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.

Puerto Vallarta

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The weather in Puerto Vallarta has been spectacular this year, one of the best that I can remember. Back when the real estate market was booming (2002-2010), I would have to take aerial images of the coastline of the region once a year, because there were so many changes with new project being built. Because of the slowdown, I haven’t had to do aerials in about five years, but probably will need to next year.

One of the problems I had with taking aerials is that the best time was in the fall/winter when the mountains were still green and lush. But there was often a mist that hung over the mountains, and the sunlight would reflect off this, wrecking what would otherwise be good photos. And often in the later part of the day, which is the best time to take photos, clouds would roll in from the south, cover the sun and mountains, making it impossible to take good photos.

Well, this year was certainly different. There have been at least 50 great days or more, where I could’ve gone up and took amazing images. For most of the season the air has been blue, clear and crisp, and little mist or afternoon clouds.

I haven’t take aerials this year, but I have been going around and taking pictures of the different regions of Vallarta, to update the regions pages of our website. I thought I’d share some of them.

Central Vallarta

Lots of activity in downtown Vallarta these days. Old homes and buildings are being torn down to put of boutique condo buildings with rooftop pools, bars and terraces, that overlook the bay. With prices are $250,000, they’ve been quite popular.

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Travel Plans for 2017

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Central Puerto Vallarta

Our return to Puerto Vallarta for the winter months, (usually December to March), provides us with not only an escape from the colder weather in Europe and elsewhere, but also provides us time to work on our travel schedule for the year. We have travelled extensively throughout Mexico over the past 30 years, (been there-done that), so we are quite content to just remain in the Vallarta area and reacquaint with friends, enjoy the sun and sea, and make travel plans.

For 2017, it’s working out to be another busy schedule:

  • March: Back to Nice, France
  • April: Back to Portugal – Lisbon and the Algarve
  • June: Sailing via Catamaran Northern Croatia and Adriatic Sea
  • July: British Columbia, Canada
  • September: Nice
  • October: Northern Italy, Lakes region
  • November: Azores?
  • December: Back to Puerto Vallarta

It takes a lot of preparation, but thanks to handy tools such as Tripit, Trip Advisor, Booking.com, LoveHomeSwap.com, Google Maps and Evernote, it actually ain’t that bad.

Northern Croatia

We’ve now sailed a good part of the Adriatic Sea, but not way north, near Venice. Our friends Jack & Yvonne Cawood recently did and enjoyed it enough to want to return. So we’ve charted a 42′ catamaran with them out of Pula and plan to make our way north from there, visiting small coastal towns and villages along the way.

Lakes District, Northern Italy

Everyone has heard of Lake Como and Bellagio in Northern Italy, and we’ve been wanting to visit there for some time. There are actually a number of lakes in the area (Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo and Garda), and we’d like to visit them all. The pictures we’ve seen are amazing, it really is a beautiful area.

Azores Islands

Same with the Azores, we’ve been wanting to go for awhile but something keeps coming up. Hopefully we’ll make it this year.

 

Reminiscing in Shangrila

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Sylvie at the beach

About 20 years ago a very good friend of ours (Sylvie) obtained a concession for some land just south of Puerto Vallarta, near Las Animas. It was right on the beach, with a primary home that was more like a tree house, and a few other thatched roof homes that were used when friends visited. Power lines ran close by so there was electricity, water was obtained by running a hose up a nearby creek, and the home itself was completely open to the elements; no doors (except for the bathroom) and no windows. You could only get there by boat, or walk in for about an hour along a coastal path from Boca de Tomatlán.

 

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Some of the regular crew at Shangrila, about 1998

Sylvie and her daughter Morgan, along with Flo and I and the kids (Ali and Jeff, aged about 4 and 9 at the time), spent many weekends and holidays at Shangrila, as Sylvie called it, living in the jungle and living a little like Robinson Crusoe.

Sylvie had the place for 3-4 years and over this time other friends of ours built homes close by, who also had kids, and so it was kid’s heaven. We enjoyed swimming, snorkeling, horseback riding on the beach, and with our ski boat the “French Kiss”, skiing and boarding. As adults we had a good time as well, often partying late into the night once the kids went to bed. If we ran out of rum or tequila we’d flag down one of the passing panga water taxis and they’d get pick up a bottle at Boca, put it on our tab, and then as they went by again, without stopping, they’d throw the bottle to us and we’d have to swim out to get it!

