Thursday 14 June 2012

Not so Nice and Eze - French Riviera to the Alps

Today we had a lot to do, but to Tia's frustration we spent the first half of the day doing circles around Plateau de Valensole searching for the perfect lavender fields. I could understand her frustration; the flowers had not bloomed and there was no purple to be seen. So it would have seemed like a waste of time. But I was enjoying myself, as the rows of plants created some interesting foreground and all I needed was a lone tree or something to catch the eye.

Budding Lavender Fields - Plateau de Valensole
Rows of Budding Lavender - Plateau de Valensole
By midday it was time to start heading south to the famous French Riviera. Our GPS, true to its form, took us on the most windiest roads it could possibly find. These were the sort of roads that motorbike riders loved to let loose on, and France had a lot of motorbikes. One bunch with about twenty riders overtook us five times. I don't know why they kept stopping but it was fun to see them roar past us - they were not going slowly.

French Village near the Gorges du Verdon
We happened to go via Europe's largest gorge, Gorges du Verdon. Its scale blew us away. At a dizzying 250m to 700m deep, the gorge’s floors were just 8m to 90m wide, and at some points the overhanging rims were just 200m apart!

Gorges du Verdon
Now it was time to get back to the real world. After spending most of our time in the rural quiet back roads we were now going to drive along the French Riviera in summer. I was not looking forward to this and my pulse quickened just thinking about it. I was also worried that the car would not be insured in Monaco as theoretically we were no longer in France. But when we turned left onto the main road between Nice and Monaco I was surprised there was not more traffic. It was a pleasant drive all the way to the border.

Monaco itself was a different story. A city built basically onto cliff beside the Mediterranean Sea was not going to have easy roads, and since we didn't really know where we wanted to go, things got a little tricky. We were trying to find the famous Formula One race track and all I had to go on was my memory of the virtual track from playing Grand Turismo 5. Looking at the GPS, nothing seemed familiar and the casino hairpin didn't stand out. While driving aimlessly about in circles we came across an accident involving a motorbike which, after quite a few crazy French-style near misses myself, I was ready to call it a day and leave the complex network of roads behind. I really did not want to hit any one of the dozen Ferraris, couple of Lamborghinis, countless Porches and at least five Aston Martins.

Tia, on the other hand, made me stop, settle down and work out exactly where the track was. She got no argument from me as we pulled off the road, happened to find an open WiFi network and found the track on the map, no problems (its amazing how easy the internet makes things). With my pulse rate in check we headed off down the hill again and pretty soon we were on the track. The race was only a few weeks ago and most of the barricades, diversions and grandstands were still in place. This made it feel like we were actually driving the track and all the more worthwhile as we cruised around the Grand Hotel hairpin, slipped through the tunnel and went wow! along the Riviera as we finished a lap, within the speed limit of course.

The Grand Hotel Hairpin - Monaco
Going around the F1 track in Monaco, approaching the Tunnel
Going around the F1 track in Monaco, heading down the Riviera.
It was time to call it a day, and what better place to park than the small medieval village of Èze. It sat atop a 427m-high peak, with magnificent views across the Mediterranean. We were hoping to catch the sunset at Jardin Èze, a slanting cliff-side garden of exotic cacti with views that make you forget about crazy Monaco traffic, but unfortunately they closed early today. The sun was setting fast as we were running desperately up and down stone stairways trying to find another great view. We asked a random hotel staff hoping for some local knowledge. He gestured us to follow him, and then slipped us quietly through some iron gates into the hotel's courtyard that had a great view over the sea. His colleagues were panicking, but he was cool and just requested us to be quick, as he could get in trouble if one of the high paying guests complained. Thanking him, I took a few snaps before retreating back to public land.

The View from Eze - The French Riviera
The View from Eze - The French Riviera
The next day we needed to get to Marseille. Why back track you ask? An easy answer - for meal called bouillabaisse. More about that later.

We followed the Côte d'Azur coastal road and summer traffic through Nice, passing huge super-yachts and fancy cars along the road via Cannes and St-Tropez. In a moment's hesitation, I took a wrong exit at a roundabout and we ended up on a toll road. I was gutted. We had avoided them for so long, and I was looking forward to blogging that we avoided all the expensive roads in France. But I made one slip-up and paid the toll for it.

