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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Spring Break – Florence (Part II)

Pursuing a lighter morning in Florence after the night we had in Cinque Terre, my friends and I dropped our plan to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David statue, and instead opted for some much needed sleep.  We spent our morning walking from our hotel, across the famous Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, to the Boboli Gardens on the other side of the Arno.

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Ponte Vecchio, reaching across Florence’s river, the Arno

 

Giardino di Boboli

The sun, confirming our pressed-for-time decision to visit the gardens instead of the museum, shone over the sprawling estate of the Giardino di Boboli.  For 10€, tickets included entrance to the gardens, a small porcelain museum, and a costume gallery.  The manicured plants with accompanying statues and fountains made for a pleasant stroll, but the highlight of the gardens was the view from the terrace at the rear of the property.  The most elevated point of the complex yielded perspectives of both the city of Florence and the Tuscan countryside.

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Though my friends and I planned for the gardens, we spent more time than expected in the Pitti Palace costume gallery.  This low-profile feature celebrated Italian women in fashion and design.  I was interested in learning about a few lesser known women in fashion history, and could not pull myself away from the outfits and accessories on display.

 

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella

My travel research on the city of Florence led me to the discovery of a less popular tourist attraction: the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella.  Established in 1612, the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is one of the oldest operating pharmacies in the world.  It offers an authentic, back-in-time experience with both corresponding and contrasting products.  One can purchase anything from (almost) original formula stress-relieving mints to up-to-date night creams.  With a price range from 5€ to too much, anyone can bring home a piece of 17th century Florence.

 

Gucci Museo

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Continuing on with our under-the-radar destinations, my friends and I visited the Gucci Museum for a story of true Florentine fashion.  The Friday night reduced rate of 5€ granted us access to all four floors of the museum, displaying chronologically the story of Guccio Gucci.  From luggage, to cars, to handbags, to gowns, visitors learned of the evolution of the Gucci brand and its relationship and impact on the creative world today.  One of my favorite parts of the museum was the Film Foundation feature.  Because of Gucci’s partnership with the Film Foundation, working specifically on film restoration, a room of the museum was dedicated to a generous loop of restored film clips.  A similar experience to that of the costume museum in the Boboli Gardens, it was a pleasant surprise to be interested in an aspect other than what I had anticipated.

 

Trattoria ZàZà

Students studying in Florence recommended Trattoria ZàZà for dinner, an affordable restaurant with an absurdly long menu.  As soon as we sat down, I could tell it was an establishment designed for abroad students: the menu was available via QR code in over five languages, the cheesy decor and dim lighting made it feel like an oversized bar, and there was not a diner over the age of 30.  To share, my friends and I ordered truffle fries, off of their specific Truffle Menu, which were tasty but were in need of more truffle, and baked peppers in special ZàZà sauce, which were bland.  I got a calzone that appeared huge but was really just full of air, and tasted not at all like I was in Italy.  ZàZà is great for a large, specifically international group looking to eat cheap, but the rest of us can do much better.

 

 

Destination Locations

 

 

Pace, Amore, Firenze

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Florence/Pisa

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Inter-country travel in Italy is relatively quick, convenient, and cheap.  My friends and I took a train from Venice to Florence without issue, checked into our hotel, and went to the Mercato Centrale for dinner, recommended to us by our hotel receptionist.  Similar to the Mercado de San Anton, the Mercato Centrale sells groceries on the first floor, offers numerous, free-seating food vendors on the second floor, and a sit-down restaurant on the third floor.  The market is a great option for a quick, no-fuss meal.  Surrounding the Mercato Centrale, the Mercato San Lorenzo, a large spread of stalls selling (most likely fake) leather and other souvenirs, offers an outdoor shopping experience, making the area a perfect place to spend the afternoon.

My friends and I spent as much time at the market as possible, waiting out the evening for our late-night/early-morning activity—Florence’s secret bakeries.  The idea behind these conspicuous curiosities is that Florentine bakers begin producing their goods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. in order to deliver the fresh breads and pastries to the distributor shops in time for opening.  These bakers work in unmarked kitchens around the city, but have been sniffed out by hungry party-goes making their way back home.  Those who have visited the secret bakeries share that a quiet knock on the door, a polite request, and a euro will get you a freshly baked pastry, straight from the kitchen.  Though operating without addresses, these not-so-secret locations have descriptions all over the Internet.  Even with the help of many study abroad students before us, though, we were unable to secure a pastry from the secret location we chose to peruse.  Instead of discovering an Italian treasure, we spent thirty chilly seconds outside of an abandoned building before we decided that the lack of sweet scents meant that we’d be going home without snacks.  Disappointed, tired, and cold, we went back to the hotel, vowing to be more prepared should we have the opportunity to try again.

