A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

The Battle of European Supremacy Part II

Round two goes to Spain and Barcelona, as they defeat a rather sad looking Man U bunch.

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If I were to say to you, "Manchester or Barcelona?" and you weren't a football (soccer) fan, you'd probably think it an odd question. If you are a football fan, you'll already know the answer. The answer is Barcelona.

In the second grand contest of European supremacy in as many weeks, Manchester United and Barcelona kicked off at Olympic Stadium in Rome to determine the winner of the the UEFA Champions League cup. Manchester United looked okay to start (according to those that know such things), but when Barcelona scored on their first shot with only 10 minutes gone in the game, Manchester lost the plot and ended up playing an awful game of football.

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So Barcelona and Spain take round two of European Supremacy! Norway - 1, Spain - 1 and U.K., well... null points.

This past weekend also saw the last games played in the Premiership, which is the top flight league of English football teams. Manchester United fared better here, ending the season atop the table with 90 points, ahead of Liverpool with 86 and London based Chelsea with 83. Arsenal, the closest stadium to my new place in King's Cross, finished fourth.

So Manchester United were both crowned champions and were the bridesmaid in the same week. To make it even more confusing, Manchester United also won the Carling Cup back in March, which is a cup awarded to the winner of a tournament of the 92 best football teams in England, but they aren't playing in this weekend's FA Cup, which is awarded to the winner of a tournament involving 761 clubs from across England. Man U, are, however, holders of the FIFA Club World Cup...

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Me and the FA Cup - to be played this weekend between Chelsea and Everton

The end of the premiership also sees 3 unlucky teams get booted out of the Premiership, those being Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion this year. The three lowest teams get sent to a lower league, with three teams coming up to join the premiership next year. This is known as relegation.

It's so different here than in North America. I mean, could you imagine if last year the Washington Nationals, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres were told to go and play AAA baseball while Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Durham Bulls and the San Francisco Seals were brought up to the big leagues?

Anyway, it's all a little hard to track for me sometimes, exactly what a match is being played for. Turn on the TV and see a football match, and it could be a Premiership game, Carling Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League or FIFA Club World Cup game. Enough to make the head spin.

I did keep my head on straight enough to compete in a Premiership Fantasy Football pool this year. I think I did pretty well for a novice, coming in 8th out of 30 players. Well above the relegation zone.

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Posted by GregW 10:36 Archived in England Tagged armchair_travel Comments (2)

Glamour and Gasoline part IV: The Wrong Train

Heading home it all heads south.

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I had gone to bed early on Sunday after the grand prix to make sure I wasn’t going to miss my early morning train. Unfortunately, it seems that Trenitalia and the SNCF (France’s train system) don’t do much to co-ordinate their schedules. I had a ticket on a TGV train from Nice to Paris at 10:41. To get to Nice, I would have to travel from San Remo to Ventimille, then to Nice from there.

I worked backwards to figure out the schedule. There was a train arriving in Nice from Ventimille at 10:42, a minute after my TGV train was scheduled to leave. The train before that arrived at 9:42, leaving Ventimille at 8:55. I’d have to wait 59 minutes in Nice to catch my train.

To get to Ventimille, there was a train arriving at 9:00, 5 minutes after the train to Nice had left. The next earliest train, according to the schedule in the San Remo train station was an 8:07, arriving in Ventimille at 8:23, giving me a wait of 32 minutes in Ventimille.

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I arrived at the San Remo train station just before eight with more than 10 minutes to spare. I looked up at the train schedule, and noticed that there was no 8:07. The next train was the 8:43. The knock on effects were that I would miss my train to Nice, and then my train to Paris.

I don’t know why, but the 8:07 train ONLY runs on Sundays and holidays. On weekdays, there is no train at that time. On weekdays, they have LESS train service than on Sundays. I have never heard of such a thing. I was flabbergasted.

I caught the 8:43, and by the time I got to Ventimille the 8:55 had already left. My only hope was that the 9:55 to Nice would show up a few minutes early, or perhaps the TGV would be a few minutes late.

