My First River Cruise Experience – Getting There and Paris

Châteaux, Rivers & Wine.  This is the theme of my first ever river cruise.  This came about because my mother really wanted to do this cruise and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

First the details:  This was on Viking River cruises, starting in Bordeaux cruising to Cadillac, Libourne, Bourg & Blaye, Pauillac, then back to Bordeaux.  In addition, we took the Pre-Cruise extension that included Paris, Orléans, the Loire Valley, and Tours before heading to Bordeaux to meet the Viking Longship Forseti.  We paid Viking to handle our flight arrangements, and all I can say about that is “lesson learned.”

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Having never sailed a river cruise before, I was unused to the lack of planning required.  As you know, if you have read any of my previous reviews, I am a crazy planner so not having to do any of that for this cruise left me feeling a bit disconcerted and not in control.

So, without handling any of the travel planning, we began our journey in April.  Our flight was Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Paris.  I had never been through JFK before but since we had been checked through, I assumed we would be fine.  I was wrong.  We had a bit of a delay leaving Charlotte, we sat on the runway for almost an hour waiting for clearance, but after that the flight was uneventful.  I knew it would be tight to make our next flight but we should have been able to make it.  What I did not know about JFK is that we would be required to check in again at the Air France counter even though we already had boarding passes.  Then, we had to make it through security again.  Unfortunately, these couple of issued added up to us missing our flight to Paris.  We then had to wait to see if we would make it on to the next (and last) flight to Paris.

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We did in fact make the last flight out, so I called Viking to let them know not to meet us at our original arrival time, but that we would be there a couple of hours late.  A long, but uneventful flight later, we landed in Paris, collected our bags and headed out to meet our Viking rep.  We were loaded into a comfortable minivan and off we went to our hotel, Le Méridien Etoile.

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Check in was easy and quick and our rooms were ready immediately.  We headed upstairs to unload our luggage and rest a bit.  Which ended up being a good idea as the heavens opened.  It rained for a bit, but then right as we were ready to head to dinner, it stopped.  We had no real plan for dinner, but I did have a place in mind, I just wasn’t sure how far away it was.  And as luck would have it, it was right down the block!

If you read my post on Nice, you may know how much I love mussels.  Well Léon de Bruxelles is famous for their mussels so I knew when I saw them, I would have to try it.  I mean, can you really be better than sitting by the Med drinking Rosé?  Well, actually no.  But the mussels were still REALLY REALLY good!

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And there were so many I could not finish all of them.  We all enjoyed our dinner tremendously and left fully satisfied.  I know it is technically a chain, but I would certainly go back anytime I am in Paris.  Service was great (and friendly!), prices were reasonable and the food (and wine) was outstanding!

Because of our delayed arrival in Paris, we did not have our day of sightseeing as planned, but we had one thing we didn’t want to miss, Bateaux-Mouches.

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A river cruise down the Seine.  The cruise departs every 30 minutes so there really isn’t a need to pre-book tickets, unless its a holiday or event, or you want a dinner cruise.  We just wanted a lovely sunset-ish ride through Paris.  In all of my trips to this city, this was one thing I had never done and even though I’ve been there multiple times, this was certainly a new way to see the city I love!

The cruise was lovely and afterwards we caught a taxi back to our hotel.  We had a early morning pickup to begin our tour through the Loire Valley so after a quick Lillet Rouge & Tonic in the hotel lounge we all hit the sack (well, except I had to work still, but it’s a small price to pay to be able to work from anywhere!).

Up bright and early, we showered (yay!!) and headed down for breakfast.  I will tell you, I have had plenty of crappy hotel breakfasts and Le Méridien Etoile is not that.  Not that at all.  Breakfast was awesome and if anyone knows where to get that little jar of kiwi yogurt please let me know!

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After breakfast and hotel check out, we handed over our luggage and were loaded onto a motorcoach to begin our tour.

