Sailing the Istrian Peninsula

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In mid’ June we returned to Croatia for another sailing trip. This would be our fourth; two before out of Dubrovnik exploring the islands to the north of the wall town, and one exploring the islands south of Split. We really enjoy Croatia for sailing, one of the best areas in the Med in our opinion, for number of reasons. Great weather, warm-enough waters, friendly people, short distances between really interesting places, the price, and the variety of ports and boats and companies to choose from.

For this trip we decided to explore the most northern coastline of Croatia known as the Istrian Peninsula, with our good friends Jack and Yvonne, who we’ve done most of our Med sailing trips with.

Istrian PeninsulaWe landed in Pula from Venice, taking the catamaran ferry over to the Croatian coast. We arrived a few days early to explore Pula, and also give enough time to stock up on provisions. Our goals was breakfast and lunch on board, with more evenings out on the town, unless at anchor.

Pula has been around for a long time, as can be confirmed by the large, elliptical Roman amphitheater situated in the heart of the town. It is one of the largest the Romans ever constructed, and remains in good condition to this day. Pula was a major naval base for Habsburgs and and also when it was part of Yugoslavia. And today it remains an active port. But all that takes up most of the shoreline, so what most interesting to see is behind Pula’s waterfront. It is the largest town on peninsula, but not as interesting or charming as other towns such as Porec or Rovinj, we thought.

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Return to Venice

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We spent a week in Venice in 2011 and, other than the crowds, we really enjoyed exploring its streets and waterways. It is an amazing city like no other, based primarily on water transportation for all services, and it does it all, it seems, so well. And it is so photogenic, with never-ending opportunities for photo ops.

This trip provided us just a couple of days on the way to Croatia and a day on the way back, which was just enough of a tease for us to leave saying we need to come back soon. We kept away from all major tourist landmarks such as the Rialto bridge or San Marco Plaza, at least during the day, as there so many people that’s you start feeling claustrophobic.

We are quite content to spend our time in other neighborhoods such as San Polo, Castelo, Dorsodouro and Cannareigio, which the crowds tend to avoid. There are just so many great restaurants down off-the-beaten-track narrow streets to enjoy, as well as wine bars and oceanside terraces. We especially enjoyed San Marco Plaza when the cruise ships and day-trippers had left, enjoying an Apero at Cafe Lavena while listening to the live band and people watching.

On our next trip we plan to visit some of the outer islands such as Murano, La Guidecca, and Lido.

Biking & Boarding on the Cote d’Azur

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I’ve covered many biking and boarding opps along the coast of Cote d’Azur that are most worth going to and reachable from Nice. But there’s a lot more happening up in the hills behind Nice, but to get to them I need transportation. This past weekend a friend lent me her car, and as Flo was out of town, I could use the bike rack and put the paddle board in the back of the car and head out and do some exploring.

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Lake Cassien with glass-like conditions for a paddle

Day One: Lake Cassien

I’d found a lake near Cannes that looked interesting for paddling called Lake Cassien, which is a damned lake situated behind the hills of the Esterels.

There are numerous ways to access the lake, with a number of restaurants along the shoreline that, along with providing food and drinks, also rent out small boats. The most popular boats I saw were paddle boats, driven by two people peddling a paddle wheel, with a slide on the top. It seems that gas engines are not allowed on the lake, as the only engines I saw were small electric ones.

The lake is surrounded by forest with just a few homes actually on the lake and only a few on the hillsides above. One roads actually goes right over the lake by bridge, but other than that, and when you far enough away from the bridge, it is extremely quiet. I paddled north on a glass-like surface with very few other people around, just a few fisherman. On the way I had a swim in clear green fresh water that was simply wonderful – out in the middle of the lake with no one around, just me and my board and the green hills around me.

IMG_2258But when I got to the far north shore and turned around, a big black cloud had rolled in and along with it, strong winds. This made it very difficult for me to make it back to where I started, as I was 3-4 km from my launch site and the wind was right on my nose. I sat down rather than standing, to help me make headway. About halfway up the lake the wind (fortunately) subsided and I could stand back up again and make it back to the car.

