know I must hurry with my walk today because the weather will not last.

But you know how it is -- you get lost in email, you catch up on stuff, you polish your post from the previous day... Noon. It's noon when I finally leave the apartment.

According to the guidebook of nearby hikes (gratis Tourist Office), there is one that starts right across the street from me, weaves its way along the coast, then goes up into the hills and down again -- all in an estimated  two hours of trekking. (It takes me 2.5; I drift off course more than once, mostly deliberately.) It starts right here, on the little beach across the street:


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I almost don't go much further. The very first 100 meters poses a challenge: the waves are really picking up now, sending sprays of water over the path. I do not want to get drenched! A jogger comes running toward me. He looks dry. I shake off the last doubts and get moving.


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It's lovely along the coast. This is, of course, more densely populated than Cornwall's coast (that has to be an understatement of the day!) and yet the walk puts you quite in touch with the sea...


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And on the inland portion, I am again among the familiar Mediterranean vegetation that I so much associate with Sorede and the Languedoc region of France. But I am surprised at some of the flowers here. There's Spanish lavender and it's in full bloom now! It looks heavenly against a yellow backdrop!


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And, too -- lots of blooming freesia! How could that be? I don't recall seeing it in the wild before. The scent is unmistakable!


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There are two ascents to this loop -- none of them especially challenging and never too far removed from civilization but maybe that's good. Maybe my hikes into more desolate terrain were more enjoyable when I was a little more devilishly brazen? Maybe I don't feel the pull of that kind of a challenge so much any more...

On the second small summit, I look out over the bay of Cannes.


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Rocks again! Another selfie moment.


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And it is in many ways a selfie, meaning introspective moment, where I try to place this trip in the context of my other travels and possible future travels. One big challenge for me is to decide how to treat each trip -- whether it should be exploratory or merely comfortable and whether it bears repeating and if so, how often and how soon and with what expectations. So I think about all that as the sun fades and I zip up my jacket against the gusts of wind.

(Looking toward the hills behind me...)


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Once in the town again, I pass something that is emblematic of La Napoule: a blooming mimosa.


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This is a late one -- most will have passed their prime several weeks ago. Indeed, in February, La Napoule celebrates the festival of the mimosa. I'm told there is a parade with floats of yellow flowers and a crowning of a mimosa queen.

I go then to the sweet little grocery store where the fruits and vegetables are arranged in total attention to detail.


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I pick up more berries and a yogurt since I seem to have gotten stuck in this lovely habit of eating breakfast at home.


In the afternoon, I read reports as they came in about the plane that crashed just a short distance from here (some fifty miles due north; you could say it was just a little further than Grasse). Of course, I know that the weather in this region was fine and that other factors, therefore, contributed to the accident. It's strange how these tragedies remind you of your vulnerabilities even as flying is perhaps the safest mode of moving from point A to B. And it is uncomfortably strange, too, that my quiet corner of the world is in the news. If I had thought I'd encounter issues or unrest, I would have guessed they would be the kind that have created virtual military zones in France around the major train stations (the entrance to Cannes Station is blocked to traffic and there are fences and barricades and plenty of patrol people keeping watch). There definitely is a felt sadness when something or someone strikes at places nearby. I imagine the plane crash is in the conversation of many here, at La Napoule.


It's raining when I step outside to find dinner. I'm always very hungry then, since I don't each lunch here (the breakfasts and/or dinners are too big to accommodate yet another meal) and tonight I don't want to go far. Just at the corner, I have La Palmea -- liked by my hosts and, too, by the ever helpful Tripadvisor.

I go very early -- just after 7 --  so that I am the first one there. (When I leave, most of the room is filled.) A young woman is sitting to the side, feeding her baby. Of course I ask how old and when she tells me four months, I have to explain that "mine" (and I explained that as well, even though she knew I was the grandma) is just going to be three (months).


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From my table, I see that she is getting ready to leave. All the tall skinny (male) waiters hover.


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They all kiss the baby goodbye. Of course, they all kiss the mom good bye too. I am thinking -- the child already has a community here. What a lucky babe! Communities matter!

My meal is superb and extremely well priced. The main dish special, which they call a seafood wok, is a blend of fish and crustaceans and veggies in a delightful light sauce


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I have to take dessert - it's included in the price! A  home made tiramisu with red berries. Incredible.


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After, I walk the docks of the boats and sailboats. My hosts had said that the cost of a docking space here is exorbitant. Not that there are any available. Being such a coastal traveler, I am too aware of how many people have expensive boats. In the many dozen marinas I've walked through, the boats are always astonishingly large. Since I am not a boat loving person, I have no envy there at all. Only a fascination on how someone may love the darkness of the ocean or the sea and not have fear when facing its powerful anger. Because the sea does get angry.


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But not tonight. The rain has stopped and all is calm. Only a cat, dashing from one hiding place to the next, disturbs the stillness.


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I turn around and make my way to the warm apartment that I call home this week.