 

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Freedom in the Med…Back in Barcelona

So after that AMAZING Chef’s Table dinner, it was time to leave the Freedom and begin our trip home.  The trick here is to get your bags packed and out in the hall while remembering not to pack whatever clothes you want to wear the next morning.  I will tell you this doesn’t always happen and if you see random children at the airport in their pajamas, they are probably mine.

But, we did our best, packed up, cleaned up, distributed additional tips to our favorite crew members, said teary goodbyes, blew our last dollars in the casino and headed to bed.  We decided to stay one extra night in Barcelona instead of rushing to the airport immediately off the ship…this turned out to be one of my better decisions!

Since we were in no rush, we headed up to the Windjammer for some much needed coffee (me) and breakfast (everyone else).  Eventually we headed down towards the gangway, presented our cards to be scanned and heard the last mournful bong as we were checked off the ship.  In the terminal, we located our bags and headed out the door to hail an XL taxi to take us to the hotel.  This is where that “no rush” thing proved genius…the line for taxi’s, of any size, was several hundred people long.

There were people standing everywhere directing traffic…both human and vehicular so it was very easy to figure out where we needed to be, behind ALL those people in line!  The line moved fairly quickly, but it was still probably an hour or so from the time we got in line to the time we got a taxi.  There were quite a few people that did not expect or plan for this and they were frantic trying to explain that they needed to cut to the front of the line.  The Port Authority employees that were handling the line were having none of that, and would promptly pull any line jumpers out and send them to the back.

We eventually made our way to the front and were sorted into the line waiting for larger cabs.  As you might expect this took a bit longer, but soon enough we were on our way to the Hilton Barcelona.  Much like last years trip, I was able to get one night on points and since we stay at AirBNB’s on the front end of the trip, one free night after the cruise is a great way to not have to rush to the airport.

The Hilton Barcelona is a beautiful hotel in the more business-y district in Barcelona which was fine for the one night we needed it.  Plus it was close to one very important tourist attraction, one we could not miss…Camp Nou!

The Hilton has a beautiful lobby and bar area

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The rooms are comfortable enough, typical European (read small) with the amenities one would expect for a Hilton.  We checked in, then headed to the Metro to find some lunch…standing in line is hard work!

Now, you know how much we love food, and we all really prefer to eat local whenever possible.  But this was the last day of an eleven day trip.  What I wanted was a beer and a burger.  What we found was Hard Rock Barcelona.

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We walked up to the hostess stand and were told that the wait would be about two hours!!!!  Clearly that was not going to happen, but as I was standing there trying not to cry, another waitress mentioned that if we were willing to sit on the patio there was no wait…Um, okay.

So we sat on the patio along Plaça Catalunya and ate hamburgers and drank beer.  We were typical Americans again…although I still drank the local beer! It was exactly what I needed after an amazing week of touring and eating our way through Spain, France and Italy.  Our server was amazing and the lunch, while typical Hard Rock and kind of touristy, still solidly good burgers.

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, then some of us headed to the last destination on our list…a visit to Camp Nou…can’t call myself a Soccer Mom and not go see this monument of soccer!

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We were relying on my directions…which was my first mistake!  I was trying to use Google Maps, works great if you are online, not so much in airplane mode.  We did eventually find it. I had pre-purchased tickets because I had read about long lines and wait times, this was not the case for us.  Even if we had had to purchase tickets, there were only about 5 people there waiting.  We wandered around in the museum

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and the visitors locker rooms

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and slowly made our way out to the field

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It is amazing to stand here, so close to the pitch and think of all of the great soccer that has happened here.

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This is from the upper level seats…and let me tell you, stairmaster’s got nothing on this stadium!  It felt like we were climbing forever and I totally understand why they have a snack bar open at the top, even on non game days!  I would have paid $20 for a bottle of water after that!  But it was worth it just to be there and now there is one more stadium crossed off my list, only a billion more to go!

We had dinner that night at a tapas place right out the front door of our hotel, Piscolabis.  It was fantastic.  We each ordered a few different tapas and all of them were very good to great!  The price was very reasonable and the wine was excellent.

