After our week in Normandy, we briefly visited Rouen, France, then flew from Paris to Barcelona, where we stayed for a week. From Barcelona we traveled by train to Montpelier, France, to pick up a rental car. (We had learned it’s cheaper to rent and return a car within one country than to cross international boundaries.)
Over the next 18 days, we explored Provence, the Cote d’Azur/French Riviera, and the French Alps. Our week in Provence will get its own blog post next time. In this chapter, we’ll take you from Rouen to Barcelona, then on a Mediterranean road trip to Antibes.
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Two things compelled us to stop in Rouen for an afternoon. One was our desire to see the famous cathedral that Monet painted many times, in many different lights. Unfortunately, the facade made famous by Monet was covered in scaffolding and tarps while we were there, so we had to settle for this view of a magnificent side entrance.
The other reason to visit Rouen was to pay homage to Joan of Arc, the teenage visionary and heroine of France. Joan was executed at age 19 in 1431, by forces aligned with the English near the end of the Hundred Year’s War. This statue of Joan in the flames is said to be inches from the exact spot where she was burned to death.
Joan was later canonized by the Catholic Church. The modern Church of St. Joan of Arc now occupies part of the square where she was executed.
We went to Barcelona to get a taste of Spain and to see some of the Catalan Modernisme architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
We stayed in a seventh-floor apartment with a balcony that gave us fantastic views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
The view straight down from our balcony shows the jigsaw puzzle of our neighbors’ back terraces.
The ever-changing sky over the distant mountains offered a serene contrast to the teeming life of the city.
At night, the view changed completely. The Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Mount Tibidabo glowed through the distance and passing clouds.
Barcelona was full of surprises, like these potbellied Floss Silk trees.
Green parrots. Click this image to see a brief video I shot of a flock of them milling around in Barcelona’s Parc de la Ciutadella. (The Youtube video will open in a separate window.)
And some of the best graffiti in Europe.
Columbus points the way to the New World.
The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc entertains nightly with ever-changing showers of light.
The Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is the center of the old city of Barcelona.
We were there for the first few days of the annual La Merce street festival. Events such as folk dancing, musical performances, parades and food fairs took place all over the city. We were sorry we had to leave before the Castellars (human castle builders) were performing toward the end of the week-long festival.
We learned that visitors can eat well and cheaply in Barcelona. These delicious tapas were one euro each. At the end of the evening, the bartender counts the toothpicks left on your plate and charges accordingly.
Taco-Taco is a delightful taste of Tex-Mex in the middle of Barcelona, with a “Day of the Dead” theme. The streets of Barcelona are lined with small shops and cafeterias selling decent sandwiches and pastries very cheaply.
One thing that makes Barcelona truly unique is the Catalan Modernista architecture. Park Güell is a wonderful example.
Antoni Gaudí created this wonderland for Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur. The project was originally conceived as a housing development, but it never took off. Later it was bequeathed to the state and opened to the public. We avoided standing in line for hours by buying our tickets online. Appointed entry times are given with each ticket.
The gigantic park is filled with visual delights. This tilted, curving colonnade resembles a wave. If you visit Barcelona, Park Güell is a must.
In the Park Güell snack bar, a friendly pigeon wandered around among the customers. As is fairly typical in European casual restaurants, nobody seemed to mind. We couldn’t resist giving it a snack. Click here to watch a brief video I shot of the pigeon. (The Youtubevideo will open in a separate window.)
Gaudí’s crowning achievement is the Sagrada Familia. Construction of this Catholic basilica began in 1882. It is funded by donations, and by the paid admission of millions of tourists. Gaudí knew he wouldn’t live to see its completion, which is projected to happen in 2026, 100 years after his death.
In intricate detail, every square inch of the structure tells part of the story of the Sacred Family of Christ.
The interior is a breathtaking collage of form, color, and light. Gaudi’s organic style draws from nature, echoing the cathedral-like majesty of a great forest.
The majesty is tempered by touches of whimsy, such as the circus-like presentation of the crucified Christ suspended over the altar.
Like Park Güell, it’s best to get your tickets online for an appointed entry time. Here Sarah stands in front of the Passion Façade of Sagrada Familia after our visit.
Why am I reading Ryanair’s in-flight magazine inside Sagrada Familia? To enter in a Ryanair promotional contest for a free flight voucher.
The idea was to submit pictures reading the magazine in front of famous sights. Lord only knows why Sarah’s saintly pose didn’t win.
