Month: July 2017

Road Trip Through Italy To Chamonix and Annecy France

Road Trip Through Italy To Chamonix and Annecy France

Our home for the next couple of days was in Annecy France. We just had to figure out how to get there from Nice. We could drive up through France by way of Grenoble or we could swing through Italy. Either way we went, we’d be in a car for the next 6 hours. When we discovered we could pass through Chamonix and eat lunch in Italy it was an easy choice. I mean come on…lunch in Italy? Hells yes! I was sold on this road trip to through Italy to Chamonix and Annecy France the instant Italian food was mentioned.

Road Trip Prepping

The night before, we stopped at a grocery store to grab the essentials for any road trip…snacks! Since we were in Europe, that had to include chocolate. Trust me on this, European chocolate is 10x better than what is in the United States. On our first trip abroad we were more conservative in our chocolate purchases; however, going back Dustin was prepared to fill a small backpack. Which incidentally on our flight back TSA thought could be a bomb, until they had us open the bag for inspection. No joke, if a zombie apocalypse occurred on our way home, our chocolate would last for at least 9 months. The next essential was non-carbonated water. I don’t know how anyone drinks sparkling water, it’s disgusting! In European restaurants, if you order water and don’t ask for still or no gas…carbonated water is what will be served. We also bought an assortment of other snacks/breakfast items as our next stop was an Airbnb instead of a hotel.

The drive from Nice to Savona along E80 snakes along the coastline offering views of the Mediterranean Sea, cobbled terraces, and Italian villages. Since we began our journey early that morning, we watched as the sun rose and peaked its way across the shoreline making the waves sparkle and casting everything in a warm glow. It was hard to leave the coastal drive as we turned north towards Turin.

Turin and Aosta Italy

Aosta

I imagined eating lunch in a small cafe in Turin while enjoying the majestic Alps hovering around us. Reality brought tiny congested streets with towering views of skyscrapers in a large city. Turin is located in northern Italy on the western bank of the Po River. Baroque buildings and old cafes line the boulevards and grand squares. However, with a population of 2.2 million, navigating the narrow one-way streets without causing a massive pile up of mangled cars was proving increasingly difficult. With our butts permanently puckered in the icky traffic, we decided to forego lunch in Turin. Hoping we’d find a more idyllic town to stop in for our Italian meal, we pressed through the traffic and made our way towards the Alps.

Aosta is a town in northern Italy sandwiched in the Alps between France and Switzerland, and exactly what we had been looking for our idyllic lunch. Quite a bit smaller than Turin with a population of 35,000, it drips with remnants of its Roman past. Most notably is the Praetorian Gate, the largest surviving Roman gate, that once served as the city’s main entrance; and the Arch of Augustus. Areas of the valley offer snowcapped views of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and Gran Paradiso. The valley is home to two major ski resorts, and is dotted with medieval castles.  The old town is dotted with tons of restaurants serving traditional Italian food. I’ve never been disappointed at a restaurant in Italy, so I’m sure you’ll be fine regardless which one you pick. We chose Borgo Antico, and had delicious plates of ravioli bolognese and gnocchi.

Lunch in Aosta

I would love to return to this area to spend a few days exploring. On top of  the beautiful scenery, there’s the food–hundreds of different pastas smothered in sauce and cheese. Yum! Forget about the calories or the bath of insulin you’ll need to digest it, as you’ll walk it all off traversing the cobble stone walkways of this enchanting town.

Chamonix, France

Returning to our car after walking off lunch, we made our way towards Mont Blanc Tunnel. The tunnel is a highway that runs under the Mont Blanc mountain connecting Chamonix, France and the Aosta Valley. A toll is required to pass beneath the rock and dirt of the mountain, stretching across 7 miles (11 km). It’s a pleasant drive, as long as traffic is flowing which it was on this occasion. Approaching and exiting the tunnel offers splendid views, but if you want time to enjoy those views I suggest stopping in Chamonix.

