Thursday, March 26, 2015

Nice, today!

You get your mind stuck on something and there's no shaking it free: it's wedged stubbornly and you just have to give in to that idea, no matter how poor, ill-timed, ridiculous.

And so it is today for me with Nice: I really want to go there. It's about a forty minute train ride and I want to do this trip today. Never mind that the weather gurus have been saying for a long time that Wednesday may be wet. Oh, there's some discussion about which hours will deliver real rain, but rain there will be, though current weather maps tell us it will be later rather than earlier. So I must go and I must go earlier.

I should have argued with myself: Nice is so beautiful on a sunny day! I have two sunny days in store, why not wait?

No, somehow I have convinced myself that it must be Nice today.

Breakfast first, of course. Not on the balcony, no way! Too damp, cloudy -- all of it (though in the high fifties F, so not cold).  At the bakery, I buy a demi baguete and a croissant. I will continue buying from this bakery, even though I think madame the sales person doesn't really like me (possibly because I take five minutes to decide if I want the pain au chocolat and baguette or almond croissant without baguette or croissant with baguette and maybe something else...), or maybe she is just a very formal kind of person, in any case it doesn't matter -- the products are so great that I'll ignore the fact that I will never in my week here get her to crack a smile.

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After breakfast -- the train ride. And now I am in Nice.

I have a plan: to walk first to the water. I love the sea coast here! True, the long stretch of shore is all pebbles, but the color of the sea here is unique and stunning and it once gave me days of pleasure (that would have been in the summertime) and I want to pay my respects and take in its beauty once more.

But as I leave the station, I feel a few drops of rain. Not the kind that would cause anyone who has an umbrella to use it (I don't have one, btw), but still, enough to have me hide my camera. (And take it out for the moment when I see a hand of a dad do a multitask: navigate and provide comfort all at once...

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...and then, I catch them again; this time the dad adds another task -- a smart phone -- to the others.)

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I ignore the occasional drops of rain. I walk all the way down to the Place Massena -- which I think is one of the most beautiful squares (here, you see only one side to it; it expands to misty fountains and parks and arcades, making it really one of the loveliest city spaces anywhere)...

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...but I do not pause now. I go to the water's edge.

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I know it's the same sea I have a few miles down where I am in La Napoule, but here, the water lights up and glimmers -- despite the occasional drops of moisture from very pouty skies.

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I then walk to the market. I do love the flowers here -- ah, I see that yesterday's blooms are well represented: the mimosa...

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...the freesia...

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...and jasmine, too, though that belongs more to my perfume tour of the previous day. There was no jasmine growing or blooming along my La Napoule hike path.

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As for the rest of the market -- well, it gets a lot of praise because it really is quite colorful. Honestly. I think it's the buildings surrounding it that add that punch of color. If I lived here, I don't know that I would be a regular shopper.  The vendors are tired and exasperated and most of the items here are likely found in stores around town.

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I'm not surprised that the vendors are exasperated. There are always far more lookers than buyers (every Nice guide book will tell you to go to the market) and on a half wet day like today, they just don't really have much patience with the lookers and so they use their two favorite words: "don't touch!" and they say them again and again to people who come and feel for some reason compelled to finger the oranges. I think about our own Capitol Square market in Madison: it, too, draws more lookers than buyers and still, vendors put out free samples and generally maintain a cheery attitude and believe me, Wisconsin weather isn't nearly as pleasant as Nice's weather. Nice, after all, boasts of having at least 300 days of sunshine each year. Today, in all fairness, is not one of them.

But let me interject here this very important comment: I hold none of this against the city. It's my fault that I chose this day to visit it and in fact, though I would have preferred the sunshine, I still love Nice, even in the stubborn half shower that keeps following me around the city.

Let me list a few reasons for being so fond of this place: you already know I love its shore. But I also love the city colors -- golden, orange, red, green shutters -- all so Provencal, but also very Nice!

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I love, too, its mixture of peoples. So many have that Corsican toughness, the weathered, darkened skin, the very dark hair -- it's common here. And this is a city where people have always come and gone -- from Russia, from Africa, from Italy. You feel that energy from distant places: Nice, like Marseille, has a touch of the world in it.

And I love the walks here. They're better than in most cities. There is the water front. And the maze of the old town.

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And there are hills to climb and I do that, of course. And panoramas to admire.

