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Trip Report Basque Spain to Lourdes to Carcassonne to Provence! 12 busy days solo

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Hello!
In this trip report, I’ll be describing my recent holiday in Northern Spain and Southern France. Here’s the breakdown of my travel: one day each in Bilbao, San Sebastian, Lourdes and Carcassonne, 3 days based in Avignon (day trips to Nimes, Pont du Gard, Arles, Les Baux de Provence and St. Remy de Provence), and finally 4 days in Nice (day trips to Antibes, Cannes and Monaco). I did not rent a car.
This was quite a busy schedule considering the short duration of the trip, which ran from January 11 to 22 of this year. Fodors Forums and a pile of library guidebooks were invaluable in my preparation. Although I was researching heavily in September and October of last year, family commitments meant that I couldn’t really book anything until mid-December. By that time though, I had a good idea of where I wanted to go and how to link it up. Now it’s time to give back to the Fodors community in the form of what will hopefully be a useful trip report. I took fairly detailed notes during my trip, intending to write this when I returned. Hope you enjoy it!
Now, on with the report…

Background: I am a 41 year old male, from southwestern Ontario, Canada. My job leaves me only 2 possible months to travel…January or February. In the past 4 years, I’ve taken 3 solo winter trips to Europe. My first ever solo trip took me to Spain in 2010. Then in 2011, Portugal and Barcelona. I posted trip reports for those. In February 2012 I went to Italy for 8 days. I never got around to reporting on that trip. During the research for those trips, a bunch of other interesting destinations popped up and eventually comprised a pretty lengthy wish-list of places. Now in 2014, I was able to link together many of these in a line stretching from Bilbao to Monaco.
After these 3 previous winter trips, I’ve come to realize a few things: lines are shorter (or non-existent) at museums, churches and TI’s, shorter opening hours (and daylight) require careful budgeting of time, and about a quarter of recommended hotels are simply closed during the winter months. I’m happy to say that all my accommodation choices worked out great, and I would recommend them to anyone.

Before I go further, a quick word about how I packed. Here’s what I brought for my 12 days: small notebook with pen, small backpack, Rick Steves France guidebook (which conveniently includes a section on Basque Spain; I cut the 900+ page book in half and took only the sections I needed), Frommers Provence guidebook (read it in advance but probably only pulled it out 3-4 times while in France), 2 tshirts, 2 pairs of cargo pants, 2 button-up shirts, 1 sweater, a lightweight packable downfill jacket, hat, toque, sunglasses, flannel sleep pants and sleep tshirt, socks and underwear, and 1 pair of shoes – my Nike Rongbuk ACG’s with Gore-Tex lining. Second trip to Europe for these beauties! I packed it all into my Samsonite rolling backpack (cabin-sized). Fourth European trip for this bag, and it’s held up remarkably well. Can’t say enough about the quality of this bag. Electronic gadgets included my unlocked Sony XPeria phone (ready to install a SIM card from any foreign country), Maxell noise-reducing headphones, and Nikon s8100 camera, with 3 memory cards and a backup battery.

Now, let’s go to Bilbao! If we can get out of Toronto first…

Day 1: Bilbao

First full day: Saturday January 11th. Actually, this should have been Day 2. But due to a closure at Toronto airport 3 days before my travel, the ripple effect caused me to depart 4 hours late…which caused me to miss my connection in Brussels by about an hour…which led to a wonderful 9 hour layover at Brussels Airport. Net result was that I landed in Bilbao at 10:30pm instead of 1:30pm. Off to a good start…

On arrival in Bilbao, I whizzed past the baggage carousel (I love the freedom of traveling light!) and briefly stopped at the tourist information counter to pick up a map, and confirm the location of the bus that runs from Bilbao airport into the city. It departs twice an hour, at :15 and :45 (Bizkaibus A3247). It’s located just outside the terminal. As you go outside, turn right and head to the end of the row of buses. The bus driver spoke English and kindly confirmed the stop for my hotel. Cost of ride was 1.40 (all costs are in Euros from here on.), and it took about 10-15 minutes. Couldn’t see much of the Guggenheim Museum in the darkness, but I did catch a quick glimpse. After months of anticipation, I was on the edge of my seat as the bus wound its way into downtown Bilbao and past the incredible titanium-plated structure. I was thrilled to finally get here! The driver indicated that this was the stop nearest my hotel. That’s definitely a tip for other travelers…ask and confirm directions and bus stops. You may think you have done airtight research, but it’s always best to check with the driver just in case. Trust me, your online or guidebook research will not always yield perfect results!

For my only night in Bilbao, I stayed at Hesperia Bilbao, just over the Zubizuri bridge on the Nervion River. Just a 2 minute walk from the tram stop which conveniently runs across town to the bus station. I strongly considered splurging on the Silken Gran Domine hotel across from the Guggenheim, but ultimately made my choice based on really strong reviews and the savings of over 30 euros (plus breakfast – more on that later). Cost was 61.50, booked in advance through the hotel website. (On check-in they offered me a riverview room for 15 euros more, which I declined). My room was very nicely decorated in light wood tones, the bed was very comfortable, and the modern bathroom was gorgeous, with generous toiletries included. This stands out as the best hotel on my trip.

Thankfully I awoke feeling quite refreshed after 1.5 days of travel and layovers and being awake for about 35 hours, minus about an hour of eye-resting on the plane. Not a touch of jetlag. Or maybe it was the adrenaline that got me going, knowing that I only had 1 day to see Bilbao, since tonight’s hotel in San Sebastian was already booked.

The day started with what I can only describe as the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. Bacon, eggs, sausages, 4 types of fresh juices, 5 types of milk, 6 cold meats, 4 cheeses, and 6 types of pastries – all in small sizes: mini-croissants, half-donuts, mini pains-au-chocolat. In addition, a little breakfast-tapas spread as well! And wine-poached pears! And 3 types of puddings. I really can’t say enough about it. Beautiful presentation as well. I could tell right away that I was in a region that takes its cuisine seriously! We’re off to a good start for a busy Saturday in Bilbao!

Leaving the hotel around 10 am, I walked across the Zubizuri bridge and followed the waterfront over to the Guggenheim Museum. Having only the 1 day, I decided to focus on this. I was determined not to rush my way through. Having read great things about Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes, I bought the “Artean Pass” on entry to the Guggenheim, for 11 euros, which included admission into both museums. Interestingly, the audioguide is not included if you purchase the Artean Pass. But if you only pay for Guggenheim admission, it is included. So I paid the extra 2 euros for the audioguide (which I recommend – there is also an app which I did not download). There was no lineup on arrival. I checked my backpack before entry (no cost).

I doubt that my words could do justice to the Guggenheim Bilbao. The building is truly the star of the show. It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My camera couldn’t keep up with all the angles, curves, titanium and glass that I saw. Truly an incredibly unique building, worthy of its popularity. I spent about 15 minutes out on the terrace, enjoying the art installations out there and the lively waterfront scene, filled with weekend pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers. The only thing missing was some sun to reflect off the titanium panels.

The art inside didn’t exactly rate as the greatest I’ve ever seen, nor did I expect that it would. But I took it all in, appreciated the creativity and modernity of it all, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. (A temporary exhibit featuring the works of Antoni Tapies, from Barcelona, was on at the time, but only until January 19. From February 14 to May 18, there is an exhibition of Ernesto Neto works.)

In total I spent 2 hours at the Guggenheim. On my way out, I ducked into the room just to the right of the cashier. It’s an excellent educational space called “Zero Espazioa”, which really does broaden one’s appreciation for what you have seen (or will see…I probably should have visited first, on arrival. I’d probably recommend that to a first-time visitor). Definitely worth a look. Free to enter even if you’re not going inside the Guggenheim.

After collecting my backpack, I headed outside for a visit to Jeff Koons’ flower-covered 12-metre West Highland Terrier nicknamed ‘Puppy’. Apparently the flowers are changed in the spring and fall. This dog was attracting lots of attention…definitely the most popular photo-op I encountered in the city. On this Saturday, during my walk around the outside of the museum and partway up the bridge, I noticed 2 couples getting their wedding photos taken around the museum. Great spot for these pictures!

My morning feast ensured that I was still satisfied at 1pm, so there was no need for lunch. Had there been, I likely would have visited the Guggenheim café, which I’d read great things about in my research. Next time perhaps! Leaving the museum, heading towards the towering Iberdrola building, I stepped into the TI. I told them I only had about 5 hours left in which to see the city and asked for their recommendations. They quickly offered some great ideas, certainly more than I would be able to see in my short time! I continued past the kiosk and made the short walk to the ‘Bellas Artes’ museum.

Fodors Spain guidebook describes the Fine Arts Museum as one of Spain’s top 5 museums - a mini-Prado. Having been to both museums now, I believe it’s a fitting description. I really enjoyed it. I declined the 1 euro audioguide and toured it for about 75 minutes. It was really quiet in there, with most rooms empty, save for the Gallery staff. All the better to immerse myself in the great collection of art dating back as far as the 13th Century. The gallery rooms were beautiful, with colour-coded walls for the different eras, black marble floors, high ceilings and rich, dark hardwood molding which extended about 18” from the floor.

Around 3:30 I left the museum and followed the crowd of thousands of Athletic Bilbao fans walking to their 4pm home game vs. Almeria at the San Mames Stadium, nicknamed “La Catedral”. I’m a big soccer fan, but I didn’t buy a ticket. Instead, I stood on a terrace near the stadium, from which myself and about 50 others could see about 10% of the pitch, including one of the goals. After chatting with a friendly local and catching about 20 minutes of the game, I walked about 5 minutes up to the “Termibus” station to confirm the time and location of the evening PESA bus to San Sebastian. I learned that there were hourly departures, and that they were expecting a busy night, so I was advised to purchase my ticket while I was there. Good call – when I returned for my 7pm departure, it was indeed very busy, and the bus was nearly full. Cost of the ticket was 11.50.

As it was nearing 5pm, I had to start heading back towards the hotel to collect my luggage. Huge groups of people were walking the streets. I didn’t find out until the day after, but that evening in Bilbao, between 110,000 and 130,000 people gathered in the largest demonstration in the history of the city! I’m quite fortunate that this didn’t affect me at all.

The main highlight of my walk from the Termibus station to my hotel was the “Alhondiga”, a multi-purpose cultural centre, opened in 2010, which takes up a city block. It is notable for its 43 massive, individually-decorated columns which hold up 3 buildings. Of course, another highlight was feeling the gorgeous sunshine and 14 degree Celsius temperatures! Sadly, my lost first day meant that I’d have no time to visit Casco Viejo, to ride the funicular up Mt. Artxanda, or to sample any pintxos in Bilbao.

At the hotel, I collected my luggage and crossed the river to the tram stop. After a 10 minute wait and a 10 minute ride (1.50 euros), I got off at Termibus in time to catch my 7pm bus to San Sebastian. In fact, I had 30 minutes to spare, so I popped into the bar across the street for a quick beer and bought some snacks at the convenience store. (Fantastic ‘Jamon’ flavoured chips!)

The bus ride was completely in the dark so I can’t comment on any of the scenery. I had debated whether to take the train, which Rick Steves describes as more scenic, but a longer trip…but that’s a moot point after sunset. My seat number was printed on my ticket. As stated, it was packed.

After a 70 minute trip, I arrived in San Sebastian at 8:10. After asking for directions to get my bearings, I started walking to my accommodation, Pension Nuevas Artes. This place was recommended in all the guidebooks I consulted – but under the name Pension Bellas Artes. Note the name change. Apparently it’s under new management now. What hasn’t changed is its fantastic location, about a 1 minute walk to the “Euskotren” station (which was where I needed to catch my early morning train to Hendaye in 2 days).

The pension occupies half a floor of a building. If you choose to stay here, I would suggest you have a cell phone handy. No one was tending the reception area, so I had to phone a temporary number posted on the outside entrance to the building. After about a 20 minute wait, a gentleman who spoke only Spanish came to let me in. He was very jovial, with a broad smile, and apologized for his tardiness – there was an F.C. Barcelona match on TV and he couldn’t let me in until the 1st half came to an end. As a Barcelona fan, how can I argue with that logic! Soccer trumps customer service! Gotta love the priorities (I’m not being sarcastic).

After check-in, I quickly made my way around the corner to the nearest bar (“Txkole”) to watch the 2nd half of the game and enjoy my first taste of San Sebastian pintxos. This wasn’t really a high-end establishment, just a classic, basic place with beer, various small ham and chorizo sandwiches on the bar, “Sidra”, no tourists, and a group of older local men out to catch the game over a glass of “tinto” while the ladies chatted busily in a booth at the back. Just what I had in mind! Cost for 2 small draft beers (“Cana” – with a ~ over the n), 1 Sidra, and 2 sandwiches was 7 euros. I left a 1 euro tip for the barman, not for especially great service, just because this was exactly the Spanish bar experience I was looking for. Low key, neighborhood place with the big game on TV and delicious ham sandwiches at hand.

I wandered about 50 yards down to the corner opposite the Euskotren station and went into my 2nd bar, called “Iruna”. This was more of a happening place. Younger crowd, MTV on the plasma screens, bigger food menu. I had 2 draft beers, 2 croquettes (1 ham and 1 cheese) and 1 puff pastry for 10 euros.

Now it was time to check out the heart of the pintxo scene: the old town. It took about 15 minutes to walk there. Along the way I walked through a bustling Saturday night bar scene near the Cathedral on Reyes Catolicos.

By time I arrived in the old town, my food had digested and I wasn’t really very hungry for more pintxos, so I just wandered the grid of streets and surveyed a few eating places for the next day. I did have a craving for something sweet though, so I dropped in at Café Artess. I’m so glad I found this place (although it’s easy to find – just opposite San Telmo Museum, beside the cinema). It’s a large café that features a great selection of cakes on the counter. I sat at the bar and had a Café Con Leche with the Tarte Chocolate for 3.60. DELICIOUS! Fantastic value too imo.

Final stop was a Guinness (3.50) at the Belfast Irish Pub. I found that it tasted a bit more like coffee than the Guinness we get here in Canada. Final tally for the night: 27 euros for 6 beers, 5 pintxos, 1 piece of cake and a coffee. And 1 happy traveler!

Before wrapping up this first part of the report, a few remarks about Pension Nuevas Artes. I stayed 2 nights, and paid 40 euros per night for a room with a double bed. Bathroom was basic, but clean, with private shower and wc. I never heard a peep outside my room; in fact, I never saw any other people coming or going. I suspect that I may have been the only person staying there. No one was ever sitting at the desk either. This made me a bit nervous for checkout – I left a note on the reception desk telling them I wanted to check out very early, and it sat there for several hours before anyone grabbed it. Overall I’d give the place the thumbs up, for cleanliness, price and proximity to the train station, but after making the 12-15 minute walk a number of times to and from the old town, I would probably seek out something a little closer to the beach or old town next time.

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    Excellent report, what you write and the way you write it make me miss the San Sebastián vibe in local bars etc, what a city!

    And wonderful Bilbao, a few months ago I also stood at the same platform outside the not yet finished but fantastic new San Mamés "cathedral" of Athletic Bilbao, seeing the same 10% of the pitch. More or less impossible to get tickets for the match, but my brother and nephew managed to get in through a member's two tickets entrance card for double the price. I was perfectly happy to watch most of the game in a very close by bar with lots of fans and the stadium crowd in my back.

    Looking forward to more!

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    Thanks everyone for the positive comments!
    Mikelg – I’m glad to get the seal of approval from a Bilbao native!
    Here’s part 2:

    Day 2 – San Sebastian

    Up early on this Sunday, excited to explore San Sebastian! Stepping out of the pension, I’m greeted by glorious sunshine and temperatures in the mid teens (back home in Canada, we’d be talking mid teens – Fahrenheit, but not here). Spectacular! First stop was a coffee shop / bakery / ice creamery, around the corner, located in nearby Plaza Easo, which is anchored on the south end by the Euskotren station. I had a café con leche and a croissant, taken right off the bakery tray which had just been removed from the oven. Marvelous!

    An easy 10 minute walk took me down to the beach at Plaza de Cervantes, by Hotel de Londres. This part of San Sebastian is a snap to navigate, thanks to its grid-like street pattern. Ditto for ‘Parte Vieja’ which holds a great number of pintxos bars. After having visited several maze-like old-towns in Europe, it was refreshing not to have to worry about a street pattern that doesn’t resemble a plate of spaghetti. You’ll only get lost here if you’ve over-indulged in the fabulous wines on offer around here.