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It was not to be, though. The 9:55 to Nice got delayed, and arrived a full 10 minutes after the TGV to Paris had already headed out.

At first I tried to rebook using one of the automated machines. Working the machine was amazingly easy, unfortunately the options it gave me weren’t great. The earliest departure was at 16:30 getting to Paris close to 10 at night! That would be well past the time when the last Eurostar would have run to London. If I got that train, I would have to spent the night in Paris.

Worst, there was a plan for a National Strike in France the next day, which means if I got stuck in Paris for the night, I might not be able to get out the next day if the metro or Eurostar weren’t running because of the strike.

I thought about ditching the trains and heading to the airport, but instead decided to give a human a try and see if I could get an earlier train. I pressed the CANCEL button, and the machine tells me to retrieve my ticket. The ticket, however, doesn’t come out of the machine.

I bend down and look into the ticket slot. I can see my ticket jammed and crinkled, stuck in the machine. I try and pry it out with the tip of my driver’s license, but it won’t come out.

After a minute, the machine’s screen goes bright blue and declares itself out of order. I spits out a little slip of paper and tells me to go and see a human. “Great, that was what I was planning to do anyway,” I think.

Luckily, the agent who served me was very nice and friendly, and was able to get me a much better train. She got me on a train from Nice to Marseille, and then from Marseille to Paris, arriving into 19:31, 50 minutes after my Eurostar train to London was scheduled to leave.

I went down to the internet cafe and rebooked my Eurostar for 20:41, one hour and ten minutes after arriving. All I would have to do is get from Gare de Lyon to Gare Du Nord in that time, a trip that shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

The train to Marseille was interesting. It was the first train I’d ever been on that had a children’s play area.

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Once in Marseille, though, things go wrong. The train to Paris leaves 40 minutes late, and I arrive in Paris with only 30 minutes to get to Gare du Nord. Eurostar tells you to show up 30 minutes early to check in and clear customs, so already I am late.

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I jump on the RER train, but it chooses to sit in the tunnel rather than transiting across Paris, so I wind up missing my second scheduled Eurostar departure of the day. Once I arrive at Gare du Nord, I get rescheduled and finally get home at 10:30 PM, 3 hours late and more than fourteen hours after first leaving San Remo.

So, should I have flown? It would have been quicker, for sure. But despite all the problems, I only wound up getting back 3 hours later than scheduled. I am not sure I could have said the same had I flown. The train, even though the overnighter was a bit like a dorm room, still had a certain touch of glamour that planes don’t have.

And because most of the trains in France run on nuclear power, I did end up saving a few gallons of fuel that didn’t have to be used on flying me around. As we all know, oil is a limited resource and is running out. By not using that fuel for the plane, perhaps they’ll be able to run a few more race cars around the track at Monaco, and keep alive the glamour.

The glamour and the gasoline.

Posted by GregW 13:29 Archived in France Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasoline part III: Fast Cars in Rich Places

The Monaco Grand Prix

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I made it an early night on Saturday so I could be up early to head to Monaco. I had checked the schedules of the trains from both San Remo and Ventimilla so I knew exactly what trains to catch, and scheduled the alarm to wake me up 1 hour before my San Remo train so I could get ready and go to the train station. The alarm ended up not being necessary, as the traffic at night and the birds at daybreak made sure I was awake with plenty of time to spare.

The train gained more and more passengers at each station towards Monaco, until it was as jammed as the Northern Line tube on a weekday afternoon. At Monaco, we all spilled out into the underground station before working our way out of the depths and into the light of what is arguably the most glamourous country in the entire world.

Finally, all the excitement that had been missing from the period before my trip came flooding to me, and I started to feel the anticipation. I was in Monaco for the Grand Prix.

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I have had an on and off relationship with car racing for many years, starting as a child. I would go through periods where I would watch for a few years, and then tune out before picking it up again later. Through all of that, though, the thought of going to the Monaco Grand Prix has always remained constant. For the Grand Prix of Monaco is about more than the car race. It is a celebration of outrageous levels of glamour, glitz and wealth.

