WINTER ON THE FRENCH RIVIERA

Monte Carlo at midnight

Monte Carlo at midnight

The South of France is an amazingly easy short winter break from the UK, and a truly invigorating one as well. Even a few days spent strolling along the sun splashed waterfronts and outdoor cafes of the French Riviera is a great way to shatter the grim, rolling grey rigor mortis of the English winter. And you’ll find none of the maddening throngs that flood these same resorts like a human tidal wave in the heady days of the Mediterranean summer, either.

The British love affair with the Riviera goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria used to visit regularly in the cold winter months. With an average December/January temperature of between twelve and fourteen degrees centigrade and many sunny days, the climate was a definite tonic to the long, leaden gloom of winter London.

Almost inevitably, the cream of British society followed her, as did her son, the lecherous, corpulent future king, Edward VII. English money flowed into the string of opulent Italianate villas that sprouted up in the hillsides around coastal cities such as Nice.

Grand, Edwardian styled belle epoque hotels such as the fabled Negresco, offered a home away from home for those accustomed to whiling away their time in the Ritz, or the Savoy. Even today, the Negresco still remains a fabulous, vaulting vision of the past, with its gilt. gold leaf and almost impossible chandeliers. If you happen to be in Nice, it’s well worth checking out for a drink, a meal, or even a stay.

There is no shortage of budget flights into Nice Cote D’Azur airport on airlines such as Easyjet. And, while you can no longer take the fabled Blue Train to the South of France, there is still the option of combining the Eurostar service to Paris, with a run down into Nice or Marseille on the TGV. It’s a pretty special, ever so slightly decadent way to swagger into the sweet spots along the coast.

So, what to see?

Monte Carlo by day

Monte Carlo by day

I guess you’ll have to check out Monte Carlo at least once, if only to realise just how hideously over rated it actually is. Yes, the belle epoque casino and it’s gardens are gorgeous, but the tower blocks along the waterfront look like they were designed by the same architect responsible for Stalingrad. The prices are as stratospheric as the conceit of some of the residents. Not for nothing was it described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’. Here, platinum chip pretension overflows from the top of every Gucci shopping bag. It has brittle glamour at very best.

By contrast, Cannes is cool, classy and brimming with casual, spectacular style and elegance.  The old town is stunningly pretty, with its winding, cobbled lanes that lead up to the old fort that overlooks the modern, yacht studded harbour. Just strolling the famous Croisette Boulevard is a treat in itself.  Maybe stop off and enjoy a glass of pastis on the terrace of the legendary Hotel Carlton, overlooking the shingle beaches, lidos and languid date palms. Cannes is a beautiful city that is the very essence of Riviera chic and class.

Nice is the self styled ‘Queen of The Riviera’, and with very good reason. A city built along the edge of thirteen shingle beaches that shelve into the ocean, the city is backed by a soaring mass of lush, rolling greenery studded with gorgeous, Italianate villas in shades of ochre, cream and terracotta. The breezy, meandering sprawl of the Promenade Des Anglais is a palm shaded parade of open air cafes, bars and bistros that runs all the way along the waterfront.

Place Massena has live music set against a backdrop of strollers, mime artists and spectacular, theatrical fountains. The shopping is world class, though it has to be said that Nice is obviously not a cheap date.

The beauty of Nice

The beauty of Nice

It’s worth checking out in February, when the annual Carnival turns the city into a riot of fun, colour and amazing displays of fauna.There are carnival floats, fiestas and parades aplenty, and the partying often goes on far into the night. And, with the temperatures being reasonably pleasant through the days, the city is a fun, easily manageable alternative to the samba fuelled fleshpots of Rio and New Orleans.

Cannes old town

Cannes old town

Ah. Did I mention how good the food is?

Dining out anywhere on the French Riviera is an experience; here, world class gastronomy meets casual gluttony, and is cooked up to the level of an art form. The local bouillabaise soup is legendary; it’s much more of a deep, rich fish stew than an actual soup. Also right up there is the local seafood.  Lamb is probably the best meat, and always succulent. Somehow, lingering for two or three hours over a meal in such beautiful surroundings seems like no problem at all.

