Alba Summary

Three nights: Tuesday, April 24 to Friday, April 27

The train ride from Nice on the French Mediterranean coast to Alba in northern Italy was quite impressive. We went from bluffs along the sea to a steady climb through mountain valleys, tunnel after tunnel opening up to impressive vista. Eventually, we seemed to reach a high plateau, with snow-capped peaks in the near distance. This gradually changed to more of an agricultural backdrop, with small vineyards clinging to the slopes of the rolling hills. The train finally pulled into the Alba station and we began our first visit of the trip to Italy.

Small town as seen from the train on the way to Alba

Alba was a nice, small town with an historic center that we could easily walk the perimeter of (much like medieval Avignon). There were not a lot of sights per se, so we decided to take it easy. We continued our pattern of enjoying both restaurants as well as the local markets. One evening we had a great dinner in an informal osteria (a never-ending antipasti course, skipped the primo, cinghiale (wild boar) for secondo and a passable panna cotta for dolce). Also, this area is famous for a few types of wine, so we enjoyed that as well.

To our surprise, we found out that the second day of our visit fell on Liberation Day, basically the Italian Fourth of July. There were Italian flags flying from every balcony and many businesses were closed for the day. That afternoon, there seemed to be more visitors than the day before. It turns out that this holiday is popular among Italians for making day trips and Alba is a convenient destination from Torino.

Since Alba was relatively small and quiet, we spent a good deal of time strolling about. One day, we came across a fairly large outdoor market, selling everything from underwear to squid ink sacs. We continued our stroll around the town, past the sign pointing to the nearby Ferrero factory (source of Ferrero Rocher candies, Kinder brand candies and giant tubs of Nutella). At one point we saw signs for a 4.2 KM bike trail we decided to try and hike. However, once across the river, it quickly became quite sketchy (low-end trailer park, menacing youths) so turned back before we were mugged. Adventure!

Overall, Alba was an enjoyable town with good food and an overall pleasant environment. Now off to Florence for a little more culture before heading down south for Pompeii and additional downtime along the Amalfi coast.

 

Alba, Italy

Bye, Riviera
Heading north into the hills
Little mountain towns

Mountain town

One of the many small towns we saw heading into the mountains on the way to Alba.


Alba, Italy
Truffles, salumi and wine
So much tasty food!

Mushrooms

Storefront with mushrooms.

Alba Shopping

Various food from the shops around town.

Nice Summary

Three nights: Saturday, April 21 to Tuesday, April 24

Three nights was probably too little time for Nice. Or more specifically, we could have spent lot more time exploring the Côte d’Azur as there are a lot of small, scenic towns scattered along the coast. Once things warm up a bit more (70s instead of 60s), we may very likely pass through here again on our trip.

We really only spent one full day in Nice itself. Between that and the day we arrived, we explored the port and old town areas. The highlight was taking a spin through the Cours Saleya Flower Market. We again picked up various items for a snacks dinner, but we also got an opportunity to try out some local specialities for lunch:

  • Socca – this was basically a big, thin pancake made from chickpea flour, drizzled with olive oil and dusted with pepper. Tasty!
  • Pissaladière – a pizza-like dish, with a topping of onions, olives and anchovies. Tasty!
  • Tourte de Blettes – a sweet pastry filled with egg custard and swiss chard, dusted with powdered sugar. Tasty!

In general, it seems that the Niçoise cuisine reflected a strong Italian influence, which makes sense as Nice was under Italian control until 1860.

The other full day started off with a visit to the Chagall museum in Nice. Afterwards, we hit the train station and headed five minutes up the coast to the scenic cove village of Villefranche-sur-Mer. This was just one of many such villages along the coast – I think we’ll need to spend a few days in one just to chillax! We then took another quick hop to Monaco, just for the sake of saying we were in Monaco. As it turns out, there wasn’t really a lot to see, other than the Grand Prix viewing stands being erected (and lots of yachts).

After we returned to Nice, we decided to try and find an English bookstore we’d heard about, the Cat’s Whiskers. We ended up methodically combing a four-block area looking for it before we found out from a helpful stranger that it had since closed down. We ended up heading back to the apartment. On our way we ran into the only person in the city we knew, our AirBnB host. Bizarre!

Nice, France

Regional cuisine
Socca and pissaladière
Fresh from the market

Pissaladière and Socca

Pissaladière in front and Socca behind

Tourte de Blettes

Also from the market, a piece of tourte de blettes, a sweet tart filled with swiss chard


Train along the coast
Villefranche-sur-Mer, Monaco
Beach towns and race cars

Villefranche-sur-Mer

Harbor in Villefranche-sur-Mer

Monaco Grand Prix

Monaco setting up for the Grand Prix

Avignon Summary

Four nights: Tuesday, April 17 to Saturday, April 21

We really enjoyed Avignon. We were staying in an apartment in the old city center and enjoyed wandering around and discovering interesting sights. This was pretty easy to due since the entire area within the old city walls is about the same size as Green Lake.

This was our first stop in France and I was looking forward to the French food. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The restaurants we ate at were great (steak tartare, duck confit, wonderfully creamy sauces, etc.) plus we also hit the Les Halles market one day for some wonderful bread, cheeses, pork terrine and amazingly fresh fruit.

