Thursday, November 26, 2015

Its Nicer in Nice!

We had settled on Paris for our annual Thanksgiving trip but several days before we were to leave, a terrorist attack in Paris left many people dead and injured and the city traumatized. The heightened security in Paris probably meant it was safe, but we decided to look for other options anyway.  The flight to Nice out of New York were WIDE open!  Getting to New York was a different story!  I checked 48 different cities to find a good connection option and finally settled on going through Richmond. We were scheduled to land in Richmond at the exact same time that the Richmond to JFK flight was scheduled to leave, so we decided we would take a flight to Laguardia and then take UBER to the JFK airport. We had a fleeting thought that we might get into Richmond early and be able to make the JFK flight, but when we were seated in row 41 on the Atlanta flight, we figured even if we got into RIC early, we wouldn't be able to get off of the plane in time.  We weren't worried - we had all day to get to JFK. When we landed in Richmond, we checked the JFK flight and were delighted to find that it had been delayed by an hour.  We seated ourselves in the gate area and then started thinking that maybe we should still go for the LGA flight since it would now leave before the JFK flight. Tony went to talk to the agent at the LGA flight and she reported that the LGA flight was delayed as well because one of the flight attendants for that flight was on the delayed inbound for our JFK flight.  Our travel companions were having their own dilemma. They were to get to JFK from Jacksonville. After examining all of their options, they decided to stand by for the direct flight, leaving themselves only that one option that had very few seats available.  It was a very exciting stand-by adventure for all of us, but we triumphed, arriving in JFK at the same time around 2PM.
Tony and I are still Sky Club members (this won't last long since the price has gone up so much) so we elected to relax in the Sky Club while we waited for the Nice flight which wouldn't leave for another 6 hours!  It gave us a good opportunity to visit with our friends and enjoy Delta's hospitality. The spicy Thai chicken soup is highly recommended if you get a chance to try it! The sky deck looked very inviting until I stepped outside and felt the bitingly cold wind.

Time went by pretty quickly and it wasn't long until we had our business class seats to Nice!

After a nice dinner, a movie and a nap, we arrived in Nice.  We had rented our car from Alamo, but our reservation said to go to the Enterprise counter. A few more signs to the rental car center would have been helpful but we finally found it. The Enterprise staff was extremely friendly and efficient, shaking our hands multiple times and wishing us a nice trip!

The GPS took us to our accommodations for the trip, an apartment in the town of Vence that we had found on  We went through one toll booth that had us scrambling for change on the way.

We found "Maison L'Ara 2" at the bottom of a hill around a sharp turn. We had a bit of trouble making the turn and finding reverse in the rental car. We bumped the rock wall at the entrance to the driveway but didn't do too much damage to the car, just a few little pock marks in the finish.

We were greeted by Ivana who claimed to speak very little English, but was able to direct us to our apartment with no problem.  The apartment was perfect for our needs. There was a bedroom and bathroom on the main level and another bedroom and bathroom up a spiral staircase. A full kitchen and dining area weren't really necessary for our trip but gave us a nice place to gather to play cards in the evening. It was a little difficult to haul our bags up the spiral staircase but we we travel light so we were able to do it.

We unpacked quickly and headed into Vence. It was quite a hike uphill from our apartment to get to town.  We stopped at the top of the hill to catch our breath and peek into the small church.

We found the old part of Vence and decided to stop for lunch at Bistro du Peyra, the first restaurant we saw, just inside the city walls. We shared pizza and wine while we planned our day.

The first thing on our agenda was to take a walking tour of old town.  We tried to follow the walking tour in Rick Steves' guide, but the town was much smaller than we had anticipated and we had to backtrack to see some of the sights.  

The cathedral, possibly the smallest in France, is unassuming on the outside and very dark inside.

In one corner of the church there is a Chagall mosaic.

The real charm of the city is the cobblestone streets and old buildings. It was fun to just wander around.  

At the right time, it might be a lively place, but very few places were open since it was off-season. We were glad we had stopped at the first place to eat since we didn't find any other restaurants open in old town.

