Our first road trip in Europe did not disappoint. Note: long post ahead – these blogs are to fill in family and friends and will serve as a bit of a journal for us so will include many details. We are most certainly counting our blessings that we can safely travel by car and explore nearby France. David was at the rental agency Friday morning when they opened and we were out the door by about 7:45. First stop Aix-en-Provence, maybe a 4.5 hour drive from home. Checked in early to our hotel so we could drop our things and park the car. It all came flooding back – the tiny, tiny parking garages. I mean, there was about 2 inches of clearance on either side of the car as we snaked down into the garage. And while David to me seems somewhat absent-minded when he is behind the wheel in Southern Pines, when we are on switchbacks, small roads and trying to navigate a parking space made for a Mini Cooper, there is no one I would rather have behind the wheel. He is the master. Anyway – set off on foot to see what this little old town had to offer. Lunch outdoors under giant umbrellas with a carafe of local rosé and a gorgeous and delicious salad with the biggest piece of burrata on top seemed like a pretty good way to kick off the weekend. Bliss. As is our way, we wandered down cobblestone streets, doubled back on ourselves because we didn’t know where we were, hit a few local shops, walked some more. David scooted back to work from the hotel while the kids and I walked and walked and walked some more. Grabbed David for a bite to eat across town. More rosé, more delicious (not fancy) French food, more catching up and laughing at the dinner table. One observation for our 2 weeks here in Europe – I have maybe heard five different groups of people we have passed speaking English. Normally I feel like there’s English all around. This is a nice change. Oh, another observation is that the French smoke so, so much. In Barcelona proper we see folks smoking outside at restaurants and occasionally on the street, but in France it seemed like EVERYONE was ALWAYS smoking. Gag.
We originally made plans for a free wine tasting at a local vineyard and then decided it might be more fun to just scoot over to the next town where we had a hotel booked. This meant a drive down into Nice where I wanted to catch the Grand Corniche – the beautiful elevated roadway overlooking the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera). Fortunate to have been on many scenic drives but this one takes the cake for me! Every turn presented a grand view, and overlooking Monaco from high above was a treat. Cameron pointed out the luxury yachts moored in the bays. I don’t know what those people do (or don’t do) to have such opulent boats.
Menton is the citrus capital of the area so everything is lemons. Our check in at the hotel included fresh squeezed lemonade – a nice touch on a hot day. The hotel was situated on the Lower Corniche (basically Ocean Boulevard) and our room overlooked the mountains out back. Normally I might be disappointed to not face the water, but the view out back with enormous windows open all night offered a glimpse into life in this sweet town. You’ll see a theme emerging…. we set out for town, map in hand, and wandered the colorful and steep streets to the cemetery at the top of the old town. What a view! We then meandered back a different way, got lost (not really, but we did do more doubling back), and found our way to the more commercial district. The highlight this afternoon was the kids getting into the Mediterranean and bobbing around. We found a beachfront Italian restaurant (we were about 2 kilometers from the French/Italian border still on the French side) where we were covered with giant umbrellas when the rain began to fall. The kids, undeterred, kept swimming and enjoying the water. We shared a couple of pizzas, David and I had more rosé (told you there was a trend) and we waited out the rain. Kids dried off, threw their clothes back on, shared some tiramisu and a lemon tart, and we were off. We picked up some tasty and locally made limoncello, honey, soaps and art. We think Menton is a great little town and enjoyed the colored buildings and contrasting shutters. We considered surprising Lilly by walking on the promenade over to Italy but – COVID. Another time, kid. We freshened up and had a late dinner at a hopping spot a few minutes from the hotel then back to bed.
I failed to mention that while driving the Grand Corniche we saw signs indicating it was part of the route for the Tour de France which got us wondering how and where we might catch a glimpse. Or was that totally wishful thinking? Our hotel was able to clue us in, explaining it would be passing through Èze the next afternoon. We tend to have pretty good luck when traveling and this day proved no different – we were already booked to stay in Èze the next night. The tour schedule had all been changed thanks to COVID so we were in luck. We got up early and made our way down to the medieval town, parked our car (this time in what I might even call a full sized parking lot which was awesome), and made our way to the pool. Our room wasn’t ready so we lounged, swam, read and took a bazillion selfies from the infinity pool overlooking the Mediterranean. I would argue this was one of the prettiest views I’ve ever had from a hotel. Since our room still wasn’t ready and we wanted to hit the town and see about those bikers coming through, we changed back and set out for town. This was a dicey situation as we walked 25 minutes down the same beautiful roads we had been driving… BLIND CORNERS, SPEEDING DRIVERS, NO SHOULDERS. David was our brave leader in his bright pink shirt ready to take one for the team, you know, if a car should come too close and pluck him off! We made it without incident to the cobblestoned, hilly old town. We learned a little bit earlier that this town was my mother-in-law’s favorite town on the French Riviera, making it especially meaningful as we explored. We could all picture her going in all the little shops and enjoying her wine at a picturesque little restaurant. Our lunch was a trip…. everything was pretty much shut down because the Tour was passing through. I know what you might be thinking – that would be a opportunity to stay open because of the large crowds. Me too. As it turns out there were not all that many people there to see the Tour so there were only 2 restaurants open. One was fully booked and the hostess shook her finger and head at David when he held up 4 fingers looking for a table. No go. He did manage to secure the only indoor table at a crepe and pasta and pizza restaurant. The table was literally in the kitchen. The 3 other tables outside were full and besides, they only sat two people each. The waiter was also the host and the chef. Since we were not in a hurry it was fun to watch him work, preparing one meal at a time for the other customers. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I would not say that David has a grasp for picking up languages and today showcased this point to the children. The only options on the menu were 5 pizzas, 4 pastas, and 4 crepes. David picked what he assumed was some sort of Sicilian pizza thinking that meant some spicy meats and cheese. Turns out that whatever he ordered was in fact NOT a meat and cheese pizza but rather one covered in olives and anchovies. Out of curtesy and to assure our waiter/host/chef/owner that we liked his pizza when we asked several times, David ate about half. The kids and I do not do anchovies (I tried but couldn’t do it) so David plowed through. The sweet, older gentleman seemed genuinely concerned about us liking his pizza and pleased that we did (or so it appeared).
