Paris to The Cote d'Azur, Part 4

June 18 - July 3, 2001
By Lewis Nolan

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Speedy Jumps To Trip Segments:

Part 1: Memphis to Paris, Sights of Paris
Part 2: Dijon, Chalon-sur-Soane, Cruising the Soane River, Macon, Lyon, Vienne
Part 3: Cruising the Rhone River through Provence, Tournon, Viviers, Avignon, Arles
Part 4: Aix-en-Provence, Cote d'Azur, Juan-les-Pins, Monaco, Antibes, Nice to Memphis
Photo Album

Quick Jumps To Points of Interest in This Segment:


Juan-les-Pins
Monaco
Antibes
Maj. Gen. John Collens' Wartime Flying

June 29, 2001, Friday - To Aix-en-Provence

For the first and only time, Grand Circle scheduled our departure at a somewhat civilized hour. We didn't have to board the buses near the quay at Arles until 9 a.m., allowing adequate time for breakfast and other preparations for the all-day ride. One of the delights of my retirement is that I don't often have to submit to the tyranny of the early-morning risers. How I hate those bright and chirpy "good mornings" from the freshly scrubbed and shaved faces of otherwise sane adults who've been up for hours. My style is to sneak up on the day, opening one eyelid at a time to focus on a newspaper and leisurely breakfast. At home, my golf tee times rarely are before 10:30 a.m., and preferably later.

As we pulled out, the entire crew of the M/S Ravel came out to stand on a sidewalk by the park and wave goodbye, a nice touch. It was 1 1/2 hours by tour bus to Aix-en-Provence. During the boring ride we were warned to beware of pickpockets in Aix. (Upon our return I read in my local newspaper that the crime rate in France has surpassed that of the U.S., 4,244 crimes per 100,000 people compared to 4,135. Moreover, while the U.S. rate is dropping, the rate in France climbed nearly 10 percent last year).

Aix is in southeast France. It is hot there in the summer, giving us a taste of what we could expect on the Riviera. We learned that Aix was founded in 123 BC by Sextius, a Roman consul attracted to the area by the presence of thermal springs and its crossroads of routes leading to Spain and Italy. I wonder if it was a coincidence that the two hottest months of the year - July and August - were named after the great Romans Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar. Aix became the capital of Provence in the 15th Century and has been an art center ever since. Due to the heat, we passed on walking to the studio museum of the impressionist Paul Cezanne, who was born in Aix in 1839. But we did walk down a leafy boulevard to take
Lewis with Tour Director Katell Le Bourdonnec
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a look at the Café Deux Garcons, where Cezanne and the writer Emile Zola hung out in the 19th Century.

In the shade of a table umbrella, we lingered over a light lunch at Le Cezanne Café (ham and butter on sticks of crusty French bread, a glass of wine and a Coca Light for less than $10). The café was across a busy traffic roundabout that circled a huge fountain, called La Rotonde. Built in 1860, it pumps a tremendous amount of water from its three metal figures - representing Justice, Agriculture and the Beaux Arts - and its ancillary spouts. The nearby sidewalks in the old section of town are no more than 3 feet wide and delineated for safety reasons by decorative iron posts that keep the small cars from encroaching. Shoppers and large numbers of teenagers thronged both the sidewalks and the narrow streets. Many of the teens smoked cigarettes, ignoring the government's anti-smoking campaign that seems to have markedly reduced the volume of smoke in restaurants and other public places. The jeune filles and other French females of indeterminate age were in full plumage on this Friday afternoon. As in Paris, slimness of figure and clothing that accentuates the bosom and shows a lot of leg is the order of the fashion day in Aix - regardless of the wearer's age or mileage. Betty noticed quite a few women with no evidence of panty lines, suggesting either no underwear or possibly skimpy thongs. The bodylines were therefore smooth without the ripple of fabric beneath, but it seems to be unsanitary.

We stuck to the shade and took a walking tour down the main drag, Cours Mirabeau, which carries the name of an important figure in the French Revolution. It is the site of several artistic drip fountains, elegant buildings from the 17th and 18th
Betty at Aix-en-Provence square's market
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Centuries and a host of restaurants and cafes. Cours Mirabeau is about a mile long and serves as an important center of Aix social life. The esplanade is also a divider between the narrow, medieval streets to the north and the century-old mansions with sculpted doorways and wrought iron balconies to the south. As in other French towns, the town center is ringed with sidewalk cafes. A casino that charges $10 for admission is a few steps from La Rotonde.

We visited the Cathedral of St. Sauveur, where preparations for a funeral caused a priest to shoo away the tour guides. A Christian baptismal dating to the 10th Century drew only respectful awe and silence. Despite the crowd of visitors, the 13th Century, Romanesque structure imparted a remarkable sense of piety amid its quiet coolness. The church is built on a Roman foundation of the 5th Century. I think Aix could be a charming place to explore during a cooler and less crowded time of year. But on this day it was too hot to enjoy exploration. Moreover, our stop just seemed to be a "waiting room" for the Grand Circle tour since they had to do something with us to fill in the time between leaving the boat (they had to get it ready for the next load of passengers) and when our rooms would be ready at the hotel in Juan-les-Pins. We had much more time on our hands than we needed for lunch - but not enough time to really see Aix on our own.

