Climbing The Col d’Eze, Hiking Down Ancient Footpaths

Located just outside of Nice, the Col d’Eze is a misnomer; there is very little easy about this climb.

Even some professional riders have trouble with the climb, the showcase peak of the famous early season Paris-Nice race and a favorite training ground for professional riders living in the area. The 500-meter mountain averages about a 7 percent grade at its beginning, levels out a bit for couple of kilometers, then shifts upward to an 8 or 9 percent grade at the 5.5 kilometer mark. The next two kilometers alternate between grades of 4 and 7 percent, before evening out at the end. It’s 10 kilometers of torture.

When I tackled the Col d/Eze, it was the first ride with my new Sports Tours International teammates for the week, and it immediately reminded me of a fact that I was reluctant to acknowledge: I’m not remotely fit enough for this trip a the moment.

Serious cyclists tend to watch their figures closer than the most OCD supermodel. After dropping more than 40 pounds two years ago to begin my amateur racing campaign, I’ve been pretty good about monitoring my calories … until this year. I’ve found myself racing less and drinking more beer, an equation that spells disaster for any rider. Every pound I’ve gained means yet another pound I’m carrying up with me on the bike. I’m carrying the equivalent of twins – or twin kegs, at least – around my waist.

I’m from Indiana. We have hills there. Steep, occasionally. Long, rarely. I’ve climbed mountains on either American coast before, but nothing like this one. I’ve never been afraid when the road turns upward, but as I stared at the nine-percent grade stretching out into the unknown and tried clicking to a gear I didn’t have left, I felt my stomach knot up slightly.As the road continued upward, I felt as if I were propelled backwards as several riders scampered past. Back home, I’m known as a pretty decent hill climber; I’m not used to getting dropped. The only thing I could do is mentally shove the pain in my legs aside and keep churning my way to the top.

As we regrouped at the top, we began making a bit of small talk, getting to know the other riders we’d be spending much of the next week riding next to. A big Brit named Keith reminisced about an early trip he had taken in the area, warning us of even more difficult roads ahead.

“This is nothing compared to Ventoux,” he said, causing many of the assembled sphincters to instantly pucker. “Imagine the steepest part of the climb and multiply it by four, and that’s Ventoux. You’re in for two hours or more of pain on that one.”

Rather than dwell on Keith’s warning, we pedaled on. The trip up the mountain was pure work, so we were all looking forward to a fun, quick descent as our reward. But a navigation error led us down a steep, narrow pathway that corkscrewed down several meters before coming to an abrupt end well short of road. (The European cycling maps on Garmin’s Edge GPS units are rumored to be somewhat unreliable, we would learn afterward.)

Luckily we came across a village resident out for a stroll, who directed us to a crumpled old Roman footpath that would lead us down to where we needed to go. So the group, now swelled to more than a dozen, began to nimbly hike down, the smooth cleats of our cycling shoes making the descent nearly as treacherous as anything we’ve faced on the bike.

As I traverse the path, I don’t think of the history behind it — the ancient residents who built it, the long-dead family members who used it — instead my only concern is not slipping and cracking my head open.

Luckily, I managed to escape the path with my life. Within moments of hitting the road, we’re at the Monaco border, looking down upon the buildings and yachts glistening in their Mediterranean splendor. The rich and famous can have their casinos and mansions; I’ll take the wind and open road any time.

A quick coffee in Monaco, and we’re on the road yet again. A fast, mostly descending route through some tunnels and along the Mediterranean Sea, and we’re back in Nice. Despite my struggles up the Col d’Eze and our hike-a-bike misadventure, I was already looking forward to the next day’s ride.

Budget Travel In The Midst Of Luxury: Exploring Monaco In One Afternoon

“I have a crazy idea … lunch in Monaco?”

It was the end of a two-week documentary film production in France and we were spending the last night in Nice, so our director deemed it only fitting to grab lunch in the world of casinos and Formula One racing. When in Nice, drive to Monaco.

