January 21, 2017

Views of Nice

One of the my favorite travel activities is finding viewpoints where I can take panorama shots of sprawling cities.  In addition to the popular Colline du Chateau, a vista point that I visited on my last trip to Nice, I have explored two more spots that are great for observing Nice from above.

 

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is a large, circular building with a rooftop garden.  From the top of the museum, you can look out to sea or up into the hills of Provence.

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Cimiez Monastery Gardens

The Cimiez Monastery Gardens belong to the Cimiez Monastery, which serves as a Catholic church today.  The view from the gardens can be enjoyed all year, though I will be returning to the site when the weather warms to see the plants in full bloom.

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Cimiez Monastery

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Nice

A.J.H.

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Spring Break – Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre— you’ve either never heard of it, or it’s sitting at the top of your travel bucket list.  Cinque Terre is a cluster of five picturesque, coastal towns in northwestern Italy.  Though the towns themselves are an attraction, the hiking trails linking the villages truly draw the crowds.  The Blue Trail, specifically, connects all five (cinque) “terres” (lands) for an estimated 5-hour adventure.  Many have recently discovered the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much so that Italian officials have issued a million-person tourist cut.  Lucky to have been able to visit before the implementation of heavy restrictions, I was awe-struck, empowered, and appreciative while hiking in Cinque Terre.  It is one of my favorite travel experiences to date.

My friends and I woke early and took connecting trains from Florence to Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost town of the five villages.  Many recommend ending the hike in this town with its accessible beach as a post-climb reward, but because of the mid-March weather, we would be skipping a dip in the Ligurian Sea.  Research also revealed this end’s leg to be the most difficult, yet had the most beautiful views, so we decided to tackle it first in case unforeseen circumstances changed our plans for the day.  Our anticipation was not wasted, for we discovered that two of the four legs of the trail— the last two, opposite the end where we started— are closed indefinitely for safety reasons.  After a traumatizing hole-in-the-ground, no-toilet-paper bathroom experience (go before you go!), and a confusing start (exit the train station below and continue left for at least ten minutes), we began our Cinque Terre hike on the Blue Trail.

 

 

Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza

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Monterosso al Mare

True to tales of travelers before us, this leg of the hike took about an hour and a half to complete, up vertical stairs, through vineyards and groves of lemon trees, and offering views of both Monterosso al Mare, and the next town, Vernazza.  Though I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery, I was enjoying my fellow hikers almost just as much.  The people on the trail were friendly, helpful, and courteous.  There was a sense of community, like we were all in this crazy endeavor together, and everyone wanted to assure that everyone else was having a good time, because each traveler deserved a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  People aside, it was nearly impossible not to enjoy yourself with the warm weather and fantastic views (that is, what you could glimpse between each strenuous step).

When we arrived in Vernazza, the town was alive with lunchtime activity.  My friends and I bought some fruit from a small, local shop and sat at the port for a snack.

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Vernazza

 

Vernazza to Corniglia

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Vernazza

Our next, and unfortunately final, leg of the hike was another hour and a half.  Though not previously reported, I felt that the second leg was equally as difficult, if not more difficult, than the first.  Also, contrary to what I had read, I felt that this section of the hike had better views than the first.  Specifically, from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, there were great views of the towns, but Vernazza to Corniglia presented sights of the sea, my personal favorite.

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It was late afternoon when we reached Corniglia, and, because of the closures, the end of our hike.  In need of a sweet treat, my friends and I stopped for some refreshing gelato and wandered around the town.  Covering all of Corniglia did not take long, but it was the perfect place to wind down post-hike.  Those who entered the town via train or bus, however, were underwhelmed.  We heard many non-trail visitors mumble, “Really? This is it!?” while walking into town.  Cinque Terre is by no standards my home, but even I was offended at the other tourists’ musings.  I found it hard to believe that anyone would scoff at spending time in a post-card, Italian town on one of the most beautiful days of spring.  For me and my friends, each town was like a utopia.  The hike was a beautiful journey, and the village was the relaxing reward, earned with my own two feet.  I suppose it is this difference that caused these polarizing perspectives.

