15. Ventimiglia and beyond

 Nice to Alpbach, a small mountain village in the Tyrolean Alps, where we’d booked a few nights at an inn and would meet Walter and Klaus, old friends from Germany. Inbetween those two circles we’d have six nights. Where would you stay? What would you do? How would you get from A to B? This would be the least thought out part of our trip. Holland was set before we left, so was France. I thought we’d sort of wing it in Italy, and see how things go. We could have just picked a city, arranged cheap lodging with airBnB or something, spent the whole time there, and got in and out with the fast train. Instead we chose to take local trains and make short hops all the way until Austria. We’ll see if that was a better plan.

First leg: Nice to Cuneo.  Like I said, we spent so much time swimming around Nice we left none to do other stuff, and the little towns in the Alpes Maritimes on the way to Italy that we’d planned to explore would have to be seen in passing on the train. There is a direct Nice to Cuneo train, but the Ventimiglia option worked better for our schedule. Note how after you change trains in Ventimiglia you go back into France. Why would the Italians run a line from V. to C. through France? Probably because the land used to belong to Italy. Even Nice was once part of Italy; In Nice, I saw some old signs with street names in both French and Italian.

I’ve read nice things about the coast from the French border to Genoa, but Ventimiglia didn’t have the charm that all the French towns from Nice to Menton did. It was congested and noisy and looked way past its prime. The only interesting thing about our 1.5 hour layover was a fat Russian lady and her young son throwing bread off the Pasarella Squarciafichi, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Fume Roia, which trickles into the Med. It was a good battle between the seagulls, ducks, unknown shorebirds, and swans that hang out here. The feisty seagulls ruled and mostly fought each other, while the swans, although by far the biggest, were complete pushovers.

Saorge.

Tende, I believe.

After the long tunnel under the border, we emerged at the hiking/skiing village of Limone in Italy, and about a half hour later arrived at Cuneo, a small city at the foothills of the mountains, about one hour south of Turin. We missed a turn on the walk from the station to our hotel and took a roundabout route into town. The weird thing was, in the 15 minutes that took us to get to the hotel, we saw not one Italian face nor heard Italian spoken. Every person we saw, the men loitering around the fountain at the train station, men walking the streets, leaning against buildings, talking on cell phones, some on bicycles, some on the veranda of apartments on the old  streets, were sub-Saharan Africans. Hmm, what were they doing in this not-so-well-known, mountainside town of Piemonte, Italy?

The next morning I asked the concierge what was up and he shook his head and said, “It is a huge problem in Italy now. The refugees come across the sea from Africa to Italy, in the South. Then they come to the North.”

He went on to explain that most of them are trying to get to the UK and other countries in northern Europe. The problem is, France has blocked them and apparently Austria has too so the Northern Italian cities are full of homeless, jobless Africans wandering the streets, talking on their cell phones, trying to get North to the promised lands of Great Britain and Holland, where there is no unemployment, a surplus of affordable housing, race relations are perfect and the citizens await unskilled 3rd world immigrants with open arms. Those meanies in France block the border and so Italy must provide food and housing for the unfortunate travelers. The scene in front of Cuneo station repeated itself in all the cities we visited in Northern Italy. 

We found our hotel in Cuneo, the unsmiling Algerian gave us our key, and we went on a search for sustenance. We found a Mexican restaurant, of all things, just a few blocks down a narrow road in the old town. The owner was a friendly guy from Mexico City who had been in Italy since he was 15. He was full with group reservations on this Saturday night, but he made a spot for me and Keenan. His father came up and asked in Spanish if we’d been attended to. I blame it on the fact that I’d been trying to speak French the last four days and today had tried to switch to Italian-I answered, “Si, nos atendimos.” (Yes, we attended to ourselves.) blaaa.

I asked Raul how is it he had come to Italy. “My father was a police officer of Los Federales. He couldn’t abide by the high level of corruption so he left the country.” K. Had enchiladas, I had a burrito, and we walked the town a bit and headed back to the hotel. In the morning we took it slow leaving. 

Some Cuneo Pics: . See-through bathroom window .   

The all-important look at yourself upside down mirror.