Once I was packed up I crossed the bridge and head north passing through Tourney, Les Veyans and Speracedes. I made my way up to the interesting town of Cabris, which sits out on a rock formation that provides great views of the valley below, Lake Cassien, and the Med. From there I went to Gourdon and then made my way back to Nice.

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Day Two

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Bike Trip to Valberg

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This is the third day of a long weekend of biking and boarding along the Cote d’Azur. The other day activities are mentioned here.

I knew at the beginning of this trip that I was perhaps taking on more than I could manage, but rationalized it by saying I’d start low and slow and work my way up, I knew that if it became too much of a climb, I could just turn around and glide back to where I started.

So my game plan was to follow, upriver, the Var (D6202) until I reached the Daluis Valley road (D902). From there I’d follow the valley, again, uphill, to Guillaume. From Guillaume I knew from a previous visit by car, that there is a steep, narrow road (D28) that leads up to the ski resort area of Valberg. This stretch of road would be my biggest challenge. And if Varberg was the summit, which I hoped, then it would all be downhill from there.

I parked the car at Touet-Sur-Var and then headed west, passed the medieval town of Entrevaux before turning north up into the valley of Daluis.

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Entrevaux with its citadel on the hillside behind

Entrevaux is very much what comes to mind when one thinks of a river-based medieval town, with a long draw bridge and vaulted gate situated between two towers. Early history set the beginning of the town around the 10th century, but most of the serious work on the town was done in the 17th century. There’s also citadel perched high on the hillside behind the completely walled-in town. And inside the town the streets (more like passageways) are dark and narrow, with the buildings seemingly leaning in on one another, closing in the sky above. But today they are lined with brightly colored shops, restaurants and bars, making it all quite pleasant.

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The bridge and vaulted gate and two towers, one of which was the town prison

If you are feeling adventurous, one can climb the hill to the citadel, which was constructed in the 17th century and last used during WWII to hold German prisoners. the walk takes about 20 minutes and offers some great picture taking opportunities. Continue reading

Bike Ride to the Grande Corniche Park

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Since we’ve been back I’ve been getting in a lot of biking while waiting for the ocean to warm up. The weather has been exceptionally cold in the evenings in Nice, so the ocean is especially cold for this time of the year. Even biking early in the morning it can be a little chilly so I’ve been going out with a sweater overtop of my biking outfit.

The pictures here are from my latest ride up to the Tete de Chien behind Monaco, and then up to the Parque de la Grande Corniche, one of the higher points along this coastal mountain range.

I begin by going up by way of the Moyenne Corniche. There are three routes you can take from Nice over the coastal mountain range as it meets the sea; one along the coastline (which is usually the busiest), a middle road (Moyenne Corniche), and the highest road, which offers amazing panoramic views. All three routes actually are quite spectacular, but my favorite is up on top for the views and less traffic.

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Heading up I passed by Villefranche, Cap Ferrat and Bealieau, seen in the photo above. A cruise ship sits inside the cove of Villefranche, Cap Ferrat is the landmass in the middle that juts out, (and that you’ll see in many of the photos here), and Beaulieau lies to the left in the photo.

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About halfway up I pass Eze, which is charming medieval town that is now overrun by tourists, as it is the closest hill-top town to Nice. Hence all the cruise ships have tours there. I don’t think many people actually live in the old town now, it is mostly shops, hotels and restaurants. It was famously on the list in the movie The Bucket List, which starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman; they had lunch in the restaurant in the hotel Chateau de la Chèvre d’Or.

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Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 5.05.38 PMFrom there I continued on to the Tete de Chien where I enjoyed the view and had a little lunch. Below in the harbor outside of Monaco I could see to very different looking yachts moored, which I later learned are owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko. They are just small dots in the photo at the top of the page. “Sailing Yacht A”, as its called, was built for 360 million euros and is 468 ft. long with 8 decks, 3 swimming pools, helicopter pad and can carry a submarine, four cars and numerous water vehicles. “Motor Yacht A” is for sale for 300 million euros. Crazy….

After lunch I headed up for the park of the Grande Corniche. There is a great trail that leads from the top of the park, along a ridge, back to the town of La Turbie. Along the way there are a couple of tunnels, and lots of amazing viewpoints.

