Sunday, 28 September 2014

Corsica - Cap Corse, Calvi

Moving along the coastline of northern Corsica we discovered Calvi (Always Faithful). This name referred, at the beginning, to its loyalty to the republic of Genoa which originally 'owned' Corsica. During the war with Revolutionary France, British forces under Admiral Nelson and captured the city in the Siege of Calvi. It was during the bombardment of Calvi that Nelson sustained the injury that cost him his eye.

There are also references here to Napoleon 1. In a square stands a stature to him, possibly an example of early PR. The statue of Napoleon clearly isn't fashioned after the Emperors' real body type- more like some sort of Apollo. Our tour group chuckled as we contemplated it.

Calvi's a pleasant place and gains most of its revenue from summer tourism. You can take a boat trip, or a little train trip. Other than that, and walking, there's not much to do other than soak up the laid-back atmosphere and historical points of note.

What really intrigued me were the toilets people had 'in' their apartments. Most of the buildings were built a long time before indoor toilets so what to do when there's no room to create one? Well, you build an out-house on your balcony. This phenomena can be seen in other parts of Corsica too, but the ones I saw in Calvi were rather striking.

This little city is said to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. We noted the house reputed to be the one in which he was born, and the monument to his endeavours. Of course nothing was said about the brutality that followed his contact with indigenous people.

Naturally, there's a citadel on a hill. It can be visited though there's little to see there other than great views. It's a daunting climb up all the steps so we just window shopped in the town and found a waterfront cafe that actually made a decent tea and coffee.

After exploring for a bit we joined the group going on yet another boat trip, so it was time to swallow yet another sea-sickness pill. I have to say, the boat trip was a bit pointless. There's little of interest. Sure there was the odd sea cave but hardly worth 1.5 hours in a boat chugging along the coastline.

We saw a few ruined towers in the water, looking rather picturesque, a few cows mooing nearby, the odd sea bird but really, give it a miss, it's not that interesting.

You can always fall back on visiting a few churches. With Corsica's Italian history you must expect a few of those along the way.

What did interest me, as we drove along the east coast, was the view of the Island of Monte Cristo (yes, the one Alexandre Dumas immortalised) and just along from that the island of Elba (yes, immortalised as Napoleon's first island exile and the one he escaped from before the One Hundred Days). Monte Cristo is not inhabited though pirates and refugees had made attempts over the centuries. It's rather inhospitable and is a nature reserve now. Only 1000 tourists per year are allowed to set foot on it. People do live on Elba and you can take a boat trip to visit it but there's not much to see there. So those two islands lie between Corsica and the Italian mainland.

Here's a map of Corsica I found on the internet. 

The next, and last post, on Corsica will feature Saint Florent, Corte and Pigna.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Corsica - Bonifacio, Porto, Les Calanache

They grow kiwifruit in Corsica, at least that's what some tourism blurb told me. I didn't actually see any. Olive oil, cheese and sausages are the order of the day in this Italian-flavoured part of France. It seemed every day at almost every lunch or dinner we were served charcuterie. This is an antipasto plate of cold, raw, dried and smoked types of pork. I tried it but didn't really like it. The texture was stringy and, well, raw meat muscle-like and the spices didn't always hide the fatty flavour, so I resorted to bread and butter. That's the funny thing; normally in France bread is served alone, not accompanied by butter, yet here in Corsica knobs of butter were added to the antipasto to spread on bread.

JC likes to take guided tours as holidays. That means everything is comfortable and easy to manage. Normally. I hadn't counted on the rugged, winding, mountainous roads in Corsica.

All my life I have suffered travel sickness and boy did I suffer in Corsica, all week. Especially day two. I was so ill I couldn't look out the window and could barely walk when we stopped off at Porto, a picturesque town on a rocky bay. We had 30 minutes to wander and recuperate.  The sea air revived me a little and I bolted down a chocolate ice-cream to line my tum.

A man in our group must have noticed my body language and asked how I was feeling. He said he is always travel sick and takes pills constantly for it. He and his wife kindly gave me some to tide me over till I could find a pharmacy. It helped slightly, for which I was grateful, but I was always exhausted by the physical effort and the French immersion, since I was the only non-French person on the trip.

