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!!

 

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Freedom in the Med…Marvelous Marseille!

After a yummy dinner at Chops, we were up bright and early (some of us were less bright than others, but we were all at least up!) to meet our tour: Aix on Your Own.  I booked this though Royal Caribbean.  I NEVER book through the cruise ship as I can always find better tours on my own, but we had some Cruise Credit, and this was really just transportation up to Aix and back to the ship and it was only 4ish hours which I figured was a good amount of time for our first day.

So at 9:20 we all assembled in the theater and waited for our group to be called…which it was, finally.  Another reason I usually don’t book tours through the ship is because I really don’t like being tied to someone else’s schedule…I’m not sure if you have noticed, but I am a bit of a type A person.  But really, I was going to try and just go with the flow on this one…try.

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The port at Marseille is a bit of an industrial area, which I knew and that was why I wanted to go up to Aix.  I wanted to get a bit of that Provence feeling.  Aix is certainly a good place to do that!

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The wide cobblestone streets, fountains EVERYWHERE!!! In fact, we couldn’t turn a corner without another cute little square with a pretty fountain there…or a playground…or a merry-go-round!

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We had a map, but as we’ve already covered, I’m not super good at those so once again we were wandering aimlessly from cute street to cute street; hardly a tragedy!

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Of course the architecture is amazing every which way you turn.  And as usually happens when I am “following the map”  we stumbled into one of mom and my’s favorite things:  The local Farmer’s Market!

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The food is so fresh and the colors are so vibrant!  It truly is a feast for the senses.  Especially in Provence, with the scents of garlic and lavender in the air.

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We continued wandering around and finally found what we were originally looking for…Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the town square.

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This is the site of the former Halle de Grain (corn exchange) and the center of the merchant trade in Aix.  It is a mostly pedestrian square with cafès and shops lining three sides of the square and the impressive Hôtel de Ville taking up the fourth side.

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Next to the Town Hall, is a clock, originally erected in 1510.

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After admiring the square and checking out some of the cute shops, we headed towards the Cours Mirabeau.  This is a wide tree lined street, now dotted with tchotchke shops and cafès, including the now famous Les Deux Garçons: watering hole for famed writers such as  Paul Cézanne and Ernest Hemingway.    This street is also the dividing line between the old town, where we had already been wandering, and the new town.

We decided it was time for lunch, and as it was nearing 100 degrees, it was certainly time for a cold beverage.  We stopped at a restaurant that looked like it had immediate seating…and we quickly realized why…they were not very tourist friendly and even made some comments in French about our party.  Since I speak the language fairly well and I certainly know my insults, we took the hint and left without ordering.  I was probably crankier than the rest about it, but everything happens for a reason, and we then moved to La Piazza Papa.  Yes, a pizza place.  But the service was friendly and the food was good!

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After eating and relaxing a bit, we decided to venture back out into the afternoon heat…well we made it as far as the first Gelato shop we saw!!  I’m not kidding you, it was HOT!!

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You can see the shop behind this big rock fountain thing…Giovanni Gelateria…and if you are ever in Aix you should find this place and order all of the gelato.   The flavors were amazing and the girl behind the counter was so awesome!!  Such a difference from our crabby first restaurant stop.  Oh…if you see that big rock fountain, yeah.  Well its covered in bees.  Consider your self warned.

We wandered a bit in the new town, but for real it was hot so we decided to head to the statue/fountain that was our meeting place for the bus back.  We were early for sure, but there was a cafè with cold beverages and free wifi so we sat there until it was time to board the bus back to the ship.

The bus ride back was uneventful, pretty much everyone was hot, tired and glad to be sitting.  I had originally thought that since this tour was only a half day tour, we could visit the Old Port area if we had the time and inclination.  Well, we certainly had the time but no one really had the inclination so we just boarded the air conditioned ship and chilled out until our dinner reservations at Giovanni’s table.

Our next four ports we had full day tours scheduled so this half day was a good break between our full days in Barcelona and what was to come…No more half days for us, but plenty of heat!

Next stop?  Nice!

 

 

 

 

Freedom in the Mediterranean…The Story Begins!

Way back in the twilight of 2015, when I was on board the Freedom of the Seas Eastern Caribbean cruise, I purchased a “Future Cruise Certificate.” Basically it is a promise to cruise again, which I knew I was going to do anyway, so I took advantage of some perks that they were offering with the certificate and booked a cruise.  Then, in March of 2016 when the 2017 European sailings opened and I saw that my favorite ship, the Freedom, was going to Europe for the summer of 2017 I immediately called and transferred my reservation to the June 18, 2017 sailing out of Barcelona on the Freedom of the Seas.  Since it was the first day that reservations were open (yes…I had been checking every day!) I was able to get the cabins that I wanted, 3 adjacent promenade view cabins with one balcony cabin across the hall.