The weather was a bit cold & dreary so after wandering around a bit, we decided to find a warm place to perch.  Henry's Bar just outside the old city walls looked inviting.

The bar was very small inside and all of the tables for four were taken, but the bartender moved some tables around so we could sit together. We struck up a conversation with Steen, the man at the table next to ours. When he found out we were visiting, he bought our first round of drinks!  We discovered that we had a lot in common since Steen had worked for IBM and was a techie like us.  He said that he practically invented the internet. He was very involved in the political discussions that opened the communications channels between companies.  He made several recommendations for our trip and even took us to the local restaurant to reserve a table for us for dinner.  He was meeting his girlfriend later so we said our goodbyes, thanking him for his hospitality!

We wanted to get a few supplies for the room, so we found the Monoprix. At first we thought it was just a clothing store, but further investigation revealed that there was an entire grocery store on the second floor.  The girls made the trek back to the apartment with the supplies while the boys wandered around town some more.  Upon our return, we found the boys at Cafe Matisse.  We had a glass of wine there before claiming our table for dinner at the restaurant Regence. We were treated like royalty since Steen had introduced us!  The restaurant had once been a brewery, but a fire had caused it to close for a year and then reopen without the brewery. It has a varied menu with lots of choices.

Since we had flown all night, we made it an early night. We went back to the apartment and played cards until we went to bed.

Tuesday morning, we planned our route for the day. We would do a driving tour of la Vallee Du Loup. 
We bypassed Tourettes Sur Loup since we planned to have lunch here later in the trip.  The views on the drive were lovely and we had to pull over a few times to take pictures of the towns perched on the sides of hills.

We drove through the gorge, where we saw indentations gouged into the sides of the rock near the road.

The GPS got a little confused trying to take us to see the waterfall (Cascade du Saut du Loup). We ended up at the Campground Cascade du Saut du Loup which was surprisingly not really near the waterfall. Thankfully we have T-mobile phones with unlimited international data so we were able to use Google Maps to find the falls. Unfortunately, the viewing area for the falls was closed for the season.

The route from Saut du Loup to Gourdon was quite curvy as you can see from the GPS display! Our motion-sickness-prone passenger was strategically seated in the front seat with access to cool air and doped up with Dramamine.

We made a mid-morning stop in Gourdon, another beautiful old village perched on a hillside overlooking the valley.

Gourdon was another beautiful little town with cobblestone streets and old stone buildings.

We stopped for coffee and a cheese plate at the little restaurant at the top of the hill, Les Grands Hommes.  It would have been a beautiful place to sit outside but it was still a bit too chilly for us.

Leaving Gourdon, we stopped to take one last look at the village and noticed several hang-gliders circling the village.

We decided to skip the rest of the tour in favor of seeing one of the coastal towns.  We drove to Antibes, a resort town on the French Riviera.  We parked at the port where all of the luxury yachts are moored.

Hiding just beyond the port, behind a wall is a lovely beach that is probably very crowded during the warm season, but today it was delightfully deserted.

Lunch was in order, so we went off in pursuit of a Rick Steves' recommendation but again found that it was closed for the season. We stopped into another restaurant but they advised that lunch was finished for the day. We finally found Le Grill 22 still serving lunch!

We wanted to get back to our neck of the woods before dark, but we left Antibes a little too late and watched the sun slip below the horizon as we were leaving. We got stuck in some pretty heavy traffic on the way back.

We decided to take a walk around old town before dinner. On the way, we spotted two dogs and their owners at Henry's Bar. The dogs looked familiar and we realized that we had seen them on a poster the day before.  The city had put up several posters that seemed to be depicting that people of differing professions, sizes and shapes could get along. They included this poster showing dogs of different sizes could too.

We asked if the dogs in front of Henry's Bar were the dogs from the poster and found that they were! Diamant, the little fellow, was very friendly while Troy, the big Irish Wolfhound hid behind his owner.

