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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Dating Advice from Birdman

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It’s springtime, and love is in the air…

My undergraduate biology professor was, I recall fondly, the most eager ornithologist alive; I’ve never, ever experienced a person with such passion for his field. His descriptions, slideshows and enactments of Bowerbird courtship nesting rituals were more animated than the dances of a Broadway ‘Simba’ on acid. I just wish I could remember his name….let’s call him Birdman.

“He’s a bird watcheeer…he’s a bird watcher…watchin’ birds go by: my, my, myyyy…”

I learned a thing or two from Birdman; first of all, that, if all men behaved like Bowerbirds, the world would truly be a better place—meaning that women would constantly be showered with attention, affection and personalized, heartfelt gifts (sigh!). The elaborate nest-constructing rituals of the Bowerbird are like none other on the planet.

Picture this scenario:

It’s a warm, bright spring afternoon on beautiful Fraser Island, Australia, and romance is in the air. Benny, the blue Satin continue reading »»

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Wine and Cheese, Please?

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If I had a billion dollars, I would transform all tedious errands into luxury weekend getaways. For example, instead of going to Wal-Mart for basic household supplies, I would just hop on a private jet to China. For new work clothes, I’d skip the Zara sales rack and head to Spain. And to gather refreshments for my upcoming housewarming party, I’d bypass the supermarket crowds and take my shopping list straight to the hillside villages of Tuscany.

But then again, if I had a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t be shopping for my own wine, cheese and canapés to begin with. I also wouldn’t be lying about the housewarming party and, in reality, while writing this, be sipping boxed wine atop my luxurious, fifth floor air mattress in my shared London “bedsit” …

Regarding Tuscany, I can actually vouch from personal experience: I have been, and it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and relaxing places on the planet. If I have managed to make it over there, you easily can, too.

So let’s just pretend that my bedsit is actually a newly refurbished, mansion block split level, in need of some freshly imported Italian flavours. Here’s where I would go…

A Taste of Tuscany

Firenze

If you have never been to Tuscany, or for that matter, Italy, you will likely want to see Florence. With direct links to a variety of countryside tours and villages, this well preserved historic (and delectable!) city could, with good planning, could be the perfect kick-start for further sightseeing and gastronomic adventures.

Prepare for sensory overload: you will be inundated with the highest concentration of Renaissance art and architecture in the world, along with bustling markets, crowded shopping streets, zipping vespas, outdoor concerts, and tourists galore. Yet happily, you will drink loads of Chianti and get your first taste of authentic, delicious Tuscan cooking.

So go ahead and hit all of the main sights (you can do this in a day, on a private tour, if you like), and then, for bit of local flavor, head to the south of the Arno river to some of the quieter and more residential areas. Be sure to spend an afternoon at Piazza Santo Spirito, which is arguably the most delightful, friendly and laid back square in the city. With several cafes, a beautiful Augustinian church, frequent specialty markets, and plenty of shady places to sit, it is the perfect place to sip a glass of wine and admire the easy pace of Florentine life.

Turn the corner and grab a delicious panini and a (deliciously inexpensive) bottle of Chianti and from Gustapanino—the best sandwich shop in town, hands down (trust me, just go). For some home style cooking with a creative twist, you could wander a few blocks north to friendly, family-owned Trattoria 4 Leoni. Try the Fiocchetti di pere con salsa di taleggio e asparagi, and change your understanding of pasta (and pears) forever (I’ll let you discover the deliciousness for yourself). I recommend sticking to their own-label house Chianti, but they do provide an extensive selection of wines from all over the region.

Feeling full? The adventure has just begun! Now it’s time to grab your posh party “grocery lists” and head to….

Montepulciano

Florence isn’t for everyone, and neither is Chianti. But it is impossible not to fall in love with the Tuscan countryside. Picture miles of quiet open road, surrounded by endless rolling meadows, lush vineyards, wild flowers and olive orchards. And suddenly, when life couldn’t be more beautiful, you are faced with a majestic, tiered hillside village that looks like a giant medieval castle from a fairy tale book. You find out from the tour guide that you are about to go frolic through its cobblestone alleyways and into its cavernous, 13th century vaults to sip some of the best wines that Italy has to offer. Magic.