June 29, 2001, Friday - In Juan-les-Pins

After another couple of hours in the cramped bus seats, we arrived at Juan-les-Pins on the Cote d'Azur about 5 p.m. and thankfully were quickly able to check into our rooms at the Hotel Concorde Ambassadeur. The hotel is modern, well equipped, has three restaurants and four stars and is three short blocks from the Riviera beaches. Our room was on the
French Riviera beach is choked with umbrellas
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2nd Floor and was large and well furnished, with a view of the hotel atrium. A large and lavish pool lined with tile is inside an inviting courtyard that has its walls draped with flowering vines. To accommodate the demanding Americans, the hotel TVs offer CNN in English and a large bowl of ice in the lobby. There was no ice machine even though the hotel offered first class service and facilities, including an indoor pool and spa.

We were given a quick, walking tour of the immediate vicinity, where our tour director, Katell Le Bourdonnec, pointed out several recommended restaurants, directions to the train station, the best place to change money, buy beer and Cokes, etc. This is really a useful service Grand Circle provides its travelers to help keep them from getting clipped.

The recommended restaurants are: Le Perroquet (where the Grand Circle staff often takes advantage of its pleasant atmosphere, moderate prices and excellent food); Festival de La Mer, a seafood house; Le Grill Eden in the Meridien Hotel; Vesuvio, Italian specialties including pizza some of our fellow travelers described as outstanding; Plage de La Jetee, a beach restaurant; La Douce Plage, another beach restaurant. Typical fixed price dinners (some including a glass of wine) ranged from 150 to 200 Francs, or $20-$30.

We joined John and Barbara Collens and Otto and Kaye Jenista for dinner at Le Perroquet, which was close to the hotel and across from a city park, right on the main drag and its promenading tourists. The inside dining room opens up to the canopy-covered sidewalk dining area. I don't know how the cafes here and in other French cities get away with encroaching on the sidewalks so far that pedestrians have to walk by the outer tables single file or in the street. But it makes for close people (and plate) watching for everybody.

After the hot temperatures of the day, I opted for an appetizer portion of proscieutto and cantaloupe and a large Salad Nicoise. In place of green beans usually served with the dish named after the nearby city of Nice were slices of red bell pepper. The tuna was served on sliced potatoes with a couple of dozen tiny olives that were even better than the cracked green Olives from Greece we get at home. Betty had pork loin and some very tasty, battered zucchini blossoms. Everything was excellent, including the complimentary slices of toast topped with tapenade (a paste of anchovies and olives) that started things off.

June 30, 2001, Saturday - To Monaco

After a nice "Americanized" buffet breakfast that came with the package, we walked a couple of blocks to change money (7.3 Francs per $1) and take photos on the boardwalk. The boardwalk, actually a broad sidewalk as wide as a street,
Betty on boardwalk over topless beach
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overlooks the tiny public beach. It also overlooks several miles of umbrella-covered, private beaches that completely wall off the coastline from the shops, hotels and condo developments. Our hotel owned one of the private beaches, but it charges its own guests $10-to-$15 to visit for the day or for a few minutes. The hotel also charges guests $7 a day for the use of cushions on the pool chaise lounges.

There were several women sunbathing topless around the hotel pool. One was probably in her 50s and was quite heavy. I guessed she was Italian because I never saw any really large French women. The others were young and firm. I call them "blade women" because so many of the French beauties are knife-edge thin.

We had decided to pass on the all-day, included bus tour of Nice's flower market and Monaco's Monte Carlo casino. We preferred to see sights of our choosing at our own pace. Late the day we saw that ours was a good choice when the busload of overheated, exhausted passengers returned to the hotel. In contrast, our day of relaxed exploration started with a walk to the beach at mid-morning, when the topless beauties were starting their day of glamorous sunning. After returning Betty's passport to the in-room safe at the hotel (passports are required identification for tourists changing money), we walked three or four blocks to Juan-les-Pins' train station. Round-trip tickets for two adult passengers to Monaco cost 124 Francs, or $17, a bargain. The train passed through Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Ner, Nice, Valaris, Villeneueve-Loubert (probably named after the French admiral Villeneuve who was outfought and outsmarted by Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar), and perhaps another dozen small beach communities before reaching Monaco.

The fabled French Riviera is a stretch of Mediterranean coastline that extends about 75 miles from St. Tropez on the west then eastward to the border with Italy, where the Italian Riviera begins. The seaside climate is almost always pleasant to hot. Wealthy Europeans and other "beautiful people" fill the expensive, coastal resort towns in July and August, when it is bikini bottom to bikini bottom. Between Nice and Cannes are the side-by-side villages of Juan-les-Pins and Antibes, which have no perceptible boundary.

