Category Archives: Europe

Travelogue French Riviera 5: Nice

NICE
19-22 June 2019
Deciding upfront that we’d get all our roadtripping done and then homebase the final stage of the journey from Nice gave us the freedom to stay in the Old Town which with it’s windy narrow cobbled streets would be a nightmare to navigate in and out of.
A very wise call.
Strategically, we’d committed to return Noddy Car to the rental place (at Nice Airport) later in the afternoon in order to give us time to check in at our apartment and drop off our suitcase en route. It was quite a harrowing journey, getting the one ways sussed and breathing in to squeeze through the skinny alleys with the odd tourist darting into a doorway or plastering themselves to a wall to avoid our wing mirrors.
We only found out when we arrived that our host doesn’t live in Nice, so we had an hour and a half to kill before collecting our keys and, worried that we wouldn’t get the return journey to the airport done in this slot, put it to good use with a 3 course lunch!
Our apartment was ideally placed, half a block in from a busy piazza with restaurants spilling into the square to provide a sea of checkered tablecloths and umbrellas offering shade and fabulous food to scores of people.
We found a table right on the edge, sat next to each other and people-watched as the waiter brought us plates of delicious local Niçoise specialities. The duck in creamy mushroom sauce stole the show for me!
Our apartment was tiny (by home standards) but immaculate, clearly recently renovated and light and airy with the massive old school shuttered windows that looked down into the cobbled streets below and the Irish Bar across the street.
We didn’t have much time to revel in it though, with our car return deadline looming. Fortunately though, the Nice Airport is close to town and we were there around 15 minutes later, including the nail-biting exit from Old Town and a pretty scenic drive.
It was easy enough to catch a train back and alighting at the central station gave us a chance to see another portion of Nice.
In stark contract to the cobbled charm of the Old Town, new Nice is grand! Beautiful old and elegant buildings line a long, wide shopping high street with all the designer labels you can imagine lining the ground floor of the street fronts and the two or three storeys above them bearing tall, elegant windows, filigree balconies and finely decorated cornices.
At the far end, a massive stage was in process of being set up on the square and the stage was already busy with a collection of musicians doing soundcheck – and entertaining passing shoppers in the process. As we drew closer, we saw this was the annual Fete de la Musique celebration plan, with a free concert scheduled for the night of the 21st June. Looked like it was going to be huge!
Our walk took us back through our old town whose high street counterpart was filled with chairs and tables from restaurants displaying menu boards, seafood showcases or using live music to lure you in.
We resisted for the time being in order to pass through to the promenade to see the beach. A heavenly crescent that looked like the Copa Cabana except without the stripey pavements and with grey smooth pebbles instead of golden beach sand.
6pm but with the sun still holding its place in the sky, the beach was still occupied with sunbathers and the pavements busy with joggers, family strollers and tourists.
The perfect time for a sundowner, so we hit the high street and found ourselves a comfortable spot with live music and crazy happy hour specials that run from 5 to 9!
Having saturated with culture at our extended lunch, we took the opportunity to squeeze in a curry dinner. Consulting The Fork app (that we’d discovered and loved on a previous trip to Italy), we chose a curry den called Bombay Palace around the corner in the Old Port and since it shared its name with our local curry den at home, we figured it kismet and definitely worth the research.
Quite different presentation (and portions!) compared to what we’re used to. And definitely a different view, overlooking the multi-storey yachts moored on the other side of the road as opposed to the parking lot at our All Saints Shopping Centre!
THURSDAY
We’d pre-booked a free walking tour meeting at the square where we’d seen the stage set up.
We had no trouble finding our way back (amazing how much more you take in when you’ve walked a route as opposed to driving it!) and no trouble finding our guide, marked with the red umbrella and surrounded by the easily 50 other tour group members.
We were introduced to our guide, Isabella from Argentina, and thankfully spared the chore of introductions to each and every group member.
Isabella started the tour with some of the vital statistics: Nice is a city of 350000 inhabitants (5th biggest in France) and enjoys more than 5 million tourists (making it the second biggest after Paris) and more than 300 days of sunshine per year which, along with the high concentration of museums, is why it gets so many tourists.
Nice had quite a patchwork history between the major empires. It was founded in 350 BC by Greeks en route home from Marseilles, and originally named after Nike (the Greek word for Victory). It was a thriving port town until a neighbouring city, Saminello, burned to the ground and all the people moved to Nice so it became quite a big city quite quickly.
Nice was part of the Savoy Empire – with its capital in Turin – until the 19th century. It was bounced back and forth between Savoy and France for 500 years until Italy became a country in 1860 and a referendum was held in Nice to see if the people wanted to be French or Italian. They decided to be French. It was a bit of subterfuge though because it was actually already predetermined as an exchange between Italy and Napoleon III who supported Italy against Austrian invasion.
In the middle of our tour we heard a loud bang. Isabella calmed us and recounted the story of one Sir Thomas Coventry, who came to Nice in 1860, travelling with his wife who was a terrible timekeeper. Since this was affecting the serving of his noontime meal, he asked the city’s permission to set off the canon at midday, as was customary in his home town. The city allowed it – and liked the idea so much that they made it law to let off the midday canon each day. It is now a firework rather than a canon, and has been set off by the same chap for the past 27 years. He’s looking to retire now, so possible job vacancy for someone who is punctual, reliable and never leaves the city.
We emerged on the beachfront, where Isabella explained that it’s a pebble beach, apparently, because of the stones that are washed through from the Paillon River. She also revealed that the Promenade des Anglais is so called because the English paid for the construction of the walk for the comfort of the hordes of Brits that flocked to Nice in winter to seek sunshine and wanted a nice place to walk along the seaside.
Just like we were doing.
We walked to the end of the Promenade but instead of rounding the cape to take us down to the port where we’d been the previous night, we were taken up to the citadel where we had the most spectacular views of the long beautiful stretch of beach, the magnificent azure sea and the infinity of blue sky and sunshine that has made this coastal town so famous for so long.
Isabella also pointed out on the other side, while we were overlooking the port, what lay beyond and how easy it was to get there… Which is when we hatched a plot to go and see the neighbouring village and its sandy beach.
We departed the tour group and made our way back down the hill to the port where we had no trouble finding the bus stop, and no more than a minute or two wait before handing over our €1.50 fare and moving on to Villefranche-sur-Mer.
On arrival we were delighted – and very surprised – to find an OPEN tourist office. The chap at the desk was very helpful, providing us with a one pager easy simple map and circling the things we needed to do and see. He was emphatic that the citadel was the way to start, so that’s what we did.
Villefranche-sur-Mer was founded in 1295 by Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence. It fell into the hands of the Duke of Savoy for 5 centuries and was returned to France in 1860. It has an impressive stone fortress ordered by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy in 1557 to defend the old town which is open and free to visit, and which houses a number of exhibits and displays telling the story of the citadel, the town and its people.
Obediently following our map, we wound down the hill through the Old Town. It’s built into a hill so the town is a network of staircases with some quite ingenious uses of the space.
After an easy amble we were deposited at the beachfront. Short on real estate and big on appeal, the beach was crammed, so we retired to a cafe across the road and had a lovely cold beer while we rested our weary selves.
Refreshed, we trotted back up the hill to the station to grab a train back to Nice and our homebase, now old hat to us with all our comings and goings, was a doddle to navigate so we were soon back in our ‘Hood.
I had been angling for a rotisserie chicken for days after seeing them served all over the place so we picked one up from the local butchery on the way home and savaged it with lovely fresh baguettes by way of an early supper while we prepared to head out for the evening.
The Nice lifestyle so suits us when we can get the day’s action out of the way, have dinner early and then still have a couple of hours to sundowner after we’ve been fed. We put the sunlight to best use, visiting a few of the pubs in the market strip, enjoying their live entertainment.
As it so happened, it was the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in France over the period we were there and there was much excitement in the Old Town over a few key games that were being played that evening. Big screens were front and centre, and some of the live acts on bricks temporarily while the focus shifted.
We shifted to Paddy’s Pub (in the same road as our apartment, so very much on the way home) to watch the second half of the USA vs Sweden match that was getting a lot of attention.
The pub was lively with American supporters, we logged our Guinness Index and from our vantage point at the bar we kept an eye on the Irish folk dancing troupe that continued business-as-usual in the back room, twisting and twiddling along to the accordion playing their traditional songs.
FRIDAY
We had pre-booked our tour to Monaco for Friday, which left gave us a deadline for getting up and out. So far from what we’d experienced, mornings were a leisurely start on the Cote d’Azur, so getting up and out at 9.30 felt like quite some pressure all considering.
It had been a long time since the rotisserie feast the night before though, which helped with motivation to get fed before a strenuous few hours of walking tour.
See: Travelogue French Riviera 4: Monaco.
We had been watching the set-up of the concert on the Place Massena (the main town square) with eager anticipation as the days had gone by and tonight was the night! … So on our return from Monaco, we went past the Place to see what was going on.
By now fencing had been put up around the entire area to restrict access and implement strict security controls – and there was a bit of a frenzy with people arriving and streaming into the gates.
Quite relaxed about the whole affair, we took the ticket that the poor promotions chap was madly tearing out of his book and that we needed to present to the security heavy to get into the gate, but ended up not going in, thinking a shower and change into flip-flops would make for a far better start to the evening.
We went home, showered and changed, headed to the market and got absorbed into trying some yummy local dishes, with no rush to get to the concert because there were La Fete de la Musique things going on everywhere already.
Good thing too because when we finally headed over – at maybe 9 or 9.30 – things were only then really starting to get going.
It was superbly organised and we had no trouble flashing our tickets to get in, the security was super efficient and there were no queues at either the bars or the portaloos, even though there were easily 20,000 people there (our tickets were numbers 16125 and 16126).
We didn’t recognise any of the artists, but they must have been big names in France because everyone around us knew the words, the moves and sang heartily and danced merrily along to the hip hop chap and his band of neon-tracksuited dancers, the songstrel that belted out her radio tune, the aging rocker who growled his song at us, the McDreamy crooner in his leather jackets, the works!
We didn’t stay until anywhere near the end and were delighted to be able to had our tickets over to 2 very optimistic faces in the sea of optimistic faces at the gates hoping for exactly such an opportunity.
Getting closer to home, Old Town was a chaotic wash of activity. There were serving stations set up outside of pubs and bands set up in the street. We even accidentally collided with a street carnivals drumming squad as we swam upstream of their procession! It was great fun and we saw a lot of great acts (and of course, quite a few less good ones).
By the time we circled around to our road, we feared we’d never get any sleep because there bands were packing up for the night, DJs were setting up. And one such street party was right under our kitchen window! All in the name of a good time though and, kudos to the French, they seem to be far more restrained than most nations. Despite all the festivities, there were very few drunkards ruining anyone else’s experience. Just lots of energy and celebration. A wonderful thing to be a part of.
We’d had such a great (and long) day that even with the party going on right outside our window, when we eventually went home, shut the double glazeds and retired, both of us were asleep before heads hit the pillows.
And again, kudos to the French, when we got up and headed out for our last breakfast the next morning, everything was already cleaned up. Besides the odd bit of bunting still strung between street poles, you’d never tell that the city had hosted a bash at all – let alone of that magnitude – the night before.
What a hero of a town. And what a memorable night. Totally worth planning a repeat visit around.