Italian Doraemon.

I can manage an extended vacation away from home if I get my regular dose of WWF.

Glazed nuts. Pure decadence.       

italian Willie Nelson coming to town.

I asked K. to smile here but he was suffering from some sort of millais.

I’m sorry this collection of photos doesn’t do justice to Cuneo, a real nice town in Piedmont. Next time you are on your way from Torino to Nice, by all means stop by.

Next: Italian Americanophiles

 

14. Monaco

Monaco in a nutshell, based on our two-hour observation of the place: Beautiful harbor filled with all those massive yachts; steep hillside with the luxury apartments and hotels, castle on the hill, grand casino. All that wealth packed into a tight spot- pretty impressive but one thing- if I were rich I’d have money/property in Switzerland and keep an apartment somewhere on the French coast, but probably not in the zoo of Monaco. Yes, you could rub elbows with other fellow rich, but you are also shoulder to shoulder here with the riff-raff (like me with my grubby backpack and Ocean Spray baseball cap I got at Value Village), and walking the promenade of Monaco feels about the same as a Saturday afternoon at the county fair.”Cotton candy! Candy apples! Get it here, folks!”

  

The high rollers arrive.

The Benz barely got in.

  This guy was frog-marched out, and car sent to the crusher.

Mandatory tie and jacket a thing of the past. My card-playing days are pretty much over but I walked up anyway and asked the guy if they had poker. “Oh, yes.”

“Like, Texas hold’em?”

“We have Ultimate Hold’em.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where you play against the casino, rather than other players at the table.”

Ha! That would have sent me running even if I was still hooked on cards. 

The view of the harbor from the casino. 

Now away from all the glitz and down to the heart of town!

  

See what I mean? Coney-%#@*!-Island!

 When we got back on the bus heading for Nice, our day pass cards wouldn’t work in the validation machine. We used them for the trip out but I wondered if we had gone beyond the zone. Keenan was worried the cops might bust us so he said, “You better go talk to the driver,” but this was impossible in the crowded bus so I let it slide. But on every bus and tram there is a sign that warns about the penalties for having an unvalidated ticket (big fine) or no ticket at all (Devil’s Island) so I decided we’d hop off the bus at the next stop that would appear to have a beach nearby. We hit paypebbles with this little bay about 25 minutes out of Monaco. 

The afternoon swimming was nice and I didn’t feel out of place anymore: The French families that were on vacation here seemed easy-going and care-free, unlike the Bentley drivers at the casino. 

The kids were care-free too!

Lord of the Flies!…at least until l’heure de souper.

We caught an evening bus back home and the card worked again. Keenan’s worry turned out reasonable, for after transferring to the tram that would take us back up the hill, we got our only visit from the transit cops. A guy with a neck tattoo sitting across from us was having a one-way conversation with his friend who half listened and nodded and half fiddled with his smart phone. The talkative guy had that way of speaking where he constantly looks all around and then back at his partner when he needs to see acknowledgement. He was the first to see the transit authority police. In a way that sounded more like he was putting a final stop on his last thought than a seperate expression of surprise, Pascal said, “….tss, merda, le contrôle.”

As the cops boarded the tram, the crowd shifted in their seats and fumbled for thier tickets. Pascal tapped on his leg and looked to the left, looked to the right, considering his next move, not overly concerned it seemed, but resigned and a bit irritated. This was all very exciting for Keenan, because it wasn’t a petite, 25 yr. old lady conductor back in Japan on the Shinkansen asking for your ticket with a polite nod, but a team of beefy tough guys dressed in jeans, boots and black T-shirts that said, “Transit Police”. The articulated trams had two long cars so you needed a whole gang of these guys to block the exits. The tram efficiently sped along while all this went on, but had to pause just slightly longer than normal at the next stop. This was no keystone cops operation- these guys had it down. A guy who could have doubled for Baretta in a fight scene checked our passes with his portable scanner. When we pulled away from the next tram stop, I saw him on the sidewalk grilling poor Pascal, who was still looking around, side to side, with that classic, palms out, French shoulder shrug and frown, seeming to say, “Come on you guys. Give me a break, will ya?” 