 

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Flo, Ali, Sylvie & Morgan at Shangri-la

 

 

Recently we went back to visit the place. It is now a small boutique hotel called Casitas Maraika, meaning more people as hotel guests and visitors who came by boat and drop anchor out front. It seems to have become a new “hot spot” along this coast, a little more upscale and hippyish than Las Animas next door.

We also returned in 2010 on the anniversary of Sylvie’s passing, with Morgan, Ali and their good friend Camilla, to release flowers in front of Shangrila. At the time the Mexican actor Diego Luna was staying at the hotel, although we didn’t know it at the time, but when the girls released the flowers he thought that three fans had discovered where he was and were releasing the flowers into the water for him!

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Alison, Camilla and Morgan at Shangrila in 2010

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Jeff with his girlfriend Laura, and Flo, at what once was Shangrila, in 2016

Because of the lack of accessibility by road, and that most of the land on this coast cannot be sold, development, fortunately has been curbed. But it is still quite different from when we had most of it to ourselves. And some of our fondest memories of Sylvie will be of the time we shared with her and Morgan at Shangrila.

 

Weekend in Alba, Piemonte

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Someone once described Piemonte to me as being “Tuscany without the Tourists“. And, to a degree, that is true, they are similar in many ways and there are less tourists. But what people really enjoy about Tuscany – the rolling landscape, the meandering country roads, the wine, the food and the medieval villages – can be also be found in Piemonte, especially the region around Alba, and for a lot less money.

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Drive up between Sospel and Tende, near Saorge

When the leaves are changing color turning the hillsides into an amazing palette of bright colors, the landscape is simply amazing. Toss that in with good food and wine, great accommodation, and then add to it that you can experience it all for price that is a lot less than Tuscany, and it’s easy to conclude there really isn’t a better place to be in the fall than Piemonte. At least, I can’t think of a better place to be.

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img_1529We drove up from Nice, through Sospel and then passed by Saorge (an amazing hillside town), Tende, Cuneo and then into the Piemonte (mountain foothills) valley. The above photo was taken along the drive after just leaving Sospel, and where we began the climb over (and through) the mountain range that borders Italy. To the right is an image of our GPS, showing just how windy the road can be, and how many hairpin turns there are.

We went directly to Alba as that is where the White Truffle Festival was currently taking place. We’d attended a few years back and really enjoyed it so we decided at the last minute to do it again. The weather wasn’t as great as it was last time, but everything else was wonderful. It was lunch time so we had a great one at Ristorante Vigin Mudest, which is right beside one of the finest wine stores in Alba; Fracchia & Berchialla. After lunch we walked it off exploring the narrow streets of Alba, and then headed south to Vicoforte, where our hotel is located.

Driving around the countryside here is not that easy if you are in a hurry, but then you shouldn’t be. There is so much to see you really want to take your time. Although there is a freeway along the perimeter of the Langhe (as it is known) region, inside with the rolling hills and picturesque valleys there is nothing but windy roads that were (thankfully) built to go around the hills rather than through them. Yes, you’ll be stuck behind a tractor once in awhile, but that will allow you to enjoy the scenery that much more.

There are many country roads to take, but the one’s we’ve enjoyed most were SP12 from Braglia to Alba, as well any of the roads around La Morra, Barolo and Alba, all towns worth visiting. You’ll need the most time for Alba, as it is the largest community in the area.

 

img_1531We previously had stayed close to Alba, but this time chose the small boutique hotel Duchessa Margherita in the south of Langhe, in the village of Vicoforte, right next to a sanctuary which has the world’s largest elliptical cupola and is very much worth seeing. This historic house, built in the middle of the 19th century, was dedicated to Margherita, the oldest daughter of the Duke of Savoy, Carlo Emanuele I. Each room of the house is dedicated to a member of the royal family. Entering this house is like plunging into the history of the Savoy dynasty.

For getting around, the staff at the hotel really know the region well and it is well worth spending a few minutes with them to get their recommendations on things to see, places to eat and vineyards to visit.

For dinner we made reservations at the Trattoria Marsupino and were not disappointed. We started with a bottle of prosecca (happened to be our anniversary!) and then I had to have the pasta with truffle. Our meals were enjoyed with a bottle of Barbaresco wine. Dessert was a very delicious licorice mouse.The restaurant has been in the family for four generations and they still have all four working in the restaurant, with the grandmother taking care of the till.