The next time you visit Cinque Terre, consider maximizing your experience by adding even the shortest length of the Blue Trail to your itinerary, for you will appreciate your adventure even more.

 

Corniglia to Riomaggiore (by train)

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Riomaggiore

With pre-booked train tickets back to Florence from Riomaggiore, the southernmost town where we had planned to finish the full hike, my friends and I snuck onto the train from Corniglia and took it two cities to our departure location.  With a few extra hours before our train home, we explored Riomaggiore, watched the sunset from a cliffside bar, and enjoyed a decent meal after our long day.

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When the sun went down, however, so did our good fortune.  With wonderful weather, a happy hike, and too-good-to-be-true towns, our good luck was bound to run out.

The journey back to Florence required three train transfers.  We arrived at the Riomaggiore platform for our first train 15 minutes early, just to find that it was delayed 50 minutes.  We did not have enough clothes, or enough patience, to stand outside in the cold after a day of travel, hiking, and sun.  Quick thinking and convenient timing allowed us to take an earlier train to the same, first station.  Crisis averted— or so we thought.

Arrival at the second station revealed that our connecting train had the same 50-minute delay, corresponding with the first.  With no way around this hurdle, tired and weary, we accepted the wait in the train station.  It wasn’t long, however, before the station closed, and we were kicked out of the building onto the open-air platform at 9:30 p.m.  Despair set in when we overhead fellow passengers discussing itineraries to Florence; the third train would not be delayed as the other two had.  It would leave as scheduled from the station at 10:30 p.m., and the next train to Florence would not leave until 1 a.m.  If we waited for our delayed train, we would miss our final train, and would have to once again stand by on a platform until the early hours of the next morning.  After our full day, my friends and I were broken and disheartened.  Our sweat had dried, chilling our bodies in the nighttime breeze, leaving us low-spirited and lost.

As if a response to our feeling of rejection, a girl approached us with a group of friends.  She explained that they were in the same situation as we were and would we like to combine groups to maximize the seats in a taxi and split the fare back to Florence.  With this plan, each person would be paying close to 50€, so we declined.  We would be losing money on the tickets for the final train, in addition to the new taxi cost.  She then pointed out that if we left immediately, we could drive the hour to the next station to attempt to arrive in time for the 10:30 p.m. train to Florence; half of the ride would mean half of the price.  This proposal was more appealing.  It only took five seconds of my friends and I staring at each others’ fatigued faces confirmed that we were prepared to pay for the hour-long taxi ride and gamble on the possibility of making it to the station in time.  Racing against the clock, the Italian taxi driver sped through the streets, carrying three American girls and five South Koreans to their destination.  We all but threw our cash at the driver and sprinted through the station, pausing only to find our platform, and leapt up the steps two at a time with fingers crossed that our train would be there.  On our last bit of good luck for the day, the train had not left yet, and we made it home, on time, only 20€ poorer.  Though slightly miserable at the time, it is now a story that I can look back on with bewilderment and amusement (and it was perfect preparation for the Amazing Race— we got this, Mom!).  What a day in Cinque Terre.

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Riomaggiore

 

Travel Tips

  • Just go with it.  The joys of travel come with the stresses of logistics, schedules, and the unknown.  Even with a seemingly perfect plan, problems can, and usually will, arise.  Deal with them as they come, using calm intelligence to guide you towards smart decisions and peace of mind.

 

Destination Locations

  • Cinque Terre

 

Pace, Amore, Cinque Terre

A.J.H.

Nice, France

Tout a commencé avec français. 

Incremental exposure to French language and culture sparked my international curiosity and called me to come abroad.  In elementary school, I participated in a lunch-time French club, where I was introduced to the basic words and phrases of a language that seized my attention.  My official French studies began in middle school and have not stopped (aside from this short break in Spain).  Though I’ve adjusted my lingual learning throughout my education, I do not have a passion for the other languages and cultures as I do for French.  University logistics dictated that I study in Madrid before France, so after years of fantasies, studies, and patience, I was beyond eager for the opportunity to visit the country that I had never been to, but that already had my heart.

