Côte d’Azur 

 

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Villefranche-Sur-Mer
The railway here hugs the Cote d’Azur allowing visitors even on a humble train ride to witness the coast’s magnificence. Villages and towns carved out of rocks. Crystal clear waters. Stretches of coast. Small, protected bays.

Villefranche-sur-mer is no exception. Housing and hotels encircle the sea from east to west, from the sea bed to mountainous heights. The train for Villefranche-sur-mer perches directly above the bay, leaving only some parking and a concrete wall to separate the two. The minute we leave the train we immediately realise that this town is the worst kept secret for English and American tourists. Nick wrestles with our enormous luggage through groups of tourists along cobbled laneways that inevitably lead up and up and up. Despite the ease of the eight minute train ride from Nice, we are not travelling light and the steep cobbled steps loom ahead of us. Two pre-schoolers overwhelmed by the feat, manage in a daze to make it to our apartment in one piece. We enter the apartment to the welcome of a lovely English woman named Donna and the kids make themselves at home, after what felt like the longest hour of our journey thus far. Our apartment overlooks the bay, the town, the lighthouse even winks at us. This will be home. The arduous steps were worth it.
Wait. Someone is missing.
My momentary peace is replaced with alarm. Nick continues the noble battle – two enemies: stairs ahead and the unruly luggage in tow. No smartphone = no contact = no Google maps. Retracing our steps he cannot be found. Has he been swallowed by the old town below? Has he lost the battle? After what feels like a sweaty eternity, the kids and I hear Nick’s holler from the heavens, declaring his victory. Worn out but victorious he manages to find our new abode.

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Within no time our blood, sweat and tears have been cleansed by the salty bay that laps the small coast. All drama aside, Villefranche-sur-mer is a gem along this coast line (and certainly not the only one). The village’s coastline starts with fine, soft stones with relatively shallow, clear waters and becomes sandier before returning to larger pebbles as it edges toward Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. The last of the bays, is home to a rich ecosystem. From the beach you can see the peach and orange hotels that give the town it’s timeless appeal and character. Small boats bob along the water’s edge. Looking behind the old town Mount Boron stands proudly and it is clear how much ascent and descent characterises life here. From any given height visitors are greeted with the beautiful vista of the curved bay, terracotta roofs and matching window shutters. Even the town’s bells gently drift up the mount.

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Like Tamariu this town has a tranquility and a stillness in the morning before businesses are really underway. Only a few people dotting the shore line, waitresses slowly and carefully prepare their umbrellas and tables. The water moves gently. The laneways are eerily quiet, few souls move through them before nine am.

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In the evening though, as the crescent moon shines over the village, the stillness of the night is only a façade. There are still at least a few thrill-seeking children bobbing in the water, parents and couples enjoying picnics along the beach. The walkways while lively during the day seem to come to life at night. Wine bars with small tables and crates offer Provencal wine. Restaurants big and small still serving delicious delights.Villefranche-sur-mer is a charming town that, even when it is over-run by visitors from cruise-liners, maintains an authenticity few tourists spots can. Its tight spaces and compact layout captivates you from bonjour to au revoir. As the sun sets on our last night in Villefranch-sur-mer, it is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to this beautiful place. In true VF style our last day was glorious, with a a capital G! The day was warm, the market was bustling, and the fish danced through the crystal clear bay. Well done vf what a send-off, sunshine, laughter and small pebbles clinging to every inch of our bodies refusing to be washed away. It has felt as though time stood still here, but the insistent church bells are a reminder that time has been passing and we now say goodbye to VF and the Côte d’Azur.

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A trip down Côte d’Azur’s memory lane

 

Nice
The Niçois play experiences and long walks along the promenade.
We survived the unforgiving rocks of the Plages of Nice that can only be conquered by 5 Euro plastic sandals.
The unforgiving attendants at the public toilets should you not have half a Euro.
The sound-sensitive gentle Italian lady living beneath us in our apartment.

Oh the excitement of the trams!

The thrill and delight of the water-play square in the centre of Nice.
The near-death experience (for me) and grand achievement of scaling Mount Boron, only to realise the waterfall we were searching was on a much smaller mountain in the distance. We were rewarded when we cast our eyes over the view of Cap Ferrat and Villefranche-sur-mer from Mount Boron.

Monte Carlo/Monaco

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Monte Carlo surprised us for its ease with children.

