Sunday, March 3, 2013

Vive le Carnaval de Nice

When most Americans hear the term Mardi Gras, they think of the wild partying that goes on in New Orleans on the day before Ash Wednesday. However, Mardi Gras is part of a season of partying that takes place in the Crescent City, and it’s just as popular in other parts of the world. The festival dates back to the thirteenth century in Nice, France, which is considered one of the first cities to hold the event.

If you’re looking for a fun winter getaway in a mild climate, Carnaval season is an excellent time to visit the South of France. It usually runs from late February to early March, when temperatures are in the upper 50s to low 60s, and the sun is generally shining. While the price of lodging is higher than the rest of winter, it’s still cheaper than the summer months. In addition, flights are much cheaper, and other than Carnaval events, crowds are significantly thinner. While the temperature is not quite high enough for sunbathing, it’s still nice enough to enjoy a stroll or a bike ride on the Promendae des Anglais, the pedestrian area that runs along the sea. You can also relax with a picnic on the beach or a drink at one of the beachfront cafés.

Performers at the Bataille de Fleurs
The Carnaval experience
Carnaval is fun for both adults and kids. The festival starts off with opening ceremonies on a Friday night at Place Masséna, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. People come from miles around to enjoy the circus performers, music, dancing, fireworks and super-charged atmosphere. Throughout Carnaval, visitors can attend daily events until the closing ceremony, including the nighttime parades called the Carnavalesque Illuminés or the daytime Batailles de Fleurs, which are best described as a scaled-back version of the American Rose Parade.

Carnaval traditions
While Carnaval in Nice and Mardi Gras in New Orleans are held for the same reasons, the traditions are a bit different. 
Mardi Gras mask
  • You won’t find women exposing themselves for beads in Nice, but everyone in the crowd will try to catch the flowers thrown from the floats during the Bataille de Fleurs.
  • On Mardi Gras, New Orleanians enjoy king cake, but in France, this treat is served on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Pancakes are common for dinner in both cities, but in Nice, where they are known as crêpes, they are flat and stuffed with meat and vegetables. Dessert crêpes are sweet and covered with a variety of toppings, including fruit, jelly, Nutella or powdered sugar. Fried dough, similar to the beignets found in New Orleans are another Mardi Gras treat sold in all the bakeries in Nice.
  • Whether you are in new Orleans, Nice or any other city that celebrates Mardi Gras season, you will find the famous Mardi Gras masks and fun-loving people dressed in crazy costumes.
  • In addition to throwing confetti, spraying silly string at other Carnaval-goers is a popular tradition in Nice. Since there are vendors selling cans on almost every corner, it’s easy to join in the fun.
More interesting Carnaval facts
  • At least 75 percent of the plants and flowers that cover the floats that participate in the daily Bataille de Fleurs parades in Nice are grown in the region. The floats cover the parade route several times until the people aboard them have tossed all of the flowers to the crowd.
  • Most of the parade participants are circus and carnival performers who come from other parts of Europe and the rest of the world.
  • Carnaval attracts more than a million visitors every year.
  • Many neighborhoods throughout the city throw their own traditional celebrations throughout Carnaval season. Schedules are available throughout the city.
Bataille de Fleurs, Villefranche

If you're going to Carnaval, you can also enjoy some nearby festivals that take place at the same time:

  • The Lemon Festival, which celebrates the special lemons grown in the area, takes place in Menton, a lovely city about 30 minutes from Nice by train. 
  • Villefranche sur Mer, a stunning seaside village five minutes by train from  Nice, has a one-day Bataile de Fleurs that takes pace on the waterfront. Ask for the date at the tourist office. 

Ready to go?
Carnaval season ends this year on March 6, but it takes place every year, so you can start panning for next year. The Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau has produced a website with plenty of information on this year’s Carnaval, and it should be updated for 2014 in a few months.

If you're looking for lodging, be sure to read my previous post on renting an apartment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cinque Terre Travel Tips

photo of Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre, the five cliffside villages on the Italian Riviera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an entry on the bucket list of many travelers. If you’re going to Italy, it’s worth the effort to make side trip to the Ligurian region, where you can enjoy the spectacular natural beauty of this national park as well as the scenic villages of Santa Margherita and Portofino, which are about an hour away by train.

Getting there
Most travelers find the most affordable way to arrive in Italy is to take a plane to Rome. From there, you can rent a car and drive from city to city on your own schedule. You can also take the train, which takes about seven hours. The closest major city is Genoa, about two hours away by train.

