Europe 2016 diary: day 10

Monday, 7 November, 2016. 20:56

We woke up a little later today, getting up only after 07:00. After showering, we went down to breakfast and filled up for the day. They had some chocolate biscuits half dipped in chocolate, and I had to try one, and it was good. I noticed while having breakfast that the hotel dog was in the kitchen next to the breakfast room; I guess that’s just a thing that happens in Italy. I wondered aloud if they had bananas, and M. said yes, there were some in the fruit basket. I got one and returned to the table. M. said I could save it for later… just as I cracked the stem to start peeling it. I realised saving it was probably a good idea, but it was too late now! So I had to eat it right away.

We packed our bags and checked out. We decided to walk over to the Arione shop to get some photos of this historical place, and by the time we got back to the car it would be after 09:00, when ticketed parking started. So M. fed the meter to get a ticket, with the help of the hotel guy. He’d also helped us take our luggage out to the car, and had generally been very friendly and helpful.

Unfortunately when we arrived at the Arione shop, it was shuttered, and a check of the hours revealed that it didn’t open on Mondays until 12:30! So I took some photos of the posters outside, and we walked back to the car. This led us past two chocolate and pastry shops there were open, right next door to each other. Both also sold cuneesi al rhum, but what caught my eye was bottles of amaro bitters of various brands in one of them. It sold small bottles, and I decided to get one to take home. After purchasing this, we went to the car and drove off, heading towards France.

Tunnel queue
Cars and trucks queuing to pass through the Col de Tende tunnel

We drove up into the Ligurian Alps, passing the last Italian town of Limone on the way to the border. Just before the Col de Tende pass at the top of the valley, we ran into a queue of cars, stopped at a red light. Next to the light was a display showing the number 14. After a few seconds, I divined that the 14 was indicating how many minutes until the light would go green and we could proceed through the tunnel immediately ahead. Seeing others ahead of us turn their cars off and get out for a stretch, I did likewise, taking the opportunity to take some photos of the scenic valley with the forest around us. One guy ahead of us let his dog out for a walk too.

After the counter slowly ticked down the minutes to zero, we took off in the procession of cars through the tunnel. There was some roadwork happening just before the tunnel, but the tunnel itself was indeed a single lane. I suspect it was open for half an hour in each direction alternately. The Col de Tende Road Tunnel was some three and a bit kilometres long, and let us out into France, where the road immediately switchbacked down a steep slope where many workers were rebuilding the road to improve it. It was only several hundred metres past the tunnel that we met the queue of cars waiting to go through in the other direction, and two-way traffic recommenced.

Tende panorama
Tende village

On this French side of the mountain range, we were in the Parc National du Mercantour. There was an immediately noticeable difference in the scenery from the Italian side. There the trees had been mostly yellow in their autumn foliage. On this side of the range, most of the trees were still green. Many here were pine trees, which would of course stay green all winter, but even the deciduous ones were mostly still green. The Italian side didn’t have many pine trees and all the other trees were changing colour.

We wound our way down the valley, reaching the village of Tende, where we stopped to have a look around. We found free parking spots by the railway station and left the car there while we went to explore the village. Walking south we passed a few shops, but both boulangeries were closed, one for renovations and one apparently on Mondays. There was a butcher (closed), a hairdresser (closed), a cheese shop (closed), a small supermarket (open), a couple of cafes, and that was about it. We turned back after crossing a small bridge across the stream and walked back the other way to the tourist information office.

Tende main road
Main road of Tende

Here a friendly lady helped us by giving us brochures on each of the five towns along the road south, and telling us what we could do in each one. She said not to bother with the first one as nothing would be open there today. She recommended we go visit the Musée de Merveilles, right next door, which was what we were planning to do. I asked if there were some walks we could do in the national park, just something short and easy, an hour or so. She asked us if we had “mountain shoes”. We said no, then she came around and looked at our shoes, before saying there were some walks we could do from Tende. One was up the hill to the west to see the old stone tower which we’d seen high above the town. One was up the hill to the east, to L’Aigle, or The Eagle, a lookout spot which she said had beautiful views, about twenty minutes there, and the same back again by a different route. We decided to do that after checking the museum first.

Bronze Age artefacts, Musée de Merveilles

The Musée de Merveilles is a showcase for the ancient people who lived in the mountain valleys of the region, beginning from the Paleolithic era some 3300 years ago, up to the Iron Age. The Paleolithic and Neolithic people had carved thousands of glyphs and figures into the rocks of the mountains over the centuries, and these distinctive figures of stylised horned animals, people, and geometric figures seemed to be a proud symbol of Tende as we saw them reproduced on many buildings and business signs throughout the town.