Juan-les-Pins (named for the pine trees that grow on its sandy soil) was "discovered" in 1881 by the British Duke of Albany, son of Queen Victoria. But it wasn't until the 1920s that the big-spending Americans started coming in force and bringing with them jazz, sunbathing and water-skiing. Frank Jay Gould, the railway tycoon and robber baron (I've enjoyed several expensive dinners in his refurbished private railcar that is part of the Madison Hotel in Northern New Jersey), launched a casino in Juan-les-Pins. The area was a favorite gathering place for Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Cole Porter and Maurice Chevalier.

A later generation of Americans, the post-World War II sailors of the Sixth Fleet, introduced be-bop, juke boxes, Coca-Cola and jazz festivals to Juan-les-Pins. The town has 15 miles of coastline, including five ports, bays, rocky escarpments and yellow sand beaches with all the accouterments such as jet skis, parasail rides and water skiing. But the first attraction seems to be seeing people and being seen. Expensive shops sell bikinis (tops and bottoms offered separately) and other beachwear for hundreds of dollars per garment.

To my mind, the beaches of Gulf Shores, Ala., are far superior in terms of sand (white versus yellow); width (75-to-100 yards wide versus 20-to-40 feet); and density (lots of room to spread out versus umbrella-to-umbrella compaction). The Gulf Coast beaches also have it in price (no admission charges to miles and miles of public beaches versus only a tiny area of free beach at toney Juan-les-Pins) and wave action (gentle surf most days on the Gulf of Mexico versus lake-like, calm water on the Mediterranean). Also, many of the French Riviera beaches are covered with pebbles and small rocks.

But the Riviera Beaches outscore the Alabama beaches in the physical beauty of sunbathers. The well fed, wide bodies of many American men and women look strangely out of place in the South of France. It looked to me like those who were identifiably American stayed off the beaches, leaving the disrobing and sunbathing to the slim set.

Unlike the shiny, high-speed bullet trains we had seen in Lyon, the SNCF train to Monaco was an old, grimy collection of passenger cars and electric engines. It was mostly full of passengers and ran 15 minutes late both ways. Overhead electric wires provide the power for all the trains we saw. Open windows provide the air conditioning. But service on the popular Cote d'Azur route is frequent, with trains running at least every hour and sometimes every 30 minutes. The hour-long ride along the coastline from Juan-les-Pins to Monaco had some gorgeous vistas of the sea, Riviera beaches and estate-style homes that overlook them. It also revealed some not-so-pretty views of the run-down section of Nice, where laundry hung from the windows of many drab high-rise apartment buildings.

The train station in Monaco is a marvel of tasteful design, cleanliness and easy-to-understand directions. Escalators and long moving sidewalks make it easy for visitors to get around the cavernous, brightly-lighted station. After getting maps from a pair of scrubbed clerks in the station's tourism office, we emerged to see a city that looks spit-shined. We walked up to the Palace by climbing the steep hillside on a terraced, brick path 12 or so feet wide. There were panoramic views of harbors and yacht basins, with the city rising up almost vertically from the deep blue water. Along the pathway there were comfort stations and wrought-iron benches.

Prince Rainier can see almost his entire kingdom from the royal family's palace on the summit of the promontory that juts into the sea. We would have liked to have had lunch with him and were prepared to buy the croissants. But no flag was
Betty at Prince Ranier's Palace in Monaco
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flying over the palace this day and we weren't invited in. We had to learn from other sources that Monaco is a tiny, independent and sovereign state that covers less than one square mile. The early Phoenicians, and later the Greeks, had a temple on the headland honoring Hercules; the principality took its name for the Greek word for strong man, "Monoikos."

Monaco was annexed by France in 1793. After several changes in status, a 1918 treaty ensured its independence as an autonomous, separate free state as long as a male heir of the Grimaldi dynasty lives. The 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi family's reign was celebrated in 1997. Prince Rainier III, now 78 and supposedly in poor health, is the ruling monarch. His 1956 marriage to the American actress Grace Kelly made them one of the most recognized couples in the world until her death in 1982. Their son, Prince Albert, was born in 1958 and is said to be immensely popular. Their daughter, Princess Stephanie, is a frequent subject of scandal-mongering tabloids.

Perhaps 100 yards from the palace is the Roman Catholic church were Rainier and Princess Grace were married. She is buried under the floor of the church, as are several other members of the royal family. The slab of marble over her entombment is cordoned off with red, velvet rope. Candles, a bouquet or two of fresh flowers and a single rose mark the burial. Polite guards wearing blazers see that the throngs of tourists parading through the church maintain the proper respect befitting the church and the famous remains that repose there.

Surrounding the palace, the Place du Palais and Cathedral are park-like expanses of clipped grass, trees, flowerbeds, manicured walkways and comfortable benches. Far beneath the fortified hilltop are dozens of yachts the size of small
One of several yacht basins beneath Monaco palace
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ocean liners, likely owned by Europe's old moneyed families and Arab oil sheiks. Monaco is a tax haven for the very wealthy and it shows. Large villas, luxury hotels and condominium high-rises march up the mountainsides and face the sea. The famed Monte Carlo Casino - controlled by the royal family - is where some of the richest people in the world come to gamble. A dress code requires jackets and ties for men at night and many patrons wear formal attire as they roll dem bones. We "passed" on the action, having zero interest in gaming.

