Fancy in Annecy… Annecy part deux! part seven

Although I had entertained thoughts of visiting Italy while we were down in southeastern France, the huge traffic jam we saw going into the tunnel that leads there made me think better of going there.  Going to Italy would have meant another trip through the fabulous but treacherous mountain pass that gave Bill white knuckles.  So, instead of looking for another nearby town, we decided to go back to Annecy.  Maybe we’d take a lake cruise.  It would also give us the opportunity to visit the chateau, which offers museums to explore.

Sunday morning view!

Well, it turned out that visiting Annecy on a beautiful Sunday was an exercise in frustration.  Annecy was absolutely flooded with people.  The lunch cruise was completely booked and we struggled to find parking.  We walked through the fresh market again, but it was very difficult because there were so many people.  Bill was getting nervous about all the people crammed into the walkway.  It was like being stuck in a stampede.

Nevertheless, we did get a chance to visit Annecy Castle, which required walking up a hill.  We also happened to visit there on the first Sunday of the month, so admission was free of charge!  I was glad to see that a lot of the signage offered English translation, so we didn’t have to guess too much about what we were seeing.  One thing to mention is that the castle isn’t really a castle per se, as much as it is a group of museums.  To be honest, I only saw the museum about the lake.  Except from June until September, the castle closes from 12-2 pm and everybody gets kicked out so the staff can go to lunch.  By the time we were ready to see the other museum, it was close to lunchtime.  I wasn’t upset, though, since I wasn’t all that interested in the other museum anyway.  There were a lot of people in there.  Below are a few shots of Annecy from the hilltop.  For some reason, there aren’t really any good viewing spots from the towers.

I was glad I had my digital camera with me, so I could zoom in a bit.


The entrance to the castle.  I’m not sure why they made this a museum instead of simply showcasing the castle itself.


The courtyard.


Signs in French, English, and Italian.


A couple of shots of fish from the lake, kept in the aquarium part of the museum. 


I climbed a tower, hoping to see a view of Annecy.  Instead, we got a view of a locked window.  Oh well.  At least I got some exercise.  

Most days, patrons pay 5,50 euros to gain admittance to the castle/museum.  We didn’t have to pay, so this was kind of a nice treat.  I see it gets some mixed reviews on Trip Advisor.  I think it pays to remember the museum closes from 12-2.  Most of the negative reviews seem to come from people upset about being kicked out for lunch.

Speaking of lunch, Bill and I decided to walk around a bit to see if we could find something good.  I usually try hard to avoid touristy spots, but it was kind of hard to do that in the old town part of Annecy.  We ended up eating at Brasserie des Europeens, a rather corporate looking place across from the city hall.  I wasn’t really keen to eat there, but I needed a break from the crowds and the manager was welcoming.

The terrace was hopping.  It brought back flashbacks of my days waiting tables.


Bill checks out the extensive menu.  It was actually kind of hard to choose something.  They had everything from mussels to tartare.  


This time, Bill got his salad…  washed down with an Edelweiss beer garnished with lemon.  I had a Fischer, which was supposedly Alsatian beer… made by Heineken.


I had a skewered hangar steak with frites and a salad.  The steak was a little tough.  I probably should have ordered it medium rare.  Better yet, maybe I should have had mussels.  That’s the kind of dish I can really only enjoy about once a year, though.


I got a kick out of their unisex bathroom.  There was also a ladies only restroom.  Both were way too small for the volume of business they were doing on Sunday.  There was just one stall in the ladies room and two stalls plus a pissoir in the unisex restroom.

We had wine for lunch.  As we were enjoying this, the terrace got slammed.  It reminded me of an infamous scene on Spongebob Squarepants.



The folks at the table behind us ordered Crepes Suzette.  The waitress left her bottle of Grand Marnier on the table while she went to get the proper pan… and one of the guys sitting there non-chalantly helped himself to a nip of it.


Bill reacts to the sneaky cordial thief.


After lunch, we took in yet another church…


A young girl sitting at the front of the church was giggling hysterically.  I wasn’t sure if she was being irreverent or overcome by the spirit.


It was well worth stopping into this beautiful church, even with the hysterical giggling going on.  


We strolled some more around Annecy and I took more photos of what was going on.  There was a lot to see, since there were so many people!

It seems like every major French city has at least one carousel.

I was glad to be in Annecy when the clouds were gone.  Of course, a sunny, warm Sunday means tons and tons of people.  It’s not even the high season yet!


Pretty gardens near the church.


At around this time, I had to find a public restroom.  Fortunately, France is very generous with its public facilities.  Annecy is no exception.  We found our way to one near a playground.  This was the line.

It probably took about fifteen minutes to get my turn.  Every time someone uses the potty, it gets hosed down.  That keeps the toilets from stinking a lot, but they also never get a chance to dry out on a day like Sunday.  Consequently, it was probably not the most hygienic situation, as evidenced by the looks on some of the people’s faces as they emerged.