The oceanographic museum encasing magnificent creatures from the sea – big and small – including a tank filled with baby Clown fish (Nemo) and interesting activities for the kids too.

The small train that departs from the museum was a delight for us all – Audrey still recalls it hoping to return to the miniature train.

The Princess’ playground that offers small playgrounds that are built into the cliff-like nature of the terrain.
Thank you to http://www.familytraveller.com for many of the suggestions.

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Beaulieu
If VFsM is characterised by charm, Beaulieu (it’s neighbour) is characterised by luxury. Luxury boats, luxury brands, luxury hotels. Despite Beaulieu’s reputation for luxury the beaches are family friendly, Le Catalan restaurant was a wonderful find and Audrey witnessed her own fairy sighting in the trees that line the Jardin.

Saint Jean Cap Ferrat

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This area is adjacent to Villefranche-sur-mer making it a lovely walk or simple bus ride from the town. While it is not as cosy and compact as Villefranche-sur-mer it hosts many azure bays perfect for swimming and snorkelling, a lovely port lined with restaurants and luxury boutiques, excellent paths for witnessing the resplendence of the coastline along the cape. Passable beach was a highlight for its protected and tiny bay, particularly with Bradley who is not confident in the water. Palomas beach was another highlight for the playful and varied fish darting through its pebbly base.

Antibes

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How could I forget our meandering through Antibes? As Nick’s grey Nike shoes were transformed to clay, we were acquainting ourselves with the winding streets of Antibes’ old town. Patisseries filled with delectable delights, buskers playing the piano accordion to avid audiences through corridors of space, brasseries designed for lunch and an aperitif at four. Once Audrey, Bradley and I had made our way through the quaint streets with only a few macarons in hand we were met by the wall of the town. The wall both leads to the port and separates the town from small beaches designed for floating. Soft, fine white sand, a rarity in these parts, and shallow clear waters for us to drift away a few hours.

Reflection
I cast my eye to the moon once more, and realise we have spent a month in France and three weeks along the French Rivera. What have we learnt on our way? For me the French way is still somewhat of a mystery. While it was easy to adjust to the Mediterranean slow mornings and siesta, other parts were a little less accommodating (that is to suit our current stage with a four and almost three old)
Even after a month in France I experienced far less of the French cuisine then I would have liked. Partly due to home-cooked meals in our apartment. Eating out with our children was not without its challenges – most places started serving dinner at 6:30 or 7pm which was a difficult time to get our son to eat or sit for prolonged periods of time. Some days we chose to eat out and the children were mostly good. Other days we had to eat out because we were too far from home. On both good and bad days, the overt stares we regularly received from patrons should our children not be Michelin-star trained for dining out was a enough to affect one’s appetite. In addition to this, along the Cote d’Azur it was very common to find generic Western/Mediterranean menus on offer in many of the places we chose to eat at. Pizza, pasta, veal escalope alla Milanese seemed to be staples.

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The French language is still a mighty challenge for me. Though, unlike my visit nine years ago, English seems to be almost preferred with obvious non-French speakers (like myself). Surprisingly many of my most genuine interactions were with non-English speakers as we danced through our communication – gesticulating and shrugging.
Culture is difficult to define and ever-changing. The landscape and environment people live in shapes the qualities prevalent in a place. This was noticeable as we travelled from Montpellier, Paris, Nice and Villefranche-sur-mer.

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The most memorable moments are the simplest. Bradley’s face covered in chocolate ice creams. Audrey’s delight at seeing her first fish while snorkeling. Water fights at the beach.

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The land of the gecko

The girl and the boy have started their journey. Their journey thus far has taken them through some wonderful and tiresome places. Their first encounter in the strange lands was in ‘The land of the Gecko’. It was the boy that remembers the tale most vividly.

***

The gecko perches up in a strange, colourful garden.

Splashes of blue.

Splashes of pink.

Splashes of white.

It is obvious to the boy that the gecko is the controller of this land. The stairs bow to it. The ferns nod to it. Even the flowers whistle to it. Despite its majesty, the boy could hear the shouts, “Dragon! Dragon! Beware!” But the boy knows better. This creature is not a dragon.

This is a gecko.