Travelogue French Riviera 4: Monaco

MONACO

21 June 2019
Hopping across from Nice to Monaco is very simple with buses and trains that run regularly and inexpensively, but since we were short on time (only having allocated a day for the flit across the border), we opted for a guided walking tour to make the most of the experience.
We booked online, paid our 20 Euro (that included the return train ticket) and met our guide outside the Nice train station at 10.20 as instructed. We were allocated to Lily, an exchange intern from Slovakia, who was delighted that we were a small group of only 10 people.
It was soon easy to see why as shoulder season leading into summer, the trains were already packed on the obviously popular route. We managed to cluster ourselves in the open area by the doorway and a little up the stairs (it was a double-decker train) so it must be a proper mission with a big group to try and keep everyone together.
Lily used the time to acquaint with the group – parents and 2 teenage boys from Germany, a couple from Italy, a couple from Guam and us.
Alighting in Monaco, the opulence hits you even as you walk to the escalators to the exit; a massive glass window that overlooks a harbour of glimmering yachts. With not a soul among them, it was quite stark contrast to our sardine-can transfer!
In outlining our route for the day, Lily described to us how small the little principality of Monaco is. It is the 2nd smallest country in the world (behind the Vatican) at 2 square kilometres, has 38000 people and a third of their population are millionaires (largely because it’s a tax haven). The people and language are known as Monagasque but, seeing as the locals make up only around 20% of the total population, French is also widely spoken and, being part of the Eurozone, the Euro is the currency.
Our walking tour started with a trundle down through Monte Carlo down to the world famous casino.
In the 1860s Charles III hatched a plan to open a casino to save Monaco from bankruptcy. His original casino failed because it was in an awkward location that had no feeder roads, no support facilities and no marketing. But a new casino – the one that is now so famous – was built in a better location, had the most luxurious hotel and cafe to support it and investment was made into both marketing it and establishing easy transport options to make transferring to and from the casino effortless from key European destinations. Finally, the area was renamed from The Caves de Monte Carlo (Mountain of Charles) to be suitably grand and – voila! – the rest as they say is history.
The iconic building and setting seem so familiar, having seen them in movies like James Bond Golden Eye and in the scenic shots during the Monaco Grand Prix, which has been an event synonymous with Monaco since its inception in 1929.
Winding in and around Monaco, the GP sees the drivers negotiate the 3km circuit 78 times, through narrow city roads, a tunnel and a hair-raising hairpin bend. Many experienced drivers have become croppers on the gruelling course and a couple have ended up skidding off the road and into the water!
By now we’d walked away from the casino and we’re making our way along the harbour as Lily told the story. It was quite an experience to be IN the story, walking and talking among the iconic landmarks and decadent setting.
We stopped at The Church of Sainte Devote, probably most famous for being the first corner of the Monaco GP track, but also tribute to the patron saint of Monaco, who was a young Corsican woman martyred in the 300s for her devotion to Catholicism. Her body was ordered to be burnt but was saved by some Christians who sent it off on a boat headed for Africa such that it could be fittingly buried. The boat hit a massive storm in the Mediterranean and apparently a white dove flew from within her corpse body and guided the boat to safety on the Monaco shore. The white dove was assumed to be her spirit and confirmation that she was a saint.
So, the fisherman that found her built a church in which to bury her, which was has been maintained and enhanced by various benefactors over the centuries and which was restored and renovated after being damaged by bombings in the Second World War. She also gets a celebration day on 27 January, which is a massive deal for the Monagasque and involves the Prince setting a boat alight in the harbour in commemoration.
Sounds like a tall story. And like travelling with a white dove might be a good back up plan if you don’t have medical insurance.
Lily deposited us at the local market with information on local delicacies and which stalls were best for what. Armed with that knowledge, we entered the market and bee-lined for the Barbagiuans. Little pastry pockets with finely chopped chard, rice, egg, cheese and ham. Very nice, but only tickled the appetite so we followed with socca, which is a sort of crepe made from chickpea. Nice enough, but a bit boring. So we rounded off with a massive tuna baguette to share, to ensure we had enough sustenance to see us through the afternoon.
The tour then took us up to the palace, where the flag was up indicating the Royals were in town. This palace has been the Grimaldi homestead since Francesco Grimaldi seized it in the 13th century after he led a sneaky mission to infiltrate the previous owners by having himself and his band of merry men dress as monks, knowing that the deeply Catholic residents would open up and welcome them in. They were given food, shelter and ultimately the keys to the kingdom, when they slayed the previous owners and declared it Grimaldi Palace. Not quite the romanticism of a white dove, but effective nonetheless.
Also possibly why most of the stories focus on the more recent Royals. The fairytale story of Rainier and the aptly-named Grace, his Hollywood Princess, and her tragic untimely death after a car accident with her daughter, Stephanie.
And Albert and his African bride, who he met at the Olympics and with whom he has twins, providing an heir prince to take over the throne after him. Although, with Prince Rainier having reigned for 56 years, perhaps little Jacques has quite a ways to go before that becomes a thing for him to have to do.
We got the most wonderful panoramic pictures from the palace, as a perfect vantage point. Being such a small country, it’s possible to see France in both directions and even Italy in the distance because it’s so close to the border.
Our tour concluded at the Oceanological Museum. Since our train tickets were open, we didn’t need to return with the group, and we were motivated to see all there was to see. Lily was kind enough to get a city map out to help us to plan the rest of our afternoon’s solo adventuring.
We decided to walk back to the beach, which we figured must be perfect seeing as it was constructed as part of a land reclamation project.
We took an alternate route to the one we’d walked up, right down along the water at the harbour. Those yachts are even more impressive up close. And so few occupied. It’s unfathomable how it makes sense to spend so much buying and maintaining these boats, let alone docking them in Monaco, which must cost a fortune.
The path also took us through the Japanese Gardens; a very Zen and lush little enclave, with beautifully manicured beds and a pond with bridges on which tourists were posing.
Not far beyond was the beach. We bought our way into a private section, investing in a small granita (glorified Slush Puppy) in return for the lounger and shade, which was welcomed after spending all day in the sun.
Ready to return, we walked up through the shopping district, which meant we had seen most of Monaco in our day trip!
While Monaco is very opulent and impressive, its limited size and positioning within the bowl of mountain make it feel more like Hong Kong than France. Nice for a day, but nicer to be returning to Nice.