The palace is alongside a fortress built by the Genoese in 1215. Fearsome cannon behind mounted on walls look to seaward. Compared to Buckingham Palace in London, the Louvre in Paris and several chateaux we've seen in France's Loire Valley, Rainier's palace is relatively modest. A solitary sentry wearing an immaculate, white uniform marches back and forth near the entrance. Other athletic-looking guards wearing identical uniforms roam the palace grounds and courteously answer tourist questions in English, French, Italian and probably other languages as well. Among the nearby places to visit for those with more time that we had are the Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs, Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium and several gardens.

Hungry and thirsty from the hot sun, we were directed to a small, narrow street off the Place du Palais. The street was bare of traffic and was lined with a few discrete shops facing inward and several, very expensive townhomes facing the sea. We split a ham sandwich and a can of Coca Light at one small shop and bought a few souvenirs at another. We were warned by our French instructor at the University of Memphis to never touch the carefully arranged fruit and vegetables in the markets and grocery stores of France. We didn't know that the custom of shopping by pointing could also extend to tee shirts. Betty took several neatly folded tees off the shelves and shook them out for size, plainly perturbing the shop's proprietor. As soon as she would refold and replace one, he came right behind her and refolded and restacked it himself. With a big smile on my face, I told him we didn't intend to be rude and wondered if the fruitstand custom extended to clothing. He politely dodged a direct answer, but made it clear that customers should not handle the merchandise, at least in his store.

After a couple of hours of poking around the palace grounds and environs, we boarded another dirty and fairly crowded SNCF train for the ride back to Juan-les-Pins. We again admired the beautiful, sky-blue Mediterranean and the thousands of vacationers sunning on the sand and rock beaches. That evening, we returned to Le Perroquet for another very good dinner. Betty had some absolutely scrumptious mussels cooked in a Normandy sauce - the best we've ever tasted - and a dish that was like our beef burgundy. I had swordfish, which was quite good after I sent it back to be cooked a little more. Our table was on the sidewalk and we enjoyed watching the crowds of passersby. We poked around the beach and boardwalk area until after 10 p.m. The cafes and restaurants were still full and going strong when we returned to the hotel.

July 1, 2001, Sunday - In Juan-les-Pins and Antibes

After another leisurely breakfast, we rode the "Le Petit Train Touristique" to nearby Antibes. It is the older village, dating to the 4th Century BC when it was a Greek trading port. It has been described as the yachting center of the world. I don't know about how it measures up in the world, but its main harbor is filled with hundreds of very large sailing and motor vessels. The average size yacht here costs in the millions of dollars and any one would be a "queen" at the yachting centers I've visited in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida and San Diego. The largest ones in this boating capital for the very rich are bigger than any I've seen back home. The floating display of stupendous wealth was dazzling to the point of disgust when I reflected on how many backs of working poor people had been strained or broken to create the wealth.

The old town of Antibes has what we had come to recognize as a typical, medieval town center. The characteristics are narrow, twisting streets, cobblestones and lots of cafes and shops catering to tourists. With only a limited amount of time and my fascination with boats taking precedence over our joint interest in modern art, we didn't visit the Picasso Museum. The museum occupies part of a 12th Century fort where the artist worked in 1946. We thought that Antibes - renowned for its commercial production of flowers and plants - would be a more interesting place to be based than Juan-les-Pins. In fact, Grand Circle dropped Juan-les-Pins' Ambassadeur Hotel from the 1992 package in favor of the Hotel Radisson SAS in the center of Nice, which is probably even more interesting to the first-time visitor. Nice is the capital of the Riviera, has a population of 350,000 and offers a variety of museums, beaches, markets and festivals.

A band from the French Navy put on a free performance for passing tourists on one of Antibes' streets in the old section.
Atmosphere is mellow and yellow at Antibes cafe
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We had a very nice lunch at the Cameo Cafe that occupied part of the open-air plaza of one of the town's squares. We were under a bright yellow umbrella that provided some protection from the hot sun. I had a Salad Nicoise (my third of the trip) and Betty had a delicious pizza made on an extremely thin crust that had been dusted with cheese and sauce. It was light and yummy, totally unlike typical American pizza that is so often overloaded with goopy cheese and toppings.

After returning to the hotel on one of the hourly meanders of the zoo train, I worked on my travel journal and took a nap to ease my sore lower back in preparation for the next day's long flight home. Betty poked around Juan-les-Pins and finished up a roll of film. In all, she took 20 rolls - the most ever on a single trip. There was a farewell briefing at the hotel that evening and we said our good-byes to the dozen or so people we had befriended. Unwilling to take a chance on strange food the night before traveling, we went back to Le Perroquet for our final dinner in France. I was pleased when the staff treated me like a regular, giving us our choice of tables and calling me by name. The French do know how to charm. Joining us was Sara Bolz and her great sense of humor kept us in stitches for the duration of the meal, nearly two hours. Betty went for a delicious pork dish, again choosing fried zucchini blossoms for her vegetable. I had sea bass baked in an excellent, light sauce. A bottle of house wine was a nice topping for a great day and evening.