There’s an excellent, incredibly scenic coastal rail route that takes you to jaw dropping, spectacularly pretty villages such as Antibes, Beaulieu, Juan Les Pins and Villefranche. The latter has quite probably the most singularly beautiful bay in the entire Mediterranean, and boasts one of the few truly sandy beaches in the region. If ever a place was designed simply for a few hours of languid people watching and genuine, platinum chip self indulgence, then Villefranche is surely it. I recommend the John Dory at Le Calypso, and the margaritas are pretty damned good, too. You can take the train to here from either Nice or Monaco-Ville in around ten to fifteen minutes, and it’s truly worth the journey.

Of course, the region as a whole is not cheap. But the quality is invariably superb, the surroundings never less than exhilarating, and the sheer fabulous, feel good factor is undeniable. It is a part of the world that (mostly) understands the difference between hype and style. And, as any dedicated lotus eater will tell you, it is impossible to hang a true price tag on real style.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

So, all things considered, the French Riviera has a lot going for it, even in the off season. Even two or three days is enough to really invigorate you in the depths of a long winter. Enjoy.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN SOUTHERN EUROPE

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The whole thing with southern Europe is that it is one vast, cake rich, cultural glut of incredible things to see. Castles, cathedrals, museums. Turrets, campaniles and spires. They all vie- nay, sometimes demand- your undivided attention on any given day of your European vacation.

Simple truth? You can’t do them all. So don’t even try. More truth? Not all of the truly great, awe inspiring sights are of human construction.

That point made, here’s five of my favourite places in the Mediterranean. With time, tide and fair breezes, they might just become some of yours, too.

Church of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Antonio Gaudi was a creative genius on a par with Warhol or Hans Christian Andersen, and the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church is without doubt his most stunning masterpiece. With it’s clutch of gingerbread spires clawing at a perfect Catalan sky, it has become the symbol of one of the greatest, most swaggering and stylish cities in the world.

In places, it has the appearance of a slowly melting cake, inlaid just above ground level with some of the most amazing and intricate carvings you will ever see.  There is literally no other church like it in the world. During the day, this honey coloured colossus enjoys a matchless stance by a small park, but try to catch it at night. Indirect lighting, built all around it makes Sagrada Familia truly unforgettable and awe inspiring. You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to be awed by this stunning testament to human devotion and ingenuity,  Highly recommended.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

Bay of Villefranche, Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

A sensuous, semi circular sweep of high, rolling hills studded with million euro villas, Villefranche is the most stunning single coastal location anywhere in southern Europe; one so perfectly formed that it was used as the backdrop for a James Bond film in the 1980’s.  At the edge of the quay, a row of Italianate shops, bars and restaurants in shades of blue, ochre and terracotta curves seductively around the lower edge of the bay. Umbrella shaded bars and pavement cafes spill out onto the quay that overlooks an azure harbour, studded with literally dozens of idly bobbing yachts and fishing boats. It’s a place to kick back and people watch over a sumptuous, two hour lunch, You’ll see people wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of a third world country, and old ladies walking impossibly small dogs among the jasmine wreathed cobbled streets that lead up into the old town.

Once seen, never forgotten; Villefranche will stay with you long after you leave it behind.

Greco-Roman Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

This almost perfectly preserved, Eighth Century amphitheatre is as compelling for its location as it is for it’s ageless, elegant sweep and still flawless acoustics. Nestling in the shade of towering pine trees at the top of Taormina, it looks down and out over the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean. From it’s terraces, you can clearly see the brooding, still smouldering mass of Mount Etna, grey against a cobalt blue sky.

It has an exalted, almost Olympian feel to it; row upon row of stepped, circular stone seating cascades down to a central ‘stage’ which is still used for outdoor concerts to this day.

Worth going to simply for the view alone; an outdoor concert at dusk would be a truly amazing experience as well.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

One of the scenic exclamation marks in a city almost awash with them, Piazza Navona has been a Roman stand out for centuries.

The centre piece is formed by a series of amazing, medieval fountains by Bernini, almost awash with a riot of intricate, over the top, Romanesque statuary from the middle ages. Off to one side is the cool, ordered elegance of the circular Pantheon, with its shady interior, incredible frescoes and marvellous acoustics.

These fountains and surrounding buildings form the focal point of this famous, frantic, bustling square that hums with life at all hours of the day and night. The whole area is framed by a host of sun splashed cafes and restaurants, while mime artists and strolling musicians mingle with dog walking locals taking time out for an ice cream.

