Saturday is a travelling day for us. We packed up last night and were away from the villa by 8.00 am. We drove back to Florence the same way as we had travelled to in the first place and headed for the Avis office near the station. We got a little lost & separated but managed to find the right place to leave the cars after 30 or so minutes of driving along narrow one-way streets.
The train from Florence to Milan was a standard train with compartments of six seats. It left a few minutes late and it was a reasonably straight forward trip through Bologne & Moderna (where Ferraris are made). We had a quick change of train in Milan – two platforms away and a comfortable train to Nice. I thought that we might have been catching one of the fast trains on this trip but it was only the standard train that stopped at all stations. Our route took us through Genoa so we were able to get a number of glimpses of the Mediteranean coast along the way although a lot of the latter part of the trip was through tunnels. We stopped at Monte Carlo just before arriving at Nice but the station there was an underground one and there was nothing whatsoever to see. I did take a photo of the sign just to show that we were there. We got into Nice at about 8.00 pm, had a quick meal at the restaurant across the road on the corner and called it a day.
On Sunday we had planned to take the little narrow gauge train called the Chemin De Fer de Provence into the mountains behind Nice. The train gets its name from chemin de fer meaning ‘pine cone’ – the method for starting the fire in the original steam engines. Hence it is called the ‘Pine Cone’ Train. This little train (now a diesel rail car) is run by Connex and travels through some quite spectacular mountain country and river gorges to a little spa resort called Digne les Bains. We travelled for about 2/3 of the way to the little village of St Andres des Alpes. This quaint little village is the hang gliding center of France and we did see a number of gliders as we walked down to the town from the station. Because it was Sunday, very few shops were open and we had to use our imagination to picture what might have been behind the closed shutters on some of the little shops and patisseries. We did manage to find a restaurant open for lunch where we enjoyed a pizza of all things. We continued our walk around the town on our way back to the station to catch the train back to Nice and watched a couple of fellows playing a game of Patonque (like Bocce). They had a great level of skill in being able to throw the ball in a back-handed way to exactly the right place. Our train left at 2.44 pm. It seems that most of the trains that we have caught have left at quite a specific time such as 9.33 or 10.47 and it appears that narrow guage railways are no exception).
By this time of the day, the sun had become quite warm and it was getting a little hot with it coming through the windows of the train. We had a real conflict between closing the curtains on the wlndows to avoid the sun, or leaving them open to see the scenery. Mostly the scenery won!
Attached to the station at Nice was a little cafe area with a polished marble floor. Here, to our curiosity (and amusement) were a number of middle aged couples having a wonderful time doing ballroom dancing. They were very evocative in their style and I was reminded of a joke from one of my old friends about the reason as to why the Baptist’s don’t have sex while standing is that it may lead to dancing! What else to do as we watched but take a photo of course!
At night we walked for about 15 minutes down to the port area of Nice to one of the seafood restaurants for dinner. We were served by a delightful lady who could understand my very rudimentary French and seemed most happy when I called her Mademoiselle rather than Madame.
The restaurant was by the harbour which was full of some very large boats. In fact, it looked like there were some seriously large insurance policies floating behind the sea wall.
On Monday morning, we walked down through the old part of town through its little narrow and winding streets towards the beach. This area was full of the usual shops selling everything from T-shirts to shoes. The very practical Wilsons bought a brightly coloured table cloth for our family room.
We continued on, finding the law courts with the usual collection of worried looking people who were dressed up in their Sunday best as you can usually find around this sort of building. Further along we found an outdoor market and eventually reached the broad ‘Promenade Des Anglais’ which follows the beach for six or seven kilometres.
The beach here is a pebble one but that doesn’t deter people from lying on their towels and sunbaking. Many women of all ages, shapes and sizes go topless and wear the skimpiest of clothing but I didn’t really look very closely or take too much notice. The beach has alternating sections of public space and private sections where you can hire a deck chair or buy a drink.
We found a little tourist (vehicle) train on the promenade which offered a 40 minute tour. We had a meandering ride through the streets and up to the old castle site above the harbour. I wasn’t sure whether I stood out more as a tourist or just a big kid as we chortled through the streets with the driver ringing the bell. There was a good commentary and we later had rides on similar trains in Monte Carlo and Arles. These trains are a obviously a popular way to see the sites in this part of the world.
We met up with the others after lunch and picked up our van. We had set the afternoon aside to drive to Monaco. There are three roads that travel around the steep hills to Monaco – an elevated highway (corniche) up high, a slower middle road and a windy road close to sea level. The man at the Avis office gave us directions for getting on the middle corniche which enabled us to stop occasionally to take photos and get some spectacular views.
Monte Carlo is a bustling place with narrow winding streets and a mass of apartment buildings that cling to the hillside. The Formula One Grand Prik is to be held in the following week and a good number of streets were closed off. We were amazed at how the support crews were managing to get their semi trailers around tight corners and into tight car parks. We drove down part of the track under an enormous advertising sign for Fosters Brewing.
We expected that it would be very difficult to park anywhere but just by luck we managed to find a car park right near the Palace which was one of the major sites that we wanted to see. I could remember the palace being a light shade of pink from a previous business trip but now the it seems to be a light cream color.
There is a great view of the Principality from the Palace and I could identify the hotel (now the Monaco Grand) where I stayed last time I was there on a business trip. I noticed that there were a number of small pyramids of cannon balls outside the Palace. On closer inspection I saw that all the cannon balls were welded together – perhaps they were used to visiting Australians wanting to take a souvenir home!
We travelled back to Nice on the bottom road as it was the only one that we could find. It was a bit twisty & windy but it got us back in time for another dinner of mussels and seafood.
We had worked out that we would never get 8 people and all the luggage into the one van that we had booked so we arranged to rent another car from Avis. Rob & I walked down to their depot to pick it up and after getting back to the hotel and loading everything into both vehicles we were ready to leave for Arles. We had a good trip passing a few mountain ranges and some diverse scenery. By now we are well & truly experts at driving on the right side of the road. The landscape became noticeably more flat as we approached Arles and the Camargue area of the Rhone River delta.