Where to stay
Hotel Italia in Rapallo
To get a better view of the entire region, I searched online for a hotel in Santa Margherita. While there are plenty of hotels in this town, they tend to be rather pricey, so I settled on Hotel Italia e Lido  in Rapallo, the quiet seaside village next to Santa Margherita. I was thrilled with my choice. A five-minute walk from the train station, the hotel is on the seaside overlooking a small castle built to defend the village against pirates in the fifteenth century. Rooms are clean and comfortable, and there’s even a free hot breakfast buffet and wifi in public areas. Since I was traveling in September, the hotel was not fully booked, so I got a free upgrade to a sea-view room, where I enjoyed my evenings sitting on the small terrace sipping wine and tasting cheese from the nearby shop. Talk about la dolce vita!

From Rapallo, you can take the bus or small boat that runs throughout the day to Santa Margherita and Portofino. I recommend walking along the seaside to Santa Margherita, which takes about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how often you stop for pictures. Just be sure you walk before sunset because there is a stretch without a sidewalk that can be pretty dangerous after dark.

Note that there are no roads in some of the villages, so it’s best to take a train. To go from Rapallo to Cinque Terre, take the train to Riomaggiore, the farthest village, which takes about an hour. You can also take a boat that will stop in one or two of the villages, but if you want to walk from village to village, or if you want to see all the villages, the only option is to take the train. Schedules are posted in all the stations. If you’re coming from the east, take the train from LaSpezia.

Seeing Cinque Terre
Lunch in Riomaggiore
Plan to spend at least a full day visiting Cinque Terre, especially if you are hiking between the villages. When you get off the train at Riomaggiore, you will find a tourist information window outside the station, where you can ask for a map. If you want to do the hike, you will climb some stairs to the starting point, where you will buy you ticket (€5). Before starting the hike, be sure to visit this fascinating village. You can either take a short walk through the tunnel from the train station or wander around the side of the cliff, which offers a spectacular view of the harbor and sea. If you have difficulty with stairs, be sure to take the tunnel. For a treat, stop for lunch at one of the cafés overlooking the harbor. You can also find picnic fixings in some of the shops and have lunch along the seaside.

If you don’t have time to visit all the villages, be sure to make a stop in Vernazza. This scenic village has a lovely harbor and beach, a delightful place to stop at a café for a glass of wine, some ice cream or a meal. You can also climb up the cliff to visit an old castle and enjoy the view of the sea and the town below.

Note that when you buy your train tickets to and from Riomaggiore, you can use them for up to six hours from the time you validate them.

Other Sites to See
photo of Porto Venere
Porto Venere
Not far from the Cinque Terre area is Porto Venere, a scenic village with tiny streets, ancient ruins, a beautiful port and seaside cafés. Some say this village is more beautiful than Cinque Terre. Be sure to visit and decide for yourself. The ferry that runs among the villages of Cinque Terre also visits Porto Venere. In addition, you can take a boat on a day trip from the same place where you pick up the boats that operate in Rapallo and Santa Margherita. This cruise includes commentary in Italian and English, and it makes a brief stop in one of the villages in Cinque Terre. This cruise isn’t available every day, so be sure to stop by the ticket booth to find out when it runs. Also, if the captain decides the sea is too rough, the cruise will be canceled, so tickets are only sold shortly before the boat departs.

The first time I tried to take the cruise, it was canceled, but I quickly and easily made it to the train station, bought a ticket to Riomaggiore and found my way there. I met several other people who were making the same journey, so we found our way together and ended up running into each other throughout the day.

After wearing yourself down in Cinque Terre, you can take a relaxing stroll through the towns of Rapallo, Santa Margherita, Portofino and Frutuosso. Again, it’s simple to take the boats, which run about once an hour. Just be sure to check the schedule to avoid getting stranded in another town. Depending on what you want to see and do, covering these towns will take a day or two.

More Tips
  • Cafés and restaurants in Italy have a cover charge for table service. The fee is generally about €1.50 per person, but runs around €3 in some places like Portofino, a more popular spot on the Italian Riviera. In fact, everything in Portofino costs a lot more, so if you’re trying to save money, don’t plan to eat here.
  • Be sure to stroll up the hill above Portofino to visit the Church of St. George and Castello Brown. If you still have any energy, hike out to the lighthouse.
  • Buying train tickets in smaller Italian towns can be a challenge if you don’t speak the language. I have yet to find a ticket seller who speaks anything but Italian. If you’re lucky, you can find another person in line who speaks English and will help you translate. Otherwise, you can write down the name of the town where you’re going. If the ticket window is closed, you can use the machine, which offers information in English, but you will need a credit card with chip and PIN technology.
  • Before boarding the train, you must validate your ticket by placing it in the small device usually found just outside the ticket office. If you present a ticket that hasn’t been validated to the conductor, you could be thrown off the train and face an expensive fine.
  • Be sure to try pansotti cum salsa di noci, a specialty of the Ligurian region recommended by someone who grew up in the area. It’s a mild ravioli-like pasta with walnut sauce, and it’s delicious.

If you’ve visited the Ligurian region of Italy, please share any additional tips you have for other travelers. If you haven’t been there, but would like to go, feel free to post your questions, and I’ll be happy to respond.