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The University of Maryland operates a study abroad program in Nice, France, which I intend to take part in next spring.  A friend from one of my French classes is participating in the year-long version of the program and invited me to spend a weekend with her while we were both abroad.  I would be able to preview the city, learn about the program, and have my own personal tour guide in Nice.

 

Bonjour, France!

After getting off of the plane, I stood at the gate for a moment, taking in the ocean views from the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport.  I was finally in France!  After locating my my friend Olivia, we made our way to her apartment via scenic bus ride, a default privilege whenever one travels along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

For dinner, Olivia brought me to La Claire Fontaine, and we both got pizza.  Though we were in France, she informed me that there were Italian influences in Nice because of its Mediterranean location.  I took the heavy rain that began during dinner as a sign to extend my stay in the restaurant and finish my entire personal pizza pie, one of the best I’ve ever had.  Once the rain slowed, we dashed across the street for dessert.  Continuing Italian influences led us to Fenocchio, a gelato shop that my friend claims is the best in Nice.  I wouldn’t argue with her assessment.  The shop boasted endless flavor options, and my cup of white chocolate gelato was delicious.

As thrilled as I was to have been in France, I was much less enthusiastic to speak.  My French was embarrassing.  Originally eager to finally use French after only practicing Spanish for the last two months, I thought that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to exercise my skills.  All of the confidence that I had developed in my French speaking abilities, however, disappeared when I attempted to talk in Nice.  I could not think of much of what I wanted to say, Spanish slipped out nearly every other word, and the French accent that I had worked so hard to develop was nonexistent.  I know that I can credit this to my immersion in Spain, in addition to a complete lack of use of French, but nonetheless, it was frustrating.  I will do my best to practice my French while in Spain, even if only mentally, with hopes that it will come back to me in French class this fall.

 

Day 2 – Monaco

With so many other destinations accessible from Nice, Olivia brought me to the Principality of Monaco.  A 45-minute bus ride for 1,50€ brought us right into the center of the little land of big boats, fancy cars and people looking to spend money.  Taking in the impeccable grounds, beautiful buildings, and happy visitors relaxing in the sunny, 60-degree weather, I felt like I was in Walt Disney World.  From the landscaping to the sky, the town felt staged.  Everything was perfect, too delightful to be true.

Strolling past green lawns and luxury shops, we arrived at the Casino de Monte-Carlo.  Though I expected more grandeur after all that I’ve heard about the famous gambling hub, it was still a stunning structure.  Even more underwhelming was the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, but the views from the courtyards of the royal residence were impressive.  Upon the same hill as the palace is Princess Grace Kelly’s grave, in the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, along with the other monarchs of Monaco’s past.

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Casino de Monte-Carlo

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Prince’s Palace of Monaco

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Views from the Palace courtyards

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Grace Kelly’s burial site

For me, where Monaco lacked in architectural richness, it made up for in linguistic diversity.  Similar to Nice, but even more so, Italian influences intermingled with French flair.  Though it has been a year since I have studied Italian, after 5 years of study, I was pleased to find that I could still understand some of the language that I saw and heard.  Studying in Nice would allow me to practice my French, as well as some Italian, keeping my language studies well-rounded.

When Olivia and I returned to Nice, we picked up a local snack called socca.  Socca is, essentially, a crêpe made out of chickpea flour.  Though I had never had chickpeas before, the socca tasted just as I imagined.  Served warm with only salt and pepper, it was slightly bland, but tasty.  It is not something I’ll ever be craving, but it was a nice lunchtime snack.