July 2, 2001, Monday - To Nice, New York and Atlanta

This was the worst day of our trip. We awoke at 6 a.m. to get our bags packed and put outside our hotel room door for the porters. And 25 hours later we fell exhausted into bed at the Sheraton Gateway in Atlanta, victims of a series of airline delays. The confluence of bad luck and aircraft maintenance/scheduling problems that were to come was hinted at as soon as we boarded the tour bus at 9 a.m. to get to the airport. All the luggage was piled up in the Ambassadeur Hotel lobby and had to be personally identified by us and other passengers before it could be loaded onto the bus. But somebody didn't do something right and there was a mystery piece that was unaccounted for. Since Grand Circle won't allow the bus to leave until everything checks out, all the luggage had to be unloaded from the bus, checked and reloaded. Meanwhile, the bus is parked in the morning sun. French pollution control law supposedly prohibits waiting buses on the Riviera from running their motors, hence no air conditioning. The bus windows didn't open. I got off and at least managed to get the driver to open the rear door to allow some air circulation.

As we stewed and sweated inside the bus, one of the passengers allowed as how Swiss law requires drivers to turn off their automobile engines when stopped for traffic lights or bottlenecks. The regulation might eliminate some hydrocarbons, but we wondered what it must cost in the long run in terms of fuel economy and engine wear from the constant starting and stopping.

Finally, the missing bag was found - inside the bus luggage compartment, where it had been all along - and the bus headed to the airport at Nice. We arrived 45 minutes later only to discover that storms in New York had delayed the plane that was going to pick us up by three hours. That pushed our Nice-New York flight departure back from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., then 3:15 p.m., then 3:30 p.m. and then 4 p.m. It seemed to me that the Grand Circle people could have found out about the delay before we left the hotel, enabling us to spend the morning in Juan-les-Pins rather than the morning and most of the afternoon in the overheated and crowded airport terminal.

The delay of our flight was probably just the edge of the thunderstorm as the impact of the shutdown of New York airports rippled through the airlines. Air France, which handles ground arrangements for partner Delta Airlines, gave us vouchers good for 65 Francs (about $9) worth of food at any of several airport eateries. Our new friend John Collens, ever the purposeful and natural leader, scouted out a sit-down restaurant on the third flood that missed the attention of the hundreds of other travelers who were in similar situations. We joined him and Barbara as well as Otto and Faye Jenista for a long lunch
Barbara, John (center), flanked by Otto, Kaye
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that helped kill the time. I had some fairly good grilled salmon with French fries while Betty had a messy, three-cheese pizza far below the quality she enjoyed at Antibes. I ordered our lunch in French since our waitress had no English. Afterwards, Betty bought some excellent Gulian Belgian chocolates at an airport shop and we watched with interest a flight crew for Saudi Airlines get ready to board their plane. All the female flight attendants appeared to be very Western, very pretty and very stylishly dressed in their uniforms. Each had a gauzy veil attached to her hat that suggested a fashionable, red-roped turban. Evidently the veils were lowered over their faces when in Saudi Arabia or in the presence of male passengers on the plane. The head pilot appeared to be an American but one of the co-pilots had the swarthy look of an Arab.

When we left the hotel to board the bus at 9 a.m., we were fresh, fed, rested and clean. But after the interminable delay over somebody's luggage and hours in the airport terminal, "the longest day" of our trip to France wore on and wore us out. And the worst was yet to come. At 3:30 p.m., our Delta flight was finally called for boarding and we walked down the stairs to the gate area. It was not air-conditioned. There were probably 400 passengers on our flight jammed into the area. There were no queue lines or roped areas. There were another 400 or so in the same area waiting to board a British Airways plane from the gate a few steps away.

It was bedlam, with Air France totally incapable of dealing with the swelling two, co-mingled crowds of tightly packed, angry and hot passengers. No one seemed to be in charge and nobody did anything to direct or tend to the comfort of the overheated passengers (temps were in the upper 90s). It was a mob rush to pass single-file through the narrow door at the gate and then onto a completely unnecessary bus to drive a few feet to the waiting plane. A middle-aged woman who may have been the senior Air France employee on the scene did nothing but shout into a cell phone. Other Air France ground employees stood around in the shade of the plane doing nothing but looking fashionably bored. Once passengers finally bulled their way to the gate or were pushed by people behind, everybody had to present - for the third or fourth time - their passports and boarding passes. Madness. In more than 40 years or airline travel I've never seen such a disorganized mess.

The French are charming, but they sure need some German discipline or American efficiency to help them at the Nice airport. Upon hearing of the horror show we experienced, our travel agent back home said the Nice airport has always been that way. Why an excellent airline like Delta - which has long prided itself on its customer service and veteran employees - would partner with the incompetents of Air France is a mystery to me. It was a relief to at last be aboard the Delta plane and be in the hands of an American crew, who were friendly and efficient. Those of us who complained about the Air France ground crew were encouraged by the Delta flight attendants to contact Delta customer service. One attendant confided that Delta crews were also having trouble with Air France in Nice.