Enter Montepulciano, an enchanting cascade of renaissance and medieval architecture, which, perched high upon a hill and surrounded by bountiful, endless countryside, is one of the most memorable and magnificent places in Tuscany.

And most importantly, its wines are world famous.

Wander through the village until you reach the 1000-year old Contucci enoteca, where thousands of barrels preserve the delicate balance of its renowned Vino Nobile. You can then savour the fermented richness of Italy’s finest Sangiovese grapes, with hints of vanilla oak and red berry that will tempt most wine novices (like me!) into connoisseurship.

Emerge from your tasting spree to bask in the afternoon sun and admire breathtaking, panoramic views of the region.

Pienza

I have been to a ritzy party or two and am accustomed to the occasional brie and stilton platter, but I had never delved into the nuances of cheese tasting before visiting Pienza. This tiny village actually smells like a giant wheel of Pecorino Toscano and is indeed famous for its unique, sheep’s milk (or to get technical, ewes’ milk), herb-infused concoction.

A short distance outside of Florence, this tiny hilltop village, unique in its “pure” Renaissance design and layout, can be easily navigated in a matter of hours. With its friendly shop owners, quaint cobblestone streets, and seemingly trouble-free lifestyle, Pienza, in my opinion, captures the true essence of Tuscany.

Wander in and out of the many food shops on the main street to taste the different varieties of pecorino, reflective of seasonal changes and the unique plants and herbs scattered throughout the surrounding pastureland.

view-of-tuscan-countryside-from-pienza.jpg

What next?

Well, that’s a start. You could then return home ready to schmooze it up with your bottiglie di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, to be authentically complimented by the savoury taste of 100% ewes’ milk Pecorino Toscano. Or you could carry on adventuring. Or even better, stay in Tuscany forever. I know I could…

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Has anyone ever been to Caherdaniel, Ireland?

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This blog is not an informative anecdote, but rather, a call to action. I need your help, regular readers…that I obviously have (- Hi mom!). I am embarking on my FIRST EVER trip to the glorious, green land of sexy accentsI mean to IRELAND—this weekend.

Joy! Guinness! Colin Farrell!

My friend Angela and I have decided to spend the majority of our trip in County Kerry; I have thus empowered myself with the ultimate, coy conversational tactic: “no, no it’s Carrie, spelled like Sex and the City…yes, with a ‘C’—that’s right!” (batting of eyelashes), “tee hee!”

We have also heard that Kerry is one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland; since we only have a weekend to travel, we thought it would be better to really immerse ourselves in one region instead of doing the typical “glimpse and go” bus tour of the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, Ring of Kerry, Guinness Storehouse, etc..

As we were giddily searching all of the key websites (hostelworld.com, hostels.com, discoverireland.ie, etc.) on Saturday night (I know, lame) for a cheap hostel in Killarney, I saw something that triggered a funny pang in my stomach…

You know when you are in a venue full of strangers, and you think you’ve heard your name called out by a familiar voice? Or when you spot your name on a road sign in a rural town? Or in a random obituary? (You hopefully don’t read lots of random obituaries?)

Well, I could have sworn that I saw, on a regional tourism website, an ad for…the Carriedaniel Hostel.

The Carriedaniel Hostel…in County Kerry…really? Is this for real?

A second glance: no, no it’s a tiny coastal village called Caherdaniel, located on the Ring of Kerry trail, and the hostel is called the Traveller’s Rest.

Caher Daniel…pretty damn close. That’s basically how they say my name in Kentucky: “Ca-her-eh Dahn-yawl.” (Seriously.)

We were amused. Angela even suggested that we forget Killarney and stay there—at the Travellers Rest in Caherdaniel—she really wants to see the coast.

But is the village even nice? There is minimal information posted on the Internet. One tourism website read something like: “Caherdaniel, a great place to stop and stretch your legs on the Ring of Kerry tour…” and “the village has two pubs where you can usually get hot meals…” (usually?).

And my favorite, which came up on an Irish astronomy website after a few random Google searches:

“…the darkest skies I have ever seen are down near a place called Caherdaniel on the Kenmare Peninsula in County Kerry…”

But does the daytime scenery of Caherdaniel counterbalance the dearth of food, electricity and human activity? Do we need to pack our own peanut butter sandwiches, bottled water, flashlights, etc.?