ChamonixAt the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps, lies the charming resort town Chamonix. Celebrated for its skiing, the town offers year-round cable cars to take visitors up to several nearby peaks with panoramic views. In the streets you’ll hear languages from every corner of the globe, and everywhere you look there are sites to admire and pilfer your breath away. Chamonix made it to our must-see list when we happened upon a clip of paragliding in the area. A bit skittish, Dustin asked me if it was something I wanted to do. I debated for about 3 seconds, overcoming my own nerves, before knowing I was going to go paragliding in the Alps. Getting further in our trip planning, we opted to paraglide in Annecy over the Alps instead of at Chamonix since that is where we’d be staying. I loved loved loved paragliding! Even though Annecy and Chamonix are only 62 miles (100 km) apart, paragliding in Chamonix is still on my bucket list.

Chamonix captured our attention for hours as we wandered through the streets, dreaming of owning property there and nearly choking on our macaroons when we saw the real estate prices. Nevertheless, we still had another hour drive before reaching our destination so eventually we had to say goodbye to Chamonix.

Annecy, France

The canyon drive out of Chamonix opens up into the Plateau d’Assy, a beautiful mountain valley that is home to the town of Passy. The descent into the valley is one of the most scenic of the drive. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop and enjoy this area, as we were off to the lake town of Annecy. Just a couple more canyons and mountain valleys to drive through, and we arrived in Annecy. We’d seen a lot of images of this area as we prepped for our trip, but nothing could prepare us for the beauty of this alluring area. I honestly would love to live here. The emerald color of the lake surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Alps. What could be better?

Annecy and Chamonix

Being a smaller town, we were unable to find any award hotels, so we opted to stay two nights in an Airbnb. To learn more about Airbnb, check out our review here. You’ll also save $40 on your first booking if you do it through our link.

Good Airbnb hosts supply their homes with useful amenities such as kitchen appliances, bikes, and a washer and dryer. This one was no exception. Franck was our host, and his hospitality was second to none. Despite the language barrier, he made sure we had everything we needed and that our stay was a comfortable one. We arrived around dinner time and had no idea where to eat. After we got settled, we went out to grab his bikes and go look for some food. Luckily, he was out in his yard at the time and offered some suggestions. He gave us directions to a lakeside restaurant, Buvette de la Plage de la Brune, and even called a head for us to make reservations.

The restaurant was about a 5-minute bike ride away that offered splendid views of the sun setting over Lake Annecy. We were able to eat outside overlooking the lake. Feeling brave, I ordered a fish plate, which they ended up serving raw. Fortunately, we had wifi and were able to look up how to ask them to cook it. Apparently, this kind of fish would be ruined if they cooked it the way I like it, so they kindly offered to take it back, and prepared a different fish for me that was smothered in a tasty poppy seed sauce. They didn’t even charge us for both, which I thought was above and beyond great customer service. I would have gladly paid for both. I don’t know what kind of fish they ended up serving me, but it tasted great (which is saying something, because I’m pretty picky when it comes to seafood).

Dinner in Annecy

After snagging a couple pictures of the city lights across the lake, we made our way back to our Airbnb to retire for the night. We had a big day of exploring and paragliding the next day, so we needed to get rested up. Have you ever experienced Turin, Aosta, Chamonix, Annecy, or any town we missed in between? We’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading about our adventures, we hope they inspire you to get out there and make your own.

Nice and The French Riviera

Nice and The French Riviera

Occasionally, plans go to shit. Regardless if it’s your life plan, Friday night plans with friends & family, or the most triumphant travel plan you’ve made for southern France. On this particular occasion it left Dustin and I the chance to explore Nice and the French Riviera.

Original Plans

Verdon Gorge
Photo credit by Paolo Bertinetto

We try to not plan too heavily when traveling, because we like having the flexibility to change it as we go or explore sites deeper than would typically be offered in a group tour setting. However, some planning is a little necessary when using credit card points to book hotel stays, flights, and excursions. We decided to make Nice, France our base for the next few days so we could drift between the city and Verdon Gorge, a river canyon. It was formed by the Verdon River, named for its startling turquoise-green color, and is considered one of Europe’s most breathtaking canyons. Craving some high adventure, we booked a white-water rafting trip on the Verdon River through the Gorge with our extra Chase Reward points. The plan was to meet our guides in Castellane, France early that morning, float the river, and return to Nice to explore the city that evening. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans. Due to a torrential rain storm that was expected that day, our rafting excursion got canceled. A bit disappointed, I was anticipating a headache trying to get the points we had expended back. However, the rafting company and Chase refunded our points without any cranial damages, much to my relief.