The next morning, we asked the front desk to call us an XL cab to take us to the airport.  Our time in Europe was over.  It was amazing and there are several places that I would love to come and visit for longer: Barcelona, Nice, Positano & Sorrento.  But first there are a million places I want to see for the first time!  Until next time!  Adéu…

 

 

 

 

Freedom in the Med…The Chef’s Table

Our last full day on the boat. Never a day I look forward to.  This is the day you have to pack and put debark luggage tags on your bags, set them out in the hall, and hope you remembered to save at least one outfit to wear in the morning (don’t laugh…I’ve worn jammies on the ride home for just this reason!!).

However, there is one thing on our schedule tonight to look forward to, Chef’s Table.  This is a seven course (don’t worry, they’re small) tasting menu paired with 6 wines and a dessert cocktail.  If you know me at all you know this is right up my alley!  In fact, I reserve this dinner every cruise even though the menu hasn’t changes since my first one back in 2012.  But for this one, not just the menu had changed.

My first Chef’s Table experience was also on the Freedom way back in 2012.  Mom and I decided to try it.  It was held at a long table up in the WindJammer, the buffet restaurant.  They have since moved it to the Main Dining Room…in a pretty cool spot!

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Yep, that round table right in the middle, with the spiral staircases on either side.  (Pro Tip: Those staircases are tricky after 6 wines and a dessert cocktail…be safe!)  The setting is gorgeous and you feel like a superstar eating up there.

Another change is the menu.  It had long been rumored that the menu was going to change and when I sailed last summer on the Rhapsody, the Maître D’ confirmed that there would be a change, but not when so I did not know going in if we would be having the old menu (which I love) or the new menu (which at this point, I hadn’t even seen).  As it turned out, we had the new menu:

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And some fancy new place settings:

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That’s two napkins folded to look like a tuxedo!  Snazzy, right??

The first thing I noticed about the menu was the choice of entrée.   On the old menu, there was only one choice…short rib.  If you did not eat meat, the chef would make something for you on the fly (I am sure it was good but just to be clear, I eat meat, and I love short rib) but this was the first time I had seen an actual choice between beef, fish and vegetarian.   After the soup course (I think, maybe salad) the waiter came around and asked for your choice.

But first up?  Scallop Carpaccio:

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Basically just thinly sliced scallops with the dressing, a yuzu vinaigrette.

After that, the soup course.  This is first served with the bowl empty so that you can see the ingredients and then the server pours the soup into each bowl at the table.

Part of the fun of the Chef’s Table is the unique and interactive presentation.  At the start of each course the chef says a few words about what goes into making each dish and why it is served the way it is.  Then the Sommelier talks about what goes into the wine pairings for each course.  The wine is the one thing that always changes, while the chef must stick to the approved menu, the Sommelier has some freedom to choose the wines based on what he has on hand at the time.  The wines for this Chef’s Table overall  I would describe as adequate.  No show stoppers, but nothing too terrible either.

Moving on to the salad course:

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Now everyone loves lobster, and I am no different, but this was probably my least favorite course.  While the lobster itself was fine, the pineapple/vanilla dressing was a bit sweet for me.  YMMV

Now onto the entrèes.   Twelve people can sit at that table for dinner, and at our meal there were eleven Filets and one Tagliatelle.  No one ordered the fish…ergo I have no pictures of the fish (you better believe I would have taken a picture of someone else’s food if there had been that option!).  But I do have pictures of the filet:

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and the Truffle Tagliatelle:

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As both dishes were ordered by people in my party, I was able to try both…and both were amazing!

If you have not yet had enough food, never fear!  The absolute richest dish is yet to come.  That’s right!  Dessert!

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Valrhona Chocolate mousse with dulce de leche gelato and salted caramel cookie crumbles.  Believe me when I tell you that it actually pained me to leave this, but since I still had to fit in an airplane seat I had to content myself with just tasting each component.

In addition, coffee is offered, the Executive Chef, Maître D’, Sommelier and servers all come out to thank you and say goodbye and then we all precariously walked down the spiral staircase and out of the dining room.