A whole lotta peeing going on.

After my visit to the loo, we decided it was time to vacate Annecy for some peace and quiet at the hotel.  I took a few more photos on the way out.  Annecy was positively bustling with people engaged in all kinds of fun activities.


One coming in for a landing.

They’re braver than I am!

We decided not to have dinner at the hotel on Sunday night because the entree was veal.  I like the way veal tastes, but I try not to eat it because of the way it’s made.  I know… I am not a vegetarian by any means, but I think South Park spoiled veal for me.  Also, the starter was mozzarella, which I do like, but only when it’s not cold.  We could have asked for something else, but I decided I’d rather have something simpler for dinner anyway.  We went to the snack bar next to the hotel, which was directly across the road from a campground and next to a cheesy looking bar/restaurant that didn’t yet appear to be open for the season.

Before we went to the snack bar, we walked down to the lake.  It was an easy stroll from the hotel.  Too bad we didn’t go there earlier in our visit.

Even better shots of the parasailing daredevils.

I love this shot.  It’s probably destined for my Facebook cover.

We were eagerly greeted by a swarthy man who invited us to sit down and told us they had rotisserie chicken.  I probably should have ordered that instead of the Margherita pizza I ordered.  I can never finish them.

I probably should have split Bill’s pizza.

This was kind of a nice change, though.  I’m sure the veal at the hotel was good.  I probably would have loved it. 


Another English speaking couple sat near us.  It was a little weird because the female half seemed a bit high maintenance.  I heard her say in a pissy voice, “I’m sorry I don’t speak French.” to the guy who was looking after everyone.  He went and got his boss, who did speak English and seemed a little like Mr. Krabs on Spongebob Squarepants.  He was all about the euros!

Before long, the snack bar filled up with people and the one guy who waited on us was soon overwhelmed with people.  Bill had to hunt him down to pay him.  The guy seemed relieved when Bill told him to keep the change.

Next time, I’ll do a better job looking for specific activities.  Fortunately, the Annecy area has a lot to see.  I think it would be worth another visit.


Rheinfall: a quick and easy day trip from the Stuttgart area!

I don’t know how, but somehow we missed Rheinfall (Rhine Falls) the first time we lived in Germany.  In fact, I’m sorry to say that I never heard of it until we moved here the second time, two years ago.  I’m glad we finally found out about this magnificent waterfall in Switzerland.  It would have been a real shame not to have seen it at least once.  It has the distinction of being Europe’s largest plain waterfall.

After last weekend’s successful outing to Riquewihr, France with our dogs, Zane and Arran, I decided this weekend, I wanted to go to Switzerland.  I gave some thought to enjoying an overnight in Schaffhausen, which is a decent sized town near the waterfall.  I looked at places to stay, but finally gave up on the idea when I realized that Rheinfall is really not that far from Unterjettingen, which is where we’re living.  On a good day with normal traffic flow, it takes less than two hours to drive there.  We woke up to pleasant temperatures and sunshine today, so it seemed like the perfect day to visit.

We loaded up the dogs, packed some water and a bowl for them, and set off for Switzerland down A81.  I was enjoying the beautiful scenery as we headed further south, at least until we hit the first of several Staus (traffic jams).

If you are driving and don’t already have one, you’ll need to stop and buy a vignette, unless you plan to stay on secondary roads.  They cost 40 Swiss francs, though you can also pay for them in euros.  The sticker for 2016 is good until January 31, 2017.  Otherwise, you can also easily reach Rheinfall by train.  There is a station literally right by the falls.

Rheinfall is literally just a few miles into Switzerland.  We already had a vignette because we visited Switzerland in December 2015.  We figured we might as well get our money’s worth.  Once you reach the Rheinfall area, you have to decide if you want to visit the north shore or the south.  We chose the north shore because of the dogs; it’s basically a public area.  The south shore has a castle on its grounds which offer attractions.  We parked at the first lot we encountered.  Today was a very busy day.  I watched the lot quickly filling up as Bill went to pay for three hours of parking.  As the lot was filling up, Zane and Arran were whining and annoying a couple of women trying to have a conversation near us.  That was the worst of their behavior today.  Again, euros or francs are accepted for parking, though people seemed to be very confused by the machine where the tickets were dispensed.  Bill paid five euros for three hours (2 CHF per hour).

Once we paid for parking and I made use of the free bathroom facilities, we started the fifteen minute walk to the waterfall.  Those who don’t want to walk can take a little train/tram thing.  It costs money to ride the train, but it takes you all the way to the bottom of the waterfall.  Those who have mobility problems may want to consider taking the train.  There are lots of steps and hills to climb.

Bill checks out the city map in Neuhausen, which is the community where the north shore of the river is located.


Along with many, many other people, we made our way down the steep hill to the river.  The place was teeming with people and quite a few had brought their dogs with them.  Zane and Arran made fast friends with a friendly beagle.   I was pleased to discover there was no entrance fee to see the waterfall.  You just have to pay for parking.

