A Car for Christmas

Our Christmas present: A fire-engine red Suzuki Swift (2021). I named her Poppy. She is a delight.

Unfortunately, it’s a sorry saga that preceded the new car purchase. I know. It is a time to be merry and jolly, but I need to tell this story, and it has a happy holiday ending.

In mid-November we set out in our trusty Toyota Yaris Verso (Toyota 2). That car has its own story. (search “A Tale of Twin Toyotas”)

After canceling reservations three times over the past two years due to Covid restrictions, at last we headed north to our old stomping grounds, the Luberon area of France. We spent 14 happy years there and looked forward to visiting friends.

Previous visit to Table du Bonheur with friends Gayle and Ralph and chef Hans.

On day two of our visit, we proceeded to enjoy a delicious lunch at one of our favorite places, Table du Bonheur in the hinterlands. (search “Table of Happiness.) We anticipated savoring chef Hans’ innovative cuisine and visiting with him and his wife, Tiny.

It was not meant to be. As we climbed the hills, the Toyota struggled. I kept downshifting. Still little power. Bob was angry. “Get out. Let me drive.” I pulled over. We got out and the stench of something burning overwhelmed us. No one was driving that car anywhere.

I called our insurance. They were prompt, especially considering that it was a Sunday and we were far from towns. The car was pulled up on a tow truck bed. We climbed into the cabin and were deposited in Apt, the town where we were staying in a fabulous holiday apartment.

Much of the next three days was spent on the phone with the insurance, arranging taxis and rental cars, and figuring out what to do. Since the insurance company only dealt with certain taxi and rental car agents, it was very complicated. I was super stressed. Bob was lost.

Biding farewell to Toyota 2

Repair the car or bid it au revoir? We loved that car. We had made a special trip to Germany to purchase it. It was not classy, nor modern, but it filled our needs. It was assumed it need a new clutch: 1,000 euros plus. Was investing that sum in a 16-year-old car sensible? I was inclined to go ahead with the repair until the garage told me they would not even look at the car, much less do the required work, for at least 10 days. I called other garages. All the same. We could not stay that long.

We trekked to the garage, took care of the paperwork, and bid an emotional, tearful farewell to our precious Toyota 2.

In between phone frustration – press 2, then press *, then press 3…and listening to the same recitation too many times before reaching a live human being – fortunately there were some bright spots during our sojourn.

Our living room/kitchen at Cent Cinq

First: Our accommodations at Cent Cent, a gite or holiday apartment in Apt. Jen and Chris Mallon, daughter and son-in-law of our friends Mollie and David, have lovingly, tastefully restored an ancient house in the center of the town. Amazingly they have done all the work themselves. They have thought of everything and more: bathrobes, bath salts, coffee machine, plush bath towels, a well-equipped kitchen with supplies of olive oil, vinegar, sugar, etc. There are three guest apartments – all gorgeous, luxurious. Visit Apt and the Luberon, and enjoy Cent Cinq. For more, http://www.cent-cinq.fr

Emily and her Mercedes van

Second: Emily, a charming driver guide who took us to Marseille on Monday, the day after the catastrophe. I had an appointment at the American consulate there to have some important documents notarized. The insurance was unable to arrange a rental car on Sunday, and there was not enough time to get a car Monday morning for my 11 a.m. appointment. Emily to the rescue. She is an American from Oregon married to a Frenchman, a farmer who has acres of apple orchards. We chatted non-stop on the 5-hour journey to and from Marseille. I relaxed and forgot the trauma. Stay at Cent Cinq and let Emily chauffeur you to the sights, http://www.yourprivatechauffeurprovence.com

Third: Visiting the Apt Saturday market. It was always a treat, and this time did not disappoint. I loaded up on area favorites: olives, honey, aged cheese. I even found a few clothing bargains. 

Fourth: Admiring the scenery and landscape. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. There are no fall colors on the Cote d’Azur where we now live – just palm trees and pines. The Luberon hills were awash in hues of gold, orange, red. Herds of sheep grazed in grassy fields. I wished there had been time to stop for photos.

On the way to Apt, lunch in Manosque with Christine and Bernard

Fifth: Friends. We did not see all those we had hoped to see, but we did share meals with some.

