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My fellow compatriots: Vive la France.
Upon arriving in Marseille early on a beautiful August morning, we entered the main port around 10am. The “old port” of Marseille is right in the center of town and would have been an excellent place to stay. Unfortunately, there was an upcoming Regatta (we seem to have a knack for arriving at ports at the same time of their annual regattas) and there was no room for us. So we headed to the nearest alternative, a marina in between two nearby islands (Ile du Friol), which had a ferry to take us back and forth to Marseille. The islands stand in the bay of Marseilles, and for centuries have been heavily fortified to repel would be invaders; most recently by the Germans in 1943 (which didn’t stop American invaders in 1944). Another nearby island contains an old stone fortification, the Chateau d’If, that once housed a French prison, and was th
Kiera had her 11th birthday while we were there. We tried to find a place to get a birthday cake, but no such luck. So the kids baked a chocolate cake from scratch. We didn’t have self rising flour, and used yeast instead. The ending cake had a consistency tending a bit more towards brownies, but was still delicious, and none went to waste, I noted. And the coming of September meant the return of school on board. None of us where really looking forward to it, but the girls got back into pretty quickly and soon it became a routine.
I planned on staying at Marseille 3 days and then move east towards the Riviera and Italy. However, this part of the west coast of Mediterranean France, like the Spanish Costa Brava, is open to Mistrals and Tratamontes that get funneled between the Alps and the Pyrraneas mountain ranges and sweep down the Rhone Valley in France. Once you get a bit east of Marseilles, the strong winds are diverted and the weather is much more mild. We caught one and so we ended up spending 5 days in the marina. We spent a couple of the days touring Marseilles, a large city with a couple interesting churches and decent shopping, but otherwise uninspiring, in my opinion.
Tracie read some of the guide books we had and found that a place at the mouth of the Rhone River called the Camarouge, which is famous for its nature preserve and white horses, was not far. She wanted to go, this being the most famous place in Southern France, she said. Not being into ponies, I never had heard of it. The trip was 40 miles in the wrong direction for our voyage, heading back west, but what the hell. We got a beautiful day with warm sunshine and headed for the Camarouge.
I planned on spending maybe a couple of days at the Camarouge, so Trace and the kids could ride the ponies, and there was also and 15 mile bike path along a dike separating the sea and the Rhone Delta I wanted to ride. The place is kind of like the Florida Everglades, marshy with lots of flamingos. Farther inland they raise bulls for bullfighting and the white ponies. However, while we were there, another Mistral was forecast, so we stayed a couple extra days, though the forecast high winds never materialized.
We did take advantage of the supposed bad weather to catch that particularly French entertainment: The monster truck ralley. I knew from the strains of “Good ole Rocky Top” playing on the speakers that we were in for a real French treat. There were some trick motorcycle riders, car tricks on two weeks, and for the finale, the monster trucks, painted in red white and blue stars and stripes, doing the obligatory car crunching. Culture is what going to Europe is all about.
We then sailed the 40 miles back to Marseilles. The old port was still full, so we pulled back into the Isle du Friol, for an overnighter.
This time the mistral did come, blowing 30 knots for the next three days, turning our overnighter into another 4 day stay. It was frustrating just sitting there. The planned 2 day stay over in Marseille had taken us two weeks, about the time I had allotted for the whole southern coast of France.
When the weather cleared, we heading east, and were lucky with the weather for the next month. Just to the east of Marseille are the Calanques, a series of finger coves, like small fjords, maybe 100-200’ wide and up to 1/2 mile long, jutting in between tall canyons and cliffs of rock which tower high over your mast. Towering trees grow wherever they can find a spot to root. At the end of these cuts are little beaches where people come to sunbathe. Ferry boats bring in sun bathers and rock climbers by the truckloads and cart them away again in the afternoon. It is spectacular to be anchored in between the cliffs. I took the kids rock climbing up into the cliffs, and that evening we found a place to make a campfire. Art and I started telling ghost stories, but Kiera and Colette vetoed the idea, bravery at night not being their strong suit. We sp
After the Calanques were the Iles D’ Hyeres, a group of 3 islands, 1-2 miles long, a few miles south of the French mainland, just off Toloun. They have a rugged beauty, very green and full of trees. The islands are made up of a rock with a large mineral content; lots of quartz and the rock is full of a metal or mineral which makes everything sparkle in the sunlight. There are trails you can walk around on the island, to small villages or the ruins of old forts.
