I was woken up by a voice blaring over the ship’s intercom. For a brief moment, I thought there was some kind of an emergency. Why else would they making announcements? Then I heard the words, “We will arrive in Villefranche within the hour.” I sat up with a jolt and fumbled for my phone. Man, I really must’ve had some serious jetlag; I’d slept from about 9 PM – something unheard of for a night owl like me – all the way to almost 10 in the morning. As the announcement continued, I awkwardly stood up and nearly stumbled over my duffel bag. In my stupor last night, I’d overlooked an obvious consequence of having an interior state room: there were no windows, which meant no light. Aside from the tiny dot glowing from the eye hole on the door, we were in complete darkness. And with no clock aside from our phones or turning on the TV, our sense of time was effectively shot.
Also, my phone was displaying the wrong time. It was set to change automatically, but it always reverted to Greenwich Mean Time whenever I was in the room. I didn’t want to connect to the ship’s network – the roaming and data usage costs would’ve been horrendous – which meant my phone couldn’t be used in the room for accurate timekeeping, let alone messaging or Internet access. My old iPod Touch became an unexpectedly useful replacement; I couldn’t get online (which is a blessing in disguise), but I could change the time manually without having to worry about network issues. Besides, that little music player did everything I needed; I can estimate time based on the position of the sun, but taking a cruise requires much more precision. After a few days of excursions and scheduled dinners, and everything else, you will learn effective time management.
I shook off my grogginess and got dressed. No time left to shower. Not now, so close to our first stop already. We still had to get tickets for the tenders, the smaller boats that would transfer us from the ship to the shore. While Mom was still getting ready, I quickly went up a couple of decks and found the ticket counter. We hadn’t scheduled any excursions, which meant getting to town after most of the other passengers had left. We’d be on Tender #8. Another hour’s wait, but was fine. More time to get prepped and eat. After meeting with Mom, we headed to the Windjammer buffet for breakfast. Getting their required a little effort: Taking the stairs from Deck 3 to 9, then walking around the open-air swimming pool. It seemed like a tall order at first – most passengers simply took the elevators, which was slower, crowded, but far less physically demanding – but it eventually became my daily warm-up routine. It paid off, too. I’m already in decent shape thanks to all the hiking I do throughout San Francisco, but I spent almost every waking moment of this trip either climbing stairs, walking, or simply being on my feet. I actually lost a belt notch.
It definitely wasn’t for lack of food, either; the Windjammer was equipped with nearly everything you could want for breakfast. Cereals, fruits, vegetables, bread, bacon and other meat, sandwiches, little cakes, all kinds of juices, teas, and coffee…Yeah, I ate like a king. The buffet also served as our daily supermarket; we didn’t want to spend too much money on food while at port, so we simply brought an insulated bag with us each morning and stocked up. I think I had a turkey breast and Swiss cheese sandwich every lunch until we got back to Barcelona. After watching me practically inhale a couple of bread rolls and several watermelon and pineapple slices, and downing three glasses of apple juice (I was going to be walking all day, after all), Mom told me that we still had time to kill, and that I needed to slow down. She was right, too. Getting such a rough wake up call had left me feeling rushed and stressed, which is no way to start a vacation. I took a deep breath and sat back, finally taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.
I’d seen photos of the French Riviera before. I knew what to expect; the brightly-colored buildings clustered atop sparkling water and rocky outcroppings, with hills looming in the background. But like any great place, seeing it in person was a completely different experience. What struck me most about Villefranche-sur-Mer wasn’t its beautiful architecture, or even its surprisingly quiet waters. I was much more interested in how the land itself was formed; everything seemed to stem from only a couple of lush hills, creating mini-ridges that spread off in every direction. Steep cliff faces loomed down the coast to the right, dwarfing the buildings lining the waterfront. To the left, the hotels, houses, and roads twisted and stretched further inland, tempting people to come upslope and explore. Citadelle Saint-Elme stood nearby, keeping watch over a city that no longer needed its protection. How much history had happened in just this harbor? How many ships had sailed here? How many people wandered up those hills and into France? No idea. I grabbed my camera and spent the rest of the waiting time on Deck 10, taking photos and ignoring the morning chill. When I finally boarded Tender #8, I made sure to get one of the drop seats next to the open-air doorway. Taking good photos from a moving boat is pretty difficult; I have reasonably steady hands, but a lot of my shots didn’t turn out well. After a few failed attempts, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride with my own eyes. Villefranche was someplace new, and I didn’t want to miss it.
