Road-trippin’ on the Mediterranean: St Tropez, Nice, Lucca, Positano, Florence

October 10, 2014

Travel

Last April we did a 10-day road trip along the Mediterranean Sea, with multiple stops in France and Italy, as part of the kids’ annual 2-week spring break. With planned drives of up to 7 hours, cooped up in the car with two teenagers (and worse, two parents!), not to mention a puppy, we weren’t sure how it was going to go. As it turned it out, however, it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had together! We covered a lot of ground and visited a lot of places, so pour yourself a double espresso and buckle up, it’s gonna be a long ride.

All together on the island of Capri, just off the Amalfi coast.

All together on the island of Capri, just off the Amalfi coast.

Things got off on the wrong foot, however, when we learned the week before departure that Kathryn would not be able to join us for the first leg of the trip, due to some work commitments. Plan B had Kathryn flying into Napoli and joining us on the Amalfi coast for the last few days of our trip. On a positive note, one less passenger meant extra room in the car for my road bike, which I planned to ride some mornings while Emma and Lachlan slept in.

Kathryn and Coelle, getting reacquainted in Positano.

Kathryn and Coelle, getting reacquainted in Positano.

Day 1 involved a six and a half hour drive from Lausanne to the chic resort town of St. Tropez, on the Mediterranean coast of France. The kids and I endured the long drive down through southern France and, despite the boredom, I sensed this road-trip idea might work out when, after 5 hours of driving, we broke out into a raucous version of “Wheels on the Bus,” complete with free-form rap lyrics.

Trapped in the car for hours with these two. Things got weird at times.

Trapped in the car for hours with these two. Things got weird.

We arrived in the old French port town of St Tropez just in time for dinner, although not before getting stuck in the legendary traffic jam coming into the town, followed by a nerve-wracking drive down cobble-stone streets so narrow that the side mirrors were practically scraping the walls on both sides, while annoyed pedestrians ducked into doorways. Hey, I’m just going where my iPhone said to go!

St Tropez, France

St Tropez, France

St Tropez is an old Mediterranean fishing village that became a popular resort town and tourist destination after featuring as the backdrop to bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot in the 50s classic film, And God Created Woman. Today, the old-town of St Tropez is filled with restaurants, hotels, cafes, and chic shops. The main pedestrian throughfare parallels the harbour, which is filled with sailboats and luxury yachts.

St Tropez harbour

St Tropez harbour

Flashing the nautical bling in St Tropez.

Flashing the nautical bling in St Tropez.

It glitz and glamour is all rather contained, mind you, and it isn’t hard to escape up some smaller side streets and alleyways to find something more low-key. One of our favourite places was the Place des Lices, a central plaza in the old town that is shaded by dozens of old plane trees and lined with casual cafes and restaurants, the perfect place for an apero while people-watching. We also loved the ramshackle neighbourhood of La Ponche, where we stayed, with it’s own tiny beach away from the hustle and bustle of the main drag.

Place des Lices, St Tropez

Place des Lices, St Tropez

Backstreets of St Tropez

Backstreets of St Tropez

La Ponche beach, St Tropez

La Ponche beach, St Tropez

The following morning I woke at the crack of dawn for a morning ride. I threw the bike in the car and drove an hour west to the surprisingly large and bustling city of Toulon (where there is a major naval base). Here I unloaded the bike and enjoyed an invigorating panoramic ride up Mont Faron, a 600m high Mediterranean test-piece that has been featured in the Paris-Nice cycling race many times. That afternoon we explored St Tropez a little more before loading up the car and driving to Nice, about 90 minutes further east along the coast.

Looking down on the city of Toulon from the top of Mont Faron.

Looking down on the city of Toulon from the top of Mont Faron.

St Tropez skyline reflected in my RayBans.

St Tropez skyline reflected in my RayBans.

Lachlan, Emma and Coelle in St Tropez.

Lachlan, Emma and Coelle in St Tropez.

Situated right on the Mediterranean, Nice is the 5th largest city in France. Surrounded by mountains and known for its warm, dry weather, it became a hugely popular destination for the British upper classes in the 19th century. The main road and boardwalk that runs along the beach, called le Promenade des Anglais, is lined with Belle Epoque and other more modern hotels. We based ourselves in a hotel that was steps from the beach, as well as the old city. For the next 2 days we enjoyed ourselves wandering around the old city, stopping here and there to shop, eat, or grab a drink and people-watch. Another highlight of our stay in Nice was family bike ride along the Promenade des Anglais.