I really enjoyed the new menu.  And I REALLY love the new location.  I will continue to reserve Chef’s Table on my Royal Caribbean cruises…even if they don’t change the menu for another six years!

 

Freedom in the Med…All Roads Lead to Rome

Our next stop is Rome.  I had booked a private tour with Italy Tour Sharing again.  And just as in Florence, they were right on time ready to go when we got off the ship.  And of course, as the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.”  What they don’t mention, is that all of those roads are packed with other people trying to get to Rome, also Rome is about an hour and fifteen minutes from the port area, so be prepared for that as well.

Once in Rome, we first stopped at the Januculum Terrace for some amazing views of Rome laid out before us.

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This is also the site of Il Fontanone (the Big Fountain) built in 1612 and continuously in use ever since.  The most interesting part of this fountain (to me) is its ability to turn wine into water…yep you read that right.  The opposite of the great miracle.  You see, Pope Paul V, who built this fountain, raised the funds by imposing a tax on wine.  Needless to say, this caused a bit of consternation to everyone that didn’t actually need the clean water provided by this fountain.  Still, it is pretty.

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And just in case you were wondering, yes it was still hot.  See that amazing blue cloudless sky…HOT!

We next moved on to the remains of the Roman Forum.  If you’ve read any of my previous reports, especially Athens or Ephesus, you know how much I love this stuff!

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This is actually the first real example of Urban Sprawl as this area was developed piecemeal over several centuries.  Some of the excavated buildings date back over 2000 years!

Our next stop was Capitoline Hill.  One of the seven hills of Rome.  This one has some really old stuff but it is most famous for its designer, Michelangelo.  He had a plan for an Urban design that showcased palaces surrounding a piazza meant to impress the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  There are many famous statues around the piazza, including one of Romulus and Remus with their “foster mom,” but my personal favorite was this one:

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I loved how the base was made to look like patchwork, almost as if they had to scrap together the materials to finish.

Our next stop was the Alter of the Fatherland.  Basically their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it is meant as a tribute to fallen soldiers.  It is a MASSIVE tribute too!

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It is imposing and beautiful and solemn and all of the things a war memorial should be.  Considering that this is in the middle of the city, I was amazed at how quiet this area felt.

After marveling at this incredible monument, it was back in the van for a short trip to another old, crumbling monument…you may have heard of this one.

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Yep.  The Colosseum.  The largest amphitheater ever built. And of course you cannot be in Rome and not stop here for a look.  We did not have a tour of the interior scheduled for this trip.  Fortunately, we paid our pennies at Trevi Fountain so we will catch the inside on a future return trip.  In addition, there is currently restoration plans going on for the floor and underground areas…that might be worth waiting for!

One thing you will certainly see if you are anywhere near this area, is people. Lots and lots of people.  And Gladiators.  There are hundreds of gladiators wandering around just waiting for you to take a picture with them.

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And as this is the parade route taken by triumphant Roman emperors, it seems appropriate that you can have a photo with your very own gladiator.  Just like they did in Ancient Rome!  This arch was build in 312 AD to celebrate Constantine, but the engravings on the arch actually celebrate the victories of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius as well as Constantine.

We wandered this area of Rome for a while but then it was off to ensure our return visit to Rome…the Trevi Fountain!

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And boy if you thought the Colosseum area was crowded…just wait until you try to jam 7 bazillion people in front of this fountain.  I mean, its pretty big as fountains go, but holy sardines, its crowded.  It is also one of the most profitable fountains in the world, thanks to that quaint little urban legend about throwing coins over your left shoulder ensuring your return to the city.  Thanks to Frank Sinatra, this little water feature pulls in nearly $1.5M a year.

Our next stop was the Spanish Steps.  These are…well…steps.  One Hundred and Thirty Five of them to be exact.

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Just as an FYI – Its still hot.  And I’m not climbing 135 steps in this heat.  About the most exciting thing that happened here was Jarod getting accosted by a gypsy for standing too near her stuff…really, we were just trying to find shade!

