France Part 2- Nice, Monaco, & Dijon
After enjoying our time in the city, we headed down south to enjoy the beaches of Nice. We spent a few days on the French Rivera and then headed north again to the city of Dijon to stay with some family friends and see what life was like in a smaller city.
To say we stayed in Nice is actually slightly misleading, as we decided to stay in a hotel/castle in an old, medieval part of Cagnes-sur-Mer, a small town about 10 miles southwest of Nice. If you know anything about Chase, you won't find this surprising, because you'd know that Chase would never pass up the chance to stay in a castle. It was pretty cool to be staying up in this old town, except that cars had trouble driving on the narrow streets, so depending on our Uber driver, we spent the next several days walking from a random spot on the road up the hill to the castle, and over to our hotel!
One big difference between Paris and Nice is that because Nice is much farther south, it is also much warmer! The three days we spend on the French Rivera were definitely warm ones, but thankfully our rooms had air conditioning, even though most of the houses and restaurants in the area don't! When we got to the hotel in the morning on the first day, we took some time to clean up from the plane ride and unpack some things. Then we walked up to the area with the castle keep and found a small place for a late lunch. Because it was such a small town, the menu was all in French, so I ended up ordering something a little more adventurous than I might have usually chosen, but it was delicious once I figured out how to remove the edible part from that part that looked at me...
After lunch we went into the castle keep and explored it's many rooms and history. The first two floors were full of information about the history of the town and the castle. On the third floor they had converted the rooms into galleries for various modern art exhibits. (Unfortunately all of the info about the art was in French so I didn't get to learn about it, but they all looked really cool!) Then, you could climb up a super windy staircase and go out to the roof to the coolest view of the surrounding city with the ocean in the distance.
Eventually we decided to head into town to explore a little more, so we headed down from the top of the castle on the top of the hill to the town below. The city itself was pretty busy, but by the time we got out to the ocean, most people were leaving, so the beach wasn't very crowded! The first thing that you notice at the beach is that there is no sand. For whatever reason, the beaches were all pebble beaches and had smooth rocks all the way down to the water instead of sand. (Personally, I became a huge fan of this!) We hadn't packed our swimsuits, so we just waded into the water a little and enjoyed how refreshing it was. We stood in the water for a while enjoying how warm it was, but eventually the waves got a little rowdy and we decided it was probably best to avoid looking like we peed our pants from the splashing!
There is a nice, wide path that runs along the water, with space for bikes, scooters, and people walking. We followed the path along the water towards Nice, and just looked for good food options along the way. Eventually we came to a marina with lots of restaurants and shops along the water. We found a cute little ice cream place and got some ice cream (big fan of dessert before dinner because I'm an adult and I can make my own choices!!) and a mojito (very weird combo, I know). After we had our dessert, we decided we should probably eat an actual dinner, so we walked up and down the strip about 3 times before deciding on sushi (not at all French, but sometimes you just have to mix it up)!
After dinner we walked all the way back to the hotel. It was starting to get darker, but the path along the water was well lit and very popular so we just stuck to that. By the time we got back, it was late and all we could think about was getting to bed so that we could get up early the next morning!
The next morning we enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the room (one of our favorite perks of being Hyatt Globalists), and got ourselves ready for the trek to Nice. We walked back down to the beach and rented bikes from a local stand. Our original hope had been to use the bike-share program, but unfortunately their system was so hard to figure out that we gave up. Although it would have been much cheaper to use the bike-share, the process of renting the bikes was pretty simple, and we used Google Translate to ask any questions we had (one of my favorite travel hacks)!
We were all set and biking off in no time, headed for Nice! The ride was a smooth one with very well marked bike lanes/paths and only one small hill. It took us 30-40 minutes to get from Cagnes-sur-Mer into Nice, and once we got into the main part, the bike path again opened up into a very wide path with room for walkers, bikers, and people with scooters. We found a nice spot to lock our bikes, and headed away from the water and into the heart of Nice.