    Going straight out from Hotel de Londres, and turning right, I lingered for about a good half hour at the promenade along the broad ‘La Concha’ beach, taking tons of pictures, savoring the amazing view, and just strolling, all the while being careful not to obstruct any high-speed cyclists and joggers as they zipped up and down their allocated lanes. The locals may eat well here, but they also seem to work off the calories with a lot of exercise.

    San Sebastian has a very clean, classy waterfront. Intricate handrails and beautifully detailed lampposts, all painted bright white, make for an elegant, appealing place to hang out. But, as a tourist with only 1 day to tackle a not-terribly-ambitious agenda, I needed to move things along, so I passed the ‘Belle Epoque’ Carousel, which dates from 1900. On the underside of the roof are reproductions of classic artworks by the masters – Picasso, Monet, etc. The bright colours of the merry-go-round really popped in the morning sun, allowing for some fantastically vivid photos.

    Past the carousel there’s a monument, dedicated in 2007, in honour of the victims of violence and terrorism in San Sebastian. Behind it stands the town hall. Further along the shoreline you can see the aquarium and naval museum. Before venturing down there, I turned right just past the town hall and over to the TI. At the corner, under the arcade of the town hall, a large group of young children were gathering, all dressed in period costume. Many of the boys were dressed like little soldiers (I’m only speculating, but since “San Sebastian Day” takes place January 20th, this may have been some sort of dress rehearsal). The TI was only a few blocks down from the town hall. Inside, I bought the handy 72-page San Sebastian holiday guide for 1 euro.

    Prior to my trip, I visited the official San Sebastian tourism website. Under their calendar of January events, they listed a 2-hour “Flavours of San Sebastian” tour, departing at 11:30am, for 17 euros. I was excited that my visit matched the scheduling of this tour, and definitely looked forward to taking it. Part of the reason is because I was looking forward to meeting some fellow travelers; having traveled solo a few times, I have actually found myself going an entire day without having a conversation with someone other than a restaurant server or hotel desk clerk. So I’ve changed my travel approach, and nowadays I try to find group events so I can mingle with others, if only for 2 or 3 days out of a 2 week tour.

    Unfortunately, as the scheduled hour of departure approached, no one seemed to be showing up for the tapas tour. I went inside and inquired at the TI. It came as a huge surprise to them that a tour was even scheduled for that day. I told them about what I’d seen on their website. They said there was no tour happening. So I grabbed one of the travel brochures prepared by the official tourist office, thinking that perhaps I was wrong. There it was in black and white: January 12th, 11:30 am, pintxos tour. I showed it to the TI staffer. They didn’t seem too upset about it. No apology, no admission of an error or attempt to explain why there was no tour although it was clearly posted on their website as well as their brochure. They did, however, clear all those brochures off of the shelf, lest anyone else be misled by their mistake. I was just out of luck. So I headed out and continued my walk. (Before I sound too bummed out by this, I really wasn’t. I didn’t need a tour guide to show me how to order pintxos and have a thoroughly satisfying foodie experience – the Fodors Forums gave me that knowledge weeks before my trip!). If you're visiting San Sebastian, and if you have your heart set on joining one of these tours, you may want to consult the website schedules, then follow-up with an email before you take your trip, just to confirm things with the tourism dept.

    Very near the TI, I took advantage of a tempting deal at “Paries” bakery: coffee and choice of pastry for 1.50 euros. As I enjoyed my coffee in the store, I perused their tempting array of treats. I noticed a lot of round, golden layer cakes, covered with cherries, with light creamy frosting between the layers and with a hole in the centre, like a Bundt cake. I also saw these in southern France. In St. Remy they were called “Gateau des Rois” (King’s Cake)…not sure what they’re called in the north of Spain. I larned that they are a seasonal treat, enjoyed by families around the period of Epiphany. There is a trinket baked inside one part of the cake, which only one person will get. The trinket comes with privileges and obligations (that last part comes from Wikipedia…I hate to quote other sources but I do want to get my story straight here!).

    OK, after a snack it was time to head over to the fantastic San Sebastian Aquarium. On the walk over, I passed the bustling marina with its colorful boats, then the Naval Museum, as well as the launch for kayaks and sailboats (small, rowboat size vessels with 12-15 foot sails). The waters were quite choppy and I noted a few of the little boats turned on their side, courtesy of a pretty stiff wind in the bay.

    The aquarium is situated in a fantastic seaside location. Newly renovated, there’s a lot to see here, and I’d consider it a must for any visitor. Well worth it. Admission cost 13 euros. I declined the audioguide. Total time spent here was 70 minutes. The visit starts with some museum exhibits, showing ship models, shells, some impressive models which demonstrate commercial fishing methods, and coolest of all, the skeleton of an 11-metre North Atlantic Right Whale, suspended from the ceiling. Eventually you reach the aquarium portion, which features over 5,000 fish. The highlight for me was the 360 degree tunnel, where you are surrounded on all sides, and above, by a great variety of aquatic creatures, including sharks. Pretty cool to see a shark’s belly as it swims 2 feet over your head! I also enjoyed the ‘theatre’ which has stadium seating but instead of a movie screen, there’s a huge tank filled with some huge fish (and a sinister looking sea monster down in the corner).

    After visiting the aquarium, I followed the gradually-inclined paths up nearby Monte Urgull to the base of the statue of Christ. Here you’ll find a “History House”, but it’s closed until spring for renovations. No opening date was posted. I hadn’t really planned to tour this museum anyway, having just spent an hour inside the aquarium. Besides, my curiosity about pintxos, and the rumblings of my stomach, were really starting to dominate my thoughts! Before heading back down though, I enjoyed some excellent views of the bay on one side, and from the other side of Monte Urgull, a great view of the “Gros” neighborhood of San Sebastian, with its own beach. The waves here were large enough to draw a couple dozen surfers. The Kursaal centre was also easy to see. It’s a modern convention centre and auditorium with a unique design – like a box which has been blown askew by the wind. I don’t think it has any right angles.

    At the base of Monte Urgull, back down in the old town, I stopped by the San Telmo Museum. Although I didn’t go inside, the guidebooks I consulted before the trip did say it’s a highly regarded museum. Recently overhauled, inside a 16th century convent, it’s the museum of Basque Society and Citizenship. A large sign proclaimed that it was nominated as best European museum for 2013. Perhaps next time I’ll drop in!

    Now: pinch me, it’s time for pintxos. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m a huge tapas fan. I can never decide what to order in a restaurant, because I fear I’ll be missing out on something else that might be better. What I love about tapas is that you don’t have to choose! You can have one of everything before you’re full! And you won’t be committing a lot of funds to one main dish.

    Pre-trip, I’d prepared several lists of ‘must do’ pintxos bars, but I let my instincts guide me as well. My list of destinations came from travel guidebooks, Fodors trip reviews, and also from a number of recent newspaper articles I’d stumbled across, in which the author spent a weekend in San Sebastian touring the tapas-hotspots. (How can I get a job like that?!) Obviously, I knew that I’d be able to only scratch the surface of the pintxo experience, so here goes…

    My first stop: La Cuchara de San Telmo, http://www.lacucharadesantelmo.com/lacucharademadera.swf (cute website, but most of it’s under construction) at the end of a narrower-than-a-Silverado lane which begins just in front of the San Telmo Museum (about 50 feet from Calle Agosto 31, which is also loaded with pintxos bars). It’s rated #8 out of 426 San Sebastian restaurants on TripAdvisor.

    Once inside (there was no lineup, although it was very busy at about 3pm), I grabbed a seat at the end of the bar. To my left, about 10 feet away, 3 chefs were working quickly to satisfy an unending stream of orders. They had over a dozen frying pans and saucepans on the go, turning out a great variety of perfect little plates, from a kitchen not much bigger than a king size bed. Impressive. There’s no food on the bar; you order from the blackboard. Prices range from 3-3.60 euros, dishes take about 4-5 minutes to prepare, and are served with a few pieces of baguette.

    First, I tried the dish that so many reviewers had recommended: “Carrillera Ternera al Vino Tinto” (calf cheeks in red wine). Delicious and tender, with a mild taste. Second, Segovia-style “Cochinillo”. This suckling-pig is one of my favorite dishes ever, but not the first time I’ve tried it. I was lucky enough to visit Segovia 4 years ago, and fell in love with this dish there. I’m happy to say that this pintxos-sized version is every bit as perfect as the original. The skin is crispy, quite hard in fact, a little bit sweet, and perfectly salted, while the pork absolutely melts in your mouth. The jus had a slight tang to it. Finally, although I had told myself I wasn’t going to stay too long at any one establishment, I couldn’t resist ordering juuuuuust one more…

    During my half hour at the bar, it seemed that at least half the orders shouted out by the bartenders were for foie gras. Any dish that is ordered by half the locals is definitely a dish I have to try! And I’m so glad I did. It was perfect. Just a bit crispy. ‘Classy’ is not a word I’d normally use to describe food, but I can’t think of a better description. It’s just a classy dish. Just enough flavour to be memorable, but not heavy. A little bit fatty, a little bit crispy, a lot of wow! Like the other two dishes I tried, the jus was perfect. I found myself sopping up the liquid remnants of each plate with the bread!

    I had 2 drinks – first I tried the “Sidre” (2 fingers of cider in a tumbler), and then a glass of “Rosado” (rose wine). It was unexpectedly bursting with ripe flavour, and had a beautiful colour. A pleasant surprise. Total cost for my little feast was 14 euros. I also want to note that a large number of locals were ordering the Risotto. So it must be good.

    I then walked around to the beach in Gros, where the surfers were still trying to hang ten, but mostly they were just laying on their boards riding the moderate waves. I walked around the Kursaal centre and eventually back to the pension, passing “La Bretxa” market (closed by 4pm), and a fascinating weather station in Plaza de Gipuzkoa, in front of the County Council building. I had hoped to visit the FNAC music store in San Martin shopping centre, but it was closed on this Sunday afternoon.

    After a hotel pit-stop to recharge the batteries of my electronics, as well as my own, I headed back to Bar Iruna, which I had visited the night before. I had a small draft beer (2 euros) and a “Bollo de Queso” (cheese ball, 1.60 euros), which turned out to be the only disappointing thing I ate in Spain. Not for the taste, but because it was cold in the centre. It definitely could have used another 30 seconds in the microwave. It’s rather gross when it’s cold, probably because it reminds you of how unhealthy it is…

    The only other thing I really wanted to accomplish today was to take the funicular up Monte Igueldo, which rises over the other side of La Concha Bay, opposite Monte Urgull. Rather than walk all the way there, I took two buses. First I hopped on a bus outside Bar Iruna, exiting at the TI. A long row of buses were lined up about 50 metres from the TI, but there was no sign of Bus #16, which is the one that runs to Monte Igueldo. Another bus driver informed me that Bus #16 stops a couple blocks away, at Plaza de Gipuzkoa, so I made the short walk over to that bus stop. As Bus #16 rolled up, I boarded, and asked the driver whether my previous bus ticket was valid for a transfer. Turns out it wasn’t, so I had to pay 1.60 for the 2nd time in 10 minutes. It took about 8 minutes for the bus to reach its stop right in front of Monte Igueldo funicular (although the timetable estimates the trip time to be 14 minutes). Here’s the link for Bus 16 info:
    http://www.dbus.es/en/users/lineas-horarios/16-igeldo/map

    Cost to ride the funicular was 3.10 euros. Along the way up, in the hillside, “DSS 2016 EU” were spelled out in big white letters, a reference to Donostia – San Sebastian being selected European cultural capital for 2016. From the top, the views were outstanding, as expected. I arrived just before 5:30. It was still daylight, but some rain clouds were beginning to roll in, so there was no gorgeous sunset to behold on this evening. It was also very windy up on Monte Igueldo. I didn’t linger too long. The combination of rain, wind, darkness at 6pm, and dead batteries on both my mobile and regular cameras, conspired to put a quick end to my visit atop the mountain.

    After getting off the funicular at the bottom, I exited the building and went to the bus shelter out front. I immediately checked the schedule for Bus 16. Within about a minute, just as I was starting to figure out the route and timing back to the old town, the bus actually rolled up. I wasn’t entirely sure what route that bus would be taking, or how long it would take to get back, so I let the bus leave, assuming another would be along within 5, 10, maybe 15 minutes, giving me time to figure out the route. Turns out the next one wasn’t scheduled for 30 minutes! I studied the route a little more carefully. From my understanding, the bus actually does a lengthy loop to the west of the funicular, before getting back to Plaza de Gipuzkoa. I calculated that route to take about 35 minutes. So at this point, my only real option was to walk back. No fear of getting lost…you just follow the seaside promenade. It took me 30 minutes to walk to my pension by the Euskotren station. (It would probably have taken the same amount of time to walk to the TI.)

    So what tips can I pass on to my fellow travelers? Assuming the weather is lousy or your legs are tired and you don’t feel like walking back along the promenade, you should take a moment and study the Bus 16 timetable when you first arrive at the funicular stop, so you can plan your departure timing. The link to the Bus 16 schedule should help you out.

    Alright, having finished my sightseeing, and having packed for my early departure the next morning, all I had left to do was visit a few pintxos bars in the evening, to complete my short visit to San Sebastian. First up: “La Mejillonera”, a place I’d read about in a Fodors trip report. This place was packed when I arrived (about 7:30 on a Sunday night). It’s a boisterous place. Plates of mussels everywhere. Waiters shouting orders in a sharp, piercing tone. The ‘tip bell’ being rung every few minutes. The type of place where you need to be a little aggressive if you want to get served, and place your order in your strongest baritone voice, to make sure you’re heard! I ordered the patatas bravas (1.60 euros, spicy!), a draft beer (1.60), and a plate of mussels “Marinera” (7 mussels for 3.10), with a basket of free bread. I ate while standing at the bar. Food quality was good, it was served quickly, and prices were certainly fair…a good start to the night.

    My next stop took a bit of searching, but was well worth the effort. “Astelena” is located at Calle de Inigo 1, in Place de la Constitucion. This place was much more relaxing than the bustling La Mejillonera. I grabbed one of several open seats at the bar. Although a tempting array of pintxos covered the bar, I ordered off the blackboard. First I had Bacalao Encebollao (cod with onions, 3.20 euros), which I loved, along with a glass of rosada (1.20). Pleased with my first dish, and intrigued by the selections on the blackboard, I ordered a second: Solomillo a la Pobre (4.30). This was sirloin steak, served with fried onions, topped with a quail egg, along with fries and pimento puree, which is almost like ketchup. I just had to try the pintxo version of steak-frites. The steak put up a bit of a fight when I tried to cut it, as the fork actually bounced off the surface of the meat as I tried to pierce it! Needless to say, the meat was very rare inside (they don’t ask how you like it cooked). The egg was fabulous, as were the fries. Another delicious pintxo, although I prefer my steak cooked a little longer...to at least medium-rare. I could easily have worked my way deeper into the menu, but I moved on…

    Next stop was a return to another place I’d been last night – Café Artess. Again I enjoyed one of their coffee-and-cake combos. This time I had café con leche with almond tarte for 2.95 euros. The cake was light and fluffy. It was much quieter in here than the night before. I caught up on the news by flipping through the local papers at the bar. Cover story was the 130,000 person demonstration held the night before in Bilbao (which I mentioned earlier, and which somehow didn’t affect me at all).

    I really was quite full at this point. The plan was just to criss-cross the old town one more time and head to bed. But it didn’t work out that way. I consulted my list of food tips, and I noticed something I’d forgotten – that I needed to visit at least one bar that had hams hanging from the ceiling. I decided to drop into “La Cepa” at Calle de Agosto 7-9. The hams were hanging prominently here. In fact, the draft beer tap is shaped like a ham! It’s a classic Spanish tapas bar. I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a glass of blanco (white wine, 1.50). Before the bartender poured the wine from the bottle, he chilled the glass by filling it with ice cubes, letting it sit for about 15 seconds before replacing the ice with wine. The result was a very crisp, cold glass of blanco…and suddenly, I felt like eating again! The palate had been reset! My stomach had been overruled (I’d pay for it later though…all this gluttony led to a lot of tossing-and-turning during the night).

    To round out my pintxos feast, I had a “jabugo” (Iberico) ham sandwich (2.40), from the selection of sandwiches on top of the bar. I had read that it’s polite to ask the bartender for a food item rather than simply grabbing it from the bar, so I followed that tip here. As expected, the sandwich was delicious. My mouth waters at the thought of that wonderful ham! To end the night, I had my second dessert (hey, I’m on vacation!) - a slice of “Pantxineta” cake. I’d describe it as a pie, filled with custard cream, topped with crystalized sugar and almonds. The bartender heated it for me, which toasted the almonds. It’s a fantastic dessert. Cake was 4 euros and café con leche was 1.40. On my way out, I noticed pictures of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Willem Defoe on the walls. Looks like they paid La Cepa a visit, 10-15 years ago. As a Canadian, I found it amusing, and very random, that Cuba Gooding Jr. was wearing a Beaver Canoe t-shirt in the photos.

