We spent a tactical night in Grenoble (laundry, boiling eggs for the road, early to bed) and rose early for a quick sprint through the foothills of the Alps to the Southern coast of France, la Cote D’Azur. Our first day and night was spent slightly bewildered in a grimy, noisy and oddly shuttered Marseille (the first set of photos below are from that town), but that night we got a lesson in the coast from our couchsurfing host, Didier (a very sweet, very friendly, very animated, slightly bohemian brain tumor researcher who regularly punctuated his speech with a wild exaggeration of the common "poof" sound, such that it sounded like he was expelling an olive pit, and with the mysterious adjective "boewrf") and set out the next day in search of Mediterranean paradise.
Our first stop was to be an hour or so in the little town of Cassis, but the next morning, we were still there.
Check it out on the map.
We rolled into town to find them setting up their weekly farmer’s market, chock full of bright, fresh fruit, stinky cheese, mysterious "artisanal" meats, fresh baked breads and all the other wonders you’d expect of Europe.
Finally, a good meal!
Michelle and I practically skipped from stall to stall, picking up a little of this and a little of that to fill our larder: two kinds of sausage, a bit of prosciutto, figs, dates, two kinds of cheese, two kinds of bread, some tapanade, even a bit of mead (or hydromiel, as they apparently call it), everything but spinach (which is another story, the short of which is, yes, some French live up to their reputation for rudeness).
We spread our goodies out by the crashing blue Mediterranean waves, and feasted. The festive meal was followed by an inaugural swim in the Mediterranean, which was chilly but not cold, and absolutely, stunningly crystal clear blue. I was ecstatic bobbing in the surf.
Lunch was followed by a hike through les Calanques, American Southwest-esque white and ochre craggy rock formations fingered through with sinuous inlets of aqua blue Mediterranean water. The rock underfoot was sharp and our footwear wildly inadequate, but each crest drew us a little deeper and a little deeper, each new view outdoing the last, rewarding our effort.
Our long, hot hike was capped with a jump into one such finger, absolutely the best way to end any hike. Michelle enjoyed her baptismal dip into the Mediterranean thusly.
Back into the town of Cassis, where we found ourselves a port-side hotel with a sliver of water view from a cozy, private little veranda, enjoyed a bit of chartreuse (and tonic) and local Chablis by the water and and finally refueled with a bit of duck and lamb from a little back-street bistro. A cozy night’s sleep was followed by leftovers from the previous day’s market on our veranda and a double espresso long (with hot water) by the water.
Ah, paradise. Who would leave such a place?
We would, apparently.
Yep, when faced with paradise, what else would a reasonable human being do but pack up the car and head to Hell?
Our plan was to return our car on Sunday in Marseille and then to head to Barcelona, so, it being on Thursday, we had some days to spend on the south coast. Our guidebook (Lonely Planet, boewrf) promised that right on the Italian border was a cozy little seaside town, Menton, that was "more laid back and relaxed" than other towns on the Cote d’Azur, and cheaper to boot, and a bit of an artist’s haven.
We hopped in the car, took a beautiful drive over the la route de la crete, a gorgeous, gorgeous drive past sea cliffs, and then sped past St. Tropez, Cannes, and Nice in search of our second paradise and found…
absolute tourist hell.
Thousands of transplants from Florida packed into some Disney-like maze of kitschy tourist shops wrapped in a grimy, overpopulated, traffic choked city.
We were stunned. We left Cassis…for this?!
We re-read the guidebook. We must have taken a wrong turn. This could not be the town it was talking about.
OK, change of plan. We found a McDonald’s (the European equivalent of Starbucks, in the sense that they all have free wifi (pronounced weefee)) and scoured the Net for options.
In the end, we decided to head to Nice and an awesome little hostel, which saved the day. Not only is it clean and comfortable, not only does it have good food and foolishly cheap drinks, not only does it have free wifi (on which I hungrily feed as I type this), but it came also with very knowledgeable hosts, who turned us on to skyscanner.com, a great site for booking flights in Europe, which netted us tickets to Barcelona on Sunday.
The only thing this hostel has going against it, honestly, is the very loud drinking game going on at the table next to me as I type.
Perhaps it’s time for us old folks to retire to our chambers.