This is where I need your advice, Ireland-savvy readers: should we stick to the high roads or venture into obscurity?

Who knows Caherdaniel?

Insight + local knowledge much appreciated.

Email: carriesblog@googlemail.com

Thanks!
Carrie (and Angela)

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Exploring THE HEATH

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It’s difficult to imagine, as you are pinned against the window of a stuffy underground car at 8:30 am on a Wednesday, your nose embedded in a strange man’s cheap, polyester pinstripes, that vast, wide open spaces, full of oxygen and trees actually exist in this world.

It’s also easy to forget, while you are charging through a rush hour umbrella war, what all the rain actually does (besides ruin our ‘dos) in the first place. It keeps things GREEN.

London is actually one of the greenest cities that I have seen (in leafy terms), especially in comparison to New York and Paris. Most famous for its Royal parks—Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park, etc.—it also boasts a range of commons, greens, greenways, and, perhaps most significantly, Hampstead Heath—a 791 acre (3.2 km²) expanse of woodlands, ponds, sports grounds, rolling meadows, sandy ridges and untamed foliage—all nestled just a few tube stops away from central London.

Now, with bits of spring (summer?) sunshine teasing the damp crowns of 6 million Londoners, the tubes are getting stuffier, the beer gardens are overflowing, and the green spaces are becoming increasingly…pink.

I’d been hearing so much buzz about ‘The Heath’ ever since moving to London, that I had to go up (yesterday) before the beautiful weather streak ended (today)…though tourists often find their ways to Hampstead (Parliament Hill) to catch a famous, stunning panoramic view of the city, it seems that only Londoners and extended-stay visitors (one in the same?) find the time to fully experience The Heath.

Even if you are on a short visit to London, I definitely, definitely recommend spending at least a day exploring this gorgeous expanse of green, which offers, truly, ‘something for everyone’—from pond swimming and picnicking…to lido lounging and garden dining…to cycling, kite flying and even bird watching (a skill that I am now ‘quite keen’ to master—they even offer educational sessions for beginners on some weekends).

I should quickly emphasize that the region commonly recognized as ‘The Heath’ actually contains several sub-areas and parks, each with its own ‘personality’.

Most prominent is the private, English Heritage site of Kenwood, which, with its stately mansion, intricately-manicured flower gardens, immaculately-trimmed lawns, sparkling ponds and upscale garden cafés, poses a lovely contrast to the untamed wilderness of the surrounding Heath. The Kenwood Estate and Gardens tends to attract older visitors (and nearby residents) seeking a picturesque spot for an afternoon tea and stroll. (I couldn’t help but notice that it would be a fantastic spot for a wedding. Sound good, Harry? xx).

Right…

Also worth a visit is Golders Hill Park, which, with its deer park, animal enclosures, playground equipment and huge picnicking lawns, is the perfect place for a family day out.

But, the best way to fully discover The Heath, in my opinion, is to grab a little map from the park office by the Parliament Café (southeast corner, accessible from Kentish Town Tube station) and embark on a quasi-aimless trek; the park office even has a few trails mapped out—I chose the 6 mile (9.7 km) route and inevitably strayed from the red dotted line about halfway through. But getting a bit ‘lost’, in my opinion, allows you to really experience and appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the wooded areas—to observe the lively movements of the squirrels and (as cheesy as it may sound) to listen to the songs of the birds.

Within thirty minutes, you will find it hard to believe that, just a few kilometers down the road, thousands of passengers are crammed into a stuffy, dark underground tunnel…

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DANCE Around the World…

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Everyone needs a little bit of song, dance and frivolity to break up the monotony of the daily grind. When’s the last time you let loose on the dance floor? Experimented with a hot, new set of moves?

Did you know that, for some people, the daily grind actually centers around such activity?

No, I’m not just talking about the West End cast of Joseph and the fictional plot of Hairspray.

Or the hardcore, hard drug club-goers with the glow-in-the-dark thingies…

I’m talking about groups of people all over the world—from Durban to Tjapukai—who use dance as a key form of communication in their daily lives.