As the day progressed, we decided to pair our salty socca with sweet cupcakes.  Emma’s Cupcakes was luxe yet inviting, and though we could have spent the day in the shop, we took our treats to go. Sitting on the wall of the beachside Promenade, Olivia and I took a break from our miles of walking and enjoyed the sea, the sunshine, and our cupcakes. Similarly to those in Spain, the French cupcakes were not as delicious as I’d hoped. Though the Europeans can deliver delectable, flaky pastries, they are unable to master a squishy, moist cupcake.

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With plans to watch the sunset, Olivia and I walked along the Promenade, stopping on the beach so I could observe the shore of stones, instead of sand.  How does anyone enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice!?

We waited for the sunset at Castle Hill, the highest point in Vieux Nice, or Old Nice.  Unfortunately, weather and natural landscape took away from the overall effect of the experience, but the views of Nice were perfect.

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Funny side note:  While on Castle Hill, Olivia and I were shocked to spot a boy in the ocean!  Despite what the sunny photos may convey, it was chilly and windy, especially near the sea.  He stood in the waves for about 10-15 minutes, seemingly unaffected by the frigid temperatures of the winter water.

On the walk away from the viewpoint, after sunset, we found ourselves behind Crazy Ocean Boy!  Something had to be wrong with him, seeing as he was soaking wet wearing shorts and a T-shirt while his friends were dressed appropriately for the weather.

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Crazy Ocean Boy, toting his wet bathing suit and towel in a plastic bag.

Ready for dinner, Olivia brought me to Le Blue Whales, a recently renovated diner.  She explained that even though I was in France, I had to  try one of their burgers.  Though it is an American food, it was crafted by French hands, and that made a delicious difference.  It was easily one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, which I attribute to the house sauce.  It added a cool, flavorful compliment to the warm, juicy meat.  If any visitor of Nice is wary of spending a meal eating American food, burgers at Le Blue Whales is worth it!

The walk across town helped to digest our meals as we prepared to end our night with one last excursion.  Olivia told me that the Ferris Wheel in Place Masséna had been set up in the fall, but is not erected year-round.  Closing down Nice’s Carnival festivities, the ride was set to be removed the day of my departure.  I convinced my friend to take the Ferris Wheel up for nighttime views of the city.  Though distracted by the incessant, Nicoise wind (Olivia explained it is caused by the meeting of ocean and mountain air) and the teetering of our little gondola, we enjoyed yet another perspective of Nice.

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Day 3 – Èze

The town of Èze was on our agenda for Sunday morning.  On the same bus route to Monaco, just a closer stop, Èze is a mountain village located on the Mediterranean coast. Once we arrived, we quickly set off and began climbing through steep, narrow streets and tiny shops and restaurants to arrive at the top of Èze’s most accessible seaside cliff.  To experience the best views, we paid 4€ (2,50€ with my ISIC) to enter the exotic Jardin d’Èze.  Guiding you up the steps to the top of the cliff were cacti and other succulents of many different kinds.  Earth goddesses were also scattered among the plants, accompanied by prose of womanhood, love, and life.  The views of the French Riviera from Èze were even more brilliant than those from the night before.

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Goddess Isabeau: “Le sol me retient/ Et alors?/ J’ai la tête au ciel.

Though the ground keeps me rooted, my mind is in the heavens.

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Wanting to be well fed before my journey back to Madrid, Olivia and I got brunch at Café de la Place.  I desperately wanted a good, French, quiche lorraine, one of my favorite dishes, but the Quiche of the Day was ham, and I have had quite enough jamón in Spain!  I opted instead for the mini-brunch for 15€, where I chose three dishes from a list of about 10 breakfast staples.  Of my trifecta of choices, my least favorite were the pancakes, which were slightly undercooked.  My fruit salad was tiny, but refreshing, and lightened the rest of my meal.  The “egg muffin,” or breakfast sandwich, was fantastic, competing with Le Claire Fontaine’s pizza and Le Blue Whales’ burger for best fare of the trip.  Where I got fruit salad, Olivia got French toast, which I was curious to taste because of its name. The dish served at this restaurant was very eggy, and consequently soggy, leading me to favor American French toast.  We finished our little late-morning meals, leaving just enough room for one more treat.