Moving on…(Rome has way more to see than you can do in a day, so you gotta move quickly!)…we headed for another really old building, the Pantheon.  This building has been continuously in use since 126 BC after the previous one, built 150 years earlier by Marcus Agrippa, burnt down.

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The inside is a large domed chamber that was unique in Roman architecture at the time.  Now simply everyone is doing them!

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It is beautiful, and since it is now a church, pretty quiet.  There are some pretty famous folks buried there, Raphael the painter for one.  Neat little trivia fact about that, Raphael was engaged to the niece of a powerful cardinal but he did not want to marry her as he was in love with the daughter of a local baker so he kept postponing the wedding. He postponed his nuptials so long, the girl died and was buried in the cella.  When Raphael died not long after, the Cardinal ordered him buried there so he would spend all of eternity with his niece.  Downright Scandalous!

Believe it or not, it was now only lunchtime!  I tell you, we were hustling!  I will also say, there would be no way to do this without a local guide.  We booked THIS tour and while we went in a different order, we saw everything on this list and made it back to the ship on time.  I would highly recommend Italy Tour Sharing for any private or small group tours in Italy.

But back to eating…We were next headed to Piazza Navona so we decided to grab a bite there.  Touristy? Yes.  But the pizza was really good too!  We ended up eating at Vacanze Romane.  It was actually the first one we came to so I don’t know that there was any great decision making going on…we were hungry and they had a big table outside ready and waiting.  I believe everyone got pizza and of course I got an Aperol Spritz…After all this heat in Italy, I totally understand why everyone drinks this!

The centerpiece of this square is the the three fountains that run the length of the square.  Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) and Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) at either end and the main attraction, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).

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The design of this fountain was originally awarded to Borromini, but was ultimately designed by his most hated rival Bernini.  Borromini did, however, design the Sant’Agnese in Agone – the church that lines one side of the Piazza.  Local legend has it that the two sculptors hated each other so much that the Nile figure on Bernini’s fountain was actually shielding his eyes from the ugliness of the facade of Borromini’s church.  And while in truth this is not the case, it does make for a fun story!

After lunch and a walk around the fountains we needed a little treat and as the saying goes “When in Rome…” We found a gelato shop and sampled until we decided on flavors to take out with us.  And we would need fortifying…we were headed for St. Peter’s Basilica.

In truth, for this I have no words.  It is awesome and there is no way any pictures I took can do any justice to the reality of standing in front of the largest church in the world.

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See how tiny the people are standing in line at the doors of the church?  The scale is immense.

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The obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square has certainly had its history.  Originally found in Heliopolis in Egypt, the Emperor Augustus  had it moved to Alexandria (also Egypt, not the one in Virginia) where it stood until 37 AD when Caligula transferred it to Rome.  It was placed along the Circus of Nero where it would preside over Nero’s brutal games and executions.  It was moved to its current location in 1586 and it is now the only Roman obelisk to never have been toppled.

We spent some time wandering around St. Peter’s square, but in truth, we were all so tired after the pace of the tour, that we were grateful for the hour long ride back to the ship.

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We have one more stop in Italy.  The one I had researched the least but the one that turned out to be my favorite in Italy.  Naples.

Freedom in the Med…Nice Nice

Today we were in Nice, more specifically Villefranche-Sur-Mer.  This port is not big enough for the large cruise ships to dock, so Freedom has to drop anchor offshore and we all have to “tender” to the dock.  The tender boats are the property of the local port and not the cruise line so they are always different.  Here are the ones we used:

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They are a bit on the small side compared to some we’ve used in the past, but they were speedy and continuous so there was no real wait to get to a tender.  Today our tour was one I purchased through Viator.  Villefranche Shore Excursion: Small-Group Monaco and Eze Half-Day Tour.  This one was technically another half day tour, but I had a plan for the second part of the day so we would have a long, busy day away from the ship.   On this tour we would be visiting Eze, a medieval village with a famous perfumery; Monaco, with the changing of the guard, and Monte Carlo then back to Villefranche.