This is not to say that you—the occasional club-goer—are exempt from such behavioral classifications.

Though I will be focusing on cultural immersion trips and dance excursions (below), I would like to first note few examples of cultural expression via dance that are a bit closer to home. continue reading »»

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Planning Your Bank Holiday Weekend

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Phase 1: Destination Selection + Flights.

If you’re anything like me, you probably waited until the last minute (i.e. NOW) to start planning a trip away for the upcoming May Bank Holiday (weekend of the 24th). A few of your friends probably came back suntanned and smiling from their early spring Moroccan and Andalusian getaways, thus inspiring you to embark on a fun little beachside excursion and of your own…

And then you saw the flight prices. Eek!

My mini holiday plans have become exponentially less exotic since I began researching, er, 5 days ago. I’m travelling from London with an Aussie, beach-loving friend of mine: we started out with grand ideas of jetting down to Tunisia or to the north coast of Sardinia.

But then…we saw the flight prices.

Okay, we thought, maybe somewhere a bit closer to home would be more feasible. The north coast of Spain? A bit of Basque country action in San Sebastian? Or perhaps a surfing excursion to Biarritz, France?

Still, no flights under £300. Unless, of course, we opted to depart at 6:00 am on a Wednesday from Stansted Airport, which, as many Londoners know, is a complete nightmare to fly out of—even at a decent time of day. However, the discount air carrier flights from Stansted can be worth the headache (brought on by complicated transfers, massive queues) for longer trips, planned well in advance. But for the busy professional seeking a quick weekend break: Gatwick and Heathrow all the way.

We gave in to the reality that our trip would have to be driven by the whims of the low-cost air carrier market, and we thus narrowed our destination selection to a few coastal, European cities that we deemed would pose more affordable flights: Lisbon, Bilbao, Nice, and Marseille.

Still, nothing within our budgets…with the exception of the touristy package holidays we found on lastminute.co.uk. It was time to let go of the ‘beach holiday’ idea and focus on the high-traffic ‘city break’ destinations: Amsterdam? Madrid? Rome? Paris? Prices were looking much better, but, unfortunately, one or both of us had already been to each of these cities.

Hmm…Wales? Brighton? The Isle of Wight…?

Where would we go?

“It’s too bad you’ve already been to Ireland,” we both said at the same time.

We quickly discovered that both of us had always wanted to go to Dublin! We ended up booking our flights (fist spotted on skyscanner.net – a very useful site!) with Aer Lingus, which not only offered competitive prices, but also provided flexibility in departure times and crucially, given our desire to depart post-workday, departures from Heathrow.

In conclusion, some tips for those planning budget, last minute weekend getaways from London:

- It’s not too late to book something affordable, but you can pretty much forget trips to locations that your great auntie in America hasn’t heard of.

- Unless, of course, you are willing to take a risk with an all-inclusive travel package. For this, try lastminute.co.uk.

- Use skyscanner.net to get comprehensive overview of the various airlines and available flights to your destination. Beyond Ryanair, Easy Jet, etc., there are often smaller, region-specific companies to choose from, depending on your destination.

- If you can’t possibly miss a day of work, forego the appealingly-priced flights out of Stansted, which are not worth the extra travel time, transportation costs and the massive queues that you will face upon arrival to the airport.

- Stick to the major ‘city break’ destinations – Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, Dublin, etc.—for better deals and more flexible scheduling.

Happy Planning!

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The Search for Prince Harry

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Last weekend, I took a day trip to Windsor and Eton with one obvious objective in mind: to have a royal sighting.

I know, I know—lame, BUT I’m convinced that the chivalrous young prince would have fallen for my “lost tourist,” damsel-in-distress act.

Right?

According to our chirpy Windsor Castle guide Penny, the Queen was in residence that day…

Windsor Castle Tour

But what about our favourite royal soldiers? Where was Harry hiding?

Among the guards?

Changing of Guards at WIndsor Castle

At Eton College—his old stomping ground?

