Friday, September 30, 2005

To Lourdes

Departed Nice at 7am, passing Marseilles Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse and entering Lourdes around 4pm. The stretch from Narbonne to Toulouse was particularly painful as there was something of a demonstration by hundreds of truck drivers doing a “go slow” for miles and miles.

en route to GrottoWe checked into the local Ibis hotel, which if nothing else had secure parking. The place smells rather damp and mouldy and the “free wifi” turns out to be “you’re free to pay Orange huge sums for hourly access to their radio mast”.

Half a block away and a quick staircase descent is the route route to the "Grotto" where Bernadette had her "visions" in 1858. The deluded shepherdess would not recognise the area which is now a Catholic Graceland or Las Vatgas. There must be miles of shops selling bottles for holding water from the grotto, plus innumerable other bits of trinketry for the faithful.

The road is jammed with wheelchair-borne pilgrims, often pushed by nuns. The water from the source is there to cure every ailment or need, except foolishness or false hope. Earthbound? Starch your wimple with Lourdes water and take to the air!
Alliance Catholique Fort & Museum of the Pyrenees 
Jerusalem in LourdesIf you're not already lame, then impatient drivers on the Rue de la Grotto will happily mow you down, and drag your bleeding body to the end of the road, so that you can be revived by the waters and shop your way back to the top.

There are probably thousands of such “visions” and “visitations” seen by people every day in places like India, but it takes the money and political clout of the church to build an industry around a site like this. Bah humbug.
Lourdes fountain20050929 Nice to Lourdes (4)

We could not pass through the outer gates to the zone around the Grotto – truly heavenly creatures like Bondi are not permitted. I’m sure they don’t want any competition!

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Canny canine in Cannes

Final day in Nice / Cote d’Azure.

Bondi was up at 3am coughing up pieces of mastodon bone. Spent the morning on laundry and reconsolidation of luggage. We then drove over to Jane’s apartment to do email and use the clothes drier. I looked for accommodation around Toulouse, but everything suitable and affordable was booked out, so I booked a hotel in Lourdes, another hour onwards toward Spain.

Went down to the Cannes waterfront to sight-see. The beaches there are actually sand, but expect to pay upwards of 10 euro for the privilege of a spot. While the grand hotel Carlton Intercontinental is an imposing sight, I can’t see that Cannes offers more than (say) Manly Corso and surrounding beaches. Paying 3,70 euro for a so-so coffee is also a steep tax (compared to 0,90 – 1,00 euro in Italy). Sent off some more postcards for the internet-deprived and Simone’s real - albeit terribly belated - birthday present ;-).

On the way back through Antibes, we stopped at the pebbly beach for a swim – David skipped that, while I went in and took the opportunity to bathe Bondi, who was getting a bit grey around the gills from city pavements. Wrapped up the evening at an OTT Thai restaurant at Villeneuve: large goldfish swam under the glass floor of the entrance area.
It was quite a relief taking the final drive up to the Les Seoules gîte: even the sense of occasion in passing the spot where Hannibal’s second wave of elephants fell due to excessive nose-bleeds, was not enough to compensate for the twists and turns of that mountain ridge.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Saint-Paul & Port of Nice

David had an interview today at the Sophia Antipolis business park, a local emulation of Silicon Valley. He suggested that Bondi and I visit another hilltop village: Saint-Paul betwixt Cagnes-sur-Mer and Vence.
After loading up on bulk canine food at a local garden centre, we got to Saint-Paul around 11.30 and began by walking around half of its fort-like ramparts. Inside the walls, Saint-Paul was a larger version of Èze. While very pretty, it was heavily populated by painting and bijoux (jewellery) ateliers purveying dining-room art and liver-spot-disguising bangles. Bondi got another three or four fountains ticked off his list before reclining beside my table for lunch. I settled into Augusten Burroughs’ Magical Thinking, autobiographical tales following up his earlier volumes Running with Scissors and Dry.

Awoke my Tablet PC from slumbers and found that a 2cm vertical strip of the screen digitizer – about 1/ 3 of the way across had failed. Not repairable AFAICT, so it may be heading for retirement after 2.5 years of use. I’m getting a little shirty with Word 2003 right now due to it not holding language formatting on the text I’m writing. This is compounded with a Windows XP SP2 bug which forces English(US) keyboard language to be reinstated on every other reboot, thereby overriding other English-language keyboard settings and thereby f**king up the spell-checking. While this bug was reported in the SP2 beta, non-US English is a 4th-class citizen at Microsoft so I’m not expecting a fix any time soon.