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Here is our approach to the port on the tender.  I was already thinking how pretty this port area was but I had no idea what was to come.  We found our tour guide and the rest of the people on our tour (three single young ladies) and headed to our first stop, the Village of Eze.

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Eze is famous for its stunning views, its amazing botanical garden and the Chapelle de la Sainte Croix, the oldest building in Eze built in 1306.  I recently learned that this town was a favorite of Walt Disney.  I can certainly see why.

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These views were amazing and the pictures in no way do them justice.  We stopped at Chappelle de la Sainte Croix.  Like many religious buildings, the very simple exterior:

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Gives way to an absolutely amazing interior.

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This is the meeting place for the White Penitents of the Roman Catholic church, known for their care of plague victims.

We then made our way up to the Jardin Botanique d’Eze.  This garden has an amazing collection of succulents which had to be thriving in the unbelievable dry heat that we had the whole trip!

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Our next stop, actually just about five minutes away was our tour of the the Laboratory Fragonard.  So if I’m being honest, I was really not looking forward to this.  As in Turkey and Croatia, I avoid these “factory tours” like the plague if I can.  They tend to be nothing more than sales pitches, which sometimes can be downright aggressive.   However, this one was really not bad.  It was interesting and while there was a definite pitch at the end, it wasn’t terribly aggressive (not that we didn’t end up spending money, but at least we didn’t have to lug a carpet home with us!).

Our next stop would be the Principality of Monaco.  Our tour guide gave us plenty of commentary along the way as she deftly navigated the narrow, really high, right on the cliff roads,  We stopped in time to watch the changing of the guard as well as shop for an AS Monaco jersey…since Monaco just won the Ligue Une, not a single store had one and we had to settle for a scarf.

Monaco screams wealth from every street corner.  If you consider that 1 Million Euros will purchase a room of approximately 161 square feet, you can see why a Monaco address is its own status symbol.  Here’s one of the parking lots:

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Then the Changing of the Guard:

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Then it was time to meet our guide back at Cathédrale Notre-Dame-Immaculée, or Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace and her husband are buried.

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Our next stop was Monte Carlo.  We were there right after the Grand Prix so they had not yet removed the stall numbers from the street, which was cool to see!  Then the most famous casino in the world.  As you know, I love me some casino. At this time, however, the Monte Carlo Casino was closed to the GenPop and open to invited guests only.  Believe it or not, I didn’t get an invitation.  Nor was I dressed for the casino, which has a very strict dress code that apparently did not include shorts and tank top.

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This casino is massive.  In fact it is too big to fit in one picture, so the powers that be have created a solution…a circular mirror that reflects the entirety of the casino facade…its really cool.

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Also, I can guarantee you that everyone of those cars in the reflection are Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls, etc.  They were really pretty.  Here’s me eyeballing the Casino entrance…I shoulda made a run for it!

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We then met our tour guide for the ride back to Villefranche.  Now was the moment I had been waiting for…lunch!  Our guide made a couple of recommendations, one pricey and one more reasonable.  However, I had one goal…Mussels. And Rosé. And a sea view.  And I got all of them!!!

We asked her specifically where she would go to eat mussels and she pointed us to a seaside cafe called Lou Bantry. We sat on the patio, I ordered my glass (okay carafe) of chilled wine and my moules frites.  Oh My Goodness!!! Here’s my “bowl” of mussels:

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It was HUGE!  And amazing!  And it was at that moment I realized that I never wanted to leave.  I love Villefranche-sur-Mer.  If I ever move overseas, this is where you can find me.  Here is our view:

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See how happy I look??? This is my happy place.  But eventually we did have to leave, as much as that broke my heart, I still did want to see our other stops.  Here’s a quick spoiler for you…I did love our other stops, but I still want to be here.  This one felt like home to me.  I can’t wait to get back there…I am not sure when it will happen, but I know it will.

I did eventually get back on the tender to go back to the Freedom.  Our next stop is Florence.  By the way…here’s our ride:

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She’s a beauty and since I have been on her three times now, with a forth time scheduled, I kind of think of her as mine.  But you can ride her too!!