The museum had a two long halls, connected at the far end to form a loop, which showed various artefacts from the region. The story began with the geology, with a couple of displays of the local rocks and mountain formations. Then humans entered the picture, with skilfully shaped stone arrow heads, stone axes, and delicate stone knives in the displays. There were several life size dioramas of people hunting bighorn sheep or chamois goats, or preparing copper for casting axe heads, and so on. The time periods progressed from the Neolithic to the Copper, Bronze, and finally Iron Ages, with relevant artefacts from each period on display. There were many reproductions of rocks with carvings on them, and a few actual rocks removed from their sites to be shown in the museum. Further around the hall, the time period moved to early historical periods, and showed farming implements and domestic items such as lace making and cooking tools.

Carved horn
Carved horn, Musée de Merveilles

This was the permanent exhibition. In another room was a temporary exhibit, currently of photos of the rock carvings in situ, illuminated at night with starlit skies above them. They were good photos, showing off the sites in a unique way. We used the toilets here at the museum before heading off back into the middle of the village to a cafe to find some lunch.

We chose the cafe La Merenda, after seeing that they had quiches and savoury tarts on display. M. chose a slice of tart des legumes, or vegetable tart, while I had an individual sized quiche lorraine. The lady heated them up for us, and made M. a cappuccino, while we also grabbed a bottle of water to share. The display also had a few cakes and things, including a row of milles feuilles, or vanilla slices. I had one of those too, to review for my blog.

Mercantour walk
Path to L’Aigle lookout

Following the lunch, we returned to the car to collect my camera gear, and a few extra bits of clothing for warmth, as we then set out up the hill to L’Aigle. The air was chilly, and there was a wind which I figured would make us feel cold on the exposed hill. The walk began with a turn off the main street, but following the map on the brochure the woman had given us was confusing, and we made a couple of wrong turns before figuring out the way down to the stream, where we crossed on a small bridge under the rail bridge high above. The road climbed steeply to the driveway of a house here, and then slightly beyond, where it turned left under the rail bridge. But here a sign pointed the way up to L’Aigle, along a fairly well trodden grassy path running along the edge of the forest.

After climbing a bit more, the path turned into the trees, continuing under a shelter of autumn foliage. The only trees I recognised where beeches and pines of some sort, but there were plenty of others. There were actually signs every so often showing the species of a nearby tree. The path was well maintained and easy to follow, and pretty with a layer of scattered yellow leaves underfoot. There were intermittent views down to the village below through the trees. As the path wound higher, the soft footing gave way to exposed roots of trees, then gradually into bits of exposed slate rock, showing its distinctive layers. Tiny pine cones were scattered everywhere on and around the track, about the size of a date.

View over Tende, from L’Aigle

We reached the top of the path where it opened out into a grassy knoll with a wonderful view over the village and the valley in both directions, although there were still bare rock peaks high above us. At this lookout spot there was a small obelisk made of rock, topped with a sculpture of an eagle, maybe twice life size, peering out over the valley. We stopped to take in the view and get some photos. It was a bit windy up here, but not too bad. Then we began the walk down the other side of the ridge, taking a similar path although this slope was more exposed, with fewer trees, and the path crunched over rock for more of the way.

Old street of Tende
Street in old part of Tende

This led us down to the southern part of the village, emerging behind some houses with chickens in the back yards. We rejoined the main road near the southern bridge we’d crossed at the furthest extent of our previous walk through the village. Rather than walk straight back up the main road, this time we turned off on the western side, to explore some of the side streets, where the brochure indicated some sights, including a couple of churches and another scenic view of the town. We went into the Collegiate Church Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption to see the amazing blue ceiling and other decorations. The narrow streets of this old town region were very interesting and picturesque, though a little grey and run down. We didn’t get as high as the circular tower overlooking the town, or the prominent cemetery adjacent to it which was visible from below.

Collegiate Church Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption
Collegiate Church of Tende

Returning to the car, we continued our drive south through the Parc du Mercantour. We stopped a few times by the side of the road to take some photos, but otherwise drove straight through so we could arrive in Monaco before sunset. We passed through the village of Saorge, where there was a police van and several officers blocking the road. An officer walked over and asked to see in the boot of our car. I didn’t know how to open it from the inside, so had to get out and open it. He took a quick look at our luggage and waved us on. I’m guessing they were looking for people smuggling or something like that. Next we took a turn to head through Sospel, then exited the park and joined a motorway that took us along the coast towards Monaco. After exiting the motorway, the road wound down through steep terrain towards the principality.

Mercantour National Park
Driving through Mercantour National Park

We entered the French town of Beausoleil, which borders Monaco, and here navigation became tricky and very important. Using the Google Maps route, we managed to make all the turns we needed, to end up driving past the Novotel Monte Carlo on the wrong side of the street, in quite heavy traffic, and with no sign of anywhere to stop except for a small area, about three cars long, right in front of the hotel which was marked for hotel use. About 100 metres past the hotel I found what looked like a bank with half a dozen off-street parking spots in front of it, mostly empty, where I executed a U turn, so we could drive up to the hotel parking spots. But by the time we returned there, all the spots were taken when a van coming from the other direction veered across the oncoming traffic in front of us and parked the wrong way around! With traffic behind me, I couldn’t stop. so had to keep driving.

