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Cultural Exploration of France/Italy Riviera

Cultural Exploration of France/Italy Riviera

Old Feb 10th, 2008, 05:23 AM
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>My daughter will be eighteen this summer and asked me to go with her to visit Europe even though her school offered a student trip - which we encouraged her go on. She is a delightful young lady but not quite ready to strike out on her own.

Being on a school-sponsored tour with a bunch of folks her own age is not exactly striking out on her own.

I still suggest Rome and Paris.

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Old Feb 10th, 2008, 08:22 AM
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MrSamD, I think you're goals are worthy and appreciate you adding the extra details about yourself, daughter, and situation so we could understand better your request and question. I still think without the local language there's only going to be so much you can successfully accomplish along these lines.

I will reiterate my idea (as it has worked for me) to try to find local events/festivals and the time and place of the local weekly markets. Those are places where local people will be gathered and you would be welcomed.
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Old Feb 10th, 2008, 09:01 AM
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You ask where the posters come from.
I am French and live in France so I won't comment on the Italian leg of your trip.
As far as France is concerned, you have picked up the worst area (French Riviera) and the worst season (summer) in terms of tourism "traffic"........ unless of course you are willing to stay in a remote and secluded place (there are still some). But then the problem will be the language barrier (plus transportation!).

You can't possibly expect to communicate with locals if you only spend a few days in each place.
I very much doubt you will find people willing to show you around. They are real life people with a job and a house and children to take care of. They may even speak no English!

To encounter the cultural experience you want, you would have to settle down somewhere in France for a few months.

In the meantime, I suggest you read a few books about France and maybe enrol in a French class. Or see if in your community they have some sort of exchange with a French town or village.

I travel a lot in Europe. I never expect more from "locals" than being friendly and helpful when I ask for directions, even though I sometimes get more in terms of restaurant/hotel/daily trips recommendations.
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Old Feb 10th, 2008, 09:15 AM
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As to where I'm from, I'm from the USA, but I've been traveling all over Europe for 30+ years (100 or so trips to France alone), and for the past 17 years have owned a home in the Périgord where I've spent lots and lots of time.

From that perspective, I know a good deal about interacting with locals and can tell you that the last thing rural French people are interested in is taking a couple of non-French-speaking tourists under their wing and sharing their daily lives with you. As mentioned, you'd need to settle in somewhere for a good long time before you'd really get any insight into what locals' lives are...and even then, it would be superficial.

I was fortunate to have one nearby French neighbor who was as much intrigued with me and my life as I was with hers, and we became good friends and I met a lot of other local French people through her. But that took YEARS. It just doesn't happen on "vacation."

I suggest you just plan a trip and go and be pleasantly surprised with whatever exposure you get to local culture. I would abandon any expectations of it being anything more than fairly shallow, though. And I don't mean that in a harsh way - it's just the reality of it.
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Old Feb 10th, 2008, 09:25 AM
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My daughter and I travelled together in early May, and we stayed three nights at Santa Margherita Ligure, and three nights in Nice (in addition to three nights also in Rome, Florence and Venice). I think both those locations will suit your interests.

We liked SML and Nice, because they felt like 'real' towns, and you can find rather inexpensive, but nice, loding there. They are towns from which you can easily make a number of day-trips. We used public transport, not a car or a guide. It was easy.

Here are the links to my trip reports from each:

Santa Margherita Ligure:
Old Feb 10th, 2008, 09:56 AM
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A few things I have learned visiting and now living in France:

-as for discovering "a unique" culture / there are more things the same than different regarding the USA and France and what differences there are you won't discover in 1 to 2 weeks visiting

-the Riviera is so crowed in summer that you can't get around / I lease an apartment in Beaulieu Sur Mer (outside of Nice) each July and travel up and down the coast from Cannes to Ventimilia with no problems at all

-the French will treat you badly / only if you admit to admiring George W. Bush and support the war in Iraq but you can treated badly for that right in the USA

-you must go to the back of beyond to find "real" French people / my best friends on earth live in Paris and surprisingly there are real people in every village and city

-that it is so expensive around the Riviera / no more so than that village in the back of beyond (blame it on the Bush policy of a weak dollar)

-that you will find only tourists on the Riviera in the summer / to the extent that is true it is also true in the Luberon and all of Provence (thanks Peter Mayle)

-French locals are not generally into offering their services as free tour guides / neither are Americans in the USA. Everyone has a life of some kind

-there is no culture on the Riviera / this area has been home to Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Renoir, Cezanne (mostly around Aix) and many others. There are great art museums in Nice (Chagall Musee), the Picasso at Antibes, Renoir's home in Cagnes Sur Mer, etc

If you do the Riviera thing and stay around Nice take day trips into the hills of Provence (easily by bus) to Vence, St. Paul de Vence for the art, and a contrast from the seaside venues. I would not spend more than......... say 30 minutes around the Cinque Terre. Very little culture to be found there. Take the advice of the poster who recommends Florence. There you will find culture.