We window shopped, actual shopped, and got some ice cream! I tried lavender ice cream for the first time (highly recommend), and bought a cute little travel backpack so Chase didn't have to keep carrying all of our stuff (whoops)! We also managed to find 2 of the 3 Christmas ornaments we would be needing from this trip! (More on that later, so if you're confused, don't worry!!)
Eventually we wandered over and decided to join the stream of people hiking up TONS of stairs to what looked like a cool waterfall. (Fun fact: a very large amount of stairs in France is just as miserable to climb as a very large amount of stairs in the US!) We stopped at a few of the scenic overlooks to catch our breath, take cute pictures, and admire the view of the city, but after many, many steps we successfully arrived at the top and enjoyed the refreshing mist of the waterfall! After cooling down a little, we explored the area and found some cool ruins and another amazing spot for pictures at the very top.
We climbed back down (a much more enjoyable trip than the one going up) and ventured further down along the coastline to check out more of Nice, but soon headed back into the main part to wander around the narrower, walking-only streets in Nice. We stopped in a little grocery store to get a baguette sandwich and a drink, and sat down at a table in the open-air food court to enjoy our lunch.
After being in Nice for a good chunk of the day, we collected our bikes and started to slowly make our way back to Cagnes-sur-Mer. We stopped a few times on the way back to enjoy a less crowded section of the beach. This time we had towels, but no where to put on our suits, so we again waded in around the knees and then sat farther up where the slope of the beach was steeper and let the waves wash up on to our legs. Eventually we headed back, returned the bikes, and went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
For dinner we took an Uber from our hotel to Grasse, about 45 minutes east of where we were staying. There we spent the evening with some family friends, having dinner at their home and talking about life in France versus life in America.
(Note: this was a last minute trip, so we used Uber instead of trying to rent a car, and it got a little pricey. Next time we will definitely plan ahead a little better so that we can cut down on our travel costs. Since we ate at their house we did save a little on that, but we still spent more than we probably should have... Lesson learned!)
On our last full day in Nice, we spent the morning at the beach, and the afternoon/evening in Monaco. We were a little burnt from our biking adventures the day before (always wear sunscreen, kids), so we decided it would be best to stop and get some sunscreen on our way to the beach so we didn't roast ourselves two days in a row. (This turned out to be a wise decision.) We got down to the water, settled our towels and things into the rocks and took a dip in the water. Aside from the fact that laying on you towel is less comfortable on a pebble beach, I am Team Pebbles all the way. Walking in the water was a lot less scary for me for some reason, and I didn't get sand all over my towel when I laid on it after coming out of the water. We spent several hours on the beach, alternating between wading/floating/treading water and laying on our towels to dry off.
After enjoying our little morning on the beach, we went back to the hotel and got ready to head to Monaco! Turns out, its super easy to get to Monaco from Nice... Just a quick train ride away! We each bought a 12 euro ticket to get us there an back, hopped on the train about half a mile from our hotel, and took it all the way to the heart of Monaco. There the station was underground, and all we had to do was get on an elevator, go up a floor, and take an escalator up to the street!
Monaco itself is less than a square mile, which should make it super walkable, however it's also very hilly and because of that many streets weave back and forth, so there isn't always a super direct route from where you are to where you want to go. The whole country is centered around its super fancy marina, so that also makes for quite the barrier if you want to get from one side to the other. When we got to Monaco we walked from the train station to the main area south of the marina where many of the famous sites are located.
First we went to the Prince's Car Collection (super cool if you're into cars, super not cool if you aren't) and saw a range of cars. I'm not really a car person, so my favorites included: one that looked like a picnic basket, one with a matching suit for the driver, and one that looked like you'd get a lot of bugs in your face if you drove it. He also has a large collection of fast, racing cars, but the value of those was definitely lost on me.