Travelogue French Riviera 3: Antibes

ANTIBES
19 June 2019
Where we were staying, Juan Les Pins, was essentially the beach suburb of one of the famous towns on the Cote d’Azur, Antibes.
We’d left our city tour of Antibes until the last day since it was up the coast toward Nice so we figured it would be the first hop of the next stage in our roadtrip which was to take us in that direction.
Since in real-life Antibes was less than 2km away and we were so close to the station, it now made more sense to take the one stop on the train rather than battle (and pay through the nose) for parking in Antibes.
We navigated the train service easily – even managing to grab a curry poulet baguette at the legendary Juan Les Pins train station coffee shop in the process – and were soon (really really soon) stepping into the Antibes sunshine and making our way down to the Place Charles De Gaulle for the walking tour we’d booked.
Our guide, Cederic, was already there along with 2 other tourists, a Mom and daughter combo from Norwich. Minutes later we were joined by a student from Colombia and a woman from Las Vegas who was already flustered from leaving her sunglasses in her Uber. With her dramatic entrance and so very American accent, if this was an Agatha Christie murder mystery character intro, you just know Hercule Poirot would discount her immediately for falling short on the requirements for strategic villainy.
Cederic was born and raised in Antibes and it was clear that his love for his home town ran deeply and sincerely. He shared enthusiastically the long history of the own from its formation in 5C BC – then called Antipolis the Greek for “facing the town” – and its historical significance in production of wine, ceramics and oil.
Nice was in the neighbouring Kingdom of Savoy and Antibes was the door to France and the military town protecting her border. Until 1860 when the border moved up to Menton, which gave relief to Antibes and allowed removal of the landside walls so that the now-cramped city could expand, including the addition of the seaside suburb of Juan Les Pins.
Cederic delighted in sharing with us the old-world mysticism and magic. First at the Chapelle Saint Bernardin with its unusual fully painted ceilings and walls, gallery, and massive wooden door that inexplicably wasn’t damaged in a fire that burns most of the church to the ground.
We wound through the old town and he marvelled at the regeneration of old town, the creation of pedestrian-only areas, commitment to artisanal shops and refusal of chain stores of any sort and the recreation of the town’s old bandstand that would serve as the social meeting point it had in day’s gone by.
His favourite part of the tour was an Absinthe store which had a vintage display in the window that he used to explain how the locals used to drink wine almost exclusively because of so much bacteria in the water. And then, when a bad crop made wine too expensive, they turned to absinthe!
Absinthe, when prepared in the traditional manner, is served as 2cl in bottom of tumbler, with a slotted teaspoon over the top of the glass through which cold water is dropped until all the sugar is melted; the perfect ratio being about 5:1.
We sampled and it was indeed really refreshing – and not as manic as some of the crazy absinthe we’ve sampled elsewhere in Europe. Van Gogh was notoriously a big fan of the stuff… but he mixed using cognac instead of water, so it’s no wonder he went crackers. And he and his Bohemian friends ruined the fun for everyone, since absinthe got banned based on reputation, in the early 1900s.
Left with some ‘free time’ to wander around the fruit and veg Marché, we sampled with reckless abandon, appreciating the French’s ability to cure meat and mature cheese, wondering why there wasn’t representation of wine ‘degustation’ from a nation that had visibly displayed no need for planes to fly overhead for daily indulgences to be partaken.
Apparently the Marché is all edibles in the morning and then arts and crafts in the afternoon, blending in live music as the sun goes down. It all sounds quite lively, as Cederic described it – and ultimately culminated as the best evening experience in Antibes, the piano lounge under the Absinthe place we’d been at earlier. Only open on weekends, the lounge is allegedly unmissable.
It was impossible to miss the artistic influence in Antibes. Picasso moved to Antibes, bought the Grimaldi Chateau as his residence and workshop and produced countless works of art there and it remains today a museum dedicated to the legendary artist.
Understandably. The setting is picture perfect, as we moved from quaint narrow and winding ancient roads, adorned with draping grapevines and curtains of Bougainvillea, onto the seafront with the stark contrast of green to blue, from the natural tones of yesteryear to modern shiny yachts. All inspirational in their own way.
We walked along the seafront to the marina and then parted ways with the group, us finding our way back up the hill to the train station to head back to Juan Les Pins to claim our car and conclude our roadtrip.

Travelogue French Riviera 2: Cannes

CANNES

17-19 June 2019
Setting off from our resort in Port Cogolin, we were surprised at the amount of traffic for a Monday mid-morning. While the online resources we’d read had warned of it and we’d had firsthand taste of it on our arrival on Friday afternoon, the pinch of salt we’d taken it with proved to be unfounded.
With 116km roadtripping ahead of us for the day, first on the agenda, as usual, was breakfast, which we intended to take in Saint Maxime, 9km down the coast.
The one bright side about the traffic was the opportunity to really soak in the view on the drive, which since we were fringing the coastline was nothing short of spectacular. While there isn’t as much beach as I’d expected to see, everything is really lush and green, the houses are comforting peaches and beiges (and even the hotels are only double storey) and of course the rippling, glinting azure waters and visions of the yachts and St Tropez in the distance tickle the soul.
The stars were aligned for our rendezvous with Saint Maxime. Although the beach was bustling, we had no trouble finding a parking. And right outside the Tourist Office too!
The tourist map guided us directly across the street to the Old Town, where we found a boulangerie on the very first corner that sold us magnificent rotisserie chicken mayo baguettes and a melt-in-the-mouth Tarte Tropezienne (a cream donut with crunchy sugar on top) for afters. Easily the best €10 we’ve spent this holiday so far – and enjoyed at leisure perched on the fountain in the middle of the old town square.
With renewed joie de vivre we tootled up and down the handful of pretty streets lined with pretty cafes and pretty shops selling pretty things until we emerged at the beach which was, well, also very pretty. With wide golden sands, magnificently blue sea and far less people, we noted this was actually better (for us) than St Tropez should we see ourselves visiting this part of the world again.
Heading inland, we stopped in Frejus, a town that had been established in BC times by Julius Caesar. We hit Frejus during siesta – very strictly 12 until 2 – so didn’t get a tourist map and couldn’t find one online, so I’m sure we missed a lot in this obviously historic village with its ancient walls still intact, in use and clearly visible in several places. But we did see the cemetary, cathedral and the town square where pretty much everyone who was awake was lunching.
Of course, in true Murphy’s Law fashion, we were ready to leave town at 13h55, just before the tourist office was due to re-open and we could have had some wisdom to our wanderings… But we hit the road and continued to what turned out to be the day’s sleeper hit, Tourrettes.
We’d only added the village to our list thinking it would be funny to go there bearing in mind the name. What we found was a charming artists’ enclave of medieval village with narrow cobbled streets adorned with framed paintings and artworks hither and thither like the streets were a collector’s hallways.
Obviously the Tourist Information office was closed (only opening Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 14h30 and 17h30; applying for the role immediately on return home!) so we relied on instinct to guide us through the dormant town.
We finished off the afternoon’s touring with a stop in at Grasse, world renowned for its perfume industry. We found the home of Molinard and fortuitously arrived as the English tour started!
Perfume is quite a process to produce – and Molinard doesn’t make it any easier on themselves, blending hundreds of scents where most houses work in handfuls. We listened, sniffed, snuffed, spritzed and counted ourselves lucky at the extended education.
We wafted back to the car for the final hop of our journey and were soon squeezing our car into the tiny (but free) parking bay our hotel concierge had reserved for us, right  in front of our hotel in Juan Les Pins. No mean feat in the narrow roads so close to the beach, where even the expensive pay parking was hard to come by.
Our host was a delight and was quick to help us get settled and to recommend restaurants that she liked.
Being around about that time, her recommendations were appreciated but ultimately ignored as a quick purvey of the promenade revealed an almost endless choice of places to eat and drink – not least of which the series of swanky places opening onto their section of private beach.
We ended up at a lovely little Italian place where Christian enjoyed a spaghetti vongolé (clams) and I a creamy and crispy lasagne.
TUESDAY
We were rudely awoken to what sounded like the binmen rattling up and down the road, but that turned out to be construction. Right. Next. Door.
Nonetheless, we fought the urge to get up early and lazed about until we headed out for a jog at around 9.
Our mission was to run to the neighbouring Old Town Juan Les Pins Port, about 3km around the cove. We could see it from our base and it looked like promenade all the way so not too ambitious an outing.
Lacing up, we headed out into the sunshine and took an easy pace. With the wide paths and few pedestrians, we were soon at our destination.
Happening upon a Tourist Office, we got a map and did a quick walking tour of the handful of sights to be seen in the old Town, mostly odes to Napoleon so presumably this was part of his stomping ground in his heyday.
We got some strange looks from the elegant customers at the sophisticated sidewalk cafes as we stomped on past, jogging our way back to Juan Les Pins, but we didn’t miss a step.
It was a joyous event to complete our morning run with a splash in the sea. The Mediterranean isn’t as warm as you’d think, but the bracing first steps in soon become welcoming waters and it’s wonderful to be engulfed in the azure.
It was also lovely to have a warm shower and get dressed and ready for our Cannes adventure.
Having been not entirely sure how we would get to Cannes, it was a relief to find that the train station was no more than a couple of hundred metres up the road from our hotel.
We got there with half an hour to spare, which is, serendipitously, exactly the right amount of time to have a massive jambon sandwich and an Orangina!
Catching the 13h57 train deposited us in Cannes just after 2pm. The town was buzzing with ad industry people, with the Cannes Lion Ads Awards opening. It was so much more cosmopolitan than we’d been used to, with barely any French among the British, American, Italian and all sorts we heard.
We veered up to the old town to see what culture we could absorb at the Notre Dames clock tower. Avoiding the museum – since it was such a blue skies sunny afternoon – we did a bit of medieval marvelling but mostly panoramic viewpointing before making our way back down the hill to town town.
Needing to do the needing-to-be-done, we walked the length of the Croisette promenade, which had been completely engulfed by the ad awards. Iconic brands gated by burly bouncers kept back anyone not bearing the embossed name badges of ad indo’s that had registered for the event.
The beach was a sea of branded umbrellas and a wave of competing music. Quite alienating to regular tourists like us.
We grabbed a shaded bench and a granita (an expensive Slush Puppy) and people-watched for a good half hour before heading back to the shore front, where we found a Happy Hour special that happiered our hour.
Positioning right on the edge of the pavement cafe’s pavement, we had perfect vantage point to see up and down the port, soaking up everything Cannes could while plotting our next steps.
It seemed an obvious to add to our Guinness Index and our Google search guided us to Morrison’s Irish Pub.
Finding their Happy Hour (Irishly from 5-8pm), on top of a warm pub, welcoming bar staff and lively playlist provided a fun time for all for the next couple of hours.
Way too soon it was time to head back. We accidentally jumped on the wrong train and ended up in Nice! Fortunately, we’d taken the second last train home, so there was the last one still lined up to take us back where we needed to be!