Nice, France

Licking our wounds of disappointment, we decided to check out the old town area of Nice. Being the second largest French city nestled along the Mediterranean coast, Nice is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Monaco and has historically switched hands between the French and Italians as both countries garnered for power of the strategic seaport. Old town, or Vieux Nice, has narrow winding streets, a jumble of pastel colored houses, busy street markets, a few Catholic churches, and hordes of tourists.

If you aren’t within walking distance to old town, I would recommend seeking parking at the Palais de Justice. It was fairly easy to navigate to, and opens to one of the many cozy squares within Vieux Nice. You’ll also find a nearby pharmacy if you are in need of more sunscreen.

We wandered the compact streets for most of the morning, wondering where the supposed storm was, but enjoying the atmosphere. I mean we couldn’t complain too much sitting in a busy square watching the people around us as we devoured delicious gelato. After we got our fill of the colorful streets, we decided it was time to hit the world-famous French Riviera beach.

French Riviera-Cote d’Azur

Cote d’Azur or the French Riviera is considered the jewel of the Mediterranean coast in France. Don’t get me wrong, the city and coast are gorgeous; but perhaps the sandy beaches of the Algarve in Portugal spoiled us.  In everything I’ve read about the French Riviera, somehow I missed the fact that the beaches are made up of rocks rather than sand. Even still we had an enjoyable experience. We laid our towels out, and were able to get comfortable enough on our bed of rocks to stretch out for an hour or two reading and enjoying the beach. The sea looked less and less inviting with the approaching storm, but Dusty took one for the team and jumped in, we couldn’t come this far and not have at least one of us go for a swim. I’m glad it was him and not me because getting out and walking on the hard rocks with frozen feet didn’t look like an enjoyable experience. Plus, I was having a good hair day and didn’t want to tempt fate by dousing it in salt water.

While we lied on the beach we saw an overlook tower to the East. We decided not to venture that way for a couple reasons. One we couldn’t really tell how far it was and we didn’t know if parking was feasible, and two the storm coming in wasn’t going to make for high visibility. However, had any of those factors not been present, we would have climbed up for a view. We researched it later and it’s actually part of the grounds of the old Nice Castle, where its ruins can also be seen. The walk wouldn’t have been too far, and the stairs up to it look like a reasonable climb. On a clear day, it would totally be worth it.

Soon the gurgling of our stomachs and the threatening storm clouds told us we needed to find some lunch. I have a friend that collects Hard Rock Cafe pins, and when he heard that we were going to France he asked if I had time to stop at a Hard Rock Cafe and purchase a pin for his collection. I confess that I really hadn’t intended to find time for this request. First, I’m not big on souvenirs. I prefer to capture memories through photography as my keepsakes. Secondly, when I travel I want to experience the country or place I’m visiting, so I usually dip into the local cuisine rather than seeking food I can get locally.  My friend was lucky enough that our original travel plans went to shit, the darkening storm clouds promised imminent rain, and a Hard Rock Cafe was located along the Riviera.  We strolled down the Riviera taking in the boardwalk along the coast on our way to the cafe. The rain started drizzling just as we got seated and soon turned into the storm that we had been promised.  The cafe quickly filled with others seeking a respite from the rain, and I was glad we arrived when we did. After eating our lunch and picking up a pin to add to my friend’s collection we delayed heading out into the street hoping the heaviest part of the storm would pass, but it wasn’t relenting. I was still trying to keep my good hair day intact, so armed with a towel stretched across our heads as a make-shift umbrella we decided to brave the rain.

