November 13, 2016
Our time at home over the holidays is fantastic. Surprising the families somehow manages to go off without a hitch and along with looks of shock, there are plenty of tears and happiness. Contrary to our firm belief that the seven weeks at home would eventually start to drag, it actually flies by and before we know it we’re back on a plane and Paris-bound. Leaving family seems to get harder each time and this is the hardest departure yet. While there isn’t the outright crying from our last visit, the mood the day before we leave is definitely subdued. In fact, the extreme dry, the cold and the stress has sent my body into a frenzy of blistered and itching annoyances; in addition to the worst case of eczema I’ve had in years, add a crazy round of dyshidrosis and piles and I can assure you that I’m not easy company.
After our last experience with Delta Airlines, we’re rightfully nervous about our day – but to be fair, the staff on this flight are excellent and with a nearly empty plane from Minneapolis, spirits are high with everyone onboard. An East-Indian man two rows back offers to buy a round of drinks for everyone in our section – a gesture that’s met with loud cheers. However, before he can make the purchase the stewards announce free wine on tonight’s flight which elicits an even bigger celebration. Once the excitement dies down, our minds are filled with our families, our plans and the future. Our hearts know the adventure remains the right thing for us and we know our families believe the same.
Landing in Charles de Gaulle, we hear a group of tourists negotiating €130 cab rides into Paris – twice the normal cost. Skipping the taxi lines, we make our way by RER train into Gare du Nord and our combined €18 fare is a steal. Sure the train is covered in graffiti and it looks like it’s from the wrong part of town, but what it lacks in style it makes up for in convenience. The only real hiccup on the trip is my tickets refusal to open the gate allowing me to leave the Paris train station and, after watching others jump and crash the gates, I finally wait for an opening before dashing through. Less than an hour in the city and I’ve already broken the law.
A very short cab ride drops us at our apartment for the next few days. Located right above a brasserie owned by our hosts, it sits along the river Seine and provides a brief walk to both the Musée du Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris.
While we’re recovering from jet-lag we hope to enjoy some of the Paris landmarks we didn’t see before Christmas. Surprisingly, our bodies seem well synced with Paris-time and getting out of bed in the morning isn’t a problem. The day is cold and, halfway along our walk to the Louvre, snow begins to fall adding a definite bite to the air.
The Louvre itself is simply stunning and something we’ll surely never forget – there’s so much to see that I hardly think a week of visits would do it justice. Far from the crowds lining up for the Mona Lisa, the Louvres immense size allows us to walk its ornate halls and various chambers free of the hustle and bustle found around da Vinci’s famous lady. After taking in ancient sculptures, massive tapestries, and hallway after hallway of paintings, we take a moment to visit the enigmatic lady – though I think we spend more time watching the crowds hurry around her with the hope of having a picture taken in her presence. There are so many things to see here, but this one painting seems to have captured the publics imagination more than anything else.
Our walk home is cold and, as we pass by Notre Dame de Paris we take a moment to revel in her beauty. Even with all of it’s history, we can’t help but think of Quasimodo and smile at the story that brings magic to this place. We’re children at heart. But with a prickly bitterness biting our faces, the pace of our walk home increases and soon enough we’re enjoying a view of the Seine from the comfort of the our tiny apartment.
The next day takes us into the heart of the fifth district to visit a camping store we’ve heard plenty about – Au Vieux Campeur – and once we find it we can see why people are impressed by it. Rather than residing within a single building like MEC or REI, Au Vieux Campeur is spread across ten or eleven smaller storefronts with each store offering a unique mix of products. Every corner in this area of Paris seems to house a different version of the store – camping gear here, backpacks there and sleeping bags down the street. It’s not entirely convenient but it does seem to make an adventure out of visiting the stores!
With our time in Paris at an end, booking tickets to Nice presents us with a nasty surprise. The first-class tickets heading North that we purchased for €60 in December have been replaced by €175 tickets heading South. Ouch. Opting for second-class still costs €100 but, to our surprise, the accommodations are just as good (and filled with younger folks). We board the TGV at Gare du Lyon and, as we pass through central France, the grey sky shrouds snow-covered fields; winter still has a tight grasp here. It’s not until the train begins to head east along the Mediterranean that the sun emerges and it’s light fills the car, warming us with a sense of relief.
The ocean rolls past us to our right which seems to remind us that we’re far from home and instantly rekindles the feeling of excitement that has been hibernating in Calgary’s cold winter. Soon, the train arrives in Antibes and we catch a brief (but expensive) cab ride to our apartment in Villeneuve-Loubet for the next week. The buildings rise from the beach like giant cruise ships – completely out of place for the surrounding area – and our home is owned by Suzanne and Donald who also own the gîte in Valbonne that welcomed us to the Riviera just a couple of months ago. This time, we’re met by their son Christopher who seems equally kind and quickly lets us know that should we need anything during our stay, his office is nearby.