Now to the Tour de France. Seriously, the Tour de France. The barricades were set up and a small crowd began to gather. David and Lilly found a quiet little spot near the bridge (no one was allowed on the bridge for good reason) where we could catch the riders taking the turn at the bottom of a long, fast hill. There were so few people we were able to spread out. Really. After anxiously waiting about 45 minutes the riders began to come. Oh, let me back up. While we waited at a little bar about 100 feet from the barricades the merchandise trucks came by selling official gear, followed by advertising vans chucking gear and samples into the small crowd making it festive. Note: the photo of David in the bright yellow bucket hat was just him modeling; that hat is going to straight to Chuck Schirmer when we return! Then we watched about 20-40 support vehicles, maybe more, come in advance of the riders. Police, official TDF vehicles, motorcycles, ambulances, street sweepers. Yep, there was a giant street sweeper that came through and picked up most of the pine straw that had been blowing onto the course. He was preceded by a man with a blower pushing the pine straw to the curbs. And then he was followed by the same blower guy working briskly to keep up with the pace of the mess blowing onto the road. Made me think of Moore County with all the pine straw falling. Ok. Now here come the riders. They are FAST. And after the lead peloton came, all of their support vehicles careening around the bend with about half a dozen bikes on each roof rack. They were barely managing the turns – it was crazy. The bikers were cruising, the sun was shining and those around us were cheering. We waited for a few more groups to come through, including all of the support vehicles. *For those of you who know me well, you won’t be surprised to learn that I cried when the first racers came by. I mean, I saw the Tour de France!
Less exciting that afternoon was our first family game of Pétanque, a game much like the bocce we play in our backyard, except this time we are overlooking the Mediterranean. Here’s a link to a short video about the game. Despite the very simple rules we still had several disagreements about certain aspects – NO, we aren’t competitive! 🙂
After breakfast the next day Cameron, David and I squeezed in an hour of really fun, grass court tennis. While we did that, Lilly was dutifully at work on the terrace since school is officially in session. She’s so disciplined. I think she was pretty content with her set-up anyway!
We had to check out and head to town for our private perfume workshop, complete with Champagne and guidance from Caroline, Galimard’s chief perfumer. Three hours was how long it took to whittle down our favorite selections from the 127 jars in front of us. We selected from base notes, heart notes and top notes. Depending on which layer they are from (base, heart, top) the scents will linger different lengths of time. It was overwhelming and educational. Lilly’s creation is perfect for her – fresh, lovely, light. I would gladly wear it. Mine is slightly heavier but still light and just my vibe. We were told to wait two weeks for them to macerate and mature before wearing. Since that was the case, I felt like picking out another bottle at Galimard made perfect sense. Caroline walked by and told the saleslady which one I would like – not surprising, she was spot on! Our handsome gentlemen were by our sides the whole time. Cameron was especially helpful when it came time to measure each fragrance into the beaker. The formula was tweaked by Caroline who at each of four phases had us choose our favorite scents from a batch of her choosing. Once we had narrowed it down she wrote down how many millimeters of each would added to strike the right notes. Now our formulas are on file and should we want to reorder, we can. Or we can add it to lotion or body wash. Grasse, just a few miles from where we were in Èze, is the perfume capital with over 40 factories. I think Cameron was relieved to be served gummy bears, chocolates and Orangina during the workshop rather than touring multiple factories!
And just like that it was time to head home. We really packed it in and saw some beautiful scenery. We covered a lot of ground on our first “vacation” and feel like we learned a lot. I forgot to mention that prior to our trip I tasked Lilly with doing some research on the region – foods, customs, etc. In true, adorable, perfectionist, creative Lilly style she created a beautiful list, complete with pictures to share. I can say without a doubt that given more time and with safety ensured, we will head back and explore the region again.