Travelogue French Riviera 1: St Tropez

SAINT TROPEZ

14-17 June 2019
It’s always lovely to attend to one’s bucketlist and this trip was (for me, at least) right at the top! I’d been wanting to visit the French Riviera for decades and our annual Winter Break seemed as good a time as any to strike it off the list.
It was only when we started researching the itinerary that we realised how close together all our must-see spots are, which sealed the deal and motivated us to rent a car for what then became our Riviera Roadtrip.
We’d again timed it perfectly, leaving for our holiday exactly as the first major cold snap set in at home – especially brutal to the unaccustomed after our long summer and only a mild flirtation with autumn.
Landing in Nice, we were greeted with a cloudy sky, a feisty breeze and a warm blanket of humidity. Sort of like arriving in Durban.
There was quite a long queue at the car rental place, but within the hour we were packed into our zippy-nippy Fiat 500, which from all appearances looked brand new and had all the creature comforts, including leather seats and a panoramic sunroof. Fortunately we’d only brought a single shared suitcase because that took up the whole boot, to the point that there wasn’t even space for our little onboard backpack!
Soon we were off, whizzing along with the highway on the road to our seaside adventure, with the longest leg of our roadtrip – a mere 104km – ahead of us.
Our pace slowed considerably as we exited the highway at Saint Maxime, our first experience of the beach towns on the coastal road. Teeming with holidaymakers, the traffic flow was inching along. Still, we had full view of the sea on our left and Saint Tropez on the opposite shore of the bay we were circling, so not so bad for us, as experienced as we are in the world of gridlock.
We had booked to stay in Cogolin, the adjacent town to Saint Tropez, based on the massive difference in price and the close proximity and ease of commute between them. While the town itself was a bit inland, the Port was (obviously) on the coast with enough accommodation options available on online bookings engines to hint that we were not the only ones to make this call.
There was a big shopping centre servicing the area, so we stopped and for a bite (it felt like a LONG time since the lunch on the aeroplane!) and a local SIM card en route to our digs.
We arrived at the Marina Beach Resort, which had sounded a bit like an Avontura Resort on the website, but proved to be so much better with little blocks of rooms strategically laid out for privacy. We were on the end row, so our double (dare I call them) French doors opened onto our veranda, the gravel path, the tennis courts and beyond that (oui oui) the actual-factual marina with all its fancy-pantsy yachts!
Keen to get out after the (semi-) frustrating traffic had delayed our arrival, we dumped bags, donned flip-flops, flip-flopped out of the resort and took a left to the marina, as our concierge had directed.
No more than a couple of hundred metres down, we were walking alongside jetties housing who-knows-how-many millions of Euros in yachts and boats of all shapes and sizes.
We stuck with what we knew and pulled up a dockside table at Le Wine to have sundowners, which the Cote d’Azur had been kind enough to hang onto for us even though it was easily after 7pm already. A couple of hours merriment was a worthy welcome party after our long journey!
SATURDAY
It was bliss having had a full night’s horizontal rest and no responsibilities to attend to so we made no effort to get up early on Saturday morning.
And as it turned out, there was no need to anyway.
We breakfasted on filled baguettes at the local boulangerie (2 minutes down the road) and then headed off in the other direction to the first stop on our day’s sightseeing plan.
Eight minutes later we were at that stop, Ramatuelle, a medieval village in typical Provencal style perched atop a hill with spectacular views of the vineyards below and beautiful sea beyond.
The town is tiny so it was fortunate we found the tourist office and got a walking tour map otherwise it would have been a quick 2000-step lap of the concentric buildings and we’d have been back on the road before you can say voila!
However, the map had snippets of information on over 20 points of interest in the concentrated area, which guided our attentions and provided a good hour’s entertainment taking us back in time to where crests adorned doorways and portcullises kept the baddies out.
Soberingly, our tour concluded with the World War II memorial commemorating the lost lives of the brave secret service members who served in the Resistance to bring the country to liberation, but saw their end being shot, beheaded or tortured in concentration camps. It’s an unsettlingly long list for such a small town.
Our route was to take us up the coast, away from St Tropez, which was the plan of action for Sunday.
We stopped in at La Croix Valmer, another pretty little town but by now, being Saturday afternoon, all the shops were shut so there wasn’t much to see and do so we did a whirl around the centre ville and then jumped back in the car.
Our last hop took us to our farthest destination, Cavalaire Sur Mer, the epitome of a seaside holiday town with a long promenade lined with shops and restaurants.
We walked along the shoreline – surprised at how the Med wasn’t as warm as we thought it would be – until we got to the (inevitable) marina with more yachts and flashy boats, where there was a spirited afternoon petanque tournament in session on the permanent gravel pit on the promenade. We sat and watched for a while, enjoying the Frenchness of it all.
On our return walk to the car, the afternoon’s revelry had begun on a section of the promenade hosting a rodeo! There was also a line-dancing demonstration in motion on a raised stage and stalls selling a generous selection of Americana. So odd to see all these ‘cowboys’ parlez-vousing the old Francais in their cowboy hats and pointy-toed embroidered boots.
We routed our drive home through Saint Tropez to get an idea of what the next day was to hold. It’s warned to be a busy town and the online references referred to crazy traffic and limited parking so a reccie would give insight on whether we’d be best driving, walking, bussing or boating ourselves around the next day.
While not terribly enlightening, the taste did serve to add excitement to the following day’s visit. How awesome to be flitting around in the playground of the rich and famous!
Arriving home, we showered and prepared for our evening activity – a walk to the adjacent town’s marina for dinner.
No more than 2km down the road, Port Grimaud is quite different to our Port Cogolin. Much fancier and bigger, Port Grimaud is big gated community that looks like a slice of Venice with Tuscan architecture and quaint townhouses built on a grid of canals, with residents mooring at their doorsteps and boating around the ‘burbs.
Bordered with wide roads lined with palmtrees and based on the calibre of cars we saw (including a Rolls, generous selection of German luxury cars and more than a handful of Italian sportscars), this was definitely the more affluent area.
We took the bridge (named the Rialto, no less) into one section of the marina where there was a town square surrounded by restaurants, and where we enjoyed pizza and pasta while watching locals chuck boules on the gravel on the square.
Done with dinner and the sun still in the sky, we walked down to the beach and were lucky to get a waterside table at the big pub on the beachfront to spend a couple of hours watching the sun go down and plotting our plans for the next day.
SUNDAY
After all consideration of the many options for transport for our Sunday trail, we settled on taking our Noddy car. This would give us more freedom to add to our agenda if new ideas occurred and while the parking fees in St Tropez were going to be extortionate, it was all part and parcel, and using our own transport would save us time, which is the one thing money can’t buy.
But first, breakfast needed to be attended to so we took a drive to the town of Cogolin, sure that there would be a boulangerie with our name on it.
We were wrong.
While (another) pretty little town, we were disappointed to find a selection of bakeries selling bread and butcheries selling deli items but not a one having put the lot together to sell a packaged sandwich. And while you might immediately think that it would just be a case of procuring each at the specialist store and combining, it’s not that simple without any cutlery. The baguettes are crispy, crunchy and very long so would be a very messy to split; and a thick layer of butter is an essential part of the formula.
We masked our disappointment admirably with an obligatory whip around the centre ville to say we’d seen what there was to see, and were soon back on the road to St Tropez to seek fame, fortune and a feeding.
We parked the car and had barely emerged from the underground parking when we spotted a cluster of sandwich stalls in a small market. One was a kebab stall, which sealed the deal and we were soon munching happily on a bench, shaded by the tall trees in the Place de Lice, watching the locals battle the boules, obviously.
Taking a walk through the town, Saint Tropez has more character than I expected; the full complement of designer stores and glitzy lables, but in a charming setting of cobbled streets, terracotta roof tiles and painted window shutters instead of the usual chrome and glass city storefronts. An obscene amount of premium motor cars and an ostentation of yachts, but still somehow warm and charming.
We climbed the hill to the citadel and maritime museum which gave context to the town’s rich history and a wonderful panoramic view across the town, the crammed marina and across the bay to the places we’d passed through on our way in.
Returning down the hill, we wound through La Ponche (the old fishing village) and were deposited on the marina where we spied an Irish pub called Kelly’s La Grotto that was perfectly timed to earn itself the #6 spot on our Guinness Index!
And, coincidentally, while we were there our friend Kelleigh called us to say she’d be in Cannes for the week so hopefully we could meet up! We made arrangements for Tuesday; a very exciting prospect!
Very pleased with our new plan, we were newly motivated to follow through with the last phase of our current plan – to drive to Bonne Terasse beach to walk a trail around Cap Camarot to see the lighthouse. 2.5km each way would keep us out of trouble for a couple of hours.
Late afternoon was the perfect time to do it and thankfully the trek around the cape allowed for interspersing the sticky, sweaty hiking with dips in the ocean – which was, as per the name, deeply and brightly azure, and was so clear in places that we could see the pebble beds and seaweed on the ocean floor even from up on the cliffs where we were climbing.
We ended off the adventure with a good soak in the water before getting back into Noddy and heading home to shower in anticipation of the dinner we’d earned through all the activity.
We opted to return to Port Cogolin for our last supper and were spoilt with a 3 course menu special at Le Gallon, lured in by the host at the door. We feasted on salmon terrine, tempura prawns, mussel pot, tuna steak and – the coup de gras – lemon meringue, for only a couple of Euro more than the dinner the night before. We had ordered a bottle of white wine and a bottle of sparkling water, thinking it pennywise to spritzer, but the restaurant foxed us with a) the smallest glasses in the world, b) serving us rosé (which looking around, everyone had, so maybe that’s what you got no matter what you ordered) and c) when the bill came we found out the bottle of water was €8.50 (!!) so hardly worth the effort of diluting.
Still it was a very pleasant evening and the setting, food and company were perfect so all in all, all smiles.