Monaco itself is enough of a draw. This city state of a country is known for being a place where millionaires come to live, mostly because it has a very low personal tax rate. That does mean, though, that as you wander around you are likely to see tons of rich people and nice cars and beautiful women.

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The Grand Prix captures all that in one perfect day. If you’ve never seen the race on TV, it is visible stunning, with the cars racing past million dollar yachts moored in the harbour and along streets lined with luxury apartments. Prince Albert always attends and presents the trophy, adding a luxurious royal air to the proceedings. There are always shots of millionaires and beautiful women.

The stands I were in overlooked both the Marina, a corner and one half of the pits.

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On the TV they showed commercials when the racing action wasn't on. One was for the Monaco Yacht show, which ironically is carbon neutral. I doubt that includes the post-yacht show use of the yachts, though.

Walking through the pits were lots of beautiful women, and there were a bunch in the stands with me as well.

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The male fans were also out in full force. Not as pretty, but some were pretty fanatical.

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The race started, and I got a good look at the action, both on the track...

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...and in the pits.

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Heikki Kovalainen hit the wall just in front of us. Don't worry, he was okay. I was impressed with the guys who ran out and started picking up the pieces of the car while the cars were still cruising by at high speeds.

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It was very sunny and warm, so lots of folks were looking for ways to beat the heat.

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This lady made a hat of newspaper. Her boyfriend decided to embrace the heat, take off his shirt and get a tan.

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The race ended and Jensen Button won, the fifth win of the season out of six for him.

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Honda used to sponsor this team, but dropped out at the end of last year. I bet they are kicking themselves.

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Afterwards, I went out and checked out the booth. I bought myself and my father a hat emblazoned with Monaco Grand Prix on it. Then I headed to a pub called La Jazz, which turned out to be a British pub.

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I headed back to San Remo. Due to the sun, the lack of sleep over the past few nights and the few pints I had at La Jazz, I fell asleep on the train. I woke up in some place called Taggio-Alma, and panicked, I jumped off the train. Unfortunately, I left my hats on the train, so I lost my souvenir of the race!

Luckily, Taggio-Alma is only one stop past San Remo, and I was back to San Remo in decent time.

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I made it an early night, setting my alarm for 7:00 AM. I had to catch an 8:07 AM train to head back to London, and I didn't want to miss it.

Continued in Glamour and Gasoline part IV: The Wrong Train

Posted by GregW 11:46 Archived in Monaco Tagged sports events formula_one luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasoline part II: Living in a Dan Brown Novel

San Remo, Italy offers up the medieval warrens of Pigna hill.

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I caught a train in Nice to Menton, where I planned to transfer to my eventual destination, San Remo.

Here is the first point in the trip where not researching a trip more bites me on the behind. I had read on the internet that you could travel between Nice or Monaco and San Remo by changing trains in Menton. I read this on a unofficial Formula One message board in a message that was 3 years old. So I bought a ticket to Menton, and got off the train.

I don’t know if the message was wrong, or in the 3 years since it was posted trains between France and Italy changed their terminus and transfer point, but to get from Nice to San Remo, the place to change trains is in Ventimille. I learned this quickly upon departing at Menton, though not quickly enough to jump back on the train I had just departed that was bound for Ventimille. Instead, I had to wait 20 minutes to catch the next train another 2 stations down the line. While waiting, I took a photo of the pretty station.

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After a seamless transfer in Ventimille, I arrived in San Remo. San Remo train station is buried inside a mountain. To get from the tracks to the main station, you have to walk through a long tunnel for what feels like a dog’s age. Both being buried so deep underground and with its modern architecture, it feels more like a fall-out shelter or the lair of some master-mind criminal in a James Bond film than a train station.

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One bit of research I had done before departing for Italy was to use Google Maps to get directions from the San Remo Train Station, even using the “walking” feature to map out the route for me. It was only 2 kilometres, not far to walk. What Google Maps doesn’t do, though, is figure out if the route they are giving you involves going up and down and up and down numerous hills.