We enjoyed a few more warm summer days at pleasant anchorages in the islands. The water temp was about 70*, a bit cool for us Miamians, but I surprised myself by how fast I got used to it. By now I was thinking nothing of diving in 70* water to take a swim back and forth to the beach. The water was almost as clear as in the Bahamas, which surprised me. I didn’t expect the Med to be so clear. At one of the islands, an ice cream boat came by, which was a treat for the kids.
I found the French to be, contrary to the stereotype, very friendly, even though for me it was frustrating not speaking any of the language. There seems to be few things that get translated into English; perhaps I was just more aware of the lack due to my deficiency. But being a Romance language, I could communicate just enough to get by with Spanish. Art speaks French pretty well so that helped.
Next spot up the Cote du Azul (the popular name for the French coast east of Marseille) was St. Tropez. True to its nature, it was full of huge yachts. Being off season, they actually had a spot for us, but the $100 a night tag was a bit much. It was a calm day, we anchored off the beach for the night, and the next day headed a couple miles down the coast to a place called Port Grimaud. Grimaud is unique in its own right. It was a swamp 25 years ago. They built a Fort Lauderdale/ Venice like complex where waterways ply between the pastel colored Mediterranean style two story apartments. It is large, roughly 6 blocks square in size. There are few roads or cars, you use dinghies to get around the waterways, or walk on sidewalks and bridges that run next to and over the waterways. It is really pretty and well done. We stayed there 3 d
One night at Grimaud we all walked to a big supermarket, about 25 minutes away. We hadn't done a big shopping trip for a while, so we loaded up with the expectation of calling a cab to truck it all back. At 9pm at night, we had checked out with two huge carts of food. The lady at the service desk tried to call a cab, but there was none to be found. Anywhere in the St. Tropez area, on a Tuesday night. I couldn't believe it. Must be a union thing or something. So we were going to “borrow” the carts to push the food all the way back to the boats, but Art came along a couple Australian fellows in a little car and convinced them to give him and the food a lift for a small bribe. Sometimes you have to improvise.
Next up the coast was Cannes. The marina was booked because of an upcoming regatta, so we anchored off the beach. Wasn’t really a good anchorage, not well protected and the holding wasn’t great. We stayed there two nights. The place reminded us of Miami Beach a bit, a lot of big fancy hotels along a beach. The second morning the wind picked up and the anchor started dragging, so we picked up and anchored in the lee of a nearby island, home to yet another old French prison. We were going visit it the next morning, but the wind shifted and we started dragging again. So we pulled up and headed up the coast.
The next place was Nice, the second largest city on the coast. Again the marina was booked. They have a serious lack of marina space in southern France. Fortunately, a couple miles away there is a beautiful protected harbor where we anchored. It is just on the other side of a ridge from Nice, in a beautiful little town built on the hillside called Villefrache-Sur-Mar. It was a cute little town in its own right, seemed like something right out of the 19th century. You had to walk up and down stairs to get anywhere. It was also right on the bus route between Nice and Monaco, so for a couple euros we could go and visit those places. We visited Nice, and went to Monaco and saw the palace and the changing of the guard. We went to the beach and just spent some time just relaxing and enjoying the warm Mediterranean sun. Huge cruise ships
On September 30th we left France for Corsica, a large island about 100 miles to the Southeast. We had debated continuing up the Italian Riveria, but it was getting later in the season, the nights were getting darker earlier and more cool. We didn’t have time to do both the Italian Riveria and Corsica, and everybody we talked to told us how nice Corsica was. Plus, I hadn’t been able to find a pilot book for Italy, so I didn’t have good intelligence on the places to stay.
The crossing to Corsica was one of those magical nights that make it all worthwhile. I relived Art at the helm at midnight. It was a ink black night, the moon had not risen, and it was crystal clear. The stars shone with a brilliance I had rarely seen before. I could pick out all the constellations very clearly, and learned a couple new ones on the southern horizon. I just stared at them for 2 hours. Then, as Orion rose in the east, the moon rose next to it, a huge burnt orange crescent just on the horizon. It was incredible. Just as much of a treat for me as the fireworks over Villefranche.