    And so ended my first San Sebastian pintxos experience. I really didn’t find many tourists there. I may have only heard 3 or 4 people speaking English during my 2 night visit. The vast majority of bar patrons appeared to be locals. I definitely didn’t see a single person with a Spain guidebook in any of the bars. Ditto for the afternoon walk around the beach and aquarium area…mostly locals, or at least visitors from other parts of Spain or the Basque region. But then it was the 2nd weekend in January, probably not the most popular time for international tourists.

    One other thing I noticed is that people in this part of Spain were very respectful of traffic lights. Even on the smallest sidestreet in Bilbao or San Sebastian, with not a car in sight, if the traffic signal was red, people would patiently wait for it to turn. Not sure if the penalties for jaywalking are stiff here, or if people are just more law-abiding in this respect, but it’s definitely something I found interesting.

    After checkout early in the morning, I made the very short walk to the Euskotren station to catch the “topo” train to Hendaye, on the border with France. These trains run twice an hour, at :15 and :45, and the trip takes 37 minutes. Cost is only 2.30. Not many people stay on until the end of the line; almost all of them exited at Irun station, which is the second-last stop.

    And that does it for this part of the trip report. I loved my weekend in the Basque country. I could definitely have used an extra half-day in Bilbao (the part I lost due to late departure), but I felt that 2 nights and 1 day was enough for San Sebastian. It was fun, but I’m glad I budgeted only 1 full day here.

    The next leg of this trip took me to Lourdes, then Carcassonne, Avignon and finally, Nice. Since I erred in tagging this trip report only under Spain, I’ll start a new trip report, and I’ll be sure to tag it under France.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed my little travelogue, and appreciate you taking the time to read it! I hope you’ll join me for my swing through Southern France!

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    Enjoying your report!

    No need to start another thread. Hit the yellow triangle and ask the editors to add the tags for you.

    If you do start another thread, please include the link to it in this thread. I'll be heading to those France locations this year so am very interested in your trip.

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    Thanks all for your nice comments! Good news, this report is now also tagged under France, thanks to that great tip from joannyc. Thank you!!!
    I'll start posting the France portion soon.

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    Day 3 - Lourdes

    My train from San Sebastian arrived in Hendaye, France (end of the line) at 8:52 am. The Euskotren station and the French SNCF station are only a few metres apart. With almost an hour to spare before my next train, I had a croissant and a café au lait at the coffee shop across from the SNCF station. Although I was only a short distance from Spain, the prices definitely told me I was in France: my little snack cost me 4.40 euros! Might as well get used to these higher prices; as I would discover over the next week and a half, it’s a challenge to travel here on a shoestring.

    At 9:45, my train left for Lourdes. The first leg was to Dax. Second leg from Dax to Lourdes left at 11:03. I had bought the tickets online about 3 weeks prior to travel. Cost was 25.70. The train was barely half-full. Fog and clouds prevented me from enjoying any spectacular Pyrenees views. I arrived in Lourdes at 12:28 (therefore, my total travel time from San Sebastian was 4 hours and 13 minutes, although I could have left there 30 minutes later, on the 8:45, and still been able to catch my train from Hendaye).

    I was excited to visit Lourdes for 2 reasons. First, as a Catholic I’d always wanted to visit. I’d been to Fatima 3 years earlier, so I was curious to see how Lourdes compared. Second, my parents had come here on honeymoon in 1957, 57 years ago (they lived in Belgium at the time, and Lourdes was a popular honeymoon destination in those days).

    From the train station, a short 5 minute, downhill, 1-turn walk brought me to my lodging, the Hotel Majestic. Aside from the location and the price, I selected it because they have a reception desk that’s open in the afternoon. A few of the other hotels I had considered actually close their desks from 11am-4pm (that may be a winter policy). It was nice to be able to check in immediately, rather than having to walk around in the rain with luggage for 3 or 4 hours.

    On check-in, I was greeted by the lovely manager Christine, who had just taken the job a couple weeks earlier. At first glance I was struck by her resemblance to the beautiful French actress Marion Cotillard. Bernadette may have been famous for her visions in Lourdes, but let me tell you, this gorgeous girl was a vision all her own. But I digress…we were talking about travel here, right?

    Christine was the first French person I spoke to during my holiday, but our chat set the tone for other conversations I would eventually have with other staffers of French tourist offices, hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. They always gave me the information I needed, they were as kind as necessary, but they had no interest in making ‘small talk’. After they had fulfilled their duty, they quickly returned to whatever they were doing. I noticed this pattern over and over. They’re not interested in hearing about how long you’ve dreamt of visiting France, or about the weather in the town you had just visited. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s really not a negative…it’s just…different.

    The Hotel Majestic cost 54 euros for a room with a double bed. The bathroom was clean, although the flimsy shower curtain and the low sill made flooding inevitable. My room was spacious, if not cutting-edge modern. Frankly, I don’t think anything can be described as cutting-edge modern in Lourdes. A lot of the town looks dated. As I walked the streets, I wondered if the town really looked that different from what my parents saw here almost 60 years ago. But let’s face it, I wasn’t really here to be pampered in luxury.

    First stop after check-in was to find some lunch. Christine recommended Café-Brasserie Leffe, only 5 minutes from the hotel along the same street, about 2 minutes past the TI. That turned out to be a great tip. Lunch was fantastic, and the service was very professional and prompt. I had the plat du jour: chicken breast, topped with a delicious mushroom sauce and parsley. My baked potato was one of the best I’ve ever had. It seemed to have been infused with a half cup of butter, as every bite was wonderfully moist and flavorful. A small, warm tasty tomato finished off the plate. The meal cost only 8.50, certainly an excellent value (it really does make great sense to order the daily special – not only are you assured of a fresh dish at a fine price, but in this case, the meal was on the table in less than 5 minutes). I also had a draft Hoegaarden for 3.50. Bread and a carafe of water arrived without asking, free of charge. Coming from a country where free glasses of tap water are offered in any restaurant, I had done enough research to know that in France, you usually have to ask for a ‘carafe d’eau’ when you want water; if you don’t specify that, you’ll end up paying 3 euros for a small bottle of Evian. As it turned out, French restaurants were fairly generous with their water: at about half of the places I dined in France, I didn’t even have to ask for water, it just came free of charge.

    By now the TI was open after closing for lunch, so I stepped inside for a few minutes. In winter, it’s open Monday to Saturday from 9-12 and 2-6. A handy little pamphlet listed the winter-hours of sites and Masses. After a 10 minute downhill walk, I arrived at the Sanctuaries of Notre Dame de Lourdes. I walked past the Grotto and the rows of candles, along the banks of the river Pau, to where the baths were. I hadn’t really done much research on the baths; I had assumed people were taking the baths in full view of the public, right in the river. That’s not the case. In winter (October 28 to April 5), baths are offered between 10-11 and 2:30-3:30, and on Sundays from 2:30 until 4. Schedule information online at http://en.lourdes-france.org/schedule

    Frankly, I had some reservations about doing the baths…but when I observed people coming out from behind the doors, after having taken the baths, and saw the happy looks on their faces, I knew I couldn’t leave without doing it too. I sat outside in the rows of benches waiting to be called inside. There’s a separate door for men and women. After being waved in through the door, I was directed into one of the available ‘cabins’, which was attended by an older gentleman. Once inside, I was instructed to remove all clothing except my underwear, and I was asked which language I preferred to speak. Then on the other side of the cabin, a curtain was drawn open, and behind it I finally saw the bath. It’s about 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and 8 feet long, and was filled with water. A male attendant stood on either side. At the far end of the tub was a statue of the Virgin Mary. One of the men asked me to turn to my right, remove my underwear and hang it up. He wrapped a large white sheet around my waist and cinched it tight, and then guided me to the end of the bath.

    I was asked to pray, so I prayed the Hail Mary and Our Father. Then the two men guided me as I stepped down into the bath, and walked me to the other end, towards the Virgin. They leaned me back, somewhat awkwardly, holding my upper arms so I wouldn’t fall back. They dunked me in the water, fully submerging me except for my face, for a second or two. Then I stood upright and was asked to collect some water in my hands and wash my face with it, then draw water again and to drink it. Finally, I was asked to kiss the feet of the Virgin Mary. And that was it. I was suddenly filled with a warm feeling, and couldn’t help but smile. It felt like I’d been baptised again. By the way, the water temperature was a refreshing 12 degrees Celsius. I returned to the cabin, got dressed, chatted with the 2 men and the attendant for a few minutes, and then walked back outside. As the few other remaining bathers were doing, I had my picture taken in front of the statue of the Virgin, under the inscription “Go Drink at The Spring and Bathe In Its Waters”, which is the message the Virgin gave to Bernadette.

    It was now around 3:30, so I left the sanctuaries in order to visit ‘Le Cachot’, which was only open from 3-5pm. This was the home of Bernadette Soubirous, during the time she saw the Virgin Mary in a series of 18 visions in 1858. Then I walked over to the mountain in the centre of town - ‘Chateau Fort’, where I took the elevator up to the Musee Pyreneen (open from 9-12 and 2-6). Admission was 6 euros, and from the top I enjoyed a great panoramic view of the town and the mountains, although the skies were still mostly cloudy. The museum, which dates back to 1921, was interesting and well worth a visit, showcasing collections about the history and culture of the ‘mountain people’. Prior to being a museum, the castle was a prison, and before that, a fortress. www.chateaufort-lourdes.fr

    Back down on street level, I wandered around the non-touristy portion of Lourdes, and what struck me was the large number of pharmacies in town, no doubt catering to the many sick people who visit the area. After dark, I returned to the Grotto to pray, to light a candle, and to briefly visit the Basilique du Rosaire. This basilica, as well as 3 other places of worship (Underground Basilica of St. Pius X, the Upper Basilica, and the crypt) are open in winter from 7am-7pm. After my period of spiritual reflection, I sought out some dinner. Having been totally satisfied with my lunch, I decided to return to the Leffe brasserie, only to find it closed. In fact, by 8pm almost every restaurant was closed. Probably not surprising on a Monday night, in low season. So I did what every traveller ends up doing at least once…I settled for McDonald’s. A “Royal with Bacon” combo cost 8 euros.

    I wasn’t quite ready to call it a night yet, so I wandered around the deserted streets a bit more. This must have been one of the quietest towns I’ve ever visited, and that’s saying something because I always take my European trips in the quiet months of January and February! Even at 8pm it was sort of eerie walking through the maze of old, shuttered see-you-at-Easter hotels. I thought of getting a beer somewhere, but there were only a few places open, and none looked that appealing, so I went back to the hotel to catch up on my journal writing and get a good night’s sleep, as the next morning I wanted to get up early and catch a mid-morning train to Carcassonne. A quiet ending to a day of prayer and renewal. No less enriching than any of my other travel experiences, and a day I’ll never forget.

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    Day 4 - Carcassonne

    Before catching a mid-morning train to Carcassonne, I wanted to explore a bit more of the Sanctuaries, so I got off to an early start today. First I had breakfast at the Hotel Majestic (9 euros). It wasn’t my favorite hotel breakfast ever, with mostly pre-packaged cheeses and pastries, but the croissants were fresh and the coffee plentiful. I figured I’d try at least one hotel breakfast in France, and this was it. Turns out to be the last one I paid extra for. I just felt that the value was better in the coffee shops surrounding the hotels in which I stayed.

    After breakfast I spent about an hour at the Sanctuaries. I was the only person inside the underground Basilique St. Pie X. With room for 25,000 worshippers, it’s the world’s largest underground Church. It’s like an arena, shaped like an oval with the altar down in the middle. Huge banners (which hang all around the inside of the Basilica) pay tribute to the greatest figures of Christianity…Mother Theresa, Saint Peter, Saint Bernard, Pope John Paul II, etc. I was impressed by the Stations of the Cross; they are presented in a beautiful mosaic style. Most were lit from behind, but about a quarter of them were dark. My guidebook says this technique is called ‘gemmail’. After brief visits to the Crypt and the Upper Basilica, I walked to the station (briskly!) to be sure of catching the 9:39 train to Carcassonne, as the next one wouldn’t leave until 11:43.

    I bought my train ticket at the station in Lourdes for 42.10 euros. I could have purchased it online from home, and saved about 6 euros, but I wanted to give myself the flexibility of being able to leave when I felt I was finished in Lourdes, rather than having to rush. I’m glad I planned it that way; as it turns out, I didn’t really need 2 more hours in Lourdes. A total of 21 hours was just about right. I had a 24-minute stopover to change trains in Toulouse (which is where I encountered the first of about a dozen ‘pay-toilets’ I would use in France. They charge 50 cents, and you find them anywhere, including tourist sites and department stores, so you should always have some change with you just in case.)

    At 12:32 I arrived in cloudy Carcassonne. My hotel was just outside the walls of La Cite. I knew it was about a 15-minute walk from the station, so before the trip I had researched shuttle bus options to save myself the walk. Here’s what I encountered. I walked straight out of the station, and crossed the canal. Just over the water, to the right, I stopped at the annex location of the TI. That annex is closed until April, but shuttle bus schedules were posted on the door. Turned out there are no shuttles between 11:57 and 13:50. During regular hours they run about twice an hour, and the ride from ‘Chenier’ to ‘Cite Medievale’ lasts 17 minutes. (The main TI is located inside La Cite, just inside the Porte Narbonnaise; its winter hours are Monday-Saturday 9-12:30, and 13:30-18:00.)

    It wasn’t raining, so I walked to my hotel rather than hailing a cab. From the annex TI, I turned onto Bd. Omer Sarraut, and walked a couple blocks before making a right at Bd Jean Jaures. Streets in the lower-town (‘La Bastide’) are grid-like, so it’s easy to navigate, and fairly flat. If you’re pulling luggage though, it’s rough-going, with lots of uneven surfaces and potholes. Bd Jean Jaures doesn’t have much of a sidewalk: it’s mostly a series of busy parking lots; other parts are unpaved. Eventually I arrived at Place Gambetta. Then over the Pont Neuf bridge, and my first glimpse of the magnificent walled city. Of course I couldn’t pass up this photo-op! Another 5 minutes brought me to the Hotel du Pont-Vieux, at 32 rue Trivalle. Total walk took about 15-20 minutes including taking pictures.

    Choosing my accommodation in Carcassonne proved to be a bit of a challenge, in order to meet my main criteria: good price (under $100 Canadian), good reviews, and good location. My guidebooks spoke of the mystique of sleeping inside the city walls, so I definitely explored hotel options there, only to find them well beyond my budget. Frankly, in winter I don’t know if sleeping inside the walls is such a big attraction that it warrants paying extra. Because it’s quiet during the day or night, it’s not as if 1000 tourists have suddenly left after dinner and you have the place to yourself…it’s pretty much like that at 2pm as well if you’re visiting on a Tuesday in January!

    I also looked at a couple of options in the lower town, but as it turns out, I made a great choice, the perfect balance of location and value. From my hotel, it was only a 5-7 minute walk (uphill!) to the Narbonne Gate and the medieval city. And the price was fantastic, just 39 euros a night, for a fairly large room with a double bed and private bath (no view of the walls). Some online reviewers weren’t too thrilled with the cleanliness of the bathroom, but I had no quibbles. The only challenge was managing to use the shower wand in a bath with no curtain, without spraying water everywhere. I’m proud to say I didn’t spill a drop. The walls weren’t much of a sound barrier, as I heard my neighbours chatting as I tried to sleep that night, but otherwise it was very quiet.

    The two staff members I met, when checking in and out, didn’t speak English, but I managed to communicate with my basic French. I found it interesting that they provided me with the key, as well as the TV remote control, when I arrived. First time that has happened. The last thing on my mind would be to steal the remote, but I guess it happens here. Coming and going a couple times throughout the evening, the reception desk was unattended, so I punched in a code to access the hotel from the street.

    After check-in, I headed up to La Cite. Just inside the walls, I visited the quiet TI, staffed by one person. In summer, it’s apparently so busy that they have four people on staff, and they get 900-1000 people coming through every day. On the day I visited, I’d be surprised if they had 10% of that total.