We paid the obligatory visit to Le Pont d’Avignon, but declined the €11.00 ticket to actually walk around on it. Instead, we came across an entrance into one of the city wall towers (Torre de Chiens) that took us up to a wonderful garden behind the Palace of the Popes. We had great views of the Rhone river and surrounding countryside and were able to relax in the park for a while.

Since Avignon was pretty small, we took a couple of day trips. The first was via train to the city of Arles, which had some extensive Roman ruins (and more tasty French cafes). The other day trip was via bus to Le Pont du Gard, a very impressive Roman bridge that was part of the Nimes aqueduct. Between these two sites and Avignon’s historic center, we were able to hit three UNESCO World Heritage sites at once.

Overall, Avignon was great. We’re looking forward to our next French stop (Nice) and then onwards into Italy.

Barcelona Summary

Four nights: Friday, April 13 to Tuesday, April 17

The first thing I noticed about Barcelona was the more classically European feel of the city. This was primarily due to the many wide boulevards lined with pretty building facades. This may also have been influenced by the fact that our apartment was at the northern end of L’Eixample, a section of the city with a very regular grid layout. Also, all corners in the intersections had been removed, so every intersection was in the shape of an octagon.

We spent a lot of time walking around Barcelona – in fact, one route we walked turned out to be about eight miles. One of the highlights included Güell Park, with it’s many Gaudi structures. Also, there was quite a bit of Moderisme architecture throughout Barcelona, beyond just the famous Gaudi buildings.

We also took the funicular to Mountjuïc park, which was quite scenic and had good views of the city (not as good as from Güell park, though). We had intended to see the Miro museum, but we were there on a Monday and it was closed. Luckily, we had taken a visit to the Picasso museum the day before. We also learned that almost everything in Barcelona is closed on Sundays – we ended up going to one of the few grocery stores that was open in order to obtain dinner fixins. The grocery chain’s name, “Opencor”, speaks to the rarity of stores being open on Sundays.

Finally, we spent an afternoon walking around Barceloneta, a beachfront section of the city near the port. It was good to get a view of the water, but it was quite windy and a bit chilly. I’m looking forward to maybe getting some better beach experiences in Nice and maybe later in Croatia.

Avignon, France

Eleven euros –
Fee for le Pont d’Avignon
I will dance elsewhere

Le Pont d'Avignon

Près du Pont...


Les Halles marketplace
Pâté, fromage, bread and fruit.
Make a fine dinner

Les Halles

Outside the market

Dinner from Les Halles market

The result of visiting the market


A Roman province –
Hence the current name “Provence”.
So many ruins!

Roman Amphitheater

Roman Amphitheater in Arles (90 AD)

Roman Theater

Roman theater in Arles (late 1st century BC)

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard, part of a Roman aqueduct (19 BC)

Barcelona, Spain

El Corte Inglés
Seems to be the Spanish term
For Marks and Spencer

El Corte Ingles

El Corte Ingles - quality department store up top, quality grocery store in the basement.


Barcelona – with
Gaudi, Miró, Picasso
Lots of modern art

Gaudi Dragon

Gaudi's mosaic dragon in Parc Gael

Calder sculpture

Sadly, the Miró Foundation was closed on Monday, so here's a photo of the Calder sculpture next to the museum.

Woman in Mantilla

The Picasso museum allows no photos, but here's a painting I liked from the museum's collection. They have a surprising number of works prior to cubism - including this portrait with pointillist aspects.

Seville Summary

Four nights: Monday, April 9 to Friday, April 13

Two things immediately stood out for me about Seville: bicycles and orange trees.

We saw the bicycles first, as soon as we left the train station for the walk to our apartment. Unlike the other cities we’ve visited so far, there is definitely a biking culture in Seville. The city has made investments with dedicated biking lanes as well as a system of self-serve bicycle rentals throughout the city center.

There are also orange trees planted throughout the city. We were lucky to visit during Spring, since the trees were blossoming and the scent was like perfume everywhere we went. Many of the trees still had fruit on them, but we heard that the oranges were quite bitter and were used for making marmalade.

Previously, during our stay in Lisbon, we took a walking tour that we liked a lot – it’s nice to get the extra context from a guide that you might otherwise miss out on. We looked up a walking tour in Seville and ended up going on three different tours, one for each full day we were there. The first was a general walk through the center of the city, while the other two focused on the cathedral and the Alcázar. The tours were great and we recommend them if you get the chance!

 

We spent the rest of our time wandering the streets and checking out whatever we came across. Of course, this often involved tapas bars, including El Rinconcillo, the oldest bar in Seville. When we were in The Hague a few years back, we also ate at the oldest bar there – Donna suggests we make this a point during our travels. Sounds like a good plan to me!

Sevilla, Spain

Spanish vegetables –
We’ve finally mastered your
Sly labeling scheme

Buying bananas in Sevilla

Success! We are no longer restricted to prepackaged fruit/veggies with existing barcodes.


Alhambra’s sold out,
But we saw the Alcazar
It’s the next best thing

Alcazar courtyard

Courtyard

Alcazar Gardens

Gardens


El Rinconcillo –
Oldest bar in Sevilla
New theme for our trip?

El Rinconcillo

On our last Europe trip, we visited Den Haag's oldest bar and now we find ourselves here...