I could not leave France without a crêpe!  Olivia recommended the restaurant Lovebio, the best crêpes that she’s had in Nice.  I was surprised at the choice because of the limited menu options and high prices, but nonetheless, I got a Nutella crêpe with whipped cream.  As it had seemed, the crêpe was not as tasty as I’d hoped.  In fact, I liked my crêpe from Madrid better than the French one.  I wonder if I do not appreciate the form and simplicity of a true French dessert, or if I just had a crappy crêpe.  Future French travels will tell.

Crêpes aside, I hope that further exploration into France reveals a stronger sense of French identity (because if I know anything about the French, I know that their ego exists, loud and proud).  During my visit, I was unable to recognize the Nicoise as people of France.  Though my judgements could be inaccurate due to the short length of my stay, it seemed as though there were too many tourists for Nice to retain its French character.  My expectations for French immersion may have been misplaced on this Mediterranean town.  As much as I appreciate the diversity of cultural influence in Nice, it wasn’t the France that I was looking for.

Visiting Nice, no matter what your motive, is like going on vacation.  With wide streets for strolling, where people feel the mountain/ocean breeze reach their senses, while greenery soaks up the Mediterranean sun, the city demands to be enjoyed.  Though I wasn’t there long, Nice affected me, as all seaside destinations do.  The beach-town vibes gave me joy in a way that city sensations simply can’t.  Yet as much as I felt at home in this French town, after the constant activity of metropolitan Madrid, I am unsure if I would like to study in Nice for an entire semester.  Forgetting future decisions, Nice is a beautiful city, with great food, great views, and a great summertime feel (even though I went in March).  Overall, my first trip to France was a success.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paix, Amour, Nice

A.J.H.

 

January 14, 2016

Sunset Surprise

The best moments are unexpected.  As my roommates and I approached the nine-story structure, we did not have high expectations.  El Corte Inglés promised it all: beauty, technology, books, appliances, apparel, food, and a view.  Nonetheless, we decided hours before that a quick trip to the department store for a snack and the sunset would just be something free to do.

We were wrong.

The Centro Gran Vía’s El Corte Inglés is a trip in itself.  Each of the nine floors is dedicated to a department that carries nearly every item in the category.  You could spend an entire day scouring the shelves to quell boredom, furnish a home, give a makeover, or cook an elaborate meal for 20.  The main attraction, however, is the ninth floor.

The Gourmet Experience is free to enter to get fantastic, sky-high views of Madrid.  While the store offers countless prepared and made-to-order food options, you can skip the snacks and  go directly to the outdoor viewing area.  The protective glass around the perimeter of the deck provides viewers with a labeled skyline outline to identify buildings, cathedrals, and towers.  Attention was drawn away from the glass guide when the sun began to set.

The views alone made me look at Madrid in a new way.  Though you can observe antiquity in the streets, there is an assured knowledge of the age of the city from above.  Scanning rooftops and hillsides that haven’t been altered in hundreds of years made me feel like I was sharing the views of many before me, like men in fortress look-outs or church bell towers.  The sunset delivered an extra awe, as it always does on a horizontal scene.

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After admiring the sunset, my roommates and I wandered through the aisles of “gourmet” food options.  We came across the “Taste of America” section, the only place we have found peanut butter so far.  You cannot have peanut butter without Fluff, and I’m sure in some American household you cannot have peanut butter and Fluff without PopTarts, but we left the snacks from the States aside and opted for fresh café fare instead.  The visit was not over without catching a humorous English/American touch in the corner.

 

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Travel Tips

  • Do the free stuff.  It’s free.  If it’s bad, you didn’t pay for it.  If it’s good, you got your time’s worth.  If you have the time, give everything a try.
  • Pinterest!  I found the sunset suggestion on Pinterest from Condé Nast Traveler‘s pinned article “10 Best Free Things to Do in Madrid.”  Pinterest is great for travel planning, documenting, and viewing.  Check out the “Connect With Me” section of the sidebar to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.