Travelogue: Maastricht (Pink Pop)

MAASTRICHT

14 – 17 June 2018
Another great night’s sleep had us up and out at the requisite time to meet our growing group (Kieron joining us from SA and Harry from London) at Central Station at 11am to catch the train to Maastricht.
Yet again, Burger King saved our bacon and restored good humour for the train ride that was taking us to our music festival. And after a two hour train ride through the pretty Dutch countryside, we arrived at Maastricht Station for the second part of our trip.
Neil had booked us into a hotel right across the road from the Station so it was easy as pie to get there and checked in. Kaboom Hotel was new and neat and had functional and fun decor. Perfect for our stay!
We wasted no time getting moving: Back across the road to see how to get to Landgraaf, where the festival was actually being held. Instinctively splitting into teams, we (sort of) efficiently sorted train tickets, cash (oddly, lots of places in Netherlands only accept Maestro cards, which none of us had) and a bargain Heineken festival kit comprising waterproof backpack cooler + 10 beers for €10 with a couple of Amstels for good measure.
Soon on the train to Heerlen, we opted for the bicycle cabin with the flipdown chairs along the walls that face each other so we could pass the short hop with a giddy round of a drinking game called Fives that requires little more than being able to make a fist / open your hand at will and to correctly predict – in multiples of five – the total number of digits being shown by the people participating in the round.
We organically absorbed a Laurel and Hardy pair of Dutchmen who happened to be sitting in a couple of seats amidst our rough circle and who had earned themselves one of our Amstels for what looked like a passing interest in our game. On arrival, assuming that they knew where they were going, we followed them to the bus stop… Only to find we had another train to catch.
Back to the platform and on board the next train, we had a forty minute journey to get us to the correct stop.
The Landgraaf station was very busy. The shuttle buses (free, included in our ticket) didn’t seem to be operating so quite a queue had formed at the bus stop. We gave it a 10 minute wait but then, super eager to get started, just walked to the venue instead. It wasn’t that far – maybe a K and a half – and gave us time to see the sleepy town surrounds and suppose what the locals thought of this annual thrall. The last stretch up to the main entrance was lined with banners from previous years. Anyone who’s anyone has played! And that’s a lot of anyones seeing as next year will be the 50th Pink Pop festival!
The festival grounds were MASSIVE and a bit overwhelming all at once. The whole festival was cashless so we started with making an investment in the green plastic squares currency (called Munten) printed in sheets with serrations so that you could easily break off whole or half tokens. One token got you a small beer or a tiny wine, served in plastic cups on paper trays of 6 servings.
With a welcome beer in hand, we decided to acclimate with a base close to the main stage, so found a table in a long open marquis with rows and rows (and rows and rows) of tables and benches opposite a long line of bar and food trucks.
Cleverly, the festival incentivised recycling by offering a token for every 50 cups or 25 trays returned. With the rate that beers were going down, it was a very manageable proposition. And resulted in a remarkably clean and tidy beer garden.
Our warm up served us well and we were in fine fettle for our first true festival performance, Snow Patrol.
We worked our way to a central position between the massive banks of speakers that fed the music to the back of the field, ensuring that the anticipated 60,000+ capacity could all hear what they came for. We had a good view, both of the stage and on the big screens flanking it on either side and it was an enjoyable performance in the afternoon sun.
Our much-debated pickle was whether to dash from the main stage to the smaller stage adjacent to see The Offspring and then dash back to the main stage for the night’s headliner – and main reason for our trek in the first place – Pearl Jam. Now, with some firsthand experience, it was clear that there would be no ‘dashing’ and manoeuvring the crowd and keeping our merry band together seemed a highly unlikely combination.
Kieron and Harry braved it while the remaining 5 of us put the time between acts to good use, topping up with supplies, visiting the (astoundingly clean and dry) portable toilets and strategising on how to best immerse ourselves in the crowd for the best position closest to the stage.
The last objective was the least successful. The Dutch are a very organised concert audience. They assume position and do not, under any circumstances, move from their spot. They are also very (very, very) tall.
Despite only managing intermittent glimpses at the actual bodies on stage, the performance was unbelievable. Eddie Vedder has a magnificent voice and the quality of both sound and visuals was so flawless that the experience wasn’t hindered by lack of line of sight. Eddie also related an anecdote about playing Pink Pop in 1992 where he’d climbed onto the video cameraman’s boom and launched himself from there into his adoring fans, crowdsurfing across the audience and back to the stage. We later realised he was wearing the very same T-shirt he’d worn that night, which is an amazingly sentimental touch!
Minds officially blown, we shuffled back to the train station with the tens of thousands of people that weren’t camping and needed to get back to wherever they’d come from. It took a good couple of hours to get back to Maastricht, by which time we’d dissected the day and the performances and all aspirations of an afterparty had dissolved.
Saturday morning was a leisurely start and since there were no early bands that anyone particularly wanted to see, we took a walk through Maastricht’s cobblestone shopping streets to get to Vrijthof Square, the centre of Old Town, known for its beauty, being lined with trees and a variety of quaint restaurants and pavement cafes.
A solid feeding under our belts made a world of difference and set us on our merry way for Day 2 of festivalling, which was a much easier mission to repeat seeing as we already had our train passes and knew where to get the Heineken coolers (we got a few).
This time we managed to catch the shuttle transfer and were soon entering the festival grounds. We repeated the easy start at the beer tent – and even bumped into our Laurel and Hardy duo from the previous day, making us feel right at home!
We worked our way onto the field for a band called Nothing But Thieves (a name we collectively had a mission remembering so they were mostly referred to as Barking at Cars or similar) and managed to get separated, which was a bit scary with so so SO many people. Fortunately, with some navigation on WhatsApp we got reunited, so all’s well that ends well.
A bit more ambitious than the previous day, with both the confidence of having better bearings and less pressure from the lineup, we bounced off to one of the other stages to see A Perfect Circle, bought merchandise, ate pasta, chilled in the pretty little cider garden, saw some of Noel Gallagher‘s set (shame, his solo career seems to be a bit watery and he only really got a rise with the Oasis songs he now covers) and were soon on our way to see the evening’s main event, Foo Fighters.
The concert was a bit self-indulgent with the singer and drummer swapping places for songs, lengthy drum solos with the drum podium elevating into the air and Dave Grohl calling people up on stage. Not my favourite at the best of times, it was a particularly gruelling task to deal with all the ad-libbing and showmanship.
We left just before the end to get ahead of the madding crowds, which made a world of difference to the length and comfort of our commute.
Motivated to rise only because of check out time, we left our lovely hotel to catch the midday train back to Amsterdam, opting to picnic on the couple of hours’ journey on the train to allow more time at our destination.
Arriving in Amsterdam, we stowed our luggage at the Central Station lockers and did a flash tour around the city centre, stopping for a traditional waffle (finally!) and ending up at a Mexican restaurant, of all things, serendipitously as the Mexico vs Germany World Cup match was on.
A last lunch, a farewell Heineken, some cards for old times sake and the group disbanded as first Kieron and Harry headed for the airport and then, an hour or so later, so did we.
What a rockstar getaway!

