Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The French Riviera to the Dalmatian Coast: A Journey of Indulgence

Danielle arrived with only two days to experience England before we departed for France, so I did what any good friend would do and took her to Harry Potter Studios and filled her belly with the most delicious British treat ever, scones and clotted cream. 

We flew to Marseilles to catch a train to Avignon on a Sunday morning.  Upon arrival in Marseilles, we were very glad that we made the decision to go straight to Avignon.  Not a pretty place to be, Marseilles.  I don't recommend it!

The bridge in Avignon
In Avignon, our ridiculously wonderful and kind hosts (AirBnB) retrieved us from the train station and brought us to our most fabulous apartment - fully equipped with a Nespresso machine! - and familiarized us with the neighborhood.  The city of Avignon is still surrounded by castle walls, keeping it very quiet and small inside.  It is lovely and easy to navigate, and in the market and shopping areas, the calming scent of lavender floods the senses.  It is lavender season of course, and makers all over the city are crafting soaps, oils, pouches and countless other delicious topical treats for your enjoyment.  

Our apartment in Avignon

Calla Lilies in Avignon
On our second day we headed down to the Camargue, a National Park and Wildlife Reserve filled with flamingos, bulls and the notorious white horses, as well as a plethora of other avian beauties.  It was incredibly quiet and peaceful, and we were grateful that we beat mosquito season. If we had had more time in the area, we would have enjoyed the Toro, the local dish of bull.  But we didn't realize that we wouldn't be able to get it once we got back to Avignon. The epitome of local food!

The town outside the Camargue

Spices at the Camargue market
The next day was our wine and olive oil tour, which was super interesting.  Olive oil is made in a very similar way to wine, just with olives instead of grapes.  Different ages and types of olives generate different flavors of olive oil, and it was rad to hear about them in tandem with tasting the oils they produce.  I brought home a bottle of my favorite, as well as some amazingly rich olive lotion that makes my skin very happy.

The Olive Oil Mill

Learning stuff

After the olive mill we headed to a Provencial winery - the very same winery in this Van Gogh painting, I later realized! We made a large purchase of a large bottle of one of the most delicious wines I've ever tasted. It was really interesting to see the species of trees in the area and how recognizable in the works of Van Gogh they are.  His work makes sense on another level after seeing the distinctive landscape of this area. So beautiful is the South of France!

The Winery

The trees that Van Gogh loved so
Our next stop was Nice, where we were looking forward to a day of pure relaxation laying on the beach. Our train ride there had a couple hiccups and was filled with a thousand sweaty bodies headed to Cannes for the Film Festival, so we were very glad to get off and get settled in our lovely little apartment 2 minutes from the beach.  The next day we awoke early, had some tasty brekkie and espresso and skipped our happy asses to the beach.  

I also ate escargot and steak tartare for the first time, and it was delicious!

If you happen to find yourself on the French Riviera, pay the 15 euro for a private beach. It is worth it, I promise you.  Squishy lounge chairs, giant umbrellas, wooden walkways, immaculate bathrooms, and chairside food/drink service while you read your book allllll dayyyyyyy. Bliss. Bliss indeed.

We definitely wished we had another day to repeat that behavior in Nice, but the next day we were headed to Venice to meet our hubbies before embarking on the cruise on Sunday.  

Venice. What. A. City.  I expected it to be cool, but sweet jesus that is the most beautiful city I have ever laid eyes upon in all my traveldom.  I don't even know where to begin.  Once the guys arrived and we got them settled in the apartment we headed out to start shoveling Italian food in our mouths.  After dinner, some espresso and some gelato, we started moseying across canals and bridges toward St. Mark's Square.  The streets of Venice are very confusing, and very easy to get lost in and end up at dead ends at canals.  Fortunately, every window along the way is filled with beautiful art, supple leather, mounds of gelato, flowing dresses and countless other niceties.  

The skyline that I have been painting for so long, I finally saw in person!