    Hungry after a long train ride, I was looking forward to a nice, quality, non-rushed lunch. The girl at the TI recommended the Brasserie Donjon, so I headed there. It was almost 2:00 by now, and I could tell they were hesitant to let me in, but thankfully they allowed me to dine there. (Late-afternoon closings seemed common for a lot of eateries during my time in France; later in the evening, I noticed the brasserie was one of only 3 or 4 places that was open in La Cite). I ordered the ‘Cassoulet’ which is a typical dish of the region, available on every restaurant menu I saw posted. It took about 20 minutes to prepare, and since it was so hot, it took at least as long to eat. Beware! Even after 15 minutes, the broth still packs enough heat to burn the roof of your mouth! My favorite part was the crusty top. The dish also includes a sausage, white beans, as well as duck. Unfortunately, the dish was so hot that it somehow reduced my enjoyment of the flavours (I also felt a little rushed to leave, as by time the meal came, I was the only person left in the restaurant and the staff was clearly ready to close after I finished). With my cassoulet, I enjoyed a delicious glass of Cotes du Rhone red wine (3 euros), along with bread and a carafe of water. The menu for 18 euros included a choice of dessert. From the many choices, I selected the blueberry tartlet, served cold, with blackberry sorbet. Loved that sorbet! Total cost for lunch was 22.90. (I paid with my debit card, which proved to be an extremely convenient way to pay throughout the holiday. I used to run to European bank machines every few days, but by ‘paying direct’ you really do conserve cash, and it’s easier to track your spending when you get back home.)

    A short walk brought me to Chateau Comtal, which is probably the main attraction in the medieval city. Good thing I didn’t postpone my visit here, as a sign at the entrance noted that they were closing at 4:30 today only, a half hour earlier than usual. The cashier mentioned that there may be a free guided tour, in French, beginning at 3pm, but nobody else showed up, so I toured the castle by myself. Cost was 8.50 (skipping the 4.50 audioguide), and I spent an hour there. The big-screen 11-minute historical video was very good. From there I strolled around the town…only a couple of souvenir shops were open.

    There’s also a torture museum and a school museum inside the walls - I skipped those. But I did visit the St. Nazaire Cathedral, which no longer functions as a parish Church. It’s part Romanesque, part Gothic, having been partially destroyed in the 1300s, and then rebuilt. The huge, 14th century rose windows were a highlight. Afterwards, I wandered around the outer walls until 6:30, taking advantage of the beautiful spotlighting to capture some striking pictures of the walls. Definitely the best time of day to photograph Carcassonne is after dark. I exited through Porte Narbonnaise for the 5 minute downhill walk to my hotel, to relax for an hour or so.

    Around 8pm, I walked down to the lower town, thinking there might be something of interest down there…shops, bars, a circus perhaps. Uh, no. Nothing going on at all. I found it really dull, so I went to the Carrefour market and bought a sandwich for dinner, which I ate back in my room. I capped the evening by taking the Rick Steves night walk around the walls, my guidebook pointing out interesting things along the way. I went inside the pricey Hotel de la Cite, not to eat but just to snoop, as far as the plush dining room. There were a few tables of diners there at 10pm, enjoying their meal in luxurious, extremely quiet surroundings. No one was in the bar, nixing one possible idea I had. With the streets deserted, and having traversed every lane in the walled town, I headed back to the hotel and retired for the night. I knew I’d seen all I wanted to see, and was ready to head to Avignon first thing in the morning, to begin my Tour de Provence!

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    This is absolutely one of the best trip reports that I have ever read on Fodors due to the precise details of exactly what you did and what you paid, the time you waited and everything else.

    I think my favourite details are about the baths in Lourdes. As a non believer, I would have no idea of what goes on without your wonderful telling of the event. I went to Lourdes for the first time when I was 6 years old -- my father was a rather fanatical Catholic in spite of having broken every rule in the book -- we had a huge Virgin Mary statue in the living room -- and my mother was a tolerant French woman, all the more tolerant because she had married someone who had broken every rule in the book. We went to Lourdes for the August 15 pilgrimage, and I still have a very clear memory of the candlelit procession around the sanctuary. Naturally what I liked was holding a candle in a paper cone and being out at night at that age in a huge group of people and any religious significance was lost on me.

    Nevertheless, I have complete respect for the "believers" who go there because one feels that it is a sacred place whether one believes or not (I feel the same in Buddhist temples in Thailand.). I totally understand that "faith" has considerable power, particularly when trying to recover from a horrible disease. People who think they will recover sometimes do, while people who believe in nothing generally perish.

    I thought it was interesting that you mentioned all of the pharmacies in Lourdes but did not at all mention the "merchants of the temple" which has always been the main thing that I see there on the principal street of town. ;-)

    Carcassonne is exactly as you describe it. Intra muros is pretty much out of reach financially for most of us, but I am happy to walk around inside and eat and sleep outside. Younger visitors should know, however, that there is quite a large youth hostel inside the walls.

    I am looking forward to your tale of Avignon since I go there every year for the festival in July -- at least for the last 15 years -- and adore the energy at that time. I have been to Avignon at other times of year and find it desolate, but only in comparison to the July kinetic frenzy.

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    deonca - Can you elaborate on using your debit card? I'm from Toronto, and would love to be able to use my debit card when travelling, but didn't realize it was possible...

    Great trip report - I've been to Lourdes & Carcassone, both in July when they are teeming with people.

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    Thanks so much for the great comments everyone! Wow, that’s high praise Kerouac, I’ll try and keep it up! I'm really flattered by that compliment.

    Yes, I do try to put as much detail as possible into my trip reports. I know how much I rely on trip reports before my own holidays, so I’m just trying to pay something back and hopefully help others travel more smoothly. When I prepare for a trip, I find that it can be difficult to get the right kind of detailed info from travel guidebooks. They do a great job of highlighting the reasons for visiting a certain place, and telling us all about the historical background, but in my experience, these forums are where you can find real-world info that you actually want to print out and bring with you as a guide. I think the Rick Steves guidebooks do the best job of giving you clear info (i.e. how long does it take to walk from train station to the arena, for example), and I think that inspires my dedication to detail.

    Kerouac, glad you enjoyed my bath story! I found that French travel guidebooks are woefully inadequate when it comes to their descriptions of Lourdes. Most books don’t even include it, and those that do, give you only a few paragraphs. That’s somewhat surprising considering 7 million people a year visit Lourdes. I read somewhere that Lourdes has the 2nd most hotels in France, per square kilometer, behind Paris. So one would think they’d beef up their Lourdes info in the guidebooks. I definitely had no idea what awaited me on the other side of the curtain as I stepped into the bath area! As for the ‘merchants of the temple’, I think 75% of the merchants had their shops closed when I was there! I’m quite happy that I could count the souvenir shops that were open on one hand!

    Indeed, there is a youth hostel in Carcassonne. I saw it, and actually walked up to the door. I was surprised to see a sign posted ‘fully booked tonight’, considering how quiet it was in town. As far as Avignon, I think my description of it will lean towards ‘desolate’ rather than ‘frenzied'...so I'll try my best to spice up the travelogue!

    Joannyc – I’d say a night in each town is just about right. I certainly couldn’t have imagined needing any more time in either place. If I were there in summer of course, I’d be sure to visit Pic du Jer.

    Truffles – I’d be happy to talk about the debit cards. I’ll begin before my trip. Before I left, I called the toll-free number on the back of my bank card to let them know I’d be traveling overseas, just so they wouldn’t block my card. The operator actually told me that I would be able to pay direct, as I do in Canada, and that I wouldn’t incur any extra fees in doing so. They mentioned that using debit cards would also avoid the extra currency markup (profit margin) that credit cards tack on when you use them overseas. So that gave me confidence and I looked forward to trying it out. I must say it couldn’t have been easier. In fact, the transactions were approved almost instantly, usually quicker than here at home! Mind you, you do need a chip-and-pin, but those have been the norm here in Canada for a year or two. Another thing I should mention is that the debit card actually saved me huge hassles a few times. I showed up at train stations twice, without tickets, once very early in the morning and another at 9pm on a Sunday night, when the ticket booths were closed and the only way to get a ticket was to use the automated machine. I could be wrong here, but I’m 99% sure those machines don’t accept cash, so I think it’s a great idea for any traveler to carry a chip-and-pin debit card. Mostly it reduces the stress of carrying a big wad of cash in your pocket. That’s what I often found myself carrying on previous Euro trips, because when you withdraw only 50 or 100 euros at a time, after a handful of withdrawals you’ve rung up a pile of $3 service charges!

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    Day 5 – Setting Up Base for 3 Days in Avignon; Daytrip to Les Baux & St. Remy

    I checked out of the hotel in Carcassonne early, and declined their breakfast. Walked to the station and caught the 8:14 train to Avignon, with a change in Narbonne. (Attention coffee-holics: in Narbonne, I satisfied my coffee craving at the vending machine for 1.10, rather than paying more at the coffee shop at the station. These machines really do make a fine cup of coffee, and you can have it any way you like, brewed fresh. They’re like a 6 foot tall Tassimo machine! After a few days of European micro-coffees, I was excited to see the large plastic cup drop out of the dispenser, hoping to have something to sip for more than 5 minutes…but unfortunately, the machines only fill them halfway. It’s always an adjustment when you’re used to small coffees at home being the size of 4 Euro coffees combined).

    My train ticket for the 2 legs cost 37.60. Again, I didn’t buy my ticket in advance, because I wasn’t exactly sure beforehand how much time I’d want in Carcassonne, so I didn’t want to commit to a pre-determined train departure (the next available trains left at 10:34 or 11:34am). I felt great about organizing my train travel this way; I knew the train schedules well in advance and tailored my sightseeing according to the departures. If the savings had been great, I might have bought all my tickets in advance, but for a few euros extra, it was nice to have more flexibility. One day definitely was enough time for me to soak up the Carcassonne experience, and I was really excited to arrive in Provence for what I anticipated to be the best part of the trip.

    At 11:20 I arrived in sunny Avignon. So great to see the sun again after a 2 day absence! I was tired of carrying a just-in-case hotel loaner umbrella for 2 days…just another thing to juggle along with the guidebooks, camera, backpack, and ever-present map.

    I’d heard great things about the light in Provence, and I can confirm that it’s gorgeous! The first thing I wanted to do was to pick up the bus schedules for my planned daytrips, so I turned right out of the station and headed for the bus info booth (not the actual TI) set up just outside the walls (across the road from the Ibis hotel, a bit further down the road on the other side, by the Porte St-Michel). I grabbed every bus schedule I thought I’d need, and I asked the attendant to confirm what my research had already told me – that there was no bus to Les Baux in January. Confirmed. There is one other thing I failed to confirm however, and it resulted in the most stressful moment of my trip…but I’ll tell that story later. (Trying to build suspense here.)

    From the bus info kiosk, I headed inside the walls, and made the short walk up to the tourist office on Cours Jean Jaures (which becomes Rue de la Republique). The beauty of arriving so early was that I left myself an opportunity to latch onto an afternoon guided bus tour to Les Baux, now that I had 100% confirmation that there was no way of reaching it by public transport (and I had no interest in renting a car or taking a cab). The staff at the TI made a reservation with ‘Avignon Prestige Tour’ (www.avignon-prestigetour.com), for a trip combining Les Baux and St. Remy, and told me to be out in front of the tourist office at 1:30. I looked forward to an opportunity to let someone else do the guiding, other than myself. This comes at a cost of course, but sometimes you have to treat yourself. And I looked forward to hanging out with some other tourists, because I really hadn’t seen too many up to this point of the trip. As I said earlier, I enjoy sprinkling in a few opportunities for social interaction while traveling alone, to break the silent monotony.

    With an hour or so to spare before my tour, I grabbed lunch from a takeaway place called Marie Blachere http://www.marieblachere.com/?products=nos-produits . It’s about halfway between the TI and the Porte de la Republique. They also have a location a bit further up Rue de la Republique on the other side of the street. I found a fantastic array of fresh sandwiches, pizzas, and baked goods, all moderately priced. Spoiled for choice before my first highly-anticipated Provencal meal! I chose the sandwich with brie, lettuce, tomato and walnuts. For 4 euros, you could make it a combo, so I chose the brownie and a Coke, and ate in the courtyard area behind the TI. This was a fantastic setting for my little picnic; the benches were filled with people out enjoying the midday sunshine and mild temperatures (about 12 degrees C). The cutest trio of little girls, aged about 2, 3 and 4, provided the lunchtime entertainment as they chased the pigeons, and each other, through the courtyard, while their mothers kept close watch from their park bench. Wanting to capture this nice moment, I discreetly tried to take a picture, in an attempt to broaden my photographic horizons and include more people in my shots (I often don't have the courage to take shots of strangers, lest anyone take offense.)

    My sandwich was awesome, a perfect medley of flavours and textures, from the silky softness of the brie, to the crunch of the nuts. As good as the sandwich was, the brownie may have been even better. I took a closeup picture of it, as a model of how a perfectly baked brownie should look, with the centre just a bit molten. My mouth waters as I think about it now! It was huge, too!

    My room at the nearby Hotel Central ( http://www.avignon-central-hotel.com/ )wasn’t ready yet at noon, so I left my bag at the reception and walked the short distance to the TI for my afternoon tour. The driver, Benoit, showed up on time, but we didn’t leave until about 1:40. Turns out I was the only one on the tour, and he was really hoping to get another person or two to sign up. He kept saying that if another person comes, he can show me more, or do something extra. So he waved his brochures at every passing pedestrian. Unfortunately, 95% of them were locals, not interested in a tour. Oh well, can’t blame him for trying. So the two of us headed out in his crossover Renault minivan/wagon. (He put me in the back seat, but that didn’t last long. It just seemed awkward sitting there with the front seat idle, and besides I couldn’t hear half of what he said, so at the first stop I moved up front beside him.)

    In no time we were out of Avignon. First thing Benoit pointed out was the futuristic TGV train station (I had arrived at the other Avignon train station called Centre-Ville). Along the 20-25 minute drive to Les Baux, as we passed through the countryside and the many crops, vineyards and olive trees, Benoit mentioned that the wide variety of fruits and vegetables grown in Provence have earned it the title ‘the garden of France’. One thing I noticed that the grape vines are cut much shorter than at home in Ontario, Canada. Probably no taller than 2 feet. It’s because they get a lot more sun here. It was fun to just boot around in the countryside, finally seeing the vineyards, olive groves and Alpilles I’d read so much about…my guidebooks had come to life! I was really here!

    Winding roads brought us up to the white rockfaces of Les Baux (thankfully so, because the constant turning, while trying to snap pictures, had made me a little queasy). Les Baux seemed like another planet. What a wild landscape! Just before parking the car, we drove past ‘Cathedral d’Images’ which I’d read a lot about http://www.carrieres-lumieres.com/en/home. It was a marvelous photo in Fodors guidebook that first drew my attention to it. It’s a cave in which huge images of famous artworks are projected onto the quarry walls. Sadly, the season ended on January 5th, about 2 weeks before my visit. Would love to see it someday.

    Up in the village, we spent about 30 minutes wandering the uneven, cobblestone streets, stepping inside a small church, as well as the ‘Santon’ museum. The santon folk figures capture the essence of Provencal life, from the games of petanque to the ‘Mistral’ wind which, legend has it, can blow the ears off a donkey. (No sign of any mistrals during my time in Provence). Spectacular sunshine cranked the brightness of these ‘Alpilles’ up to 11, giving me some gorgeous photo-ops. Reviewing my photos, I think we may have even been able to see the Mediterranean. The sun also revealed the textures of the stone used to construct the homes throughout the town. Benoit pointed out that the fronts of people’s homes revealed a lot about who lived there, from their religious affiliation to their profession. On my own, I likely would have breezed past these facades without realizing the significance of how they were decorated. Although Les Baux also has a ‘ghost village’, Benoit didn’t take me out to see these ruins, nor did he even acknowledge their existence. Our visit was confined to the carefully preserved medieval village. That was probably in the interest of time, as I’ve read that the site of the former castle covers an area at least 5 times the size of the present village of Les Baux. In case you’re wondering if it was busy on a sunny January Wednesday, I counted a grand total of 1 tourist at Les Baux. And like in Lourdes and Carcassonne, a lot of shuttered restaurants and shops. It lent the place an almost haunting feel, where you could contemplate what life really was like here, rather than having to dodge a gang of tourists.

    Back on the road, we stopped about 10 minutes outside of Les Baux at the archeological site of Glanum (http://glanum.monuments-nationaux.fr/en/ ). Although the sign showed an extensive site containing a forum, thermal baths, springs and wells, we only toured the part near the road: the arch (dating from the time of Julius Caesar) and the mausoleum, raised to honour the grandsons of Augustus. The detail on these Roman monuments was excellent, down to the leafy column crowns and the honeycombed underside of the arch.