Baretta was amused but didn’t seem likely to spare Pascal his date with Papillon.

After four swimming sessions, Monaco, and all the bus-riding, walking, and excitement, I figured we ought to eat out, so we found a little, outdoor pizzeria in our neighborhood with a local crowd that the waitress was fond of chatting with and hugging. 

 

Next: Adieu, France…Ciao, Italia!

 

 

 

 

13. up the coast

On our second full day we first took a dip in this little bay near the harbor in Nice. The diving platforms are officially off limits but in the afternoon you can come here and watch the daredevil teenagers shimmy up the poles and dive off, then come hit you up for spare change, I suppose.That is the ferry for Corsica.

We got an all-day bus pass and headed NE, toward Monaco. The bus took a side road out on a peninsula and we found a nice yacht harbor and a secret beach.

There were some beautiful homes inbetween the harbor and the beach. At one driveway the gate was open and this 6’6″, handsome dude who looked like a pro tight end or Aussy rules football player in a black suit stood watch over the street. Out came the black Bentley with silver-haired City of London banker, who glanced in the direction of us unwashed nobodies, and quicky averted his gaze. I don’t think he wanted us around, 

and neither did these people.

 “Hey Keech, do you know how to work the zoom feature on that camera?”

 just testing the zoom feature, in case we see birds or something

 You could slip into the sea at the far end of this pool.Now this was weird. It was some kind of French youth group excursion. They might have been pampered Parisians because their leader was taking such care that they followed the rules and didn’t rough house or get away from the group. While he was talking to the kids individually, he put on a bikini top and then a skirt over his swim trunks. Then he gathered all the teens and made a stern speech about safe and proper beach behaviour. When he was finished, the girls got in the water. Then a boy broke from the group and dove in. Cross-dressing Franćois ordered the boy out and scolded him severely. Then the boys were allowed in and they all frolicked in the shallow, safe waters under Franćois’ close watch. I still can’t figure out the bikini top and skirt.

  Note Mr. Bean, lower left, observing the proceedings. 

After our swim at secret cove, we walked around the cape,

then found a sandy, public beach. All the beaches we went to had public showers and garbage bins. They keep things clean around here.

We passed the proverbial poop sign and got on the bus for more adventure up the coast. 

Next: Monte Carlo!

12. Around Nice

 2nd night in Nice I sat Keenan down to get some homework done. He did a nice job of organizing these euro coins first.

On day one Keenan said he needed a new t-shirt. We walked around the neighborhood near our apartment, and each time I inquired the locals heard my crummy French and said, “Go down to the Centre Ville.” meaning the tourist zone. No-sir, I wasn’t about to pay rip-off-the-Gucci-bag-searching-Chinese-tourist prices, even for a t-shirt, and I persevered, into little shops and supermarkets where I irritated a stocker and a produce lady with my inquiry. Finally I hit pay-dirt in a little shop that had women’s underwear, fabrics, kitchen gadgets and a box with T-shirts on sale. Shumways never give up, is the motto I tell my kids and sometimes follow too.

Keenan in his 2.95 Euro Fruit of the Loom, and Nice harbor

 

Down the hill from the harbor lookout.  

 Keenan loved the old elevator in our apartment. I preferred the stairs to that creaky old elevator.

Cabrini Vert- hillside apartment blocks of Nice.

 

Next: secret swimming spots

 

11. Shoestring Riviera

Lowlands/Highlands was the plan- a week of cycling in Holland, then get to the Alps, don the Lederhosen, frolic with Heidi and work our way back up North. But how to get down south? With Una, we hitched a ride with old pal Walter, a friend from Bonn, which was fortunate, as he was able to carry our bikes with his rack. This time no car ride but we would have the advantage of not having bicycles. Turns out the cheapest way to get south would be by airplane. There has been a fare war going on and we got a dirt-cheap fare on EasyJet, Amsterdam to Nice, at the Southern tip of the Alps. 