We had noticed a lot of Christmas lights strung over the old village so we wanted to see if they were lighted.  Except for the blue lights on the fountain though, none of the lights were on.

We didn't find any other restaurants open either.  We stopped into Cafe Matisse but after a glass of wine, we noticed that they were closing so we went next door to the Regence again for dinner. It was understandably crowded since it seemed to be the only restaurant in town that was open.  We had a nice dinner and saw Steen dining with his lady friend!  She spoke very little English but seemed nice.

After dinner, Steen took us to another local haunt of his, Le Troquet. We enjoyed visiting with Steen and learning more about him. He showed us scans of his brain revealing the damage from a stroke 15 years prior and recent scans showing his healthy brain!  It was amazing how much damage the stroke had caused and how much improvement the recent scan showed.

Back at the apartment, we played cards again and then headed off to bed.

Wednesday, we started our day in Tourettes Sur Loup, yet another cute little village with cobblestone streets and stone buildings.

We wandered through the charming old town, exploring all of the narrow streets.

We took time to ooh and ahh over the view from the edge of town.

We wanted to have lunch at the restaurant that Steen had recommended, the Cafe des Sports but, like so many places we tried to go, it was closed for the season.  We ended up at the Restaurant des Arts just down the street.  The owners were very friendly. The man was a rally co-pilot and showed us pictures of him racing at Monte Carlo and other famous rallies.

After lunch, we drove along the Le Loup river on our way to Saint Paul de Vence. Along the way, we finally got a glimpse of a waterfall.  We weren't sure if it was the one we had tried to find the day before or not.

Saint Paul de Vence was, you guessed it, another quaint little village with cobblestone streets and stone buildings. The good thing about Saint Paul was that a number of places were actually open! 

On our way into town, we passed a group of men playing Boules, another variety of the game we have been playing on the beach of late. We call it Bocce ball, but lots of folks call it pétanque.  In France, they play it with silver balls.

We stopped into the Tourist Information office and picked up a map. The TI agent circled several places for us to see.

We had a glass of wine and a much needed bathroom stop at Un Cœur en Provence before beginning our tour of the town. Our first stop on the tour was at the L’église Collégiale Church, another very dark church with few windows.

Next, we found the fountain which dated from 1850.

As we walked through the town, we found a number of art galleries and shops that caught our eye.

We ventured on to the cemetery where the artist Mark Chagall is buried. The view from above the cemetery was spectacular. We could see the ocean in the distance.

There was a platform with panoramic views of the surrounding area.

As the sun started down, the views became even more spectacular, taking on a beautiful golden glow.

We made our way around the outside of the city's walls and back to the entrance where we found Le Tilleul, an inviting restaurant with outdoor tables. It was a bit chilly so we were glad they provided blankets. We shared a bottle of wine while we watched the sunset.

We said goodbye to Saint Paul and headed back to Vence where we repeated our routine from the previous nights:  Wine at Cafe Matisse, followed by dinner at Regence.  This time, the server at the Regence brought us a complimentary glass of Kir before our meal!  Steen joined us just as we were finishing our dessert so we had one last visit with him.

We played cards back at the apartment again before turning in for the night.

Thursday (Thanksgiving), we packed up, said goodbye to our apartment and headed back for the Nice airport. At the rental car return, the agent did not think the damage to the front bumper was as minor as we had, so he wouldn't refund our deposit on the car. Thankfully we have car rental insurance with our credit card. It will be a hassle to file a claim but hopefully it will be covered without a problem.

We tried to check in for our flight at the kiosk but the error message said we had to see an agent, so we had to wait in line. Periodically an agent would ask the people behind us in line if they spoke a certain language (French, Italian or English), and if they did, they would take them ahead of us. We were a little confused about this process, but finally made it to the front of the line. We were given seats at the check in counter rather than having to wait at the gate for a seat assignment.

Delta didn't serve turkey and dressing on the plane for our Thanksgiving meal but the food was excellent just the same.

