Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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Marseilles feels like Europe’s gateway to Africa. About a quarter of its population is from North Africa, and two million people ride its ferries across the Mediterranean each year (most shuttling from here to Algeria and Tunisia). Like Los Angeles or Miami, the city has its melting-pot challenges (and some immigrant-related crime). But it is vibrant, it is reality, and no trip to southern France is really complete without a stop here. In this little clip, walk with me for a moment through the North African market in the center of Marseille.

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A great thing about traveling in France (I think even more than in other countries) is how the characteristic, family-run little hotels survive. Follow me as I greet my host, Patrice, and climb the spiral staircase in my choice in downtown Avignon, Hôtel Colbert. At about $100 for a double room with breakfast, it’s about half the price, double the rough edges, and double the memories of a more modern place.

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Cities all across France now have modern and efficient “farmers markets” in practical indoor halls, with big parking garages overhead. These were built so this important slice of the local culture can survive the competition brought on by France’s hypermarchés (huge suburban shopping centers). As I’ll explain in this clip, at these markets you’ll find lots more than a charming and colorful people scene; you can also eat well and affordably. I find that in my guidebooks all across Europe, for lunch I’m recommending sitting down with the local shoppers at the traditional market. What’s your favorite market experience (or meal) in Europe?

 

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A lot of things impress you when traveling through the South of France. One of my favorites is the ancient stone aqueduct called the Pont du Gard.

This region is called Provence because it was the first “foreign” conquest as ancient Rome set about to building its vast empire. Since it wasn’t Rome proper, they called it “Provincia Romana” (province of Rome) — and the name stuck.

The Romans left behind some impressive examples of engineering in their first province. The Pont du Gard is one of the most striking, and one of the most visited sights in all of France. And even after many visits, I’m forever impressed by the ability of the ancient Roman engineers. This structure, built with perfectly cut stones fitted together without mortar, was designed to slope ever so slightly — less than an inch every hundred yards — as part of a 30-mile canal system that let water flow effortlessly into the city of Nîmes.

The classic view of the aqueduct, from the river, is something every visitor sees. But here’s a peek at the actual stream the Romans created — on the top of that structure. Six times a day, for €4, you can follow a guide (like Michael, who you’ll meet in this clip) and actually walk the length of this ancient bridge…an experience you’d miss if you visited without a good guidebook.

Where have you been most impressed by Roman engineering?

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I hiked all around the ruggedly beautiful Cap d’Antibes, perhaps the most exclusive chunk of real estate in the entire French Riviera. The Mediterranean views were stunning. But even more stunning were the villas — many of which, like the yachts, sat unused. The experience got me thinking of walls, wild wealth, and public access. So this video is not very pretty.

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While Nice is the most substantial of Riviera cities, Antibes (just half an hour west of Nice) is smaller and cuter. As you walk from the train station to the old town along its harbor, the yachts get bigger and bigger. Finally, at the end, you reach the “Quai des Milliardaires” (billionaires’ dock), where yacht-length envy inspires unfathomable conspicuous consumption. Click these photos for some thoughts on yachts.

stern tie (2).JPGOn the French Riviera, local guides memorize lists of the world’s largest yachts. A fun dimension of Antibes is its bars, which cater to the crews of yachts like this one.

 

tax dodge.jpgWalking along a row of a dozen or so of these mammoth yachts, I noticed they all flew the same flag: the Cayman Islands, a nation where none of their owners actually lives. If you’re that rich, it’s just common sense to avoid taxes by not registering your yacht in your homeland. Or is it? Each one of these people is wealthy enough to own a yacht that has a full-time, year-round staff, yet they typically only use their floating palace 5 to 10 days a year. They don’t know what to do with all of their wealth, and yet they still feel the need to figure out a clever way to avoid paying their taxes. It’s legal, but is it right?

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When visiting the French Riviera, the best home base is Nice. There are many reasons, and in these six photos, I share a few reasons why, where I come from, people like to say that Nice is nice.