Looking out over downtown Nice.

Looking out over downtown Nice.

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Nice has a lovely old city with a busy restaurant and cafe scene.

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Like most puppies, Coelle has a thing for shoes.

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Fountaine du Soleil and the Place Massena in Nice’s old town.

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Family bike ride on the Promenade des Anglais

Both mornings we were there I got up early and rode up into the mountains above the city to explore the countryside further and take in the breathtaking views. The first morning I rode up to the top of the col d’Eze (507m), another classic Mediterranean climb that features regularly in the Paris-Nice bike race. To my surprise there is a tiny, beautifully restored medieval village above the actual town of Eze, sitting on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean. Over 2000 years old, the village of Eze has had a tumultous and colourful past, having changed hands many times between the Romans, the Ottomans, the House of Savoy, and the French. Louis the XIV ordered the fortress village to be destroyed in 1705, although much of it withstood the barrage. The discovery in the 19th century of a hoard of silver coins dating from ancient Greece further underlined Eze’s intriguing past.

The restored medieval village of Eze sits on a rocky outcrop high over the Mediterranean.

The restored medieval village of Eze sits on a rocky outcrop high over the Mediterranean.

Eze also has an interesting connection to the 19th German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. It turns out Nietzsche visited the area around Nice, and Eze in particular, in 1883, during a personally difficult time, and found it rejuvenating and inspiring, so much so that he returned every year until 1888. There is a 2km walking path beginning near the gates of the medieval village that leads down to the ocean, one reputedly used often by Nietzsche, and that now bears his name.

The Nietzsche Path descends 2 km down to the ocean.

The Nietzsche Path descends 2 km down to the ocean.

Walking through a rabbit-warren of narrow but well-maintained cobbled paths, the village of Eze feels more like a museum and than a place where people actually live. In fact, the town appears to be occupied primarily by high-end artisanal shops and elegant restaurants and exclusive hotels, although all very discretely tucked away in little alleyways. Feeling distinctly under-dressed in my cycling kit, I retreated outside the old village walls to the modern town of Eze in search of an affordable espresso. I doubt that gloomy, shabbily-dressed philosophers are too welcome in Eze these days either! My return to the hotel followed the spectacular Grand Corniche road that hugs the mountainside high above the ocean, passing picturesque resort towns such as Villefranche-sur-Mer, before gradually descending into Nice. If you are ever in the area on a bike or in a car, this stretch of road is not to be missed.

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The view down to Villefranche-sur-Mer from the corniche road was stunning.

The second morning I rode west, up to the col de Vence (963m), passing through the village of Vence along the way, another medieval gem. Like so many other towns in southern France, Vence has an interesting connection to the arts. Among the artists linked to Vence is Henri Matisse, who lived there during and after WWII and designed the village’s Chapelle du Rosaire.  The writer D.H. Lawrence also lived here very briefly before dying of tuberculosis in 1930. Lawrence’s remains were buried in Vence for several years before being exhumed and transported to his home in Taos, New Mexico.

Cycling the arid hills above Vence, leading to the col de Vence.

Cycling the arid hills above Vence, leading to the col de Vence.

Tiny square in Vence, ready for the day to begin.

Tiny square in Vence, ready for the day to begin.

A plaque marks DH Lawrence's resting place from 1939-35.

A plaque marks DH Lawrence’s resting place from 1930-35.

The following day we left Nice with a four hour drive to Lucca, Italy, ahead of us, where we planned to overnight on our way south to the Amalfi coast near Napoli. En route to Lucca we visited an ancient Roman monument, called the Trophee des Alpes  (Tropaeum Alpium in Latin) in the town of La Turbie.

Coastal view, looking east towards Italy from the town of La Turbie.

Coastal view, looking east towards Italy from the town of La Turbie.

Pretty streets in the village of La Turbie.

Pretty streets in the village of La Turbie.

Commemorated in 6 BC, the monument, which stands over 100ft high and is visible for miles around, was built to commemorate the Roman Emperor Augustus’ military conquest of all 45 barbarian tribes inhabiting the Alps, which was achieved during a 10 year military campaign from 16-7 BC. According to archaeologists, the original monument stood over 150 feet high and was topped with a statue of Augustus.

The Trophee des Alpes, clearly visible (behind the church) overlooking the town of La Turbie.

The Trophee des Alpes, clearly visible (behind the church) overlooking the town of La Turbie.

The Trophee des Alpes.

The Trophee des Alpes.