Although you may not find exactly the things you are looking for you can certainly have a wonderful trip and congratulations on having an 18 year old that wants dad to come along.

Larry J

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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 12:19 AM
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These posts have given me much to think about and I appreciate everyone's comments. I'm certainly not a fan of Bush or his war and I'm glad America is waking up to the truth - but lets not turn this thread into a political discussion.

As for learning French, I'd have a better chance of learning French by moving to France for a month than by taking a year of French classes in the US. Although my Spanish is rudimentary, my trips to central america have allowed me to practice enough to get around; so I do understand that it takes immersion to really learn a foreign language at my age (50).

Part of my interest in the Riveria is the art. I'm fascinated that so many exceptional artists have found inspiration there. The "old towns" and their cobblestone pedestrian-only streets are also very interesting. There is nothing really old in the US, the oldest town is St. Augustine, FL where the Spanish built a fort in the late 1600's. It is a national monument - people don't live there in the historic places.

It does sound like I will need to get away from the beaches in the summer. That is probably the best thing I've learned so far. Additionally, it seems that a B&B would be a better place to meet people and interact with the proprietor than staying at a large hotel.

I read that Cinque Terra was established as a world heritage site because people live and work there much as they have for centuries. I guess that must have been an overstatement.

I definitely need to rethink my destinations and research Florence, Provence and Venice. I tend to avoid large cities and although Paris and Rome are culture centers they are big cities. Though I don't know how they compare to big cities in the US like NYC, WDC and LA - major convention centers, lots of traffic, no parking, smog, museums, theatre, expensive hotels, ethnic restaurants.

Once again I appreciate everyone who has offered up some advice to educate this "would be tourist".
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 07:11 AM
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I appreciate reading you are taking these comments in the generous spirt they are intended (even if we are somewhat "raining on your parade" with reality).

I would not underestimate taking a French or Italian class aimed at travelers. While you will not become fluent you can learn alot even in 10 weeks, to be able to feel more confident greeting someone, buying train tickets, shopping, whatever.

Sure immersion would be wonderful, but it is not a luxury most of us have. That doesn't mean I quit signing up for language classes and trying to learn more (I can botch up Spanish and French equally well -haha!).
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 08:19 AM
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I have a suggestion for you based on a trip we took in June 2006. Contact Megan at BellaVitaItalia (www.bellavitaitalia.com). She is an American who married an Italian and now lives in Lerici which is a small coastal town right near the Cinque Terre. We used her for a a daytrip to the Cinque Terre as well as doing the cooking class with her Mother-in-law (definitely one of the highlights of our trip).

I think she maybe able to help you as she intimately knows the Italian Riviera and also knows a lot of people, but being American she can easily communicate with you.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 08:40 AM
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Perhaps what you and your daughter should join SERVAS. Through participation is this organization, you would meet people who want to share their cultures with you, meeting with you and offering you a place to stay. Here's some info from their US website:

Servas is a worldwide cooperative cultural exchange network established in 1948 and composed of member hosts and travelers working together to foster peace, goodwill and mutual respect. Servas seeks to realize these aims by providing opportunities for person-to-person contacts between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Our mission includes providing approved US and international travelers with opportunities to be guests of Servas member hosts around the world.

This international community of friends works together on a volunteer basis to create a climate of mutual understanding and tolerance. Originally called "Peacebuilders," Servas now encompasses over 15,000 homes and institutions in more than 125 countries on six continents. Our members believe that by meeting new people in our own homes and sharing our everyday lives with them, individuals have the power to build the necessary foundations for world peace.

As a Servas traveler, you may seek homestay exchanges with overnight host families—typically for two days and nights—using the host list as your guide, or meet with "day hosts," who do not offer overnight accommodation but who are interested in meeting Servas travelers. During these visits, travelers are encouraged to participate in the life and work of their hosts and the communities in which they are guests. Servas host directories also contain information about local culture, peace and social justice organizations, and related activities. All Servas participants are encouraged to explore the cultures, outlooks, and problems faced by other members around the world in relation to their own experiences, both before and during the trip.

Servas members recognize the importance of personal relationships, the inherent worth of all people and the value of cultural differences. By fostering open person-to-person experiences between travelers and hosts, artificial barriers can be removed, lasting friendships can develop and social responsibility is encouraged. Servas is a special way of seeing the world— a place where there are no strangers, only friends you have yet to meet!