By the way, I was here during the busiest week of the year: The Grand Prix was happening half an hour to the east, in Monaco, and the film festival was raging half an hour to the west, in Cannes. Yet Nice was a delight, from the beaches to the restaurants.

 

nice tram.jpgAfter being torn up for many years, Nice is now the proud owner for a wonderful new tram line. Trams glide through the heart of town every few minutes, replacing so much traffic congestion and turning a huge swath of the city into a delightful people zone. Bravo, Nice!

 

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The local term for the French Riviera is the Côte d’Azur, meaning “the Azure Coast.” I’ve been coming here for decades, and I’ve never seen the côte quite so azur as it is on this visit.

 

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While you won’t find sand on Nice’s beach, the pebbles seem to work just fine. Sunbathers can rent lounge chairs (€16/half-day, €19/full day) and have drinks and meals served literally on the beach. And the law requires that every beach must also have free, public access.

 

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All over Europe, my go-to salad for a working lunch is a salade niçoise. And in its hometown, you just have to order one. The presentation these days is getting much more fun and pretty. I have a favorite restaurant right on the beach, Restaurant Castel, and having my salade niçoise there was just right. (It was pricey, at $25, but a great value…considering it came with a big memory.)

 

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There’s something about being out and about after dark with a camera in France that I really like. The French are artists with facades, trees, and floodlighting.

 

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Nice’s old town artfully mixes the character of Italy (it was Italian until 1860) and France (elegant dining and a general affluence). In researching our guidebook, the selection of great-value restaurants was abundant.

 

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I love the way being in Europe can mix fun and fascinating sights, sounds, and ideas. Here, in the space of about two minutes, we size up a tiny country from above, listen to (but don’t see) a famous car race, catch a rainbow marking an international border, consider how the Alps stretch from the Mediterranean at Nice all the way to Vienna, and then marvel at a towering propaganda monument erected by the Romans 2,000 years ago (La Trophée des Alpes). That’s our puzzle and challenge as we travel: to experience the entire range of Europe and weave it together so it has meaning.

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I’ve left Italy and have arrived in the South of France. I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks of beaches, hill towns, and great meals.

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The French Riviera has amazing scenery. From the beautiful (but grotesquely touristy) mountaintop village of Eze, you can look down on Cap Ferrat. This cape is one of the most exclusive places for the rich and famous to live — Paul Allen’s mansion is next door to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Cap Ferrat is also geographically significant: This is where the Alps rise from the sea and begin their ripple across Europe, arcing from here all the way to Vienna’s doorstep.

 

chagal museum.jpgThe most visited museum on the French Riviera is, understandably, the Chagall Museum in Nice. One reason this museum is so enthralling is that it was designed by Marc Chagall himself to show off his art.

 

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In the world of Marc Chagall — who mixes religion, his Russian heritage, and physical love so elegantly — couples find it’s cuddle time.

 

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I love France and find the French people charming and fun. But I’ve noticed a strange attitude among some museum curators, who seem to believe that only French-speaking people pay their admission prices. I’ve seen so many fine museums this week that have plenty of staff just hanging around, but can’t find the time or energy to translate a single word into English (beyond a list of what’s forbidden and how much it costs to enter). I’m not just worried about my American readers — people from around the world communicate in the language of travel, which is English. This museum’s video has a French audio track. It has French subtitles for extra credit. And, in case a deaf person may be visiting, it devotes a quarter of the screen to a person signing. Yet fully half of the people touring the museum don’t speak French…and understand nothing. (I would bet a thousand non-French speakers come by for each deaf person who drops in.) It’s a lost opportunity. OK, I just had to get that off my chest. Merci.

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I’m always thinking about how Europe looks so pretty in people’s photo collections, video clips, and even in their memories. But I like the gritty and candid dimensions of Europe that are simply unpolished reality, too. Here’s an impromptu clip of me sharing my last, lousy lunch in Italy while changing trains in Genoa. Two minutes later, I was on my way to France.

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