Opting for the scenic Basse Corniche route as opposed to the autoroute, we drove along the coastline through Villefranche-sur-Mer, a winding road that hugs the cliffs that drop straight into the Mediterranean. Terra cotta-colored rooftops pepper the coastline and bright white yachts sit moored in the various harbors along the way. It’s the kind of scene that feels like it was pulled directly from a postcard; it’s no surprise that many of the world’s most well off individuals choose to make this part of the globe the destination for their second, third or fourth villa.

The road is the kind that’s meant for a sports car. Two weeks of film production means two week’s of film gear though, so we were stuck in the silver Peugeot mini-van. At least it was a manual, so you could almost get the thrill of a quick down shift.

The budget traveler in me of course knows that Monaco certainly isn’t a destination I would normally seek out, but the chance to quickly cross a border and grab some lunch is quite another story.Monaco is one of those places that you know about because you hear the name often enough, but when you think about it, you realize that you actually don’t know very much about it at all. In fact my only relation to Monaco before this day was a couple of summers ago when I was in Sweden and got conned into watching the live stream of Monaco’s royal wedding; a royal wedding is always a big affair in Europe, no matter what the country.


The Principality of Monaco is bordered by France on three sides and the Mediterranean on the fourth. It’s a constitutional monarchy and governed by Prince Albert II. With an area of only 0.76 square miles, it’s the second smallest country in the world. But its 35,000 plus inhabitants make it very densely populated.

Drive into Monaco and you’ll quickly get lost. It’s a city built into the cliffs, with roads intertwining like a complicated maze. Best solution: do another drive around the roundabout just to make sure you are taking the right exit. And when you park and a Ferrari is in front of you trying to back up, don’t move. In the face of opulent automobiles, avoid any risk of you hitting them.

Fortunately, we had a local to guide us around, and he took us to one of the many underground parking complexes and we climbed out and up onto “Le Rocher” – the Rock – the old city that sits atop a rocky promontory. This is where you’ll find the Palais Princier, and just like in any other country that boasts a constitutional monarchy, you can watch the changing of the guard.

From atop Le Rocher you also have an excellent view down both sides of the cliffs, one looking down into the old harbor, and on the other, a more modern collection of buildings and docks. Le Rocher is also where you will find the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, an impressive structure that almost looks like it’s rising straight out of the sea.

To say that the streets and alleyways of Monaco are clean would be an understatement. This is an impeccably spotless place, almost disarmingly so. You get the feeling that the entire place simply drips of money. Which of course it does; the principality doesn’t charge its residents income tax, which attracts a whole plethora of glitterati.

But there’s also the charming side of Monaco that even the budget traveler can enjoy. A wood-fired pizza for lunch with a carafe of Chianti (thank the Italian influence for that) and a simple stroll up and down the hilly streets gives you a real sense of a place loaded with oversized yachts and casino action. It offers a picturesque setting, to say the least.

We walked through the tight alleyways, pink and yellow walls jutting up around us, a quaint but manicured setting. A pair of cyclists decked out in tight training gear rolled up to a door and walked their bikes inside. Japanese tourists bought chocolate at the local chocolatier.

Descending the steps next to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium we overlooked the Mediterranean, a stormy mix of white caps and breaks of sunlight as a small storm rolled in. It started to drizzle. Whereas in most cities the raindrops would have cleaned the dirty streets, they instead just added to sidewalks that already seemed to glitter. “You know, just an afternoon in Monaco. No big deal,” said my friend as we looked out over the water.

It’s funny to go to a place known for so much wealth and instead just take in the surroundings. No casino. No Grand Prix. No luxury purse purchases. Just a moment to be in a place and remember that our world is full of these corners that we may never fully know.

We returned to Nice at dusk, the evening winter light hitting the French Riviera houses on the cliffs in a way that only a painter could replicate.