After the collapse of the empire, the Trophee was damaged and plundered for stone over the course of many centuries. Louis the XIV ordered the Trophee destroyed in 1705, during the same campaign in which his troops sacked the village of Eze. While heavily damaged, the Trophee withstood the assault. For over 2000 years now the Trophee has stood, marking the boundary between ancient Rome and the barbarian territory of the Gauls.

We got a private escort and tour of the Trophee by one of the monument's kind interpreters.

We got a private escort and tour of the Trophee by one of the monument’s kind interpreters.

Looking down into Monaco from La Turbie.

Looking down into Monaco from La Turbie.

There were few other visitors to the Trophee at the time we arrived and we got a private escort to the top of the Trophee by a museum guide. What an impressive structure considering the time that it was built. On the approach trail to and from, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the ocean and a birds-eye view down into the principality of Monaco.

After departing La Turbie we crossed the border into Italy and spent about three hours driving the coastal autostrada, through Genoa and down the Ligurian coast, before heading inland into Tuscany and our destination for the day: Lucca. We were all relieved to be driving in Italy, I must say, where the food and coffee at the highway rest-stops is top notch compared to France. Road-tripping is made far easier with frequent hits of warm panini washed down with strong, good quality espresso!

A lovely piazza in Lucca, where we ate dinner.

A lovely piazza Anfiteatro in Lucca, where we ate dinner.

A little over an hour west of Florence, the city of Lucca was one of the more pleasant surprises on our visit. While we had heard good things about this well-preserved, medieval walled city, we were really only using it as a stopover on the way to Amalfi and, therefore, we arrived with few expectations. Arriving in early evening, we drove through one of the city’s massive old gates and into the old city itself. Once again we found ourselves creeping down narrow, cobble-stoned streets looking for our hotel, while enduring the angry stares and hand-gestures of the many local pedestrians (“Dad, we’re so embarrassed!,” I heard someone say helpfully from the back seat). The fact that we were the only vehicle on the road was a pretty strong hint that the route to our hotel picked by my iPhone was not ideal!

Settling in to a charming little hotel in Lucca.

Settling in to a charming little hotel in Lucca.

In any event, we made it to the hotel and after quickly settling in we headed out into the town in search of dinner. It became immediately apparent to us that we were somewhere special. As we walked the narrow, car-free streets lined with shops, the city was alive with chatter and buzz. The streets were busy but not crowded, and we heard almost no other language besides Italian. If there were other tourists in our midst, they were Italian tourists.

Hipster heaven at the local bike shop turned wine bar at night.

Hipster heaven at Ciclo Divino, the local bike shop turned wine bar by night.

We passed many intriguing-looking shops (closed, sadly), and I found a funky cycling shop that doubled as a wine bar at night, where young local hipsters spilled out onto the street sipping prosecco or red wine while discussing the latest upgrades and modifications to their fixies. We found a large, elliptical-shaped piazza lined with restaurants, where we enjoyed a delicious if somewhat chilly al fresco dinner.

Dining al fresco in Lucca

Dining al fresco in Lucca

The following morning Lachlan and I got up early to visit the city walls, for which Lucca is best known. Lucca actually has four concentric sets of city walls, the first dating back to 200 AD. The last set of walls, started in 1544 and completed a century later, consist of massive earthen berms up to 100ft thick and 60 feet high encircling the entire old town, with a circumference of over 4 kilometres. While never seriously tested in battle, the walls have served the city as a bulwark against flooding. Today the walls are used as pedestrian walking paths, and the exterior grounds as parkland.

Exterior walls of Lucca, up to 60ft high

Exterior walls of Lucca, up to 60ft high

Lucca and its exterior walls, 4kms in circumference.

Lucca and its exterior walls, 4kms in circumference (source: the web).

We left Lucca that morning, quite reluctantly, but we had a long drive to Amalfi ahead of us, and planned a stop in nearby Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower before getting on the autostrada.

We arrived in Pisa within an hour and made a lightning visit to the Tower in the rain. The Leaning Tower is actually the separate bell tower or campanile to the Cathedral of Pisa, which stands beside it. Construction of the tower, which took 200 years, began in the late 12th century, and the Tower’s distinctive lean began to develop almost immediately due to poorly designed foundations and weak, unstable layers of soil beneath. The Tower underwent a decade-long period of structural reinforcement during the 1990s. Naturally there was a good crowd and we had to forego the line-up to climb to the top. We settled for a few quick photos and obligatory selfies and were on our way to Amalfi.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower and Cathedral of Pisa

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About 7 hours (and many panini, Cokes and espressos) later, after driving past such iconic cities as Florence, Rome and Napoli, we finally arrived in the seaside town of Positano on the Amalfi coast, our base for the next three days, and where we were reunited with Kathryn.

