REVIEW: Isola 2000, Skiing in the French Alps

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Adventure in the Alps

One of the stand-out features of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region, where Nice is located, is its diverse geography. While I’ve enjoyed the beauty of the shores of the Côte d’Azur, I knew I had to explore the Alps before the Mediterranean sun claimed the mountains’ winter chill.

Reaching out to my host mom for ski suggestions (and snow gear), she recommended that my friends and I visit Auron, a ski area about a 2-hour drive from Nice. After reviewing instructions, the layout, and general operations of the resort with my host mom, my friends and I were prepared to make the trip to Auron.

At least, we thought we were going to Auron.

 

Set to Ski

Two days before leaving for our day-long ski trip, we reserved seats on the Bus 100% Neige (lines 730/740/750) for 8€ each. These buses, that are coach, rather than a typical city bus, leaves from the Gare de Nice-Ville and brings passengers to nearby ski resorts. We showed our printed tickets to the driver, boarded the bus, and began our journey through the hills of Provence.

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The bus ride itself was an adventure, complete with stunning sights and, at times, mountain-hugging, stomach-twisting turns, both more amazing as we increased in altitude.

We arrived at Isola 2000, a ski resort south of Auron, and everyone got off of the bus. My friends and I, confused, asked the driver if the next stop was Auron. He, and a few fellow passengers, laughed, and replied no, that this was the final, and only, stop. We unknowingly took the 750 line, instead of the 740 (which shows how closely the bus driver inspected our tickets). The bus still returned to Nice and departed from Isola 2000 at the same time as the bus from Auron would have, so our mistake would not cost us. What is more, the bus driver assured us that conditions were better at Isola 2000 than Auron that day, so without any knowledge of our location or surroundings, we set out to ski.

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Fortunately, renting equipment at Isola 2000 was straightforward and affordable, especially compared to American prices. For 25€, you could borrow boots, skis, poles, and even pants. A student lift ticket for the day cost 30€.

 

Breathtaking Borders

Quickly noting that a French Alps “easy” slope wasn’t quite as easy as the green circle routes of the Pocono Mountains, my friends and I erred on the side of caution for the first few runs. Once warmed up, however, we were ready to tackle an “easy” course that bordered the Italian border and offered a mountain-top view of the Alps.

I have never ridden on a steeper ski lift, nor do I think I have ever stood at a higher altitude. After precariously climbing up rocky ruins in very inflexible ski boots, I took in the breathtaking panorama of the Alps. I have been skiing for more then 10 years, and have stared in awe from coastal cliffs overlooking the setting sun, but I have never seen such a spectacular snowy sight. I felt a similar (but much less anxious) wonder as when I saw the Hill of Crosses. This masterpiece, however, was natural, with incredibly fresh air, clouds at eye level, and beautiful snowy peaks. Though I prefer beach resorts to ski resorts, I now understand the appeal of winter adventure excursions.

Isola 2000, France | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective@wordpress.com

Isola 2000, France | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective@wordpress.com

We got in a few more rides, grabbed a bite to eat, and enjoyed a true après-ski.  Though I’ll always wonder about Auron, Isola 2000 provided a perfect, day-trip experience. Despite the cheesy name, the resort delivered.

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Need to Know

  • From Nice, reserve seats on the Bus 100% Neige (750 line) for 8€ per person at least 48 hours in advance. Board at Gare de Nice-Ville (Thiers).
  • Walk down the hill from where the bus drops off at Isola 2000 to find the rental cabin. Boots, skis, and poles cost 25€ and a student-priced lift ticket costs 30€.
  • The bus departs for the mountains, and back to Nice, at multiple different times, but taking the first bus out (7:30 a.m.) and the last bus back (4:50 p.m.) maximizes time on the slopes.
  • Isola 2000 offers options for all levels of skier, and the Italian/French border feature is a fun, bonus attraction.

Destination Locations

  • Auron
  • Isola 2000
    • Mercantour National Park, Office de Tourisme d’Isola 2000, 06420 Isola

 

Paix, Amour, Nice,

A.J.H.

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Break 1 – Paris

Sunday Morning Markets

Whether its flowers, food, fancy goods or flea market finds in Madrid, luxury shopping or international eats in London, Easter treats in Prague, creative crafts in Budapest, or crazy cuisine in Barcelona, exploring the concentration of cultural curio found in a market is one of my favorite things to do when traveling.  Though sometimes a tourist trap, most markets still have roots in the heart of the culture and provide an insider’s look into the lives of the people.  In Paris, Sunday morning sees hundreds of vendors set up in the city for the marchés aux puces (flea markets), so I chose one of the area’s many markets and set out to explore.