We landed in New York with plenty of time to get to our connecting flight.  Our connection was in C concourse but our friends were departing from B concourse. We went to the B concourse Sky Club but couldn't stay long since we had to take a shuttle bus to get to C concourse. We were delighted to get seats on the non-stop flight to Atlanta after our long day in the air.

Another great trip with great friends!

To view our other travels, please visit


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Buenos Aires Eruption Interruption

We were supposed to be in Europe this weekend, attending the Leuven beer festival, but as the time drew near, we decided there was just no way to get to Belgium and back during our allotted time frame.  (You may recall our mantra from other trips - "When traveling stand-by, you can choose where to go, or you can choose when to go, but you cannot choose both.") As retirees, Tony and I are pretty flexible, but we often travel with folks who are still gainfully employed and cannot just take as much time as sometimes needed to get home from a destination.  Such was the case this time. Our friends, Amanda and Chet could only take two days off so we had to make it a long weekend.  Since Europe was looking pretty doubtful, we started considering other options.  Buenos Aires, Argentina looked great out of Atlanta on Wednesday night and the return flight on Sunday night looked decent as well.

We had just been to Buenos Aires a month before so we had a few pesos left, but we knew our friend Pat had some as well, so on our way to the airport, we swung by to buy her pesos so we would have enough for the taxi ride from the airport. Anyone watching might have thought we were buying drugs since we picked her up on one corner near her home, exchanged the funds and then dropped her off on the next corner.

Amanda and Chet were coming from Tampa. They got bumped off of one flight, then Amanda got on the next flight but not Chet, and finally Chet got on the last flight that would connect with the Buenos Aires flight.  Whew!

We met Amanda in the Sky Club and while we were catching up, we noticed that they had started clearing stand-bys on the Buenos Aires flight so Amanda and I went to the gate and got boarding passes for the 4 of us.  It is unusual for them to clear more than an hour out, but I guess they knew everyone would get on. It was kind of nice knowing that we already had a seat. We were able to return to the Sky Club for another glass of wine before meeting Chet at the gate. His flight arrived late so he had to hurry to F concourse.

The flight was enjoyable (as business class usually is). We slept well and since there is only a 1 hour time change, we did not experience any jet lag so we could hit the ground running!  We went to the blue & white taxi stand in the airport and were surprised to be able to use American cash to pay the $46 fare to our hotel. The taxi ride was very adventurous. Apparently lane markings in Argentina are merely a suggestion. There were lots of traffic jams to sit through so it took us about an hour to the hotel.

We had booked the Maitre Hotel Boutique on in the same area where we had stayed a month before.  We went straight to the hotel and checked in.   In retrospect, this was a mistake since we were charged an extra day for the early check-in. Communication was a bit of a problem, so they may have told us when we checked in but we did not understand so we didn't argue.

Our connecting rooms were vastly different in size. Our room barely had enough space to get around the bed and had no closet. The bathroom was a nice size though.  Chet and Amanda's room was big enough to have a closet, desk and sitting area.

We asked the desk clerk (Florencia) if she could have someone exchange money for us on the blue market. She was happy to oblige and said to come back in an hour. We set out to explore a bit. Tony wanted to get some diet cokes for the room and I wanted to get a bottle of water. After our shopping, we went to Campo Bravo for some lunch. We had provoleta and choripan, favorites from our last trip.

On the way back to the hotel, we encountered a dog walker walking 26 dogs!  We marveled at how he was able to control so many dogs.

After lunch, we decided to go to the shopping street, Florida. We bought round trip Subte tickets for all of us for around $4. We walked to Palermo stop and caught the green line to Catedral. Florida street turned out to be a zoo, surprisingly busy for a Thursday afternoon. We decided to walk to the Tango Bridge.

We stopped for a beverage at the Kraken Bar.

Since we were already on that side of town, we decided to go to La Boca. After our less-than-pleasant walk the last trip, we happily caught a cab this time. The area was bustling and just as colorful as we remembered (it was a month before, after all!).

We did a little window shopping and then stopped for beer and empanadas at Bar Quinguela.