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I feel a touch nostalgic because the last time I was here (2008), I had dragged Ed with me and he was already feeling that indifference towards travel and so even though I thought he should like it, he seemed only mildly enthused. I had especially wanted to show him the old port -- what, with all those boats, surely he'd perk up -- here it is, photographed today:

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And from another angle:

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... but again, he seemed only lightly buoyed. Feeling his reluctance to engage the city I suggested we pause for lunch. He shook his head and offered one of those  -- "you go ahead, I'll just watch" comments which always made me wince, because I only like eating alone when I am alone, not when I am with someone.

Still, I ate alone,  and he watched. I did not eat a whole lot: just a salad, with a glass of wine. And here's the thing: I'll never forget that salad. It was a great salad. And since that day, when people ask me for advice on where they should eat in Nice, I always say -- there's a restaurant along the old port that has the best salad, but I don't recall the name of the place. (I've grown wiser in recent years and I now always note restaurant names on Ocean.)

Today I searched for this place. And I found it! It's called La Marie Belle and here I am, inside (that's the table he and I sat at so many years ago...):

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And here is the same salad today:

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And you can compare it to the salad I ate years ago, as displayed in this post.

It is altogether a delightful small lunch break and it will be the only restaurant lunch that I will have eaten on this trip. Madame at the restaurant is tickled by my story of the crazy search for the salad (it has mâche and arugula and a few baby tomatoes and most importantly -- raw baby artichokes, trimmed and lightly sprinkled with lemon and a good olive oil and finished off with slivers of parmesan cheese).

Actually she has another reason to be tickled today: her other guests are three women friends who are celebrating a birthday. And it turns out that madame, the restauranteur also has a birthday, though not until tomorrow, but all this is reason for them to order glasses of champagne and madame joins them in this...

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... and now everyone is buoyant and jovial and this spills over into the dining room because you know what? Happiness is contagious.

I leave with lovely images of my few minutes at La Marie Belle.

But now it's raining bigger drops and they're coming more often. People who have umbrellas are using them.

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(The Place Massena again...)

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I manage to stay more or less dry by doing an awning walk (where you basically stay very close to the buildings) and occasionally I go inside shops. For example, the Nespresso store to pick up more coffee. And to the department store to buy a cute little summer jumper for Snowdrop and a pair of pants for myself because I HATE one of the three pairs I brought with me (purchased especially for my travels) and would very much like to throw it in the trash even as I know that's wasteful, so I won't.

And now I have to decide: linger in Nice? Take a long walk along the coast? Or catch the afternoon train home?

I don't hesitate for long. The rain is such that most everyone has an umbrella by now and since this is the only afternoon that will produce any amount of wetness on this trip, I don't want to buy one and so I hop on the train just as it is about to pull out of the station.

Except that it is the wrong train.

I sort of knew that when I hop on: the direction is correct but it doesn't go all the way to La Napoule, it stops at Cannes. No matter. I get off at Cannes and indeed, the rain is letting up again so I walk a tiny bit and then finally catch the correct train to my home town. And my apartment by the sea. Where I indulge in a coffee and a macaron.

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Dinner. Despite the noon salad, I'm hungry. I pick a restaurant with an uninteresting name (Cote Place) and with an uninteresting ambiance. Walls, sparsely decorated with random signs, one in English, announcing something in Texas. The tables have little bamboo shoots stuck in ceramic pots with Asian lettering of an unknown to me language. I ask the waiter if the chef/owner is somehow tied to Asia and he says no -- he, the waiter picked the bamboo things for decoration. Because he liked them.

But the menu -- posted as always outside -- I couldn't take my eyes off the menu. It looked great! And you can eat a whole three course dinner for 21 Euros (that would be around $23), taxes and service included.

And the food? Oh, wonderful! Well, actually beyond wonderful!  I went up just a few Euros and ordered the home made goose liver for an appetizer, because the French do these SO WELL! And then a fillet of turbot over a mushroom risotto with meat infusion for a main course. Just superb!

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Again I have to order dessert (it's included) and I let the waiter -- a really nice guy who is just this year is going to begin to study English...

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...I let him pick one for me: the Tarte Tatin (upside down apple cake, of sorts). I have no complaints.

