Saturday, June 11, 2016

Andalusia Adventure - Cordoba, Granada, Seville

I visited Spain about ten years ago and absolutely loved it. It’s been on my list of countries to get back to over the last year but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally made my return visit. When I was in Barcelona all those years ago I was enamored by the colors, the tiles, the architecture, the vibrancy of the city, and not to mention how cheap food and wine was. Although this recent trip was to a completely different part of Spain I was reintroduced to it all again and so much more.

This go-round Andalusia was the region of choice with stops in Cordoba, Granada, and Seville. I was also in Madrid (very briefly) and the nearby town of Segovia. However, it poured rain and was freezing in Segovia so the charm of it didn’t really come through. Not to mention that the castle there that was apparently inspiration for Disney was half covered in scaffolding so that was a fail also. A proper visit to Madrid and Segovia version two are needed.

Despite the rain and cold around Madrid when I made my way south the weather was gorgeous. My timing was perfect, the temperatures were rising (but no where near the oppressive summer heat!) and the rain had cleared out.

To be honest I knew pretty much nothing about Andalusia before I arrived. Granada had long claimed a spot on my travel list purely because a former Google boss raved about spending time there and the delicious tapas everywhere. As luck would have it he’d recently taken the plunge to leave Google and spend time back in Granada working in a chef friend’s kitchen and would still be there when I wanted to visit. Perfect! With Granada a definite stop I sought the advice of a few other friends to determine what else to do in the area and how to get between cities. Let’s be honest though, main goal was lots of tapas eating and wine consumption with some sight seeing on the side. Despite my fumbling limited Spanish, often mixing in French words to make it even worse, I was very successful on all fronts! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the sights, the Arab influence all around, the laid back atmosphere of the region, and of course the eating and drinking. I became obsessed with tinto de verano which is red wine with gaseosa (a Sprite like drink) early on in the trip and at at least one glass per day. It's basically a simple sangria and certainly the best way to enjoy red wine when it's hot out! If the french can put ice cubes into rose when it's hot then the Spanish can jazz up their red wine.

Lots and lots of photos - I couldn't help myself!

First up Cordoba.

Cordoba’s most famous sight is the Mosque-Cathedral. This is a spectacular display of Islamic architecture later expanded upon and transformed into a Catholic cathedral - as is very much the theme in this area. You enter into the original mosque area with a sea of columns and archways. As you meander around you eventually start to see signs of the Christian takeover and then you suddenly find yourself standing under what feels like a towering dome. Light floods into the choir and chapel area which is a stark contrast to the low light of the other areas of the building. Despite the fairly large crowds and selfie stick posing the space is incredible.

Cordoba is also well known for its patios - building or home courtyards - filled with colorful flowers. Each year for two weeks in May Cordoba holds La Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba in which there’s a competition across the city and it’s free to enter into various patios. I happened upon the last weekend of the festival during my visit - lucky me. While it meant that there were loads of people and the lines to get into the patios were ridiculously long it was absolutely worth it to check out a few of them. Award winning patio owners proudly display their prior year plaques on the walls and welcome you into their carefully maintained garden oasis.  If you happen to be in Southern Spain in May this is definitely worth a visit. Throughout the year some owners do let people into their patios to check out their displays so all is not lost.

When I wasn’t queuing up for patio viewings, getting lost among the archways of the Cathedral, or sipping on tinto de verano with a side of tortilla or salmorejo (gazpacho) I caught a few of the other suggested sights. Some highlights were

Palacio de Viana and gardens
After a day and a half in Cordoba I headed to Granada.

First order of business in Granada, tapas and finding Jesse (my former boss) so he could show me the ropes. This is the one place in Spain where you’re guaranteed to get a free tapa with each drink that you order. You can basically eat for free as you enjoy wine or your drink of choice. And when wine is only 2-3 EUR a glass it’s a pretty cheap meal! The tapas also tend to get better the more drinks that you have in one given place - not on the fact that you’re drunk but that they give you larger or higher quality plate with subsequent drinks. So you can either hop from bar to bar getting a new nibble at each one, or stick to one place and enjoy a few. No better way to catch up on post Google life with Jesse than over drinks and tapas!!

