Monday, 28 June 2010

Europe 4: Nice (just Nice)

I told everyone before we left that Nice wasn't that nice. There's nothing wrong with the place, but there's also nothing really special about it either. The reason to visit Nice is because it's a central location to visit the rest of the Cote d'Azur, in that it's about 30 min by train west of Cannes, and 30 min by train east of Monaco. Now, don't tell that to the folks from Nice. They'll tell you about the Promendae d'Anglais and Vieux Nice. We'll get to both in a moment. Because I have to start with a train story.

Lyon has two main train stations, Perrache & Part-Dieu. Both are on the TGV line from Paris. But Perrache is a terminus, and Part-Dieu is a through line beyond Paris and Lyon to the south of France. Our trains had us coming into Perrache and leaving from Part-Dieu, and we were staying steps from Perrache. So we had to get up mind-numbingly early to cross town on our way out to catch a 40 min ride on a tram to get from Perrache to Part-Dieu, which is why I mentioned in the Paris post that I like to stay near where you leave a city, not where you arrive. Because the 40 min tram ride takes 20 minutes at 7:45 AM on a Saturday morning.

We got onboard the TGV to find two old people sitting in our pre-assigned, reserved seats, necessitating a rather convoluted conversation in French and English with the obstinate old folks and the Train Manager. We were already 30 min outside Lyon when the Train Manager finally concluded that he had to put us somewhere else in the train because "the SNCF reservation system was down last week". Our assigned seats were in Car 14. He put us in First Class in Car 1. TGV trains are long, so it was one heck of a walk. At first, we couldn't sit together, but KC did some creative negotiations in French, and soon, Chesley was napping next to me. Then we were together, and finally at Toulon, we moved back to our assigned seats for lunch as the Train Manager told us the old obnoxious folks had left. And while this all of this may mean nothing to you, dear reader, let me tell you what it means to me.

Lyon is in the middle of wine country. To the north is the Beajolais; to the south the Cotes du Rhone. Just south of town by about 20 min, the train passes through the middle of the Crozes Hermitage, below the Hermitage hill. If you are a wine drinker, this is the equivalent of a Catholic missing the walk through of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peters. Which I did.

On top of this, one of my favourite movies is "French Kiss." There is a scene in the movie where Meg Ryan is sitting in the restaurant car of the train enjoying -- no, reveling in -- French cheese. Oh, she who is lactose intolerant. This sets up the whole "get of the train and discover where Luc lives" scene in the movie. Looking though the windows, the train scene was filmed just south of Lyon. And I missed it all.

That does not mean I missed all of the vinyards from the train.

I just missed the good ones.

As I mentioned, Nice isn't great, but that means that on a scale of 1 to 10 it's only a 7. The main square is huge and kinda fun.

There were tall towers with plastic people on them that turned out to be art that lit up at night -- lit up and changed colours, that is.

Our first stop, though, was the peaceful, quiet Mediterranean beach.

Yet again, I amazed at what constitutes a "beach" to Europeans. The beaches in Nice are all rock. Now, this did not stop Chesley & KC from wading in the Med (earlier in her vacation, Chesley had dipped her feet in the Atlantic and North Sea).

Chesley & KC and all the swimmers were not alone. The water was full of (what we later found to be harmless) velella blue sail jelleyfish that were pretty but scared the dickens out of the ladies.

We wandered through Vieux Lyon, which is pretty and historical.

Lyon also has its share of markets and churches.

And the Promenade d'Anglais -- the long boardwalk along the coast -- is the home to art and is pretty in the evening. In fact, many portions of the town are pretty in the evening.

This post is getting long, so I will save Cannes and Monaco for the next post. But I will tell you about the African Summit.

Turns out Nice was hosting a Pan-African summit while we were there. In town were such luminaries as French President Nicholas Sarkosy, Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarek, Mr. Gadaffi's vice president and about 10,000 police and military guys. There were fences all over the place, and they actually had the bus station inside the "red" no-go zone. All the police and military were in full riot gear with face shields, tear gas launchers, plexiglas shields, batons and a lot of football padding.

Getting around was a pain. One night, we tied to go out for dinner, but the place we wanted to go to was blocked because Sarkosy was having dinner down the street. We tried to take the tram, but the tram line was blocked by riot police controlling the route of a demonstration march. And this (near as I could tell) peaceful protest that went by the train station and was visible from our hotel...

...attracted about 1,000 police all with their arms interlocked and riot gear out.

We didn't see this when the G8 was in Kananaskis.

Next up: Monaco and Cannes.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Falls are Roaring at Old Goat

Last weekend, most mountain tops I could see were still snow covered. This weekend, there was still snow around, but it seemed much less. We still concluded that getting up too high would still be problematic, so opted for a favourite nearby valley hike, Old Goat Falls. We figured the combination of the warm temps melting the glacier & the snow, coupled with the recent rains, would make the falls great. We were right.

The falls themselves were great, but this was the first time I had seen so many multiple falls.

There was therefore lots of water in the creek, and still snow in the gully leading to the glacier.

Despite the snow, we saw a lady heading up to the glacier carrying a kid in a backpack carrier, and we saw two folks on the way down, boot skiing the chute.

While I love this hike for the falls, we have been up it when the falls weren't running, and still enjoyed it. That's because the creek (which always runs, even when the falls don't) and the lush green mossy valley are gorgeous.

At the end of the hike, we poked around Spray West Campground to check out the lake and the snow coverage on West Wind Pass and the Windtower, as well as other mountains we like to get up. The lake is pretty empty.

There's a bit of a marshy section on this hike, and every time we pass it, I ask "Where's a moose when you need one". Folks we ran into on the trail saw a small moose and a deer, but we saw nothing on the trail.

However, while poking around Spray Lakes West campground, we stumbled across a deer.