Once we got tired of the cars, we took a quick spin through the zoo. (A note on the zoo: had I known the condition of the zoo before, we probably would not have gone. I'm not an animal expert, but I'm pretty sure that none of the areas with animals were as big as they should have been, and there was not anything in most of the cages to entertain/mentally stimulate any of the animals. In terms of animal treatment, it's not somewhere I would support again.) But in case you are interested in what they have... Lot's of birds would be my first observation. Some smaller animals you typically see at the zoo, a warthog, wallabies, and a hippo (who was definitely in a place too small for its size). They also had a large section with farm animals and some guinea pigs (like a lot of them)? It was not expensive or overly limited in its animal selection, but if you are visiting Monaco I would suggest you think seriously before spending your money there.
After the zoo we went around to the other side of the small port that the main attractions were centered around, and climbed up to the Prince's Castle. We waited in a very long line to go inside, and were eventually sent in equipped with an audio guide for the tour. Unfortunately because the Prince actually lives in half of the castle, and that half remains the main functioning government building, we were not allowed to take any pictures. However, if you just close your eyes and imagine every fancy castle ever, you'll get the general idea of the Palace in Monaco. We bought a bundled ticket for the palace and the car museum so we ended up with a pretty good price, and I would say both were worth it!
Following the palace we went to the place I was the most excited about; the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. The bottom floor of the building was a huge aquarium, while the top few floors were ocean and nautical exhibits. I'm a sucker for a good aquarium so if I would have had my way, I would have stayed there for hours, but Chase was on a mission to get to the casino. We spent a while on the first floor (because live animals are always more exciting than regular exhibits) and breezed through the second and third so that we could get to the most important stop of our visit. *eye-roll*
We rounded out our Monaco sight-seeing with the famous Monte Carlo Casino. To get into the first section of the casino we had to check our bags at the coat check, so we dropped all of our stuff and headed in. It was like getting the free trial to a computer game; the very basic function was there but you get bored in 5 minutes and want to buy the full thing! So we headed back out to the front to buy tickets to get into the main part of the casino where they checked our IDs and shoes before letting us in.
Once we got inside the place definitely got a little fancier, with expensive lounge chairs, a giant bar, and lots of tables for various games. Along with our tickets (17 euro a piece) we got a 10 euro credit to use in the slot machines. Chase promptly burned through all of this and ended up with nothing (but we're chalking that up to the fact that he didn't get to play poker), but I earned back my whole, entire ticket fee AND most of my train fare, so I'm counting that as a win for me!
Unfortunately the poker tables weren't open, so we didn't make the millions we had hoped for. After an hour or so, we left the casino to find some dinner before heading back to the train station.
Dinner was a random Italian restaurant we walked by on the way back to the train station. Nothing fancy, but really good classic Italian food, and just what we wanted after such a long, busy day! A quick, relaxing dinner was just what we needed before heading back to the train station and jumping on a train back to France.
In case you didn't know... Renting a car at the last minute, on a national holiday, is not ideal. This was bad logistical decision #2 for the trip, and is one that we certainly won't make again any time soon. Our plan had been to get the car early in the morning and drive up to Dijon, stopping at a few places along the way. However, we couldn't find anywhere that had a car besides the airport, so we spent about 2 hours at the airport trying to get a car with all of the French families arriving to the French Rivera for the holiday. Super fun.
By the time we left Nice it was almost noon, and the drive was a long one, so we decided to power through and just get to Dijon as quickly as possible. We stopped one time, about an hour and a half from Dijon, to get a sandwich and take a break at a rest stop. When we got into Dijon, we dropped the car off at the train station and our friends picked us up and took us to their house about 20 minutes outside of the city. We spent the evening catching up and eating dinner, and went to bed early in anticipation for a long day of exploration in Dijon the following morning.
Our last full day in France was certainly a busy one. We started our morning off with a classic French breakfast; a baguette and a pastry with some butter and jelly. And of course, some tea! (Chase and I aren't big coffee drinkers.) Then we headed off into downtown Dijon, with our own personal tour guide! The streets of Dijon have small metal owls on the sidewalks that direct tourists through the town to historical and touristy locations (so if you are without a tour guide, you'll still get to see the cool stuff)! We visited several of the city's old and famous churches, including the underground crypt of one that contained the original church and the remains of a buried saint! We also stopped by the city hall, which just so happens to be in the old residence of the Dukes of Burgundy. The part of the building that isn't full of functioning offices is a museum that houses the tombs and bodies of the dukes!
