The Riviera: French and Italian Coasts

A couple of dear friends of ours were planning a trip to Europe earlier this year and asked if we wanted to join them. We broke out the calendars and started to plot and plan what we could see over the course of 11 days. What wound up in our itinerary was an amazing array of climates, terrains, and culture that could not be more different from one another. But the experiences were priceless.

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We began in Nice along the French Riviera. The airport is directly on the water making it one of the most beautiful places to fly in the world. However, it was a little unnerving during the decent to only see water out the windows. I just closed my eyes hoping there was solid ground underneath the plane. But we arrived safe and sound in mild 80 degrees having left London in the low 60s. Our jeans and long sleeve shirts were ill-advised in the direct sun.

Our friends met us at the Galion Plage under some royal blue umbrellas. We ducked under the shade and lathered on the sunscreen to let the vacation commence. We had a light lunch before dozing under the sun, which wasn’t terribly priced for being on the beach in France, but a note about lounging: get to your umbrella early. By afternoon, all of the beds were taken. Also do be prepared to pay a bit for the prime real estate. For two beds, it ran €37 for the full day. Not a bad price comparatively for the high season with a gorgeous view, but something to note anyway.

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We stayed in The Grand Hotel Florence off the main drag and couldn’t have asked for a better place to lay our heads. It is a completely eco-friendly hotel complete with bee boxes on the roof and a much-needed coffee station. We had a nice view from the top balcony and were a fifteen minute taxi ride to the train station, Nice Riquier, which would take us into Italy the next morning.

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But our night in Nice was not without adventure. We grabbed some goodies from the Mono Prix–the major grocery store in France–and headed to the Castle Hill where the most gorgeous panoramic views were laid out before us. Right as the sun set, the water turned from baby blue to deep cobalt and the lights of the city danced in the trees.

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By the time we descended, the streets were buzzing with activity. Bikes zipped past us on the coastal bike lane and restaurants were kicking in gear. The four of us ducked in an alley and were instantly surrounded by souvenir stalls and cafes. Around another corner and through a plaza, we stopped to listen to a French/Reggae band singing “Three Little Birds” with a mis-translated “every little thing[s] gonna be all right.” We watched the tourists laugh and dance for a while before calling it a night in the French Riviera.

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The next morning, while we waited for the train to take us to La Spezia, a little boy playing with a rolled up piece of paper was happily hacking away at us as if it were a sword. We were thoroughly amused with this child’s lack of inhibitions as he went up to every person he saw to smack them playfully. French kids really do live in a different world than American children. Or maybe I’ve been so removed from kids, I don’t know what it’s like inside the mind of a four year old. What is kosher at 7am these days?

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Our first stop was Ventimiglia on the border between Italy and France. It took just about two hours to get there from Nice, but the small city was bustling for a Friday morning. We saw many families walking toward the beaches in swimsuits carting inflated animals and hyper-active children. But the main attraction for the city is a gorgeous farmer’s market about four blocks from the train station.

The indoor market is open 7a-1p during the week, and then all day Friday and Saturday. Dozens of stalls sported incredibly fresh fruits and vegetables and then a wide array of fake, fabric flowers. I was a little surprised to see the vibrant colors of the produce next to the mass-produced plastic flowers, but to each is own, I suppose. We stocked up on grapes, peaches, figs, and olives before heading back to the train for our next stop in Genoa.

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A couple weeks ago, I posted about the famous flavor pesto, which originated in Genoa. With only minutes to spare in our layover, we only had time to see the outside of the train station, so no pesto was had. However, standing proudly in the square was a large marble statue of Christopher Columbus. Some historians dispute that he was born in Genoa, but enough evidence proves he was at least from the area to deserve a monument in his name.

We will have to come back and explore Genoa in the future. It’s a gorgeous city with a rich history even with a stamp from UNESCO declaring it a World Heritage site in 2006. Within the city, there are cemeteries that date back to 6th and 5th centuries BC and evidence of battles fought in the 200s BC with all kinds of stories that continue through the 1100s, 1800s, and still today. But I’ll save more history for when we actually get to see it.

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After another two hours, we made it to La Spezia. Situated just south of the famous Cinque Terre, the small port town is in the heart of the Liguria region of Italy. A notable piece of history about La Spezia is after the liberation from WWII, the city was a port of departure for survivors from Nazi concentration camps to Israel. More than 23,000 people successfully escaped naming the town “Shaar Zion” or “Gateway to Zion” on Israeli geographical maps.2015-08-14 17.06.50

But there isn’t much to do in the city. It’s mostly a suburb for the locals of the area with only a couple of sights to see. So, we decided to go to the furthest north village of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, for the evening. This particular village is most famous for its Liguria wine production with terrace vineyards scattered all over the gorgeous ocean-side mountains.

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There is a train that runs directly into each of the villages along the coast, which made traveling convenient. Buses also run at decent intervals, but all transportation stops around 10pm. Thankfully, taxis continue to operate outside the train stations, but this is always good to note when traveling in foreign cities.

In Riomaggiore, there is a lot of climbing up and down. Stairs are everywhere, but we later realized, this was just a taste for what was to come in the other villages. However, that’s a story for next week.

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We climbed and climbed to find the best view of the sunset. And boy, did we find it right at the Church of San Giovanni Battista. The structure sits right on the hill facing out to the water just below a small car park, almost hidden away from tourists who don’t venture up the hills.

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We stared at the water in wonder as the sunset changed from yellow to gold to pink in a matter of minutes. It was hypnotizing to see another “edge” of the world.

A restaurant recommended on TripAdvisor was Ripa Del Sole on top of the city. We walked in and had a fantastic waiter, Eduardo, taking care of us. He gave us some recommendations and catered to our American-ness. I had to “break his heart” not getting a pasta dish, but gluten-free pasta was not available, so I had some steamed veggies with a wonderful braided red snapper.

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I won’t be talking much about the food of the trip in these travel blogs because I’m going to devote an entire entry to the gems and ho-hum dishes we came across. But I will at least say that Ripa Del Sole in Riomaggiore was worth the climb for a sunset view and good service.

Next week, I’ll talk about exploring the Cinque Terre in its entirety, so stay tuned for what we found in the jungles of Italy.

If you want to see more pictures, head over to my Flickr page. Some of the pictures I’m taking are too big to support here, but I have much more to see of our travels here!

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