18 May/19 May – spent our last day in Shanghai experiencing the Metro – what a great service. There are over 600km in the 12 different lines that service the city. We ventured down to the one closest to us – spotlessly clean, easy to use ticket booths featuring an English option – our ticket for a one way journey – $3 yuan (less than $1). Bob was really impressed when the locals kept giving up their seats for him (being an old bugger sometimes has its benefits). All announcements on the trains are given in Mandarin and English and also bilingual signs made it a breeze. We did make sure that we didn’t “frolic” in the station and kept the public order! We didn’t want to do too much due to the late flight we had to take so just wandered around one of the old international concession areas, had a coffee and cake and returned back to the hotel for a couple of hours before setting off for the airport. We had decided that we wanted to sample the Maglev train back to the airport, so it was a short taxi ride to the train station. The Maglev is the only commercially operating magnetically levitated train in the world running 30km out to the airport. The speed indicator starts the moment you set off and in no time at all we reached our running speed of 301kph – that 30km got us to the airport in just 8 minutes. Auckland could do with one of these! Again the train and station were all spotless.
Lufthansa was our airline for the flight to Nice via Munich – it was nearly an hour late leaving due to the long queue of flights waiting for their turn. That time was pretty well made up by the time we got to Munich which was just as well as we used the full 2 hours of our connection time just getting through customs and immigration controls. A short hop to Nice had us touching down at 8.30am then an easy walk to find our new car ready and waiting for us. Neat little red one this time – the paperwork was quickly dealt with then in was out into the world of French chaotic driving (Shanghai was very calm and collected in comparison). I had booked a hotel just 14km from the airport which on paper looked quite short, in practice it was up in the hills reached by quite a narrow windy road – thank goodness for a small car, I had forgotten just how tight the roads are in these hillside villages. Monique our GPS found the hotel without too much drama – OK place with great views from our tiny balcony, up the valley towards the Maritime Alps, down the valley to the coast.
After being on the go for well over 24 hours with not very much sleep, a comfy bed was very much appreciated and needed. A few hours kip was enough to shake off some of the jet lag to feel somewhat more human again so that we could have a little explore of the local environs. We are based in La Gaude, not a lot here – a supermarket, petrol station, boulangerie and a couple of restaurants. Stocked up with a few essentials – wine and chippies etc. and an electric kettle as many of the places we will be staying at don’t have them in the room. Dinner was at the local Chinese restaurant – we were their only customers – good food and reasonably priced compared to the other local restaurant.
20 May – Time clocks out of kilter again so up with the sparrows. The clouds over the Alps had cleared this morning revealing snow-capped peaks. Breakfast in the hotel had a nice selection of eats but the ambience was rather spoiled by a bus load of Indians lodged at the hotel, extremely loud as they tried to make video calls back to India via the wi-fi in the lobby – totally inconsiderate of any other guests. We set off early for a little exploration – we had espied a poster advertising a model exposition up in the next village of St Jeannet, so it was in with the address into the GPS so that Monique could guide us. Grrrrr! Will have to learn to ignore some of her instructions as we ended up going through the old part of the town – barely single lane alleys where as Murphy’s law would have it, we meet oncoming traffic and have to back up. After a few attempts we did manage to find a parking spot and also the hall holding the show. We got there before opening time, but were warmly welcomed by the organiser. It was just a little affair – some large model planes, smaller model planes, boats, a train setup and an incredible display of drones – these were designed and made locally – the designer/owner of the company was on hand to explain the process. Nice views from the town over to Cagnes-sur Mer and Antibes with a towering rocky outcrop making a stunning backdrop behind the town.
Set-off back down another windy road to Cagnes sur Mer to visit a medieval castle and museum. First stopped off at the local market – as always, so impressed with the range of produce available, fresh and such good quality. Can’t believe how manic the traffic is as the locals all head off at noon for their lunch. We stayed put and had a bite to eat until it had all calmed down, before driving up to the old town and the castle.