Porte de Vanves Flea Market | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective.wordpress.com

I had planned to visit Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, one of the biggest flea markets in Europe, but did not have time to travel far from the city center.  Instead, I went to the Les Puces de Vanves, a smaller market south of the Seine.

I arrived at the market around 9 a.m., which was still a little too early for the French.  After about an hour, all of the displays were organized, and a steady stream of visitors scanned diverse collections of items for potential purchases.

This flea market was not unlike many others that I have visited, with many similar novelties for sale.  Nonetheless it was a nice way to spend the morning.

 

Hot Chocolate Heaven

For a filling brunch before my flight, I made reservations at Angelina, a special, Parisian café recommendation from a friend.  Angelina is known for its hot chocolate, so I set out to discover if the praise met my high expectations.

Angelina | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective.wordpress.com

The meal was expensive, as I had anticipated, but offered plenty to eat.  The hot chocolate was very good, thick and sweet, though I still think Madrid’s chocolate con churros does the warm, rich drink the best.  The food probably could have been split between two people, but as solo adventures were the theme of this trip, breakfast was no different!  I enjoyed my fancy, French-inspired brunch, down to the very last drop of Angelina hot chocolate, and made my way back to Nice.

Overall, I had a great week!  It provided just the right amount of time with traveling friends as it did time alone.  I navigated transportation, ate in restaurants, and explored cities by myself.  Though I never doubted my travel knowledge and abilities, I did learn to enjoy my own company and be okay with spending time with me.

 

Travel Tips

  • Tune in to Podcasts.  My mom has recommended that I start following podcasts for a few years now.  It took my hour-long walk home from school in Nice to truly become interested in listening to dialogue instead of music, but I have finally started to explore the podcast world.  One of the programs I enjoy is Condé Nast Traveler’s “Travelogue,” which discusses the evolving travel industry from a traveler’s point of view.  While listening to the March 17 episode, “How Women Are Changing the Travel Industry,” I really identified with some of their comments and stories through the experiences and feelings I had on my Break 1 trip. The section from 3:53 to 5:47, specifically, captures my solo travel observations, but I recommend giving the entire episode a listen and checking out the rest of their conversations!

 

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris,

A.J.H.

Break 1 – Paris

Despite Paris’s unseasonably beautiful weather, I opted to spend the day inside, exciting my senses, at two of the city’s lesser-known museums:  The Grand Perfume Museum and the Fragonard Museum of Perfume.  As The Grand Perfume Museum explains, France is home to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, and Paris, the global capital of chic, so there is no better place to explore society’s fascination with fragrance than in the country that captures it all.

 

The Grand Perfume Museum

Opened in December 2016, The Grand Perfume Museum showed signs of its first-year status; audioguides were unavailable for the visit and some exhibits were not yet completed.  Nonetheless, the videos, interactive games, and overall information presented by the museum entertained.  The self-guided tour can last as long or as short as one wishes, but with all of the intriguing displays, I ended up staying for a few hours, much longer than expected.

From history to science, the museum explained the origins of perfume, the biological processing of scents, and everything in between.

As one can imagine, smelling was a huge part of the experience.  Whether requiring a visitor to guess a scent or to match one to a memory, the exhibits engaged guests in creative and thoughtful ways.

Overall, the experience is well-done, with a wide range of expositions that spark multiple senses, appealing to children, adults, men, and women.  Once the museum addresses its minor operational difficulties, it can be added to the list of the many ways to pass a perfect afternoon in Paris.

 

The Fragonard Museum of Perfume

While the Grand Perfume Museum educates on fragrance as a whole, the Fragonard Museum of Perfume focuses on the Fragonard brand.  Another difference, the Fragonard museum offers free admission and a guided tour.  I did not make a reservation for an English guide, so I joined one of the French tours organized every 20 minutes.

I’m not sure if it was the information, the presenter, the French, or a combination of the three, but I felt that this tour was dull and drawn out.  Especially when compared to the Grand Perfume Museum, the Fragonard lacked engagement.  It is a passive experience, dominantly looking and listening, so visitors cannot connect to the content. When creating a museum about fragrance, the primary action should be smell!

The Fragonard Museum of Perfume is much more a museum than a full sensory experience, like that of The Grand Perfume Museum.  Paying to play at The Grand Perfume Museum is a more productive use of precious Parisian time than strolling through a staged tour at Fragonard.