Our plan to stay in Villeneuve-Loubet for a week is based mostly on the anticipation of jet-lag. Every time we fly long distance we seem to be incapacitated for at least a week. Indeed, during our surprise visit to Calgary our Christmas day excitement was crushed by a need to fall asleep at two in the afternoon while surrounded by family! However, our journey back has been much kinder to our bodies making it easier to wake up at a time I’ve always aspired to. As seven-thirty in the morning rolls around, our eyes open and we’re met with a bright orange sun filling the sky with fire. This apartment is amazing.
We spend our first day getting acquainted with everything in walking distance. The marina where Donald and Christopher work is lined with cafés, restaurants and even a grocery store for our supplies. We hit the most basic of the restaurants for breakfast before hitting the market for the weeks’ supplies. Mostly though, we take our time walking the length of the beach. Even with seven weeks, the time at home felt full – and at times rushed; our first day here, on this boardwalk, seems to slow down time once again.
My heart is calm and the various maladies I’ve brought back with me seem to appreciate the pace. Walking back along the beach towards the apartment we watch school kids preparing to take sailing lessons in the Mediterranean. They wait excitedly while the teachers push them out one by one and, once adrift, a man in a zodiac pulls beside them to give them instruction. It makes us think of days along Fareham Beach watching Terrence sail with Kath, Ian, Claire and Grace; it’s amazing that something can transport us to an alternate moment with such ease. The colourful sails fill with air, move effortlessly towards the horizon and we make our way back for a night in.
For nearly eight weeks I’ve been thinking about the bikes, all locked up in their storage unit at Shurgard in Nice. While I’m sure they’re fine, I have had images of mice making nests in our helmets – or worse yet – my boots which I’ve become very fond of. Since cabs in France are so expensive, we decide to catch a train to Nice and walk the hour it will take to get to the storage unit. The train is about €5 which is a far sight better than the €60 it would likely cost to cab it. Here, the taxis charge for the journey to you in addition to the actual fare so depending on where they’re coming from it could be €20 before we’ve even moved.
The train system here is also too easy to ignore; everything is well marked and, for us at least, it’s still fun to ride with the locals. It takes us about ten minutes to get from Villeneuve-Loubet to Nice, and then the long walk begins. At first, it’s lovely – walking along streets that are lined with cafés and shops, but soon we’re walking along a major road, through an industrial area and past a high-school where schoolgirls seem to gather in small groups. We smile as we walk past and they busy themselves with cell-phones, smokes and tug at tight, short skirts. Soon the sidewalk itself disappears and we’re left with a choice of walking the center-line or along the side of the road. We choose a mix of both, passing a group of Algerian men who’ve become suddenly silent, and dart back across to a sliver of a walkable road. Soon enough we’re off the main road and wandering down some industrial side-streets – still without a sidewalk, but no longer with traffic zipping by us at high speed.
After an hour we arrive at our unit. Sweaty and relieved, I think we both feel excited about the reunion. With fingers crossed, I unlock the unit and roll up the door; everything’s exactly as we left it – no mice sleeping in our helmets, no critters in our boots. The last test is the batteries; did they make it through the eight weeks? With only the slightest protest, the Shorai batteries fire up and the bikes roar to life. My previous concerns with Nita’s battery seems to disappear instantly. Thoroughly re-checking our gear for winter guests, we load our bikes and head for our apartment in Villeneuve-Loubet; being back on the bikes feels incredible! We’re reunited with our kids and that familiar feeling of movement that’s only possible on a bike once again fills us with joy. At this moment, there’s nothing that could dampen our spirits.
With only one wrong turn (it’s a daily thing) we pull into the garage at the apartment. As Nita pulls off her helmet, it reveals a fantastic smile; she’s giddy. We spend some time with the bikes before heading inside for a home-cooked meal to celebrate the day.
That evening I receive an email from Shurgard informing me that I have a refund waiting for the unused portion of the month, and to send them an IBAN number for the transfer. Since Canadian banks use SWIFT codes instead of IBAN numbers, I send along my information and quickly receive a call letting me know that refunds can only be given using an IBAN account. Damn. Another lesson: ask how a refund will be issued. I assumed that since the storage was being paid for by credit card it would be refunded to the same card. Wrong. Luckily our apartments owner allows us to use her account for the refund and agrees to let us pick it up at a later date.
The next morning we catch the train to what is now one of our favourite places. Through the cold days of Calgary’s winter, Antibes has been calling our name. Its beach was the first place our toes met the Mediterranean and the markets we’re a hub of activity that left any visitor feeling more alive. Arriving in the middle of town, we walk the streets toward the markets and soon we’re surrounded by all manner of tasty treat. Whereas the last market was antiques and clothes, this is a mix of wines, meats, chocolates and pastries. We’re in heaven! Vendors offer samples to every passer-by and we happily accept some truffle-infused salami. It’s ridiculous. These people know a good thing.
We grab a crêpe for lunch and walk to le Musée de Picasso (Antibes), located along the water in the Château Grimaldi. Picasso used the studio in 1946 and the top floor of the museum is dedicated to his time there with some wonderful photographs of him working in the space. While it has a small collection of his work, the other floors are dedicated to some wonderful works by other artists such as Nicolas de Staël, Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman and offer an insight into the heavyweight artistic community that rallied around the town from the mid-’40s to the ‘70s.