In addition to tapas Granada is home to the Alhambra. Visiting this palace and fortress atop a hill overlooking the city is a magnificent way to spend the better portion of a day. You can spend hours just wandering through all of the various gardens, checking out the views, and trying not to get lost. The main attractions within the Alhambra walls are the Nasrid Palaces and Generalife.

Your ticket specifies the time in which you will enter the Nasrid Palace which is nice because it helps to manage the crowds - but you have to make sure to make it in during your time slot! I found that even though there were a fair number of people many of them were in groups so if I lingered a bit in one room or courtyard I’d soon have it all to myself. There are endless archways, intricate ceilings, tiles, and water features to enjoy.

The gardens of the Generalife are beautiful. This area of the Alhambra was meant for relaxation and a place to be away and I could certainly see why. Being there in spring I was able to take full advantage of the added colors of everything blooming.  

After my visit I made my way to the restaurant where Jesse was working in the kitchen. The restaurant Carmen de San Miguel is located right near the Alhambra and has some amazing views of its own over the city and across the the Sierra mountains. Jesse told me that Jorge the chef was just going to start cooking for me and before I knew it I was being brought course after course of deliciousness. I was in food heaven! Everything was so tasty and it was great to be able to try many different regional dishes. I probably shouldn’t have been eating everything off each plate but I couldn’t help myself they were all so good. And not to mention wine selected for each one. It was a perfect post Alhambra afternoon. Definitely check it out if you’re visiting!

The rest of my time in Granada included a lot of wandering around - there’s some really good street art there that I stumbled upon - popping into for a drink and a tapas or two, continuing on my way and repeating. Pretty great way to spend a day.

Now that Jesse and I were caught up on life, I’d been given the royal treatment for lunch, and I had the true tapas experience I headed to Seville. With just one day to see some of what Seville has to offer I dropped my bags off upon arrival, grabbed a map, and headed off. I figured I’d see a few of the major sights and then do the usual wine and tapas routine when I needed food. No free tapas here but delicious and cheap nonetheless.

I decided I’d start by queuing up to visit the cathedral. The line wasn’t terrible - though I was baking in the sun at points - and once inside it’s quite beautiful and absolutely massive. Little did I know that it’s the 3rd largest church in the world and the largest Gothic cathedral. It contains Christopher Columbus’ mausoleum - I wondered what hoards of people were gathering around until I finally figured it out. There’s also a tower, from the original mosque that stood on this site, that you can climb the seemingly endless ramp/stairs to the top for views across the city.

I left the cathedral, wandered through the old Jewish quarter, and then made my way to the Plaza de Espana. The tiles, the colors, the columns, bridges and loads of small detail throughout were mesmerizing. I probably could have spent the whole afternoon there taking photos from every angle. I was surprised that this felt pretty empty given all of the crowds that were in and around the cathedral. Fine by me!

Following a bit of a rest in the Parque Maria Luisa I finished off the trifecta of my Seville sightseeing by heading into the Alcazar and it’s gardens. Having been to the Alhambra before the Alcazar it wasn’t as amazing as I might have thought had I not already spent hours wandering through admiring the Islamic architecture, waterways, and gardens of the Alhambra. It’s still worth a visit though and the gardens are quite nice with a variety of different areas and styles to walk through.  Also, I didn’t know it at the time but apparently a number of Game of Thrones scenes from last season were filmed at the Alcazar. That now makes 2 Game of Thrones filming location visits for me in the last few months, ha!

One spot that I didn’t get to fully enjoy was the Metropol Parasol - apparently the largest wooden structure in the world and offering some of the best views of Seville. I was only able to pass by this on my way to the train station as I was heading out of town to snap a few pictures. It was a beautiful structure and next time checking out the views from the top will be first on the list of to-dos.

From Seville I headed back to Madrid by train and then to the airport to fly back to Nice. My Spanish week was filled with color, beautiful architecture, delicious food, and good fun. I’ll definitely be back to enjoy more tinto de verano, salmorejo, and tapas.

