Dancing on the Decks of the Titanic (Part 1): France 15-Jan to 6-Feb

These days of coronavirus lockdown have us all a bit dispirited. I’m going to relive the fun time of our recent past: the halcyon period immediately before the iceberg emerged from the mist.

Tony and I, and dog Brighton, arrived in Paris CDG on 15 January 2020, on a direct flight from San Francisco. Our plans were to travel around Europe for most of 2020, and we went through a lot of work (and some expense) to arrange visas. We had our plans roughed out for the first few months: 3 weeks on the French Riviera, then on to Italy including Tuscany, Sardinia, and the far south. We planned to spend March meandering back north through Italy and then across southern France to experience Easter in Salamanca Spain. A bit more wandering would bring us to the beaches of Normandy for D-Day + 76 years. The second half of the trip was even less structured, though we were planning a long bicycle tour up the Loire and down the Danube (Eurovelo 6 for you cognoscenti). Sigh.

2020 Original Travel Route Plan
2020 Original Travel Route Plan

The first two months of that were great. There was not a bad day from mid-January to mid-March. So let me review the fun time we’ve had. This is therapeutic for me, and maybe you’ll enjoy living vicariously.

We began our French stay by driving a few hours around Paris to Chartres, circumventing the worst of the Paris traffic. Chartres is a small city whose historic center tops a hill (a recurring theme in French urban planning). Even if you know nothing about Chartres, you’ve heard of its cathedral. It is absolutely amazing, in awesome condition despite being eight hundred years old. And the stained glass! Mid-January is decidedly off-season, cold but not horrible. We enjoyed a long tour of the cathedral and a few rambles around town with Brighton rocking his giraffe sweater. It was a good place to begin to adjust to the nine hour time difference. I fondly remember a magnificent nap.

After just two nights in Chartres, we drove to Lyon. I hadn’t done enough research to realize that Lyon is worth spending more than one full day. But we saw the Roman stuff which is of primary interest to us. Brighton visited his first Roman theatre. And his first odeon. I’m disappointed that we didn’t make advance reservations at one or two amazing restaurants. We figured that in January we wouldn’t have much competition. Wrong! Lyon is a foodie haven and pretty much the culinary center of France (and hence, some would say, the world). Don’t get me wrong, we ate very well. But we’d have splurged if we could have gotten into a Michelin starred restaurant. Next time.

Finally, on day 5 of our adventure, we drove south from Lyon to the Côte d’Azur town of Antibes, where we’d arranged an AirBnb apartment for 3 weeks. Antibes is about halfway between Nice and Cannes, but much smaller than either of those cities. We ended up liking Antibes best of the Riviera cities we visited. Nice is huge and not very nice, and Cannes has a rather tinny bling vibe that we didn’t care for. Our apartment was a 20 minute walk from the historic center of Antibes, and only a 3 minute walk to the beach.

From our base of operations in Antibes we enjoyed French life: walking a block to get our morning croissants; shopping at the market, boucherie (butcher), charcuterie, fromagerie… we love all these specialized shops! Wine was local, inexpensive, and perfectly fine. (This is not a famous wine region.) Many restaurants were closed in January, but began to open during our stay. We became regulars at the nearby beach bar once they opened up—perfect to have a beer or wine and watch the sunset. It wasn’t all restaurants of course; our apartment’s kitchen was tiny but adequate and we cooked more often than not.

We took many day trips: to Nice, Cannes, and Monaco. We visited the nearby hill town of St. Paul de Vence, which is probably a zoo during the season but we had it largely to ourselves in January. Sometimes we drove, sometimes we took the train. Three weeks was more than enough to see the local sights, but one of our goals was to slow down and experience European life.

In late January we took a few days’ trip back up north, to visit Orange and the Cotes du Rhone. Such pretty countryside, and excellent wine. We could imagine cycling in this region in warmer weather. We loved the roman theater in Orange, which is fabulous and well worth a detour if you’re anywhere nearby.

We departed France for Italy on February 6, with a fairly long driving day through gorgeous scenery, from Antibes to the town of Alba in the Barolo region. But that’s a story for another day.

Biggest winDogs welcome everywhere
Least surprisingMonaco: exactly as expected
Best ancient siteTheatre at Orange
COVID commentI doubt that we ran much risk of exposure to coronavirus. It was too early for there to be many infected people in France, too far off season, and once we left the airport we were never in a crowd. Of course, we were blissfully ignorant of all risk.
And the winner is…

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