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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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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The Cinque Terre is my favorite stretch of Mediterranean coastline. On this two-month research and TV production trip, I gave myself one day off, and I slotted it in right here.

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Unfortunately, cruise lines are now stopping in La Spezia (the gateway to the Cinque Terre), and their thousands of passengers are congesting these otherwise peaceful towns. When the cruise ships are in, mid-days can be miserable, both in the towns — like Vernazza, pictured here — and on the trails. But if you’re out early (before 10:00) or late (after 17:00), there are no crowd problems at all.

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Enjoying a sunset from the castle in Vernazza at Ristorante Belforte is one of the most romantic experiences you may ever enjoy.

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The restaurants of the Cinque Terre make delightful seafood antipasti plates. When in the Cinque Terre, your best restaurant tip: Order seafood.

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I’ve been on the road for nearly two months now, and I’m in a great work groove. Even the little chores are fun.

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Tour guides know that when you’re in Europe surrounded by tourists binging on chocolate, cakes, and gelato, you learn extreme portion control. While I rarely indulge in an entire ice cream cone, I do sample gelaterie in every town as part of my research responsibilities. And I’m getting pretty good at taking selfies — even while enjoying a little spoonful.

IMG_3203.jpgFor me, one of the small delights of travel is getting a haircut. While it used to stress me out because of the language barrier, now I keep an eye out for a place that feels right (away from the tourist zone, and with a successful but not too trendy vibe) and trust the stylist. It’s easy to drop in, make a reservation that works conveniently into your sightseeing, and then come back later for your haircut. It’s also a fun way to meet a local. Do you have any good or bad experiences at the barbershop or beauty salon while on the road?

laundry.jpgPart of travel is doing the laundry. While I’ve been relying on elbow grease and hotel room sinks for six weeks, soon or later it becomes fragrantly clear that a good, thorough wash is needed. All over Europe, self-service launderettes have smart machines with clear English instructions. This place in Lucca cost me €5 for the wash (detergent was automatically included) and €5 to dry. Suddenly I find people sit with me on the train.

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When I’m updating restaurants for my guidebook, I love having a local friend to help out and give their insights. But it can backfire when the local tells the chef I’m writing a guidebook, and they decide to get all trendy. In these cases, I wind up eating goofy gourmet off-menu morsels like this concoction… and learn nothing about what typical travelers eat when they sit down here.

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My niece Nicolina is adventuring in India right now with her Hearts of the World project, bringing art to poor children across the country. I couldn’t be prouder of her — and I couldn’t be more tickled by this photo she sent me from the road. Reading the story behind this painting made me smile. It’ll make you smile too — check it out on Nicolina’s blog. (Just scroll down a few posts to “In a Pinch.”)

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My dad was a piano tuner, and in my travels, any time I see a piano, I have an urge to play it or hear it played. At Il Canto del Sole agriturismo, Luciano showed me around his farm while his son, Marco, attentively followed, seemingly fascinated by my work as a guidebook writer. When we came upon the family piano, I asked Marco to play. Oblivious to how horribly out-of-tune the piano was, Marco sat right down and belted out Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.” Coincidentally, that’s one of my favorite songs, and I’ll be seeing Al Stewart in concert in Everett, Washington, next month. It’s interesting to me that a pop song, written before Marco was born, would be part of this fun rural Tuscan moment. Al, if you’re there, you have a young fan just south of Siena. (And if there’s a piano tuner on the road in Italy, I’ll bet you can get a free night in a great B&B if you packed along your tuning hammer.)

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