One of my favorite stops was an old owl engraving. The owl is one of the symbols of the city, and this one was carved into the side of a building, not far from the school. On the days they had a test to take, school children would come to the owl and rub it for good luck. Now it has been worn down from many years of luck-rubbing and it's kind of hard to tell that it's supposed to be an owl, but it's still a pretty cool tradition, and one of the many stops on the self-guided tour. Another stop is the site of one of the oldest shops in the city. Dijon is a really unique city for old architecture because it wasn't really involved in the fighting in World War II, so many of the old buildings that were destroyed in other places are still standing in the city.
Dijon is famous for mustard and wine, and we tried a little bit of both while we were there! We went into a store to try some different mustards, and got a little overwhelmed with all of the choices (just a little tip for ya... gingerbread is not a good flavor for mustard). After walking around most of the city, we stopped for lunch at a small little cafe outside the city market, which was just starting to close down for the day. For lunch we had a cheese and meat plate (a very common option for sharing a light lunch according to our friend) and Kir, a drink made from mixing white wine with black currant liquor. The meal comes with bread so everyone can make their own mix of bread, meat, and cheese! It was surprisingly filling, and fun to taste the different combos!
After finishing lunch, we got in the car to head over to explore Dijon's other famous area... Wine country! We learned SO MUCH about wine and the process of making it during the rest of our day. Did you know that wine grapes grown on a hill will produce much higher quality wine because the excess water flows down away from the plants? Or that each of the plants only produces 5-7 bunches of grapes a year? Also the finest bottles of wine are aged in a barrel that has never been used, and then the next few years the barrels are passed off to make the cheap wine! We looked at a LOT of vineyards and lots of grapes... At one point we even drove by a section of plants that produce wine that is $2000 a bottle!! The French are pretty serious about their wine...
Our last stop for the day was Beaune, a town about 35 minutes southwest of Dijon, known as the wine capital of Burgandy. Beaune is the site of one of the very first hospitals where the poor could go and get free medical treatment. Over the years, people who died there would leave everything they owned to the hospital, and people who didn't die would donate things back to the hospital in thanks. Now the hospital owns significant amounts of vineyards and has a yearly wine auction to benefit the hospital (the patients are now treated in modern facilities and the old building is an extensive museum)! We spent well over an hour walking through the rooms that contained the details of every aspect of the operation, from food to the building of the facilities, and from the making of drugs for treatment to the logistics of church services for patients.
Once we had gone through the entire museum, we explored the city a little more, and found a cute little store to get a some cool wine glasses from. We had hoped to do a wine tasting, but unfortunately by the time we were done with everything else, the tastings were all closed. After finishing up in Beaune, we headed back to our family friend's house and had a late dinner, before repacking all of our bags (we ended up each checking our rolling suitcases and each carrying on a backpack and our Extras Bag).
We got up early on our last morning, and our friends dropped us off at the train station in Dijon. We took the train straight in to Charles de Gaulle, and hung out for a few hours before our flight home. Our flight home was direct into Indy (HIGHLY recommend... it's so nice!!), so we left Paris at about 1:00pm and arrived in Indy at 4:00pm with the time change.
This trip was the first time we've been gone over a week and it hasn't been stressful or too tiring. Exploring such different places in France was such a cool experience, and I'm already dying to go back!! (Chase may have to wait a while, but I will actually be back in about 4 months!!)
If you missed the first part of our trip and would like to check it out, click here. If you want to step up your travel game and start traveling on points, check out our beginner's guide or get some more info on the best travel card you should start with. If you have any questions about our trip, feel free to leave them below, we'd be more than happy to answer them!!
Happy travels :)