My first few dramatic views of the falls…  They were beautiful, loud, powerful, and putting off a refreshing spray.

It was about 12:45 when we arrived and I was feeling pretty hungry.  Luckily, there was a very expensive snack bar handy.  I sat down with the dogs and Bill went to fetch us some lunch.

For some reason, lots of people were posing with this fake cow.  I decided not to because I figured it would be asking for trouble.

Bill brought me a nice locally produced Swiss beer.  This is a Falken lager, made in Schaffhausen.  It was kind of a nice change of pace.  Didn’t taste like a German beer.  It had more of a malty flavor.  

We also had very fresh butter pretzels and brats.  Bill bought a bottle of water for the dogs.  All of this cost about 33 francs, which is roughly $33.  Switzerland is expensive!  Budget conscious folks may prefer to bring a picnic lunch.  On the plus side, this simple lunch was restorative.  I felt a lot better after we ate.  Zane made friends with an adorable little Indian girl of about two who bravely came over to pet him.  She was a lot more courageous than the little Dutch kids they met last weekend.

More dramatic shots of the falls.  Notice the rock in the middle.  You can take a boat out to the rock and climb up.  We didn’t do it because we had the dogs and because the rock was *teeming* with people.  It was very obnoxiously crowded!

Obligatory shot of bearded Bill posing in front of the falls.

And one last shot right in the center.

This is a train that takes people to and from the falls.

I got a kick out of this sign in several different languages warning people of death.


We walked around a bit, but soon got tired of the extreme crowds and heat.  We walked up a gently sloping road instead of the extremely crowded steps we walked down to get to the bottom of the falls.  I think the road is probably the better way to access the waterfront at the bottom of the falls.  It’s a lot less crowded, not as steep, and you don’t have to contend with people paying closer attention to their phones than where they’re going.

But before we walked back up, I stopped in the bathroom and got a kick out of another sign.  This one was explaining how to use the toilet properly.  It was entirely in English.  I noticed that the people before me didn’t follow directions very well.

FYI:  An elevator is available.  You can take an elevator from the train station to the access road we walked up on, and then this elevator from the road to the bottom of the falls.  This is another option for those who don’t want to bother with the steep hill or crowds. 

Soon, we were back on the way to Germany!  We got home at about 4:00pm.


It was great to finally see Rheinfall.  If we’d wanted to, we could have found plenty to do all day there.  The area is very dog friendly, although I’m not sure how dog friendly the castle on the south shore is.  I did read on TripAdvisor that dogs are welcome all over the area.  Had it been less crowded, maybe we would have tested out that theory a bit more.  Today, it was just overrun with people!  But we did have a good time and it was a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Maybe we’ll visit again in the fall.  I bet it’s beautiful there when the leaves are changing colors.

Pro-tip: If you plan to use your cell phone in Switzerland, remember that it’s not part of the EU and roaming charges will add up quickly.  I went through about 54 Euros in less than a couple of hours.


Different tours… different perspectives…

Last night, we went to see our old friend, The Mad Scientist, at Agais in Entringen.  We hadn’t planned to go there.  We were going to go to Taverne Beim Griechen, which is located near us.  But when we got to the parking lot, we noticed it was really full.  We weren’t in the mood to battle a crowd and we knew Agais would not be busy because it almost never is.  It had been awhile since we last went down to Entringen to visit our old friend.

So we went down there and arrived at about 7:30 or so.  Just as we suspected, the lights were on, but no one was in the dining room.  We were warmly greeted by The Mad Scientist and his wife.  We decided to have gyros last night, along with small salads and our usual wine.

A couple of young guys showed up while we were eating.  One of them was wearing pants that threatened to fall down.  I will never understand this style of low seated pants that look like they’re about to drop.  They look uncomfortable to me.  I noticed the two guys who came in had the same dinners we were enjoying… the gyros platter.

After we ate dinner, we drove back to Unterjettingen.  I was telling Bill that I thought it was funny that we decided to go down there simply because we wanted to eat dinner in an uncrowded restaurant.  There are other places we could have gone that offered better food, lower prices, and a romantic ambiance.  Agais is just a place we love to come back to because we used to eat there so much when we lived here the first time.  It’s the one place where we feel a connection to our first time living in Germany together.

Now that we’ve been here for nineteen months, I can look back on this experience and realize that it’s very different from our first two year tour here.  I didn’t get a Facebook account until 2008.  Back then, there weren’t any Facebook groups for Americans living in Germany.  I relied on Toytown Germany, which was an interesting group of English speakers.  In some ways, I liked it better than the Facebook groups.  There was less drama… or the drama was more entertaining than annoying.  Also, no offense to my many military friends and family, but sometimes folks in the military community can be a little narrow in their perspective.  Toytown Germany was refreshing because there were all kinds of people there.  The one thing they had in common was being able to speak English.