Sweating profusely from the exertion of work out, I arrived at my hotel. Villa Maria, Mary’s Place. My room had a picture of the Virgin Mary above the bed, and there was a small chapel out near the road at the entrance to the hotel. Welcome to Roman Catholic Italy. The room was quaint and had a nice rustic feel with its period piece furniture and wooden shutters keeping out the afternoon sun.

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I took a quick tour around the town, and treated myself to two dinners that evening. The first, let’s call it the piccolo, consisted of a panini that I grabbed at a small cafe on the Rondo Volta. Its amazing that tomato, mozzarella, mint and oil olive on toast can taste so good, and it made an amazing pick me up for a hot afternoon, refreshing and energizing and not too heavy. The later meal, let’s call that one of the grande, was consumed 4 hours later at 9 PM, a time I consider obscenely late for dinner but which most of Europe seems to consider reasonable. It was a carpocio starter and a perfectly cooked tuna steak on the main drag of town.

I retired to bed tired from the night before and a full day walking, expecting to get a decent night sleep. The bed was comfortable and the room the perfect temperature with the cool night breeze coming in through the shutters. It was not to be a peaceful nights sleep, though. My room faced out onto a road. I’ve lived in cities for the past 12 years and had always consider myself to be able to sleep through the noise of traffic. I discovered something that first night in San Remo, though. Apparently I can sleep through traffic noise as long as it is consistent in its volume. The road my room looked out on had a car drive up it every half hour or so, but otherwise was silent as a church. The noise of the car would wake me up because it was such a sudden switch from the previous silence. I would lay awake for a bit before finally drifting off to sleep again 20 minutes later, giving me 10 minutes before the next car came tearing up the road and waking me up again.

Once light started to break, then the birds joined in the noise-making. There were screeches, caws, whistles, hoots and something that sounded suspiciously like an elephant trumpeting. The birds kept they calling infrequent and variable enough to keep me awake, and made me long for the constant noise of car traffic outside my London flat. With my previous restless night on the train and 3 nights of disruptive traffic noise to deal with, it appeared that this mini-holiday would not feature much in the way of deep sleep.

Saturday morning was beautiful and sunny, and after splashing some water on my face went out for a walking tour of San Remo. Given I hadn’t planned anything, though, it was to mostly be a wander without direction, following whatever happened to catch my fancy next.

The oldest part of town is Pigna hill, with parts of it dating back to the Medieval times, including the San Siro church. The streets are still narrow and twisting, and there are points when you are walking through them that you actually pass through the medieval walls of the city. Walking through the twisting and hilly old town, I often felt like this what it must be like being in a Dan Brown novel, where around every corner there is some ancient, 800 year old building holding lord knows what secrets. The only thing missing was some crazed, albino monk chasing me.

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Like Nice, everyone is on scooters. I thought for a moment this was a scooter farm, but it actually is just a parking lot.

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The central of San Remo is a little more modern, but still pretty twisty and older.

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Like most places in the Riviera, they have a fancy Marina full of fancy boats.

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All that walking worked up quite a healthy sweat, and the Mediterranean Sea was calling to me with her cool blue waters. There are a few sand beaches in San Remo, probably man made I would guess. Most of them require some fee to get in. The one beach I found that had free admission was jammed packed, so I decided to splash out in true Monaco-glamour style, and pay to use one of the other beaches. €4 later I had admission to a beach and a blue beach chair in which to sit. On setting up the chair, the beach boy (for you know us big spenders don’t set up our own beach hairs) noticed a moth on the chair. “It’s good luck, to have a moth,” he said. I just figured it would eat the fabric of the chair, and shooed it away.

The water of the Mediterranean was more than cool, it was COLD. I shivered as I waded into the water, deeper and deeper until the water started to lap at my upper thighs. Male readers will know this moment, when you know the next step will take the water up between your legs and immerse your groin in the cold water. It is truly a breath taking moment when that happens, and I think most men pause momentarily before taking that next step. But we all must wade onwards. I took that step, and felt the air get sucked out of my lungs. I stood motionless and took three quick breaths in, refilling my lungs after the sucker punch of the cold water. Rebalanced and starting to adjust, I continue to wade into the water, sucker punched again as my chest goes under, and finally one last time when I dive forward and my head feels the cold water’s blast.