    Our tour concluded at St. Remy de Provence, a small town with many attractive shops and the type of pastel-hued buildings one associates with Provence. Tempting specialty shops (chocolate, cheese) are plentiful here. During our walk, I learned that Nostradamus was born here in 1503. He’s commemorated with a bust above a fountain.

    Any guided tour I’ve ever taken has always included at least one visit to a shop, and this was no exception. Benoit took me to ‘L’Epicerie du Calanquet’ (www.moulinducalanquet.fr), where I enjoyed a tasting of 6 varieties of olive oil. One of them had a peppery finish that actually made me cough; first time I’d tasted an ‘EVOO’ with that kind of kick! While browsing the shop, I could hear Benoit and the shopkeeper commenting about ‘le saison morte’ (dead season). It certainly was that from a tourist viewpoint, but I enjoyed it all the more. I felt as though the whole town had cleared out to make way for my arrival! Before leaving the shop, I purchased a few regional delicacies: a can of bold ‘Salonenque’ olive oil, a sleeve of 3 small jars of tapenade (green olive, black olive and tomato), a small jar of ‘Rouille’, and a pouch of Herbes de Provence. (I’ve since begun sprinkling a few Herbes on my steak when it comes off the grill…do I have to explain further? One word: delicious!)

    As we headed back to the car, nearby a group of men were playing a friendly game of petanque in the late-afternoon sun. We stood and watched for a bit. Our tour of St. Remy had definitely brought to life the quintessential images of Provence that I’d been reading about for months, in the guidebooks and the novels of Peter Mayle. I think I encountered a good bit of “Provence A-Z” in a few short hours! (Thankfully, minus the mistral).

    Around 4:30 we arrived back in Avignon, and I paid Benoit the 60 euro fee for his time. I had a really nice afternoon and totally enjoyed Benoit’s guidance. I should mention one thing to those of you considering a visit to the Camargue, which is known for its bulls and pink flamingoes. On the way back to Avignon, Benoit was talking about the Camargue, and he revealed that he’s strongly considering ending his tours to that natural area. The reason: too many disappointed tourists. They see pink flamingoes on the front of their Provence guidebooks and expect to see them when they visit the Camargue. But Benoit said that most people don’t end up seeing any, ending up disappointed, and even angry with their tour. I can’t say I actually went to the Camargue (although if I had an extra day in the area, I would have considered it, before hearing Benoit’s opinion), I’m just passing on what I heard from a guy who has been doing tours for a lot of years. Something to consider before you head to the Camargue, I suppose.

    By now my room was ready at Hotel Central. Although the hotel is located on a very busy street, it is set back a bit, with a courtyard fronting the actual entrance to the lobby. This really helps cut down on noise…at least in my room. I didn’t hear any traffic during my 3 night stay. The rate was 50 euros per night. My room was attractively furnished, with a white (faux?) leather padded headboard on the bed, and lots of little accessories from Ikea. It showed that the owners had actually put some effort into decorating the place. It was nicer than I had expected. In terms of location, quality of the room for the price, and the friendliness of the staff, I give this hotel a huge thumbs-up. It’s only a few minutes to the Papal Palace, or the train station, or the TI, and there are shops and snack bars all around. Definitely recommended! (I’ve stayed in about 20 European cities in recent years, and from a value/satisfaction standpoint, this ranks right up there with my all-time favorite, Residencial Florescente in Lisbon, which also offered a great price and excellent location, central to attractions and public transport.)

    After setting up in my room, I took a walk at dusk. Within minutes, I arrived at the imposing Papal Palace, then continued up to the Benezet Bridge (Pont D’Avignon). On my way back toward the city centre, I noticed a young man in religious robes who looked familiar. Then I saw his twin brother and the rest of his family. Suddenly it dawned on me: I had seen this family outside the baths in Lourdes! I introduced myself, and they all said they remembered seeing me in Lourdes as well. We ended up chatting for about 30 minutes, as the men waited for the girls to finish shopping (all shops in Avignon close at 7pm). We took a great group photo and exchanged email addresses. I now have new friends in Argentina! This was my 2nd consecutive trip with an amazing coincidence: when I was in Italy 2 years ago, I met the same Japanese couple at the Last Supper in Milan, and then a couple days later at the Uffizi in Florence. Strange coincidences indeed.

    Following my nice talk with the Argentinians, without any real agenda other than just soaking up Avignon, I simply followed my whims and weaved my way through the streets on the side of town nearest the Rhone River, eventually ending up at Rue de la Republique. I consider this street to be the spine of Avignon, as it runs in a straight line and roughly cuts the town in half. By now it was about 8pm, and I was hungry. I didn’t feel like splashing out for a big fancy dinner, so I decided to just get some take-out and eat it in my hotel room in front of the TV. Having been quite satisfied with my lunch, I made the Marie Blachere takeaway stand my choice for dinner as well. It was almost closing time, so they had a 2-for-1 pizza slice special…5 euros including a pop. This was the location on Rue de la Republique, roughly opposite Hotel Central. Next door was a tempting bakery, so I bought a chocolate ‘Coeur du Caramel’ muffin for dessert. As it turned out, I didn’t do much TV viewing in the room, as the hotel only picks up 2 French channels, so after dinner I went to sleep at 8:45. Time to catch up on some sleep prior to my big day trip to Arles tomorrow!

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    We stayed inside the wall at Carcasonne at a Best Western property. They assigned a very nice room in their annex. It was next to the youth hostel and we didn't get any sleep due to,all the noise. Live and learn. I am enjoying your trip report so much. Thank for posting and sharing your adventures.

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    Thanks Happy Trvlr! I'm sure that would be a big disappointment to book a room inside the walls, hoping for a quiet night, and end up with rowdy neighbors! That Best Western property was actually at the top of my list for 'inside the walls' hotels. I saw it when I went into Brasserie Donjon, right next door. Certainly can't get more central than that.

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    Deonca, if ever the tour company felt that it lost money on giving you a private one-person tour, I hope that they will understand that you have given them a glowing review here, even if the tour could have been better and more complete with more people. 60€ seems like a completely reasonable price for a tour like this.

    I am definitely going to investigate the Hôtel Central even though I stay in the suburbs every year during the festival and like getting a bit away from the frenzy.

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    Great report!! On the Basque side (my homeland), I have a comment on the food side: no one here would call pintxos "tapas", as they are a completely different thing (http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/a-good-post-on-how-to-do-it-right-with-pintxos-in-basque-country.cfm), and I think they´ve lost a lot in the past few years. They normally accompany your drink so you don´t get drunk while "doing" several bars in an afternoon, our way to socialize, even families. And it´s a real pity now that they offer a dish to everyone asking for a pintxo so they can fill it with pintxos and sit down...a big no-no for a local, you have just one or two pintxo per bar and always standing.

    I guess it´s massive tourism that brings all this along, but for this reason I tend to avoid with my visitors the bars at the Old Town, and look for more "classic" places where tradition is still kept. (Of course, some of these places still remain in the Old Town, but hard to find).

    All in all, a really good report!!

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    mikelg - thank you for providing a 'local' view of the pintxo experience. When I was writing, I found myself using the word pintxo repeatedly, and to mix it up, I did insert the word 'tapas' a few times. Indeed, as I was writing, I wondered if I was actually being incorrect in doing so! Now I know to stick to the word pintxos! Thank you. I definitely plan to return to your beautiful homeland one day, for the people, the climate, and of course, the food!

    RebeccahS - thanks! There are some great San Sebastian trip reports on these forums; I used them to compile my list of 'must try' pintxo bars. Here's one of my favorites:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/trip-report-two-sisters-visit-bilbao-and-san-sebastian.cfm
    Of course, you can't visit them all...one can only scratch the surface...and as mikelg said, the fun is in trying different places and moving around.

    Kerouac - I'm not surprised that Hotel Central is booked in July! It is possible that the hotel will be shut down during that time though...the desk clerk told me they are going to be doing some renovations soon. Regarding tours, 60 euros definitely wasn't out of line compared to what other companies were charging for half-day excursions. It really only works out to 20 euros per hour for what essentially was a private tour!

    Trip report continues with my day in Arles...wish I could write this report faster, but life gets in the way!!! :)

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    Great report, deonca. San Sebastian is on my hit-list - the food being a main draw. You certainly didn't need that tour afterall - you did alright by it! Looking forward to the rest...

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    Day 6 – Daytrip to Arles

    After a string of crack-of-dawn wakeup calls, I let myself sleep in a bit this morning, before making the short walk to the Avignon Centre-Ville station to catch the 9:40 train to Arles. I bought my ticket from one of the station’s automated machines; cost was 7.50. There were plenty of free seats on the train, which arrived in cloudy Arles in a quick 20 minutes. I paid a visit to the tourist office at the train station to pick up a map, and ask when the next free shuttle bus would arrive. As luck would have it, the next bus was waiting just outside the station at that very moment. How fortuitous! (It’s an orange minibus marked ‘Envia’, to the left of the station as you come out. It leaves at :10 and :40 past the hour).

    Guidebook research had suggested that any visit to Arles should start with a tour of the Museum of Arles Antiques (‘Musee Departemental Arles Antique’), so I made that my first stop. The bus drove through the town centre, past the Arena, before stopping at the museum after an 8 minute ride. You can’t miss the stop. The museum is a huge, blue standalone building with the name clearly marked. It’s actually on the site of an old chariot race course. I entered the spacious lobby and headed for the cashier. Rather than purchase a single museum entry for 8 euros, I bought the ‘Liberte’ pass for 9 euros. The pass granted me admission to 5 sites in total, drawing from a combination of museums and monuments, valid over a one month period. For those of you with older tourist guidebooks that recommend the Arlaten Museum, the tourist office brochure lists it as being closed until 2017. www.arlestourisme.com

    Before commencing my museum visit, I definitely needed a coffee. The cashier directed me to the vending machines near the WCs, where I found another of those impressive automated coffee brewers. At a cheap 50 cents a cup, I enjoyed 2 little pick-me-ups to energize me for my museum tour.

    The museum showcases a fine variety of artifacts from the era when the Roman Empire expanded into southern France. I was particularly impressed by the intricately detailed models of the circus, forum, and other structures which were a trademark of Roman city life. The models included tiny little animals, gladiators, chariots, etc….it’s all very well done. All statues are originals, except for the copy of ‘Venus of Arles’ (the original is in the Louvre). There’s also a bust of Julius Caesar which is quite striking set against a red backdrop, illuminated with spotlights. Most impressive of all, however, is the ‘Arles-Rhone 3’, which is a brand-spanking new addition to the museum’s collection, opened in October 2013. It’s a barge (dating to 50-60AD) that was carefully salvaged from the Rhone River, and painstakingly re-assembled. A 30-minute documentary about the process plays in a loop on an HDTV in a special viewing room (all in French with no subtitles – it’s also on YouTube – I checked after I got home). In total, I’d allow about 90 minutes to tour the museum at a slow pace. You could probably do it in an hour, assuming you didn’t watch the documentary video. By the way, most of the signs and info boards are in French. Overall I found it a solid introduction to Arles and its Roman heritage, definitely worthwhile. After my visit, I caught the free shuttle bus, which leaves at :21 and :51 after the hour.

    I rode the bus all the way back to the station, rather than getting off in the town centre. The reason was because I had the Rick Steves Provence guidebook, and was planning on following his ‘Van Gogh Easels’ walk to the letter…the tour began near the station at Place Lamartine. Before embarking, I fuelled up with a Panini with ham, cheese and fries from the vendor outside the station.

    The Van Gogh sites in Arles are well marked. Easels of his famous artworks are set up throughout the town. In addition, you can follow the ‘Van Gogh symbol’ painted on the sidewalks (there are other themed walks as well – the TI sells a 1-euro brochure detailing these walks). Along the way, my walk led me past the inspirations for many of Van Gogh’s most famous works, including ‘Starry Night Over The Rhone’ and ‘Café de la Nuit’. I lingered quite a while at 'Espace Van Gogh', unable to tear myself away from this iconic site. If you've ever wanted to buy a postcard of every one of Van Gogh's works, the souvenir shops here offer you that opportunity.

    My Arles walk included a visit to the Antique Theatre, where I toured for about 25 minutes. It was built in the 1st century B.C., probably dismantled in the 5th century A.D., and the site was excavated and restored in the 19th century. There’s an educational video playing on a TV outside, in French with English subtitles. Admission was included with my Liberte pass; if you wanted to only tour the theatre without buying the pass, you’d pay 6.50, which includes admission to the arena, which I visited next. After the arena, I visited St. Trophime Church, and marveled at its western portal, which portrays Biblical scenes in incredible detail. That was the longest time I’ve spent studying a Church portal since I visited Sagrada Familia in Barcelona!

    Before leaving town, I caught an absolutely spectacular sunset while standing on the bridge over the Rhone. This was a pleasant surprise considering it had been overcast all day. Just when I thought I’d snapped the perfect sunset photo, the sun sunk a little lower, and the horizon turned a deeper shade of orange, making the next shot just a bit more impressive than the one before.

    Arles was terrific to visit as a daytrip, but at no time did I wish I had selected it as my Provence home base, rather than Avignon. For those that are curious about Fondation Van Gogh, at the time of my visit, it was still closed. I just checked the website, and I see it opens on April 7th.

    At 7:10 I caught the train back to Avignon (again, 7.50 euros, 20 minutes). I had an extra slice of pizza leftover from the night before, so I ate that back in the room with a little bottle of ‘La Vieille Ferme’ wine purchased at the Monoprix market in Arles. (Sorry if you’re hoping to be regaled by tales of dining on authentic Provencal cuisine - this is four straight nights of bargain-basement suppers - but I’m pleased to tell you the dining got better later in Nice!)

    As mentioned, shops in Avignon (and the other French cities I visited) were closed by 7, so that ruled out shopping as an evening pastime. In trips to Spain and Portugal, I quite enjoyed browsing through the malls until 9 or 10 at night, but that wasn’t an option here. So I got to bed early in preparation for a pre-dawn wake-up call the next morning, looking forward to Nimes and Pont du Gard!

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    It's fascinating to me to know that everything is closed in Avignon during the 'normal' season. I am generally there only during the festival when all of the shops are open until at least 10pm and restaurants and cafés until midnight or beyond.

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    Thanks for pointing out that you were happy you chose Avignon as your home base. I almost changed my mind to enjoy the Van Gogh experience.

    Do you have that photo? It sounds spectacular.
    Thanks for posting.

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    Thanks for pointing out that you were happy you chose Avignon as your home base. I almost changed my mind to enjoy the Van Gogh experience.

    Do you have that photo? It sounds spectacular.
    Thanks for posting.

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    Deonic, thanks so much for your very interesting and detailed report. The Basque region, along with many others areas, is on our wish list. We're especially appreciative of your wonderfully descriptive account of Lourdes. With the commercialization we've heard others describe of parts of the
    town, it's refreshing to hear that the area still retains a spiritual atmosphere.

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    kelsey22 - if you're referring to the photo of the sunset, it is pretty cool :) but I'm afraid I don't have any public pictures posted anywhere. That might be something to consider though...I took over 5000 pictures on this trip and a bunch of them are quite good IMHO

    tomarkot - I'm sure the commercialism would have been much more noticeable outside of 'low season'. I'm glad I was able to come away from Lourdes with a positive opinion, rather than one tainted by cynicism at the tackiness of the town. With the great number of shops and hotels around, I could see how many people would get turned off when they leave the Sanctuaries and then have to run the gauntlet of commercialism. It was also nice to be able to enjoy the baths without a wait. That fellow in the robes I mentioned in Avignon? He told me he once waited more than 2 hours to take the baths in the month of August. Having traveled only in winter (post holidays), my tolerance for waiting has become very low, so I couldn't imagine having to queue up that long. Thanks for reading!

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    Day 7 – Daytrip to Nimes & Pont du Gard

    I spoke earlier about my arrival in Avignon, and how I visited the bus info kiosk. Well, apparently I wasn’t thorough enough in my questioning at the info point, and it led to a bit of a scramble today…

    Before the trip, I had done a lot of research, and I concluded that it was entirely practical to visit Nimes and Pont du Gard on the same day. So I was ready to tackle this…or so I thought.

    After checking, then re-verifying the connections between Avignon, Pont du Gard and Nimes, I had all my bases covered: times of the buses from Avignon to Pont du Gard, times of the buses from Pont du Gard to Nimes, and finally the train times back to Avignon, as well as the names of the companies providing the bus service.