David, who provides invaluable assistance with this blog, and Mollie with daughter Jen and husband Chris, and Bob, at Cent Cinq

Once we got home, the search for a car began. The rental agency gave me a Citroen C-3 Crossover, an SUV. This is not a car for the congested coastal area where we live. The roads are narrow and twisty. Motorcyclists weave in and out, and appear from nowhere for nerve- wracking moments. Parking garages are a challenge. I pleaded numerous times for a smaller car to no avail. I was not comfortable driving that car and did crash into a parking garage wall, scraping the front.

Jen hard at work at Cent Cinq.

The plan was to buy new used car, but decent used cars were hard to find. I was told the 2022 cars have been slow to arrive due to supply chain problems, hence a dearth of used cars. Instead of spending days on the phone with the insurance, I was calling car dealers.

The search dragged on for three weeks before I found Poppy. I wanted a red car. I needed something bright and bold. And, I wanted to defy the French who have bizarre notions about red cars. A friend urged me not to buy a red car, suggesting that it would be damaged by a red car hater. Others confirmed the French aversion to red cars. It is true. There are not many red cars on the road here. French drive boring black and gray vehicles. Some go for white – not too exciting either.

Here’s to red cars and Christmas cheer!

Happy Holidays to all Tales and Travel readers. Thanks for your fidelity.

Friend Jinny visited us at Cent Cinq and brought me this beautiful rose, “Esperance” (hope). I needed it, and cherished the rose.

If not a follower of this blog, sign up. Your address is kept private. In the new year, I’ll write about my adventure last summer to Lake Como and then Croatia.

If you missed my blog post on Menton’s vibrant market (above), you can see it now on Travel Squire. https://travelsquire.com/menton-market-friendly-folk-and-french-favorites/

Marseille Revisited

We had not returned to my second favorite French city (Paris #1) since moving to the Mediterranean coast three years ago. When we lived north in the Luberon, we made frequent jaunts to France’s second city, just about 1 ½ hours away from our home in Reillanne. Many medical specialists have their offices in Marseille. We always took time to enjoy more than doctor visits.

The Bonne Mere, a statue atop Notre Dame de la Garde, watches over Marseille’s 1,613,797 citizens. The Vieux Port (old port) is in the foreground.

Reason for this visit was an appointment – not with a doctor – but at the American Consulate to have a Power of Attorney notarized. Not our lucky day. We arrived at the appointed hour only to be told all appointments for that day had been canceled. We were to have been notified. We were not. I was fuming, furious. Marseille is three hours away from our new home. It would be a chore to come back.

Monument along the Corniche Kennedy.

We sought solace at a nearby cafe. I calmed down and realized we needed to move on and take advantage of this visit.

Marseille is not chic and glamorous. It’s tough and brawny. It’s not the den of iniquity many imagine, but it’s not a paradise of peace and tranquility. Drug wars have been a major concern recently. So have decaying schools, hospitals and public housing. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a multi-billion euro plan to tackle the ills of France’s second city. “We need to build the Marseille of 2030,” he said.

Bob under Norman Foster’s Ombriere, a giant mirror hanging over a terrace at the Vieux Port.

Despite the city’s serious woes, visitors like us can enjoy its charms and vibrancy. France’s oldest city was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. Romans took over in the first century. Italians settled in the city in the 1930s. The city was the gritty port for France’s colonies (Tunis, Morocco, Algeria).

Parts of Marseille, such as the Noailles neighborhood, seem more foreign than French.

Immigrants from the Caribbean, Lebanon, Turkey and other lands have joined Africans in making Marseille their home today. The melting pot atmosphere with exotic tastes, flavors and colors is captivating. “It’s exactly the kind of place I like,” said the late Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef and author whose travel documentaries were ingenious.

Inside Maison Empereur.

It’s my kind of town, too. This time we set off to discover places new to us. My brother, also a fan of Marseille, recommended we visit Maison Empereur. Founded in 1827, this ancient, funky store is the oldest hardware store in France and like no other. Room after room, upstairs and down, is filled with all kinds of gadgets, tools, bric a brac. Copper pots of all sizes, baskets, cleaning supplies, antique toys, even some clothing items and cosmetics. It is mind-boggling. I bought some Marseille soap. The city is famous for its soap which it has been making for 600 years. I passed on the soap made from snail mucous, as well as the corn stripper…The range of kitchen paraphernalia is intriguing.