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I'll end with the photo that I took just heading out to dinner. The lights are starting their night dance over the Cannes harbor. It's cloudy still, but there is a promise of warmer air. It is a fine evening to be walking along the shore of La Napoule.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tuesday in la Napoule

How quickly weather here can change! They'd been predicting this wet front coming in mid week, but how much and when exactly and for how long -- those are mysteries that apparently only time can solve.

One thing's for sure: the start of the day is to be nicer than the end of it. And so I am happy to repeat yesterday's breakfast: outside, on the balcony, by the flowering rosemary, looking out toward the boats.

Though not a total repeat. The best bakery -- one just around the corner from me -- the one that had been closed on Sunday and Monday, reopened today and so I had my first introduction to their better than best baguettes and, too my chosen extravagance -- an almond chocolate croissant. (But it was a tough choice. These were in close competition: )

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The breakfast, by the rosemary bush:

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There is enough sunshine to make it a pleasant experience, but I'm wearing a jacket. It's a bit windy today. Maybe not mistral winds windy, but certainly gusty.

And sure enough, a hazy cloud cover comes in and I know I must hurry with my walk today because the weather will not last.

But you know how it is -- you get lost in email, you catch up on stuff, you polish your post from the previous day... Noon. It's noon when I finally leave the apartment.

According to the guidebook of nearby hikes (gratis Tourist Office), there is one that starts right across the street from me, weaves its way along the coast, then goes up into the hills and down again -- all in an estimated  two hours of trekking. (It takes me 2.5; I drift off course more than once, mostly deliberately.) It starts right here, on the little beach across the street:

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I almost don't go much further. The very first 100 meters poses a challenge: the waves are really picking up now, sending sprays of water over the path. I do not want to get drenched! A jogger comes running toward me. He looks dry. I shake off the last doubts and get moving.

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It's lovely along the coast. This is, of course, more densely populated than Cornwall's coast (that has to be an understatement of the day!) and yet the walk puts you quite in touch with the sea...

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And on the inland portion, I am again among the familiar Mediterranean vegetation that I so much associate with Sorede and the Languedoc region of France. But I am surprised at some of the flowers here. There's Spanish lavender and it's in full bloom now! It looks heavenly against a yellow backdrop!

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And, too -- lots of blooming freesia! How could that be? I don't recall seeing it in the wild before. The scent is unmistakable!

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There are two ascents to this loop -- none of them especially challenging and never too far removed from civilization but maybe that's good. Maybe my hikes into more desolate terrain were more enjoyable when I was a little more devilishly brazen? Maybe I don't feel the pull of that kind of a challenge so much any more...

On the second small summit, I look out over the bay of Cannes.

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Rocks again! Another selfie moment.

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And it is in many ways a selfie, meaning introspective moment, where I try to place this trip in the context of my other travels and possible future travels. One big challenge for me is to decide how to treat each trip -- whether it should be exploratory or merely comfortable and whether it bears repeating and if so, how often and how soon and with what expectations. So I think about all that as the sun fades and I zip up my jacket against the gusts of wind.

(Looking toward the hills behind me...)

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Once in the town again, I pass something that is emblematic of La Napoule: a blooming mimosa.

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This is a late one -- most will have passed their prime several weeks ago. Indeed, in February, La Napoule celebrates the festival of the mimosa. I'm told there is a parade with floats of yellow flowers and a crowning of a mimosa queen.

I go then to the sweet little grocery store where the fruits and vegetables are arranged in total attention to detail.

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I pick up more berries and a yogurt since I seem to have gotten stuck in this lovely habit of eating breakfast at home.

In the afternoon, I read reports as they came in about the plane that crashed just a short distance from here (some fifty miles due north; you could say it was just a little further than Grasse). Of course, I know that the weather in this region was fine and that other factors, therefore, contributed to the accident. It's strange how these tragedies remind you of your vulnerabilities even as flying is perhaps the safest mode of moving from point A to B. And it is uncomfortably strange, too, that my quiet corner of the world is in the news. If I had thought I'd encounter issues or unrest, I would have guessed they would be the kind that have created virtual military zones in France around the major train stations (the entrance to Cannes Station is blocked to traffic and there are fences and barricades and plenty of patrol people keeping watch). There definitely is a felt sadness when something or someone strikes at places nearby. I imagine the plane crash is in the conversation of many here, at La Napoule.

