From The Travel Book I'll Never Write - This Chapter takes place on the French and Italian Riviera, February, 2013.In the closing scene of Dirty Dancing, Max Kellerman, the resort owner laments about change to his kindly band leader. He talks about how families taste in travel was evolving before his eyes. Max says, “You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe. That's what kids want. 22 countries in 3 days.”
Well Max, on our recent trip we didn’t exactly hit 22 but we did have an incredible day where we hit three countries in one afternoon and slept in the same bed we woke up in. Along the way, we saw incredible things and visited amazing places. Try that sitting by the pool on a resort in the Catskills.
Before I continue, I should point out that the trip was on a tight budget and completely self-guided. It was about 100 miles round trip (about the same as Boston to the Cape Cod Canal and back). We were a family travelling with two teens and a tween. The itinerary is totally achievable for adventurous travelers.
Our starting point was Mougins, France, a little village just outside of Cannes known for its gourmet restaurants perched high on a hilltop. We attended Sunday mass in the beautiful eleventh century church, Église Saint Jacques-le-Majeur. A small but spirited children's choir led by a similarly small but spirited grown up conductor made us feel right at home. It’s always comforting to know that wherever you are in the world, mass is celebrated in a similar fashion.
From there it was down the hill and off to the coast, the French Riviera, the Côte d'Azur. Our first stop was Menton, France and their renowned lemon festival, La Fete du Citron.
The lemons of Menton are considered by many to be the finest in the world. They say it has to do with the unique micro-climate, the warmest in all of France. When we arrived, the produce was so abundant that it hung, nearly bursting, falling from trees lining the streets. It made us forget it was February. The floats in the Parade of Golden Fruit meandered down the Promenade du Soleil made nearly entirely of lemons and oranges. It was a Mediterranean version of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Owing to the time of year and geography, the event had a Mardi Gras flair combined with French artistry and Italian celebratory spirit. The bands, dancers, and floats created an overwhelming tapestry for the visual senses.
When the parade was over we dashed to the car in full American fashion. We were parked in perhaps the last available space in town (a story unto itself). We feared being trapped in town for hours in a sea of Mediterranean revelry. I suppose one could suffer a worse fate but we still had two countries to go and it was already late afternoon.
Next stop, Italy. Ventimiglia to be exact. It is an unglamorous town just over the French border known for its outdoor market, which was not in session when we were there. Our original plan was to sample some authentic Italian pizza but we arrived during that period of the day when virtually all of the shops turn inwards and close for a couple of hours.
Not to be denied we went to Plan B, gelato. We found a decent enough shop and we were all quite content. In a very disappointing moment, we had given our delightful server a gratuity only to see the grouchy shop owner emerge from the back and confiscate the tip. We couldn't intervene. We were out of our element.
We strolled through enough of the town to recognize the similarities and differences between the Italian side and French side of the border. Then it was time to move on.
We jumped back in the car and headed back towards France and our final stop on our multinational whirlwind tour, the constitutional monarchy of Monaco.
From a geographical point of view, Monaco is quite literally an exit off the French highway, the A8. It is a dramatic peninsula stacked with high rise apartments a glitz and glamour in abundance. The fact that it survives as a self-governing nation after all these centuries is mind boggling.
I got to fulfill a life long goal of playing games of chance at the famed Casino de Monte Carlo. Fortunately they let me in without my tuxedo. We drove on portions of the Grand Prix route (those guys are crazy, talk about hair pin turns). Finally, as an amateur bread baker I paid homage to a famed bakery featured in my favorite book, the Breads of France, published in 1978. The shop, L'Epi D'or, remains virtually unchanged from the pictures in my book.
Nighttime had fallen. We headed back to Mougins with full bellies and our minds filled with images that have slowly begun the process of converting into memories. The type that last a lifetime.
- We did not have to clear customs or stop at any official border crossings.
- While I expected to pay an admission fee at the Casino, I was not charged to enter.
- The Lemon Festival takes place in Menton in late February. http://www.fete-du-citron.com