Oddly, Betty and I both had aisle seats on the three-abreast middle section of seats toward the rear of the plane. Seated between us was a nice, expatriate American who was a retired teacher. She had spent most of her working life teaching at schools run by the Defense Department for Americans in Panama, France and other countries. She was on her way home after being a guest at a fairytale wedding in France, where one of her former students married into a family of great wealth. The Delta crew tried to salve our frustration at the long delay and boarding cock-up by quick and frequent service of food and complimentary beverages. I had baked salmon and two chicken sandwiches while Betty chose to eat a banana and little else. After drinking a gin on the rocks and several glasses of French wine, my annoyance abated somewhat.

But sleep in the cramped tourist-class seats was elusive for me during the 8 1/2 hour flight across the Atlantic. The movies "Tiger" and "The Graduate" along with a lot of adventure travel shorts were shown during the long trip. We finally got into JFK about 6:30 p.m. (New York time) and were pleasantly surprised at how quickly and hassle-free we got through U.S. Immigration and Customs. I guess we look honest now that we are in the "senior" category. I recall a madhouse of lines and luggage checks we had to go through 10 years ago following our second trip to Ireland.

Delta's MD11 connection from New York to Atlanta was supposed to leave at 8:15 p.m. But due to a delayed arrival of the plane from Tel Aviv and a mechanical problem that wasn't disclosed to us, we didn't get off until 11 p.m. By this time we were beyond exhaustion. But because I had been one of the firsts in line at the Delta counter in Nice - and maybe because I smiled and tried to speak French to the counter agent - we had been unknowingly upgraded to First Class (not Business Class, but First Class) on the NY-Atlanta flight. So as the window-of-connection to the Atlanta-Memphis flight closed, at least we sat on the ground in style. We luxuriated in the oversize, reclining chairs that offer a comfort universe from motor-controlled adjustments. We accepted a free beer and glass of wine and quickly nodded off to sleep. First Class is a great way to go; it's too bad it is prohibitively expensive. This was the first time I've been in a true First Class section although I've flown Business Class many times, including to Amsterdam and back. First is far better.

July 3, 2001, Tuesday - In Atlanta

We got into Atlanta shortly after midnight, missing the last plane to Memphis, which had taken off at 11:40 p.m. Since we were in First Class, we were among the first off the plane and at the head of the line at the Delta counter to get vouchers for a night's free lodging. We were given a $400-a-night room at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel. We noticed other passengers got rooms at the Sleep Inn, Ramada and similar places. It was much too late to enjoy whatever facilities the Sheraton offered. I made a quick call to Betty Hoffman's cell phone and was sorry to learn that she misunderstood my earlier message and was already at the Memphis International Airport to pick us up. She was a real trooper to try to meet us at the later flight so late at night. Feeling like a zombie but at least clean from a quick shower, I fell into bed and a few hours of restless sleep. We arose at 6 a.m. to give us plenty of time for breakfast (the Delta voucher didn't come close to covering the meal cost at the Sheraton) and to catch the hotel shuttle in time for the 10:30 a.m. Delta flight to Memphis. Delta had offered to book us on an earlier flight, but we wanted more time for sleep and shuttles.

We got to the terminal at 9 a.m., driven by a friendly African-American named Judge. Upon learning we where we live, he mentioned that the previous night he had watched the Emeril Lagasse show from Memphis. The cooking star had been on TV at the Rendezvous, the famous rib restaurant owned by our friends the Vergos family. Judge, a connoisseur of ribs, said he wants to drive to Memphis to visit the Rendezvous and I feel sure he will. As we waited in the terminal for our flight, I made a list of things I needed to do upon arrival. It was a long list: pick up Dickens from the kennel in West Memphis; unpack; clean pool; e-mail Casey and several of our fellow passengers about our arrival home; replenish my shave kit in preparation for our trip later this month to Gulf Shores; write John and Otto; get the yard in shape; pay bills; change Francs to dollars (I learned that First Tennessee Bank only converts paper currency, leaving me with about $10 in French coins); get the film developed and selected trip photos uploaded to my website; write and upload to my trip journal.

July 3, 2001, Tuesday - In Memphis

I was glad we waited for a mid-morning flight from Atlanta to Memphis. The plane was only about 25 percent full and the seats had substantially more "pitch" room than the economy seats on the flight from France. We got into Memphis a little early, about 10:45 a.m. It was a good flying day, with mostly sunny skies and a nice view of the Southland from high above. Our bags had arrived on the 6:20 a.m. flight and were waiting for us, as was Betty Hoffman.

Betty Hoffman went above and beyond the call of duty as she returned to the airport for a third time to collect our baggage and us. We gave her a gift of some place mats and napkins from Provence, with our sincere thanks and appreciation for her chauffeur services. Our first order of business was to hop into our Ford Taurus station wagon to drive across the Mississippi River Bridge to West Memphis, Southland Greyhound Park and Dickens. Was he ever glad to see us. We ate early, dining on New York Steaks we grilled, which were topped off by a bottle of Champagne and several Belgian chocolates. We were in bed by 8:30 p.m. for 10 hours of sleep.