Nice. I reserved a reasonably priced AirBnB apartment in the suburbs, and researched everything there was to do. The plan: tour the city, do some swimming, hike around the cape and catch the train back from Antibes, see the pretty town of Menton where British royalty vacationed, check out one of the many museums, see the cathedral, try out my beginner-level French, visit Saorge, the ancient hillside town that ranks in the top 25 most beautiful villages of France, take the hiking bus to the Alpes Maritimes for a local mountain rendesvous, teach Keenan a little about the history of the city and region, etc. 

Nearly all my plans were nixed when K. took his first dip in the Meditteranean, and all we did was swim, eat, and walk around for the next three days.

 The beach in Nice is smooth pebbles, not sand, which isn’t bad, as they don’t hurt much to walk on and don’t stick to you like sand.

That picture was actually the morning of day 2. 

After arrival at the airport we took the bus to town, walked up the hill and checked into Martine’s nice apartment.! 

Here’s K early that morning in Amsterdam.

Near our apartment, copping a more French attitude? 

 We went to buy lunch and found the supermarket prices here up the hill to be way lower than Holland, especially the delicous fruits and vegetables. Nice is doable on the cheap. That’s fresh Roquefort on the salad, baby!                The next evening we ate on the terrace. Ham and Eggs a la yes-more-Roquefort cheese, with the- get this- super-cheap, store-brand Belgian Abbey beer! After dinner we were treated to a sky on fire.

Our first afternoon I was too cheap to get street-car (tram) tickets so Keenan and I walked down to the beach, through all sorts of unknown neighborhoods of Nice, including I think the Algerian zone, where you don’t look sideways at those swarthy, tough guys. After our 30 minute hike through town, we made it to the beach, where it was blowing hard and big pounders were coming in. Few people were playing in the breakers, but I gave it a shot and later learned from Keenan that that sound I had heard was the young beach patrol girl blowing her whistle at me. When I swam out beyond the breakers, she moved on to other tourists. 

After the beach we hiked way back up the hill to our pad. We were both exhausted and crashed. The next two days I got the 5 euro daypass which gave you unlimited rides on the tram and local busses.

Here’s a few shots from a calmer day two:

 K’s flat-rock foot therapy.      

next: around Nice

 

 

 

10. Nice

Nice, as in French Riviera (Côte d’Azur) , is the answer to yesterday’s quick quiz, but you might have missed that because    yesterday’s post was cut off halfway, so we’ll say the 2nd half is today’s post: click here for the full post #9.

I do have some things to say about Nice, and Keenan took some nice pics, so stay tuned!

 

 

 

                 For some reason they call it the Azure Coast.

 

9B. Some Rijksmuseum photos

<<This post in response to a request for some pics from the Rijksmueum.>>

The Rijksmuesum ranks right up there (almost) with the Met, in grandeur, especially after a huge renovation. When we entered, we checked our bag and I handed Keenan the camera and he went hog-wild. Here’s a selection of his photos:

Small scale prototype for an early submarine. Project not completed for cost overruns and lack of funding.

Early six shooter

 Nightwatch. Rembrandt, 1642. Depicts the citizens’ militia. Commisioned by wealthy members of the militia, it darkened in the smoking room of the civic guard over the years and was later mistakenly taken to be a nocturnal scene, hence the later name, “The Night Watch”.

Militia Company of District VIII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker, painted by Bartholomeus van der Heist.

 Was there ever a more confident and cocky bunch than those 16th and 17th century Dutch noblemen? Look at the guy next to the flag. “Yeah, I unsheathed my sword. Got a problem with that, punk?”   This painting takes up an entire wall and is 24 1/2 ft wide. My favorite at the Rijksmueum.

De Reuter. The Nelson of The Netherlands and a real pain in the rear for the British!

 

Nazi chess set. Possibly a gift from Goering to Hitler.

Tribal chieftan spears. Gift of submission to the Dutch governor in Indonesia.

Dutch veterans of Waterloo

troublemaker  and his little brother, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, King of Holland, who upon becoming king distanced himself from French influence, which eventually led to France attacking the Netherlands.

six-pack Jesus

 We stayed until closing, so the line at the bag check was super-long. No choice but to head over to the cafe, where the waiters were dressed sharp, on the ball and spoke with American accents- and the strudel was great!

 

Next: Nice without a plan.