¡Hasta Luego España!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

An attempt at a 'Best Of' list

It's a bit of a rainy afternoon and I'm exhausted from getting my ass handed to me at bootcamp this morning so I figured I'd do a little writing because I’ve been trying to come up with a best-of list for Cannes and it’s surroundings. After four months here I should have something, right? To be honest it’s impossible to have a definitive list of the best of the Cote d’Azur and I will certainly not claim to know even a fraction of the things to do around here. So rather than an actual list it's turned into some of the highlights and my favorite spots/sights as of now. I've been meaning to create a spreadsheet of everywhere I've been but just haven't gotten around to it - perhaps on the to-do list for next week.

One note is that most of what I’ve done over the last four months has been via train and bus as I’ve only had a car on a few occasions. I feel as I did in San Francisco when I went without a car for about 18 months a few years ago - it’s manageable without a car but having one is really nice because you have more flexibility, more mobility to access locations inland and in the mountains, and you’re not limited by the train or bus routes and timetables. Let’s not forget that this is France and though I love it here the constant striking of workers, especially the trains, is really annoying! What I'd actually love right now is a bicycle. I want a cruiser so I can ride around town and not have to always walk two miles each way for yoga and bootcamp :)

Let’s start with Cannes vs Nice...

I’ll admit that I’m partial to Cannes over Nice. But, I honestly haven’t spent too much time in Nice over the last few months given that I’m living in Cannes. However, each time I go I’m not necessarily drawn to want to linger too much beyond the specific activity I have in mind. There are lots of museums (Chagall, Matisse, Musee Massena, and more - great in the winter), lots of shopping (more of the affordable type than designers), and because it’s much larger there’s obviously more going on.

Sur la mer - Nice
Nice is a city with a population of something between 350,000 and 400,000 so Cannes with its 70,000 Cannois feels much more like a town. For me, if I wanted to live in a French city I’d live in Paris. Nice is certainly worth a visit and it’s just a train ride away (when the French aren’t on strike…) so that’s good enough for now.

Old Nice
The old town of Nice (Vieux Nice) is quite lovely - it’s incredibly colorful, lots of restaurants, a daily market, small shops, and cute twisting alleyways. The climb to the top of Parc du Chateau is worth it for the views over the old town and the sea. The water and the coastline of Nice are stunning. The blue of the water is gorgeous both from above and as you walk along the Promenade des Anglais.. However, the beaches are pebbles/stones and not sand. Just the other day I was there and saw two guys with the right idea… they’d brought a queen sized air mattress to lay on. So bring your mattress or rent a lounger at one of the many restaurants/beach clubs!

Both the Chagall and Matisse museums are located in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice. This area is away from the sea (read: uphill) and filled with beautiful old homes and tree lined boulevards. Though it’s a bit of a hike from the train station, and even more so the old town, wandering on foot up to the Matisse museum is certainly worth it.  

As for Cannes it's quite compact - you can see the 'sights' in about an hour and then relax along the sea with a glass of rose and enjoy the day. Obviously Cannes is known for the glitz and glam of celebrities and the film festival, expensive hotels, designer shopping, and wealth, but living here I see much more than that and enjoy the quiet areas and endless people watching with a cafe creme or rose.

View from Le Suquet
Old town Cannes, Le Suquet, feels just like any other small French village with its small alleyways, cobblestones, and flowers climbing up the buildings. From the top of the hill you get views over the port and central Cannes. There's a small museum up here with an interesting collection of artifacts from across the world but unless you can get in for free it's not worth the fee - however, if you do go in, the tower of the museum does have the best 360 degree views across the area.

La Croisette is the main promenade of Cannes starting at the Palais du Festival with the sea on one side and fancy hotels/apartments and designer shops on the other. The beach here is not the best because it's taken up mainly by restaurants and private beaches from the hotels. You can pay to get a sunbed at any of them if you so desire. However, the best beach areas are along Boulevard du Midi. Palm Beach, Bijou Plage where there are fewer private areas. If it's a windy day the Palm Beach area becomes filled with kite and wind surfers. This is a favorite spot of mine to sit and watch as they zip back and forth.

A 15 minute boat ride from Cannes are the islands of Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat. Heading over here is like stepping into another world and you suddenly feel very far from town. There are wooded areas, walking trails and small beaches. A group of monks live on St Honorat and make their own wine while on Ste Marguerite you can visit the Castle and jail cell of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Kite Surfers, Ste Margurite in distance

Coastal Walks…

I love coastal walks, I just can’t ever get enough of them. Everyday I run or take a walk along the sea here in Cannes. But, even better is to get out away from town and out to one of the many trails that take you along rocky coastlines. When I first got here I picked up a free hiking book from the tourist office with maps and descriptions of over 50 walks on or close to the coast. Though it’s only available in French the maps are helpful and I can get the jist of the route. Also online here.