Bill and I didn’t do as much traveling around Germany during our first time here.  We didn’t see many of the sights that can be accessed within an hour or two.  We did go to a lot of other countries and took advantage of long weekends more than we do now.  It’s a good thing we did, too.  Especially since we didn’t get to stay for our third year.

Now it seems we could be in Germany for awhile, so we’ve been enjoying more of the local flavor.  I have put more effort into learning German, though I doubt I’ll ever be fluent in the language.  At least I understand more than I used to, though.  And this time, I even have some German friends!  Last time we were here, I only knew a couple of Germans besides our landlord.

We still like to go see The Mad Scientist when we want a quiet dinner, though.  I genuinely like him and his wife, especially now that my German friend, Susanne, found out what their real names are!  I like to give him business.  Besides, Entringen is a beautiful little town.  Sometimes I miss living down that way.

Where we ate last night…


Tonight, we have plans for dinner in Tubingen.  We will be visiting a restaurant we’ve never tried before.  It’s attached to a hotel, but looks like it has some potential for a good date night place.  Stay tuned!


Nudity at the Mineraltherme…

Say it isn’t so…

After yesterday’s hike to the Bad Urach waterfall, I woke up with slightly sore thighs this morning and was way overdue for a trip to Mineraltherme Böblingen.  I talked Bill into going and mentioned that I might even check out the textile free area. I had a feeling Bill wouldn’t be into getting naked, but with a little cajoling, he usually can be talked into venturing beyond his comfort zone.  We had to get some cash on the way in, but the parking lot at the bank where Bill usually gets cash was full.  We went to the next lot, then made our way through Jettingen’s annoying road project.

As we approached the spa, it became pretty clear that a lot of people had the same idea I did.  Bill quickly grabbed a free parking spot on the way into the Mineraltherme.  Lucky thing he did, too.  They were pretty packed.  When we went inside, there was a line to pay the cashier.

But first, we needed lunch, so we stopped at the Mineraltherme’s restaurant.  It was fairly empty.

I said something obnoxious to get him to make this face.
Here’s a more normal photo.
After perusing the menu for a few minutes, I decided to have the trout special pictured below and a glass of locally made Riesling that was surprisingly good.  Bill had a beer and a salad plate with avocado wrapped in smoked ham.
We started off with these shot glasses of bean soup.  I really enjoyed this.  In fact, the bean soup inspired me to make some soup sometime before we head off to Austria on Friday.  I love soup, especially when it’s getting cooler outside.
This was my lunch.  The trout was very nice.  It was lying atop the French culinary trifecta of celery, shallots, and carrots and served with parsleyed potatoes.  How healthy.
Bill’s salad.  It was very large and quite tasty.

As we were finishing lunch, I was watching people go downstairs into the textile free area.  I noticed a lot of them were wearing bathing suits or robes.  That made me feel somewhat less tentative.  But then, just as I was starting to relax, an old woman walked past our window almost completely naked. She had a very small towel covering her front, while her backside was totally nude.  I was really not expecting to see someone’s naked ass as I finished my lunch while sitting in the non-nudity area, but I figured I could go with the flow.  Bill said the look of shock on my face was priceless.

After lunch, we got our tickets, went into the locker room, changed into bathing suits, and promptly got in a stau as two very large women blocked the way out because they couldn’t get their locker to lock.  After a quick shower, we went to the main pool and waded around for awhile.  Then we went outside and dodged the many bodies cavorting in the water.  I think today was the most crowded I’ve ever seen the Mineraltherme, though it was pretty busy on Easter Sunday, too.

We ventured into the warmer pool near the solarium and talked for awhile.  I watched a few people suck face.  Bill complained about the chlorine, which he said was stronger than usual.  Then we went back inside.  We totally skipped two pools because they were really full of people.  I decided to be brave and go into the textile free area to see if it was something I wanted to try.  To my surprise, it was totally not a big deal.

Yes, there were quite a few naked people walking around.  A lot of them were people one might expect to be embarrassed about being naked, though perhaps refreshingly, they weren’t at all perturbed about it.  I find that attitude very liberating.  I mean, most of us have things about us we’d like to change.  We’re all naked under our clothes.  And you can always avert your eyes.

There were also people wearing swimsuits.  I expected to feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t really.  I went back upstairs and got Bill.  He came down and had a look after some gentle persuasion from yours truly.  After he checked it out, he conceded that it wasn’t that bad, even though I sensed that to him there’s a difference between looking at naked people and being one himself.

Why am I reminded of this?

I said we needed to come back on a weekday morning and try it.  Today, it was just way too crowded, even if I had felt totally at ease in my birthday suit.  It was so busy there weren’t any places to sit.  I will definitely try it out, though, even if Bill sticks to the clothed area.  I want to be prepared for when we finally visit Baden Baden and hit Friedrichsbad.  I really think I could assimilate to this nudity thing going on in Germany.  Bill probably never will.

After checking out the textile free area, we each had a glass of Grüner Veltliner and watched a water gymnastics class… which really looked more like water aerobics.  The teacher cracked me up.  She was tall, slim, and had a very high pitched voice.  I liked how she had everyone wave their hands in the air as she said “Tschuss!”.