Eton College, UK

We finally decided that the princes were most likely cruising down the Thames in a yacht. It was, after all, a beautiful day. So we set sail ourselves, in a classy rowing boat:

Rowing on Thames in Windsor

Rowing On Thames in Windsor

 

No luck, unfortunately—we were hoping for a royal rescue when we crashed into the bank (Twice! Oops!)—but I still have high hopes. That’s why I am leaving this blog open for responses and comments.

Harry: next time you’re in London, I should be free for a drink. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights are pretty good for me. I’m also up for the weekend countryside adventure…but I’ll let you decide.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Carrie x

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My New Favourite Sunny Day Pub…

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I spent the last Bank Holiday Weekend exploring the sights and surrounds of a delightfully sunny London.My adventure began on Saturday morning, when, like 80% of the tourists in the city, I ventured to Notting Hill in hopes of perusing the famous Portobello Road Market (which only happens on Saturday mornings). Full of antiques, jewelry, scarves, knick knacks, gizmos and gadgets, the market is one of my favourite things to do in London—it’s the perfect place browse and shop …to admire colorful buildings and quaint cafes. But the crowds were just a bit too much for me last weekend; I was in the mood for something a bit more relaxing…

My friends and I thus decided to venture further west, away from the bustling markets and tourist sites…and south, towards the river! It was time for a Saturday afternoon pub jaunt.

Pimms, lemonade and lager…yes, please!

We arrived at what immediately became my new, favourite afternoon watering hole: the Old Ship, which is situated along the Thames, near Ravenscourt Park tube station.The delightful little pub seems to have more outdoor seating than any other pub in London, namely because its happy customers tend to sprawl out on the adjacent green:

Old Ship Pub-goers relaxing on green.

The Old Ship Pub in London

And along the riverside wall:

Old Ship Pub Wall

We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of chatting and people watching over refreshing beverages. Their menu looks great; they even have an upstairs dining room, available for private parties, that opens out onto a balcony.

Thank you, Old Ship—we will be back!

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A Lake I LOVE

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I’m an eternal beach girl. Give me a list of vacation choices, and I’ll always opt for sun, sand and turquoise blue over the mountain cabin or the big city jaunt.

And lakes? Who needs ‘em. They’re always murky, always still—lakes are perfect hiding places for sneaky snakes and nasty crocodiles, as far as I’m concerned. And the ones that are clean/clear are usually freezing 11.5 months a year.

What can you even do in a lake? Ok, watersports, fine. Again, there is the lurking creature issue. Sunbathe? Sometimes, if you find a nice muddy patch or a big, hard rock to sit on.

Soft, fine sand + warm sunshine + gentle, crashing waves = my idea of relaxation.This had always been my rationale until just over 3 years ago, when my friends convinced me to take a weekend trip to Lake Como on the northern border of Italy. I wasn’t really into it—I wanted to go to Amalfi. “But Carrie, George Clooney has a house by Lake Como!” Oh, well why didn’t you say something sooner? Sadly, I was sold.

I was in love upon arrival, and not just with George. The Lake Como region is, by far, one of the most beautiful patches of natural scenery in Italy. My experience there remains one of the most serene and invigorating that I have ever had.

Lake Como and flowers

I was traveling with 5 girls—that’s usually a recipe for disaster! But, I don’t know, maybe it was something in the mountain air; we had one amazing adventure.

Not only is the shimmering lake simply stunning, but it is surrounded by quaint, romantic, colorful little villages—we visited Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio—which are set off by magnificent views of the Swiss Alps.We spent our time hiking:

Hiking in Lake Como

Exploring:

Hiking in Lake Como

Rock gathering (there were some amazing pieces of worn, smooth and colorful glass nestled in the pebbly beaches):

Managgio, Lake Como, Italy

Discovering the charming little towns (here is Varenna):

 

Varenna, Italy on coast of Lake Como

And we even went kayaking:

Kayaking at dusk on Lake Como

No lake monsters, but the water was, indeed, freezing.So we obviously had to warm ourselves up on a lakeside village bar crawl (I’ll withhold the photographic evidence…)

So maybe the entire trip wasn’t exactly “serene,” per se. But overall, it was an active, relaxing, and, importantly, affordable weekend. (If you do decide to travel with a group, I recommend the Ostello Menaggio. Great rates and cheap kayak rentals.)

In conclusion, Il Lago di Como é piú bello di George Clooney.