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IMG_2194It is spring time, so there were lots of brightly colored flowers along the way. In the photo above if you look to the left in the distance you can see Cap Ferrat. The trail is in very good shape and they’ve even set up picnic tables at random spots along the route. The bike trail ends with a bench that overlooks La Turbie in the distance. You can barely make out the Roman-built ancient tower called Trophée d’Auguste that sits on top of the hill and that the town of La Turbie has been built around.

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I was enjoying the view when I noticed that low clouds were quickly rolling in. I’ve been caught in that before and it can get very cold. The clouds move in very quickly and when you ride through them it is freezing. So I started back. When I got above Eze I could see that the town was quickly becoming engulfed by cloud. This happens often, meaning that the tourists coming here for the view are sometimes disappointed as all they can see is white.

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The clouds were faster than I and although it is a spectacular 30-minute ride down, much of it this time was through the cloud bank, making it not only for a very cold ride, but also a dangerous one as it is like fog in places, making it difficult for drivers to see well. But I made it home safe. Cold, but safe, and very content.

Weekend in Seville

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Seville cathedral and Giralda tower

After a couple of weeks in the Algarve, primarily the Carvoeiro region, we drove east to Seville, Spain, about two hours away. The old town of Seville is quite something, like a maze that at first can be quite intimidating as the streets are so narrow and windy that it is difficult to know where you are or if you are going in the direction you want to be. I highly recommend using GPS at first, as a map doesn’t help much as not all the streets are labelled. And, they seem to change their name every few hundred yards!

But it didn’t take us long to get the feel of the town and the parts we liked best. It is a great city, at least for the old-town aspects of it. Outside of the old city walls though, there’s nothing that got us too excited. We bought tickets for the hop-on, hop-off bus and did the tour, but it really wasn’t that interesting. What’s worth seeing of Seville is in the old-town district, the cathedral, castle, gardens and especially roaming the streets of the Santa Cruz quarter.

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Narrow pedestrian-only streets of the Santa Cruz quarter

Here, the streets become very narrow and all you have are walls and doors on each side, with the walls nearly touching at times. But behind these walls, which we can see firsthand when the doors are open, are large courtyards that allow plenty of natural light into the surrounding rooms. A few of the larger homes have been turned into boutique hotels, and they are also open to view their unique courtyard designs and features.

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Seville home courtyard

We spent our days walking the streets of Seville, and at night enjoyed drinking Rioja and eating tapas at the numerous tapas bars. At one bar, after ordering our drinks and food, he asked if we were Mexican. We laughed and replied yes, and he said he could tell from our accents!

 

On the second night we took in a flamingo show at Casa de la Memoria. It was spectacular, with just two dancers,  singer and guitar player, but what a show. Highly recommend it and would go back for more.

Right next to Casa de la Memoria on Calle Cuna is the Lebrija Palace; the former home of the Count and Countess of Lebrija. The countess spent years decorating and renovating the home, bringing in old talavera tile murals for the walls and multi-colored marble and stone mosaics on the floors. She had a passion for archaeology so there are many artifacts and antiquities displayed as well in the home. Worth taking in as well.

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Line for the Alcazar Castle – get there early!

 

There were a lot of people in town as it is the Seville April Feria, so we’ve stayed away from the line-ups to get into the church and castle; we’ll have to make a return trip for that. But just walking the streets is an experience worthy of a return visit for us.

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Flamingo @ La Carboneria

But on our last night we really had a treat when we met up with our Parisian friends, Rejane and Henri, who happened to be in town, and we went to La Carboneria. This is a bar/warehouse which hosts great flamingo each night. No cost to get in, drinks are cheap, but in order to have a good seat you have to arrive early. First show starts at 9:30 and two more follow. We stayed for all three, leaving sometime after 1PM. The dancer, who looked a lot like Prince, was just amazing with what he could do on the dance floor.

Carvoeiro Coastal Walk

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In the Algarve, our favorite area is around Carvoeiro, a bench of high land between the towns of Albufeira and Portomao, which offers rolling hills on a an elevated coastline, and an amazing oceanfront with spectacular cliffs, grottos, caves and picturesque beaches. In between the town of Carvoeiro and the beach of Marinha, there is a coastal path one could never tire from walking. We did it in stages, so that we could walk back to our car each time. The walk is posted as medium-difficult, stretches just under 12 km and to walk it all at once would take about six hours.