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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 08:55 AM
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Here are some additional (random) suggestions:

B&Bs in France and Italy may not be quite what you're thinking, comparing them to B&Bs in the U.S., though I would still recommend considering staying at some! At the few (so far) we've stayed at, while the owners were available, they were generally less obtrusive than some B&B owners I've encountered in the U.S. That's the contrast, I think, between European and U.S. manners. Though, just like anywhere, if you stay at a place with a very outgoing owner, you'll have more chances to interact. (My favorite memory of our last trip to Italy was standing on a hillside with the very delightful owner of our B&B - except that there was no breakfast - we went to the local cafe/bar for that - and, after I asked him if he was born here, he said no, his birth-town was over there. As he spoke (in Italian, which I understand a little), he gestured to a neighboring hamlet on the next ridge over. To him, that ridge vs. the one we were standing on made all the difference in the world.)

In terms of Paris and Rome (and Florence, too), and comparing them to big cities in the U.S. Yes, they are big cities, with all of the pluses and minuses that you mentioned. But if you visit a large city, do so without a car (then you won't have a parking problem). We try to arrange the big-city portions of our trips at the beginning or end, so we can, for example, fly into the airport for that city, enjoy our time there, then pick up a rental car on our way out of the city, heading for more rural destinations.

But unlike some big cities, Paris and Rome are very easy to get around on foot and via public transportation. Especially on foot, it's a great way to experience those cities. Rome (and Florence many other Italy cities and towns) has a pedestrian-only zone that includes much of the historic center of the city, so the car traffic is limited (note that there are many exceptions to the car-free rule, but you still won't be dealing with constant car traffic). Unlike almost everywhere in the U.S., there are many wonderful places in Paris and Rome (and elsewhere) where the best way to experience that location is to sit at a cafe with a glass of wine or cup of coffee and people-watch. Lastly, while of course many, many tourists visit Paris and Rome, they are still outnumbered by the people who live there! And it's easy enough, even in those cities, to get out of the tourist fray and find yourself in an area of town with few tourists and many people who live there. One of our favorite restaurants in Rome is on a little side street, not 5 minutes from the Pantheon, and the last time we ate there, I could hear only one other group of non-Italians. And the Italian there didn't seem like tourists (though I'm sure some of them are). (Of course, all my comments apply to Venice and cities in Provence, except there are no cars in Venice of course, and I don't remember whether there are pedestrian-only areas in towns like Avignon and Arles.)

The last poster's suggestion of a planner or guide who's American, but living there, is a great one. I've found out the most about Italy and France from Americans living there, or who've lived in the U.S., because they understand the different perspective you have, and can guess what might be new or different or worth discussion to you.

You don't have a huge amount of time for your trip. Possibly choose one large (or larger) city, so you can experience the culture (including art and architecture), plus time in the countryside, where you can get an entirely different feel for that country and the people who live there. And given your time, you should pick either France or Italy (difficult as that decision will be).
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 09:28 AM
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I appreciate your interest in the topic and ability to read some posts that can be critical of some ideas. I know it can be hard to read them, but folks are just trying to be honest in their evaluations, and mine would be more of the same.

You cannot mingle with local people in a resort in high season when you don't know their language and are only there a few days. It sounds like this is sort of a school project with the photos (that's what I thought it was), so I would also recommend you get off the Riviera. That's like saying you want to mingle with the locals in the US by visiting Miami Beach in high season. YOu can find more typical things elsewhere.

It is true that locals just don't have time to mingle with tourists, especially those who can't speak French fluently. I'll be honest, I live in a very-touristed city and the last thing on earth I want to do with my free time is mingle with tourists. But I also will challenge your ideas a little that I think are black-and-white and somewhat simplistic about how French people in tourist areas won't be nice to American tourists, but private citizens will be. In fact, people who must deal with tourists may actually be nicer. You don't know the attitudes of private citizens, but they could be very conservative, hate tourists, hate Americans, and mainly just not want to deal with them. Now they may be nice, but I just don't agree with the premise.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 09:30 AM
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oh, I was going to suggest something like staying in a smaller place for a few weeks, given your stated goal (which is clearly impossible if you plan to do all this in one week, and visit Italy). YOu see, that alone can't be done -- do a major trip like this in one week.

For example, check out www.untours.com. I believe they have some set-up in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in France, for one place, and that might be a better experience (certainly compared to Cannes in the summer) for what you wanted.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 09:57 AM
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Nice would be a good base for a week or so; it's much more a 'real' city than, for example, Cannes. Lots of interesting places to visit from Nice. Valbonne, as Underhill mentioned, is lovely (market day on Friday). St Paul de Vence, Antibes, are other places that are easy to visit from Nice.
We always manage to get around the south of France quite easily by car in July. It gets more busy later in July and August. You will see lots of tourists on the French Riviera, many of them French. If you want to do what the French do, go to the beach and eat at McDonalds! Not sure that is what you have in mind.