It turned out that the pool and yard needed little attention because of the very good work by the people we had hired. It also turned out that because of other priorities, it took nearly three months to put my notes into a trip journal suitably polished and marked in hypertext for uploading to my website.

In reflecting back on our 16-day trip, I formed several conclusions. First, we had a wonderful time on the River Cruise. Second, our stay in Paris was OK, but really didn't amount to anything great since we didn't break any new ground. And third, the Riviera was pretty to look at, but terribly crowded - a nice place to visit one time.

Overall, the Grand Circle travel experience proved them to be excellent operators despite several slips that were probably inevitable given the time and numbers involved. The pre-trip planning, itineraries and information from Grand Circle was superb. It was obvious that this is a company that doesn't leave much to chance as nearly all the details are attended to with expertise. However, their airport pickup was slow and the long delay in getting into our rooms at the Paris hotel was exasperating even though not Grand Circle's fault.

The bus ride from Paris to Chalon-sur-Soane was long, long in not very comfortable seats. But at least our bus had air conditioning; some in our group were aboard a bus with broken AC and they were miserable. Grand Circle should have checked it before boarding. The short walking tour in Dijon was a waste of time. I can't imagine somebody with Grand Circle's experience and our customer base's interest in food not incorporating a visit to a mustard plant. For us, there was way too much time spent on buses during this trip. We couldn't avoid riding them for most of two days as we were shuttled from where the boat segment started and stopped. But thankfully we escaped the all-day bus tours of Burgundy and the Riviera and the half-day tours of Paris and Arles.

The tour bus builders and operators have taken a queue from the airlines and put in extra rows of seats at the expense of comfort. The seat width, legroom and pitch are inadequate for adults. Since nearly everybody in our group did take the all-day tours, I suppose their level of tolerance for cramped seats (or love of lots of company) is greater than ours. But I cannot imagine us ever going on another vacation that requires more than a tiny bit of time on a tour bus.

We now know that tour group vacations are not for us. There was only one time when we felt any pressure to "go with the group." A sarcastic remark that I found strangely insulting was made by one of the Grand Circle leaders in Paris, whom I had privately informed we would pass on the city tour since we spent most of a week in the city on an earlier trip. She acidly told the group in a loud voice that "Mr. Nolan won't be going on the tour because he already knows everything there is to know about Paris." Exact words. She must have regretted her outburst since she was nothing but nice later. Her spike of rudeness was more than overshadowed by the charm and enthusiasm of our tour directors - young French women who did their very best to please - and other Grand Circle employees.

The only negatives to the weeklong boat ride - and they were not severe - was that the quality of the main courses served at dinner did not meet expectations during the first four days. But once they got a new chef on the boat, the food improved greatly. The deserts served at lunch and dinner were not very creative or inspiring. But the near constant flow of rich ice cream seemed to keep almost everybody happy. Our lactose intolerance kept us with repetitive, humdrum deserts of fruit and cookies. The bread was baked fresh every day and it was excellent. I ate French bread with relish at breakfast, lunch and dinner. On some days I remembered to grab a hard roll or two at the breakfast buffet for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. The food we had at restaurants off the ship was very good. We didn't do much culinary experimentation because of digestive caution.

There were many positives to the boat ride. The itinerary and support information was excellent. Seeing the Temple of Augustus and Livia at Vienne, the Papal Palace at Avignon and the huge Roman amphitheater and Constantine's Baths at Arles provided me with new insights into subjects I've been reading about for more than 40 years. Experiencing the coolness, the quiet, the sense of peace and oneness with God and his continuum with mankind from the interiors of cathedrals nearly 1,000 years old gave me some additional spiritual understanding and depth. Seeing Betty enjoy the colors and sights of Provence gave me much pleasure.
Betty at Arles fabric shop
Click Colored Type to Enlarge

Overall, I found our fellow passengers to be quite friendly and likable. There were a few pushy, older women who were mildly irritating, but I chalk that up to their non-Southern upbringing and culture. The flights to Paris and back home were exhausting. But that's the price you must sometimes pay to travel in Europe. We are talking about taking Grand Circle's 15-day river cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna at a future time. That trip, which was highly recommended by several fellow excursionists, offers a more leisurely pace and doesn't requiring all the busing that this one did. -- Sept. 3, 2001

P.T.S. (Post Trip Scripts):

We sent photos and exchanged notes and e-mails with several of our new friends. Excerpts of their correspondence follows:

* From Katell Le Bourdonnec, July 28, 2001: ". . .Sorry you had such an awful trip home. It sounded terrible! I wish you a nice August. I believe it must be very warm in Tennessee. In Paris, it's awful - extremely hot, no air. We're sweating all day. And of course there's no air conditioning. Anyway, I can't stand air conditioning! That's one of the big differences between French and American. It's like ice in drinks. . ."