I chatted with Bill about the importance of being brave… as I realize that it’s been about seven months since the dentist told me I need a tooth extraction.  I am one to talk about not being chickenshit. But I am less afraid of being naked in front of people than having a dentist take out my tooth.  I do have an appointment to have that done, though.  As of the 22nd, my dental implant process will begin.  Anyway, in my defense, Bill almost always thanks me when I push him into doing something outside his comfort zone.  He’s just bashful about his body, which is something I can understand.

We needed to drop by Patch Barracks to pick up a few things, gas up my car, and top up our phones.  On the way there, we were in front of what appeared to be a soccer mom in a Toyota.  Bill said, “There’s an American with a lead foot behind us.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because she’s driving a van.” he said.  “And it’s a Toyota.”

“Are you starting to become annoyed by Americans?” I asked him.

He laughed and said, “Yes.”

I’m sure he’s not the only one.  On the other hand, given that we are Americans and most definitely annoy Germans, I thought it was a pretty funny observation.  If we were comedians, we could probably make a SNL worthy sketch from being Americans in Europe annoyed by Americans.


France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 9

After two nights in Nice, Bill and I hopped a flight to Frankfurt.  We flew from Nice on Niki, an Austrian budget airline that collaborates with Air Berlin.  Bill and I flew on Air Berlin in 2009, when we took our Scandinavian cruise.  Let me just say, European carriers are a hell of a lot nicer than American carriers are.  You go on the plane and they offer you a newspaper.  You get a drink and a sandwich that is actually edible.  The seats are somewhat comfortable, too.  I would definitely “fly Niki” again if we ever get back to Europe and have the opportunity.

The flight attendants were kind of oddly dressed on Niki.  The top half of their uniforms were very formal and businesslike, with a blazer, blouse, and perfect makeup and hair.  The bottom half was jeans…  nice jeans, but still jeans.  It was like the fashion equivalent of a mullet– business up top and party on the bottom.

Flying over Vienna…

Our flight routed us through Vienna, another city that was on my 1997 European tour.  I have yet to visit Vienna with Bill.  I hope someday we’ll get there together.  As we were getting on the flights, I was all wound up about the term “dependapotamus”, a slang expression used by certain people in the military who bash family members… aka “dependents”.  There was a young guy sitting in front of us on the plane who must have overheard me and I think, told his two female companions about it.  They reminded me of a reincarnation of ABBA, minus Bjorn.

Upon entering Frankfurt, we approached a guy who appeared to work for the airport.  We were trying to find the train station in the massive airport.  The guy was obviously American and spoke German with a heavy accent.  He directed us to the right place and we arranged for a train to get us to Landstuhl, where I had booked us a room in a cute, family run hotel in town.

It was quite an ordeal to get to Landstuhl, though, because we had to change trains three times to get there and it happened to be rush hour.  We got on the first one, a high speed ICE train, for a twenty minute ride to Mannheim.  The train was packed and I was grumpy about it, as usual…

Waiting for train tickets at Frankfurt’s airport…

We stood near the bathroom between cars and Bill then very gallantly decided to get me a snack at the onboard bistro.  He came back with a beer and a container of curry wurst, which was basically a sausage with a curry sauce.  It smelled good and was piping hot, but I couldn’t eat it and balance at the same time.  I appreciated the gesture, but told Bill he should have gotten me something less labor intensive.

At one point, the train lurched and both Bill and I lost our balance.  I was holding the currywurst and it almost tipped on me.  Thankfully, a very kind German lady noticed and saved it before it spilled.  I said “Thanks”, but it probably came off sounding annoyed rather than grateful.  I’m sorry about that.

While we waited for the next train, Bill and I shared the curry wurst.  I started to feel less grouchy as my blood sugar came up a bit.  We got a seat on the train from Mannheim to Kaiserslautern, but it was also pretty crowded.  I remember one guy in our car was a cop and he seemed like a nice person.  When he got off the train, he said “Auf wiedersehen.”

On the third train, a local s-bahn from Kaiserslautern to Landstuhl, we were in a car with a large German family with several kids.  Then an American woman with her four kids and mother in tow got on the train.  She said, “Ramstein?”

Bill told her she had the right train, so she and her family took a seat and struck up a conversation.  They had just gotten back to Germany after a trip to Paris.  They’d gone on a military tour, then broke away to take the kids to Euro Disney.  The young mother’s husband was posted at Grafenwoehr, which is an Army post in Bavaria.  They had parked their car at Ramstein.  The trains were apparently a new experience for them.  Bill and I explained about how the trains worked, then told them how lucky they were to live in Germany.

Grandma asked us where we were from.  I told her I’m from Virginia and Bill is from Texas (more or less).  She looked surprised.  I told her that we met when I lived in South Carolina and he lived in Kansas.  I guess she has never heard of the Internet and how people can meet that way.  I said I’d love to move back to Germany and Grandma said, “Yeah, but how do you raise a family there?”

