The market in Ventimiglia

Friday, August 13, 2010 at 13:23
Tonight is our last day in Nice. Tomorrow we pick up our car and start driving North. I've enjoyed the coast, but I'm done with being hot and definitely looking forward to some cooler weather and mountain vistas as we head up into Switzerland and Austria. Today we made a short trip to Ventimiglia in Italy to see their famous market there.

It's an odd beast - the market is huge and the goods for sale run the gamut from decent quality Italian leather belts, shoes and bags (10%) to meats, cheeses and fruit (10%) to loads of second-run clothing and shoes (35%) to boxes and boxes of Chinese-made fashion knockoffs (25%) and other assorted Chinese and Taiwanese crapware (20%). It's a bit like the San Jose flea market in CA but with a bit less mom-and-pop feel to it. Also, it stretches out for most of the length of the town on a road right next to the ocean. 

I did get a nice Italian belt made from a shop that let you choose the leather and buckle then assembled the belt to measure and found an interesting liqueurs store that seemed to have some good prices. I bought a bottle of Italian lemon liqueur (no idea what it tastes like, but it looks interesting) and a bottle of French Calvados (apple brandy). The kids bought some shoes and some clothes and enjoyed the day. 

Strangely, there seemed to be no bargaining to be done on the prices. We tried haggling on every purchase but got no deals and made a lot of people mad. Maybe that's part of their schtick and we're just suckers, but we were thoroughly unsuccessful at bartering for better prices. 

The return train ride to Nice was overcrowded, late, overcrowded, slow and overcrowded. Packed in like sardines with a couple hundred other sweaty shoppers returning from Ventimiglia, it was a most unpleasant ride back. I'm glad to be getting our own vehicle tomorrow. It's been fun trying out the trains and buses, but I've had all the public transportation I can take for now. 

Nice does have a public bike rental service, but it's significantly more difficult to use than the once in Paris. VeloBleu rentals can only be activated by SMS from a mobile phone and you have to pre-register your credit card and mobile # online first. I tried that and the registration web site didn't like my phone #, wouldn't let me change it, etc, etc. I gave up trying to make it work since the kids weren't that keen on cycling anyway.

Once back in Nice, we decided to stop at the "Pizza Van" that we've read about in the guest book for our apartment. It's supposed to be the best pizza in Nice, hand made and served from a van parked on the street in Place Franklin. Sure enough, it's great pizza. Bit of a wait, but there's always something going on around the area to keep you occupied. The pizza from "Chez Dominique" was one of our favorite and least expensive meals here. 

A Bucket-list day in Monaco

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 14:34

First, a confession: I don't really have a bucket list. But I know a bucket-list item when I see it, and for me, visiting Monte-Carlo and walking the GP circuit was one of them. 

Not only that, but I think our day in Monaco was one of our best days yet of this vacation. From the moment you step off the train, Monte-Carlo feels different. The hallways in the train station are lined with marble, the streets are almost Disney clean and the people seem friendlier. We like where we're staying in Nice, but Monte-Carlo is a lot of things that Nice (and Paris) are not: Clean, relaxed, uncrowded, safe, fresh! It even smells better. The sidewalks aren't crowded, the drivers are courteous (they voluntarily stop for pedestrians!) and the people are polite and friendly. None of the hurried pushing and shoving that seems so common elsewhere and it seems like there are Police on every corner watching over it all.

We had a fun time visiting the Musee de Oceanographique which after the hike up the steep hill was a welcome air-conditioned break. Lots of interesting fish and sea creatures, plus a fabulous view out to the Mediterranean and over the Monaco port from the "Panorama" on the roof of the building. From there we walked to the Palais and took a quick tour through. 

Next we went back down the hill to the main port/marina area that had a kids fair set up where the GP pits are placed. You could see the pit markings and tire tracks left by the F1 cars. I was the only one that wanted to walk the entire GP circuit (it's the #1 reason I wanted to visit Monaco!) so I went to do that while the others did a bit of shopping. 

For me, it was a real car-geek thrill to walk the streets of this famous race course. Another friendly tourist took my photo at the distinctive Loew's turn (is there a more distinctive turn in motorsport? Corkscrew @ Laguna Seca maybe...) As I walked through the tunnel under the casio I could only imagine the howl of multiple F1 engines through that darkened enclosure. To see the slight turn and the drop that must be navigated at 190+ mph while adjusting to the sudden light change - what a challenge! 

Overall, I think what struck me most about the course in person vs. watching on TV is the extreme narrowness of many parts of the track and the magnitude of the elevation changes. The charge up the hill after the pit-out is much steeper than it looks. From low down in a racing chassis the left turn at the top will be nearly blind. Punctuating my walk around were sightings of more exotic cars than I could count and I was too slow to photograph them either - McLarens, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and even some pedestrian Porsches.