    Up until a week before departure, the plan was to take the 8:45am bus from Avignon to PDG. Then I planned to take the 1:20pm bus to Nimes, spend a few hours there, and train back to Avignon in the evening. But as I was checking out the Pont du Gard website just before I left, I noticed something interesting: that certain attractions were closed for maintenance purposes, until March 2nd. These included the museum and the cinema.

    This ‘breaking news’ caused me to reconsider my plan. I figured that since the aqueduct itself was the only thing open at the PDG site, why not just go there on the first available bus, at 6:40am, arriving at 7:16? As far as I knew, the aqueduct could be viewed and accessed at that hour. That would allow me to watch the sun rise, to be there when it’s very quiet, and then bus to Nimes at 9:32, with lots of daylight to spare.

    With this revised plan in mind, I awoke at 5:45am and walked down to the bus stop…or what I thought should have been the bus stop! When I first arrived in Avignon and visited the bus info kiosk, I noticed a huge poster showing the pick-up points for buses run by Edgard Transport. (Bus schedule for line A15 connecting Avignon to Pont du Gard: http://www.edgard-transport.fr/ftp/FR_lignes/A15.pdf ). I noted the pickup location for the bus to PDG: a bit further up the road, closer to the train station. So this is where I showed up at 6:30am, 10 minutes early for my bus. Well, you know where this story is going next. 6:40 came and went, and although several buses passed, mine wasn’t among them. I started to wonder if I was on the right side of the road, or at the correct bus shelter, so I walked up and down both sides of the road in a stretch of a couple hundred yards. No sign of the A15 bus.

    To make a long story short (I’m probably past that point already), it turns out the Edgard bus to PDG now picks up passengers INSIDE the walls of Avignon. Or at least that’s what I was able to understand from a fellow standing at the bus shelter, after I’d done my best to explain in French what bus I was trying to catch (I’m not terribly fluent in French; some feel I could add English to this list as well).

    The bottom line is this: if you think you know everything based on internet research and a poster showing bus stops, it’s still no replacement for good old face-to-face contact. I should have asked the bus info staffer exactly where the bus stop was, when I first got to Avignon (that kiosk wasn’t attended at 6:40 am of course). Lesson learned. Pride swallowed. From now on, I won’t be embarrassed to ask what I previously considered a stupid question. No one is handing out medals for ‘most prepared traveler’ or deducting points if you stop and ask directions. We learn as we go.

    OK, back to my situation. Still dark out, so what to do? I had 2 options (3 if you count going back to bed). First, I could wait for the next bus to Pont du Gard, at 8:45. But that was 2 hours away, and I wanted to get rolling. I chose the second option: reverse the order of the sightseeing, and go to Nimes first. Luckily, I had considered this possibility before my trip, as a backup plan in case the original schedule didn’t pan out. I’m sure glad I did the extra research! I knew that I could actually make it work, if I paid very close attention to time throughout the day, so as not to miss my connections (which are very spotty between the 3 locations, spaced out by 3 or 4 hours).

    Fortunately, the Avignon train station was nearby, so I walked over there and bought a ticket for the 7:12 train to Nimes. This was one of those moments where my debit card came in handy. The ticket counter was unstaffed, so I could only buy my ticket through the machine, at a cost of 9.70. The train was a TER on Line 11R, from Avignon Centre to Montpellier. (Tip: when you arrive at a French train station, look for the small, printed train schedules and take one for each of your probable destinations – you’ll refer to them often). I arrived in Nimes at 7:46.

    In Nimes, trains and buses come and go from the same complex, so upon leaving the train I visited the Edgard office to verify my afternoon bus time to Pont du Gard (there were buses at 11:30, 1:30, and 4:35, but the last one was out of the question as it would bring me to PDG after sunset). The office wasn’t open yet so I waited until 8. Just to make my day a little more interesting, the Edgard staffer informed me that there was a one-day ‘greve’ (grievance…job action) taking place today. Wonderful. The good news was that only select routes and times had been selected for cancellation. As the staffer searched the list for Nimes-PDG connections, I had that sinking feeling that somehow the bus drivers’ union would see fit to totally screw up my travel plans. But not so. Luckily, the 1:30 bus to Pont du Gard was not affected by the job action. So I set off from the station with exactly 5 and a half hours to explore Nimes…and as it turned out, that’s about the amount of time I’d recommend to anyone wondering how much time to budget here (not including meals).

    At 8am, the main tourist sites in Nimes (the Arena, Maison Carree) weren’t open yet, so I decided to start at a place that had no operating hours: the ‘Jardins de la Fontaine’. (I tried to ask the Edgard staff how to get a bus up there, but they had no clue about anything other than their own company buses…if that sentence is dripping with a bit of frustration, then it came through as intended…I really didn’t find the staff very helpful there at all – much less friendly).

    I walked (leisurely) from the station to the gardens, a distance of 1.7km, in about 30 minutes. The long, straight, wide walkway emanating from the station was lined on either side by a shallow stream of water. Within a couple minutes, I saw my first ‘crocodile-palm’ motifs, which capped a series of traffic-regulating posts. As I circled the Arena and continued along, I took an instant liking to the city. It immediately felt different from Arles, and looking back, I’m glad I visited both places. In total I spent an hour at the gardens, including a visit to the Temple of Diana, dating from 25 BC. Quoting the info board in front of the temple: “part of an Augusteum, a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the emperor and his family.” It was also believed to have had a library function.

    The gardens also include the Tour Magne. Although most guidebooks recommend it, Rick Steves says it isn’t worth the walk or the time. So in the interest of saving time and energy (it’s a hilly area), I didn’t go that far. (I did eventually catch a distant glimpse of it from the Arena later on, as well as from the terrace of the Carre d’Art).

    ‘Les Jardins’ calmed my nerves beautifully, after my early-morning travel stresses. The classical statues, blackened by time, seemed confident and serene, so I let them influence my attitude for the rest of the day. It was easy to linger around the canals and swans – two white and one black - in this wonderful park, but I had places to go, so I moved on…

    From the gardens, I walked up to ‘Castellum’, a small site of considerable significance, dating from the year 1 AD. The town’s water flowed into this distribution tank at the end of a 50km trip from Uzes, via the Pont du Gard aqueduct. Text from info board: “the tank was equipped with a sluicegate on the aqueduct, several drains in the floor and ten lead pipes carrying water to the various parts of the town.”

    This appealing part of town was bustling, with a school nearby and many locals out doing their morning errands. Moving back in the direction of the station, the extraordinary Maison Carree was easily and quickly reached, after a visit to the nearby TI. Prior to my trip, I had read about what’s housed inside of Maison Carree: a 3D movie called ‘Heros de Nimes’. I’d read some negative things about the movie, so I wasn’t sure about paying the 5.50 fee to see it, or more importantly, devoting half an hour to it. Well, turns out I didn’t have to make that choice: the doors of the building were locked, while workers inside were busy preparing a new attraction. (Update: I just visited the Maison Carree site and found this info on the new movie, which is now open, and playing every 30 minutes: http://www.nemausus-lefilm.com/en/nemausus-birth-nimes ).

    One can’t help but be awestruck by Maison Carree, dating from the years 2-4 AD. It’s in remarkable shape. It’s quite bright, if not paper-white, considering its age. It’s beautifully designed. The lines are straight and the angles are perfect. Look up: the detail is magnificent. Think of antiquity and you think of this type of building. The setting is fantastic as well. I love how the other buildings are spaced some distance away from it, making it look oh so regal. Very very impressive.

    Following a guidebook tip, I went inside the adjacent modern glass building (Carre d’Art) and rode the elevator up to level 3. I walked to the café, then out onto the terrace for a birds-eye view of the Maison Carree. I was very tempted to have lunch at the café, not quite busy yet at 11am, but as I mentioned, I was ‘on the clock’ and I still had to visit the Arena before catching the bus out of town. From the café terrace, I could see Tour Magne. By the way, the Carre d’Art building has a great library. I spent some time in the magazine and newspaper reading area, to catch up on what had been happening in the world while I’d been on vacation.

    I followed the ‘Rick Steves Nimes walk’ on my way to the Arena. Along the way, I stopped into the market building, and picked up some takeaway food from the connecting shopping centre, to be eaten later at Pont du Gard. Then I passed the Place d’Horloge and then into the Cathedral, which dates to 1096. I didn’t stay long, just enough for a wide shot of the interior. Next stop was the nearby (free) ‘Musee du Vieux Nimes’ for a quick 5 minutes, just to see its ‘denim room’ (denim = de Nimes). The museum houses a really fancy 19th century bird cage among its small collection. On my way to the Arena, I passed through a lovely square with a palm tree and a crocodile fountain. Wonderful.

    At 12:30 I arrived at the Arena, built in the 1st century AD. The 9 euro entry fee included a good audioguide (they also sell a ‘Nimes Pass’ for 11 euros, valid for 3 days, which includes the Maison Carree 3D movie and admission to Tour Magne). Due to unfortunate time constraints, I had to rush through in 30 minutes. That’s a shame because I was enjoying this arena tour more than the day before in Arles. This arena has more info boards than in Arles, and it’s also better preserved. I’d say 45 minutes is about the correct amount of time to allot for a visit here. Maybe an hour if you want to just sit and chill on the stone seats for a while, imagining yourself as one of 24,000 spectators two-thousand years ago. The info boards nicely describe the characteristics of Roman forums, arenas, circuses and other structures, as well as telling visitors all about gladiators. There’s also a multimedia room devoted to gladiators, showcasing their weapons and fighting costumes, while TV’s play videos of classic flicks starring Russell Crowe and Kirk Douglas. I should mention one thing about Arenas, now that I’ve visited two of them. Watch your step. These structures haven’t been modernized for 21st century tourists. You don’t get handrails and anti-slip mats and yellow lines painted on step edges. Steps are large, they angle down, and really get slick if they’re wet, so be careful. (I love the authenticity by the way, may it stay that way).

    2 interesting points about Nimes:
    a. If you’re going to Nimes, you might want to download the app for Apple or Android, covering the Arena, Maison Carree and Tour Magne: http://arenes-nimes.com/en/prepare-your-visit/visitor-information . You can also download the Arena audioguide in MP3 format.
    b. Plans are underway to build a ‘Musee de la Romanite’ next to the Arena, opening in 2017. I highly recommend you check out the video in this link – looks like it’ll be one incredible museum! http://www.nimes.fr/index.php?id=2413

    By time I left the Arena, the sun had burst through the morning clouds, and it was a gorgeous Friday afternoon. Temperature had risen to about 15 degrees. I was loving it, quite satisfied with my half-day tour of Nimes, even a little disappointed to leave so soon. But plans are plans, so…

    At 1:30 I caught the bus from the ‘gare routiere’ to Pont du Gard (1.60 euros, bus B21 out of station #8, https://www.edgard-transport.fr/ftp/FR_lignes/LIGNE%20B21.pdf ; Nimes  PDG schedule on page 2/6). As I boarded, I made sure to tell the driver where I wanted to stop, as there were many stops along the route and I didn’t want to miss mine. He kindly shouted out the correct stop as we arrived, after 45 minutes. The stop was called ‘Vers – Rond Point du Pont du Gard’. A lot of students were on the bus from Nimes, but very few tourists, so I was one of only 4 or 5 people to get off there. From this stop, you can’t see the aqueduct, so just to be sure it’s probably a good idea to ask the driver to confirm the stop as you arrive.

    ...back shortly to continue the story at Pont du Gard!

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    Thoroughly enjoying your detailed info and warts and all summaries.

    "No one is handing out medals for ‘most prepared traveler’ or deducting points if you stop and ask directions. We learn as we go." This is going to be my mantra from now on!

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    Leaving the bus, I noticed a directional sign: ‘Pont du Gard, 1.6 km’. It took about 7 minutes to walk from the bus stop to the covered welcome/reception area at Pont du Gard. Crossing through the parking lot towards the welcome area, I walked behind a few students. We passed a couple of Pont du Gard staff members in red jackets at the entry booth. All of us were waved on through, free of charge (regular admission is 10 euros, but as mentioned, a number of the attractions were closed, so charging admission was apparently up to the discretion of the gatekeepers). Once I reached the welcome area, I encountered no further ticket checks. I finally had time for a very late lunch, my takeout from ‘La Croissanterie’ in Nimes. It consisted of a ‘baguette oceanique’ (tuna, egg, lettuce and tomato), a fabulous milk-chocolate chip ‘maxi’ cookie, and a cherry coke, which I enjoyed on the sunny outdoor patio. There are washrooms and a souvenir shop here as well, and a number of large signs describing the ‘Grand Sites de France’ and ‘Patrimoine Mondial’ classification system.

    Recharged and refreshed, it was time to check out the world’s tallest Roman bridge. The walk from the reception area to the aqueduct took another 7 minutes. Along the way, I noticed a couple of people sitting in the shadow of an olive tree, planted in 908 (!), enjoying a small picnic. If I’d known better, I probably would have had my lunch there, as the view would certainly have been more exciting than that offered on the patio.

    So how was it? What can I say? The Pont du Gard is spectacular. In fact, I enjoyed my visit more than I thought I would. The aqueduct at Segovia was an impressive sight during my visit to Spain 4 years ago, but this trumps it. My favorite vantage point was along the left bank (rive gauche, or the side from which you make your first approach), about 30 yards on the other side of the bridge, down at water level after going down some steps. I lingered at this tranquil spot underneath the trees for several minutes, enjoying the ‘sunny side’ of the aqueduct. The only sounds were the chirping of birds and the hushed ripples of the calm Gardon river. Not a bad spot for a nap, if one were so inclined.

    Quoting a sign on the aqueduct: ‘visits of the top level are open to the public from the month of May until September and all year round for groups upon reservation.’ I moved across to the other side of the aqueduct, and passed through the tunnel a few steps further. There wasn’t much on the other side of the tunnel, so I turned back and made my way up the paths to a higher vantage point on the right bank. Then back down to water level on the shaded side, to watch the sun set beyond the hills at 4:45pm.

    It turns out that I made a great decision to bring my snacks from Nimes, because when I left the site around 5pm, the café was closed and there was nowhere around to get a bite to eat. I was curious about evening illumination (although I couldn’t stick around to see it), so I inquired about it at the info center. I was told that the lights stay on until midnight. http://www.pontdugard.fr/en/practical-information

    In total I spent 3 hours at Pont du Gard, which I’d say is about right. Obviously if the museum were open, one would need more time. And if you wanted to just make a lazy afternoon of it, while pondering a spectacular Roman sight, it certainly is the type of place where you could spend even more time.

    As I prepared to catch the bus back to Avignon, the kindness of strangers prevented a mishap at the bus stop. I stood waiting at the same place I got off the bus from Nimes, but about 5 minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive, two local women came up and asked me where I was going. When I told them I was heading to Avignon, they informed me that I was in the wrong spot, and told me to walk across to the opposite side of the roundabout. That was certainly a lucky break which prevented me from getting stranded in Ales or Uzes or some town not named Avignon! Funny how this day started with total confusion at the bus stop and not a soul around to help, but ended with the travel gods looking out for me and steering me in the right direction. Thank you travel gods (you guys must be forum members, right?).

    After a 45 minute ride (1.50 euros), I returned to Avignon at 6:10pm. Eleven amazing hours, two great destinations, one really awesome day of sightseeing.

    For the rest of the night, after being bound by schedules all day long, I focused on what I wanted to do, rather than what I felt obligated to do. My first two days in Avignon, I had resisted the temptation to browse at the FNAC music store, near my hotel, because its operating hours conflicted with my touring schedule. But I couldn’t stay away any longer, so I shopped until closing time at 7 (which seems surprisingly early to me). For those wondering, individual CD prices are higher than in North America, but they had a decent 4-for-20 sale which I definitely took advantage of!).

    I went back to Hotel Central to freshen up a bit, before setting out to explore parts of Avignon I hadn’t yet seen. My 2-hour walk was mostly spent weaving through the ‘right side’ of Rue de la Republique, past the water wheel, and the unique ‘les halles’ building with its unmistakable green, living façade. Although I passed a few restaurants which had been recommended by my guidebook, I didn’t stop to eat anywhere. I’m not proud to say this, but I always hesitate before going into a restaurant alone. On this night, I couldn’t seem to venture any further than window shopping and chalkboard menu perusal. Besides, I had big dinner plans in Nice for the next night, so I didn’t mind saving a few bucks. I should note that prices were certainly not exorbitant: many restaurants had 3-course meals featured for 15-20 euros. I just didn’t feel up to it, so I just wandered as long as my energy would allow, which carried me to about 10pm. Tomorrow, I’d visit the Papal Palace, and any other parts of Avignon that time would permit, before my mid-afternoon train to the Cote D’Azur.