What every household needs.

Across the street is Pere Blaize, a Herbortisterie which is even older, dating to 1815. If you are into natural medicines, this is the place. Tell them the prescription drug you are taking and why. They will come up with a plant-based substitute. I bought something for reflux. Unfortunately, it did not offer the miracle cure I hoped for.

For herbal medicine, Pere Blaize is the place.

We wandered through the Noailles neighborhood, a bustling, colorful area that seems more foreign than French. Shops sell ceramics, baskets, vibrant African fabrics. Merchants hawk washing machines at houseware stores. Food stalls sell kebabs and flatbread. We had a delicious, copious and cheap lunch at a Turkish “hole-in-the-wall” kind of eatery: Tender chunks of lamb and veggies.

The “boys”gather in Noailles.

For dinner, we revisited the popular Chez Jeannot restaurant in the Vallon des Auffes, a mini harbor jammed with small boats, two restaurants and a young, jovial crowd crammed at tiny outdoor tables during apero hour – all very special and very Marseille. Chez Jeannot is noted for pizza, fish and calamari (the best). That was the reason for our return.

Vallon des Auffes

Since lockdowns have ended and virus cases are down, tourists have returned to Marseille, we learned, but not yet in the numbers hoped for. Cruise ships are once again docking at the city, but passengers are bussed to Nice for the day. Pity. 

Checking the passe sanitaire, proof of vaccination.

Years ago we met Jeanne Feutren and her mother at La Boite a Sardine, a lively, legendary Marseille restaurant. “I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” Jeanne said. Both Jeanne and her mother were born in Marseille and are die-hard fans of their hometown. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (coastal cliffs). People are so exuberant.” Her mother chimed in. “It’s a wonderful town.” I second that.

In 2013 Marseille was a European Capital of Culture. It was spiffed up with lots of polishing, scrubbing and renovating, plus a refurbished waterfront and stunning new architectural attractions. I wrote an article for two newspapers at the time and a blog post. To learn more about Marseille and all of its attractions, do a search, upper right, on “Marseille”and read my previous post.

Bob enjoys the the treats at Chez Jeannot.

Next week, at long last, we hope to return to our old stomping grounds and visit friends in the Luberon. This trip has been postponed too many times due to Covid. Look for a post on our adventures. And, one of these days I’ll write about my travels last summer to Lake Como and onto Croatia. Both super.

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On to Venice and Padua

I had visions of an empty Venice, like those I had seen during the lockdown. Deserted alleys and waterways. No gondolas on the canals. No lines to enter attractions, such as San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). A dolphin or two frolicking in the Grand Canal.

That was then. Fast forward to early July when I visited. Even though travel restrictions were in place, tourists had returned to Venice. Long, long lines to climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. Gondolas aplenty gliding through the canals. Happy crowds feeding pigeons on the Piazza San Marco.

And, it was hot, much too hot. But, I adore Venice. I was spending a week at Abano Terme, about an hour from the city. (See previous post, “Taking the waters – and the mud”) I could not pass up a visit, especially after a conversation with a staff member at the spa. 

“I love Venice,” she said. “You must visit.” She planned an all-day itinerary for me. “Don’t schedule any treatments on the day you visit Venice. You will need all your energy for Venice.”

More energy than I had. I followed her recommendations, took the train to Venice, then hired a water taxi to take me to the Piazza San Marco, under the Rialto Bridge, past magnificent centuries-old palaces. There was no shortage of boats of all sizes on the Grand Canal. No dolphins in sight. 

Campanile (bell tower) of the San Marco Basilica

I was surprised and disappointed to see the lines, both to enter San Marco and climb the campanile. I decided against both, instead opted for a very expensive cappuccino (11 euro) at one of the many cafes lining the piazza. The pricey cafes had few customers. However, the legendary San Marco pigeons happily soared above, then landed and soaked up attention from tourists who were happy to fed them and pose for photos.

Even though the waiter at the cafe complained of little business, restaurants I passed during my wanderings were not lacking for customers. Gondolas seemed to be in high demand, yet a young gondolier also complained. “It’s very quiet. There are not a lot of people. Normally in July and August, it’s crazy. You can’t walk around here.”