Early in the evening, David took me down to Nice for a real swim in the Mediterranean. I'd left my kayaking boots behind at the gîte, and so found the water entry on a bed of hard pebbles a little hard going, but the water itself was absolutely refreshing. We dined cheaply around at the Port of Nice and admired the luxury boats parked there. David pointed out the large number of water-facing apartments that were probably empty at this time of year. I’ve read that it is not unusual for French families to have multiple residences due to inheritance of diverse properties.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Èze and Grace's

The wearing combination of distance driven (2000 km), nations and languages over the last 10 days is creeping up on me. I really needed to sleep-in this morning: this I did, folded in with sporadic reading of 'Freakonomics'.
Around mid-morning we set off for Monaco, set between Nice and the Italian border. Coming off the A8 highway, we faced a steep descent into the principality that reminded me of entry into an underground parking garage. Not that Monaco is much bigger than one. Certainly, faced between creating an 11-hole golf-course and a mountain to sea (+ reclaimed land) carpet of project housing blocks for tax-refugees and dirty rotten scoundrels, the Grimaldis made a canny choice.

Once into Monaco, we found a parking garage near the foot of the Grimaldi Palace that was so tightly constructed, it took a reverse Heimlich manoeuvre to get us through the ticket gate and then into a parking bay several paint-coats wider than the car. I think the standard exit from parked vehicles here is via sun-roof. Shame on me for not having a convertible, or chauffeur to drop me off before the station!

We found a crack caffeine dealer to propel us up the walkway to the palace, where a crowd had built up to witness the changing of the guard (singular) or one of the royal siblings’ partners - I'm not sure which is more predictable. We sauntered past a clutch of gelato and souvenir shops to the church where Rainier and Grace had married. Bondi, in his European fountain odyssey, stopped to quench his thirst at yet another historic water-display.

Passing through the very nice exotic gardens on the seaward slope, and then the Oceanographic Institute, Bondi made friends with a gaggle of multilingual schoolkids, and I got some photos of the Monte Carlo Casino across the bay (with the requisite f**k-off boats parked in the foreground). At sea-level again, outside the Monte Carlo Yacht club, a passing parade of wide-eyed 5-year olds squealed and screamed as they clustered around Bondi.

David and I enjoyed some cheap club baguettes for lunch and scanned the local newspaper: speeding fines in radar-monitored French roads have been raised from 90 to 750 euro!! We then drove vewy vewy slowly around to the Casino (10th hole, par 4) via a section of the Formula 1 race-track, and enjoyed either ice-creams or more fountain-water, depending on individual taste. Positioned below the Casino are dealerships for Mercedes, Lamborghini etc: it's just like Gloria Jean coffee opening up kitty corner to Starbucks. We didn't visit the Casino proper - the entrance having been cordoned off by police. We speculated that a VVVIP was turning up – perhaps the Pope trying to win extra space for the Vatican (the only state smaller than Monaco) or poll-position for the Popemobile at the next Grand Prix - but it turned out to be just a security scare over an abandoned vehicle.

This was a big disappointment since I thought that visiting here would fulfil memories of playing ABBA's "Money Money Money" on the piano at age 11. My teacher, Sister Celestine, sang along in her octogenarian vibrato: In my dreams/ I have a plan/ if I got me a wealthy man/ I wouldn’t have to work at all, I’d fool around and have a ball... .... So I must leave, I’ll have to go/To Las Vegas or Monaco/And win a fortune in a game, my life will never be the same... ". Such are the dreams of boys and nuns...

In any case, it was all very pretty but ultimately quite sterile. Judging by the kerb-side defibrillator stations, which are more common than telephone booths, the average age here is probably quite high. The apartment blocks, oozing from the water up to the mountain ridge, are unexceptional. My thought on leaving, was that if Dee Why had a private baccarat table, it could give Monaco a run for its money. Perhaps I was just missing out on a louche undercurrent, and just needed a slice of Peter “Jason King” Wyngarde’s When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head album to set the mood: I’d forgotten to burn a CD for the car and the local radio station density hampered attempts to broadcast on FM from my MP3 player.

Beginning with the Basse Corniche, the lowest coastal road, we re-ascended to Èze (pronounced Airs), a very picturesque medieval hilltop village. Touristiana aside, it really is quite an interesting little place; the boutique restaurants and hotels up there making for an incredible weekend getaway. The day, which begun quite cool had by now heated up, and we took some time out in the shade with a citron presse, or prone on cool flagstones, again according to taste.

Finally, we drove back via Ville de France to Nice, (listening to Brazilian Girls and Grace Jones) where we hoped to go for a swim on the public beach. The signs said that dogs weren't welcome, but we were told later that this is never policed. The pebbly plage had a tennis-court sized patch of sand overlaid on one section to give the illusion that you really were close to Dee Why.

We retreated to the old part of the town, wandering through alleyways similar to Genoa, albeit wider and with designer labels attached to the underwear hanging out of windows. I stopped at a butcher to get l'os pour le chien and obtained a bone for Bondi that a mastodon would have found useful. I was still seeing plenty of very large dogs in the streets, these seeming to be favoured over the portable iPoodles seen in other places. Passers-by stopped frequently to enquire after Bondi or share their own big-dog passions.