When we finally reached the Square, I was mindblown.  There were mini symphonies every 50 yards, beautiful lights along every ledge, and because it was night time the amount of people in the square was much lower than in the daytime.  The pictures don't do it justice.  

After a couple days of gorging in Venice, we made the epic trek to the port to hop on our cruise ship.  The trek was much longer and sweatier than we were expecting, so by the time we got on board we pretty much ran to the buffet and the bar.  It was much welcomed.  

Our first stop on the itinerary was Bari, Italy.  Bari itself isn't anything to see, but we had booked an excursion to the caves outside the city so we headed out there right after we docked.  The caves were pretty epic and will provide some rad material for some paintings I have brewing! 

Second stop was Katakalon, Greece.  A very small port with one main street of shopping, and buses to Olympia.  We didn't feel like making the journey to Olympia, so we hopped on this beer bike instead.  And then we had an epic meal of giant calamari and souvlaki. It was a good day.

Third was Santorini! This was the stop I had planned this whole trip for, the place I had been dreaming of seeing since I was a lil' tyke.  Oia was the place to see, and I didn't realize that the island was essentially one big cliff and all the towns were built on top of it, making everything pretty hard to find and access. Two boat rides, a bus ride and a seasick husband later, we finally got to the top, to Oia.  I now understand why it is so expensive to fly into Santorini!  Oia is incredibly beautiful, and very distinctive in that beauty.  It is one of the few places that really does look like all those incredible photographs you see when you google.  I took this shot while eating a delicious hunk of feta wrapped in phyllo dough and fried with honey and sesame. It was amazing. The view and the feta.

What I was not expecting were the hundreds of donkeys.  Used to pack tourists up and down the cliffs and the 600 stone steps from Fira to the old port, it made for quite a journey down the mountain.

The next day was Piraeus, which is local to Athens.  I stayed in bed, while Danielle and the hubbies trekked on.  I got up and had a nice quiet lunch and then proceeded to the pool to read and wait for my loves to return.

Then we were on to Corfu, a super green island of Greece, where we were committed to finding a beautiful beach, which had eluded us at every stop thus far.  We had come to the right place, and finally enjoyed a few hours in the sand and swimming in the sea.  We headed back toward the center to find a tasty gyro, and found that Corfu kicks a whole lot of ass.  Lovely open town center, very well preserved ruins and fortresses, chill atmosphere, beaches around the whole island... Corfu is a place I would not mind returning to for a longer stay. For some reason all my Corfu pictures wouldn't load.  I will add them later if I can :)

Our last stop before returning to Venice was also one that I was highly anticipating - Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Sailing along the coast and through the islands was epic in beauty.  When we ported, we were shuttled to the center, right outside of the castle walls.  

One of the greatest things about traveling is the constant surprises along the way.  I always have a picture in my mind of what a place will be like, and it is almost never accurate.  Dubrovnik was most definitely one of those places.  The town is inside the castle walls, preserved amazingly to this day.  We wandered through the city and eventually saw a sign that said "Cold beer and the best view in the city >>", so of course we followed it.  They weren't lying. The view was epic.  The beer was cold, but we all about shat ourselves when she told us how much they were.  That beer with a view was expensive. But totally worth it.  

There were also little kittens roaming around that I seriously wanted to put in my purse and take home.

Looking out over those cliffs, the water was so still it blended perfectly with the sky.  It was mystical, surreal, so peaceful and serene.  And the bar was playing some lovely blues music, the first good tunes we had heard in quite awhile.  After we finished our million dollar beers, we continued to explore the city.  Awesomeness.  We even got to nerd out Game of Thrones style just a tad!

By the last day we're all ready to get off of the ship with the thousands of people cramming into the restaurants, elevators and pools.  We got off the ship and had one final incredible meal together in Venice before we parted ways and I cried my way over the last canal and boarded the bus to the airport.  

An epic trip indeed.  I could not be more grateful.