 

Evenings at the Eiffel Tower

After spending hours indoors, I opted to watch the sunset from the Eiffel Tower.  With a stick of barbe à papa (translation: Dad’s beard), I sat on a bench in the Trocadero Gardens and enjoyed the magical hour between day and night in one of the most spectacular cities in the world.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris,

A.J.H.

 

 

Break 1 – Paris

Moulin Rouge; Paris, France | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective - alyssasabroadperspective.wordpress.com

Valentine’s Day weekend in Paris—what a time to visit the City of Love as a solo traveler!

After strolling through the streets at sunset and stopping for a satisfying pizza at Bianca, a cozy and casual café/bar, I arrived at the Moulin Rouge.  Though also a tourist destination, this iconic attraction draws much less of a crowd than the Eiffel Tower, yet is an equally entertaining spot to people watch and snap photos after dark.

I stayed at Adveniat Youth Hostel, a Christian hostel, though very hotel-esque.  Lobby-only wifi was constricting, but considering I booked a 6-person dorm room and got a double room with an ensuite all to myself for the duration of my trip, I wasn’t complaining.

 

Hidden Paris

I began the next day in search of Rue Crémieux, a rainbow streak of homes slid among the streets of cream and navy Haussmann architecture.

Not difficult to find, but seemingly a different world, the little row of houses was quiet and quaint, more like the country than the giant, French metropolis.

From here, a short walk lead to the Coulée verte René-Dumont, or the Promenade Plantée, a railroad track-turned-green space on the east side of Paris.  Though I was blessed with wonderful weather for my entire trip, I appreciated the sun a little bit more while wandering down the path, which was surprisingly lush and green for winter.

To finish the morning, I revisited the artisanal boutiques of l’Île Saint-Louis and the bustling streets of Le Marais, a neighborhood north of the island, where I stayed with my mom and aunts on my first trip to the city.  Solo travel comes with amazing individual experiences, but I’ll always associate Paris with the special time I got to spend with my family.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Paris,

A.J.H.

Break 1 – Lithuania

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For the afternoon of my first day in Vilnius, I met with a friend who arrived in the city that morning, and we prepared for one of the most incredible abroad experiences yet.

We were determined to visit both Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, as well as the Hill of Crosses, a remote religious site in northern Lithuania.  With nothing but a vague idea of what to expect, gathered from the posts of other travel bloggers who had made the trip, we boarded the small train to Šiauliai (pronounced Shoo-lay), the nearest town to the hill.

From Vilnius to Šiauliai by train is about three hours, with very little of anything in between. At 5 p.m. we arrived in Šiauliai which was under a blanket of fog.  Nothing like a sunless, hazy twilight to set the scene.  After asking a handful of taxi drivers if they spoke English, with no success, we hand signaled “Hill of Crosses” and “there and back.”  One man wrote “25€” on a scrap of paper and we went for it.

The cab ride took about 20 minutes, and I cannot describe the journey in any further detail because the fog was so dense that I could hardly make out the vehicle in front of us (if there even was another vehicle on the far-out country road).  The driver pulled into a parking lot and held up both hands, signaling 10 minutes.  Not willing to try to negotiate in hand signals with the possibility of a misunderstanding and getting left behind, my friend and I reluctantly agreed to the time limit and made our way quickly, yet cautiously, down the lone path that stretched ahead.

Occasionally, we would see others emerge from the fog, reassuring us that we were not alone on the trail.  Even though I tried to prepare myself for the sight of hundreds of thousands of crosses, I could never have done so successfully.  My friend was the first to point out small, shadowy structures in the mist, and soon enough, we arrived at the hill.

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Though the exact story of the Hill of Crosses is unclear, modern history proposes that the site is intentionally difficult to access because of its rebellious nature.  Multiple instances of religious oppression fueled the Lithuanian Christians to create a physical display of their persevering faith, practicing their beliefs despite continuous persecution.

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Upon seeing the first crosses, I felt fear and uneasiness.  I would be lying if I said it wasn’t spooky.  Solitude and solemnity gave the site a dark and distorted atmosphere.  The more crosses that I saw, however, the more I was amazed.  Standing in front of the crucifix, I could sense incredible energy, and as I continued to explore, I was truly in awe of the spiritual dedication of each of the site’s givers over generations of Christians.

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I, too, became a contributor to the Hill of Crosses, leaving a small, wooden cross, inscribed with my last name, at the foot of Mary.  With my offering, I represent all of those in my family who have a special relationship with God.