After adjusting to the cold water, though, it felt nice. The Mediterranean there in San Remo certainly isn’t like the warm water of the Caribbean, where you can soak for hours in a relaxing bath, but after a day of sweaty site-seeing, it was nice to have a quick, cooling dip in the water, and made the sun feel even nicer upon climbing back out and taking my place on my beach chair.

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As I sat warming myself, the moth returned, landing first on my knee, and then flying up and landing on my right arm. This time, I didn’t shoo him away, instead I let him sat for as long as he wanted, which wasn’t long at all, just a few seconds.

“Hopefully enough to pass some luck on to me,” I thought.

If only.

Continued in Glamour and Gasoline part III: Fast Cars in Rich Places

Posted by GregW 11:24 Archived in Italy Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasonline part I: Nice is nice

The first part of my glamourama trip to the Mediterranean starts with an overnight luxury train (at least it used to be) and a wander around Nice.

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View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I used to really like planning my trips. I used to buy and devour the guidebooks. I’d read travel advice, reviews and trip reports online. I’d pull up Google Maps and pour over the satellite images of the places. It was a way to extend the trip by making it start earlier. All that advanced planning was a way of vicariously going to some place, and because it actually all culminated with a trip, it results in the ultimate payoff of an actual experience.

Lately, though, I just don’t have the drive to do any advance planning. Booking travel I’ll do. I actually derive a strange pleasure from that part. I love pouring over time tables of trains, planes, buses and ferries to figure out how to get from point A to point B. I’ll read enough about a place to know where I want to stay, and then use some hotel booking sites mapping function to pick out a decent hotel, comparing the reviews across numerous sites to find a place that is good value for money.

Once the hotel and travel is booked, though, I lose all interest in researching further. I am not sure why I’ve made this shift, or if I can even pinpoint when it happened. Perhaps the novelty of being a “traveller,” something I came to late in life, is now wearing off. Perhaps I have just learned the lesson that the best experiences I have when travelling are those that I don’t plan, and thus subconsciously determine there is no point in planning. Perhaps I am just getting lazier. All are possible explanations, though the actual answer I don’t have the foggiest clue.

What all this lack of actually planning trips leads to, however, is the fact that the trip I took this past weekend ended up just sneaking up on me. I booked the travel and hotel two months ago, and then promptly ignored anything else related to the trip. That’s not to say that I had forgotten about it, just that it really had no emotional grip on me prior to leaving. Right up until I left, I felt neither joy nor anticipation at the prospect of going, and I really should have. After all, I was going to Monaco and that stretch of the Mediterranean known as the Riviera to see one of the most prestigious and glamourous sporting events on the face of the earth - Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix.

Even the day I was scheduled to leave, I spent most of the morning playing on the internet and not packing. Only with 30 minutes to spare did I decide I should figure out what to take, and as always I ended up taking about 20 pieces of clothing that never saw anything other than the inside of the wardrobe at my hotel. With time ticking away, I finished packing and headed off to catch the Eurostar to Paris.

When I planned the trip a few months back, I debated how to get down to Monaco. Given its distance from London, flying would have probably been a reasonable option, and the one that most people would have taken, but I’ve done a lot of flying in my time and am kind of sick of it. On top of that, given the amount of oil burnt through and carbon deposited in the air from the running of an F1 race, I figured I would try and minimise the impact of my trip by taking the train.

The trip started out quite nicely. One of the benefits of having booked my train two months ago and forgotten about it is that it came as a pleasant surprise to arrive at the station and find that I had booked myself in Leisure Select, an upgraded fare that includes a nicer seat, free alcohol and a meal. I arrived in Paris already feeling that the trip was embracing the spirit of the glamour of Monaco and the Riviera.

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Paris to Nice also held the promise of glamour. I had booked myself a sleeper bunk on the overnight train. The overnight from Paris to Nice is known as Le Train Bleu, or maybe it isn’t anymore. Soon after it started running in the late 1920s, it became known as the Blue Train based on the dark blue carriages. Agatha Christie wrote a novel set on the train in 1928, and Russian Ballet based a ballet on it. The train featured such passengers Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII).

