After another five hours in the car, we arrived in Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad, a Czech (and a few times in history, German) spa resort town. Lovely! Beautiful buildings (all spa hotels), and a cute downtown shopping area flanking a river, we stayed right in the heart of it in the nicest hotel we had for the trip. Once we figured everything out at the hotel and got the right currency (not on the euro), we walked across the street (literally fifty feet out the hotel door) to the spa for a three hour treatment including wading in a mineral water pool, massages, mist inhalation treatment, and an oxygen treatment (I am in the midst of an ongoing bronchial infection, and Herr was hoping these treatments would help). An interesting experience with plenty of Russians and unlimited tea.
Herr and his friend went out that evening after a tasty dinner at the hotel while I stayed back to take a third attempt at my homework (*le sigh*). I didn’t last long before I passed out, and Herr came back a few hours later slightly disappointed, having found the town’s train station was a modern design not pleasing to the eye. Lucky for him though, he saw the city at night.
The hotel let us keep our prime parking spot after we checked out, so we didn’t waste time in exploring. We hadn’t realized this at first, but the town really does have a lot of springs; so many that the city capped several of them making them “everlasting” spigots of nasty spring water, free drinking for anyone who can tolerate spring water. 😛 Our first stop was to Diana Tower for a commanding view of the area. We took the first funicular rail of the day and were the only ones in the tower. A nice way to start off the day. The town was still waking up when we came back down, so we made our way slowly toward a Russian Orthodox church with shiny gold-colored onion domes and all.
The road looped back to the river, where we stopped in several shops. Earlier I found what I was told later to be a “spa wafer” (I had one about 10-12 inches round), so I was determined to pick up a box (of smaller ones!) for later. We finally figured out what the little porcelain “pitchers” were too; the town is littered with stands and stores selling “pitcher”-like items, but really they have a long drinking spout (like a built in straw I suppose) with a hole on the top. You use these to fill up with spring water at the various heated springs along the walk! Like I said, the water is not terribly pleasant, but it was worth trying! I haven’t seen “spring-drinking” activities anywhere else yet. 😉
Piled in the car again and back for Germany, we didn’t quite make it in time to stop by Ulm Muenster (although we did a lot of walking already). Herr and his friend walked around Speyer the next day then went off to Paris the day after. I had a lot of work to catch up with, but aside from missing the train back to Germany, they seemed to have a good time.
We checked out of the hotel in the morning and paid one more visit to the Marseille harbor to see the St. Jean fort (under construction, so just a walk by), then to the Cathedral. Along the way we stopped by a quaint French cafe for breakfast that was just right. The Cathedral also sported the striped stone building construction, and inside was quite lovely. I swung by a candy shop on the way back to the car (it couldn’t be helped), and then we hit the road for Monaco.
The scenery was magnificent! I had not realized that Monaco is its own country because it’s a virtually impenetrable piece of France literally a part of the mountains along the Azure Coast. We drove through a long downward-winding tunnel and roadway catching snippets of incredible scenery as we entered Monte Carlo. Monaco is the second smallest country in the world with Monte Carlo the only city (not even) fitting inside its mile length. After a considerable amount of time zig zagging through the expensive looking buildings, Herr finally found a parking ramp. We proceeded in the direction of the coast and left Herr’s friend at the pebble beach while we caught a taxi up to the Aquarium. The building was lovely, but it was very crowded and small; unique though, with a giant octopus hanging from the ceiling in the main foyer and a second museum with the recently added royal wedding outfits. Jean Jacques Cousteau was once the director, too, which might explain the giant squid/octopus thing.
When we finally squeezed out of the building we didn’t have enough time to tour the Prince’s Palace, so we hopped a mini tour train to get back to the beach. It stopped at the casino, one of the well-known landmarks if ever you heard of Monaco or Monte Carlo, then walked the waterfront stopping for ice cream a few times along the way. Herr and I waded in the Mediterranean for a short time (just as salty in this part of the Med) before we jumped back in the car, promptly got lost in Nice, then passed out when we finally made it to the hotel (or at least I did soon after we ate).
The epic driving day. We started off at a decent hour following the main route parallel to the Azure Coast, which alternated between tunnels and bridges over large valleys with the sea on our right. It was a very scenic drive (aside from the tunnels), but I was finding it difficult to do homework (sad, I know, but it was due). I gave it up shortly after. Right before reaching Genoa, we turned north, got lost (and a bit frustrated) in Turin, then found the Alps. What a sight! Admittedly, I was bouncing around in the backseat with the camera, going from window to window trying to capture it all. Herr finally pulled over in the town of Hone, where we had some tasty Italian food (honestly, every time I get a calzone in Italy it’s nearly the size of my torsoâ€¦ it became my lunch the next day as well). We took some backroads for a while before jumping back on the route for the St. Bernard Tunnel, one of the longest road tunnels in the world. Cost a bit of money to get through as well, just FYI.