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The first stage of our walk was from Marinha to the small town of Benagil. Just before Benagil is one of the larger caves along this coastline, with an opening on the coast, something like a cenote, where you can look down into and see people on the beach and boats coming and going. The walk takes about 40 minutes each way.

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Real Estate in the Algarve

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After a couple of visits to the Algarve this past fall, we began looking at real estate opportunities as we are considering a full-time move to Europe and the Algarve really has a lot to offer, at least for our lifestyle. It did not take us long to find a few properties we liked, two that were in the same development near Carvoeiro.

We soon discovered that many of the titles for the homes (not so much the condominiums) in this region are not held by individuals but by an off-shore company. Looking into further it seems this is the way things have been done here for quite a long time, and for some good reasons.

  1. Inheritance Taxes. Up until recently, inheritance taxes were horrible in Portugal. There was, so I’m told, potential inheritance taxes if the property was just passing from husband to wife, let alone to the children. So having the title held in the name of a company, which wouldn’t change when someone within the company died, solved that problem.
  2. Available Financing. Financing, in the past, was difficult to obtain for foreigners looking to buy real estate in Portugal. A solution to this was to have the title held offshore at a bank, which then would lend to the company using the property as collateral. This allowed many Brits to buy in the Algarve with financing from a British bank, something they would not have been able to obtain otherwise. It really helped the Algarve real estate market boom.
  3. Easy and Quick Closing. Because it is just a transfer of shares, closing then and today is easier and less expensive.
  4. Anonymity. When it is held offshore, no one knows that you are the owner of the property. There are reasons, some legal and some not, why people look for this type of ownership anonymity (although today the amount of anonymity available, especially with FATFA and other global regulations, is becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain).
  5. Saving on the Property Transfer Tax (IMT) at closing. As Portugal doesn’t know the property has actually been sold, they can’t charge the Property Transfer Tax. It was a savings back then and it’s a savings today. But does that make it right? Why should one owner get a benefit that another owner doesn’t? And I’m sure the Portuguese government would love to be receiving these funds.
  6. Capital Gains Taxes. Something else it did, which is a little more sinister, is that it allowed people to avoid paying capital gains taxes. When they wanted to sell the property, they would just sell the shares of the company. Portugal would never know this, that there were new owners, as the name on the title (the offshore held company), would remain the same.

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Back to the Cote d’Azur…

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After an amazing winter season in Mexico, (one of the best weather seasons we can remember), we are back in the south of France and quickly acquainting ourselves with the venues and activities we most enjoy here.

For me it means getting back into biking, with trips to places like La Turbie, Roquebrune (which I’ve previously written about so won’t mention anymore about them), the Monte Carlo golf club up and above Monaco, and a new trip to La Revere.

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Ride up to Eze on the “Moyenne Corniche” overlooking Villefranche 

I wanted to check out the golf club to perhaps get in a game or two this year. The rates are reasonable, course is short though, but the views are amazing. It sits on top of the mountain behind Monaco. La Revere is an old fort on top of the mountain behind Eze. There are viewpoints, nature walks and picnic tables, all overlooking the Cote d’Azur coastline.

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Eze to the lower left, Cap Ferat peninsula behind it, Villefranche (with cruise ship anchored) to the right and the Nice Airport upper right.

We also arrived back to discover there is still snow on the hills behind Nice, and that there would be a fresh dump of now on a Sunday and into the night. So we drove up Sunday afternoon to Auron, had a wonderful dinner at El White restaurant, stayed the night at the Hôtel l’Ecureuil, and got up early the next morning to blue skies, six inches of fresh powder snow, and hardly anyone on the hill. As we waited for the lift to open, the only other people we saw were those that worked on the hill. We managed to do a few runs before we even saw any other skiers, and certainly never had to wait in line at the lifts. It was a great day. We skied for a few hours, had a coffee break at our favorite restaurant on the hill, Sauma Longue, and then returned a few hours later for lunch.

