Saturday, July 26, 2014

Summer 2014 Itinerary Set

This weekend we're busy finalizing our plans for our summer adventure and our itinerary is all set.
3 days: Edinburgh, Scotland
2 days: Keswick, England
3 days: Bath, England
Overnight on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth, England to Saint Malo, France in Brittany
2 days: Saint Malo, France
1 day: Dinan, France
3 days: Barcelona, Spain
2 days: Girona, Spain on the Costa Brava
2 days: Arles, France
2 Days Aix en Provence, France
Perhaps you have visited one or more of these cities. We welcome your comments and suggestions pertaining to sightseeing, restaurants, and more.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Day 22 - A Hop On, Hop Off Bus Tour of Dublin

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We love Ireland and have traveled here many times, but surprisingly we have rarely spent time in its capital city Dublin. Since we knew our Aer Lingus flight from Nice would not arrive in time for a same day connection to Boston, we decided to book two nights here before heading home.

In major cities all over Europe, hop on - hop off buses or boats are very popular. We decided to try one for the first time ever and here in Dublin it was great. Our green double decker tour bus provided great views from the open top and we were so lucky because it was a bright sunny day here which is unusual here in Ireland. The driver gave quirky commentary and even sang for us. It was hilarious.

"About a thousand years ago the Vikings had a strong influence in Ireland. I recently found out my mother-in-law has Viking roots and she has the beard and horns to prove it!"

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Our first stop was the Guinness Storehouse which was an amazing museum in the history of Guinness. We learned that Arthur Guinness got a 9,000 year deed to the property in the late 1700s and the family today didn't spare any expense when they created this showplace. As you walked through each step in the process, antique machines were side by side with vintage films. Technologqy was also used to help you visualize the inside of a boiling vat or a seed sorter. Guests were invited to step into vintage posters for a photo op. The top floor was a panoramic pub with floor to ceiling glass windows with a 360 degree view of the city. Everything the Guiness family did was first rate from real silverware and linen napkins in the cafe to a salmon appetizer they offered to guests to see how the flavor is enhanced by the Guinness. I had to agree it was and I'm not a beer drinker!

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Next stop on the bus was the Book of Kells in Trinity College. Their display walked you through the history of bookmaking and I was surprised to learn the pages were made from calf's skin. Leaning over the glass case, we marveled at the vividly colorful illustrations and perfect handwriting of the pages on view. On the way out you walk through an old library with thousands of old books. It had floor to ceiling books with wooden ladders and iron spiral staircases from one level to the next. It's the type of place where you can smell the old books when you enter and I love that. At this time they are cleaning and preserving all the books for future generations.

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Dinner tonight was in the Temple Bar area. Live music was everywhere with crowds drifting in and out of the pubs. Dublin has so much to offer that if you come here, you must book at least two full days to take it all in.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Day 21 - Cooling Off In Dublin

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Every summer when we travel, we spend a lot of time researching the best airfares and have found that Aer Lingus from Boston often has the best airfares. While their website often does not allow you to book long and short haul flights together, we have found if you call them you can still get the website deals. Today we flew from Nice to Dublin and adding on this short haul flight was under $50.

Our trip to the airport from Vilafranche was by the only cab driver recommended by Rick Steve's. He was a little behind in schedule and drove like he was driving in the Grand Prix. We made it there in under 30 minutes which is very fast.

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We are staying in the Best Western right off O'Connell Street in Dublin. While not atmospheric, it's centrally located and inexpensive. Dinner tonight was at Le Bon Crubeen on Talbott St where we had a delicious meal of chicken with arugula and new potatoes roasted in their jackets. O'Connell Street was very busy on our walk back to the hotel. We're excited we have a full day here tomorrow.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day 20. The Sights and Sounds of Vieux Nice

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No visit to the French Riviera is complete without a visit to Nice. On our last visit here we took in the magnificent artwork of Chagall and Matisse. Today we decided to explore Vieux Nice, the Old Town.