It's raining when I step outside to find dinner. I'm always very hungry then, since I don't each lunch here (the breakfasts and/or dinners are too big to accommodate yet another meal) and tonight I don't want to go far. Just at the corner, I have La Palmea -- liked by my hosts and, too, by the ever helpful Tripadvisor.

I go very early -- just after 7 --  so that I am the first one there. (When I leave, most of the room is filled.) A young woman is sitting to the side, feeding her baby. Of course I ask how old and when she tells me four months, I have to explain that "mine" (and I explained that as well, even though she knew I was the grandma) is just going to be three (months).

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From my table, I see that she is getting ready to leave. All the tall skinny (male) waiters hover.

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They all kiss the baby goodbye. Of course, they all kiss the mom good bye too. I am thinking -- the child already has a community here. What a lucky babe! Communities matter!

My meal is superb and extremely well priced. The main dish special, which they call a seafood wok, is a blend of fish and crustaceans and veggies in a delightful light sauce

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I have to take dessert - it's included in the price! A  home made tiramisu with red berries. Incredible.

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After, I walk the docks of the boats and sailboats. My hosts had said that the cost of a docking space here is exorbitant. Not that there are any available. Being such a coastal traveler, I am too aware of how many people have expensive boats. In the many dozen marinas I've walked through, the boats are always astonishingly large. Since I am not a boat loving person, I have no envy there at all. Only a fascination on how someone may love the darkness of the ocean or the sea and not have fear when facing its powerful anger. Because the sea does get angry.

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But not tonight. The rain has stopped and all is calm. Only a cat, dashing from one hiding place to the next, disturbs the stillness.

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I turn around and make my way to the warm apartment that I call home this week.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Without the advice of someone from the tourist office, my plans for the day are shaped by the train schedule. Where can I go that's close by and new for me? I still haven't done the local hikes around La Napoule, but today I want to do big things. There's plenty of sunshine and the temperatures are climbing. Aim high!

I decide on a trip to Grasse. It's so easy! A ten minute train ride to Cannes and change there for a twenty-two minute ride to Grasse. As a benefit, on the way back I can finally stick that toe in the city that I've avoided all these years. I don't know Cannes at all. I think I visited it when I was thirteen years old, but at this point, if you asked me what I associate with Cannes, I'll say -- the May film festival and glitzy shops, people and boats. To me, it represents "the Riviera" side of the shoreline here and I don't mean that as a complement.

The train that will connect to Grasse leaves Mandelieu-La Napoule at 9:47. That gives me plenty of time to get a good cafe breakfast.

But is that what I want? The sun is streaming into the apartment, the terrace looks so inviting!

I go out to the bakery, purchase a small croissant, a small pain au chocolat and a half a baguette...

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...and take my breakfast out to the balcony.

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The view is toward the marina across the street. I almost don't want to leave.

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Alright alright alright. Off I go!

Are you asking what's in Grasse? Okay, let me pump you with some basic information about the place. It's in the hills, away from the shore a bit. The hills protect it from prevailing winds and they create a micro climate that is extremely suitable for growing flowers. Grasse is known as the perfume capital of the world. It produces over two thirds of France's natural aromas used in perfume, body care products and foods (it's the food flavorings that saved the town from stagnation ofter many of the perfume companies were bought by international conglomerates, who then took the industry elsewhere and, too, began to rely on synthetic chemicals for many of the scents you'll now find at least in part and especially in the less expensive perfumes). Grasse has been in the business of creating natural scents for several centuries. If you deal in perfume, you'll know about Grasse.

A town with such a long history of scent production is going to be big: Grasse has a population of over 50,000. I have a mild interest in seeing this perfume aspect of Grasse and I know, too, that it has a very pretty medieval old town. Initially, I thought it may also offer some hikes into the hills, but that proved to be false, so I concentrated my walk on the old town.

I start, of course, at the train station. If there is one thing that has been elusive for me on this trip it's the reliable Tourist Office. I need maps! I need information! Can anyone tell me where it is? No they cannot. One person (wrongly) tells me it's in the center of the old town. Well great! It's where I'm heading! Which way is the old town?
Take the bus.
But I want to walk!
There are many steps.

Each time I asked for directions,  I hear the same words -- there are many steps.

On this point, everyone is so right.

I am the only one using them going up and I can so understand why. There are many steps!

But the old town is really pretty! Yes, much of it looks especially beautiful against that blue sky -- I'm in Provence after all and the building colors are a perfect match to it.