“A good afternoon in Monaco everyone,” said our director. Check that one off the list.

[Photo Credit: Anna Brones]

Other Countries A US President Has Never Visited

President Barack Obama will land in Myanmar (aka Burma) this week, a first-time visit for any President of the United States. Never mind that Myanmar is best known as a brutal dictatorship, not exactly in line with U.S. foreign policy. Disregard any political or geographically strategic reasons for befriending Myanmar. Today, this is all about the President being the first to visit Myanmar and the trip begs the question: “So are there other countries that no sitting U.S. President has ever visited?”

Out of the 190+ countries in the world, just 113 of them have been visited by a President of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian.

Countries not visited include close-by neighbor the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, St Kitts, St Lucia and assorted tiny island-nations. Understandable, we would probably view a visit to the harmless Seychelles as a taxpayer-paid vacation anyway.

On the continent of Africa, more nations have not been visited than have been by a U.S. President. Again, probably not a lot of strategic reasons to stop by.But some big-name countries we might think that some President, somewhere along the way, might have visited; not one has.

  • Monaco, the second smallest country/monarchy in the world and the most densely populated country in the world boasts the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino.
  • Algeria, in northern Africa, famous for its vast Sahara in the south..
  • Nepal- famous for eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains. No visit.

Armenia is a country one might think worthy of a trip by any standards. Bordered by Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, Georgia to the north and Iran to the south, Armenia does seem to have a strategic location. Still, no visit.

Presidential travel takes any given sitting head of the free world to countries all over the planet on visits of good will. Meeting face to face with world leaders, attending meetings and spreading good old American spirit around when they can, Presidents are a big ticket when they come to town, along with Air Force One and more as we see in this video

Oh, and that trip to Myanmar? While President Obama is the first U.S. President to visit, he’s not the first Obama. The president’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was a cook in World War II for a British army captain stationed in what was then called Burma.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user 0ystercatcher]

Grand Prix Package A Special Event At Sea

Monaco’s Grand Prix has brought out the best of Formula One auto racing each year, and to race fans waiting for that starting flag to drop, there’s nothing better. In 1929, the first winner was a sleek Bugatti, completing the difficult course in just under four hours. Last year, racing legend Mark Weber crossed the finish line in less than two.

Want to know what next year will bring? Add the Grand Prix with Windstar package to a Yachting the Riviera yacht vacation.

Sail into the glamorous port of Monaco, on Windstar Cruises elegant sailing yacht Wind Surf, to experience the world’s most legendary auto racing event. With Windstar’s exclusive Grand Prix package added on to Wind Surf’s Yachting the Rivera voyage, race fans get preferred seating for the preliminaries on Saturday.

They’ll also get a glimpse at all the preparation that goes into the famous race, then the race itself on Sunday where they can cheer on their favorite driver with select seats.

Other highlights of the package include a night out in Monaco with dinner at the Café De Paris, followed by a night of gambling at Monte Carlo’s Grand Casino. Also included is an exclusive cocktail reception and Grand Prix dinner on board the yacht in Cannes as well as a special Sunday brunch the day of the race.

Rubbing elbows with the rich and famous has its cost though. The optional Grand Prix Package starts at $2,299 per person (in addition to cruise fare starting at $2999).

[Flickr photo by fusky]

Stunning Photos Of The Alps

The Alps is a beautiful mountain range. Spanning through Austria and Slovenia all the way through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France and Monaco, the Alps are a go-to spot for mountain-loving folks living in or passing through these areas in Europe. Taken from the Latin word Alpes, which may have been derived from the word Albus, which means “white,” the Alps are certainly that. If you enjoy perusing jaw-dropping photography, you’ll be happy to know that Nature Pictures has an Alps series up on their website here. This stunning collection of photos features the snow-capped peaks in several scenes. Whether partially lit from the sunrise, towering over a lake or contrasted against green pastures, this photo collection is worth the look.