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After reading that, I couldn’t help but feel that the trip held the promise of something grand and romantic. Perhaps I would become embroiled in an affair of international intrigue involving state secrets stolen and sold to shifty international criminals. Maybe I would stumble across the body of one of my fellow passengers, and have until the morning to solve the crime before the police in Nice retrieved the body. At the very least, there would be some dark and mysterious woman who I can’t help but feel an instant attraction to, and who of course feels the same. I’d grab her in my arms and say something romantic and manly like, “don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll do the thinking for both of us.”

Of course, I should have heeded my own advice from riding the rails from Paris to Hong Kong four years ago and not expected much from sleeper travel. It was comfortable enough, but instead of the glamour of a 1940s romance, it was in the end nothing more than a hostel dorm on wheels, making it feel like a hostel suffering through an 8 hour long earth tremor. You share a small cramped space with 5 people you don’t know, some of whom snore and have nocturnal gas problems.

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I know I’m not the greatest bunk mate either. I never knew this about myself, but when I turn over, I tend to fling my arm up in the air. Normally this isn’t a problem, as there is nothing above me but air. On the top bunk of the train car, however, there is a light fixture encased in plastic, and every time my arm hit the plastic, it made a loud “ZZZZZZIS-BANG” sound, as my arm dragged along the corrugated plastic lifting it slightly before letting it drop back down with a thud. It woke me up each time I did it, and I can only assume the rest of the carriage woke to the sound as well. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much rest.

In the morning the train does run along a line with some amazing scenery. The line winds its way along the coast of the Riviera, often seperated from the water by nothing more than a thin strip of rocky beach. It is amazing that on a coast with such high priced real estate that the train tracks often have the best views and best access to the water.

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The train arrived in Nice just before nine in the morning. I was actually staying over the border in Italy, as hotels anywhere on the French Riviera were outrageously priced due to both the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix being on that weekend. I saw one hotel in Monaco that was charging £2000 for a single night. I couldn’t check into my hotel in Italy until after 3 PM, so I figured I would spend the morning wandering around and checking out Nice.

The town is quite pretty, and there is a very nice promenade that runs the length of the waterfront in the centre of town. The waterfront is all beach, though I was surprised to see it a rocky beach and not luxurious sand. Up from the waterfront is a nice little pedestrian area with shops, restaurants and bars.

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While in Nice, I missed an excellent opportunity for a photo that really captured the vibe of the place. I was walking along the street when a young woman on a scooter pulled up and stopped at the lights. She was wearing a red, calf-length dress with a slit up the side to the top of her thighs and a pair of red, three-inch high heels To top off her outfit, she had on a worn black leather coat and a black scooter helmet. She was stopped at the light, her left leg stuck out through the slit, out holding up the scooter. You could see all the way up her smooth looking legs.

There was something about the image that screamed to me, “this is Nice!” It was glamourous and sexy, and also practical and impractical at the same time, an impractical choice of clothing and footwear for riding a moto-scooter, though the scooter itself being such a practical choice for a warm-weather, crowded city with high gasoline prices. People here, not just in Nice but in Europe, live in tiny apartments and drive cars or scooters that would be laughably small in North America, but splash out on the clothes and vacations that North Americans are more reluctant to waste money on. The girl in the red dress and three inch high heels on the scooter. It is the image of Europe.

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I took this one two days later, which is kind of similar in feel

To soak in more of that glamour, I headed down to the marina and had lunch overlooking the million dollar yachts. With the gentle waft of a sea breeze cooling the patio on which I sat, I had a plate of the sea’s bounty and a nice glass of wine. When in Nice, do as the Niceans do... or is that Nicers? Nicites? Whatever, I ate a decadent lunch and then topped it off with a creamy ice cream cone.

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After lunch and a brief constitutional to work off the calories, I headed towards Italy.

Continue in Gasoline and Glamour part II: Living in a Dan Brown Novel

Posted by GregW 11:12 Archived in France Tagged luxury_travel Comments (1)

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