Stimulated by food fragrances in every street, we had developed quite a hunger. Unfortunately the restaurants were not open till 7pm (over an hour away).

Sitting at a cafe with a cafe of vin ordinaire and a plate of olives, we watched the day markets pack up and the world go by. An acquaintance of David's stopped by and then a friend of that acquaintance. A carafe or two later, it was time for dinner and 3 of us continued on to the more elegant Cafe Voglia for farfalle and a shared crème caramel the size of a meatloaf. Bondi nonchalantly stretched out across the footpath so that the Riviera’s evening strollers had a furry mountain to dodge.

Returning to our gîte dans l'étoiles after 9, our host Mr ----- intercepted us for an aperitif, showing off his wine-making vats, and telling us about his travels around Australia. (Mostly translated for me by David).

Sunday, September 25, 2005

French Riviera Baby!

4 months on the road now.

Bondi has discovered tenants in the flat next door and has gone off to flirt with them several times around breakfast time. No hidden agenda there I'm sure.

David is to meet his friend Jane, who is offering a more permanent share-apartment for him. The instructions to find her look slightly forbidding too - fragments of "take the 4th or 5th exit, I don't remember which" and "at the roundabout, follow the second pigeon". Maybe it's David's handwriting...
Thankfully, it was straightforward finding Jane's apartment near Cannes, 30km west of Nice,. That is, once we'd passed the usual collection of hypoxic sherpas, dizzy mountain-goats and shards of Hebrew-inscribed tablets, on the way down from the Gîte.

After a coffee in her charming garden, and David's acceptance of the apartment offer, we walked down to the local village for a celebratory lunch.
Thunder crackles drove Bondi under our plastic outdoor table for the duration of the meal; his quivering ensuring that the dressing on our salades chèvres were smoothly redistributed. After a carafe or two of rose, we were all quite in sync with his vibrations.

Back at Jane's we completed some email tasks and I finished reading "The Line of Beauty". It was raining softly outside, in an appropriate accompaniment to Hollinghurst's muted ending.

David, Bondi and I drove down to the Antibes marina, which was crammed with infrequently-used vessels ranged in price from the sublime to the entirely unobtainable. First we walked into the old-town pedestrian area and had another coffee, then it was back to the marina's furthest edge where the $$$$ fleet was parked. Jostling for ego-space along this section of the marina, boats competed for adulation with respect to dick- (oops where's the backspace when you need it?) mast-size, number of decks, lighting systems, sand general blinginess. You just knew that the owners had once raced souped-up purple Toranas against the kids from around the corner. Nonetheless they were all just boats, and the crews craned their heads to see the one-and-only Bondi stroll past.
On the way back, we dropped onto a pebbly beach so that Bondi and I could both wet our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time. I'm hoping Bondi's ripples haven't devastated Corsica yet.
Back in the car, we followed the coastline back east towards Nice. The shore is flat, pebbly and mainly forested with inelegant portaloos. Like the much-frequented shores near Provincetown, Mass, your average Australian wouldn't get out of the car if they saw a stretch of coast as unremarkable as this. The multilane road beside it carried us onto the Promenade des Anglais. Here David guided us to a street-van making - he assured me - wonderful pizzas. These we took back to our gîte, with my tummy rumbling all the way up the ridge. They were good.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Tunnelvisions: Genoa to Nice

Restless night not helped by visiting mosquitoes. Rose early enough to make it down to the Genovese old city centre, the Porto Antico, by 9am. Turning the corner away from the hotel, I spotted a large reddish malamute shuffling down the street, perhaps having caught Bondi's odour.

Parked underground without any hassle and ambled along the promenade past a galleon, the Aquarium (Europe's largest) and some of the metallic decorations garnishing architect Renzo Piano's refurbishment of the area.

Walking under this city's version of Sydney's Cahill Expressway, we walked up the stone-paved Via San Lorenzo towards the Cathedral of the same name. After zig-zagging through some narrower streets (not more than 3m wide), I stopped for coffee, a breakfast sandwich and Bondi got some heavy-petting from the locals. The cappucino foam was like an ultra-soft meringue, rather than the Starbucksy froth that resembles dirty detergent foam. Later, on the autostrada, I stopped for another superb cappucino, served quickly and reliably at a quarter the price of the muck I'd been served through most of the UK. If your typical roadside service centre served this quality of coffee, you'd have double encouragement for drivers to take frequent breaks: I'd stop every 100km for a creamy blast like that.