Too ill to get out of the bus to photograph rocky outcrops, I sent JC off to take the photos for me. Les Calanques or Calanche de Piano are sea and wind-eroded granite rocks. They are impressive, more so with the naked eye than in photos. While JC was off doing that I contented myself watching the Corsican pigs; wild boar, wandering the road, having dust baths and looking very  at ease with tourist buses. Then it was on to what would be a sejour of two nights in Bonifacio, southern Corsica. So be warned. Bring medication to offset travel sickness if travelling  in Corsica as there are hills, and boats, everywhere.

Bonifacio is located directly on the Mediterranean Sea separated from Sardinia by the Strait of Bonifacio It is a city placed on the best and only major harbor of the southern coast of Corsica. It's an unusual and pretty place.

The town is on two levels. The top has a citadel which is quite ancient with fascinating covered walkways. Yes, the stone walls have steps and they are quite covered from the weather by stone 'tunnels'. The houses look extremely precarious and are best viewed from the sea. The ocean has eroded the limestone cliffs which are 250 feet high. One day, those houses will tumble into the sea.

We took a boat ride out into the Med to see what they looked like. The coastline is white and deep blue. We saw Bonifacio in summer but it must get bitterly cold in winter. back at the town we took a little train from our hotel at the top of the hill to a restaurant at the bottom. It was basic but the waiting staff were jolly.

I bought a Corsican vendetta knife as a practical souvenir. It was really useful for slicing up fresh mangoes in my hotel room. Fruit was  non-existant on the menu all week and I was desperate for some roughage since vegetables didn't appear often either, other than the ubiquitous salad with corn sprinkled over. It was all fish, fish, pork and fish. Creme brulee featured frequently as the dessert. Imagination was in short supply but that often happens with packaged trips.

There is only one tour operator for Corsica, that's Ollandini. The French folks on my bus made disparaging jokes about Hollandini (pronounced ollandini) for the French President. He certainly isn't liked and it happened that this particular week the president's ex-girlfriend published a show and tell book Merci pour le moment on their relationship. Well, he did deserve it - lying cheat. Two-timing with a young actress and having breakfast trysts on his scooter. Now THAT following relationship has gone the way of all of his previous. He just can't get anything right.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Conspiracies, controversies and bullet holes

How much do you know about Corsica? For starters it's located above Sardinia and is an island in the Mediterranean between France and Italy. These days it's part of metropolitan France even though it's not strictly in the hexagon, so it's not considered an overseas territory even though its a flight or moderate ferry trip from the mainland.

We'd heard it was spectacularly beautiful with an interesting history. Of course, Napoleon was born and raised there, it has a very Italian flavour to it and comes with it's own language. The Corsican language is alive and flourishing, spoken by young and old alike. Courses at the universities can be taken in this language. It cannot be compared to the virtually dead Breton language of Brittany (where there are also separatists and dual-language street signs).

Coming from NZ I'm at home on large islands so I expected to just sit back and enjoy the guided tour, despite the fact that, once again, I'd have to struggle with 8 days of rapid French around me, understanding maybe half at most.

Corsica is known for vendettas. They were rampant in the past, I don't know if they still exist but the bullet holes in the signposts told us that the separatist movement is alive and well. Our Corsican bus driver told us that Corsicans require respect from non-Corsican visitors; offend someone at your peril. From time to time someone will have their house exploded by plastic explosive, so there is a sort of mafia here but tourists won't see that.

Why the bullet holes? The separatists want Corsica to be independent, so they shoot out the street signs written in French. In most cases there are street signs in both French and Corsican. Only the French version is defaced with spray paint or bullet holes.

Our guide introduced us to two controversies: one surrounds the real parentage of Napoleon Bonaparte. His mother Letizia was young and very beautiful and very 'close' with the island governor, the  Comte de Marbeuf across the street. Napoleon's father Carlo was keen on getting ahead, socially and financially. Was Napoleon's true father the governor? It is highly probable that at least one of his brothers or sisters (probably Louis) was fathered by the Governor. Mister Bonaparte would have turned an opportunist blind eye. His family benefited from numerous political contacts in France.

The other controversy surrounds Napoleon's death and remains. Are the remains in the grand tomb at Les Invalides really those of Napoleon? These days DNA testing could say once and for all but the descendents of Napoleon, and the French government, refuse to answer this question. I supose if the remains weren't those of Napoleon they'd all look right idiots and tourism would certainly take a hit at Les Invalides.

Napoleon's death is attributed to stomach cancer (probably hastened by 6 months, due to bumbling medical action on St Helena) but the other side of the debate says he was slowly poisoned by arsenic which might account for the 'well preserved' state of the body 19 years after his death. There's a report that the corpse's teeth were is excellent condition though it's known Napoleon had dental problems leading to various extractions. Who knows? Whoever knows the truth is not about to tell.