There are three major Cap (or Cape) walks around here - Cap d’Antibes, Cap Ferrat, and Cap Martin. I just went back to Cap d’Antibes this past week and was reminded of how beautiful it is. I don't think that a trip to this area is complete without seeing one of these. The trails for each of these are very clearly marked and they’re a combo of paved area, stairs, and rocks. Nothing too rigorous!

Photos from the three walks here.

Cap d’Antibes is fairly quick to do - it took me less than an hour and a half but it’s close to Cannes so nice for a quick trip. It’s easily accessible with a car which was nice this past week and I got lucky with plenty of parking. Without a car it’s a train and then bus ride away. Not so bad, but as usually happens to me with French buses I had quite an experience first finding the right bus and then getting locked in the bus on the way back when I took it to the last stop at the train station and the driver didn’t realize I was still on it :)

Cap Ferrat is probably my favorite of the three Cap walks. I took the train and started in the town of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer and walked to Villefranche-Sur-Mer to catch the train home from there so in total I think it took me about three hours. At the tip of Cap Ferrat is a lighthouse and on both sides of the Cap the views are stunning. Villefranche-Sur-Mer is a very cute colorful town with a beach and small port - perfect for a post walk drink and relaxation!

Cap Martin is past Nice and Monaco almost to Menton and the Italian border. This one I also accessed via train by starting in Carnoles, walking around Cap Martin, and then I walked all the way to Monaco and caught the train home. I think this was also three hours or more. This is an example of where it’s ok not to have a car because I had the flexibility to just walk one way and there were multiple spots I could have gotten the train for my return. This walk is interesting because on one side of the Cap you are looking along the coast to Italy and then as you come around you’re looking at the highrise buildings that make up Monaco.

Eze le Village…

When someone asks me of my favorite spot around here the first response is always Eze. This is a small hilltop village with some of the most spectacular views of the coast. As with all of the small towns around here you can either spend 15-30 minutes, because that’s probably all that it takes to walk around the few alleyways that make up the village, or you can stay and linger for a few hours. I prefer the latter.

In the spring the flowers and vines that climb the walls and doorways are in bloom making the small alleys even more charming. There are a few swanky hotels with fantastic views - you can get a drink on one of the terraces and enjoy without the price of actually staying there. The Jardin Exotique is worth a visit. These gardens were created in the ruins of the old castle sitting atop the village. It’s 6eur entry fee but there are beautiful cacti and other plants, a tranquil spot with a few lounge chairs, and then of course amazing 360 degree views from the top.

View from Jardin Exotique
Eze is a location that’s better if you have a car. Eze-Sur-Mer (the seaside town) does have a train station and then there’s a hike up hill (and stairs) that you can do to get to Eze Village and buses run from Nice. However, with a car you get to soak in the beautiful views along your choice of three coastal roads while getting there or away. I think the Moyenne Corniche (Middle Road) is the best and from Nice to Eze you get amazing views over the town of Villefranche-Sur-Mer.

Other Towns/Sights…

Antibes - if you want to go somewhere that you’ll hear more English spoken than French head to Antibes! This is a major hub for expats and many of the yachting offices are here. There’s a nice old town that still has some of it’s original ramparts, the Picasso museum, daily market, sandy beaches, coastal views, and an English bookstore (yaay!).

Menton - this is the last town before the Italian border and apparently has sun pretty much every day of the year given its location with the mountains around it. When I first arrived in February I was there in time for the annual Fete du Citron. An amazing display of floats and sculptures made of lemons and oranges.

Villa Rothschild - I haven’t been back here yet this year but the house and gardens of the eccentric Baroness de Rothschild were a highlight of my first visit here last April. Located on Cap Ferrat it’s possible to combine this with the coastal walk or well worth a visit on its own.