Very cute, but WAY too friendly. Normally, when deer see you, they bound away. This one saw us, and came over to say hi -- or get fed, more likely.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Europe Part 3: Lyon

Ah, Lyon. The antidote to Paris.

Neither Chesley nor Karen had been to Lyon, and both wondered why I had selected it as a stop on our trip. It took them about 2 hrs to find out. Lyon is what people who haven't been to Paris think Paris is. It is very French, more so than Paris, yet far more accessible, historic, picturesque, with great food (except the coffee -- more on this later) and a relaxed atmosphere. This compares to the historic, brusque, bustle and noise of Paris.

The main part of Lyon (the Presqu'ile) is nestled between the Rhone and Saône rivers, and has two main hills, Fouvière and Croix-Rousse. Place Bellacouer is one of the biggest squares in all of Europe, and on the top of the Fouvière hill dominating the view are two things: Notre Dame cathedral, and (of all things) a broadast tower that is a replica of the top part of the Eiffel Tower.

On the west side is the Saône, the more elegant and relaxed of the rivers, which separates the Presque'ile from the old (Vieux Lyon) side...

...while on the east side is the more "industrial" and less picturesque Rhone.

The "new" Presqu'ile part of town ain't so new, but is everything people like about classical Paris, but without the traffic, crowds and graffiti. The Metro works well, is clean and fast, and the trams are slick. Lyon is far more walkable than Paris.

Vieux Lyon is steeped in history. Founded by the Roman empire in 43 BC, it once was the capital of Gaul, and has the Roman ruins to prove it. The amphitheaters (there are two, and they were the first Roman amphitheaters I had ever seen when I was first here) have been "renovated" and act as modern concert bowls. But the rest of the ruins around them haven't really been touched.

There's a wonderful museum of the Roman ruins and (for the engineers like me out there) contains one of only 10 surviving wooden water pumps the Romans used to pump water.

Like Sacred Cow in Paris, Notre Dame in Lyon was built in the late 1800's of Romanesque and Byzantine styles. When we first tried to visit, and we had to wait a bit because mass was going on. I'm not a religious guy, but you can't not be impressed by the sound like that in a church like this.

The hill the place is on is so steep, it is home to a funicular, which if you don't know, is a hill based tram where two cars alternate on a single cable, counterbalancing each other.

At the bottom of the hill lies yet another fantastic church, Cathedral St-Jean, a Primatiale of Gaul, built between the 12th & 15th centuries. In addition to its spectacular stained glass windows, it is known for an amazing 16th century clock that features mechanical crowing roosters and flying angels.

The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and not just for the Roman history. Being set on hills, there aren't a lot of roads that run straight up and down, so if you are a merchant working on the hills, it's a long haul to get your stuff to the rivers to ship. Enter the traboules. These are passages through the buildings, hidden to those who don't know they are there. Looking (and normally acting) like building accesses, they are in fact passages though building courtyards. Lyon basically invented them, and there are hundreds, several dozen of which are open to the public.

One or two have even been turned into restaurants.

In addition to being architecturally interesting, traboules are of historical interest. Though some started as early as the 4th century, many were built for the workers in the silk trade that flourished in Lyon in the 1800's, and they also served as the hiding place for the French resistance fighters in World War II. And on top of that, they are home to many cats.

Lyon lights up its buildings at night, and is it ever a cool place to walk around in the dark.

Like all European cities, it has its share of markets. One is on the banks of the Saône, one on the Croix-Rousse hill.

In markets, you sell what you have. Here's a guy selling wine (very good Cote du Rhone and Beaujolais) OUT OF THE BACK OF HIS CAR for between €3 and €5 a bottle.

Also being Europe, there are the "big name" churches, like the one I noted above, then there are the "no name" churches like this little one we ran across.

It also interesting to note that in every city we went, we found either a Canadian consulate or embassy, including Lyon.

Lyon is juxtaposition of old and new, peace and bustle, cared for and distressed, with freakishly good food thrown in for good measure.

Oh, did I mention the food? Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, home to world famous chef Paul Bocuse and numerous others. Yes, some of the food is strange (tête de veau, which is veal's head; blood sausage and tripe are also delicacies). In fact we were joking about how Lyon chefs must sit around thinking up strange things to cook and eat. But it's all fantastic.

Take Brassier Georges (opened in 1834) as an example. I started with a berry lentil salad with chive and sherry vinegar, followed by woodcock supreme stuffed with fresh ham and Comté cheese served with parmesan risotto, and finished with a "floating island with pink pralines", which was meringue with dried candied fruit floating in a sweet cream sauce -- accompanied by a 2007 Moulin-a-Vent. Dinner for 3 came to €90.

The next night featured salade de grenouille (frogs legs), entrêcot and a tarte due pomme with Mogon wine for €91. The food was stellar. In fact, even the baguettes we bought to make lunch with were better than the ones in Paris.

But what wasn't better was the coffee. Paris cafés have superlative coffee, almost as good as Italy. Lyon less so. We ordered a cappuccino one morning and got an espresso poured over a small cup of whipped cream. We ordered a café au lait and got an espresso in one cup and a steamed milk in a second cup, with no way to mix the two. After paying about €7 in Paris of 3 cappuccinos and 3 croissants, one place charged us €9 for just coffee in Lyon.

But around this point, Chesley had already decided that Italian food was better than French, and so had already switched. It's not that she didn't like French cuisine. But Italy was getting closer...

Also around this point, I started to get sick. I remain sick today, some 4 weeks since we left Lyon for Nice.

If you have always wanted to go to Paris, please go to Lyon as part of your trip. It's 2 hrs away by train, and worth the trip. The food is better, the people nicer, and it's a taste in every way of the France people dream about. It was one of Chesley's favourite places, and Karen's too.