The present castle was built in 1309 by Rainier Grimaldi (Lord of Cagnes and an admiral of France) – a distant ancestor of the present ruling house of Monaco. Later it became the residence of the Governors of the province. Following the French Revolution, it was used as barracks and later as a hospital. Now owned by the city of Cagnes.
Built upon a hilltop, the castle towers over the town. Constructed in the local stone, it retains many of its original medieval features and motifs, it is machicolated with crenelations surmounting its towers and keep. The castle is built around a triangular courtyard. During the reign of Louis XIII (1610 to 1643) the castle was altered, and the principal rooms made more comfortable and redecorated in the contemporary taste. The great hall has a painted ceiling depicting the Fall of Phaëton, completed in the 1620s by the Genovese painter Giulio Benso while the chapel has a ceiling painted with folk scenes. Great views from the tower, looking down to the coast and back inland. Having fulfilled our cultural intake for the day, we drove back to our hotel for a nice snack of local produce in lieu of dining out.
21 May – Destination Italy. As we had quite a distance to cover, and the fact that the coast is so built up, opted to use the toll road to Recco. You can’t help to be overawed by the amazing road building skills the Italians have. The road was a combination of viaducts and tunnels for the whole 215km – speed limits vary from 90-130kph although no-one seems to care about that – it does come at a price though – 21Euro to drive that distance. We did a little side trip down to Monte Carlo and managed to cover a little bit of Grand Prix Circuit – although it is a bit lame to have to travel at 50kph. There were some flash villas, all the top end shops and flash cars around, but mainly it was quite ordinary. Gave up trying to find a carpark and headed back to the motorway on into Italy.
Recco was easy to get to, our little hotel was perfectly adequate even if it was squashed in between the road on one side and the railway track on the other. Took a little drive back 20km into Genoa along the coast road, very slow going with scooter riders on a death wish, ducking and diving in and out of the cars. Sunday in downtown Genoa was fairly quiet, parked in a central square and then walked the length of their main drag. Grand buildings from more prosperous eras are now quite tawdry. The main shopping street about 1km long and for the length of this you are walking under covered porticos, on tiled pavements, these would have been spectacular in their day.
We had to resort to Maccas to find clean toilets – that is one thing that Italy does not do well. Our drive back to base at Recco was in the face of heavy traffic – can only surmise that it was the Genoese returning home after the weekend – would have to say that scooters outweigh car numbers in this area – you can see why when the roads are so narrow, it makes them the perfect mode of transport – nippy, easy to park and cheap to run.
22 May – Couple of hundred km’s to cover today with the main aim of exploring the town of Pisa and of course it’s leaning tower. First up though we had a wander around the local market happening in Recco- these are fairly standard affairs throughout Italy and France – stalls seems to sell the same range of things – clothes, bedding, shoes, local produce. Got onto the motorway towards Pisa, came off on the coast for a break then back on again and from there it was a relatively easy drive to get to the main tourist area in Pisa with good parking just a short walk from the sights. The tower itself was quite different to the last time I saw it which must have been nearly 40 years ago when travelling through Europe on a freebie Contiki tour courtesy of the travel agency I was working for at the time. It was quite grubby back then, but now it is bright and light.
There were a lot of tourists, but nowhere near the number there will be during the peak season. We had paid for 2 hours parking – in that time we managed to get the obligatory photos, walk around the town and experience a nice little degustation lunch. There was a joint blonde/senior moment when it came to finding our car – we missed a vital footpath on our way back and just couldn’t find the parking lot. Ended up doing several circuits of the area until we finally retraced our steps, found the right alleyway and were soon back at the car – rather relieved to say the least.
Out of Pisa and back on a non-toll motorway in the direction of Florence, but stopping about 30km short of the city in the smaller town of Empoli. First attempt to find our lodgings didn’t quite work- confusion of the street name entered into Monique’s brain had us down a dead-end street and no sign of where we should be staying. A rethink and reprogramming of Monique, got us on track – our booking mentioned free public parking is possible nearby (realise now that is real estate speak for “you just park on the street”). Our B&B had no advertising signs, but luckily did have its name on the list of letterboxes and a ring on the bell bought out our host. Our room was on the 3rd floor, nicely laid out with a spotlessly clean bathroom and shared kitchen facilities. Chosen for its proximity to the train station and reasonable price – it seems to have been a good choice. Dinner in town at a very nice Japanese restaurant followed by a stroll back home.
