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French Riviera

Off-season adventures in Bormes, the real Côte d'Azur

A year-end holiday trip is a chill-fest in Bormes-les-Mimosas but enchanting in Apt.

February 22, 2009|Susan Spano

BORMES-LES-MIMOSAS, FRANCE — The honest, pathetic and irritating truth is that after devoting myself to travel the last 15 years -- going far north of the Arctic circle in Sweden or to crocodile-infested waters in South Africa; staying in igloos, grass huts and tree houses; traveling by train, plane, bus, car, bike, boat plus a few four-legged animals -- it turns out that I'm a total washout when it comes to taking a vacation.

Travel writing has given me freedom to roam the world, but I'm consumed with angst if my boss tells me to take time off. At the end of last year, though, I had a use-it-or-lose-it situation with vacation time, so I took off the week after Christmas.

A friend who was spending the holidays in Southeast Asia offered to let me stay in her apartment on the French Riviera, and another French ami invited me to his house near Apt in the Luberon mountains for New Year's Eve.

Instead of flying, which would have been prohibitively expensive, I rented a car and drove, a cheaper option that would also afford me a long, quiet journey around the beautiful upper arm of northwestern Italy and southeastern France, by way of Genoa, Monaco, Nice and St. Tropez.

At my friend's apartment in the hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas I planned to read books and stare out the window. Hoping for an out-of-season heat wave, I even packed my bathing suit.

To say I never needed the Speedo is an understatement. The vacation didn't work out quite as I'd hoped, and I keep asking myself why. Why isn't every trip an idyll?

Things started out well enough, except that I put a dent in the car before I even got out of the rental car company's underground parking structure. I gnashed my teeth, knowing that even though I was fully insured, I would pay for the damage in taunts from my colleagues who insist I'm a bad driver. I say you can't make an omelet without bending a few fenders.

As soon as I got out of rainy Rome, I saw snow on the Apennines. After about an hour on the road, I took a quick detour through the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. I found a beautiful blue tray in a souvenir shop for my friend who was lending me the apartment in Bormes. I never visit someone without bringing a gift and am astonished when my guests fail to think of it.

Other things that annoy me: rental cars that smell like dirty ashtrays, European pop music on the radio and impatient people who honk their horns at filling stations just because it takes me awhile to find the gas tank.

Over lunch at a restaurant in Sestri Levante on the Ligurian Coast, I realized I was getting cranky in my old age. Sestri Levante, where I'd stayed 15 years ago on a walking tour of the Cinque Terre, didn't seem as appealing as I recalled, partly because the cook was stingy with the clams in my spaghetti alle vongole and the sky was overcast.

The A10 Autostrada takes a giant curve inland around the Riviera di Levante, but views of the azure Mediterranean are scant until you reach Genoa. When I finally saw the sea that day, it was the drab gray color of Hudson Bay. That was just as well, because I needed to keep my eyes on the road as the A10 passed through countless narrow tunnels and crossed hair-raising viaducts on its way to the French border. On top of that, signs warned of winds so strong that campers were advised to pull over. Every so often a blast hit my tin-can-sized Fiat, knocking it toward the median like a dust bunny flying in the wake of a broom.

My nerves were shot by the time I stopped for the night in Bordighera, a pleasant, low-key Italian beach town where I had reservations at the Hotel Villa Elisa, whose website described it as Victorian. England's long-lived dowager queen was a fan of the Riviera, and the hotel has an unmistakably stuffy British air.

There was a pecking order at dinner in the restaurant: Return guests got the best tables by the windows; I sat by the door to the kitchen. I was surprised to find a full house, chiefly starched middle-aged couples and a few families with well-behaved children dressed in their Christmas best.

The next morning there was time to walk along the Bordighera beachfront promenade separated from the business district by a train track. The wind had died down, but it was frigid and people were having a hard time sunbathing in mufflers.

Traveling in the off-season usually saves money and avoids crowds, but you can't count on the weather, which can make or break a trip.

Back on the road, I noted that, apart from language, the differences between the French and Italian rivieras are minimal, though once you cross the border it's evident that les francais are mighty proud of their country. Road signs identify seemingly every land form, though many of them wouldn't rate a name, much less a mention, on U.S. expressways.

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