Bonjour and welcome to the second trip we took this year, to the south of France! This is a travel series that my husband Sam and I are writing together, because we love exploring and sharing our experiences with others. Be sure to check out our New Orleans post from earlier this year!
It feels surreal; the fact that we actually made this adventure happen. Neither of us had ever been overseas, so this was an extra-special event in our lives! We tried to do a lot of research before we left (shout out to Rick Steves and his fantastic travel books), but we winged it somewhat while there – added to the excitement of being in a foreign country, you know?
We were able to visit four cities while in France: Nice, St. Tropez, Avignon, and Lyon. There’s so much we’d like to share about each city that we’ll be splitting this trip into two blog posts (many pictures coming your way!). First up, Nice and St. Tropez.
We arrived in Nice mid-day after an overnight flight, our bellies full of Shake Shack burgers from the JFK airport (we love you, NYC). Having about ten minutes of sleep during the entire plane ride left us both, shall we say, cranky. Thinking we had an idea of where our bed and breakfast was, we hopped on a bus into town…and our adventure began. We soon realized we had absolutely no idea where we were going, so we got off the bus and attempted to walk to our B&B. Bad idea. (These are the type of decisions you make when you haven’t slept in at least 24 hours and haven’t eaten in a little over 12. Be warned.) We eventually found a cab stand so we could get to Vista Azzura, our absolutely amazing B & B. A few hallelujahs were said when that cab pulled up!
Nestled in a residential area on a hilltop, the Vista Azzurra has stunning views of Nice, and our hosts Cathy and Michel were equally as gracious. With the amazing view from our beautiful rooms, balconies at each window, their pool overlooking the city, and our breakfasts on the terrace, we were completely spoiled. Their home and the hospitality were excellent.
After settling in and chatting with the owners, we ventured out to explore the city and find our next meal. This was much more difficult than expected, because at 2:00pm in Nice, most restaurants were closed until dinner. We eventually found a Chinese restaurant and had a snack. Oh yes, you read that right – our first meal in France was Chinese. We also found a few more cafes to help fill us up!
(So incredibly exhausted…and hungry!)
We slept a gooooood 12 hours that night and awoke the next morning to our delicious breakfast of croissants, eggs, fruits, cheese, Italian meat (the owners traveled to Italy to get real prosciutto) and homemade jams. We then continued to explore the colorful city. Nice has been a popular tourist destination in Europe since the late nineteenth century. It is defined by two things: the beach and it plazas (“place” en Francois). The smooth-rocked beach runs the length of the city, and the ocean water is a rolling sky with all the colors in the blue spectrum. There a few walks better than strolling along the Promenade de Anglais and grabbing a view from atop Castle Hill near sunset.
The plazas in Nice were our favorite spots to people-watch and relax. Place Messena has beautiful open air cafes along with an art exhibit which also lights the plaza at night. It’s modern art, so it’s not unusual for statutes of naked men to glow in soft neon colors. Really.
The city recently made an excellent decision to convert a parking garage into a park that stretches several blocks with fountains and playgrounds. A favorite plaza of ours was Place St. Ralphael in the Vieux Nice (the old city), which is the most intimate of the plazas, and is flanked with a few wonderful open air Italian restaurants, gelato, and a beautiful old church which gives the plaza its name. Place Grimaldi has a stunning roundabout with traffic, unlike the other two plazas. There are several cafes around the plaza; it’s a transportation hub with the Metro stop and several bus stops around the plaza.
The next morning, we used the public buses to take a trip outside of Nice to St. Jean Cap Ferrat, a little seaside hill town/fishing village about 30 minutes towards the Italian border. There, we visited the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, built by the Baroness de Rothschild in the early 20th century, when she was considered the wealthiest woman in France. The house is unique, with an open Italian style, but the views of the coastline from the massive gardens are the real attraction. One of our favorite lunches was sitting on the terrace at the house’s cafe overlooking the harbor.
(We heard Elton John had a house nearby…thinking/hoping it’s the left picture above!)
Molly’s biggest regret is not taking more photos of our meals. We were usually so hungry, we dove right in once our food arrived! However, we ate more bread than we can estimate, enjoyed Nutella crepes daily (if not twice daily…), and grabbed lots of snack-y meals, such as ratatouille and fruit from local markets. We found that, strangely enough, some of the best food we had in France were hamburgers. One of them was from a snack stand at the bus depot in St. Raphael, on our way to St. Tropez. It was incredibly ‘shady’, but the burgers were some of the tastiest we’ve ever had!
After spending three fantastic days in Nice, we made our way down the coast to St. Tropez. The regional train lines were nice, but not nearly as nice as the high speed TGV. The bus system is fairly well-traveled mostly by locals – we wish middle Tennessee had a similar system. Very affordable at only three euros per person, there was no better way to wind along the coast through all the little small towns. On our way to St. Tropez, we passed through Port Grimaud, which Sam refers to as the “Gatlinburg of the Riviera” for all its water parks, putt-putt courses, and carnival-type rides. We noticed a few motorcycles on the road, but we were shocked when we passed by the Euro 2014 Harley Davidson rally. Apparently, the entire continent of Europe was having its Harley rally that weekend in St. Tropez and St. Grimaud. Turns out that Europeans love their hogs.
From what we saw, St. Tropez is not a big town. There is only one road in and one road out! Our hotel was on the edge of town before the road split, and the only beach was about 15 yards from the front of the hotel. Usually, this would be very convenient, but the Harley convention was closing out their celebration that afternoon, and all you could hear for hours were the Harleys revving up and down the road, honking, playing music, etc. So much for a relaxing time on the beach!
We stayed at Hotel Le Mouillage, a lovely little boutique stay within walking distance of the downtown hub-bub. We’ll be honest and say the rooms weren’t quite our style (and Molly was sorely disappointed that the heated pool wasn’t so heated…it was fairly chilly weather during our stay), but the room’s shower! It was the best either of us have ever used, thanks to the gigantic rainshower head. American hotels need to take note!
A few peaceful hours on the beach before the wind picked up and created mini-sand storms. We snacked on lemon cake from La Tarte Tropezienne – a delicious bakery near our hotel.
We had to make a laundry run, and found the coolest spot downtown – the Cook & Wash. You put your laundry in, and while you wait, you can order crepes, sandwiches, etc. A nice change from usual laundry work!
If you go to St. Tropez, there are a few enjoyable things to do: It’s nice to walk around the old parts of town in that late afternoon, when the pastel buildings have a gentle glow from the setting sun across the bay. You can check out the many yachts on display, and they might even let you on board! There’s also a little art museum with Impressionists paintings called Le musee de l’Annonciade, located in an old cathedral. We loved sitting at cafés or in the Palais de Lices and enjoyed the evening underneath a grove of trees while the locals fiercely competed in a game of boules (kind of like a cross between bocce and horseshoes). A great restaurant to enjoy both a good glass of wine and meal is Cafe de Lisces. Get the rose!
That’s it for now! We look forward to sharing more of our France trip in our next post, where we traveled to Avignon and Lyon!