For further reading on the Napoleon's Death  'conspiracies' try these links

And for the dangers of Corsican Liberation Front bomb blasts?

Photos show house in Corte were Napoleon was conceived and his older brother Joseph was born, house where Napoleon was born in Ajaccio on August 15th 1769 , statue in Ajaccio, of Napoleon on horse surrounded by his brothers, various other sites in Ajaccio.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Italian Riviera - disappointing

What does the Italian Riviera conjure up for you? Something like the French Riviera only not so ritzy but perhaps more rarified and exotic?

Not at all; where I went it was a disappointing, scarcely interesting backwater.

I caught the train from Nice in France to Ventimiglia in Italy. The two locations are only separated by a bit of coastline but are very different. OK, you have to consider that Ventimiglia is a large town and not what I would consider a city though it may think it's one. It's located on the coast in Liguria, 130 km (81 m) southwest of Genoa by rail, and 7 km (4 mi) from the French-Italian border, having a small harbour at the mouth of the Roia River, which divides the town into two parts. Ventimiglia's urban area has a population of 55,000.

Despite its ancient history there was little of historic interest to see. On a hill was a monument but what it was I couldn't find out, how to get up to it I couldn't see, and it was surrounded by decaying residences which looked like they might end up like Brazilian favellas one day.  I walked for hours trying to find something interesting to do. I walked towards the waterfront below the aforementioned monument thingee. There was little to assist anglophone tourists.

Just ahead of me was a guy with shoulder length wavy hair sporting a Black Magic Peter Blake Tee Shirt. Intrigued, I stopped him to inquire if he was a yachtsman. The guy spoke scarcely any English and tried to explain he knew who Blake was but bought the T Shirt because it was a brand and he liked it, that's all. So, not very interesting and I wasn't impressed with all the commercial logos on it which were meaningless.

Ventimiglia is known for brand ripoffs. I find it hard to believe the terms Black Magic, Peter Blake are simply a brand, if so it's an insult. If Blakexpeditions had a line of clothing sold to raise money for environmental work I could understand it, but this just seemed souless as there was no mention of Blakexeditions, the company Sir Peter founded. I wonder what Lady Pippa would think.

A few restaurants were scattered along the waterfront but weren't all that busy. No wonder, the food was awful and hugely expensive. The service wasn't good either. During the day a few folks pottered around on the uncomfortable stoney beach but there weren't that many of them despite it being high tourist season. Clearly, a lot of tourists know better than I about the non-excitement of the Italian Riviera.

Desperate to find something redeeming I took a bus trip inland to Dolceacqua. This is the most important medieval town in the Val Nervia and the extreme west of Liguria. The town is made up of two villages: the original ancient centre, and the other from the nineteenth century, connected by a medieval stone bridge. The ancient part is towered over by Doria Castle, which is reached among picturesque alleys, and artisan shops. Monet liked this town, to which he dedicated four works.

It does have some charm with its river and castle and alleyways but beware that English is not generally spoken by folks in these parts. You need French or Italian to be able to communicate. That includes at train stations, on buses, in shops. They simply won't or can't speak English but our experience of buying an art print was very positive. The artist took great care to wrap the framed print in bubblewrap and paper so it would arrive via suitcase, safely to NZ.

Other points would include: that the castle is not available for entry for 2-3 hours at lunchtime, which totally wrecks trying to take much interest in this town's tourism; that you also need to be vigilant or you won't know when to get off our bus at the correct stop. Expect to be assailed by smokers anywhere you try to eat; this part of Europe, like France, has not evolved beyond letting smokers pollute the lives of others.

We stumbled by accident on a cemetery which proved interesting as it's laid out in a different style to what I'm used to. Ashes were in doored cavities, bodies were interred. All in all, the cemetery was clean and cared for and always had visitors there.

Back in Ventimiglia it was time to explore the famous markets. Every Friday a large part of the centre of town and close to the waterfront is given over to pedestrians and markets. People come from Nice and Menton to look for bargains. Some find them, others get ripped off with fake copies. Many get fed-up with the Friday traffic jams and head back home again, having done no shopping. Fortunately for us we had no car to worry about; we just walked and looked at belts, bags, kitchy jewellery, low quality clothing.

The Saturday markets in France have better Italian products than what I could see offered here, but a stroll around the markets is still an entertainment if you don't mind crowds and heat.