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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 05:12 PM
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I have traveled to both your potential destinations in July/August with late teen to early twenty-year-old daughters! You two must have a wonderfully close relationship and whatever you end up doing and wherever you end up going there could be no finer gift than that time to learn and explore, together.

I have a different "take" on all the responses you have received, maybe in part because work schedules force me to travel to Europe at the height of summer when many here prefer to not go, due to the heat and crowds.

We are forgetting, at least in my experience, that most of the other tourists will not be Americans. From a cultural awareness standpoint, we learned so much just from watching families from all over the world interacting, whether in lines at major attractions or on the beach. In fact, my daughters and I had so much fun just people watching on the beach in Nice and in the Cinque Terre, as well. (If anyone spoke English, they were usually Australian!)

As long as you aren't seeking out MacDonalds (which sounds unlikely)most everything will be novel. Even going into a store for sunscreen or groceries can be an adventure...

I think staying in smaller family-owned hotels or B&B's will not only save you money but allow those interactions you seek. B & Bs in particular often are more than happy to provide advice and would steer you to photo ops of the local sort you might otherwise miss.

Lastly, what are her interests? You have helpfully provided your own. Is she as "into" art as you? Does she like the excitement of big cities or would she find that stressful? That might be the determining factor in whether to base yourselves farther out in the countryside somewhere...
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 05:29 PM
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I just thought of something that might be useful to you. Check out www.intouchtravel.com
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 07:04 PM
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Any interest in going to Sicily?

I ask this because I rented a house there two years ago. The owners inherited the house & didn't know what to do with it, so they decided to rent it out so people can learn about the real Sicily.

The owners actually picked us up at the airport and helped us get our rental car and then went with us to the house.

They also will spend one day with you, taking you to a location of your choice. We chose Taormina, which definitely isn't off the beaten track. So you could spend one day with an incredibly nice Sicilian couple. (She speaks fluent English.)

They rent the two bedroom house for 400 euros per week.

The downside - it's in rural Sicily which is a bit far from where you're interested in staying. They are also extremely popular. I checked their website and they have one week open in June, two weeks in May, and nothing else until September.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 07:25 PM
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We stayed in La Lavendeau and in Cassis. Both were absolutely beautiful. We were there in June two years ago and the crowds were manageable.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 07:28 PM
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I'm glad you're re-thinking the idea of taking your daughter to the Riveira, because the only thing you'd be exposing her to is the sight of men in speedos.

Paris is big city, but it doesn't feel like a big city in the negative sense. There are no highrises blocking the sun, the buildings are fairly uniform and atractive, it isn't smoggy, and I think it has a very relaxed pace sort of feel to it. Florence, though much smaller, seems more hectic and crazy with the traffic and crowds and tight fit of all those tourists squishing into space meant for a renaissance population.

Have you seen the movie Mr Bean's Holiday? You should rent it and watch it with your daughter. It has great shots of Paris, Provence, and Cannes, as well as a very funny scene where Mr Bean finally stumbles upon his ideal french village, only it turns out that it isn't a real village but a film set for a yoghurt commercial.
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Old Feb 11th, 2008, 08:24 PM
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Eat at McDonalds! Only if it were the last food on Earth (sorry Ronald).

When I went to the Riviera last spring the trip was for 10 days and much too fast. We stayed in Nice, Rapallo and Milan. We took a day trip to Cannes, Antibes, Portofino, MonteCarlo and even as far as Pisa. The highlight of the trip was Rapallo because of Ricardo, the hotellier at Hotel L'Approdo. This hotel is a bit larger than a B&B but it is run like one. Ricardo gave me great insight to the local culture and pointers to eat where the locals eat. It was his inspiration that made me want to come back and delve more into the local culture. I was not as lucky in Nice, we stayed at the Sheraton because my wife insisted on king size beds (don't ask - long story). My daughter and I are more interested in watching people and local cuisine not about the size of the beds. My daughter would also like to check out some of the night life and of course shopping for some "european fashions" (at WalMart discounts - my emphasis). She plans on studying journalism, so I've encouraged her to keep a journal on the trip to record her impressions and have something to write about in her college classes.

As for exposing my daughter to "men in speedos", well.... we usually stay at eurpoean owned mega-resorts on the Mexican Riviera. I don't think she will be shocked by mostly nude sunbathers in France unless they act like spring breakers.

BellaVitaItalia and SERVAS sound quite interesting as does Sicily but Sicily will need to wait for another visit.

When I think of meeting local people, I think more about meeting a craftsman than a banker, or a fisherman vs a maître d', or a wine maker rather than a sommelier; though I'd be happy to meet any of them.

Thanks again. I'll keep watching this thread.
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