I tried to execute a round-the-block manoeuvre to do another drive past, or perhaps find somewhere to park for a while, but the traffic was crazy, the streets were narrow and twisty, and there was nowhere at all to stop without blocking the traffic. My attempt at turning around was frustrated by several one way streets, but eventually I managed to return to the original street and drive by the Novotel on the wrong side once again. By now there was a space free in the three hotel spots right out front, so I did the U-turn in the bank car park again and hoped it would still be free by the time we drove back. It was! I did a reverse park as traffic flowed around us, and we stopped the car and pulled our luggage out.

We went in and checked in, and a valet asked if we had a car. I pointed to it outside, and he asked if we’d like him to park it for us. Given the impossibility of us finding a spot unassisted, we accepted this eagerly and gave him the key in exchange for a ticket. We went up to our room, which has a view to the north across a few streets within Monaco and then up the hill to Beausoleil.

Monte Carlo Casino
Casino of Monte Carlo

After dumping our things, we headed out for a first look at Monaco and to find some dinner. We headed east towards the Casino of Monte Carlo, having to descend several stairs and escalators down the hill to emerge near the gardens in front of the casino. Here we walked through the Pavilions, a series of expensive fashion shops in a chain of modern white buildings shaped like large bubbles. This led us towards the Casino, which is a magnificent Belle Époque building situated amidst gardens.

We went into a nearby souvenir shops briefly, then figured we may as well try to get into the casino, if the doormen would let us in. They looked in M.’s handbag and briefly waved a metal detector over us in a half hearted sort of way, then waved us inside. We emerged into a large and ornately decorate foyer, which was empty. There were stairs leading up, but these were roped off with “staff only” signs. Looking to the left, we saw a large room which appeared to have people in it, playing various gambling games. But as we approached, another guard stopped us and said we needed to get an entry ticket at the cashier, pointing us at a service counter in a corner of the foyer. We walked over there, and saw that these apparently cost €10 a person. Just to enter the gaming room! We weren’t that keen for a look, so we walked back outside.

The casino at Monte Carlo. Note the cars.
Casino with parked cars

Skirting around the casino, we headed to the lower gardens down the hill, then took a street running around the harbour. I wanted to get down to the waterfront, but it was difficult figuring out how to get down the hill with all the roads at different levels running parallel to the water. We didn’t manage it, and just walked along a road heading downhill until we emerged on Boulevard Albert I, running parallel to the harbour front, but separated from it by a strip of amusement park rides and sideshows. We passed some shops and restaurants here, and started picking likely ones for dinner. Many were Italian, and looked somewhat touristy.

As we walked, we came across Rue Princesse Caroline, a pedestrian zone extending inland, lined with more shops and places to eat. So we walked up here, passing a few decent looking pizza places, and also a gelateria. We almost reached the end and decided to walk back down towards the water and try one of the pizza places we passed. It was called Bella Vita, and though it looked a bit touristy, it seemed okay, and we really felt like some pizza. It was doing a busy trade already at 18:30, and we got a table squished in right next to an American couple. He talked loudly throughout their meal, complaining that the pizza was “doughy” and asking for it to be taken back and crisped up. The waiter said, “the chef, he is Italian, this is how he makes it,” but took it away. When it returned a few minutes later the American told his partner that it was no different.

Pizza at Bella Vita
Four seasons pizza at Bella Vita

We ordered a margherita pizza for M. and a four seasons for me, which was red capsicum, artichoke, mushrooms, and ham on the four quarters of the pizza. The crust and base were fine; I really don’t know what the American was complaining about. And the toppings were yummy. It might have been a bit touristy, but it was a pretty good Italian style pizza. We had glasses of red wine, picking the first one on the list, which only listed a winery and maybe a region of Italy or France. It seemed to be similar to a Pinot noir, but with a bit of extra body and a hint of tannin. Not bad.

For dessert, I planned to hit the gelateria just up the street. But when we walked by it had closed already! The closing time was listed as 19:30, and we’d missed it by a few minutes. Oh well. We walked back to our hotel, working off the dinner by climbing back up quite a bit of altitude. On the way we passed a place called Marcello, which was a combined Italian deli and a restaurant. It looked really good, so we decided we might try it for dinner tomorrow.

Monkey, James Monkey
Monkey with vodka martini

Being back early from dinner, we decided to sit in the hotel bar for a bit while I typed up some of this diary and M. read a book on her iPad. She got a hot chocolate, while I decided that being in Monte Carlo it was the perfect time to order a vodka martini, like James Bond. So we relaxed and bathed in the air of sophisticated luxury until it was time to head up to our room to rest and recuperate for tomorrow.

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