Our first morning in Florence was spent on a train to a half-day trip to Pisa.  We took the regional train to the efficient Pisa San Rossore station, rather than the popular Pisa Centrale station, because it was a shorter walk to the Leaning Tower.  A ten-minute stroll took us to the Piazza del Duomo, with the Tower, the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and the Composanto.  There were two museums too.  I’m glad we only had plans to observe the monuments, because examining the Tower consumed all of our time and attention over the course of our 3-hour visit.  It really is leaning!  Most photos that I have seen do not accurately depict its tilt, but I attempted to capture the awe we felt standing beneath it.

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On our way back to Florence, outside of the Pisa San Rossore station, we stopped to get lunch at a pizza truck.  Though slightly suspicious, we were sold after seeing the flames of the brick oven in the truck.  With their “student menu,” we got a drink and two slices of pizza or calzone for 5€.  I got a slice of pizza with “spicy salami” and a piece of sausage and cheese calzone, and it was the best pizza that I had my entire time in Italy.  I would travel back to Pisa San Rossore just for the pizza truck!

Closer examination of my photos show that the banner above the windshield of the pizza truck reads “Original Italienische Holzofenpizza,” a German phrase.  I have thence come to the conclusion that the best pizza I ate in Italy was German pizza.  What a disappointment.

 

Destination Locations

 

Pace, Amore, Pisa

A.J.H.

Spring Break – Venice

Venice, Italy

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What a difference from Prague!  Leaving the Venice Airport, I immediately felt the sea breeze in my hair and Italian sun on my skin.  My friends and I were already pleased to be Venice, and we hadn’t even gotten into town.

Getting to town, though, was not at all enjoyable.  From the mainland of the Provence of Venice to the town center of San Marco, where my friends and I were staying, we took a 15€ one-way waterbus, a popular choice from the airport.  Maybe it was because we were tired, and hungry, and anxious to see Venice, but this boat ride was miserable.  The waterbus glided by at a little over 5 mph, so the entire trip took a very slow, very long hour.  Additionally, we sat in the bottom of the boat, so we were unable to watch the journey, obscured by opaque, ocean-sprayed windows.

When we finally arrived at the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, we were all reminded of Plaza Mayor back in Madrid.  The two areas are similar, large squares lined with countless cafés and shops.  Piazza San Marco, however, is also home to a cathedral tower, the Campanile di San Marco, a clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, and the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, or St. Mark’s Basilica.

 

Albergo San Marco

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Not far from St. Mark’s Square we found our hotel, Albergo San Marco.  Because we were only spending one night in Venice, we wanted to stay as close to the central sights as possible to use our time efficiently and save money on transportation.  Our family-style room had two bedrooms and a spacious bathroom, the most expensive and most luxurious lodging of our trip.  The staff was only average, especially compared to the hospitable Czechs, but the included breakfast was plentiful and convenient.

With such a short time in Venice, my friends and I made sure to explore as much as we could, day and night.

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The next morning, we waited in line to enter St. Mark’s Basilica.  Of all of the religious buildings that I’ve seen in Europe thus far (and I’ve seen a lot), this was the most impressive.  We wanted to go up the cathedral tower, but did not have the time, because we had pre-booked a gondola ride (via viator.com) for that morning.


My friends and I were excited yet skeptical of the gondola cliché, but it was worth it.  The boat brought us through the narrow canals of Venice inaccessible by foot, and around the open areas of the Grand Canal that winds through the city.  If you have free time on a beautiful, sunny day, a gondola ride is the perfect way to explore and enjoy Venice.

 

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The final stop on our Venetian vacation was Antico Forno, a praised pizzeria not far from our hotel.  Though the hours claim availability until 9:30 p.m., we stopped by on our first day in the city around 6 p.m. and found it closed.  When we asked a neighboring shopkeeper if it would reopen later that night, she informed us that it was done for the day.  Our second trip, made around noon, was successful, and we got good-but-not-great slices of Italy’s signature food.  The pizza shop, or, more accurately, pizza window, had very limited seating and a demanding lunchtime crowd.  With unclear hours and mediocre meals, only stop by Antico Forno if you are already in the area.

Visiting Venice is subtle experience, with few sights to see, but much to explore.  A weekend would have been preferred to our few 24 hours!  We got a small taste of life in Venice, but you cannot truly know a city, no matter how small, in such a short amount of time.  Luckily, we would have a greater opportunity to enjoy our next destination.

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Destination Locations

 

Pace, Amore, Venezia

A.J.H.