Terrorist Attack Memorial

On our stroll to the Hard Rock Cafe, we quickly passed a memorial for those victims of the Nice terrorist attack. So after lunch, in the rain, with our ridiculous make-shift umbrella we went to explore the memorial. On the evening of July 14, 2016 at least 84 people were killed and 202 injured when a man deliberately drove a truck into the hordes of people celebrating Bastille Day. Mowing people down with the truck and firing gunshots for 1.2 miles down the Promenade des Anglais, the boardwalk we had just strolled down to find some lunch. Officers gave chase, and the driver was killed by police ending the violence. We were visiting Nice in September of 2016 just a month and a half after this horrible tragedy, and it was comforting to see how residents and tourist had come together to honor those lost in the senseless act of one man. The atmosphere was somber, but also hopeful. Our expressions in the picture we took here are more a reaction to our make-shift umbrella than to the memorial. I mean we just had that moment when we flipped the camera on our phone around and realized we’d been walking down the street looking like idiots with our towel umbrella. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, life would be dull.

We drove back to our hotel and spent the evening sauntering down the west coastline until it was dark and we were exhausted.

I can’t wait to go back and explore the Verdon Gorge, but I wouldn’t trade our spontaneous day in Nice along the French Riviera. I’d love to hear your experiences if you’ve spent some time in Southern France or if you have any recommendations for other places to go white water rafting. Happy Adventuring!

 

Sao Lourenco, Algarve Beaches, Calanques in Marseille, and Drive to Nice

Sao Lourenco, Algarve Beaches, Calanques in Marseille, and Drive to Nice

Our last day in the Algarve was a rather lazy one. We started our day off with a visit to an old Catholic church called the Sao Lourenco, then relaxed for most of the afternoon on one of the sandy Algarve beaches, then finished our day with dinner at an Argentine steakhouse. The next day was an early morning to catch our flight to France where we started off with a visit to the calanques in Marseille before taking a drive to Nice.

Sao LourencoSao Lourenco

We got up on the morning of our last day in Portugal and went to see the Sao Lourenco church. This is another gem we would have missed if it weren’t for the recommendations of Roger the Brit. The Sao Lourenco doesn’t look much different than any other church from the outside, what sets it apart is on the inside. The surfaces of the interior walls and ceiling are covered with a unique blue and white tile called azulejos. Azulejos were not only used for decoration, but they also served to control interior temperature. The azulejos inside the San Lourenco depict the life of Saint Lawrence.  He was a pretty bad ass dude who got killed for giving money to the poor instead of Emperor Decius. The walls and ceilings depict him healing two blind men, giving money to the poor, talking with the pope, getting whipped with rods, seared with irons, and thrown over a mound of coals to die… like I said, total badass.

Photography isn’t allowed in the chapel, but who’s to say that someone couldn’t accidentally open the camera on the cell phone placed on their lap and snag a few pictures of the ceiling?

Beach

After our busy day of dolphin chasing and cave exploring, we decided it was time to hit the beach for some relax. The beach was a bit more crowded than it was when we jogged it the previous day. Being an American, I’m not too used to the liberal nature of European beaches; a lotta boobs, and a lotta wang. Once you get over the initial shock, it’s not that big of a deal, they’re just bodies. I asked Kendra if she wanted to be adventurous and walk along the beach in the buff, we didn’t have the balls to do it though. Maybe next trip… or never.

Parilla Restaurant

Parilla RestaurantFor dinner, we found an Argentine steakhouse called Parilla about a mile away from our hotel. This was probably one of the best dining experiences I had in Portugal. The exterior dining area had a pretty cool atmosphere with lights wrapped around each limb of the large trees, giving a soft amber light. Everything one needs for an evening of romance.

We ordered a couple starters. The one that sticks out in my memory was a cheese plate. They brought it in what I will describe as similar to a deviled egg platter. In each dip was a delightful dab of melted cheese with all sorts of herbs. Kendra had a beat salad, which looked like ass. The steaks were rather amazing and we topped them off with a dark chocolate ice cream and cheese cake for dessert. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend you try it out.

We got up for an early flight out of the Faro airport. Our connecting flight was in Lisbon, and then off to Marseille in southern France. Flights between European countries tend to be pretty cheap, so we didn’t bother to use any points. We just did a google flight search and found some tickets for around $80 a person. Kendra sat by a guy that only spoke French, yet he was determined to have a conversation with us. I still don’t know to this day what we were talking about. He’d point at things to try to explain what he was saying, and when I gave up trying to understand what he was talking about, I’d just nod my head as if I understood, and this seemed to suffice for him. I still don’t know what we talked about. Pretty friendly for a French dude.