The gecko peacefully overlooks the garden below, while the boy playfully strokes its head. He smiles and nods while others gasp at it. Filled with fear, other people stand stiffly beside it – grimacing. The boy laughs. He turns once more to the gecko and admires him. His beauty. His poise. His strength.

The gecko tells the boy he has been in this garden a long time. He tells of a time when he was ridiculed. A time when he feared for his home and his precious garden. Periods of solitude. He often longs for that solitude, but rarely finds it in the age of the statue people.

The boy could listen to the gecko all day, but in the distance he can hear the girl calling. As he turns to leave, the gecko  shares his secrets with the gleeful boy. The boy thanks the gecko. He has learnt much from it and must prepare for the rest of his journey.

The Land of the Sultan and the Castles

The boy and girl had already seen so much, but their journey was only really beginning.

They gingerly approached a new land where they could hear the delighted cries of children and smell the sweet scent of lollipops. They trudged through the green gates with the plastic arches, while the stern men and women pointed them toward the pink tower in the distance.

A pink castle kissed the sky, coated in what looked like pink marshmallow and coconut frosting. It must be a mirage they thought. How could a castle so large be made of sweets?

Unlike the other lands, the perils here were difficult to find. The sun shone brightly. The buildings were singing. The people smiled. Nodded. Danced.

As they rushed to enter this abundant land, they unwittingly fell under the Sultan’s spell. Lured by the bright colours and fluffy toys they became lost in a land with no start or finish. Their eyes glazed over, as the spell took its hold they gravitated to the red and black colours in the Far East wing of the Sultan’s abode.

“ELASTIGIRL,” the girl chanted.

The boy mirrored her cry, “SNAPPER!”
Time moved slowly. Unable to control themselves they clutched the red and black objects in desperation.

Elastigirl winked to the girl from beneath her shiny window, and whispered gently, “Follow me and you will be free.”

The girl obeyed, still under the Sultan’s trance. As she exited the Sultan’s cave into the light, the warmth returned to the girl’s eyes. She turned to the boy and shouted, “Elastigirl saved us from the Sultan”.


With Elastigirl by their side, the girl and boy walked more confidently through this land. This was the land of:

Flying elephants.

Dancing horses.

Racing cars.

Mazes.

Castles –  big and small.

As the sun began to tire, and their little legs began to slow, one last obstacle remained. The evil witch had captured Snow White. The girl and the boy knew they must confront the evil witch, and help Snow White. The boy was uncertain, but the girl urged him forward.

The girl stood tall. Her eyes wide open. She was ready for the challenge.

The boy made it to the dark forest and but he was unable to go on.

She turned to him, “Stay here, I will return for you when Snow White is free.”

So the boy crouched in the shadows of the trees, waiting for his sister’s return. The girl trudged on with out him.

She knew that courage meant doing things even when you are scared.

She did not flinch when the forest became darker. The evil witch’s traps did not deter her. She could see the crocodiles ahead. Wide-eyed she carried on.

The final hurdle.

The Boulder.

She heaved with all her might. The Boulder must have been twice her height. She heaved once. Twice. Thrice. The Boulder hurtled toward the evil witch. The girl heard the seven dwarves cheering nearby.

The girl broke the curse, and saved Snow White. Snow White’s kingdom became covered by a golden glow. Admiring the glow, the girl was reluctant to leave but she knew she could not stay, there were too many more adventures awaiting her.

Barcelona – toddlers in tow

Hits

  • Barcelona, like NYC, boasts many small, gated playgrounds throughout the city.
  • Seeing Superman atop of Museo of Cera.
  • Chasing bubbles in the park across from La Sagrada Familia.
  • Park Guell. The park land surrounding the monument include lovely greenery and a great view of the city.
  • CASA Battlo – great because kids can touch and move around quite freely.
  • Taxis in front of La Sagrada Familia.
  • Evening walks into the Gothic Quarter.
  • Polaroid camera for the 4.5 year old.
  • Scrapbook for the 4.5 year old to regularly write in.