We arrived on the northwest coast of Corsica in a town called Calvi. It was pleasant with handy amenities, and we stayed there three days. After leaving Calvi, we headed down the western side of the island. The island has a rugged beauty to it, with jutting mountains of rock and scrub setting an inspiring background. It was a warm, but slightly misty day when we left Calvi, the kind of day where it looks clear but the sea fades into the horizon in the distance. It made the rugged mountains dark green/grey silhouettes against the lighter grey/blue of the sea. There wasn't much wind, but just enough to make a ripple in the sea. The mid-day's sun reflected off the sea, filling the sea in front of the boat with a million glittering diamonds. At one place, we snuck between the coast and an island. The rugged coast and island funneled down jagg
In Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, we took a 2 hour train ride into the center of Corsica, enjoying the rugged terrain. We arrived in a medium sized town named Corte and walked around. Art found the number for a horse stables, and they picked us up and took us to a stables at the foot of a mountain. We all got on Corsican horses, and took a 1 ½ hour trip up steep rocky paths up to the summit of a mountain and back. I didn’t wear pants and had to lift my legs up when we went thru narrow thorn covered bushes. The ponies were very well trained, and wore no bridles, just halters. It was the first time I had been horse back riding for 20 years and enjoyed it. I gave my horse a couple sugar cubes and sang to him. He like the sugar cubes; not so sure about the singing.
After Ajaccio, we headed down to the town of Bonifacio on the southeastern tip of Corsica. It is an ancient village built into the base of a Calanque, a narrow fjord lined with limestone carved cliffs. A centuries old fortified town lies at the top of one of the sides. Along the base are old 3-4 story buildings in which restaurants and shops are built. The place was beautiful. We explored the ancient town with its narrow windy roads, and rented a car one day to drive along the coast.
At this point in our trip, we had to make a decision. Did we want to stay in Europe one more year or head back this winter. Because of the hurricane season and Mediterranean weather, it is only practical to sail back to the New World in December, and if we were going to do that, we had to start heading back.
For reasons varied and personal, we decided not to stay another year in Europe. So instead of heading for the Italian mainland, we headed for the Balearic Islands and Majorca, Spain. It was a 240 mile trip from Corsica to the southwest. The prevailing wind in this area blows to the east, but on the day we left the weather was forecast to be from the NW at 10-16 knots. A low was sitting on Corsica and it had been stormy for the previous days, so I expected some swell, but it was supposed to taper off. When we got out to sea, there was a good swell, and once we got offshore, the wind picked up to 20-25 knots with waves up to 9’. The wind was coming more from the west than the north, and when I checked the charts carefully (which I should have done before we left) Majorca was a bit more west than south. All this meaning we had t
It actually turned out to be a fun night. We got back at 10p, and tried to find a place to grab a pizza (pizza is even more popular in Europe than America, if you can believe it) but all the restaurants had stopped serving, so we made soup and sammies on the boat. There was a boat full of Germans on one boat and another boat full of Brits having an impromptu party, which we joined. Later I got out my guitar, and they all ended up on our boat singing songs till about 2am. One of the things I have enjoyed being able to do on this trip is spend some time with my guitar, which for various reasons, mostly lack of time, I hadn’t been able to do much in the last 10 years. I pick it up every couple days now, just to enjoy playing it, maybe pick up a new songs now and then. I keep expecting the rest of the crew to get sick of it and throw it overboard, b
That evening I decided it made more sense to head down to Sardinia, 40 miles to the south, and work over to the west coast before heading to Majorca. That would put us 60 miles closer to Majorca (actually the smaller island of Menorca would be the first stop). The weather forecast for the next day was 10-16 out of the Northwest, which I thought would work nicely for our trip to Sardinia, which was on a bit more of a southern tack. So the next morning at 9am we again pulled out of Bonifacio, on a calmer morning, and headed for Sardinia. Which will be in the next segment.
Till then, may the irie be with you.