As we said goodbye to Barcelona, Francina, our wonderful AirBnB co-host, helped carry the luggage to the taxi that she had helpfully called for us. Our Spanish is not good enough to allow us to trust that the taxi would come at the scheduled time and place if we called.
We traveled from Barcelona by train to Montpelier, France, picked up a rental car, and headed east. We were headed for our apartment in Provence, but we want to save Provence for a later post. So this road trip along the French Mediterranean coast will touch down in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, skip Provence for now, then pass through Cassis to the Route des Cretes, which will take us to Antibes.
We dipped south to explore the watery estuary known as the Carmargue, where the Rhone River meets the Mediterranean. The Carmargue is famous for its pink flamingos and indigenous white horses. Unfortunately, we missed the annual flamingo mating season, and we saw only one or two white horses from a distance. The area resembled Florida’s Everglades to us — flat, marshy and without many distinguishing characteristics.
On the Mediterranean we arrived at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a small town that hosts the Roma pilgrimage each May to the shrine of their patron saint, Sara. We just had to see her.
St. Sara is housed in the Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer. Built from the 9th to the 12th centuries, it served not only as a church, but as a fortress and refuge. It has a fresh water well inside, for when the villagers had to take shelter from Saracen raiders.
Inside the church are said to be relics of two saints, Mary Salome was mother of St. John the Evangelist and St. James. Mary Jacobea also was the mother of several of Jesus’ apostles. They are believed to be among the women who first witnessed the empty tomb after the resurrection of Jesus. The story is that these two women, along with others, were exiled from Palestine during persecutions of Christians in A.D. 45. They were launched off in a boat with no oars and ended up on this shore of southern France. They are reputedly the first people to tell this part of the world about the miracle of the Resurrection.
Also in that boat was an Egyptian servant, Sara, who became the patron saint of the “gypsies.” This statue of St. Sara is in the crypt of the Eglise des Saintes Maries. She is taken out in a processional down to the sea each May by huge crowds of Roma honoring her.
Sarah exiting Eglise des Saintes Maries.
La Route des Crêtes
We drove to Cassis, famous for its cliffs and the sheltered inlets called calanques. But Cassis was madly overcrowded with cars and tourists. It was nearly impossible to park, so we kept on driving. We continued east along the Mediterranean coast, taking the famous Route des Crêtes. This stretch of mountainous road is known for both breathtaking views and treacherous curves.
Scenic overlooks conveniently provide places to stop and ogle the scenery. This view is looking over the Mediterranean back toward Cassis.
Often in our travels, Sarah has seen a couple with a camera and offered to take their photograph together. They are usually delighted.
I noticed thousands of tiny wildflowers growing on the high ridges. They are perfectly formed miniatures of their full-sized counterparts. I couldn’t resist picking this little wild bouquet for Sarah.
We arrived in Antibes for a two-night stay. Once again we had an AirBnB apartment with a balcony view. I captured this sunrise from our Antibes balcony.
With the deep blue Mediterranean surrounding Antibes, it’s easy to see why it’s part of France’s Cote d’Azur.
We chose to visit Antibes because I wanted to engage in the ritualized consumption of the “green fairy” at the famous Absinthe Bar. It’s in the neighborhood shown in this photo. The bar unexpectedly closed early on our last night in town, which was one of two big disappointments in our visit to Antibes. We never got to sample the absinthe.
The other disappointment of our visit to Antibes was the sad state of the apartment. It was both filthy and in poor repair. We’ve had mostly good experiences with AirBnB, but this one fell far short of what is expected. AirBnB will help travelers when accommodations are not as advertised, but it was only two nights, so we soldiered on as best we could. We purchased new pillowcases (the bed linens were not clean) and did not use the filthy shower. This was the only place to which we gave a really bad review on the AirBnB site.
We noticed an appealing little restaurant just below us, so we tried it out. It was so good that we ate lunch there again the next day!
Antibes is filled with rich, colorful details that catch the eye and enrich a visit.
It is also the home to a permanent collection of the works of Picasso, who worked in Antibes for a time. Photos are not allowed, but I managed to sneak a few.
The Picasso museum has exhibits of paintings, sculpture, and ceramics by Picasso and others, both inside and out. Here I’m posing in front of a large sculptural installation.
At the end of the two days, we were ready for our next stop further down the coast. This is the night-time view of Nice and Villfranche-sur-Mer, where we would be staying next. The lights trace the paths of the famous Corniches, the mountain roads that lace the Cote’D’Azur.