To sum up, if you've got plenty of time up your sleeve go check out the Italian Riviera and slurp an outstanding artisan ice-cream, but I'd still say stay clear of it and spend your time in France. You'll get better service, better food, better accommodation and a much richer cultural experience.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The airbnb experience: quality, affordable accommodation

I recently spent a week in the South of France and the Italian Riviera. Sounds expensive, yes it is, for me, but it's not so much as you think. I couldn't afford package tours or hotel rooms during the trip. I don't like camping and I couldn't afford a rental car. How to put the trip together in terms of accommodation that was central?

I could have tried to use I'm a member and have had some good experiences in the past as a surfer and a host but have become a bit disillusioned with how the site has changed for the worse in recent years and how annoying some guests can be.

Airbnb is a site where individuals post rooms, apartments or entire houses for rent. They are fully furnished, linen is usually supplied, as is free wifi. Sometimes there are minimum nights' stays or additional cleaning charges but generally I find this an excellent way to access accommodation on my limited budget. You can choose your location, price, type of accommodation. It's a home away from home experience and often the hosts throws in additional benefits like breakfast. Booking is easy, efficient and secure. Your account is only debited after you check into your accommodation and no money is held by hosts. The site takes a commission, which is reasonable.

I booked an appartment for my daughter and me in central Aix en Provence. We could walk everywhere from there. It was easy to find our way to the main thoroughfare, tourist info centre and do supermarket shopping. Day trip tour guides could easily do pickup and drop-off.

Then we stayed in a bedroom in Ventimiglia, Italy. Admittedly this was the least value for money. We had only one room and so we had to share everything else with the family we were living with but they gave us privacy and the apartment was very central, we could walk everywhere. I did feel a bit awkward being in someone else's home, especially where the bathroom and kitchen were concerned. I never did find any sugar in the place and some of the profile information on our hosts was clearly out of date. I think renting an entire apartment or house is better for me.
 In Nice we rented an apartment for three nights. Our host was charming and supplied welcome goodies like fresh bread, things for breakfast, fruit and yoghurt, candles for dining, everything you need in the bathroom (except she forgot the soap). She even went out and bought two new beach towels for us to use when we said we'd like to dip in the Mediterranean but had no towels for that. Instant service.

Everywhere we stayed was clean. Some hosts were friendlier than others but they all gave us our privacy and generally reacted well to requests. Often hosts will provide maps and info on restaurants nearby.
You don't always get a positive response to a request for accommodation. Some hosts don't respond, others can't make up their minds if they want to rent on particular dates. Some dither about the price for certain periods but generally it's a very positive experience which gives you contact with a local, an easy time settling in to live like a resident and less like a tourist. You can cook and shop at markets if you wish or just eat out.

You can save money travelling like this. I used airbnb to keep accommodation affordable so I could spend money on doing activities. You can come and go as you want since you have the key to the accommodation. make sure you leave everything spotless and you'll get a good review from the host. You can review your experience on line for others to read.

Make sure you confirm, confirm, confirm hosts' current mobile phone numbers as some aren't always kept up to date on accommodation profiles. Not being able to contact your host to check in can be very unsettling. Beware, many apartments have stairs and no lifts in Europe, tiring but normal.

Check out I'd be happy to do it again. The pictures show our accommodation in all three locations. Much better than a hotel room. True freedom.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Provence - Perfume and art

We were on our way to visit Grasse, but first a quick trip up Mount Boron to see the coastline view of Nice and the French Riviera. Yes, nice, oh and by the way, just along from us was Elton John's estate, the only house on that part of the hill. Since he bought the area has been made a reserve, no building near him in future. We headed inland.

Grasse is still the perfume capital of the world, even if many of the raw materials for perfumes are no longer sourced from Grasse. Perched inland from Nice, Grasse enjoys a pleasant climate, beautiful hilly countryside, good quality water, easy access to the busier parts of the cote d'azur, and lots of tourists.

In the Middle Ages Grasse specialised in leather tanning.  There are numerous old 'parfumeries' in Grasse, such as Galimard, Molinard, and Fragonard, each with tours and a museum. We visited the Fragonard one. I'd done this before but this time I was part of a set tour group and the perfume guide gave better information, and service in the shop. We learnt where the raw materials for products come from, how the essential oils from flowers are captured and preserved, how bottles are packaged, the 'noses' who design new perfumes from their 'perfume organs', and the importance of using light-blocking containers for perfumes.