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The modern bus from Villafranche dropped us right off in Garibaldi Square to begin our self-guided Rick Steves' walking tour. The cobblestone streets wind in and out of plazas much like they do in Italy. The narrow stucco buildings have little wooden shutters, often closed to keep out the midday sun. It is easy to guess which apartments are owned by locals and which are holiday rentals because the balconies of the latter are usually adorned with colorful beach towels.

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Rounding the corner on our walk we saw a long line for a food stand serving local specialties and joined right in. We chose veggie socca which are chickpea fritters and a tart exploding with zucchini. The recommended Fenocchio gelateria did not disappoint, but one must not be passive here with line cutters galore.

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In many of the winding lanes are spice shops with open containers of aromatic spices you can scoop into little glass test tubes with cork stoppers. I found them very appealing until I saw all the people taking big scoops just to sniff. We found a small art shop and bought a tiny watercolor to remind us of the area.

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I love organ concerts and at one church we enjoyed a rehearsal. I'm not sure why I find church organs so spiritually moving, but I do.

Back in Villafranche we watched two cruise ships leave the harbor. I looked at the Costa website and saw that their "Nice on Your Own" tour which basically means a bus ride into town cost $40. This means $80 for a couple. Using a local bus cost us $10 total and our bus had a sign on it "Winner of best bus in France 2013."

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For dinner we ate at a candlit outside cafe in Villafranche overlooking the water and strolled the stone seaside promenade back to our hotel with a full moon lighting the way.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Day 19 A Day in Monaco

I've always wanted to visit Monaco. The fact that it's such a tiny, yet wealthy country located on a peninsula in the Mediterranean that has such interesting stories from the glamorous life of Princess Grace Kelly to the Grand Prix, makes it seem like a world only for the rich and famous. Today we found out it's a great place to visit.

We took a local bus to Monaco on the costal road and the views of each harbor we passed were stunning. Monaco is actually a city rising up on the cliff with layer upon layer of buildings that are all in the same color palette, almost a pale sandy yellow. On one of the hills is the Prince's Palace in Palace Square. Guards in crisp white uniforms and white sun helmets, march back and forth. While that's interesting, everyone is gathered at the fortress wall looking at the view. In the harbor are more magnificent yachts than the mind can imagine and two cruise ships.

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We visited the Cathedral of Monaco. It was dimly lit and elegant. Everyone was gathered in front of Grace Kelly's tomb. It's sad to think she was only in her early 50's when she died. Walking out I spotted the organ and have never seen anything like it. It's modern and the pipes look like they are glowing in crystal blue light.

Out the door is a pathway leading through botanical gardens that people are invited to just enjoy that leads to the Cousteau Aquarium - the Musee Oceanographique which Jacques Cousteau directed for 32 years. It's housed in a gorgeous palace overlooking the sea and has something for all ages.

"Gentlemen, I am opening the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco as a gift to the servants of scientific truth. Here they will find the peace, independence, and emulation that fertilize minds," said Prince Albert in a speech at the opening in 1910."

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On the top floor outside the cafe, for example, are tiles with turtles on them placed like footprints to follow to a turtle discovery and play area. The bottom floor is an aquarium with 2,000 species. It was very crowded, but all of the fish were beautifully displayed. In one tank, a giant crab hid in a rocky hollow waving his pinchers at all the iPhones taking his picture. Upstairs in the natural history area was a two storey cabinet of curiosities style display with old diving suits, trunks, nets, and glass bottles. Skeletons of giant sea creatures hung from the ceiling in another room enhanced by a wall length visual technology display that showed what the fish looked like swimming and then their skeleton and internal organs. On the top floor in elegant old wooden display cases were specimens of sea creatures and artist's journals from when Prince Albert in the early 1900's became interested in the study of the sea and opened the museum. We learned that man first became interested in sea creatures when some unfamiliar species were found clinging to part of the Trans-Atlantic cable when it was pulled up for repairs. This means the sea has only been explored for scientific purposes since the mid 19th century.

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The day ended all too soon. On the bus ride back to Villafranche we talked about how we must come back to Monaco again soon and perhaps stay awhile.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Day 18- Journey to the French Riviera

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We have been very lucky this summer on our holiday. Although it has been very hot, we have only experienced 20 minutes of rain on the entire trip.