Misses

  • Blood noses in the heat.
  • Casa Battlo at a three year old’s pace.
  • Pushing two strollers up the ridiculous hill to Park Guell only to be told it was sold out for the day. (Book ahead).
  • No comparative Polaroid camera for the 2.5 year old. Master B “I want a blue one camera” announces at every turn.
  • Finding time to write in the scrapbook.
  • Packing lightly with little people.
  • Toys, toys, toys.
  • Wanting toys.
  • Losing toys.
  • Sharing toys.
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Me heart belongs to Tamariu

(Picture courtesy of nickognenis.net)

We all travel for different reasons. For some it’s the idea of travel – the promise it offers. An escape from our mundane existence. The day-to-day. The monotonous. What can sometimes feel like a grind to accomplish errands, duties, the ‘roles’ assigned to us.Travel offers an opportunity for a fresh start. A different you. As Alain De Botton (in The Art of Travel) comments, though, we often have to bring ourselves along for the journey, which means we inevitably also travel to escape the everyday but cannot truly escape ourselves or our own neuroses.

I have often found that the anticipation of travel is just as much a part of the experience of travel itself. The wondering, imagining another place, another me in that place. At the commencement of our journey to Spain I slowly felt my neuroses easing in Barcelona, momentarily escaping the everyday in front of a building or artwork. Swept up by its magic.These moments seem to be more plentiful on holidays, forced to look beyond the ordinary and witness the extraordinary.In Barcelona these moments were quite sporadic. Interrupted by pushing strollers in the heat, crowds and lines at every turn. (Particularly in Western Europe in August I might add.)Tamariu (Costa Brava Spain)

For me, though, I really experienced the transformative power of travel when we strode into the little town of Tamariu. A town nestled along the rugged Spanish coast. It’s name Costa Brava means rugged coast, hints at the terrain that winds along this part of Spain. In equal measure beautiful and challenging. Rock faces and slippery walking terrain, make way for turquoise bays ideal for swimming. Entering many of the towns along this coast (in August) is a feat in itself. A byproduct of landscape and popularity. The tight streets wind down from perilous heights. Once you have survived the twists and turns to the beaches, do not be dismayed by the volume of cars at every turn. If the drive did not make you nervous, attempting to find a parking is sure to affect your blood pressure. Be prepared to walk and be prepared to park within kissing distance of another vehicle. This is no time to be shy, the Costa Brava awaits.

Our base town was Tamariu. I must declare my bias here: my daughter and I have certainly left a little piece of our hearts behind in the ragged edges of the town and the tender caresses of the bay. It is here I found solace in the early morning snorkels with the small fish darting through the rocky shores. It is here that my daughter found delight in the lapping water and the tiny schools of fish. 

The town is filled to the brim with many Spanish and English travellers during this time, so the tranquility of the bay is best found in the mornings before the crowds find their plot on the beach, or quiet hikes along the rocks. As one enters the hike the noisiness of the crowds recedes gently replaced by the waves slapping the jagged rocks, the trees whistling or your own feet slipping down the sandy embankments. The rocks encase everything here. They enclose small bays. They are ever present on your walks. They are always underfoot. Yet the cliffs also form a part of the beauty of the landscape. There is a wildness here.

This town is not operational all months of the year, it is holiday destination, usually operational until about November depending when the rain starts. The young man running the local store tells me he longs for October when there are no longer crowds and it is still warm enough to swim.

 My heart belongs to Tamariu but we did also flirt with neighbouring towns.


Lloret del Mar

This town was not for us. We did enjoy a lovely English breakfast and a swim at a pretty beach. The beach was far less tranquil than the bay at Tamariu. There was an old fort that we walked to, but beware there are very limited times available to visit the fort itself. However,the rest of the town had a 1970s feeling, combined with souvenir or market-style shopping reminiscent of Thailand.

Tossa de MarThis town seemed to have a lot more character than Lloret deal Mar. While it still had requisite restaurants and an incredibly long beachfront for tourists to enjoy, it also maintained a fortress and accompanying old town style. Here the shopping seemed to maintain more authenticity and less mass produced goods.Cadaqués What a lovely place this was. We only travelled here in the afternoon, and it was a rainy day.  After taking over an hour’s drive from Tamariu, largely due to the winding streets the effort was worth it. The rain cleared as made our walk into town, allowing us to enjoy the picturesque place. Cobbled streets. A large beachfront promenade littered with restaurants. The food here was well priced and cooked just like home (exactly what we needed two weeks into travel).


Sa TunaA beautiful bay that is very close to Tamariu. Sunken below the wild coast line is a tiny bay with traditional Spanish terrace houses that hug the outer edge of the bay. A must visit. Better yet, I would love to stay here in the future. A lovely little place for a swim or ice cream stop.