I said, “It’s just us and two dogs.”

Grandma looked utterly shocked that we don’t have kids.  I posted this story on my other blog as part of a rant.  Here, I will just say that it’s apparently unusual to run into military couples who don’t have kids.  Fortunately, our stop at Landstuhl came up before we had time to talk more.

Bill and I got off the train and walked to our hotel.  It was obvious that the proprietor had been waiting specifically for us, since the place was pretty much locked up when we arrived.  He quickly showed us to our room and beat it.  Our very full day of traveling left me ready to relax and wind down, which I proceeded to do.  Bill went to a Turkish place and got us a couple of Wiener schnitzels with fries and some beer.


France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 7

From Nimes, Bill and I decided we’d head to Nice.  I was last in Nice in 1997 and frankly I had forgotten how beautiful this city on the French Riviera is.  In 1997, I was decidedly broke and had been on vacation for awhile…  maybe I was jaded.  Truly, it is a great city and I’m glad Bill and I had the chance to visit.  Getting there, however, turned out to be quite the ordeal.

It started with buying tickets in Nimes.  We got to the station about 45 minutes before the train to Marseille was due to leave.  That was where we’d be picking up another train that would take us to Toulon and then yet another that would go to Nice.  There was a train that went directly to Nice from Marseille, but it was full.  Bill knew this before he approached the ticket agent, a rather surly woman who wasn’t all that polite as she issued our tickets.  We waited about 20 minutes or so just to be able to speak to her, since there happened to be a shitload of people trying to buy tickets that morning.

As we were waiting, I kept hearing banging on a piano.  It turns out that a lot of train stations in France have a piano in the foyer.  Anyone is welcome to bang on it or play…  the vast majority who played that beleaguered instrument in Nimes did not possess any discernible musical talent.  Needless to say, the banging did little to boost my mood.

Piano playing in the Nimes train station…

We got on the train to Marseilles, fortunate enough to score a fold down seat facing backwards, since the train was packed.  The Marseille train station, much like the one in Lyon, was a bit of a madhouse. Actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as the Lyon station, but it was a very busy, noisy, crowded place… and yes, there was another piano.

This guy, playing the train station piano in Marseille, was actually pretty good.

The gare…

Bill and I rushed to get the train to Toulon, which turned out to be pretty full.  We managed to find two seats, but there was nowhere to store our bags.  Given that this was a two week trip, we had a few of them with us.  We watched in amazement as the train filled up with people until the aisles and spaces between cars were completely full.

We happened to be sitting across from a French woman and her father.  She spoke English and asked us where we were from and where we were headed.  She apologized for the fact that France’s trains aren’t “comfortable”.  For the record, I didn’t think the trains in France were that uncomfortable.  Just that particular one was very, very crowded… it reminded me of being in Armenia, where all forms of public transportation are liable to be completely stuffed to the gills with people, safety standards be damned!  And unfortunately, there were a couple of people standing in the aisle who really needed a shower.

At one point, there was an announcement asking anyone who could take a later train to get off, but of course, very few people chose to do that and it did nothing to alleviate the problem.  Then there was an announcement that they were going to add more cars, which would delay us and cause us to miss our connection in Toulon.  Then, the trip was cancelled altogether.  All of these developments were kindly translated for us by the English speaking French lady sitting near us.

Bill went to find out what we needed to do and we were advised that there was a train going directly to Nice at 2:30.  It was about noon, so that meant we had time for lunch at the train station.  We went to McDonald’s.  It was very packed, so we sat outside, where it was sunny, but actually very chilly because of a high wind.  McDonald’s offered free WiFi, which entertained me for a bit.  I took a couple of photos of the view into Marseille.  It actually looks like a very nice city, even if getting in and out of there was hellish.

The view of Marseille from the station…

Bill checks things out.

The Golden Arches!

After McDonalds, we went back into the train station and visited a little cafe.  It was a rather dirty, no frills kind of place, but the people who ran it were friendly and they had beer.  While we were sitting in the cafe, an older black woman and young black man came in and took a table near us.  Based on the way they were dressed, I guessed they were from somewhere in Africa.  They wore very colorful, exotic clothes that appeared to be the style of some place other than France.  They spoke French and the man drank rose wine, while his companion (maybe his mother?) drank coffee.  They were loud, but happy and frankly very entertaining to observe.  Before too long, they were joined by two other women, similarly dressed and similarly boisterous.

These folks unwittingly entertained us…

I enjoyed watching how people reacted to this group, who seemed to be having such a great time in this dingy little cafe.  Quite a few people seemed bemused, while others appeared to be annoyed.  I kind of liked it that they were there, because I love it when I’m near interesting or entertaining people.  I have no idea what they were talking about, but I appreciated the fun they were obviously having.