Switzerland was one big traffic jam, then Germany was one big rain storm. We were quite grumpy by the time we returned having lost an hour driving “through” Turin, an hour in traffic, an hour driving slowly in sometimes torrential rains, and we did stop for lunch tooâ€¦ we had one night to recuperate before jumping back in the car the next morning for the Czech Republic.
Herr had an acquaintance request a whirlwind tour of Europe. We learned several lessons from this (the biggest being we aren’t travel agents, so bring your own plans if you come to visit), but we went through a lot of countries doing it.
Because of a sudden car issue, we picked up a rental car and made our way south stopping in Geneva, Switzerland for a two hour break halfway through our way to Marseille, France. We found the lakefront, walking across the many bridges towards the water fountain (more like a geyser). Along the way was a fancy shopping district and the English Garden with its clock made of flowers.
Hopping back in the car, we drove down the south of France (discovering a multitude of tolls) and landed in Marseille. We were placed on the top floor without an elevator in hot and humid weather, so we were feeling miserable by the end of the day.
We were out the door bright and early thinking to catch the first boat to Chateau d’If. However, it didn’t leave at 7:30 a.m. like anticipated but rather 9:15 a.m. So after buying the tickets, we hiked up the big hill to the Basilica. Great views (after nearly dying from the steep slope) from a garden just under it, then up around the Basilica’s terrace. I particularly loved the “striped” pattern caused by using green-colored stone, and the interior reflecting a very nautical theme. Pretty quiet that early in the morning too, and cool, making the walk pleasant (and tiring). We had to book it back down the hill (sometimes going down is more difficult!) to catch the boat to the little island with Chateau d’If. The fortress is quite bare, but we all felt it was interesting enough to visit.
Once back, we jumped in the car for Avignon. Avignon was once a home to popes and was the initial cause for the Great Schism (when the pope relocated). We were pleasantly surprised; Avignon is a walled city along the Vaucluse River. We were melting as soon as we stepped out of the car, but that didn’t stop us from seeing the charm of this city. We visited the Palais des Papes (papal palace) and walked around town a bit, seeing the Avignon bridge with a chapel built in it as we followed the riverfront back.
But we weren’t done there. Hopping back in the car, we drove half hour west to see the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct. Herr had visited it over a decade ago and was surprised to find shops and a swimming area under the bridge. If we had known, I think we all would have joined the swimmers it was so hot!
That night we determined we should move our third night in France closer to the Italian border and go back north via Italy instead of France like originally planned (somewhat in hopes of avoiding more toll roads, to no avail). The hotel was okay with this, so Herr found a place in Nice.
I decided for my birthday I needed a long weekend on a beach and to see an aquarium, and two places I’ve been wanting to visit came to mind right away: Monaco and Valencia. We were leaning towards Monaco but were having a hard time finding a hotel; after several hours of research, I found a bit of information that explained all and turned our sights to Valencia: the prince of Monaco was getting married that weekend. For a country of only one city no longer than a mile long having a royal wedding on my birthday, we weren’t getting in.
So Friday we took a plane to Valencia. The air there is so humid and warm that it was uncomfortably sticky. Admittedly that day didn’t put me in a great mood, but we got into our room at luxurious Las Arenas Hotel situated right on the beach (hey, I can splurge for my birthday if I want). We checked out the pools and the beach before going to L’Oceanografic‘s (the aquarium) Submarino restaurant, aptly named for residing underwater. The earliest reservation for the restaurant was 9 p.m. though, so we ate late. And a private party was in progress, which was a bit uncomfortable. However, the food was superb (as one would expect from a swank eatery). The round room is surrounded by a large aquarium made to look like you were seeing the small lake it resided in. I was saddened that was what they had done (instead of making it like those glass tunnels aquariums have for people to walk under and by the fish), but that was minor. Worth eating at if you want good fancy fish meals!
On Saturday we took the bus back to the aquarium (learned our lesson from walking the day before), and spent half a day snapping photos of sea life, eating at the other restaurant on the premises, and seeing the dolphin show. Overall, it is a good aquarium, but I have visited better. The layout and architecture are unique. Afterwards we stopped by a small shopping complex â€œacross the streetâ€.
Sunday was our beach day, and it mostly rained and whipped up a sandy storm. Luckily, every morning we woke up early to hit the beach before everyone else and got in a lot of swimming in the Mediterranean. With the amount of cloud coverage (weather.com you liar!) our skin was saved from burning though, so it al worked out. A renaissance type festival was taking place on the other side of the hotel wall, so we perused that and ate some tasty food. I drank a TON of orange juice while we were there too, it was so yummy!
Before our flight back Monday afternoon we took one more dip in the sea for extra crusty salty goodness, then took the tram all the way back to the airport (a nearly direct shot, great layout). We never really saw downtown Valencia, which is our normal â€œvacationâ€ style (to see everything is as little time as possible). A great relaxing vacation (even with a few little stresses here and there, it was more relaxing than most trips).