FRANCE PROVENCE AND NICE We drove to Aix en Provence on Saturday morning, July 24. The countryside changed dramatically as we worked our way west moving into striking orange mountains and plateaus and also a limestone range of mountains in the beginning of Provence. Our hotel, Aquabella, is a spa. Unfortunately, Betsy didn’t arrange for any spa treatments. I guess she’ll have to do with massages and mud baths from me. Aix is a beautiful city with most of its architecture dating no further back than the 16th century. As the home of Cezanne and Emile Zola, it is an academic center filled with students. The stores, in addition to the usual brand name boutiques, are intermingled with college book stores, art galleries and coffee houses very much like Cambridge. One striking difference that stands out, however, is that the streets and sidewalks are all clean (except for the occasional dog poop). We were stunned to see the town workers cleaning up the main street and plaza within an hour after a wine festival closing at 10 pm on a weekend night. The center of the town is a large continuously operating fountain.

Every evening in the summer, some activity is planned for the main road in the town, Cours Mirabeau. Saturday night on our first night a large collection of antique sport cars were parading down the street, each one announced and described by a man who appeared to be the Ed McMahon of Aix. The cars were beautiful. The two pictures below show a single shot and a long shot looking up the line of about 6 of them.

We found the excitement of the crowds and the commotion and bustle in the bistros and cafes to be electrifying.

The next morning, Sunday, we drove to Lavender country in the region of the Luberon mountains. We passed through a multitude of small towns and villages that were nearly vacant with all stores and businesses closed on Sunday. This picture is of the first town we passed through as we drove into the region,

After much negotiating and navigating, we managed to find our way to the lavender fields. It would be minimizing to say they were breathtaking. The picture doesn’t convey the impact of this field with the sounds of crickets and thousands of bees in the background.

After stopping in a few villages, we drove out of the region along endless winding roads over the mountains. Our last stop before leaving was the village of Simaini tucked against the hills.

We managed to make it out of the mountains with no gas and desperately trying to find a gas station and something to eat since everything was closed and there is no gas station in the lavender region. Hard to believe. We were so desperate, we actually stopped at a McDonalds. After waiting in line for 5 minutes, we raced out, fearful that we might actually eat the food. The ride back to Aix en Provence was easy with a full tank of gas but empty stomachs. We returned to our hotel, rested for a while, and then walked back into town for dinner. Remarkably, on a Sunday night, the streets and cafes were packed again. We strolled through the crafts market, again marveling at the high quality of merchandise on display. We can see where Boston’s decorators get their goods. Here, Betsy reviews a display of beautifully done ceramics.

We had a repeat dinner at the restaurant La Bastide du Cours, an outside café and hotel on the main drag. I was so pleased to have an Italian family sitting next to us, which gave me a chance to speak in Italian again. French, which I haven’t studied, has been a struggle. Tomorrow we plan to visit the Cezanne Museum prior to driving back to Nice. Monday morning, after breakfast we walked up to the Cezanne workshop, expecting to find a museum. Instead we found just what it was called- the workshop in which Cezanne created most of his paintings. It was a modest sized 2 story house in a garden about a half mile walk from our hotel up a hill in a residential area. The guide explained a great deal about Cezanne’s technique and creative difficulties. We were particularly interested to learn that he did so many still lifes and self-portraits because he took so long to paint that models refused to sit for him. No photos were allowed. We returned to our hotel to pack and then spent the next two hours exploring around the town of Aix. We stopped for coffee at one of the countless outdoor cafés and enjoyed a jazz quartet for half and hour. They were really quite talented.

The local synagogue was situated near the center of town, so we strolled over for a visit. It is quite nice and clean and has a membership of 600 families, which I thought was impressive. Betsy was not allowed in the main synagogue and declined a climb up the stairs to the women’s section. We visited the town hall (Hotel de ville) and the square around it. In much of France, the municipalities take much pride in the condition of their streets. Cleaners and washers are out constantly. Within a half hour of any event going on, fair, market, show or otherwise, the crews are out making the place spotless.

We left and drove back to Nice, sad to be leaving the wonderful city of Aix. After checking into our new hotel, the Villa Victoria, a nice small three star hotel a few blocks from the beach, we took Cyrus and Kaveh out for dinner while their parents went to visit with some friends in Grasse. We had a great time walking along the pedestrian market and came upon the national Boules championship in the center of the town.

Watching this was a little more exciting than watching grass grow, but we had a good laugh as I did the color commentary. By this point some of the people around us were getting annoyed, so we walked back along the water to the most beautiful sunset over Nice.