Our train to Nice was also very crowded, though not nearly as much as the train we’d tried to take to Toulon was.  Once again, we got seats that faced two going the other direction.  I got up to use the bathroom, but found the toilet hopelessly clogged with paper towels and cigarette butts that some asshole had left there.  I hate it when people do that, just because they need to satisfy their nic fit.  It really messes things up for other people.

An Australian woman with two small children quickly claimed the seats opposite from us.  Inwardly, I kind of sighed, since I figured the kids would make the trip more stressful.  One of the kids appeared to be about seven or eight, while the other, a toddler, was still breastfeeding.  I only know this because the kids’ mom boldly walked up and down the aisle with the girl under her shirt.  I don’t blame her for doing that, by the way.  I’m all for breastfeeding.  I guess it was just kind of different to see someone so totally unabashed about it.  You don’t see that very often in the United States.

Anyway, the mom sat with her kids for a little while and talked to us.  Bill was very solicitous, helping her with her bags, offering her Wet Naps, and chatting with her.  After awhile, mom got up and sat elsewhere with her toddler, leaving her older daughter with us.  The girl was actually pretty well behaved, even though she’d been on the train all day.  Her mom told us that they’d come from Bordeaux.  She played with an iPad most of the time.

The Australian lady had a French woman with her who had a little boy.  At first, we thought maybe the French woman was a nanny, since she seemed very solicitous toward the Australian woman’s kids.  But it later came out that they had met during the Aussie lady’s travels.  You could have fooled me.  They really seemed like they were traveling together.

Scenes from the train to Nice…

As the long train trip wore on, I was enchanted by the scenery out the window… lots of very blue water, charming towns, and palm trees, along with quite a few mountain tunnels.  I was also enchanted by Bill, who proved that he was born to be a dad.  When the girl unsuccessfully tried to open a packet of sunflower seeds, Bill took the packet for her and opened it.  He kept his eye on her the whole time.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe Aussie lady talked to us to make sure we weren’t weirdos and then totally hoped we’d babysit her kid for her.  She correctly assessed that Bill is good with kids and, while I’m not as gentle toward tykes, I’m relatively benign.  I suppose if you’re traveling for weeks alone with little kids, you have to take help whenever you can get it.

Toward the end of the trip, Mom came back to where we were sitting.  Her younger daughter, an adorable child who appeared to have a different father than her sister did, was jumping up and down on the seat and squealing in very shrill tones.  Aussie mom asked the toddler to stop jumping, since she “had a very full nappy”.  She pulled the tyke’s diaper away and peeked in to confirm her suspicions.  I was just hoping there wouldn’t be another big mess on the already messy train.  Older girl was getting restless, jumping up and down, and flipping over the seat behind her, which had been vacated.  I just tried to stay calm and quiet.  People were looking at Bill and me, as if these kids belonged to us.  Most of them looked a bit annoyed even though, truly, the older girl in particular had been very well behaved under the circumstances.

When we got to Nice, Bill helped the lady with her bags again.  I was in a hurry to get off the train and have some peace and quiet.  It had been a long, difficult day of travel and I was ready for a rest.  I also didn’t want to get drafted into more babysitting duties!

Nice was a lot bigger, busier, and more crowded than I remembered it.  It took a little time to find our lodging, a two star establishment called the Star Hotel.  Once we got there, we were warmly welcomed by a receptionist with a remarkable American accent.  It turned out she was American and had married a Frenchman while in France learning French.  I guess this was her hotel, since she told us (and we observed) that she was there most of the time.  She gave us a triple room on the top floor, with a nice little balcony that overlooked the street.  The hotel had some strange rules, like you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in your room.  Bill asked about that and the lady at the front desk explained that the hotel used have a different owner who was strict about such things.  She just asked us not to be messy and thanked us for being considerate enough to ask.

Nobody up here but us and some seagulls…

Since we were tired, we went across the street to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner.  I think we were the proprietor’s only guests.  The food was good, and we enjoyed some wine on the little balcony.  After a full night of comfortable sleep, we spent a great day in Nice.  More on that in the next post!

Lebanese food in Nice…



The last full day of our SeaDream cruise… Santorini!

Santorini, Greece is one of those places you hear about whenever someone brings up Greece as a potential vacation destination.  I had seen it profiled on Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe and figured it would be a really interesting place.  And it was… but not for the reasons I expected it to be.

We’ve got company…  The Spanish ship is in the distance, while Costa Magica is closeby.

Mikee, one of SeaDream’s finest waiters, waited on Bill and me at breakfast.  Bill and I had noticed two other ships in port with us; a Spanish cruise ship that appeared to be a bit of a budget line based on its size and lack of balconies, and Costa Magica, a huge mainstream cruise ship.  Mikee shook his head and said, “Boy, those cable cars are gonna be working extra hard this morning.”  We later found out that the Spanish ship was carrying about 1700 people, while Costa Magica had about 2200.