Travelogue: Amsterdam

TRAVELOGUE AMSTERDAM
13-15 June 2018
As all trips tend to, this one started with a mad race to the airport. Having recently started a new job, I wanted to leave the office as late as possible to try and still get in a full day. We’d logisticked the plan to suit, packing yawning dogs into the car so they could be dropped off at their grandparents by 6am and I’d get dropped off at the office by half past.
Managing a breakneck day, I hailed an Uber at 4pm to take me to the Sandton Gautrain Station and was very lucky to have been just ahead of and in the opposite direction to the rush hour traffic. The Gautrain did me no favours, rejecting my card as expired from lack of use and requiring me to buy a new one for my journey.
Still, even with all that, I arrived at the airport only shortly after Christian who had meanwhile driven from his conference venue (conveniently in close proximity to the airport) and dropped our car with the valet parking people.
It was very strange arriving at the airport with nothing but my handbag… But a welcome relief to check in our suitcase – well in time – and head to the Emirates Lounge for an exhale and a snack before our flight.
We were exhausted so managed to get quite a bit of sleep on both flights and arrived in Amsterdam ready and raring to meet our friends.
The trip had been inspired by Tim and Wendy (commonly collectively referred to as ‘Twendy’); lifelong fans of Pearl Jam, the band who we’d all travelled to see at the popular Pink Pop Festival. Twendy had come earlier to catch a Pearl Jam concert in Amsterdam on the Tuesday night as well, but we were happy with a couple of nights to sightsee Amsterdam and then the weekend at the Festival.
We had booked Airbnb accommodation near to Twendy’s in Prinsengracht Street, on the outskirts of the city centre. A short train ride and a brisk 20 minute walk from Central Station later, we were in our digs to drop our bags and turn out again to get to the designated meeting place.
Twendy’s dropped pin guided us straight down the canal to the Ellis burger bar cafe restaurant nestled against a busy (with bicycle traffic) intersection. We were delighted to see them and spent a couple of hours catching up on what they’d seen and done and had yet to see and do, washing down quality burgers with cold Heinekens.
Making the most of our proximity to our investments, we went past Twendy’s first and then via the grocery store to get some Heinekens and Grolsch for sundowners on our roof terrace. It was hardly the summer we’re used to, struggling to maintain 20 degrees Celsius, but it was a very pleasant evening and a big novelty to be drinking Dutch beer in Amsterdam.
Twendy had booked tickets to another concert that evening so we walked them to their venue – since everything was new, everything was an adventure – and then caught a tram to the notorious Red Light District.
I still had the Rick Steves app on my phone from our Italy tour the year before, so we used his easy-to-follow route and narrative to guide us. Funny enough, when we were stopped outside a church, a family pulled up next to us and, hearing the voice from our speakerphone, excitedly said to us “Rick Steves! Rick Steves!” pointing at their earphones and phones.
On concluding the walk, we used the opportunity to visit one of the many Irish bars to log on our Guinness Index. We settled in a bar called Slainte and earned made it famous at a fairly respectable #15.
Shortly after we arrived we spotted a chap wandering around the pub, clearly looking for his people. On a hunch, I asked if he was Neil, Twendy’s friend who lives in Amsterdam. He was!
By the time Twendy joined us, we were old friends with Neil and we all enjoyed a catch up – and celebrating the turn of midnight into the 40th birthday of a lady with whom Twendy had made friends on the bus between the concert venue and the pub.
Shattered from our long journey and enthusiastic arrival celebrations, we only managed a couple before calling it a night and wandering back to our apartment.
We’d pre-booked a walking City Tour (through Sandemans, the same company as the one we’d recently done in Dublin). When we’d booked, 10h30 seemed like a very reasonable start time and we’d had dreams of a lovely fry-up to start our day. It was not to be, when we first fluttered eyelids at 09h45!
Fortunately, we’d had some experience with the city now – and it’s amazing what a good night’s sleep can do – so it was simple enough to navigate to Dam Square where the tour was starting (and for Christian to nip into Burger King for us to get their first order of the day).
We met with our guide, Sam; an American actor who’d done stints on both Broadway and the West End in London and was now permanently based in Amsterdam. We went through the usual ‘meet the group’ routine and then headed off on the tour.
Starting the tour in front of the memorial in  Dam Square commemorating WW2’s fallen soldiers, Sam told us that the city formed over the river Amstel in 1100 and joked that only such an old city could have something called ‘New Church‘ that was 600 years old! He also shared that Justin Bieber had recently bought the most expensive property in Amsterdam, overlooking the Square – there goes the neighbourhood!
We walked across to the Old Church, which was built in 1306. Amsterdam was the largest trading city of the world back then and where the Central Station is now was a massive harbour with ships from all around the world. These brought hordes of sailors, so the church started the prostitution business to protect the virtue of the ‘nice’ ladies and pimped to benefit from the massive money the industry generated – and absolved the prostitutes’ sins when they confessed to them on a daily basis, even allowing them to pay (literally) for their sins in advance!
Legalisation of sex work was only formalised in the year 2000 (very progressive, being the first and only country to do so). Previously it’d fallen under ‘gedogen‘ (not legal, but not enforced) because it was good for business, didn’t harm anyone else and was done (relatively) discreetly. The legalisation was to make the industry safe, protect the prostitutes and stop the child abduction rings. It’s now the city’s safest place, with response times as quick as under a minute when panic buttons are pressed.
We walked along Zeedijk Road – the highest point in Amsterdam, at 1.6m above sea level. With more than 30% under sea level, it’s felt that this is part of the reason for the city’s history of tolerance and brotherhood. Because everyone had a common enemy; the sea.
Sam stopped us outside the old gate to the city. An important building that had also housed the Guilds, among them Rembrandt van Rijn who had been contracted to paint the surgical procedures being conducted in the top of the same building in the 1600s. He was only 26 and became a very wealthy man in his lifetime (rare among the classic painters) from his signature portrait painting.
Next up was a building in the University of Holland, housed in what was the headquarters of the Dutch East India company from 1606. Sounds like a business well ahead of its time, modernising the industry with fleet sailing to mitigate risk while harvesting and trading spices, gold, cotton etc AND introducing the investment/stocks model for a continuous stream of money to plough into taking over the world, as a global mega-power colonising in every direction with such gems as New Amsterdam (now New York), New Zealand and Cape Town. The only Dutch protectorates left are the 5 islands in the Caribbean, which Sam qiupped is to give the Dutch somewhere warm to holiday.
We took the midtour break in a bar in a building that used to be a convent. You could see evidence of some of its former purpose in odd elements like a lingering pew and a small staircase up to an altar-like podium with austere gilded cross backdrop. Quite a contrast of past and present!
Our tour had circled round and we were back in Dam Square, this time on the opposite end, outside the Royal Palace. The story goes that Napoleon sent his brother Louis to rule the Dutch. He didn’t do very well and Napoleon took Holland back from him within 3 years. But even in that short time old Louis had made some monumental changes, like introducing street numbers and surnames.
Sam pointed out that Amsterdam, being built on swampland, wanted to make the most of their land so they taxed homes according to their road frontage. This is how the narrowest house in Amsterdam – a red brick building only 1.8m wide, coincidentally adjacent to the widest bridge in Amsterdam – came into being. Ironically, the house is inhabited by a couple over 6 feet tall with 2 large dogs!
The houses have pulley hooks attached to the top of the house and the fronts generally lean forward a bit, so that (back in the day) stocks and wares and (even today) bulk furnishings can be hoisted into the house. Some of the houses have sunk in their foundations so also lean to the left or right, leaving rows of houses looking like multicoloured teeth in dire need of braces!
These houses line the 165 canals in Amsterdam. French Hugenot Protestants came to Amsterdam looking for religious tolerance and work and ended up digging these concentric semi-circular canals to bring goods to the merchants’ houses. So, essentially, the city is 190 islands connected by 1200 bridges.
The tour ended at the Anne Frank House. Although voted by the Dutch as one of their most famous and beloved, Anne was actually German (born in Frankfurt); her family had moved to avoid Nazi persecution (Amsterdam was among the safest places in Europe) and the house was actually her dad’s business building until 1942, when they were forced to seek solace so went into hiding. Two years they spent, holed up in that tiny attic with windows boarded up and separated from the business by a sliding book case. Eight people, in complete silence all day while the business ran in the rest of the house.
It’s a really poignant story that this teenager kept such a vivid account or their story and ended up perishing with her mother and sister in a concentration camp, leaving behind only her father, who retrieved her diary – a gift he’d given her for her 13th birthday, in fact – and made her documented dreams of becoming a revered author come true posthumously.
Sam recommended a traditional Dutch restaurant for lunch, so we messaged our friends to meet us there in a couple of hours and took a brisk walk to the Rijks Museum for a cultural whirwhind whip around to see some Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt Van Rijn masterpieces on home soil. Very impressive. Especially Van Rijn, whose The Night Watch is truly breathtaking.
The museum was a bit further than we anticipated so we were a bit late to meet at Cafe Sonneveld for our traditional lunch. No mind though, the restaurant was very quick to serve up our ‘stamppot’ and we were soon enthralled in the meatballs and mash style meal.
The plan for the afternoon was to rent a boat and see the city from the water… But it had started to rain, so we took an hour out to sit in a coffee shop and play cards (which was a very fun excursion of sorts in itself).
It didn’t rain for long, so we were soon back on course, with a full cooler, a picnic of snacky things and a playlist of the main contenders at the impending festival to complement the trip. It was pretty chilly and the rain had obviously scared off other potential boaters, so we had the canals largely to ourselves, which was wonderful and a couple of hours later we’d seen more of Amsterdam than I’m sure most see in their entire stay!
Our body clocks must’ve been quite confused by the dark coming so late (you can’t really say from the sun staying up so late when there was no appearance of the sun to speak of), so when we went to Foodhallen for dinner, we somehow missed it completely. The venue is a warehouse of food stalls of all varieties – from pizza to seafood to Mexican to frozen yoghurt – but they had all closed (at 10pm sharp) before we’d made our minds up… So we just went to one of Neil’s favourite restaurants, Rotisserie, instead for massive, juicy burgers.
It’s always good to walk home from the pub after such long day/night outings – and it was much easier this time, since we had a better lay of the land.