* From Sara Bolz, July 7, 2001: ". . .We heard about the awful delay in Nice on your return to the U.S. I'm glad to hear that Delta upgraded you on the NY-Atlanta flight. Seems it was the least they could do!!! I had a good flight to England, delayed by 1 1/2 hours. But I had no connection to make so no big thing. I did not get any relief from the heat, as London was having the same weather as France. My flight home was great. Because of strong winds in the Atlantic, the pilot routed north over Iceland and Greenland. With clear skies over Greenland the views were spectacular and I shot off the rest of my film on glaciers and snow capped peaks!!. . ."

* From Kaye Jenista, July 10, 2001: ". . .We, too, enjoyed the times spent with you both. It was fun, wasn't it? Especially all the laughter. We're going to miss you two in September on the 'Mosel" cruise. We'll definitely keep in touch and hopefully get together some day. . ."

* From John Collens, July 11, 2001: "I just made a reservation with Grand Circle Travel for 'The Seine: Paris to Normandy.' It is described in their catalog, European River Cruises 2002. The ship being built for GCT is exactly like the Ravel we were on and is named Bizet. In order to avoid the European holiday seekers (mad house) and enjoy temperate weather, we chose a October 1st departure, Paris to Normandy 7-night cruise, 3 night extension in Normandy, back to Paris for 3 nights (the Paris nights are included), returning home on October 15. Good itinerary but needs good people to join us - you two. Otto and Kaye are considering it. . ."

From John Collens July 28, 2001: "Have booked another trip with Grand Circle. This one a cruise in March from Fort Lauderdale to Bermuda, Azores, Madeira (Canary Islands), Casablanca, Tangier, to Barcelona. Add that to our October, 2002 Paris to Normandy and we are locked in for year 2002. We are off to Brussels to board the next river cruise (including Germany's Mosel River) in just four weeks. . ."

We continued to exchange e-mail with John, a retired major general who kindly shared with us some fascinating reminisces of his wartime flying. One was an article about one of his World War II experiences with the 96th Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group (Italy) that first appeared in the Second Bombardment Association newsletters of January and June, 1993. Edited excerpts follow:

Then a 20-year-old "airplane driver" of a B-17, John and his squadron had the mission of bombing a German oil refinery at Ruhland, about 75 miles southeast of Berlin. ". . .All of a sudden one flak round went through a gas tank without exploding. There went the fuel needed to get back to Italy. Another round took out an engine on the right while a subsequent one took out an engine on the left. With the bombs still in the bay they fell like a "load of bricks." With a flash, bombs were jettisoned and they were able to maintain altitude and head for Lodz, Poland, and sanctuary with the Russian allies. . ." After a scare from a Russian fighter plane that actually shot down another B-24, John managed to land the damaged plane. . . "Later when we were interrogated by the Russians to determine if we were friend or foe, we learned that the Germans had used captured U.S. bombers against Soviet forces. They took no chances - you had better fire the (flare) colors of the day from your Very pistol or face a shootdown.

". . .After what seemed like an eternity to make us talk, we were packed off in a truck to downtown Lodz. Our Russian guards (who still considered us captives) entered a hotel, herded out a number of civilians and gave us their rooms. With those guards in the hallway outside, Thompson-style machine guns in hand, we wondered about our fate; when and where do we eat. Soon we were declared friendly, but the guard remained.

"We were in Lodz for just a few days. A truck took us from Lodz to a Soviet tactical airfield closer to the frontlines. . .The Russians lived off the land. We observed them leading a cow on a rope behind the mess hall, shoot it, skin it on the spot and that was our meat for the meal. . . So controlled were the Russians that when we expressed delight in seeing American jeeps, trucks, C-47 aircraft, etc., they reminded us that these were Soviet-built vehicles and aircraft, not Lend-Lease offerings. . " Finally a U.S. Army Air Corps C-47 with a Soviet navigator flew them back to U.S.-controlled territory - being careful to fly so low that the Americans could not view USSR airfields and other military territory. "The Cold War had its beginning even before the hot one (WWII) ended," John recalled.

John also recalled that at his unit's 1991 reunion in Dayton, Ohio, the ball turret gunner on his airplane crew was at last presented with the Purple Heart, 46 years after being wounded by flak during the harrowing flight.

His career was filled with variety and service to the nation. He was a B-17 pilot shot down on his 25th mission in WWII. He briefly returned to civilian life as a pharmaceutical salesman, but missed flying and returned to the Army Air Corps/Air Force as a weather forecaster before the Korean War. Then he became a tactical reconnaissance pilot (flying RB-26 and RF-80 aircraft), then served as a C-141 pilot in Vietnam. He also served as wing commander, Air Weather Service Commander, MAC Chief of Staff, Deputy Inspector General Hq. USAF and retired as a major general. Our country is extremely fortunate to have patriots with the abilities, drive and willingness to serve in the military like John W. Collens.

Betty and I were quite fortunate to get to know John and his charming wife, Barbara, and their good friends, Otto and Kaye Jenista. We hope to join them on another cruise in the future.

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