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    Oh those travel gods have saved me many a time!

    Glad to hear i am not the only one who's somewhat intimidated going into restaurants solo.

    Now I'm sorry I gave Nimes a miss on my Provence trip, but you can't do everything, can you?

    FWIW, I thought the museum at Pont du Gard was moderately interesting but not a must see. Good for kids.

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    Day 8 – Moving From Avignon to Nice

    This was moving day, so I had one main focus before leaving Avignon for Nice: to visit the Papal Palace. I began my (audioguided) tour at 10:30. Admission cost 13 euros; it would have been 11 without the audioguide. Although the audioguide was very good, one could make do without. Each room of the palace has large info cards, available in various languages, that you can carry around the room with you, and then return as you leave. The cards carry much the same information as is contained on the audio track.

    At the midway point of the tour, there is a small vending-machine refreshment area, which I reached after 40 minutes. Coffee cost 1 euro at the machine, pop or water cost 2 euros. The rooms of the palace are mostly empty, except the Papal sleeping quarters, which have frescoes and beautiful colored tile floors (no photos allowed in those rooms). The tour ends in a wine shop, and then the typical souvenir shop. I’ll admit the architects designed it smartly – you don’t just emerge in a large shop, you actually snake your way around the room to reach the exit. The more goods you pass, the more likely you are to stop and buy something. I finally left the palace at 12:30, somewhat surprised that I had actually spent 2 hours there. There was no time to visit the neighboring Musee du Petits Palais.

    Before heading back to the hotel, I walked through ‘Jardins des Rocher des Doms’. The highlight was the round observation point, marking several points along the horizon. Clouds prevented me from seeing the peak of Mont Ventoux. For lunch, I picked up a steak panini along the way back to the hotel, and ate it there as I collected the bags I had left. Along the short walk to the Centre-Ville train station, I couldn’t walk past Marie Blachere without stopping in one last time to buy one of those mouthwatering brownies I had enjoyed on my arrival in Avignon. It would be a handy snack for my long train ride to Nice.

    I had bought my second-class ticket to Nice prior to my trip, direct from the SNCF site, for 21.60 euros, a huge reduction from the full fare of 60 euros. The TGV train left from Avignon’s other station, so first I had to take a 6-minute ride out to there. The TGV (high speed) train left at 3:30. I was looking forward to some great scenery along the way, but dark clouds and heavy rain kept my eyes focused more on my reading material than on hilly vistas. After a comfortable ride, I arrived in Nice at 6:26. First stop was the TI beside the station (it closed at 7pm). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take the tram to my hotel as I had planned, due to a temporary disruption in service. So I walked through heavy rain to my lodging for the next 4 nights: Hotel de Suede. It’s conveniently located, with short walks to either Place Massena tram stop or Promenade des Anglais. Old Nice is 5-10 minutes away. Lots of shops around. There are 2 price levels for single rooms; I opted for the higher-priced, larger single, at 80 euros per night, including breakfast. That room actually contained a double bed and a twin beside it. Washroom was spacious and modern. Walls were thin, however – I could hear my noisy neighbors coming home at 5:30am, talking, laughing, and…

    At this point, I need to confess that I haven’t been entirely honest with you. The title of this trip report says I was traveling solo. Well, from this point on, that’s no longer the case. Although I had planned this as a solo holiday, when my cousin from Belgium heard I was coming to Nice, she asked if I wouldn’t mind some company. I wasn’t about to deny her request, as she had been to the area before and would be able to guide me around (at least in Cannes and Monaco). We’ve traveled together before and had fun. And besides, with her around, I would have someone to dine with in nice restaurants.

    We met in the hotel lobby; she had arrived about 3 hours earlier. After settling in, thoughts quickly turned to dinner. It was 8 o’clock and I was definitely ready to enjoy a real meal. Enough with takeaway stands and plastic cutlery, it was time to treat myself. It was raining so hard that we chose one of the first restaurants we found, right by our hotel, along a street filled with food options. As a Canadian, ‘Le Quebec’ restaurant obviously beckoned. The waiters led us to a nice table upstairs, near the window overlooking the street, a cozy spot on a miserable Saturday night.

    We started with a glass of champagne (9.60 each, or about equal to my daily food budget the past 3 days!). I had the grilled entrecote with fries (25.20). Not surprising considering our touristy location, there was no free carafe of water offered – they charged 4 euros for a half-liter bottle of water. We shared a carafe of rose wine (19 euros). For dessert, the best crème brulee I’ve ever had (7.90) and an espresso (2). It was a nice splurge and a great chance to catch up with a relative I hadn’t seen in 2 years. We capped off the evening in Cours Saleya, site of the daily markets, enjoying a glass of Sauvignon blanc in a pop-up lounge bar set up in the middle of the street. Thankful for the clear plastic walls and heat lamps, which provided some respite from the lashing rains outside. In spite of the weather, many locals were out patronizing the many watering holes along the market street. We would definitely return here several times over the next 3 days.

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    Day 9 – Daytrip to Antibes & Cannes

    At this point of the vacation, two-thirds of the way through and based in my last town, I slowed my tourist pace considerably. I was really satisfied with how I had planned the trip up to this point, and with what I had seen so far, so I took the foot off the gas pedal a bit and took it a bit easier. Although I had certainly laid out a daily schedule for the Cote D’Azur, I knew that I was no longer traveling alone, so I didn’t worry about adhering to a strict schedule. Besides, I knew that with only 3 full days in the region, I wouldn’t be able to visit everything on my original wish list: Cannes, Fondation Maeght, Chagall Museum, Monaco, Antibes, Eze, Villa Ephrussi, Menton and Nice itself. We’d just try our best to see what we could, while allowing ample time to just stroll, have a nice dinner, and enjoy a glass of wine on a sunny terrace. I especially wanted to savour some Mediterranean sunshine before heading back to chilly Ontario. With that mindset, it was time to kick off the home stretch of the holiday…

    Breakfast was only served at the Hotel de Suede until 10am, so after being out late the night before, we had to scramble to make it on time, arriving at about 9:45. The selections offered on this first day were exactly the same the next 3 days: two or three kinds of juices, baguette, croissants, pain au chocolat, bread for toasting, yogurt, fruit, cereal, cold meats, cheese, and two hot dishes: scrambled eggs and bacon. Quality was good each day, and the multi-beverage machine produced excellent coffees, available in several varieties.

    For this first full day in the Nice area, we decided to head west, to Antibes. At the tram stop nearest our hotel (Place Massena), I used my chip-and-pin debit card to buy a 10-ride ticket from the machine (10 euros). We rode the tram up to the stop about 100 metres from the SNCF station ('Gare Thiers'), headed inside the station, and bought our tickets to Antibes from the machine for 4.50 each. It was a short trip of only 22 minutes.

    Antibes had two main points of interest for us: the yachts in the harbor and the Picasso Museum. First we spent quite a bit of time admiring the large vessels, noting the origin of each boat. I noticed several from Georgetown, Barbados, along with many European locations including Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Antwerp and London. Without doubt, the showstopper was the ‘Dilbar’, a 5-level mammoth yacht from Georgetown. Incredible.

    From the harbor we walked along the walls to the large ‘seated man’ modern art piece by Jaume Plensa called ‘Nomad’. Just a taste of the artistic side of Antibes that we would enjoy later. We followed the ‘Quai des Pecheurs’ (from where the fishermen set out), before heading through the arch and into the old town. I was initially surprised to see English pubs, until I read in my guidebook that there are many Irish, Aussie and English living in Antibes, working aboard the yachts.

    We soon came upon the market, but they were hosing off the street as it had just wrapped up for the day. Picasso Museum wasn’t open until 2, so we had half an hour free. What better time to visit an inviting creperie?! I had crepes on the brain for over a week now, so it was a perfect opportunity to satisfy that urge. I opted for a sweet crepe with pears, chocolate and almonds (6 euros); my cousin chose a savory crepe with ham and cheese. Obviously my crepe knowledge is lacking: it was news to me that the crepe batter itself isn’t the same (I thought the sweet and savoury designations were only indicative of the toppings on the crepe). The patio was heated so we were nice and warm. We sat at a table for six, with another couple on the other end. Soon enough another couple arrived, looking for a space, and they were seated in the open spot in the centre. Immediately they had struck up a friendly conversation with the strangers at the other end, which carried on the whole time we were there. I had read about this in my research for a prior trip…how Europeans will sit with strangers at long restaurant tables and simply start chatting with them, but it was the first time I’d witnessed it. How nice!

    It was now time to visit the Picasso Museum. Anticipation was high, as memories of my trip to Barcelona’s excellent Picasso museum entered my mind. Entry fee was 6 euros, with no lineup to enter (this is a recording…)

    Picasso lived in seaside Grimaldi Castle for a few months in 1946. He turned out a great many pieces, which he left here in the custody of the castle – ceramics, paintings and sketches. ‘Joie de Vivre’ is likely the best known work here. I never did see any signs prohibiting photography, but I kept my camera in my bag throughout the visit. However, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a picture of this large painting. Standing between the gallery attendant and the painting, I discreetly snapped a flash-free photo while holding the camera at belly-height. Two seconds later, the attendant, who had been playing a game on her mobile phone while seated several yards away the whole time, suddenly strolled past…but by then my camera was in my pocket. She said nothing. Towards the end of the tour, in the room with Picasso’s sculptures and dozens of beautiful plates, I wasn’t quite so bold as to attempt another photo, as that room had two or three staffers keeping a very close eye on things. The museum isn’t large, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this collection of joyful Picasso works, plus works by other artists including Joan Miro and Nicolas de Stael. By the way, this museum has another of those 50-cent pay toilets, fairly common in the cities I visited on this trip. We spent about 10 minutes outside admiring the modern non-Picasso pieces on the terrace. In total our visit lasted one hour.

    This wrapped up our 4-hour visit to Antibes. We walked back to the train station and bought our tickets to carry on our westward daytrip towards Cannes. The quick 10-minute trip cost 2.90. We arrived at around 4:30, with about an hour of daylight left on this dreary Sunday afternoon. My cousin had been to Cannes previously, so I let her guide me (although there’s not a lot of guiding required here). We reached La Croisette, the main shopping boulevard along the sea, in less than 10 minutes.

    Our tour consisted of a stroll along the ritzy Croisette, past Hotel Carlton and the obscenely expensive designer boutiques, up to Hotel Martinez. We didn’t enter the lobby of either hotel, choosing to turn back and head towards the Film Festival Hall. I had my eyes peeled for Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches, but didn't see anything more expensive than a Volkswagen, probably the Cannes equivalent of what we call a 'winter beater' back home.

    In front of the festival building are handprints of the stars, but since it had rained so much, the sidewalk was under about 2 inches of water. It was also dark by now, and the area isn’t very well lit, so I couldn’t make out the identities of the famous handprints. We took the obligatory pictures of ourselves standing on the steps leading into the festival building, noticing the beautiful water-channeling handrails along the steps down. Then we walked around the building, dodging construction fencing that seemed to block our every path. Eventually we made a ¾ lap of the building, when my cousin led me over to her recommended dinner spot: Le Grand Café. http://www.le-grand-cafe-cannes.fr/plan It seemed very inviting, and not at all busy at about 6:30 on a Sunday evening, so we headed inside. I wasn’t feeling 100%, so I wasn’t in a mood to have a big meal, but the meal (and mostly dessert!) did wonders for my headache. No wine tonight, just an Orangina (3.70).

    I had the delicious ‘Pennette Deux Saumons’ (14.50) – penne with 2 salmons: chunks of grilled salmon mixed into the penne, then topped with a slice of tender smoked salmon. At some point of the holiday I wanted to enjoy a great seafood meal, and this definitely met that requirement. But the dessert was even better. For the first time in my life, I had ‘Ile Flottante’ (5.70): meringue floating in crème anglaise. Instantly it became one of my favorite desserts. It’s a true ‘finesse’ dessert, all light and airy, and just sweet enough. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_island_(dessert)

    We caught the train back to Nice at 9pm (6.80). 25 minute trip. We finished the night with a drink at Akathor pub in Cours Saleya. This place caught my attention because the AFC Championship game was playing on the TV on the patio. We’d seen a lot today, but looked forward to a little Mediterranean sun to brighten things up a bit for us tomorrow!

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    Day 10 – Nice is Nice

    A gorgeous, sunny Monday morning in Nice! Our first glimpse of glorious Mediterannean sunshine! Now this is what we came for!

    After breakfast, my cousin and I made the short walk over to Cours Saleya. This being a Monday, the antique market was up and running, featuring all sorts of old bric a brac. My cousin, who has a fondness for all things Louis Vuitton, was most impressed by the 2nd hand LV bags for sale at the market – but still carrying a hefty pricetag. They were originals, according to the expert eye of my cousin. The stand that I found most appealing was the one carrying vintage posters (about 12 x 20 inches). There were classic ads for liquors, beers, automobiles, fashion, Coca-Cola, you name it. We enjoyed browsing through the dealer’s massive collection, although photos were forbidden. I was tempted by a few posters, but doubts about the feasibility of getting them home intact, as well as the prices – many in the 15 to 20 euro range – kept my wallet firmly tucked into my pocket.

    At the east end of Cours Saleya, we took the free elevator up Castle Hill. We spent at least an hour up there enjoying the great views and the stupendous waterfall. I spoke earlier about slowing my sightseeing pace, and this is one time where I didn’t care at all about keeping a schedule. I could have stayed up there for hours, just taking in the wonderful view and enjoying the shady park.

    Our plan was to purchase the 24-hour Riviera Pass. I had 3 or 4 must-see places on my list, and they were included on the list of attractions covered by the pass, so I figured we’d save a bit of money with it. We just had to do our best to visit them all within a 24 hour period. Being out on Castle Hill, however, we had to buy the pass first – and that required us to walk back to the tourist info office along Promenade des Anglais, near the McDonald’s, quite near our hotel. That was a walk of about 1.5 km. The fact that it was a spectacular day, the first we’d enjoyed along the Riviera, made the walk even longer. We simply couldn’t move any quicker...it was as if we were moving in quicksand, as though the goddess Nikaia was using some ancient mythical power to morph us into sun-worshipping chilled-out strollers. Finally after about 30 minutes we arrived at the TI and bought our passes. It was around 3pm, so I figured we’d make the highly-regarded Villa Ephrussi our first stop, and then visit the remaining attractions the next day. In order to reach the villa, the TI staff told us to take Bus #81 towards St. Jean Cap Ferrat. We asked where we could pick that up…and were told it was well east of there, PAST Castle Hill, up in the port area! Really?! Another long walk back from where we just came? That was going to require some energy, so we headed for the quickest food option…McD’s, for the 2nd time on my trip. Sometimes you just have to let convenience rule above all. (As an aside, McD’s is not necessarily a ‘fast food’ spot based on my experiences here and in Lourdes. I waited at least 15 minutes in both places for my meal, much much longer than in Golden Arches I’ve visited at home).

    We started the long walk towards the port to find Bus #81, past Castle Hill and around the bend. Again, we fell victim to the charms of Nice, and couldn’t help but admire the sea, the sun and the s – no, not sand, it’s not a sandy beach – more like s-tones. Eventually we made it to the bus stop, only to find we’d have to wait another half hour until the next bus came by. At this point, it was after 4pm, simply too late to ride out to Villa Ephrussi and enjoy a meaningful visit (they closed at 6). So we looked at the map, and realized we were fairly close to Place Garibaldi, which marks the north tip of Vieux Nice. We walked to Garibaldi and decided to regroup and formulate our plan for the rest of the day. Of course, the best place to do that was from a sidewalk café, and obviously a glass of wine would be required to help us make an informed decision! (A glass of Sauvignon Blanc cost a mere 2.90).

    I wanted to visit at least one of the Riviera Pass attractions on this day, so after looking at the long list of options, we decided to do the included wine-tasting. We walked into Vieux Nice and in a few minutes arrived at ‘Cave Bianchi 1860’, where there was a 6pm ‘degustation’. This visit is listed in the Riviera Pass brochure as having a value of 7 euros, although I fail to see how it’s assessed. We received one glass of white, and about 15 minutes of explanation, mostly promoting the house wine. And that was it. My cousin bought a bottle of Taittinger pink champagne, for about 60 euros, for us to enjoy in the room. She did receive a 5% discount using the Riviera Pass. The shop itself carried an impressive selection of wines and liquors. I found prices to be higher than back home in Ontario. For example, a bottle of B&B Liqueur, from France, cost more at Cave Bianchi than at my local LCBO store. Go figure.