It’s a quintessential Italian slice of the good life; la dolce vita served up with age old Roman style in a swaggering, feel good setting. Deliciously over the top, and typically addictive.

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Chora, Mykonos, Greek Islands

No other single sight is as evocative of the history and hedonism of the Greek Islands as those five famous windmills that sit on top of the hill above the harbour of Mykonos, immortalised in the movie, Shirley Valentine. They can be seen from any part of the island, and the views of the sunsets from here draws out the crowds each and every night in the peak summer season. It’s an almost pagan ritual, as compelling as anything you’ll see at Stonehenge. The vibe at evening time has more than a little in common with Key West.

Individually, each of the five windmills has a uniform stance. Circular and whitewashed, surrounded by low stone walls and fronted by petrified, long silent sails, each is topped with it’s own thatched ‘mop top’ roof.  It is their collective poise and presence that makes them so memorable; they loom above the Aegean’s most compelling and indulgent island like a quintet of benevolent deities.

So; there you go. Five of my faves from the magnificent Med. You may agree. You may disagree. But I think we’d all agree that the real fun lies in getting out there, and finding and defining your own favourites, Happy exploring!

COMPELLING IMAGES OF THE COTE D’AZUR

A while ago I put up a blog on a small French fishing village called Villefranche-sur-Mer, located not far from either Nice or Monte Carlo. Since that first went up, people have been asking for more photographs of this beautiful little gem. This album is conceived with that in mind…

The town itself is the landing point for most cruise ships arriving in the South of France and, as you can imagine, it is pretty damned busy in the summer season. None of which takes anything away from the special sense of petite, old world charm that it radiates.

These pictures were mostly taken in the summer of 2008. But Villefranche has changed very little over the course of several decades. All of which just adds to it’s sense of whimsical, perfectly coiffed charm.

The prices here for food and drink are not as high as in, say, Monaco or Cannes.

The whole village is a pleasant pastiche pf pastel shaded houses, winding, cobble stoned side streets, and open air restaurants that range along the curve of the waterfront here.CNV00069

There are also some vaulting, underground passageways, originally built as part of the town’s fortifications by the Grimaldis. Atmospheric by day, and more than just a touch spooky by night….CNV00070CNV00071

Streets leading into the hills are narrow, winding, and flanked by lines of vaulting Italianate architecture in ochre, blue and terracotta hues. It is not unusual to see lines of washing waving above your head in the warm breeze.CNV00072

Part of the real joy of being in Villefranche comes from just losing yourself in these winding, compact lanes. Turn a corner. Just see what you find.CNV00074

There are flower baskets overflowing with fresh blooms, and half hidden courtyards awash with a vibrant wave of hibiscus and oleander.CNV00076

The heady scent of jasmine, and the seductive, irresistible aroma of freshly grilled fish on the waterfront.CNV00077

You’ll find any number of shops up and alongside these whimsical old warrens and alleyways,CNV00078

There are shutters in electric blue, crimson and white, flung open to let in the summer breeze, and awnings that rustle like subtle whispers on an almost stillborn wind.CNV00080

You’ll find that the number of tourists tend to decline in direct proportion to just how high you climb. It can be challenging; but those same high fronted, narrow streets offer a lot of shade, even at the height of summer.CNV00084

The most famous hotel is still the pretty, terracotta shaded Welcome, situated right on the busy main street of Quai Coubert.

Villefranche also played host to a number of artists before the war, including Cocteau. There’s a small, beguiling little museum, devoted to the man and his work in the town centre. Chagall also spent some time here, Today you’re more likely to see Tina Turner; she lives in a villa up in the hills, right above the old town.

Down on the bustling spread of the waterfront, a string of stylish, umbrella shaded bars and restaurants look out over the glittering expanse of the sparkling, summertime Mediterranean.CNV00088CNV00087

CNV00086Wherever you decide to take lunch, or even just a welcome beer or cocktail- you’ll find the views are simply stupendous.CNV00094

The hills that surround the old harbour on three sides form an almost perfect semi circle. They cradle the old town, dominating it and giving Villefranche it’s unique, spectacular stance. Seen from the water, the sheer beauty of the place is heart stopping.CNV00095

The balcony rooms at the Welcome Hotel offer a surreal, almost Olympian perspective of the entire town.CNV00096

It’s very old world. Cobbled squares and fountains; dog walkers and the idle rich, drinking pastis at a pavement cafe…..CNV00097