The famous “Amalfi coast” refers to the rugged coastline that wraps around the Sorrento peninsula, a 20 km long stretch of land that juts out into the Mediterranean about an hour south of Napoli. The area’s ruggedly beautiful coastline is dotted with small towns and fishing villages, some of which cling to cliffs and steep mountainsides. Amalfi is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its unique cultural landscape. Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi are among the larger, better known towns and have been popular vacation destinations for decades, if not centuries. In fact, so taken with the area was the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, that he built a series of summer villas on the nearby island of Capri, the largest of which was the Villa Jovis, to relax and escape the political intrigue of Rome.

Positano and the Amalfi coast.

Positano and the Amalfi coast.

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Morning light along an uninhabited section of coastline.

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The town of Sorrento, the largest on the Amalfi coast.

I have to admit that Tiberius was really on to something. I found the coastal views spectacular and the setting and views of Positano, in particular, where we stayed in a charming hotel perched above town, simply took my breath away. I’m a pretty well-traveled guy these days, having visited six continents, and I can say without a doubt that Positano is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

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We spent the next three days enjoying Positano and the surrounding area. One memorable day began with an early morning solo bike ride around the Amalfi peninsula, before the holiday traffic took over the roads. Then Kathryn and I enjoyed a chaotic bus ride full of locals up to the village of Nocelle, start of the famous Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) hiking path. We hiked the path for a couple of hours, taking in the panoramic views of the coastline. Emma and Lachlan, meanwhile, chilled at the rooftop pool back at the hotel, where they learned all about charging food and drinks to the room (ka-ching!). We wrapped up the day with a shoe-shopping session in town (this is Italy afterall), before enjoying a fantastic meal of pasta with sea urchin and lobster at Chez Black, right on the beach.

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Looking west from high up on the Path of the Gods.

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With a view like this, can’t blame the kids for wanting to stay at the hotel.

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Lachlan, perfecting his “Charge it to my parents’ room” technique.

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Positano beachfront and restaurants.

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We had such a nice dinner with the kids at Chez Black.

Another day we took an hour-long ferry out to the resort island of Capri, with its very touristy port and ultra-expensive villas up in the hills. From the port we hiked to the top of the island to visit the ruins of Emperor Tiberius’ mountain top palace, the Villa Jovis, which was completed in 27AD. Along the way we admired the many beautiful gardens and grand villas that line the route. From the Villa Jovis we enjoyed panoramic views back towards the Sorrentine peninsula, and across the bay to Napoli and the volcanic Mt Vesuvius. Little Coelle, who was just 4 months old, managed the entire walk up and down the mountain, but lay comatose in my arms for most of the boat ride back to Positano.

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Capri, as seen from the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula, on one of my early morning rides.

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Emma and Coeel on the ferry to Capri, with Positano behind.

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Shabby chic villa on the island of Capri.

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Lachlan and Emma checking out the view from the Villa Jovis.

The Villa Jovis.

The Villa Jovis.

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It got a little chilly on the ferry ride home.

After three blissful days we bid farewell to the Amalfi coast, and to Kathryn, who had to fly back to Switzerland for meetings, while the kids and I steeled ourselves for 2 full days in the car to get back to Lausanne. A final highlight of the trip was a stopover in Florence for the night, where we connected with another Lausanne family, the Trahans, whom we met on the Ponte Vecchio to watch the sunset before grabbing dinner together. Afterward we enjoyed a night-time stroll through the old city, which was spectacularly lit and refreshingly free of the hordes that crowd its streets in the daytime.

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Coelle had a puppy playdate with Izzie on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Seriously.

What a fun, varied and action-packed road-trip we had! For all our anxiety about what it would be like crammed into the car together for hours on end, this trip will definitely go down as one of the most enjoyable we’ve ever had.

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One Comment on “Road-trippin’ on the Mediterranean: St Tropez, Nice, Lucca, Positano, Florence”

  1. Anne Says:

    Hello “Canada”! May I use one of your picture to a small swedish newspaper we do here in Cagnes sur Mer? If – let me know what to wright as copyright! The foto Id like to use is img_5014.jpg (the one you call: La Ponche beach, St Tropez – Please let me know & Best Regads from Italy!

    Reply

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