Perhaps I was lucky after all. I could walk without being pushed by throngs. I found a quiet restaurant adjacent to a canal and enjoyed a fascinating lunch. A government building stood on the opposite side of the canal. A police boat arrived. Two scuba divers jumped off and quickly disappeared under water. Looking for underwater explosives? It was intriguing. I also wondered about the wisdom of being immersed in this water which I assumed was dreadfully polluted. Then I noticed fish. I mentioned this to the restaurant proprietor. He threw some bread in the water. More fish appeared. The dolphins have not returned, but, at least for now, fish are thriving.

Police diver on a secret mission?

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Italian government to ban cruise ships from approaching Venice’s lagoon, things could be looking up for those fish, not to mention the foundations of the city.

Cruise ship opponents argue that the massive ships which can transport more than 5,000 passengers each are responsible for waves and pollution that damage the delicate fabric of the city. Work is underway to construct a cruise terminal outside the lagoon. 

The Wall Street Journal quoted Gianluigi Rizo, a porter at the Piazza San Marco, who summed up the sentiments of those whose business depends on tourists. “It’s good that tourists are back, but the real money comes from the cruise ships with the Americans and the well-off Asians. They spend big in a short time, before sailing out.”

View of Venice from the Terrazza Panoramica, a new observation deck a top a multi level. upmarket shopping gallery.

Even with the tourists and the heat, I was happy to return to Venice. I love to meander, discovering intriguing alleys and passageways, off the beaten tourist track, usually getting lost. However, since I had a train to catch this time, I dared not be too adventurous. 

The trek to the station was longer than anticipated. I panicked, walking faster and faster so as not to miss my train. I made it, exhausted and perspiration drenched.

That excursion should have been enough. Perhaps best to stay and relax at the spa.? No, I needed to see Padua, again urged on by my mentor. She raved about the city’s star attractions, the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes by Giotto and the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Scrovegni chapel with Giotto frescoes.

Giotto, an Italian painter of the late Middle Ages, and his team covered the walls of the entire chapel with frescoes illustrating the life of the Virgin and life of Christ. Their work, completed in 1305, is considered a masterpiece of the early Renaissance. It is mind boggling.

St. Anthony’s Basilica with Byzantine-style domes and art treasures was a must for me. St. Anthony played a role in my Catholic upbringing. My mother was a fan of the saint, the patron of lost items. Whenever she or we lost something, “Pray to Saint Anthony,” she urged. Often he came through. 

St. Anthony’s tomb.

The church shelters the saint’s grandiose tomb. Worshippers place hands on the tomb and pray. St. Anthony holy cards are available for free. I gave a donation, took a few, and mailed one of each of my three brothers.

Praying at St. Anthony’s tomb.

I passed up relaxing days and therapeutic treatments at the spa for Venice and Padua. I have no regrets.

Statue of St. Anthony.

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Another monumental church in Padua: Basilica of Saint Giustina

We recently returned to Marseille, one of my favorites. It merits a blog post. And, soon I will off for Adventure Croatia with friend Karen.

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Giotto’s Last Judgment fresco.

Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.

My Turf in Photos

It has been too long since my last post. The lockdown prevented exciting excursions to new places which I like to discover and write about. But, all is looking much brighter. Restaurant dining is back – outdoors and indoors at 50% capacity. All stores, cinemas, gyms etc. are back in operation. Our curfew has been bumped up to 11 pm. It will vanish on June 30.

During many months of “confinement,” we were only permitted to explore and wander within 10 kilometers of our residence. We did. I took photos. Recently we were given liberty to travel within France, as well as nearby Italy with our vaccination certificate. And, soon we will be able to travel within the European Union. Eureka!

Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel in Menton

Following are random photos, mostly of our surroundings. The beauty around helped ease the pain of the lockdown.

Le Jardin Exotique (exotic garden) in Eze.

Market in Bordighera, Italy –our first visit to Italy after lockdown lifted.

More Eze Jardin Exotique, above and below.

First meal post lockdown in Italy: fabulous tuna

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A wee bit of travel on the horizon: a week at a spa (terme) in Abano, Italy. This promises an interesting tale for sure. Don’t miss it. If not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up. Your address is kept private –not shared

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