10 July, 2014

Day 7: Connections and connections

Today was, by necessity, destined to be a big travel day. We'd be taking a car, four trains, and another car after that, to cover the ground from Corniglia to St. Remy-de-Provence. I don't know how many miles it is. It might be as many as 400. There were all these connections and transitions, so I obviously had my worrying brain full of each of the things we'd need to "get right" to end up where we were supposed to be.

We rose early, and got ourselves out of the apartment, meeting Eleonora in the square for the ride back to the train station. We said goodbye, almost forgetting to give her the keys, and then waited in the morning sun for the train to come. It was a little late, but we had plenty of time to spare with this early departure. Arriving at La Spezia, the need was for coffee and some sort of breakfast. The only option at the station was a place that was called McDonald's but, upon closer inspection, the only thing about it that was McDonald's was the brand name. They had none of their menu items, and were more of a classic bakery and cafe. This was a great relief and joy, since I would not want to be eating an Egg McMuffin in Italy. We had coffee, pastry, and juice. And we had minimal trouble making our train connection. There was some weirdness printing out our ticket confirmation (again), with the machine telling me that the confirmation number did not match the name on record. I am beginning to interpret the Italian ticket machines as a form of SAT logic test, because it requires innovative thinking. This time, I was able to quickly determine that their system had, for some reason, associated Allie's name with the reservation, since they do ask for both passenger names during the online purchase. I was proud of myself for figuring out that one in less than 3 minutes.

The first leg of the train ride went to Genova, and was about an hour long. Then we had the switch to a train to Ventimiglia, where we shared a first-class cabin with a family from Brisbane. I believe their names were Wade and Jane, and they had a son who was maybe 9-10 years old, playing video games on the iPad. They were really nice people, maybe a few years older than us, and we talked about our travels. They were on a longer trip, that would be about five weeks total in Italy and France. Or maybe it was all Italy. Can't recall exactly. They asked us for travel tips about the USA. When to visit? Where to visit? They asked for tips about Hawaii. It was nice to pass the time on this 2.5 hour ride.
We said our goodbyes in Ventimiglia, and then purchased our ticket at the station to hop across the border, a 10 minute ride to Menton, France, where we would pick up the rental car. The end of Italy. The start of France. Shifting gears. A new language, a new culture. It's amazing how you can do that in Europe.

The car rental place was about a 5-10 minute walk from the station in Menton, and our Google Maps got us there without a hitch. The people at the Europcar rental place were very nice. We got a Renault Clio, which was a sporty little 5-speed hatchback. Diesel, as are virtually all the cars in Europe, and stylish. I thought it was a great car, until today (a week later) when we dropped off the car in Avignon, and realized that the main Europcar offices are giving away Audis! Being in Menton, there was only one car available, and it was the one that was reserved for us. But it sufficed, and gave us absolutely no trouble.

What's even better, it had built-in GPS, which is very convenient... except when you're driving 200 miles, and you don't immediately discover that someone set the GPS Route Planner to "Avoid all Toll Roads." We programmed the route to Provence into the GPS, and it tells us it's going to take 6 hours. Huh? We program the same route into my phone, and it says 2.5 hours. Something's not right there. We briefly look at the routes, and they seem to be about the same. But, straight out of the starting gate, we see a sign for some highway, I think the A9, going left, and our car tells us to go right. We do what the car says. The car is having us make a lot of turns. The car has us get on the highway. The car has us get off the highway. The car has us drive along the beach through Nice. Time is passing, and it's starting to become clear that we don't want to pay attention to the car's instructions in the irritating female British accent. I pull over, and discover, at last, that someone had set the car to avoid all toll roads, which is ridiculous for long trips, though I guess it would make perfect sense for short trips. So, word of advice: when you are traveling in Europe and have a GPS, make sure you set it the way you want it!