23 May – Awoke to the tragic news of the Manchester bombing – a cowardly act at any time but to target young kids is really despicable.
Italian breakfast this morning (with the promise of a more suitable one tomorrow now that the owners know we are not Italian). Easy walk to the train station and with trains leaving every 20 mins we were quickly speeding our way into the central station at Florence. Double decker carriages gave a good view of the countryside. The station is within reasonable walking distance to all the main attractions, so over coffee we set about on our plan of action for the day. First up we took the road to the Pitti Palace, behind which we noticed on the map were the Boboli Gardens – covering a huge area it looked like a good place for an easy stroll – how wrong we were – great gardens yes, but they are on the side of a steep hill, and all paths seems to lead upwards! The reward was great views out over the city.
By the time we had covered as much our feet could handle, it was time for lunch. What looked like a little basic Trattoria turned out to be quite an upmarket affair but we bit the bullet and enjoyed a tasty ravioli in a butter and sage sauce. Fulfilled and recharged it was off to do battle with the hordes and cross over the Ponte Vecchio – both sides of this covered bridges were lined with little jewellery shops and sidewalk artists plying their trade.
A short walk along the riverside, got us the Piazza Uffizi – and also the Uffizi Gallery home to David (the original inside but a copy resides outside – today with the Union Jack draped in his hand and sporting a black armband. Even more hordes here and with huge queues for the gallery is was an easy choice to give that a miss and just walk around the piazza instead and admire the myriad of statues and take in the grandeur of the gallery buildings. The police presence was certainly more pronounced here, but you do wonder how they would ever spot anything untoward when there are so many people milling around.
Were in need of another break, so a little gelataria with seats nicely placed for people watching was the ideal spot. Purchased the three scoops plus a macaroon option and with over 20 different sorbets and ice-cream to choose from we were certainly spoilt for choice. I settled for lime and basil sorbet, fig and walnut ice-cream and a dark cherry ice-cream. A lovely refreshing break – with the temp topping 30C certainly not conducive to racing around.
The last leg of our walk around this city, took us back via the Santa Maria Cathedral and that was just mind-blowing in its magnificence. Faced in white and green marble with intricate carvings and statues, it certainly dominated the surrounding square. Large queues here if you wished to visit the interior, but not for us – just happy to view from the outside.
Soon back at the main train station and back on board a train to Empoli – quite weary from pounding the streets. Very nice to finally get home and chill out. With a little shared kitchen available at our lodgings we settled for dinner in – ham, cheese and tomato toasted sammies washed down with the last of our French merlot made for a satisfying finish to our day.
24 May – On the road again after stocking up at the supermarket. Opted for a non-motorway route down to Siena (about 60km) but it was quite slow going as the road went through town after town for the first part before opening out in farmland. You could really be in NZ with the rolling green hills but instead of animals grazing the land, there is cultivation – grapes and vegetables mainly and the houses of course are typical Italian – terracotta roofs and plastered walls. Many of the roads into and out of the towns are lined with trees making a very pretty drive, but does require concentration as they are very close to the side of the road.
Hit the motorway to make the final 200 odd kms to Rome – not too much traffic and nice to zip along at a nice clip as it was mainly a 130kph speed limit. Joined up with the large ring road which circumnavigates Rome – our exit was to the north and we had only about 6km to go once exiting. That 6km was a little fraught – road works all the way. Monique found our hotel, but it took us 3 circuits to finally work out where to park. Hopefully the car will be OK as it just parked in the street below the hotel. Hotel chosen again for its proximity to the Metro, we are about 10 stops from the centre of Rome so will venture out there tomorrow.