Feeling quite full with cultural impressions, we take a moment to relax with a view of the sea. These moments, this stillness – it makes everything seem to make sense. Our bodies relax, our minds find quiet, and our senses are simply filled with the sounds of the water and the warmth of the sun on our faces. The sun is moving lower in the sky and we say our goodbyes to Antibes as we make our way back to the train for our short trip home. With a glass of wine and a pipe, we watch the sun burn a deep orange as it drops behind the water. Today was glorious.
Our second-last day has us catching the train in the other direction; Nice is calling for a days visit and we have a plan to meet up with our friend Koray, who we met last time we were there. The weather is beautiful and the streets are filled with people going about a bustling Saturday. The Christmas Market that lined the streets and it’s Ferris wheel that dominated the skyline during our last visit are long gone and instead Carnival de Roi des Cinq Continents has taken its place.
Returning to our favourite spot along Cours Saleya, lunch is spent moving from table to table hoping to eventually find a piece of the sun on its open patio. Our waiter, a British ex-pat is incredibly patient with us as we find a spot that provides warmth in the cool air and a seat soft enough for my aching behind. After our fifth attempt at a table, I can hardly look him in the eye but he simply laughs it off and brings out some fabulous looking food. While we eat, a rockabilly trio sets up a few meters away from us and begins to play. At one point the double-bass player drops his instrument on its side and all three of them hop on top of it to finish the set. It’s turning into a great afternoon!
Moving away from the crowds, we wander the boardwalk slowly, watching the flower-covered floats getting prepared for the evenings’ parade along the now closed Quai des États-Unis. With part of the boardwalk closed, we head for Rue Massena and dash into a store; there, finally, we find French flag stickers for the bikes. You’d think that this would be easy – especially in a country that seems to enjoy such a nationalist joie de vivre, but even Koray would later admit that finding them is quite a task. We wonder if it’s par for the course in Europe where so many countries exist in such close proximity, or if it’s part of the collective post-war conscience. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shying away from too much flag waving and nationalistic drum-beating much like Canada. Whatever the case, the absence of these little flags is interesting.
The shop itself seems little more than a dusty collection of items gathered from a grandmother’s attic. We’re met with scowls as we enter and the thought crosses our minds that this place is filled with items the owner would rather not sell. Still, we spot a cardboard display lined with stickers that have been wired to it much like a motorcycle racer would wire important parts of their bike to keep them from flying off. We find our stickers, pay too much for them and leave with little more than a grunt for our trouble. While this may have annoyed me in the past, now meetings like this make me smile. It’s all part of the journey.
A phone call from Koray has us moving through the city towards the beach – we’re meeting at the same café as last time and the same place we enjoyed our rockabilly lunch today. Seeing us return for dinner, our waiter smiles and reminds us that there are still plenty of tables we’ve yet to try. Quite the joker. Our dinner with Koray is great and, filled with great laughs and good stories, it seems even more relaxed than the first time we met. Before he rushes off to a birthday party, we make a plan to visit him and his wife for dinner on our return journey. We meet a lot of people, but we’ve also met a handful on this trip who will always be our friends. It’s a beautiful thought.
After dinner, we make the trek up to the Château de Nice which sits high atop a hill overlooking the city and its views don’t disappoint! About half-way up the hundreds of stairs required to reach the top, I realize a bathroom break is in order. Assuming that bathrooms would be available at the top, we continue only to find out that, once more, my assumptions are completely wrong. With the washrooms closed, it’s a race to the bottom and a finish line disguised as a public toilet. Live and learn.
By the time we head for the train, the light has completely disappeared from the sky and the shimmering lights of the Carnival light our way. The streets are just as packed now as they were hours ago and everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying the cool night air. In no time we’re back on our patio, listening to the water lap the beach below and enjoy a nightcap before turning in.
There’s an excitement that greets us the next morning; we’re packing the bikes and getting ready to hit the road again. The jet-lag we planned for never truly arrived and we’re still getting up early enough to have the mornings feel lazy. Once again we’re greeted by the deep orange of the sun as it rises above the sea and, after a coffee and breakfast, we quickly set about an initial repack of the bikes. One of the tasks is to replace a bulb in one of my PIAA Cross Country HID lamps – something that we’re not supposed to do! Apparently, they prefer owners to send the lamps back to them for service which, unfortunately, makes them impractical for overlanding in countries other than the US. Still, with a couple of emails to Trail-Tech I’m told of a
compatible lamp (no longer available) and, after bringing them back with me, the install is done in a matter of minutes. They’re not cheap, but less than a new light and faster than sending everything back to PIAA. With our bikes prepped, and most of our gear loaded we spend the remainder of the day enjoying the area we’ve grown so fond of. It’s hard to believe that this week has passed already, but Italy is calling.
In the morning we meet up with Suzanne, who’s come to collect the keys and return our deposit. She a fantastic woman, and after some warm goodbyes we pack the last of our gear onto the bikes and begin the short journey to the Franco-Italian border before moving on to our night’s stop in Arenzano.
We’re on our bikes again.