We turned the GPS on, and made good time, uneventful from that point forward. Though we did lose close to an hour in the commute due to the shenanigans. We arrived in St. Remy-de-Provence around maybe 7 or 8pm. It was light out still. And it was not clear where to park. I had one of my little mini-stress-outs, because the situation became further exacerbated by my phone being dead, and Allie's phone dying shortly thereafter. I should note that I *did* bring a car charger with me, but it didn't work! I was prepared, but not for the eventuality of non-functioning technology.

So, first we are being guided by the car GPS directly into the Centre Ville (Old Town) where hardly any cars drive. It's telling us to go down streets that appear to be one-way in the other direction, because the GPS sometimes just doesn't know what is a one-way street. I was getting anxious, because I didn't know where to go. We got out of the old town, to the circle road, and through a series of random fortune, found a parking lot. The sign at the lot said "Parking de la Liberation," which I tried to put into Google Translate, to see if that meant "free parking." It turns out, "Rue de la Liberation" was the name of one of the streets in the town, so my translation was essentially meaningless. But it was a giant lot, with part pavement, and part grass, and there were no ticket machines, and there were no indications on any vehicles that the lot was monitored. We parked. I asked a man (in French) in the parking lot if it was free, and he said yes. Then I asked if it was okay for overnight (also in French) and he said it was free all the time. So we scored.

Now we just needed to find our way to the apartment. The challenge? We have no maps and both our phones are dead. I was already a bit bent out of shape from having the stress of finding parking, though I really shouldn't have been, since we had great success. We went into a shop and asked the woman if she knew where Rue Nostradamus was (that's our street), and she didn't know. She suggested we go to the Tourism Office, which was closed, but we went anyway, and found maps outside the building (not for the taking, just posted). So I actually, if you can believe, it, made a hand-drawn rendition of the map that we could carry around with us. The remaining challenge was that we didn't know which way we were facing from the map. This should have been easy to figure out, if we weren't tired, and me stressed. All we needed to do is walk to one main street and read the sign, and we'd have our bearings. But I didn't do that, because I decided to be a cuckoo bird. So we started walking, which I quickly sensed was the wrong direction. Of course, I was making ridiculous proclamations, like "We are going to be wandering around all night!" Yeah. That was the situation. Really. We turned around, and as soon as we hit a main road, it became obvious that it was the curved road that encloses the "Old Town" and that all we needed to do was enter the heart of that circle, and follow the map. Within 5 minutes we were at the place.

When we entered, we discovered we had no electricity, which is a bizarre situation to leave the place in for guests, don't you think? My thought (being an engineer) was that they probably turn off the circuit breaker since they don't use the place often, and had forgotten to turn it on for us. So, then I just had to figure out "Where would I be, if I were a circuit breaker in a building that may have been constructed a thousand years ago, and retrofitted with electric?" By the front door, inside some cabinets? Correct. Flipped the lever, and Voila! We have electricity.

We were pretty hungry. After briefly settling in, we wandered around town a bit, and found our way to a restaurant called L'Industrie. It turned out to be quite good. I had a two-course meal of gnocchi with a nice cheese sauce, followed by a very rich stewed beef, served with tagliatelle. Allie had a burger, made from the same meat they use for their tartare, which he explained is like the highest quality beef. It was really one of the best burgers I have ever had, and I wanted to eat more of it, but was too full to help her much. We had leftovers from both of our dishes, and apparently committed some type of faux pas, by asking if we could take our food with us. He laughed, and he did give it to us, but I guess it's not common in France to do this, because a restaurant may not even have the containers for such things.
We wandered around the town some more. This would be our home for almost a week to come, and the initial impressions were very positive. St. Remy is small, friendly, quaint, and full of many interesting things to see, do, buy, and browse. But, other than one tiny little area in the square, where there were some merry-go-rounds and fairground stuff (probably in celebration of Bastille Day, to come), it was not an obnoxiously touristy location.

From there, after a long, long day, of many connections, all of which were successful, with a bit of creativity, problem-solving, and patience, we were tired, and slept.

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