Tuesday, July 27 brought a new adventure. Our phones had run down on charge since we left Italy and we were unable to restore them without checking in at an Italian TIM outlet. San Remo, an ancient Italian port on the Cote d Azur, is only a 45 minute train ride from Nice. We packed up a day’s supplies in our back pack and boarded the train in Nice only 4 blocks from our hotel and rode along the coast to San Remo. Along the way we had spectacular views of the coastal towns and vowed to return to at least a few in the next few days. It was nice being back in Italy where I was able to communicate with people. I was happy and relieved that I had maintained my Italian conversational skills. We recharged our phone, walked along the waterfront and stopped for a café Fredo that we were not able to get in France. We took this picture to document our trip to San Remo and then took the train back to Nice.

When we returned we were picked up at the train station by the Veyssi’s who took as to see the hilltop town of Biot. This town in the center of the high tech “silicon valley” France is a lovely throwback to earlier times. We met a man who had retired from the medical technology field with his wife, a retired anaesthesiologist who opened an olive oil boutique. He maintained his selling skills and had us lured in to view his sales pitch. It was real entertainment for us who had lived in the thrall of my dad, Al Solomon, the ultimate salesman. Of course, we bought some olive oil that we didn’t need, but it was worth it just to see him perform.

The streets of the town were spotlessly clean and we saw the usual collection of beautiful doorways flowers and windows.

We mostly enjoyed seeing and visiting with the collection of nice older women who always greeted us with smiles. This group told us that if we lived in Biot, they could guarantee we would live to at least 100.

We had a great late lunch at a local bar and relaxed along with the locals in the townsquare, soaking up the sun. We then moved on to the town of Juan le Pins, the French version of Miami’s South Beach. Lots of shops, crowded clubs, bistros with tables out on the sidewalk. As the evening wore on, the crowds became less families and more young singles and couples roaming from club to club. We sat outside at the Pom Pom club, one of Babak’s old haunts from his bachelor days and watched the Brazilian dance and music show.

This had been a very full day and I was bushed, so we headed back to Nice, this time driving along the coast through the ritzy section of Cap d’Antibe. It had been a tiring but fun day.

Wednesday morning was dedicated to a trip to the Chagall Museum in Nice. This was only a 30 minute walk to the beautiful spacious enclosed gardens high on a hill over Nice surrounding the magnificent museum which houses the biblical paintings of Marc Chagall along with a large mosaic and a series of windows depicting the 7 days of creation. The setting was remarkably peaceful and the museum, designed in cooperation with the architect and Chagall himself, created a feeling of tranquility that we enjoyed. Seeing these enormous and colorful paintings up close and personal was a special experience. I am attaching some photos. To our surprise, pictures were allowed without flash.

We finished up in the performance center, a large auditorium that was quiet and dark, but bathed in the blue light cast from the stunning windows. We sat for some time in awe of the beauty of the stained glass patterns.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach in Nice. The wind had picked up and when the cruise ships and the ferries went buy going in and out of the harbor of old Nice, we could expect major waves on the beach 15 minutes later. Riding the waves onto the pebbly beach was a blast.

We went to the hilltop town (yes, another) of Mougins (pronounced moo jahn) for dinner. This was a Charles Street version of the other hilltop towns we had visited. The stores were much more upscale and the homes in the area were all very expensive multimillion dollar villas. Dinner was great. This is town one could live in or near and feel peaceful.

The next day, thursday, we decided to explore the Cote d'Azur by train. We left early on the local train to Menton, near the Italian border. What a beautiful town! It was quieter than most we had visited and had a beautiful beach and harbor. The view from the center of town back up towards the mountains behind from the gardens along the main thoroughfare is below.

We strolled along the waters edge and stopped for coffee next to a British grandmother who had her 10 year old grandaughter with her. We had a nice chat with them and then went along to see the harbor.

It was so warm, we decided to take change into our suits and go for a swim. This required changing into our suits. Betsy discovered an empty shack used for tickets at local waterfront events. This became our changing room.

After a nice swim, we reboarded the train and rode on to Monte Carlo where we visited the aquarium, truly one of the nicest we have ever seen. We were particularly charmed by one tank we titled "finding nemo".

Our next train stop was Villefranche, a small village and harbor that leads out to one of the most exclusive areas in all of the Riviera, Cap Ferrat. Then we returned to Nice to shower and change and return to the train for a trip to Antibe for dinner. We had a great meal and sat next to a nice couple from Switzerland who had come down on their motorcycle to the Riviera for a 10 day vacation. Dinner ended late and our train was delayed, so we returned to Nice after midnite. Tomorrow will be spent finishing up laundry and readying a few odds and ends and Saturday we leave for Milan and Lake Como.