Originally cooked by fishermen from the scraps of their catch, bouillabaisse was Marseille’s classic signature dish. In order to qualify as true bouillabaisse, it included at least four different kinds of fish, crab, mussels, and several other kings of seafood. It was served in two parts: the broth (soupe de poisson), rich with tomato, saffron and fennel; and the cooked fish, presented whole on a platter and deboned at the serving table next to us. On the side were croutons and rouille, an intensely garlicky, fluorescent orange mayonnaise. We were instructed to spread the rouille on the crouton and float it in the soup. In my opinion, it was a great meal but expensive, and combined with the extra driving I didn't think it was worth the effort. I'm sure Tia would disagree.

Traditional Bouillabaisse - Marseille
Seastorm off the coast of Marseille
We had the car for two more days before it was due in Chamonix, and we wanted to cross the French-Italian border using the Télécabine Panoramic Mont Blanc cable car linking the Aguille du Midi cable cars from Chamonix in France with the Hellbronner cable car in Courmayeur in Italy. With grand plans in mind, we stopped for lunch at our new favourite restaurant at Forcalquier, Aux Deux Anges, but it was unfortunately closed on Tuesdays. As we walked away disappointed, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the perfect butter dish sitting in the window. It was a lovely red and would work really well in my sister's kitchen. I really liked this town - it had everything I needed. I pulled out my wallet and went to open the door, but it was locked ... no, it cannot be. We waited around for 2 hours, thinking this was just another typically long French lunch break, hoping that it would open. But no, it was also closed on Tuesdays. The quest for the perfect butter dish continued.

We had no goal for tonight so when we became tired we left the main road and found a simple place to sleep and had crepes for dinner.

We started early and made it to Chamonix by lunchtime. After checking in we sat down to have lunch at a great little bar that served the best baguettes I have had – a freshly made BLAT (Bacon Lettuce, Avocado and Tomato). It would have had at least half an Avo on it. My kind of sandwich. While we were there we started chatting to a local. To our disappointment he informed us that we couldn't cross the border by cable car as one of the legs was being upgraded. A trip to the local information centre after lunch confirmed this, and we also found out that our anticipated day hike to Lac Blanc was still too dangerous for those not geared up for extreme alpine conditions, which was us. Things were not going how we planned, but Chamonix was a beautiful town so it was hard not to enjoy it. In the evening we walked a small part of the Balcon Sud trail, and followed it up with an awesome dinner at Le Cap Horn, a slightly posh but great value menu of very satisfactory French cuisine.

Along the Balcon Sud trail - Chamonix
French Onion Soup - Le Cap Horn Restaurant, Chamonix
Seven Hour Braised Breast of Veal - Le Cap Horn Restaurant, Chamonix
Compliments to the Chef - Le Cap Horn Restaurant, Chamonix
Berry Crumble with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream - Le Cap Horn Restaurant, Chamonix
Early the next morning we took the first cable car ride up to the top of Aiguille du Midi. We started at an elevation of 1037m and in 20mins we were at 3842m. When you get out of the cable car it is minus 10 degrees Celcius and the massive altitude difference makes you light headed. But the views ...

Panoramic View of the French Alps from Aguille du Midi
Mountaineers in the Alps. View from Aguille du Midi
Here our luck changed. For last 2 months there had been constant cloud cover over the mountains at Chamonix, but just for us it was a perfectly clear morning. This also meant that the Chasseurs Alpins division of the French military could start their high altitude training hikes. They tied themselves together and walked down some extremely steep ridges. I was having a ball with the photography opportunities, but after thirty minutes or so the freezing conditions meant I could hardly move my gloveless fingers to operate a camera in semi-manual mode and we had to retreat to a hot chocolate and a croissant. Then it was back down to a more manageable altitude.

French Chasseurs Alpins in Altitude Training. Viewed from Aguille du Midi
French Chasseurs Alpins in Altitude Training. Viewed from Aguille du Midi
Sheer Walls and Snow. Viewed from Aguille du Midi
With a BLAT in hand, we excitability jumped on the bus that would take us through Mont Blanc and into Italy.

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