We landed in Marseille and were able to get our luggage and rental car fairly quickly. We were a little nervous for the drive through Marseille as the road map looked like mom’s spaghetti. We had a few missed turns and a couple hectic bouts of re-routing, but we were able to make it through. One of the wrong turns allowed us to get some cool views of the town and the dock area. We were also able to snag a couple views of the Chateau D’If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.

Calanques

Calanques in MarseilleThe reason we flew into Marseille is that we wanted to see the calanques. Calanques are narrow steep walled inlets cut into the limestone along the Mediterranean coast of southern France. A large group of them between Marseille and Cassis were designated as national park in 2012. The pictures we found online looked beautiful, and this is one of the things we were the most excited to see in France. Being diligent planners, we google mapped the route. Knowing we’d be there around lunch time, we found one inlet that had a restaurant. We quickly learned that just because a road goes there, doesn’t mean you can use it. There’s a cutoff point where only locals can continue to drive through by car, everyone else has to get out and walk. So there we were after a flight, with no water in our camel backs, and a little grumpy from dealing with the maze of streets that is Marseille…. why not hike a mile up and over a mountain?

Le LunchThough not the smartest idea, the sights were breathtaking. We eventually made it to the other side where we figured we could get some water to go with our lunch. Wrong again, the restaurant was closed. Luckily, there was another restaurant a little further down the hillside that served seafood. This was our first experience with the language barrier in France, which is a much larger barrier than it was in Portugal… not a whole lot of English speakers in this particular area. We stumbled our way through getting a table, and Kendra (not knowing the word for water) just said “Coke”… the universal drink in any language.

Our Cokes arrived like manna from heaven, and we were left trying to google translate the French menu to find something edible. Kendra isn’t a huge seafood fan, so she opted for some dish that involved tomatoes and eggplant according to google. I chose a shrimp and risotto plate. What ensued could only be described as the worst meal of my life. It was like eating moldy ass underwear with skid marks. Kendra’s eggplant thing had the consistency of mushy meatloaf topped with curdled tomato paste, and mine was like trying to chew a disembodied rubber chicken. The restaurant is called Le Lunch and I would avoid it like a plague, unless you’re in desperate need of a refreshing Coke.

We sat at the beach and enjoyed the Calanques as we let our “food” settle as neither of us wanted to experience a bulimic buffet, and contemplated the steep hike back to our car. Not 200 yards into our trek, a jovial French man pulled over and waved for us to get in. Visions of getting raped, brutally murdered, and buried in the French hillside only to be forgotten by my American friends and family flashed through my brain. I compared that against the thought of enduring the hike back over in the blistering heat without any water, and it was a rather easy decision to make. We quickly hopped into the air-conditioned paradise of his back seat. I’m glad to say there was no rape, murder, or burial. He was a nice fellow. We tried to pay him for his kindness, but he refused. He dropped us off at our car and we were back on the road and headed to Nice.

Holiday Inn Saint Laurent Du VarWe stayed in the Holiday Inn Saint Laurent Du Var. We used 70,000 points that we got from our Chase IHG card to book a two-night stay. It’s a bit of an older property and not quite as fancy as the others we had stayed at on our trip, but it had magnificent views of the French Riviera and Mediterranean Sea. After we got settled we walked along the coast and found a nice pizza joint called Tortolla. It was a nice reprieve from the shit ass lunch we had earlier. They had English menus, and the title said it all, “This is Eat!”Tortolla

Moral of the story: contrary to popular belief, the French are not all ass holes. In under 12 hours, I met two: one really friendly, and another that took time out of his day to save us a trip over the mountain. And later in the trip, we met one who paid for our parking since the meter was not accepting our credit card. Turns out Dumb and Dumber is not the absolute truth when it comes to paradigms by which I should live my life.

Have you ever been to any of these places? If so, I’d love to hear about any of your experiences. Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be more than happy to get back to you.