We walked around some more and watched some tango dancers performing at one of the restaurants.

We stopped for another beer at Bar La Perla near the edge of town where we had lunch on the last trip. At 6PM, we watched as the streets emptied of performers and booths and restaurants began putting away tables. We decided we needed to head back to our side of town.  We caught a cab to the Subte. The traffic was bad! It must have been rush hour! The taxi fare to the Subte was 70 pesos, cheap by our standards, but expensive by Argentina standards.

We got on the blue line and took it to Diagonal Norte to connect with the green line. There was a performer on the train complete with microphone and amplifier!  He was actually pretty good. There are also beggars and salesmen on the train. The salesmen will put their product in your lap and then come back before the next station to collect the money or take back the product. This time, the product was bobby pins for 10 pesos.

We got off at the Ministro Carranza station this time and decided it was a much closer and more pleasant walk than the Palermo station.  We returned to the hotel to freshen up and then set out in search of dinner. Eduardo, at the front desk, recommended Novecento but we decided to try Parrilla El Primo.  Amanda, Chet and I ordered the Bife Lomo (Tenderloin) and it was excellent. Tony ordered ribs and they were a bit tough. We had some wonderful Argentinean wine with our meal.

We made friends with the couple at the next table, Sol and her husband (whose name I can't remember). They have a studio apartment for rent in the area.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed some wine and snacks on the patio before turning in for the night.

Friday morning we woke late. Tony and I went down to the lobby for breakfast and discovered that the news was reporting that a volcano had erupted in Chile.

Our first thought was that this would impact flights and we would have trouble getting home. I wanted to roll the dice and stay, but Amanda and Chet needed to get back to work, so they decided to try to get home immediately. The Buenos Aires flights had already been cancelled for the next few days since the ash cloud from the volcano was headed right into the flight path. To make things worse, the internet at the hotel was acting up and we couldn't get responses to our queries.

We decided to walk around and find a place with reliable wi-fi so we could make a decision about what to do. Our walk took us to Almacen.

With the help of our friend David (back at home in Atlanta), we found Amanda and Chet a route home through Sao Paulo, Brazil. David was kind enough to share some frequent flyer miles with them to make the route more affordable. He was unable to book the tickets online, so poor David had to sit on hold for a long time to speak to an agent. He finally got them seats on the 4:15PM flight. They didn't want to waste the time off, so they also changed their connection out of Atlanta to go to Key West instead of Tampa.

We decided we had time for lunch at La Fabrica del Taco before Amanda and Chet packed up and headed for the airport.

We had nachos, tacos & beers and then hurried back to the hotel. Amanda was able to get Eduardo (at the hotel desk) to print boarding passes on the Delta leg of their trip so they could show onward travel which would qualify them to transit Brazil without a visa. Eduardo called them a cab and they were gone. Tony and I decided to have a short siesta.

Less than an hour later, our siesta was interrupted by a call from Amanda saying that they had missed the 1 hour cut-off to check in for the flight. Hmmm... Maybe we didn't have time for those tacos after all. The next flight would get them to Sao Paulo with only a 25 minute connection time.  She wanted to know if we thought they should risk it. I was about to say no, but Tony said yes, so they decided to try it.

Since it was late in the afternoon already, we decided to stay in the area of the hotel, so we walked around and stopped at El Club de la Milanesa, a place we had not been before.  We played a couple of card games while we did some people watching and enjoyed a beer.

Happy Hour in Argentina starts at 6PM, so we picked Mona, which had half price drinks and free wi-fi. Over drinks, we decided maybe we too, should get the heck out of dodge before the volcano impacted our ability to get home. We found frequent flyer seats on the 3:50PM flight from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo the next day and tried to book them online, but like David, we were unable to complete the transaction so we had to spend time on hold to get an agent to book the tickets for us.  Once we finished this little detail, we decided to have some dinner.