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This morning we visited St. Benezet Bridge (Pont St. Benezet). It is the bridge in the song you may have sung in primary school "Point d' Avignon" and the song is played on the audio tour, on CD's, and in music boxes. It was built between 1171-1185 and was the only bridge crossing the Rhone River. Over the years since the 1600s it has collapsed arch by arch due to flooding, but the part that remains stretching halfway across the river is fun to visit. It's a peaceful place with the river gently flowing underneath and a small boat ferrying people back and forth across the river to a picnic area. Through technology, historians are in the process of making a 3D virtual tour to experience the part of the bridge that is missing.

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Last night we stayed a second night at the centrally located Mercure Hotel. When I was in Lisbon I injured my ankle stepping out of the hotel's stone entrance. Staying at the Mercure made sense because our original accommodation that had locked us out the night before was 10 minutes away from the main sights. The original hotel was not too pleased with this decision, but they never apologized for locking us out and charged us anyway for the room.

In the afternoon we took the TGV to Nice. The high speed train is beautiful, but for some odd reason they booked my seat on the opposite side from David. Halfway into our journey our empty car turned into a tween hangout for a group of 7 girls who played a cat and mouse game with the conductor in the first class car. When she appeared, they took off and then reappeared repeatedly having a mini party with chips and soda in our seating area when the rest of the car was empty. I found the whole thing annoying, but interesting too because they chattered nonstop in French and then said a sentence or two in English without missing a beat. The ride was beautiful though. Beautiful farms with stone houses and tile roofs surrounded by vineyards and cypress trees are just around every bend. As we approached the coast, sailboats bobbed up and down in the harbors and colorful umbrellas lined the beaches.

Upon our arrival in Villafranche we couldn't find a taxi so an organic farmer we met at the station who has lived his whole life here, but studied in California, had us squeeze into his van for a ride. Our accommodation, Hotel Darse, is right on the harbor and is costing us only $125 with a balcony and sea view. After dinner we walked along the promenade to the small town where people were having candlelight dinners at small cafes and just took in the ambiance of this place.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Day 17 - A Delightful Day in Avignon

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It's a beautiful day in Avignon today. After a delicious breakfast of French pancakes with homemade jam, we headed over to the Pope's Palace where the line already stretched down the stone steps.

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The Pope's Palace is immense. It was the home of the Roman Catholic Church between 1309-1403 during medieval times when Italy was considered too dangerous. Today there is ongoing restoration work. Many of the rooms have original frescoes on them while others are quite empty with absolutely no furniture in them. Touring this place made me feel as if I was back in college in a history course where I felt lost. I didn't know a place like this existed.

Up on the hill behind the palace is a park that seems to have taken a step back into yesteryear. In addition to a sweeping views of the Rhone River where I noticed a barge carrying new tanker trucks, the park has a duck pond with a little cafe beside it. Most precious though is a gravel track for preschoolers to ride tricycles connected to beautiful tiny wooden horses you guide with reigns. It took some practice for most kids to get the hang of it, but once they did, off they went peddling around the track.

Horses

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In the late afternoon we took a tourist petite train ride around town. It was amazing to us some of the winding alleyways the train was able to squeeze into. People had to flatten themseleves against a wall for the train to pass by. In one tight alley beside a church the bells began to ring. Looking up I saw the huge iron bells swinging in the bellfry. We were in the perfect spot acoustically to hear them.

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Our dinner tonight was at La Vache a Curreaux. It was an adore restaurant set away from the tourist traps in the main square with the We speak English and serveizza signs. Inside the stone building they had French linens in bright colors. The menu was in French so when we were offered an English one we gladly accepted. The only problem was when it was delivered it was a four foot chalkboard that they parked on our table. How embarrassing. I saw a guy aross the street melt into a fit of giggles at the sight. I am not a fan of goat cheese and they had everything goat cheese from salad dressing and sauce to baked goat cheese as an entree! It was a great dinner though. The food was delicious, fresh, and organic.

After dinner we walked around the town. At one stand, girls were lined up in front of soft serve dispensers ready to make cones with the flavors of your choice.

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Everyone here looks so happy and relaxed and even at midnight I can still hear the cicadas chirping.

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