    After our tasting, we walked to the nearest tram stop and rode up to Nice Etoile shopping centre, along Avenue Jean Medecin. We browsed until closing time at 7:30, then shopped at the nearby Monoprix supermarket for some canapés to enjoy with our champagne. My cousin, who has a restaurant background, was pleased to find exactly what she was looking for at the deli counter – a pate called ‘Riette’. Not sure if I’m spelling that right, but it certainly was the perfect match for our glass of bubbles.

    For dinner, we followed a guidebook recommendation and selected ‘Da Acchiardo’. We arrived at around 9:30, and had to wait for a table. One never knows exactly who’s dining with you, but I sense that this cozy restaurant was filled with locals. The fact that it was packed on a Monday evening heightened our anticipation for a great dinner. I had my first ‘Salade Nicoise’ (10 euros). I had planned to eat steak as my main course, but the waiter cautioned that the salad was so big, I should think twice about having steak. I appreciated his candor; I'm sure many waiters would have treated me as a disposable tourist who he would never see again, by letting me overpay for food I wouldn’t be able to finish. The salad was indeed a full plate, with about a dozen ingredients. Fresh and delicious. My cousin started with a beautiful carpaccio.

    My main course was the ‘Raviole Daube’ (10 euros) stuffed with beef and served in a sauce that tastes exactly like my Mom’s stew. Fabulous, and clearly homemade. It had been a long two days since my last crème brulee, so rather than endure any longer without, I ordered it for dessert (6 euros). Unlike at Le Quebec restaurant, this one was served with toasted pine nuts on top. Stellar.

    For you beer drinkers out there, here’s what I experienced. I’d been to a few bars and restaurants over the past few days, and seen ‘Monaco’ listed on the beer menu everywhere. I just assumed it was a local brew, so I ordered it at Da Acchiardo. Well, it’s not what I expected. A Monaco is a concoction containing beer, grenadine and soda pop (locally known as ‘limonade’, sort of like Fanta). It was all very sweet and really not very good.

    A fine glass of rose wine cost only 2 euros, bringing my meal total to 31 euros. Frommer’s Provence guidebook describes this restaurant as ‘a little bastion of traditional family cooking’. Based on our visit, that’s a perfect description. We left entirely satisfied, with the quality of the meal, the prices, and the prompt, friendly down-to-earth service. A highlight of the trip. Next time in Nice, I’m going back!

    On paper, we may not have made the most productive use of our time today. We should have bought our Riviera Pass when we first left our hotel, because the TI was nearby. We should have known in advance where to get the bus to Villa Ephrussi. We should have researched the schedules for Bus #81. But you know what? Some days you just have to ditch the Type-A intensive planning and go with the flow. We had a great day and looked forward to exploring Monaco tomorrow.

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    Day 11 – Last Full Day: Monaco & Villa Ephrussi? Let’s Settle For Villa Kerylos

    In order to catch the changing of the guard in Monaco at noon, we needed an earlier start today. Fortunately, we awoke to our second consecutive sunny morning. We trammed to Place Garibaldi and walked to the nearby stop for Bus # 100 to Monaco. Upon boarding, we validated our 10-ride public transport card, which still had a few rides left. We stayed on the bus for about 45 minutes, our mouths agape at the spectacular scenery along the way. It’s definitely recommended to sit on the right side of the bus, so you have the Mediterranean beside you the whole way. My Rick Steves Provence guidebook provided an excellent commentary to villages we passed, including Villefranche-Sur-Mer, Cap Ferrat, Beaulieu-Sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail.

    Unfortunately, we got off the bus at least one stop too early. I thought we were at Place D’Armes (the nearest stop for visiting the Royal Palace), when in fact we exited in Fontvieille, close to Stade Louis II (soccer stadium). From that early stop, it was about a 10-minute walk to Place D’Armes. Before climbing up the ramps to Prince Albert’s house, I availed myself of the nicest public washroom I’ve ever visited. And it’s free! Save your 50 cent coins, mes amis, we’re definitely not in France anymore! Indeed, the Prince does take care of his subjects (and the tourists).

    Along the ramps up to ‘Old Monaco’, we passed a statue of Prince Rainier, gazing out towards Monte Carlo. At the top, we had some time before the guards did their thing, so we visited the nearby Cathedral, where we saw the burial site of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, among other members of the Garibaldi family. I was quite impressed by the interior of the moderate-sized church, particularly the very modern blue organ. The dark grey blocks were a little different from those used in many European churches I’ve visited.

    Changing of the guard took place at 11:55, and lasted less than 10 minutes, before a crowd of about 50 people. We couldn’t tour the interior of the Palace – it’s closed in winter. We walked through some lovely gardens (with great views of the rooftop gardens of Fontvieille below) on our way to the Oceanography Museum, spectacularly perched high above the sea. www.oceano.org Admission was free with our Riviera Pass (regularly 14 euros). The museum and aquarium are simply outstanding. Your jaw drops the moment you enter the building. The gigantic wooden cabinet ‘Oceanomania’, by American Mark Dion, is billed as the world’s largest marine curiosity cabinet. Marvelous!

    Exhibits combine cutting-edge technologies with a nod to the seafaring past of the Grimaldi family. Google’s ‘Liquid Galaxy’ was a really cool example of the high-tech learning toys. It was one of the most impressive museums (and aquariums) I’ve ever experienced. I’m sure we spent at least 90 minutes inside. There was even an opportunity to touch small sharks as they swam around their shallow pool. Up on the roof, the views were incredible. If you go up there, look for the turtles. They really really really like one another…and aren’t shy about displaying their affection publicly…

    We followed the street opposite the museum to the bus stop, and hopped aboard Bus #2. The two-euro ride was probably the best investment we made all week; it was certainly the best time-saver. I couldn't imagine walking up there. We wound down past the casino, and uphill again where we exited at the ‘Jardins Exotique’ stop. We got in free with our pass. Regular value is 7 euros, although our experience here was similar to my visit to Pont du Gard. No one at the gate seemed too concerned about checking the passes or charging admission – people were just waved on through. Before entering, we took advantage of the instant coffee-brewing vending machine, for a little caffeine hit (only 70 cents). The gardens were delightful, and as advertised, very exotic. Cacti everywhere. Definitely the greatest variety I’ve seen anywhere. We spent an hour traversing the paths, drinking in the amazing views as we went. Make sure you pack plenty of camera memory and battery power if you’re coming up here!

    The bus was just leaving as we left the gardens, so instead of waiting for the next one, we decided to walk down to Place D’Armes. That turned out to be an interesting trip! We asked locals for directions along the way, and they kindly directed us to a series of about half a dozen elevators. It felt like being in a video game. Elevator. Tunnel. Turn. Elevator. Long tunnel. Elevator. The descent took about 20 minutes.

    It was about 4pm by now, so we had a decision to make. Either we could go to Monte Carlo and visit the casino, or get ambitious and go to Villa Ephrussi, which closed at 6. Both were high on my list, but I really had my heart set on the Villa and its gardens. We decided to get on Bus #100 (1.50; we couldn’t use our Nice transit card here) to the ‘Eglise’ stop in Beaulieu-Sur-Mer. I knew this was the stop for Villa Kerylos (also highly regarded in the guidebooks and included with our Riviera Pass), but I thought we could also reach Villa Ephrussi from the Eglise stop. I guess I should have researched it a little more thoroughly. We saw no signage for Villa Ephrussi, at least not immediately. It was about 5pm, and we didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase and risk coming up empty, so we decided to ‘settle’ for the nearby Villa Kerylos, which closed at 6. We arrived there at about 5:15, and declined the free audioguide (regular admission here is 11 euros). It really was a shame that we had to rush through this stunning reconstruction of a luxurious Greek palace, unable to properly savour the exquisite details. It’s completely furnished and decorated. The ‘Galerie des Antiques’, a gallery at the water edge, displays life-size casts of the most famous Greco-Roman statues. Big wow factor. I guess Villa Ephrussi will have to wait for my next trip to the Riviera. Make no mistake, Villa Kerylos is a unique place and I’m glad I got to see it.

    At 6pm we left Villa Kerylos, caught Bus #81 back to Nice’s Place Garibaldi (1.50), then returned to the hotel to freshen up for the final dinner of the trip. We had fared well in Old Nice the night before, so we returned there again. After window-shopping all the menus up to the end of Cours Saleya, and being aggressively courted by menu-toting maître-d’s on the street, we followed our gut instinct and chose ‘Le Grand Balcon’, near the Opera. We were partially drawn inside by a good-value menu posted on the chalkboard out on the street, but interestingly that menu was nowhere to be found on the actual menu we were given inside. Prices were considerably higher, either for the set menus or individual selections. We inquired about the menu advertised on the sidewalk, were told that it was available, and ordered it. What followed was a meal that would definitely let us finish the holiday on a culinary high.

    The starter was a small (but delicious) Salade Nicoise, which I actually enjoyed more than the one I ate the night before at Da Acchiardo. Main course was salmon in a beautiful yellow mousseline sauce, served with rice. The sauce had a bit of a lemony tang to it, perfectly complimenting the delicate fish. Our duo-mousse for dessert was fantastic as well. The 3-course menu was an excellent value at 21 euros. A bottle of Carlsberg cost me 6.80; café au lait was 4.10. The front dining room was filled with a large tour group; thankfully we were seated in the quiet, classy rear dining area. I’d definitely recommend ‘Le Grand Balcon’ – but probably would find the regular menu selections beyond my regular travel dinner budget.

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    49 days after starting this report, it's time for the exciting conclusion…thanks for reading this far, and for your patience as I try to write the report in my free time…

    The weather forecast looked perfect for our final morning, so I decided to squeeze every last second of enjoyment out of our stay in Nice. I got up before dawn and made the short walk down to the beach to watch the sun rise. Although we had hoped to rent bikes and ride down towards the western end of the promenade while in Nice, we never got around to it. So I walked as far as the grand Hotel Negresco, which I hadn’t yet seen, before turning back and walking along the pebbles in the direction of the sunrise. Soon enough I was joined by pigeons, seagulls, a few other sunrise-watchers, and a lot of cyclists zooming along the promenade. After about an hour of waiting, and seeing the sky turn various shades of orange and red, le soleil appeared at exactly 8:01 am. It was gorgeous. A few fishermen were setting out in small boats. About 15 minutes after sunrise, I returned to Hotel de Suede to have breakfast and collect my things for checkout. Since I was traveling only with a carry-on sized bag, and I had bought souvenirs and several CDs along the way, I really didn’t enjoy the packing process, but fortunately I found room for everything. At least we weren’t flying out on Ryanair, so I didn’t have to be ultra-particular about bag dimensions or weight!

    A final word about Hotel de Suede and why we picked it. I spent several days intensively researching hotel options for each city I visited. But for Nice, I let my cousin lead the selection process. In previous trips we’ve taken together, I’ve had final say on hotels, but they led to problems – mostly for her. To be specific, she ended up with miniscule rooms or bad views or noisy neighbours, and I felt kind of bad about that. So this time I let her choose. She emailed me a list of about 8 places along or near the Promenade des Anglais, and asked for my choice. I researched them all and compared prices, and chose Hotel de Suede. The hotels along the promenade were twice the price. And I really can’t justify paying for a sea view when you really aren’t in the room much anyway. If I were to return to Nice, I’d look for something in the same general vicinity, or at least something close to the tram line, but as a bit of a tightwad, I think I could do better than 80 euros a night.

    Back to my report. After breakfast we had 2 or 3 hours left to do just a bit more sightseeing. We hadn’t yet visited a ‘regular’ (non-antique) market in Nice, so we walked over to Cours Saleya to check things out. This was the traditional market I had missed in Arles, Avignon, Antibes, and all the places I’d visited so far…the schedules just hadn’t worked out. I was still so full from breakfast, that I was unable to try the famous socca. It was a delight to browse through the market’s wide variety of spices, flowers, fruits and vegetables, along with the cool art prints for sale. We picked up a few souvenirs, including fleurs de sel and herbes de provence.

    On our walk back to the hotel, we crossed the brand new ‘Promenade du Paillon’, pausing at ‘Le Miroir d’Eau” (28m squared surface with 128 water spouts). The water spouts were synchronized to techno music. Everyone around seemed impressed and all were smiling. I wish we could have spent more time exploring this exciting new addition to the city. Around Place Massena, grandstands were already set up for Carnaval, which was still a few weeks away. One can only imagine the excitement of being here for that event. Although as someone who only seems to travel when European towns are devoid of tourists, I’d probably find it quite jarring to be around for one of the year’s busiest events. Prices would be higher, buses would be crammed, and I’d have to forget about finding a table in any of our Old Nice restaurants without a reservation. Maybe I’ll stick to traveling in what my friend Benoit described as ‘la saison morte’ :)

    At noon we went to the Russian Cathedral, the largest one outside of Russia. It’s about a 10 minute walk west of the train station. Unfortunately, it was closed over the lunch hour (posted hours were Tues-Sun 9-12 and 2-6). We could get no closer than the locked gate, about 100 yards away. The Cathedral’s bright colours really popped under the noontime sun. Would love to have seen the interior (the Cathedral does have a great website filled with photos…that’ll have to suffice for now.)

    My last French souvenir – a selection of macarons - was purchased at the bakery around the corner from the Cathedral. I wasn’t terribly familiar with these sweet treats before my trip, but having tried them in 3 different places in France, I have drawn a couple of conclusions. One, they’re not cheap anywhere, so don’t expect to get a 300g bag for 2 euros, as we buy our Oreos or Chips Ahoy in Canada. They averaged about 1 euro each. And two, although I enjoyed the pre-packaged ones from the supermarket, the bakery macarons are even better, so spend the extra 25 cents apiece, or whatever the difference is. I asked the girl at the bakery to recommend her 4 favorite flavours, and wasn’t disappointed. Although those macarons didn’t make it home with me, I clearly recall the wonderful texture and terrifically bold and varied flavours, especially the fruit-flavoured macarons.

    And with that macaron story, I’m afraid that’s about all the travel excitement I have to share. The rest is pretty ho-hum. We bussed back to the hotel to collect our bags, killing our Nice travel cards in the process, then took a taxi to the airport, which wasn’t far away. I knew there was a reasonably-priced bus to the airport, but my cousin insisted on paying for a cab, so I didn’t object. She paid 30 euros for a trip that only lasted about 12-15 minutes. On my own I would have taken the bus, which I believe costs only about 6 euros.

    Inside the fairly small Nice airport, from the departure area, you can see the ‘Baie des Anges’ and the city of Nice. The city was instantly appealing, so I enjoyed being able to savour its sunny shoreline up until the moment of embarkation. The beautiful winter climate, the wonderful restaurants, the inviting beach and promenade, and the easy transport connections make it a place I’d love to visit again. From Nice, we flew to Belgium together, where I enjoyed 4 more days with family before heading back to frigid Canada.

    In closing, I’d like to thank you for reading all or part of the 25,000 words I’ve poured into this report. I really can’t believe I wrote so much. Although my friends were curious about how my trip went, there’s no way any of them are so interested that I’d be able to describe my trip to them in such detail. Most would lose interest after 1,000 words. But this forum has given me the opportunity to describe, to complain, to compliment, and to just talk with like-minded individuals. For that I’m grateful.

    If you’re traveling to any of the places I’ve visited, I wish you a fun and safe holiday. Please feel free to ask me any questions you may have. I’m happy to help you plan your next trip! Now there’s a bottle of ‘La Vieille Ferme’ Cotes du Rhone red sitting on my kitchen counter, and in honour of finishing this tome, I’m about to heed the call of the roosters on its label. Cheers! Now, if only I could find a decent pintxos bar, an ile flottante, or a macaron around here…

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    I loved your report. I am soon departing for much the same itinerary. I am sure I will have questions! Thanks so much for sharing. I also have to say that there is nothing in Canada close to a French macaron - and I have searched...Thanks again.

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    I enjoyed every word of hour wonderful trip report. I've been to many of the places you went , and my most recent trip was to Nice. The Russian Cathedral was closed touring our whole visit. You must see Villa Ephrussi and it's gardens and have a seafood lunch in the small port town of St-Jean, down the hill from the villa. We also enjoyed Villa Kerylos very much. We both need to return there! Thank you for taking the time to write such a terrific report.

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    Deonca, again, thank you so much for your wonderfully detailed and interesting report! We're sure that your information will be helpful to us and others who plan to travel to some of the places you've visited.

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    Thanks for the great comments everyone! It was nice to re-live the pleasure of being on holiday as I wrote. It really does extend the vacation, even after one returns home.

    Kelsey and joan, hope you have great trips and I'm looking forward to hopefully reading your trip reports when you return. Enjoy the French macarons Kelsey!

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