Ciao, grazie! :)

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Nice, France – Born Again: November 24th, 2007

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The sunny city of Nice, on the southern coast of France, inaugurated its new urban transport channel – a flashy 8.7 km electric tramway line, on Nov 24th, 2007. You can see an evocative video of the opening ceremony (10 MB) on the Nice city hall website.

But there is much more behind this event that justifies such a Hollywood-esque excitement and celebration: Nice has changed its skin; the dark years are over.

A two minute history of Nice and the French Riviera

The preferred sea resort of wealthy British and Russian aristocrats in the 19th century, Nice and the Cote d’Azur region, also known internationally as the French Riviera, opened up to mass tourism in the 50′s and 60′s, thanks to French and international movie stars flocking to its picturesque villages, including St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Villefranche, while famous artists such as Pablo Picasso found their hideouts up in the hills of Vallauris, St Paul de Vence or Mougins.

The microstate of Monaco and princess Grace Kelly also contributed to the glamorous image of the area – in ’70s and ’80s, the masses invaded. Overcrowded beaches, large cement hotels, huge night clubs, casinos and France’s second largest airport after Paris saw the light, and a high-volume tourism economy made many small and big riches.

The 90′s, however, brought on signs of a flattening fame. Celebrities kept finding new hidden and fashionable destinations and only showed up for special events such as the Cannes Film Festival or the Monaco Grand Prix. Cultural tourists escaped the greasy summer beaches; young, hip travelers preferred the stylish Ibiza. Foodies looked for authentic French gastronomic experiences and thus discovered the southwestern regions of Perigord or Gironde, and ventured to various countryside regions in Italy (ok, not so French, but great food is great food after all).

Nevertheless, the fantastic weather (340+ sunny days per year) and scenic landscapes kept attracting an international and wealthy expat community, thanks also to the tech park of Sophia Antipolis, where leading multinationals such as IBM, Texas, Accenture, and Amadeus set up R&D or European headquarters.

But nothing stopped the decline of the city of Nice. Overpriced hotels and restaurants – not restyled since the 60′s – along with crime, prostitution, corruption, a clogged traffic infrastructure…the population saw it all. The new century saw a dark, old, dirty and boring summer destination on the decline. The number of hotel rooms sold fell by 15-20% between 2000 and 2004.

A destination reborn

Following the global travel recession of 2001, the local politicians came to the conclusion that something different had to be done. They managed to agree and invest in a cross-city development plan targeted at improving infrastructure and mobility in the area.

The plan included:

- A new super modern airport terminal and favorable conditions to attract low-cost carriers from all European cities

- The redesign of Nice’s inner city highway enabling easier morning/evening commuting.

- The redesign of the famous “Promenade des Anglais” seafront with less parking spaces and an enlarged pathway, ideal for beach front jogging or inline skating.

- The complete “pedestrianization” of the historical old city center and nearby areas.

- The cleaning up of all beaches with dedicated areas for volleyball, as well as sandboxes for babies (the rest of the beaches are pebbly), and reasonable alternance of free and paid-service beaches.

- And, of course, the grand opening of the high-tech electric tramway, crossing all key areas of the city of Nice, from the rail station to the shopping district, the old town, the bus station and the seafront.

All of these works didn’t come for free. Construction works made the life of the Nicois miserable, created endless traffic jams, opened the door to more political corruption, and took years longer than originally planned.

Paradoxically, this was exactly what was needed, in evolutionary terms, to get rid of the weakest individuals of the population.Many small business owners who made their money without much effort in the previous decades decided to give up and retire, scared by the further loss of business due to all the ongoing works. Small restaurants, shops, hotels and entire shopping centers have been progressively taken over, shut down and refurbished by young and global-savvy teams, importing design trends and ideas from the world’s leading capitals. In particular, a prominent gay community elected Nice as a favorite trendy and fashionable European hotspot.

The city unveiled its new look on Nov 24th, 2007, with a grand ceremony to welcome the new tramway.

This is the first of several post about things to do in Nice, France. I live there (here),as I write.You can easily subscribe to the feed alerts by clicking the big bad orange square button below (or on top of the page), and feel free to ask questions while I’m still a Nicois.

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