July in the Cote d’ Azur can be hectic and swamped with tourists, so it was difficult to pre-plan our travels for the city, so my crew and I disembarked the ship without any set itinerary.
Known for the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo, this small country of Monaco is actually comprised of 5 different districts, Monte Carlo being one of them.
The ship docked at the base of Monaco-Ville (the old town) where the popular Prince’s Palace is located. While we were told that there is an elevator that can take you up the steep cliff to the grounds, we never found it and ended up climbing up the many steps of the pedestrian walkway. It was a relief to find a shady area to cool off in the plaza that had spectacular views across the harbor.
The palace is impressive, having been built in the 13th century at the site of a Genoese fortress. It’s the Royal residence as well as a museum and there is a changing of the guard every day that is a major tourist attraction in Monaco.
Across the plaza, I came to a restaurant with marvelous views overlooking the sea and within a few minutes I was with the owner sitting at a table on the verandah and eating tasty local stock fish and other Monaco specialties. Phillipe Bonafede runs this 60 year old family restaurant called Castelroc, that although loved by tourists, is a long and established favorite for locals too. It is the only one with authentic Monagesque dishes that are seasonal and locally sourced.
After that visit, it was time for more walking around the hilly area known as “the rock”. Passing St. Nicholas Cathedral, the oceanographic museum and meandering through the lovely Princess Grace botanical garden. Meandering back down the hill and into Monte Carlo we stopped in at Patisserie Riviera on the Boulevard des Moulins for a drink and a rest. The pastries looked too good to pass up, and the owner gave me one of their local favorites, a chestnut cream pastry, along with some French macarons.
Feeling energized, (or was it just a sugar rush?), it was more walking to the fabulous Place du Casino. The place was mobbed with tourists as well as people attending a special event that evening, so I only was able to get a quick glimpse inside. But, it was spectacular. Surrounding the casino is the famous Hotel de Paris and Café de Paris, and one of the big bends for the Formula One car race held annually.
Although we definitely walked more than we hoped for a hot day, we still had to get back to the ship and now took the road back down the hill, past some amazing shops and through more beautiful gardens until we found the way to the port. Back onboard, it was time to relax with a cold glass of wine and take in the beauty of Monaco from the comfortable chairs on the ship’s promenade deck.
Most people know St. Tropez because of the actress Brigitte Bardot who, back in the 1950’s, starred in a film that made this small fishing village town in the South of France a popular and fashionable getaway for the “beautiful people.” I was hoping that there would be more to see than just yachts and expensive shops, and when I found an old cruising friend on board, JJ, I convinced him to be my guide for the day.
We tendered on into the port where masses of people were milling about in and out of the waterside coffee shops. We left the masses and meandered through pretty cobble-stoned streets and lanes to what JJ explained was the more traditional and less touristy side of town by the old fishing piers in La Ponche.
Overlooking a small rocky beach filled with locals cooling off from the hot summer sun, we sat down for a meal at La Pesquiere restaurant that JJ said had very good, down to earth Provencal food. We were serenaded by roving musicians while gorging on mussels and steak tartare, a St Tropez favorite it seems.
Proving that St Tropez maintains some of its old world customs we headed over to Place des Lices, the town’s central square. This tree-lined park surrounded by cafes is used as an open air market a couple of mornings a week, but the rest of the time it is the spot for Boules (or Petanque as it’s called here). Old time players come spend their afternoons and nights competing (and take the game quite seriously too). No chance at all for me to have a go.
There were two more places on JJ’s list that he told me he stops by on every visit to St Tropez. The first is an unassuming and unpretentious pub by the marina called Kelly’s Pub. I wouldn’t have anticipated going to an Irish Pub in the South of France but this turned out to be a fun and very friendly spot with probably the most inexpensive drinks you can get in St Tropez.
Then, our final stop was at Glacier Barbarac, a busy ice cream store that serves an unbelievable number of flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurts. We managed to nudge our way to the front and get ourselves some. Honestly, I can’t remember what I ordered but I know it was good since I devoured it rather quickly.
While JJ had to get back to the ship, I continued to stroll around a bit and even bought a few fun reasonably priced gifts before having to leave this quite charming and welcoming town.C
I was looking forward to the next stop on this cruise as we were headed to Corsica, a region of France I have never visited. Our ship would dock in Ajaccio on the west coast of the island. I had arranged to meet with Guide Olivier Chavaren from Colorateur who planned a day outside of this capital city and into the mountains for some authentic experiences.
We took a winding and curvy road about 30 minutes into the small village of Campo and stopped at the very pretty Chatelet de Campo, a recently restored and beautiful house converted into a bed & breakfast situated in the midst of the surrounding mountains.
I was greeted by the very hospitable owner, Elizabeth Herzet who after a tour around the B&B brought me into the kitchen where the table was full of local Corsican specialties including a freshly baked heart shaped cake that was made from chestnut flour, a very typical and characteristic ingredient here. There also were all kinds of homemade jams and local goat cheese that comes from nearby Corsican goats. While I hoped we would get to see the cheese making process in action, it turns out that the season was done so I would have to be satisfied with simply seeing the goats.
Little did I know that we would be hiking down a long hilly dirt path in the very hot sun to find ourselves in the midst of a field, making strange noises to entice the goats to approach us. It was a bit odd, but I have to admit the goats did make an appearance and were pretty friendly.
I had a bit of time to cool off in the minivan before our next stop at the bee farm of Francois Andreucci. Before getting my lesson in beekeeping and honey making, I was met by the charming and gracious Sylvain Martinez-Ciccolini, who is one of the only saffron producers in Corsica. He explained how this delicate spice comes from a particular type of crocus flower that only blooms once a year and it’s a very fragile process to remove the dried stigma that is used. This explains why it is so costly.
With one more stop to go, we arrive at a small, rustic looking restaurant called Ferme Auberge U Taravu in the village of Zevaco that serves regional Corsican food. Olivier takes me downstairs where there is a shop selling all the local dried meats and sausages that are hanging up throughout the various basement rooms. It was quite a site and quite a smell too. We went back to sit in the dining room upstairs that was busy with locals having their lunches and we were served a fabulous plate of charcuterie, pate and some absolutely incredible cheeses.