We were all in agreement about how genuinely pleasant we found Monaco to be. Food and drinks were reasonably priced, restaurants were not crowded and the people (tourists and locals alike) were polite and  courteous. We'd definitely like to go back some day. My really big bucket list item is to follow F1 for a season, travelling to all the races and touring in between. That one's a ways off, but today was a great day that I'm very grateful for. 

Tuesday Turnaround

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 11:43

Today started out a bit rough - L was sick last night and this morning and not feeling up for much. The weather was warm of course, but bit overcast. By noon, the sky was clear and bright and L was feeling better so we headed down to the beach. The girls and I went for a para-sailing ride which was really a lot of fun. L has wanted to do it for years and finally got her chance today. She had a bit of a rough landing and got the wind knocked out of her, but still enjoyed the experience. It reminded me a bit of hot-air ballooning; it's so quiet and calm while in flight. So a blah kind of day ended up on a great note for us. Tomorrow the plan is to head to Monaco for the day.
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How to tell if you are not The Stig

Monday, August 9, 2010 at 04:31
Are you under the impression that you are The Stig? There seems to be a lot of that going around. Here is a brief guide to things The Stig would not do. If you are a man and you do any of these, you are not The Stig:
  • Wear pink capri pants. On purpose. In public.
  • Ride a scooter. Especially a pastel coloured Italian scooter.
  • Worse, ride double on a scooter with another man.
  • Wear hair barrettes. 
  • Carry a purse. 
  • Drive a Renault Megane II in broad daylight.
If you're a woman, all of these activities are Stiggly and you may be the Stig (except the Renault of course).

What Would The Stig Do?

Street performers in Nice

Sunday, August 8, 2010 at 16:38

The fellow playing the accordion is the musician who serenaded us with his trumpet on our arrival. Tonight he's playing accordian while another woman sings Habanera from the opera Carmen.

It's nice in Nice

at 03:39
Had a bit of a crazy travel day from Paris to Nice. Through a long chain of events and a few issues with our e-tickets, we ended up missing our train. I rebooked us for another train 4 hrs later and had to pay extra even though we downgraded from 1st Class. The kids did some more shopping while we waited.

Instead of 4.5 hour direct in 1st we ended up on a 5.75 HR milk run in second. it was comfortable enough, but little room for luggage so we had to get a bit creative. Another 35 min wait for a cab and we had to literally fight off queue jumpers for our taxi and then bribe the cabbie to let us take our luggage in his fancy Mercedes cab. 

We finally made it to our apartment and were greeted by our host Jean who was super friendly and helped us get settled in and oriented in the neighborhood. 

We woke up to beautiful sunshine and a view if the sea from our terrace. We are one block off the beach on a nice little street with plenty of shops, including an excellent bakery right below us. Fresh fruit and pastries for breakfast today - yum! 

Other than a day trip to Monaco, we don't have much planned for this week other than relaxing and visiting the beaches. 

Paris' public bike rentals

Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 16:15

Today I took the time to find out how this bike rental service in Paris works. We've been seeing the bikes all over and lots of people using them. It's pretty simple, the system is called velib, and it's quite easy to use. The idea is that there are self-serve bike rental kiosks all over the city, especially close to subway stations and busy shopping or business areas. You can grab a bike anywhere and drop it off at another location near your destination. Rate are really cheap: 0-30 min is free, up to an hour is 1 Euro, and it goes up a bit from there. After 4 hrs, it's 4 Euro/hr, so it is definitely biased toward short term rentals.

We set up temporary short term subscriptions, but you can choose 1 week or longer subscriptions, or better yet it can be linked to a Navigo card, which looks to be a refillable metro (subway/bus) pass. The Navigo is RFID enabled so you don't even need to check in at the kiosk. You just choose a bike from the stand and wave your card over the receiver. When you arrive at your destination, you just roll it back into the lock mechanism, it beeps and locks up the bike and you're on your way.

The bikes themselves are nothing special, but they all appear to be in good condition, they have easily adjustable seats and were comfortable enough to ride. They have three speeds and are equipped with lights front and back, a carrying basket and a cable lock with a key you can use if you need to lock up somewhere where there is not a kiosk stand available. All in all, a convenient and inexpensive system for getting around this city. However, I do wonder if cycling here causes the same kind of brain damage that seems to have affected most of the scooter drivers here - they are completely insane!
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An odd duck BMW

at 15:47

Saw this car parked on the street in Paris today. I've never seen one of these, it's obviously a BMW and marked Z/1. I don't know anything about it. From the styling I'm guessing it's from the mid 1990's or so. I'm not sure what it is about it, but it looks to have a fibreglass or plastic body? I'll have to do some reasearch on this model to learn what's under the hood. I wonder if it was any good?

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tap, tap, tap.

Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 11:43
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