It didn’t really register with Bill or me what Mikee was really saying, nor did we even think that maybe we should wait awhile before venturing ashore.  After breakfast, we got dressed and headed for the tender, provided by a local service.  The boat was very large and I was still coughing a lot.  I hoped I wouldn’t hurl on our way to the port.  The tender seemed to take forever to get us to dry land and once we were there, it was wall to wall people.  The line to get up the mountainside to visit Santorini stretched long.  Thankfully, there was a public WC available.  Much to my surprise, the WC was technically free, though there was a tip box prominently displayed.

Headed for the line…

Donkey rides

Standing in line…

Quite a few people opted to ride one of the hard working donkeys up the mountain, though I didn’t see anyone from SeaDream doing that.  I spent most of my childhood showing horses and was once quite the equestrienne, but I am now at a point in my life at which I feel sorry for any beast of burden that has to carry me, especially uphill.  We also could have walked, but the stout hike to Anacapri squelched any desire I might have had to walk uphill.  In the interest of being humane, Bill and I got in line for the cable cars.  It took about 45 minutes until we were in a car with four other people from Spain.  One of the women was obviously very nervous and buried her face in her hands.  Some Spanish folks in a car ahead of us had turned their ride into a party and were rocking back and forth, which made our car rock.  They sang and cheered, turning the ride into a little fiesta.  The Spanish lady expressed disbelief that they were singing when she was clearly scared shitless.

This ass was prominently displayed in the cable car station at the top of the mountain…

Crowded streets!

A few minutes later, we got off the cable car and were suddenly thrust into a tourist madhouse.  Santorini’s narrow streets were packed with people!  It was very unpleasant to try to walk around, so we ducked into a “fish spa”.  Santorini has quite a few fish spas, actually, and I had been wanting to try one.  At ten euros each for ten minutes, Bill and I could sit in chairs with our feet in fish tanks full of toothless doctor fish, which would exfoliate our rough feet by eating off the dead skin.  It sounds kind of like a gross thing to do and, in fact, I did later read that there are some minor health risks associated with this treatment.  But I was dying of curiosity anyway, so we did it.  A lady who spoke Italian washed our feet and put plastic booties on them, then led us to side by side tanks.  We dipped our feet in the water and the fish went to town.  Ten minutes later, our feet were surprisingly soft.  I noticed a sign that said all over body treatments were also available.  Yikes!

Feeding the fishies!  This was actually kind of fun and tickled a bit.  So far, I’ve seen no evidence of ill effect after having let these fish exfoliate my feet.

We found a side alley that led to “Main Street”, where we could see evidence of life outside the tourist hordes.  Bill found an ATM, but wasn’t able to get any cash from it.  After a little while, I got sick of fighting the crowds.  Just as we were about to make our way back to the cable cars, we were lured into a restaurant with promises of cold beer.  We were the only people in there when we sat down, so we decided to have lunch, which turned out to be delicious.  When Bill and I lived in Germany, we used to love going out for Greek food.  We hadn’t found anything similar to the experience since moving back to the States.  That lunch in Santorini kicked off several days of yummy Greek eating.

We had a nice, leisurely meal and were very well taken care of by the restaurant’s proprietor, who brought out a complimentary round of local wine for us as we paid the check.  As we walked out of the restaurant, I noticed that the streets were a lot quieter.  It seemed all the folks from the big cruise ships had left, since their ships were departing in the early afternoon.  The difference was amazing!

I stopped by a jewelry store and bought myself a beautiful blue opal and silver necklace as if in celebration.

New bling.

Bye fellow cruisers!

The view on the way down.

Before dinner that evening, we gathered in the dining salon to hear Captain Smorawski’s closing speech.  He told us about how many nautical miles we traveled, how much fuel we’d burned, and most importantly, how much booze we consumed.  Then he presented our favorite sommelier Pablo an award for being employee of the month.  Like most of the rest of us, Pablo would be disembarking in Athens and going home for his scheduled two month break.

Pablo wins cash!

Dinner that night was very interesting, since three of my courses came from the raw menu.  I don’t usually go for healthy food, as evidenced by my zaftig figure.  But something about the menu made me decide I wanted to try some of the raw stuff that night.  I was glad I did, since all three courses were delicious.  Jose was our waiter, which always makes me happy.

The Ginger Spritzer was very refreshing and delicious!

I followed it with The Glow, a slightly spicy raw cocktail…

I went with something cooked for the main course…  Duck!

Raw panna cotta… This one didn’t look like a boob!

Pablo had an easy time convincing my husband to purchase this reasonably priced and very delicious wine…  He had been wanting to try this particular variety for some time.  It was worth the purchase!

The last night is always bittersweet and we spent ours in the piano bar, of course.  Our last song was “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  I didn’t end up pre-booking another cruise this time, mainly because Bill and I don’t know what the future holds as he finishes his Army career and we are interested in trying barging in France or Ireland.  But I feel very certain we’ll be back to SeaDream as soon as possible.

Stay tuned for my disembarkation post and travels in Athens.

It’s always sad to see the luggage mats again…