The streets were alive with canines (dogs, not teeth). I'd been told that it's the Italians beyond all that love their dogs and you can see it: dogs walked or attached to shopfronts. Socialised with other dogs and people, there's rarely a sound from them. The Aquarium even advertises a dogsitting service for visitors. In the Ducal square Bondi plays with a large husky amongst the fountains. Large dogs have been common in recent days: Bernese mountain dogs and other less familiar breeds. In Italy everyone knew what Bondi was: "A - lask -an!" they would cry a grin and extended thumb, or "magnifico Mal - a - mut - o!!" and I would smile beatifically and repeat " A -lask - an!" like a reverse Nino Culotto.

There's really too much to see in 3 hours - without a map, you find a little sidestreet could lead to a dirty dead-end, a row of elegant shops or open on to a palazzo with painted brickwork.

Just before midday we're back on the Autostrada, heading southwest towards Nice. It's tunnel following viaduct following tunnel for the entire trip, an amazing engineering achievement.We ride from hilltop opening to opening like pegs dragged along a 200km clothesline strung above countless little Mediterranean townships. It's the same even as we cross the French border, yielding our final Autostrada coupon before another tunnel and the exit to Monaco, and then the exits for Nice.

For the week, David and I had booked a pet-friendly holiday cottage or Gîte on the outskirts of Nice. The Gîtes de France website doesn't allow you to see the street address until you've paid, so it's a bit of a gamble. I was also a little concerned about finding the place as the owner's printed directions were imprecise, and I couldn't find the street on my MapPoint Europe trip-planning software.

As per instructions I took the exit for Saint-Isidore, and started prendring gauches and rues up a hillside. If my Genovese hotel was a goat-track, this was a Himalayan goat-track, winding through switchbacks and ascending at 15 degrees over pothole and rock-fall through a suburban-rural zone. After driving upwards for nearly half an hour, I was still not seeing the desired Chemin de Saint Romain, although I had passed other houses labelled as Gîtes, and pulled over to recover from the lack of oxygen. An approaching convertible slowed towards me and I broke out into involuntary laughter as I realised they were going to ask me for directions. They were two French Anglophones, and were actually looking for the same street as I. A few minutes later I discovered that the Chemin de Saint Romain street sign was hidden behind two other signs only a few metres from where we were paused.

The Frenchmen drove off and I knocked on the door of a house whose number figured in my directions. Burbling in franglaise I indicated a name and address on my Tablet PC (ordinateur) screen to a lady peering through the metal lattice of her door. She withdrew into the house, and moments later came around the front and escorted me to the nearest corner (with the hidden street sign) and waved down there with a confident "Deux kilometre" and left me to explore those wilds. I drove down that meandering, steepening track into what I was believed was a restricted military zone until I could find a place wide enough to turn around. Just after that, the two Frenchmen came past, and we shrugged at each other. Further back up the road I pulled into a Gîte and started my Franglais burble. <>mon ami David was arriving ce soir avec tres bien Francaise".

Mr ----- led me to the flat below his house, with a commanding view of the lands below. You could pick out the usual landmarks seen from a space-station: the Great Wall of China, Great Barrier Reef, and Trent Lott's porch. He quickly led me to the bathroom and filled the bidet for Bondi, who slurped greedily at it. Mme ----- suddenly appeared and effected a series of exaggerated sitcom reactions to Bondi's granditude. She protested the water on the bathroom floor to me and started mopping it up, glancing reproachfully in my direction, and then scurried off to get a basin of water for outside drinking.

I finally managed to pursuade the -----s to leave me to unpack, after having the purpose of the kitchen explained to me and several enquiries as to Bondi's bedding. I'd explained to each again and again "non comprehend pas" and "mon ami avec bon Francais" but that didn't help a great deal.

After some preliminary unpacking I left Bondi to nap and drove back down the hill, hoping that the heat-tiles on my shuttle would withstand the re-entry velocity. A Carrefour giga-mall was close at hand, easily the largest single store I'd ever been in in my life. It made your average CostCo look like a 7-11. I trundled around happily for an hour, filling my trolley with provisions, sat in the mall exit-queue for thirty minutes and finally managed the re-ascent to the Gîte.

Mme ----- came by again to ask rapid-fire French questions including a confirmation that I didn't parle French. I confirmed this and the velocity of speech continued unabated, albeit punctuated by more pantomiming.

At 2200 hours I scurried back down the hill to collect David from Nice International airport and filled him in on my day's adventures. When we returned, Mme ----- was waiting to question him. Apparently she wanted to know if sheets were wanted from the beds - something her world-class mime skills had not attempted.

I also discover that a local call made to CK in Switzerland has cost me GBP25 or more - even with a cheap roaming package attached to my O2 account - and now I cannot top up my phone (the British "we don't accept non-UK credit cards syndrome"). I was intending to get a Spanish SIMM card next week but this will hamper communications till then. Bummer.