The trip to the dock took only a few minutes. As we navigated around a rocky outcropping and a couple of sailboats, I was surprised by how quiet and relaxed the place seemed. Unlike most of the ports I’ve visited – especially the United States – everything looked clean and fresh. The waterfront was decorated with a row of gorgeous, multicolored hotels and cafes. No litter, no dull roar of the tourist crowd. Just quiet, paved streets winding up the hill, the occasional moped parked in the shade of a tree, the faint clatter of a kitchen prepping for lunch, and a few pedestrians. The kind of sleepy little place you’d visit on a visit on a Sunday morning for a leisurely walk, or maybe to enjoy breakfast while watching the ships go by…In retrospect, maybe it was better that we left later than the rest. We disembarked and headed to the tourist information center nearby. We didn’t have an scheduled excursion, which meant we’d have to figure out how to get around ourselves. Also, that night would be the cruise’s first formal night; since our dinner was at 6 PM, we’d have to be back on the boat by 5 in order to wash up and prep. That meant catching a tender by 4:45. After getting a map and consulting a very patient attendant, we narrowed our options to two:
1) Climb up the hill and take the local bus to Nice, or
2) Take the bus or train to Monaco.
Mom’s been obsessed with the latter for years, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to recognize the location of the Monte Carlo. However, Mom pointed out that we could use timeshare in Monaco at a later date (and could explore more of the coast with less of a time limit), while Nice was a complete unknown. So, we followed the winding street up the hill, past Passage St. Elme – which has an absolutely gorgeous view of the harbor and clock tower – and deeper into town. The French have a bad rap when it comes to Americans (or maybe it’s the other way around), but the few locals we met along the way were kind enough to provide directions and a smile, even if we didn’t speak the language. I focused on studying Italian for this trip, so I was immensely grateful for the help.
After a couple of switchbacks and a street narrow enough to be an alley, we finally came upon the Octroi bus stop and waited for the #100. That route is popular for a reason; its final stop is the Nice marina, which makes it easy for tourists to find. It also runs frequently and only costs 1.50 Euros, which is still cheaper than most of the buses here in the Bay Area. The fact that I didn’t need exact change instantly made it better for me than MUNI. After finding a seat, I studied the route map. Nice, Villefranche, Beaulieu, Eze, Cap D’Ail, Monaco, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and Menton. All of these beautiful, luxurious places synonymous with the French Riviera…listed as mere bus stops. Perspective is funny like that.
After reaching the end of the line, Mom and I found an unattended café table and spread the map out. We settled on exploring the Old Town area; lots of historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops crammed into tiny alleys. Aside from the hordes of fellow tourists, what’s not to love? Getting that far required a little educated guesswork, though. Our map used a simple grid layout, which didn’t help once we reached Place Massena, with its massive expanse of chessboard-patterned pavement, Fontaine du Soleil, and crossroads in seemingly every direction. We’d walked past most of the Old Town’s border before we realized where we were. We dove headlong into the surge of visitors, edging our way through shady corridors and souvenir shops. I picked up a keychain – the first of many mementos on this trip – crossed a square, and came across a wall finely etched with a list of World War I casualties. Looking back, those memorials were everywhere; they were in remembrance of people who helped shape our present, yet they were overlooked by so many a century later.
Irony tastes bitter.
I took a step back and realized the list was part of the front wall of the Nice Cathedral, one of the most famous landmarks in the city. We didn’t go in, though; it was closed for the lunch hour, and we weren’t exactly dressed for the occasion. Instead, we found an empty table in front of the church and took a moment to rest, eat some food, and plan our next move. That brief respite ended when a polite-but-firm waitress came over and informed us that we’d taken one of the cafe’s tables, and that we’d have to leave if we weren’t going to buy anything. We sheepishly packed up and ate the rest of our sandwiches as we walked out of Old Town. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind; we’d have to turn back for the ship in a couple of hours, so we needed to keep things simple. We found the waterfront and walked on it for as long as we could, passing by a park, carousel, McDonald’s (Seriously, who goes to France to eat fast food?!), Hard Rock Café, the Centennial Monument, the closed Massena Museum, and the Hotel Negresco. We also snuck into another hotel to use its lobby bathrooms, but the attendants either didn’t notice or care.