Travelogue Ireland 2: Kilkenny

KILKENNY
18 November 2017

We woke to a grey but dry morning in Dublin (winning!) and walked through the town to the Avis office to fetch the car we’d rented for our roadtrip.

Dublin is a very easy city to navigate (once you’ve been around it once or twice, which we had thanks to the walking tour) and the crisp morning made for a great walk in the fresh air.

We drove the car back to our hotel to collect our bags and check out, and were on the road by late morning.

We had 88km to take us to the first stop, Rock of Dunamase, which took just over an hour of easy driving on the open highway.

You couldn’t miss the Rock, as a 46m outcrop protruding sharply from the mostly flat plains of the farms surrounding it. The ruins of Dunamase Castle perched on top of the Rock made for a dramatic silhouette on the skyline, less daunting as you drive round to the entrance at the back, off a country cul de sac providing access to the Castle and its neighbour, a quaint little Church complete with creepy Cemetary.

We’d downloaded an audio guide off an Irish Heritage website which talked us through the outer gates, over where the moat would have been, through where the portcullis would have been, under the Murder Hole where the defenders would have rained boiling oil or buckets of excrement on invaders and into the inner Barbican.

The first known inhabitants of this hilltop built a fort in the early 9th century but were soon pillaged by the Vikings in 842. The Castle was only built much later in the latter half of the 12th Century and became the most important fortification in Laoise (pronounced “leash”) with the Norman invasion and then was a pawn in all sorts of wheeling and dealing until it fell into ruin by the 1350s.

After our wander, we drove the 7km to the next town, Portlaoise (“port leash”) to grab some lunch.

We parked on the edge of town and ambled along the narrow high street, window shopping and enjoying the relaxed pace.

We found a warm and cosy mom ‘n pops deli (McCormack’s) and settled into the window counter to watch the day go by as we were served our shepherd’s pie and lasagne, with chips of course.

Fed and happy, we walked the remainder of the high street. Not much was open as we’d obviously caught the town between shops that shut at lunchtime and venues that opened for evening trade, but that didn’t matter because we were moving on anyway.

We only had 48km left of our day’s journey, so were in Kilkenny less than half an hour later, checking into our very homely B&B, Chaplin’s Guesthouse.

It had started to drizzle very lightly, but that didn’t deter us since Christian had remembered to pack our ‘holi-brollies’ (procured on our Baltic Cruise holiday) so we hit the streets and headed for the Castle.

Sadly, 2 wrong turns and early winter closing time left us arriving at the Castle as it was closing so, never ones to dwell on misfortune, we went to the Smithwick’s Brewery instead.

Not up for another hour of barleyhopsroastingtoasting stories, we had a wander around and felt enriched enough to hit the ‘in the field sampling’ with a clear (and educated) conscience.

Smithwick’s is situated at the tapered end of the teardrop-shaped Medieval Mile, so named because of the visible evidence in the architecture and layout of this portion of the city that Kilkenny was once the medieval capital of Ireland.

The Mile is home to 24 attractions in its narrow streetscape as a living exhibit that has visual clues like the Butter Slip, a narrow and dark walkway that cuts the teardrop in the middle to connect the outer roads and which housed the market’s butter vendors (because it is sheltered and cold) earning its name. It also has the conventional sights – town hall, city gate, cathedral – as well as a museum and a gallery for a well-rounded experience.

We started with The Hole in The Wall, a 16th Century tavern in Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse, earning its name from the hole punched in a wall at the rear of the house to create access from the high street. Besides the anticipated exhibits, we discovered a tiny bar in the house, a rustic tavern tucked away in a little room under the stairs, with only 11 seats, and joined the 2 existing patrons and the barman for our first Kilkenny ‘Irish Cream Ale’ draught.

Our sightseeing turned into a pub crawl – directed by the recommendations of our close company at the tiny bar – starting with Hibernia, an upmarket venue diagonnally across from Kilkenny Castle.

Next was Tynans Bridge House Bar, which is the perfect local’s pub with traditional decor, casual locals clearly at home around the massive wooden bar counter, dark and comfortable corners, sing-along classic soundtrack and a larger-than-life host, Liam, who joined and rejoined our table periodically like a returning old friend, quick with a story and a laugh. If we lived in Kilkenny, this is where we would be regulars, so we stayed for a few, as if we were.

We rounded off the evening with Sullivan’s, which by stark contrast was a hall-like double-volume modern venue. The pizza and local red ale had been recommended on quite a few sites we’d researched on, so our choices were easily made. The food was excellent and ambiance created by the one-man-band performers who seamlessly mixed traditional Irish with more contemporary songs, so all in all a good evening was had.

As is often the case, the walk home seemed much shorter than the walk into town in the afternoon. Likely a combination of having a better sense of where the destination was, not having the drizzle to contend with and having the series of new experiences to giddily recount.

I’m sure we missed a lot of the classic Kilkenny experience by skipping most of the buildings and whatnot… but doing it our way was a lot more fun!

… Or so I thought…

Christian had gone for a run while I was doing the above Travelogue, which I assumed was finished… Until he came back with stories of how awesome the day was and all the things he’d seen on his run around the town and the Castle.

Between the animated delivery and the magnificent Full Irish breakfast, it was decided to do a quick victory lap around the Medieval Mile to fill in the gaps of what we’d missed.

We packed the car and drove down to town, parking near the Hibernian pub we’d so enjoyed the night before.

Little was open, so it was easy to navigate the streets and get pics the way I like them – “post apocalyptic”, like we’re the only people in the world.

It seemed fitting to visit the churches, being a Sunday ‘n all, but unfortunately couldn’t access the one of most interest – St Francis Abbey where beer has been brewed for centuries.

We also got in a short walk around the Castle gardens before it started to drizzle, at which point we made our way to the car to get back on track with our original plan to go to Waterford.

Travelogue Ireland 7: Galway

GALWAY

22-23 November 2017

Thanks to our intentness to work in a seafood lunch at the seaside town of Doolin, we ended up seeing what’s dubbed (in its own brochure) as “the most visited natural attraction in Ireland”. I’d somehow thought that the Cliffs of Moher were further north up the coast than we were going so they hadn’t even featured in our planning but, nope, there they were. Perfectly positioned, right next to Doolin!

It was only an 80km stretch from Limerick but with single lane country roads, it took us over an hour to get there.

The entrance ticket to the Cliffs of Moher allows access to the whole complex, combining a self-guided (outdoor) tour with an (indoor) exhibition component. We couldn’t have had worse weather for our visit, being bitterly cold and raining, so we tried the inside bit first.

The Visitor Centre’s claim to fame is its eco-friendliness, tucked into the side of the hill like a cave with a grass roof so as not to spoil the landscape and view, and using geo-thermal energy, waste water treatment and sensor lighting. The visual displays bring the Cliffs to life through audio visual exhibits and 2 short movies, one of which gives you birds eye view of the cliffs.

Venturing outside, we used the free downloadable audio guide to walk ourselves through the South platform and then the North and see the Cliffs that had been waiting 320 million years for us to get there.

It was far from ideal weather for viewing. The brochures spoke of how you could see this, that and the other “on a clear day” but we were lucky to even be able to see the series of jutting cliffs because it was so misty! To give context, the Cliffs are 200 odd metres high and range for about 8km over the Atlantic Ocean. They, at least, are really hard to miss – and are quite astounding in their magnitude and composition – clear day or not! But we didn’t see the puffins, the Falcons or the views of 5 counties that might have been seen under different circumstances.

We were chilled to the bone and now even more motivated to get to Doolin for lunch.

It’s a weird thing about travelling that you’ll stumble repeatedly over something you ‘have to do’ when you’re looking for something else entirely… And then when you try and retrace the referred have-to-do, it seems like all trace of the articles you’d originally read have been been removed from the internet! This was the case with Doolin. I couldn’t seem to find the article that had stuck this nugget of a town into our plan.

Fortunately though, it’s a 1-horse town so we drove through it all the way to the dock at the end and then back again, and settled on the place that looked most welcoming, Gus O’Connor’s pub on Fisher Street.

Great choice. Fire on the go, so roasty-toasty inside; big smiles from the barman and waitress. A table right by the fireplace, just waiting for us… We had the most delicious seafood chowder and Atlantic salmon with Parmesan mash and all was right with the world.