Fishing trawlers tied up alongside gnarled, cobbled quaysides. Cruise ships the size of Croatia swinging idly at anchor, out in the bay. The splutter and roar of the water tenders, bumbling back and forth across the azure hue of the ocean.CNV00098

See you there this summer? Hey, why not! After all, stranger things really have happened at sea…..
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VISIONS OF VILLEFRANCHE, PARADISE ON THE COTE D’AZUR

ImageAnybody who has travelled in southern Europe has their own idea as to what the most beautiful place is. Some swoon over Sorrento. Others are mad about Mykonos. Some will plead the case for Portofino, while still others will swear by Santorini, Kusadasi, or Taormina.

I have no quarrel with any of those opinions. All rate highly among my personal favourites for beauty, character, and sheer, platinum chip slouch factor.

ImageSlouch factor? It’s a term I use for any place that somehow slows your normal, manic pace of mobility to an indolent saunter, simply by virtue of it’s sheer beauty and magical vibe. It’s a place that makes you feel the need to do nothing more strenuous than relax with a glass of wine or a cold beer, some lunch, with a good side order of languid people watching for dessert.

Of course, southern Europe is slouch factor central. Hedonism here is an art form, sometimes abstract like a Picasso; at other times cake rich, and full of the colour of a Rubens. Whatever. slouch factor is a state of mind; a true art form in it’s own right.

But, while all those peachy places I mentioned above induce a case of severe indolence in me, there is one that tops them all when it comes to living and loving the good life to the maximum. And- because we’re all friends here- I’m going to share it with you.

Villefranche is a small fishing village, mid way between Nice and Monte Carlo, that is used by many cruise ships to disembark passengers for the scenic highlights along the way. It has the advantage of a natural, deep harbour, and excellent road and rail connections along the coast.

ImageIt also just happens to blow spots off any of them for sheer, languid, magnificent beauty. Villefranche is, quite simply, the most perfectly styled, chocolate box pretty place in the entire Mediterranean. A view so good that it was used as one of the backdrops for the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again.

ImageThe bay forms a perfect, natural theatre-in-the-round, cradled by a sweeping semi circle of gently rolling hills in a dozen shades of vibrant green. Villas, houses and churches peep out from among this wonderful natural crown, offering spectacular views down onto a sparkling, electric blue bay literally studded with idly bobbing yachts, as content as well fed swans.

ImageOn the waterfront, a riot of Italianate houses, bars and shops curve around the base of the bay. There are shades of yellow, white and terracotta. Window shutters in cream, green and electric blue stand open above the winding, cobbled lanes that lead back into the hills. An armada of bars, cafes and restaurants is splashed like so much brightly coloured confetti along the bustling quayside.

Waiters in starched white aprons deliver plates of food and drinks to idly loafing tourists wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Their cars sit in leafy side lanes, shielded by a wash of jasmine and oleander. A Rolls Royce Corniche here; a Lamborghini there. The whole vibe is casually spectacular indolence, played out against a matchless natural canvas.

ImageTrains slither like exotic snails along the railway line that hugs the coast, passing over the spectacular, jasmine shrouded viaduct that winds around the bay. A small, honey coloured beach shelves gently into the azure hue of the Mediterranean. Like everything else in Villefranche, it seems almost perfectly in proportion to every other part of the mix. It’s as elegant and coquettish as an exquisite charm bracelet and, truth be told, not that much cheaper.

ImageThat said, it is nowhere near as expensive as, for instance, Monte Carlo just down the coast. A first time arrival by sea in Villefranche is easy to spot; just check the speed with which their jaw hits the top of their shoes when your ship first sails round the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that whole, wonderful bay opens up in front of you like a flower bursting into full bloom.

ImageAs evening falls, pools of light begin to shimmer on the ink black waters of the bay. Table lamps flicker skittishly under cafe awnings as they are ruffled by the ghost of a gentle breeze. The deep, seductive growl of a tenor sax floods the night air with a torrent of warm, sultry soul. Lovers walk hand in hand along the promenade, Down below, an old man tends to the sodden nets in his fishing boat, getting them ready for the next day’s catch.

ImageVillefranche is warm, welcoming, almost other worldly in a way. It has a subtle, electric vibe that will stay in your soul like a quiet storm long, long after you leave it behind. And, just like the magnetism present in any storm, you will be drawn back.

Trust me on that one….