Perfumes are more concentrated than eau de parfum, which in turn is much more concentrated than eau de toilette. Men need less scent on them than women. With women it wears off faster because their skin is thinner. Naturally we were encouraged, by special deals, to buy perfume, soaps and other products.

There was no time to explore Grasse on the tour. Our guide didn't seem to think it was worth it but I disagree. Four years ago in a thunderstorm I had enjoyed seeing the narrow streets, a museum, meeting a real 'nose'. Instead we had to be content with just the factory tour.

The next day we visited the perched village of Eze and another perfume factory tour was planned there too. I skipped that and wandered the village instead. It wasn't my first trip to Eze either. The first time four years ago was to find the location featured in the film The Bucket List. I'd found it and for an hour played life-styles of the rich and famous at the terrace restaurant at le Chevre d'Or.

They say you 'can't go back'. Well, that's true. I felt the quality of the restaurant, from a visual perspective, had dumbed down and was certainly less luxurious. There were no waiting staff in snappy black and white uniforms. The umbrellas were a conventional beige. It all seemed very beige all round. Only the view of the Mediterranean was as spectacular as before.

These days I can't believe I paid 50€ there four years ago for a glass of rose champagne (yes, just one glass of champagne from Provence), and that meal (don't ask the price for a tiny dessert and a goat cheese salad) was very ordinary, only the surroundings and staff were truly luxe.

I wandered the quaint alleyways of this town on the Route de Napoleon but somehow there just seemed less this time. There was less variety in the shops and ateliers. There was still good quality but the variety was reduced and so was the number of little shops open. Fragonard was born here, Edith Piaf died here.

Disappointed, I stopped to inspect the little salt and spices market just outside the town walls. They were still setting it up and as I tried to read the little labels I was invited to take a scoop and snip the products. Well, OK, so I did.

Two men running the market came over to chat. They were very pleasant and extremely generous. Suddenly they were offering me food, part of their own morning tea they'd made, hot off the pan. They explained it was a Nicois specialty- a bit like a pancake but much thinner and lighter, but more fluffy than a crepe. There's no flour in them, I was informed, heh? No they weren't an omelette either. I was intrigued but couldn't work out what they were saying clearly so I never discovered the secret. It was tasty, interesting and they told me it is never filled or topped with anything else. It's eaten solo.

Saint Paul de Vence is known for its art. Artist Marc Chagalle worked and died here. It's an elegant chic place full of classy art shops (prints too) and galleries, ceramics, some homewares and clothing. Pop around a corner and you may find a statue, a fountain or a panoramic view. There is a special garden at the top but you have to pay at lease 7€ each to get in. I think that's a bit steep to look at a few plants outside so I didn't bother.

Like all these perched villages, you get to give your legs and bum a good workout going up and down all the stairs as there are no roads as such inside the stone walls.

These shops are very expensive, very. There are tourists everywhere, but there's not a lot to actually do in this town. If we'd had a private car we could have gone to Vence 3 km up the road, which is also beautiful, more relaxed, has more realistic shops and art galleries, and fine terrace caf├ęs.

We saw Tourettes-sur-Loup in the distance, another 3 km west of Vence,  small and picturesque like St. Paul, but with far fewer tourists, and the artisanal shops there are run by the artists themselves. Unfortunately it was not on our guided list. All I saw happening in Saint-Paul-de-Vence were some policemen struggling with directing traffic outside the town walls, and some men playing petanque. Not exactly rivetting.

Gourdon, on the other hand, is small and charming. It seems better able to cater for your average tourist to this area in terms of affordability. You can dine at a cafe or you can munch a freshly made sandwich on the cheap. Tourists are spending less on food and smart little businesses know that tour groups don't always have time for a sit-down menu or the money for extras like meals. They cater for tourists like me eating on the run and seemed to be doing a good trade. This is another arty town which seems to like crafting things from glass and crystal. This includes jewellery, glassware, home fittings like chandeliers. Prices range for all pockets but competition means the shops all sell at virtually the same price.
Also to be found are pottery items, soaps and perfumed products. They prefer that you don't take photos inside their shops, so it's wise to ask first. I was allowed to take a photo of an old alambric for distilling essential oils.

Some of the venetian-style glasses were beautiful but I told myself I already have four from Venice so I don't need more - who pops in and dines with me anyway? I plumped instead for some cut glass earrings that changed colour with their surroundings. All these villages are worth a visit but some more so than others - hence this lengthy post. I hope you find this helpful.