French Riviera & Monaco

After an exciting month in Spain and Portugal, we flew across to Nice on the French Riviera. This was to be our central base to explore the famous coastal ports of the region – Antibes and Cannes to the west, and Villefranche and Monaco to the east.

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Never did my meticulous (some would say pedantic) planning come in more handy than having the foresight several months in advance to select a window seat on the left side of the aircraft for the Barcelona to Nice flight. Mid-afternoon on a spectacular June day and we were treated to a truly stunning introduction to the French Riviera. Just jaw-dropping.

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I’d heard mixed reports about Nice, but on balance I quite liked it. The famous Promenade des Anglais which runs the length of the main beach in Nice was simply stunning, both during the day and as the sun started to disappear. There was never a shortage of gawking tourists, wealthy Europeans and expensive sports cars lapping up and down.

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But just ten minutes walk away from the Promenade and you get a snapshot that no matter how ritzy the reputation of this area may be, no section of Europe has been averse to the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. The gritty ‘immigrant’ neighbourhoods start within a hundred metres of the highest of high-end shopping districts, and most travel guides will now tell you that even the Promenade is off-limits after dark.

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We had rented a 1-bedroom apartment through AirBnB about ten minutes walk from all the action. The description 1-bedroom was extremely misleading – but not how you might be thinking. With some better space distribution they could have very easily made this a 3-bedroom – it was huge.

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Our first day exploring delivered us a beautiful sunny 30 degree day. The sea glistened such a striking light blue – like we’d seen in Mexico and the Caribbean. Unlike home there was very little sand to walk or lay on. Just thousands of burning hot grey rocks. Thankfully there were some amazing vantage points for us to take it all in. We continued round to the Villefranche harbour and walked for miles past some gorgeous rocky swimming holes and outrageous holiday homes.

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The second day out we caught the bus west to Cannes. Amazingly in this playground for the rich and famous you can take the 90 minute bus ride for just 1 euro. The train can cost you up to ten times that, but is somewhat quicker. Before we left we confirmed the pronunciation, so not to embarrass ourselves in front of the bus driver. We found a great website which described how it sounded this way – Cannes: ‘Cans’ come in a 6-pack, ‘Khan’ was Gengis’ last name, and ‘Can’ has a famous film festival.

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We missed the Cannes Film Festival by a matter of weeks, but the red carpet was still there with many interested tourists snapping away. We took a stroll through the cobblestone back-streets and had a surprisingly good value three course lunch at a small Mediterranean restaurant while we watched the world go by. This was what traveling was supposed to be like. After lunch we ascended to the highest point of Cannes for amazing views across the town and sea.

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From Cannes we moved back east to Antibes (‘On-tee-b’) – a lesser known but very popular family holiday destination in the region. We walked for miles out of the town centre past some of the most picturesque wharves and shorelines. As the sun started to set and cloud began to amass, it was time to get back on the bus and head home.

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We didn’t realise it at the time, but day 3 in Nice would prove to be one of the most unique on the trip – it rained all day. Remarkably this would be the only day out of 165 that we didn’t get out and about because of the weather. Even in London and Manchester, what rain we did encounter was fleeting. What it did give us was time to catch up on planning, bookings and the blog.

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Day 4 was special for three reasons – 1. It was Karina’s birthday, 2. It was beautiful and sunny and 3. We were crossing the border into a new country. I had specifically planned to spend Karina’s special day in glamorous surrounds of Monaco. In an interesting contrast we got all dressed up in our best clothes then shuffled down to the bus stop. The 45 minute ride from Nice to down-town Monte Carlo passed some beautiful coastal landscapes, seemingly each one better than the last.

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We started at one of the world famous Casinos, meandered around the harbour, along a big stretch of the Formula 1 track and up the hill to the Monaco Palace and Cathedral. It was nothing short of spectacular. All the TV shows and Formula 1 coverage had painted a vivid picture for me – and it certainly lived up to it. We settled in for drinks and dinner at one of the local establishments and watched as the sunlight disappeared over the back of the City-State. Birthday 30 will be hard to top next year.

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Despite nursing a hang-over, I was up bright and early for our last day in the French Riviera. It was almost as important as Karina’s Birthday – at least for me anyway. On the other side of the world, the teams were running out onto ANZ Stadium in Sydney for State of Origin Game 1. Thanks to the strong League and Union presence in southern France, I was able to find an Irish Pub in the Old Town of Nice showing Channel 9’s coverage live. Crammed in the corner was about 15 Australians (thankfully mostly Blues supporters) swigging pints and yelling at the TV. A great win for the home team and a memory to last a life-time. Karina filled her day visiting the flower and food markets (and discovered the best salted caramel gelato as recommended by her friend Grace), so we both got what we wanted.

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Next up was a month-long stint in neighbouring Italy that we were both looking forward to. We were headed for Venice via Rome. Surely nothing could go wrong in two short flights. But you should always expect the unexpected in Italy.

Aaron

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