Coastal drive between St Raphael and Cannes - if you haven’t had enough of coastal walks and views this drive is absolutely amazing. West of Cannes you reach the red rocks of l’Esterel providing a landscape and contrast against the blue sea that’s quite different from what you see elsewhere along the coast.

Monaco - I’m not wowed by Monaco, but if you have time it’s worth a day trip. You get highrise buildings, fancy boats, shopping, the famous Monte Carlo casino, an old town and for me the best was the aquarium.

Those are my thoughts for now but I'm certain that I'll be discovering more highlights over the next few weeks especially now that the weather has gotten warmer and the beach and sea are really calling. More and more summer activities are now available. I also have more places that are still on my 'to-see' agenda that I need to get to. We'll see how much I can motivate and get my butt off my balcony chair and out and about. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Cannes we catch up?

I’ve been reminded that my last post was in March. Yeah, well... life’s gotten to feel pretty ‘normal’ so I’ve not been doing well to recount the goings on here in the south of France. I guess that doesn’t bode well for me being able to actually keep up blogging, but time to get back at it. The question now is where to begin. There are multiple stories that I could tell and many pictures to follow any story. So I think the best approach is to let the photos tell most of it and maybe a few specific posts to recount the time.

Cannes has started to settle back down this week after the mayhem that is the Film Festival. All of the temporary structures that were built, all the screens on top of hotels, all the massive movie advertisements, etc are disappearing. I was only here for the very start and the very end of the 11 day event. The crowds were crazy and getting around the Croisette or anywhere near the Palais des Festivals (whether by foot or vehicle) was a pain in the ass so to be honest I was happy to leave for most of it. Not to mention that because my apartment is really a holiday rental it was rented out for one week of the festival for more than twice what I paid for the month.

Crowds on ladders and chairs watching the red carpet arrivals

I will say one thing that I did not expect was that as the festival goes on and there are tens of thousands of people in town for it life and all the regular tourism of Cannes very much continues as normal. I assumed that during the festival none of the cruise ships that come in each day would arrive, but no, every day the same ships and same crowds descended upon town. It was a constant mix of normal tourists, festival goers (film makers, buyers, etc), celebrities, paparazzi, and always folks dressed in gowns and tuxes at every hour of the day.

Now it’s calm here for a few days before the next big event begins - though nothing will match the film festival.

So what else has been going on?

Until the 6th of May French school was my daily routine. 9AM - 12PM each day, me and my American exchange student and Mexican teenager friends convened to learn a bit of French and have a few laughs. After 12 weeks of classes of course the question is ‘Jessie, can you speak French now?’ and the answer is most certainly ‘No!’.

I have learned a ton, I have loads in my head, and my comprehension is getting better; at this point it’s just a matter of practice and actually using it, listening, and learning more vocabulary. Maybe a short post in French one of these days. When I was in Spain last week I found that my first response was pretty much always French so I guess that means something is sinking in - or my brain was just incredibly confused!

When not in class I continued to explore the area, took a few side trips, showed visitors my favorite spots along the coast, and as of recent I find myself spending a lot of time on the balcony enjoying the sunshine, working on my tan, and watching the world go by. It’s never boring watching the world below as Cannes continues to set itself up for the fast approaching busy summer months.

I do find it fascinating to watch the construction and deconstruction in this town. In most cases just as quickly as the signage, structures, tents, Ninja Warrior courses (yes, there was French Ninja Warrior here), etc go up they come down immediately following whatever their one night or few days of purpose was. Beyond events at the Palais there’s the summer season. The beaches are prepped, new piers built for rows of sun loungers, restaurants readied, and shops resupplied to suit the needs of summer sunshine seekers. I hear that July and August are absolutely madness around here with so many people on their holidays. Most people that I know prefer to not be here in the height of summer. So it does suit me just fine that the current plans have me leaving here at the end of June.

The plans after June are still a bit fuzzy - hopefully in a few weeks I’ll have a better answer to folks here who want to know whether I’m staying, am I getting a job, and every variant of ‘how long can you keep this up for, are you ever coming back?’ from those back in San Francisco.

Until then I have a few things on my agenda as to not keep idle for too long. I’m looking forward to more visitors arriving which will lead to many more adventures here, Italy, Spain, and Germany (as the current plans read). For now, here are some photos from the last little while…

À bientôt!