Keeping in mind it took four minutes to walk to the site from the parking lot, and knowing we had the same four-minute return back to the taxi, my friend and I knew we did not have much time to spend among the crosses.  Because the site was so powerful, and, in fact, much larger than we expected, we exceeded our two-minute visit limit.  The two of us began to sprint down the path, but we were so emotionally charged from the magnificence of the hill and fear of being left there that we had to stop and walk.  Thankfully, the taxi was still waiting, and returned us to the train station.  I’m not sure that the driver would have left us, but I did not plan to find out.  Too uneasy to venture far from the train station in such an unfamiliar place, we ate soggy, packaged sandwiches from a snack bar at the station and waited for our train back to Vilnius.

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Though I enjoyed visiting the country of my ancestors and exploring the history that shaped Lithuania and its inhabitants, I have never been anywhere so foreign.  Who knew that Paris, my next destination, could feel so familiar!

 

Destination Locations

 

Taika, Mielė, Vilnius,

A.J.H.

 

Break 1 – London

PSA: This is not London Bridge 

Though the London Bridge is one of London’s better-known structures (thanks to nursery rhymes and Fergie), the Tower Bridge is actually much more impressive.  After marveling at the aged architecture of the bridge from Potters Fields Park on the south side of London, I walked across the River Thames to discover some of the city’s more modern sightseeing treasures.

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Anywhere Art at Brick Lane

A walk north of the Tower Bridge leads one to Brick Lane, the grounds of London’s street art scene.  Though the area offers street art tours, and specific display locations can be found online, I opted to take Brick Lane (from the intersection of Brick Lane and Hopetown Street) toward London’s Shoreditch quarter, and simply wander side streets that branched left and right to see what works I could find.

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Some street artists’ work can be identified (Banksy, Wrdsmth), but I am at a loss to give credit where credit is due for these brick-wall masterpieces.  Though each creator has every right to be acknowledged, I found that the anonymity was alluring, making me wonder who in the world produced this piece and when, why, how…

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Because of London’s confusing weather that mislead many of my plans, I missed out on some weekend markets on my Monday morning visit to Brick Lane.  Regardless, I felt that the excursion was worthwhile, as I discovered these expressive designs on my own and spent my last morning in London speaking to the streets.  As for the markets, I’ll just have to return!

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Destination Locations 

 

Peace, Love, London

A.J.H.

Break 1 – London

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God’s Own Junkyard

London with a Local 

Taking on the city with a 10-year resident, I met up with the brother of one of my mother’s international friends.  We began with the tourist leading the Londoner to God’s Own Junkyard, a garage gallery on the outskirts of the city center home to hundreds of neon signs; if you arrive near the dumpsters of a questionable property, you’re in the right place!  The establishment was small, but impressive.  More than just a lot of light, many of the installments were composed works, a combination of individual, glowing pieces, to create inspiring, innovative, and eyebrow-raising art.

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“It’s always your favorite sins that do you in.”

Though there is a café area in the gallery, my new friend and I did not stay, opting instead for a greater foodie experience closer to town.

 

Camden: the Cosmic Culinary Capital of London

My guide led me to the neighborhood of Camden Town, a funky, alternative area of food and flea market vendors. Our destination was, specifically, the Camden Market, an international smorgasbord bordering Regent’s Canal.  Hosting stalls of every type of cuisine, we settled on splitting a Venezuelan shredded beef and corn bread sandwich and a Greek chicken wrap. The sandwich, from Arepa: Venezuelan Street Kitchen, was one of the best dishes I ate in London.

Next, we ventured into a store that I feel embodies the environment of Camden.  Cyberdog‘s storefront was preceded by a line to get in the door, which was flanked by two, futuristic, human-dog hybrids.  Neon lights, techno music, and cage dancers greet customers, along with the store’s least offensive merchandise. Floors below reveal risqué stock, justifying the “no photography” policy.

After visiting God’s Own Junkyard and this inexplicably bizarre but must-see store, I began to feel that the phrase “only in London” would be an appropriate label for many of my experiences on this trip.

Walking after our lunch, we took the Regent’s Canal Towpath from Camden Town to Primrose Hill in Regent’s Park.  On a clear day, one finds a panoramic look of London, but as typical of viewing experiences of my journey, the city fog took over and obscured the overlook.

 

Lights of London

While visiting a new city, I like to explore the same place during the day and during the night for a different perspective.  Each experience is beautiful in its own way.  I was able to end my third day in London with a return to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye to enjoy these London landmarks illuminated along the River Thames.

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“Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”  ~ Peter Pan

 

Destination Locations

Peace, Love, London

A.J.H.