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Village of Auron

The ski area offers 135 kms of ski runs with 43 routes: 8 blacks, 16 reds, 16 blues, 3 greens. There’s 16 skilifts: 3 cable cars, 9 chairlifts, 3 draglifts, 1 tear-lift.

That evening we went out for dinner in the village to the restaurant El White. We all had steak frites, washed down with a lovely Provence wine from Chateau Roubine. Highly recommended. Food is fantastic, as is the decor… we’ll be back…

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We drove back on late Monday afternoon, quite exhausted, had a good night’s sleep and then got up and drove to Ventimigila in Italy for some shopping and lunch. We stocked up on aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil, limoncello, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. For lunch we left Ventimiglia and visited our favorite place in the area, L’Osteria di Caterina located in the main plaza of the old town of Dolceaqua. Great food at great prices.

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Village of Dolceaqua with the castle in behind

Now it’s time to back our bags for a couple of weeks in Portugal…

Paddling and Crocs

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When in Puerto Vallarta I like to start the day with a paddle, and the closest place to do so is in the development we live in, Marina Vallarta, which runs along the shoreline of Banderas Bay. It is a short drive for me to the beach where I can easily launch and go east in front of Marina Vallarta and the hotels and condos, or west in front of the airport and over to the Ameca River.

Where I launch my board, the road parallels a golf course, which has a lot of water hazards populated with crocodiles, especially the holes close to the beach. But I’ve always been told they don’t like salt water and stay around the golf course.

Well, this morning I launched out on my board, stood up and started paddling east, following the shoreline. In front of me I saw what I thought was a palm frond laying in the ocean. As I got close to it I could see the “frond” had horns along its back and tail, and that it was moving towards the beach. I slowed down and watched it cross my path and then go under water. A big crocodile, big, 3-4 meters long, similar to the one in the photo below.

I sat down (to be more sturdy in case I was attacked!), and watched to see if he was actually going to climb out onto the beach. He didn’t come up again. So I paddled a little farther out and waited. He came up again and was now swimming parallel to the beach, heading towards the condominiums nearby. I watched for awhile and then he went under water again. I then decided to continue my paddle eastwards.

On the way back two boats stopped alongside me to warn me about it. And I could see the police on the beach. But I had to get out and to my car, where he last was. So I waited a bit, didn’t see him, and then paddled in and got out quickly. Exciting way to start the day!

In the past, I sometimes have stopped before going in and gone for a swim to cool off, pushing the board in front of me. And did it in this spot just a few days ago. Certainly wouldn’t want to meet up with that in the water.

Note: I’ve found out a little more about the crocs since this episode.

  1. Seeing crocs here is not uncommon. I’ve since talked with people who have seen them swimming out front of Marina Vallarta from their condo terraces. And heard stories of two people who have come across them while swimming here, but the croc disappeared quickly, swimming away.
  2. And read this: Though crocodiles have no natural predators, other than humans, it’s wise to keep some kind of barrier between them and us. They are not known to be aggressive and attacks on people are quite rare but we leave it to others to test the theory. Oddly enough, reports over the decades of aggression towards humans have usually dealt with trespassers, turtle egg poachers and, quite often, other illegal activities.
  3. Crocodiles normally hunt at night and prefer limited moonlight but disruption of their normal habits, due to domestic interference, is not a great surprise. Given that, we are aware of instances in which off-leash dogs have been snapped up by crocodiles. When a dog approaches a crocodile, barking and snarling, the reptile is going to be prone to protect himself. Apparently dogs are a real delicacy for crocs, so it’s always a good idea to keep Fido leashed and in line.
  4. The American Crocodile (the name of the one most commonly found in Marina Vallarta and the area), is the only one of his species that thrives in both fresh and salt water, which seems to be the result of salt glands under their tongue. This is an unusual attribute.

I’ve come to the conclusion that crocodiles have been swimming in this area for some time, but they avoid contact with humans. They don’t seem them as a food source, and would only attack it seems, if they are cornered, or we enter into their territory. That said, I still don’t feel comfortable swimming behind my board out there, anymore!

A friend sent me this short film he made on the crocodiles in the marina area.

Below are some pictures of the crocodiles on the golf course, about 100 yards from the beach and ocean.