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I do still need my maps and information, but this part of the walk is already good!

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The Tourist Office seems to have moved fairly recently and so I cross virtually the whole old town before I find it and therefore I only half listen to the agent's explanation of where I should walk and how I should go about discovering Grasse. I feel I've already plenty discovered it. And I really like what I see.

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Still, the perfume aspect of it is eluding me so I decide to pause for a while at the museum of perfume.

I don't regret it, but nor do I especially benefit much from it. Yes, scent has been important for human development since ancient times. Yes, over the centuries aromas have contributed to everything from hiding body odor to creating religious rites and developing a sophisticated cuisine. But it's not until I reach the part of the exhibit that explains how Grasse's industry flourished that I really begin reading what's posted on the walls.

(On this particular wall there is a mirror. I put it to good use.)

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And I like the little terrace with the orange trees and the blooming rose.

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You would think that I'd be all museumed out after this, but less than a block away there is the museum of Fragonard - a leading perfume maker in France -- and that museum is free, so perhaps I should peek in there as well? Here's the building, against the panorama looking down to the sea. (It's funny: when you are in the hills and mountains, you relish the distant view of the sea. When you are by the sea, you get excited by the sight of mountains in the background.)

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I do an even faster walk through there and I skip the factory tour because I would have to wait quite a bit for it. (I do peek at the vats where the maceration of the flowers takes place. No photo needed: they look like big vats for processing wine or whiskey or any other liquid.)

And I do pause in their basement shop because it's fascinating to see this world of scents translated into the retailing of perfumes. I've stopped using any perfumes since I met Ed (though lotions are another story). Not even eau de toilette. He thinks that stuff is weird.  I don't necessarily agree, but it's not as if I have any use for it at all at the farmette. It just doesn't fit with planting flowers, tending chickens and looking after my granddaughter. Ah, but I have two daughters! And so I linger. And sure enough, I make the purchase. I am a sucker for a good sales pitch. All the images of jasmine (Fragonard's "flower of 2015")? Right to my head. Out comes the credit card.

After the second museum, I don't linger. I've seen the two interesting sides to Grasse. I can catch the train back to Cannes.

Ah, Cannes. Nothing like having low expectations to make you actually feel quite good about your visit to a place!

It start on the right foot: a poke into an exquisite patisserie, lured less by the sight of beautiful pastries...

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...and more by the sight of my beloved macarons. I purchase six.

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I also go to the Galeries Lafayette (France's leading department store) and purchase a pair of polka dot slippers  -- I need them for the apartment and will use them at the farmhouse -- and too, several delightful girlie things for my granddaughter back home. Think: summer in sundresses with strawberries and playsuits with orange poppies.

A bit loaded down with bags, I nonetheless persevere with a sight seeing agenda. I find the tourist office (finally! the requisite brochures, maps and schedules!) and I learn about hikes near La Napoule (there are plenty!). And I get directions for a walking tour of Cannes. I do "part one" this afternoon -- of the old town. I take few photos, in part because I'm loaded down and in part because I have the old town for you from Grasse and I feel there are only so many scenes of yellow shuttered buildings against blue skies that you can take in one sitting.

But I will put up one pic of a typical cafe scene along the grander boulevards.

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Lots of women with very yellow hair and expensive handbags, just as I imagined Cannes would have.

Still, the old town is quiet. The blocks wind up a steep hill and there are almost no people on them. Just the occasional person enjoying the warm air. In Wisconsin, he'd be in shorts. I've long discarded my jacket! Warm climate people get cold easily!

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The castle up on top is closed today (perhaps this explains the almost complete emptiness of the area),  but the views from here are magnificent! Of Cannes below...

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There's a stone wall, so I can do a time-release selfie!

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And facing west, you see the more hilly, rugged area just west of La Napoule.

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And now just a few more minutes of strolling the streets -- I have a 5:03 pm train to catch for the ten minute ride to La Napoule.

Dinner? I go back to my first night's place -- La Neapolis. Yes, there are other choices, but honestly, this one is just crowded with people and I like that. And the food is more than fine -- I take a pasta dish with gambas and thin slivers of zucchini. Delicious!

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At home, I open the bottle Jean-Paul and Martine left for me -- of an Alsatian Cremant (bubbly). It is superb, especially when paired with my macarons!

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I upped the walking hours today. I'm happily tired. And full of plans for the week ahead.