Two Weeks In Europe: Day 3 – Villefranche, Nice, and James Bond

Continued from Day 2…

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.

To be continued on Day 4…

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Two Weeks In Europe: Day 2 – Boarding The Vision of the Seas

Continued from Day 1.

Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.

The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?

After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.

It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.

Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.

We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.

After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.

To be continued on Day 3…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Relic, Or: The Old Boat

Lahaina Relic

On the way to Lahaina Harbor, I came across the Hale Pa‘ahao Prison. While it’s a small museum, it still has some interesting relics to see.

The Balclutha

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The Balclutha

Originally built in 1886, the Balclutha is now a National Historic Landmark at Aquatic Park, San Francisco. In the left of the picture, you can see the Transamerica Pyramid in the distance. Hidden on the other side of the ship is a perfect view of Ghirardelli Square.

The Bay Bridge

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The Bay Bridge

Everyone knows about the Golden Gate, but anyone who’s commuted from the East Bay knows the Bay Bridge is just as important. Fun fact: after its renovations back in September 2013, it now holds the Guinness World Record for the widest bridge ever built.

Daily Prompt: Safety First, Or: Hanging On In Thailand

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt focuses on safety. Or rather, the lack thereof. Despite evidence to the contrary, danger is not my middle name. However, it’s something with which I’m all too familiar. My neighborhood is bad, even for this city’s – one of the worst in California’s – standards. Robberies, shootings, muggings, drug dealings, and yes, even murders happen with alarming frequency. You know all those TV crime dramas that are so popular? Yeah, it’s not so fun when you actually live in those places. It’s most certainly not safe to go for an evening stroll, and it’s not much better even in broad daylight. My morning commute starts (there’s still a bus and subway ride to undertake) with a nearly two mile trek through this urban wasteland, complete with the unspoken understanding that there is a high chance of me not reaching my destination. You’ve probably heard the term fight or flight. It’s an instinctive, physiological response to perceived threats. Everyone has it, even you. While most would assume that I’m flight – it’s easy to dismiss a quiet bookworm – experience has taught me quite the opposite.

I don’t fear death. Most people – especially men due to outdated gender expectations – simply state that as a form of false bravado or confidence. It’s nothing but silly posturing. For me, it’s not about bravery, mental stability, or even a lack of self-preservation. I’ve understood and accepted my mortality for years, because I’ve faced it directly. I’ve come within seconds and inches of dying a few times. I could regale you stories of fighting a house fire, weathering storms in the Sierra Nevadas, nearly falling from the peak of Gibraltar, or nearly freezing one winter night in Le Métropolitain. I’m not sure if it’s because death is stalking me, or I’m just too foolish to avoid it.

Remember the photo of a sunset I posted a few weeks back? That was taken one fine evening in Phuket, Thailand. The rest of the week there wasn’t nearly as glamorous. I was in Southeast Asia just in time for the start of its monsoon season. If you’re from California and think El Niño is bad, you haven’t seen anything. The downpours are relatively brief, but they’re strong. People have to scramble for cover because an umbrella just won’t cut it. It was like that for most of my trip in Thailand. But one morning, the clouds parted just enough that it seemed okay to explore the neighboring Phi Phi Islands.

Yeah, you can see where this is going.

The cruise itself was great, though a little bumpy. I was in a speedboat alongside a dozen or so other tourists. It wasn’t crowded enough to be unpleasant, and the drinks were free. The islands were absolutely gorgeous – you’ll see soon enough – and everything seemed to be going well. We had just finished lunch and cast off for the next island, right on schedule. But suddenly, the world turned dark. It was like something out of an apocalyptic movie. A glance at the sky revealed something far more real; we had sailed practically headlong into a monsoon. The crew scrambled to assemble the the overhanging tarp, but they didn’t get to it fast enough. Within seconds, everyone was drenched to the bone. It wasn’t pleasant like taking a shower, it was like being sprayed by a fire hose. People slipped and stumbled as the waves churned. A child was huddled near one of the front seats, wailing. The thunder roared. The waves swelled and knocked us around. The boat was nearly on its side, and I was feebly clinging to a railing. I managed a peek toward the island swaying in the distance. It was too far. Too far to swim. I am going to drown here. I’m not going to make it out of this alive. I’m not sure if it was the realization or the seawater that gave me the chill. I just closed my eyes and didn’t let go.

I’m not sure how long it lasted. It felt like hours. I didn’t dare take out my phone with all the water around. But eventually the waves subsided, and the torrent of water gave way to sprinkles, then tropical sun. I opened my eyes. Everyone was still there and drenched from head to toe. I couldn’t stop shaking. My legs didn’t want to work. All I could do was just sit down and breathe. Eventually we managed to get the boat back on course and to the next island, where we wearily stumbled off into white sands and the warmth of the sun. It didn’t take long to dry off, but we stayed on that beach for quite a while. The trip back was fine, but I never went out on the water there again. Photographing sunsets seemed better for some reason.

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