We found Las Cholas on the same street as our hotel that looked cute. The menu was all in Spanish. Tony ordered a choripan but I was more adventurous and ordered something else. I knew that it was chicken because I understood the word for chicken in Spanish but I wasn't sure how it was prepared or what one of the side dishes was. I think it was a grilled pounded chicken thigh that was grilled and the side turned out to be mashed pumpkin.

We ordered a carafe of the house wine and it came in a pitcher shaped like a penguin. It reminded us of the chicken pitcher we had in Bermuda which we had nicknamed the "Yacking Chicken" because it poured the wine from its mouth and looked like it was vomiting wine. We called this pitcher the "Yacking Penguin".

While we were dining, we were watching to see if Chet and Amanda's flight was on time. They landed on time and ran to the gate for the Atlanta flight and were boarded with seconds to spare!  Whew!

We went back to the hotel and told Florencia that we would check out in the morning. She was talking to a young man that she introduced as her brother, Geraldo.

We got a good night's sleep. I took the first shower and after waiting almost 5 minutes decided there was no hot water so I started to take a cold (well, luke-cold) shower. I should have been more patient because the water got hot soon after that.

We went down for breakfast. Eduardo was at the desk. We told him we were checking out a day early and to please prepare the bill. He showed us the amount in pesos, but we didn't have nearly enough. He said we could pay in US Dollars at the blue market exchange rate. We had enough, but somewhere while getting the money from all of our hiding places, we misplaced a $100 bill. I'm sure we will find it, but this left us without enough cash for the bill. We ended up paying $380 USD and putting 1170 pesos on our credit card.

I wanted Eduardo to print our boarding cards for the Sao Paulo to Atlanta leg so we could show proof of transit without visa, but I could never get an email to go through to him so we decided just having them on our phones would be sufficient.

We decided to walk to the airport and chose a circuitous route that would take us past the polo fields, through a park and along the water.

On the way, we found El Palacio de la Papa Frita (the palace of french fry)!  They had the most interesting fries we'd ever seen! They look like little pillows!

We finished our walk and got to the airport with 20 minutes to spare before the 1 hour check-in deadline. When we got to the counter, that is when things started to go south. The agent refused to check us in since we could not show positive space tickets from Sao Paulo to Atlanta. We argued that we had done the same thing 3 weeks prior and our friends had done it the night before. We showed them the availaility screen which showed over 30 seats available on the connecting flight but they refused. Finally Tony demanded to see a supervisor. The supervisor came to the desk with an English translator and we were able to convince them to check us in for the flight. We promised that the next time we do this, we WILL have a Brazilian visa!  I'd like to go to Brazil anyway!

Before we left Buenos Aires, we enlisted the help of our friend David to get us listed and checked in for the flight from Sao Paulo to Detroit as a contingency. When we landed in Sao Paulo, the first Atlanta flight had started to look more promising so we hurried to that gate. An agent was just leaving the desk so we sat down to wait for the next agent to show up. Tony looked at the schedule for the first Atlanta flight and discovered that it had left 2 hours early!  This sent me into a panic because I decided there must have been a development with the volcano and all of the flights might be leaving early.  "Let's run!", I shouted and we took off for the Detroit gate. Sure enough, it was also leaving 2 hours early. So was the New York flight! As we huffed up to the gate, the agents somehow recognized that we were non-revs, probably by the desperate look in our eyes.  They took our passports and gave us boarding passes to Detroit.  We barely had enough time before take off to communicate with our friend David, who helped us get our connection changed to an earlier departure out of Detroit.

As we waited to taxi out, the pilot explained that the volcanic ash was expected to be in Sao Paulo in 2 hours and they do not fly in volcanic ash so that was the reason for the early departure. I was amazed that they could get in touch with all of the passengers and everyone was able to get to the airport early. I don't know if they tried to contact the non-revs, but just in case, I will be sure to have my cell phone number in my passenger record from now on!

We got into Detroit in time to make a very early connection, getting us back home by 9:30AM Sunday morning.

We may have over-reacted to the threat of the volcano, but better safe than sorry!  We can always go back!

It was another good, albeit short, trip!

To view our other travels, please visit