Saturday, September 16, 2006. Valbonne and Antibes.
During the night we were awakened several times by thunder. The first time I thought someone was rolling a heavy cart around on the floor above us, but after a couple more rumbles I realized another storm had blown in. It was still drizzly and grey when we got up and headed upstairs to breakfast. Same meal as the previous morning. Just as good!
Not sure what the weather was going to do, we toyed with the idea of taking a bus to Nice, but decided against it. Instead we returned to the Office du Tourisme and the same friendly young woman gave us a walking map with all the area trails marked. We headed toward where we thought a trailhead would be, but kept finding ourselves wandering into situations we suspected couldn’t be right. Once we crossed a footbridge over the river (La Brague) and even saw yellow blazes on some trees indicating we were on a marked trail, but the path ended at a street leading into a neighborhood with no visible signs directing which way to go. We turned down one street with large, lovely homes, but I began to worry about dogs. No sooner had I voiced that concern to George, a large, shaggy sheepdog mix bounded out of his yard, barking in French at the American intruders. We don’t speak doggy French, but he sounded upset. Thankfully when he reached us he just wagged his tail and sniffed, then stood nearby watching. We headed back the way we’d come.
Our search for the elusive trailhead took us past a cemetery, so we decided to go in. It was built in tiers on a hillside, with stone steps up the middle running between tall thin cedars. Very Mediterranean looking. Each tier had a gravel pathway fronting the tombs and gravesites. We chose the path with the oldest-looking tombs and worked our way down the row. Most of them were above-ground mausoleums with altars inside. Many were adorned with porcelain wreaths or flowers, and quite a few displayed black-and-white photographs of the deceased. The oldest graves we found belonged to people born in the mid-1800s. There was also a row devoted to “les enfants de Valbonne” who gave their lives in WWI. They were all marked with white crosses bearing diagonal red and blue stripes on one side.
It was almost lunchtime, so we returned to the tourist info center (that girl knew us pretty well now) and asked for specific directions, which she cheerfully provided. “I hope it all works out okay,” she said. I had a feeling she was beginning to question our sense of direction.
We also asked her about internet cafes, and she told us where to find one nearby. We ducked inside the cramped, smoky room and learned it cost .12 Euro per minute or 7 Euro per hour (one Euro = about $1.25). The girl on duty didn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate that I wanted to use internet and she set it up so I could pay afterward. She started the clock and I climbed on the stool only to discover to my dismay that it was a French keyboard. The letters were in a different order, and I had to shift to type a period or numbers. Now I know how non-typists feel. Frustrated! George and I briefly checked e-mail then told her we were finished. We paid 60 centimes (around 75 cents) for 5 minutes. In Krakow I got 3 hours for 5 zloty (about $2.50), and the keyboard was familiar. No way I’d be updating my livejournal in France!
We knew we should eat lunch before embarking on a long hike, so we crossed a main road taking us out of the village center and into less fancy, less expensive, more local territory. We found a little sandwich place and ordered two Napoli Paninis: tomatoes, mozarella, and basil on baguettes toasted in a panini press. George also ordered a beer.
Our sandwiches were quite good, but our neighbors at the next table made me just a tad uncomfortable. Three of the four men had their packs of Marlboros on the table. One of them chain-smoked the whole time and at least most of that time stared at me. It didn’t matter if I met his gaze. He just kept staring. Two of his Marlboro-man pals spent the entire time going through a stack of some sort of lottery tickets–writing in numbers or something. Between the smoke and the conspicuous staring, I was glad when we finished eating and left.
During our aimless wanderings the clouds had cleared and the sun come out, so we expected to have great hiking weather. We located the trailhead almost directly across the street from the cemetery we’d explored earlier. The trail led us down to the river’s edge and followed along beside it most of the time. It was cool and green and quite pleasant. The ground was a bit muddy, but it was passable. A few places required careful maneuvering on slippery rocks, but most of it was easy. It was also well marked with yellow blazes and signs at regular intervals, directing hikers to various villages. Distances were noted in terms of time, not kilometers. We hiked a trail estimated to take one hour, but it took a little longer because George had to turn over logs and rocks to look for earthworms. He found slugs, centipedes, and flatworms, but none of beloved, humble friends. Perhaps French earthworms are shy? When we’d hiked an hour’s distance from Valbonne we returned the way we’d come.
I showered, put on make up (yay!), dressed, and headed to a sidewalk cafe on the Place des Arcades for a cappucino and some journaling time. George joined me about an hour later with his book and we sat amidst the Saturday afternoon bustle of Valbonne: squealing children, shoppers, couples chattering in French, dogs following their owners into cafes or shops, families sipping cokes, the rattle of coffee cups and dishes from nearby bars and kitchens. Cigarette smoke mingled with aromas from restaurants. We took it all in and tried to fix it in our memories. The sounds, scenes, and scents of France.
We strolled to a designated corner a few minutes before 6:30 to wait for Patrick and Mary. When we got in the car they announced our destination: Antibes. Our first close-up glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. As we pulled into the coastal town the sight of palm trees underscored our descent from the hills to the shore. Mary pointed out the island prison where Napoleon had been held before he was exiled. Patrick snagged a primo, free parking spot because a car pulled out just as we approached. We piled out and headed into the walled city center.
Antibes, located between Nice and Cannes, is a popular tourist destination. Motorcyles zipped by, and the streets buzzed with early evening activity. We passed through a large, glassed-in central market where artists and craftsmen were making and selling pottery, sculptures, etc. White light bulbs lined the ceiling supports. Local produce and other general items line the walkway on any given morning. Mary told us the Antibes market is a famous landmark.
We found a restaurant they like down one of the many alleyways that characterize European cities. The waiter led us downstairs to the basement for “no fumer” seating, and directed us to a cozy corner table under a curved, white-washed, grotto-esque ceiling. Checkered tablecloths, warm lighting, and aromas to die for. The menu offered a la carte dishes or meals, and we all opted for meals. Each allowed for a choice of 1st course, 2nd course, and dessert. Patrick and George both ordered broiled duck for the main course. George had smoked salmon and toast for an appetizer. My first course was salade nicoise and main course was lamb chops. Mary had escargot and white fish. Before any food was served we had champagne flavored with raspberry syrup. Between courses they served pear sorbet floating in liqueur. And with dinner we shared a bottle of Bordeaux. These French folk take their beverages seriously.
When dessert rolled around George selected puff pastries filled with vanilla icecream and topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Mary had bananas flambee, and I had mousse du chocolat noir. Patrick is watching his cholesterol (ha!) so he ordered sorbet.
Our delicious meal was seasoned with conversation ranging from the serious to the inane, with a large helping of laughter on the side–an ingredient that, in my opinion, aids the digestion every bit as much as any aperitif. After dessert our busy but attentive waiter brought shot glasses with some stuff that tasted like lemon-flavored Nyquil for the women and a potable version of lighter fluid for the men. Personally I prefer ending a meal with dark chocolate mousse, but when in France . . .
We left the restaurant and walked down to the water, then strolled along the city wall to a harbor for mega-yachts. The largest, a monstrosity christened Octopus, looked more like a cruise ship than a private vessel. We speculated about the owners of these floating mansions as we lingered in the perfection of weather that is September in Southern France. However, our yawns eventually convinced us it was time to go. They dropped us back at our hotel shortly before midnight, and we fell into bed with full tummies and happy hearts.
I’d like to think we slept the sleep of the just and weary, but it may have been that lemony Nyquil stuff. What do you think?