My next task was to find an apartment that would house 8 people for three nights and not break the bank…Not as easy as it sounds…actually, it doesn’t even sound easy!  Hotels are out, too expensive to get four rooms for three nights.  And you need four rooms…hotel rooms in Europe are hardly expansive living spaces.  So I headed over to AirBNB to look for a place for all of us.

After the apartment in Venice, that we all loved but had no elevator, I was told specifically to find one with an elevator…and I did.  But I did overlook one thing that would be somewhat important…but I didn’t realize that until we got there.

Our flight was crowded but uneventful.  Lines to get through border control were long and we were just barely on-time to meet our AirBNB host.  I rented a 4 bedroom 2 bath apartment in the Eixample neighborhood.  The location turned out to be fantastic, easy to get everywhere we needed to go.  It had a beautiful view:

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It also had an amazing kitchen with all utensils, wifi all over the apartment, a fresh water dispenser, an elevator, and ceiling fans in all rooms…which was a good thing because the one thing I did not look for…air conditioning.  In the Mediterranean.  In Summer.  During a heat wave.  Okay, well that last part I couldn’t have known, but all I can say is thank goodness for the gigantic windows all over the apartment and the ceiling fans in every room.  They kept it bearable!

I had scheduled several tours for our three days in Barcelona.  The first was a tour of Barcelona via motor coach with a trip to Montserrat.  I used Barcelona Day Tours and they were fantastic!  Our guide picked us up right at our apartment and we toured some of the highlights of the city on our way to Park Guell where we had “skip the line” tickets. This park was designed by Antonio Gaudi originally as a housing development for the wealthy, but it never really took off even after Count Eusebi Guell moved there himself to try and add to the prestige.  Ultimately, only two houses were ever built and it was eventually converted into a municipal garden.

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A bunch of the infrastructure was built in anticipation of all those upper crust folks moving in, so there is quite a bit to see there, and it is all VERY Gaudi.  It is the exact type of architecture you think of when you think of him.  Gaudi did not have a huge budget for this, so he improvised.  He used scraps from other construction sites to decorate his buildings and other creations.

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Like this bench.  It has “butt bumps” on the seats meant to align your spine when you sit to make it more comfortable.  Surprisingly enough, they work really well, and that stone and ceramic bench is actually really comfortable!

Our next stop was a “drive-by” of La Sagrada Familia.  I say “drive-by” but we did actually get out and walk around the entire church with Marta, we just didn’t go inside!  I will give you a quick teaser picture here but a full review when I talk about my full guided tour later!

 

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It is massive, and awesome, and truly a work of art.  I can’t wait to see it finished!!

But moving on, we next headed out of the city to the monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat.  This is about 28 miles west and 4000 feet above the city of Barcelona.  My hope was that maybe it would be a smidge cooler up there in the mountains, but really it was just closer to the sun!  But it is beautiful!

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The basilica houses the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s saint and plenty of people make the pilgrimage here just to see her.  In addition, about 50 boys in the famous Montserrat L’Escolania boys choir live here while they are members.  They give a daily free concert in the basilica, but ironically enough, the boys were in New York while I was in Barcelona so I did not get to hear them.  Still, its pretty amazing inside:

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With some pretty awesome sculptures:

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And some absolutely incredible stained glass:

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We decided to eat in the cafeteria style restaurant, in addition they have two sit-down style restaurants, a bar and a grab and go type store if you want a picnic.  The selling point for me was the buffet style and options for everyone.  I’m just kidding!!!  The cafeteria offers all you can drink wine and beer with your meal!!!  SOLD!!!  But, in all honesty, the food was decent, the wine was okay and the beer was warm.  But it was reasonably priced, filling, and most importantly air conditioned!

Outside the cafeteria there are some more amazing views and art work.

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Another option would have been to take the funicular to the highest point.  I’ve heard that you can see all the way to Mallorca on a clear day.  However, some of us are not fond of cable cars, or funiculars, or heights so we didn’t go.  Really, after Santorini, how bad could it be??!!  Next time…I’m going up!

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Back in our van and down the mountain to resume our guided tour of Barcelona.  Our next stop was Montjuic.  As Marta explained to us, some pretty amazing things are in that area, left over from the 1929 International Exposition (World Fair).  The Font Magica still does its light show every night and the Palau Nacional is still beautiful and imposing.  We stopped on the cliff overlooking the harbor for some breathtaking views of the harbor.

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Learned about some cool trees that had been transplanted to Barcelona and how they adapted to their new, much drier, home.

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Again…amazing artwork everywhere!!

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And finally, caught a glimpse of where to catch our ride later on.

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After this, we headed back to our apartment.  Tired and hot, but totally amazed at what we had seen.  While 8 hours is no where near enough time to see all that Barcelona has to offer, I felt like Barcelona Day Tours, and specifically Marta, had done a fantastic job.

Tomorrow we have a guided tour of the inside of Sagrada Familia as well as a Flamenco show!!  Stay tuned!!