When it came time to turn back, Mom suddenly realized she had no idea where we were or how to get back the way we came. I pointed out that the bus stop was at the marina; all we had to do was follow the coastline, and we’d get back to the starting point eventually. Besides, why go back the same way, when we could see more of the city by taking a different route? Mom reluctantly followed my lead (she tends to panic whenever she thinks she’s lost and conveniently forgets that I’ve been a reliable navigator on, you know, every trip we’ve taken together), and spent next half hour trying to find a shortcut back through Old Town.
Eventually, we hit a curve in the road: a small but steep hill jutting out from the rows of buildings, hiding the rest of Nice behind the bend. I looked closer and noticed the stairway heading up from street level. I immediately decided to climb, time limit and Mom’s protests notwithstanding. The sign at the bottom said it was only 90 meters, which is adorable compared to some of San Francisco’s hills. I went up quickly, not knowing what to expect. And man, did it pay off; Castle Hill is topped with a designated lookout point that displays Nice’s coastline, curving far into the horizon. I stood there, gaping and taking photos, while an old man with an accordion played for tourists’ pocket change. Mom made it up a few minutes later, and was astounded at the sight. In our random wandering, we’d stumbled across the best view in the city!
Time was running short, however. We descended Castle Hill and walked around it (and the Monument Aux Morts built into the other side), finally coming back to the marina. With almost perfect timing, too; we had to jog a little bit to meet the bus as it pulled up. There weren’t as many seats this time – we were far from the only tourists going back to the ship – and I ended up standing for the ride back. I also gave directions to quite a few fellow cruise-goers; they were confused about which stop they needed to use to get back, and were surprised to find out I wasn’t French. Hooray for blending in! After getting off at Octroi, Mom and I retraced our steps back to the waterfront. We didn’t go straight for the tender, though; as we walked passed the entrance to Citadelle Saint-Elme, we realized that we still had just under an hour left to kill. We decided to take a chance and made a detour into the monument. Much like the area it overlooked, the citadel was surprisingly quiet and empty. The interior buildings had several works of art on display, mostly medieval paintings and miniature figurines, as well a large collection of sculptures. Centuries-old cannons lay rusting in the ramparts, providing a nice view of Villefranche’s bay. Eventually, we finally ran out of time. The 4:45 tender was a double-decker, so I took the opportunity to climb upstairs and ride back on one of the open-air chairs. A few tourists still lingering in a nearby café watched us depart and waved. I waved back, wondering if I’d ever get to see this place again.
After getting back to our stateroom, I wearily shrugged off my backpack and sat down on the end of the bed. I closed my eyes and waited for my turn in the shower. It doesn’t matter how in shape you are; walking all day in the sun while lugging around a pack with a DSLR, travel guidebook, lunches. and water for two people is enough to make anyone tired. After getting washed up, it was already time for the formal dinner. I normally pack light when I travel, so bringing a suit was something new for me. Dressing up for the cruise wasn’t mandatory – I could’ve just gone to the Windjammer – but I didn’t want to miss such a unique experience. I wasn’t the only one, either; when we went upstairs an hour later, the halls were bustling with guests decked out in their finest. Mom and I waited in line to have our portraits taken, then headed for Aquarius. The dinner itself was uneventful, though eating ice cream in a suit proved a little tricky.
With the meal out of the way, the cruise scheduled a couple hours’ worth of live music and acrobatic stunts in the ship’s central hub. Huge crowds and I do not get along, so I grabbed my camera and decided to explore the ship while everyone was distracted. I wandered up and down each deck and took photos, from the empty movie theater and casino on Deck 5, to the neon-illuminated pool and the rock wall on Deck 9, to the quiet lounge and lonely dance floor on Deck 6, to the dead-end exterior stairs that led to the top of the ship on Deck 11, and back down again.
And yes, I did it all in a suit.
I didn’t feel like changing so quickly, and I liked the attention I was getting from the onlookers. It’s amazing how much leeway and manners people give when you look like a million bucks and act like you’re supposed to be there. Forget going to Monaco to get a taste of James Bond; this was one of the few moments where I could order a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” and gotten away with it! I did my share of people-watching, too; while everyone else was craning their necks upward to see the acrobats, I was peering down at the show from the railing next to the Deck 11 elevators. I also came across a lovely young woman who looked like what can only be described as a princess. Elegant, covered with jewelry, and a huge, white ball gown that trailed out for a few feet behind her. There were whispers from the onlookers, that she must be a newlywed or royalty; she certainly seemed beautiful and lively enough to draw everyone’s focus. I later found out that she was celebrating her quinceañera with her family, and immediately felt like a creepy old man. Ugh. What a way to end the night.