Really smug at our great decision – and commending ourselves on our commitment to the authentic Wild Atlantic Way experience – we hit the road once again, headed for Galway.

We were again staying in a hostel, again in a private suite. This hostel, the Bunk Boutique, seemed quite upmarket with an equal split of dorm rooms and suites. Our room seemed brand-spanking new with its laminate floor, modern finishes and crisp white linens.

The hotel was conveniently located right next door to the Tourist Office, where we picked up a map and the lady on duty advised us that the daily walking tour at 11.30 am would be worth our time if we could see our way clear to leaving Galway a little later than we’d planned to. With no clear plans for our last day besides getting to the airport on time (no particular rush with a 9pm flight), this seemed as good a plan as any – and with it being by far the coldest day we’d experienced in Ireland (cold enough to add another full layer of clothing!) the thought of keeping the evening’s plans minimal and indoors was of great appeal.

She also recommended that we have dinner at McDonagh’s fish and chip shop, which we’d shortlisted anyway, and which was on the other side of town (being a Medieval town, this meant a 15 minute walk at most) so gave us a goal to get there and back over the course of the evening.

Galway is a charming little city.

We crossed Eyre Square, that has been the centre of town for centuries and now was playing host to a Christmas market with scores of little wooden huts selling sweet treats, gift ideas and winter woollies. The middle had a festive display with Gingerbread house, reindeer and candy canes, and little stage that was hosting local musicians keeping everyone entertained while they shipped on Gluwein and munched on their take-away.

The other side of the Square deposited us at the top of the shopping streets; still the original Medieval pedestrian walkways with authentic facades and visible family crest headstones above shop entrances. Buskers’ music filled the air and the Christmas decorations strung overhead provided a warm glow. There was lots of activity, but the kind of busy that added energy not crowdedness.

We stopped off at a pub at the top of the street – one of the oldest in Galway, known for its ‘craic’ (good times) – to recount our day and applaud our good fortunes and great experiences, biding time for the famous fish feast that awaited us.

A product of our own anticipation, it became quite an early dinner! And was every bit the hype we’d read about. We opted for the battered cod and salmon, which arrived with a mountain of chips and mushy peas. A visible award-winner!

Doing the usual pub search both on our walk through town and on the internet over dinner, we decided to spend the evening (our last in Ireland, sob!) at Sally Long’s, the only hard rock pub in Galway.

Quite different from all the strictly traditional pubs we’d been in over the course of the week, Sally’s had a Harley in the entrance, a Last Supper mural of musical legends, a pool table and was blasting AC/DC when we arrived. It was good for a change of pace.

Our last morning had to start the right way: FULL Irish breakfast. We got exactly that at a fantastic little restaurant called Riordan’s, which gave ALL the trimmings (mushroom, baked beans, fried potatoes etc) as well as the sausage, bacon, black and white pudding. Excellent fuel for the walking tour and to combat the icy day.

It was a far better call to defer the walking tour as although it was cold, it was clear blue skies and no rain.

We met our guide, Jerry, who walked us through the town we’d already become quite familiar with, but filled in the gaps on the who, what and how we’d gotten to the Galway we were in.

Besides the usual tales of pillage and plunder, Vikings and Cromwell, Jerry spent quite a bit of time telling us about how life changing John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 had been. Obviously of Irish descent and leader of the free world, his visit went beyond ‘welcomed’ and all the way to hero worship and squares and roads were renamed after him, statues and commemorative busts erected and portraits and plaques placed alongside the Pope in the churches!

Another interesting sight and anecdote was Lynch’s Window, where the local Magistrate, James Lynch, lived up to his reputation for unbending justice when he notoriously hanged his own son who had killed a merchant. This is where the term ‘lynching’ is derived from.

Jerry concluded his tour at the Spanish Arch, so named for the Spanish merchant sailors who came ashore there to peddle their wares. This was also the site where the Claddagh women would sell the fish their husbands had caught. The Claddagh lived across the river in rows of white thatched huts and only crossed for trade. They are the people from whom the traditional Claddagh rings stem. You’d recognise the design if you saw it; the band forming 2 hands on the top side that are clasping a heart with a crown on it.

Done with the tour, we jumped in the car and headed for the airport. We had plenty of time since it was a 200 odd km drive and we had over 4 hours to cover the ground.

We needed to stop to refuel so coincided it with a visit to Athenry, renowned to us because of the famous Irish ballad “Fields of Athenry“… With a killer version by The Dropkick Murphys, that we blasted as we headed on our last leg, in the direction of Dublin.

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. A bit early, in fact, as check-in wasn’t even open yet. We made the best use of the time and got in a last Guinness for the road. Unbelievably even with the usual airport inflated prices, the pint was still cheaper than the tourist trap Temple Bar!

Sláinte Ireland. Thanks for all the good times. Hope to see you again soon!

Travelogue 6: Limerick

LIMERICK

22 November 2017

The drive from Tralee to Limerick was only 101km and we were back on double lane highway so it went really quickly.

We routed through the little town of Adare, renowned to be one of Ireland’s prettiest towns – and we could see why. If we hadn’t just stopped for refreshments in Tralee, we’d have stopped in Adare for something just for the sake of soaking in some of the prettiness!

But we soldiered on and went to Limerick, where we’d be spending the night.

Our hotel was in a prime location, right alongside the wide River Shannon and had we had a room on the other side of the building, we would have had a view of some of the most famous sites in the town: St Mary’s Cathedral, King John’s Castle and the row of Georgian houses in between.

Even though it was still early when we arrived, it was already dark, so we took a whirl around the Medieval Quarter to get a lay of the land, but left the formal sight-seeing and picture-taking for the morning.

Not yet hungry (again) either, we made our way through the modern shopping streets on our way to the more quaint Market District.

The roads were busy with people finishing work and doing their shopping. The town’s Christmas lights and decorations were already live, combining with the dark and crisp evening to make for quite a festive feel – probably more Christmassy than we’ll feel in a month’s time in sunny South Africa when it really is Christmas!

The Market District was a little quieter; being mostly restaurants and pubs, probably a bit early for its main trade. We’d consulted online for recommendations on where to try – there are way too many pubs in every Irish town to take chances! – and started at Nancy Blake’s.

We settled on the barstools in the little passage that connected the two main bar areas, but soon moved because it was too warm – hardly something we’d suspected would be said on this holiday! – from the effective fireplace in the smaller bar.

Our second stop was quite the opposite. Flannery’s was dark and a bit chilly and lacked the warmth in both temperature and atmosphere that Nancy Blake’s had had, not helped by the indifferent bartender who was playing his own (dreary) music and smoking on the doorstep. By that point it was dinner time anyway, so we chalked it up to experience and moved on.

We pinpointed The Locke as our final destination since it was accoladed for its menu, had traditional music and dancing every night and was just across the bridge (over the mighty Shannon) from home.

We had a Limerick local serving our table, so took his advice on dinner orders and were soon enjoying a seafood pie (like a cottage pie but with a creamy fishy mix instead of mince) and a traditional Irish stew that complemented perfectly, cutting the creamy pie with its simple stocky broth.

Our dinnertime conversation was logistics-intensive. We were, not unusually, planning a meal ahead like they were going out of fashion and thus, in this spirit, planned get up and have breakfast at the very earliest possible instant (rather than lazing and languishing in bed as we’d been doing the previous days) so we could do our self-guided Limerick tour and make space for a seafood lunch when we were back on the Wild Atlantic Way. Only we could decide at dinner that we best hurry up and have an early night so we can have breakfast early enough to be hungry enough by lunch to appreciate it!

With this ‘early to bed; early to rise (for a fuller-than-Full Irish)’ in mind, we were soon headed back to our hotel, happy as little larks with our preliminary sightseeing done, a great evening behind us and another exciting day ahead of us.

We could have done with an organised walking tour of Limerick as it seems there’s more detail to the story of this city than can be cobbled together through the handful of sites and bitty historical overviews on the internet.

Unfortunately, the local walking tour guide, Declan, has a day job at the tourist office so can only accommodate during his lunch hour – and this was obviously too late as we a) had breakfast to move and b) had our own lunch plans. So, we made the most of it and did a quick loop around the Medieval Quarter on our own.

From what we can tell, the area of Limerick has been occupied since the Stone Age, succumbed to the Vikings in the 800s and 900s and then got its signatures architecture (King John’s Castle and St Mary’s Cathedral) around 1200. The Castle was sieged several times between the English/Irish issues, Cromwell and William of Orange, which was pretty typical of the 1600s which seem to be quite a tiring time in Irish history in general. All sorts of people invading and marauding and fighting battles to back and forth bits of Ireland inch by inch.

We wanted to end off our tour with the McCourt Museum, a tribute to the Frank McCourt book “Angela’s Ashes”, a copy of which my Grandpappy had given to me as a teenager. The story is an anecdotal memoir of Frank’s impoverished childhood in Limerick and the museum is said to be small but very tangible of life in the time the book was set.

Unfortunately, the museum only opened at 11 and wasn’t worth waiting almost an hour for, so we hit the road in search of the next wonderous experience.