An Off-Season Misadventure

By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times

BORMES-LES-MIMOSAS, France ~ The honest, pathetic and irritating truth is that after devoting myself to travel the past 15 years – going far north of the Arctic circle in Sweden or to crocodile-infested waters in South Africa; staying in igloos, grass huts and tree houses; traveling by train, plane, bus, car, bike, boat plus a few four-legged animals – it turns out that I’m a total washout when it comes to taking a vacation.

Travel writing has given me freedom to roam the world, but I’m consumed with angst if my boss tells me to take time off. At the end of 2008, though, I had a use-it-or-lose-it situation with vacation time, so I took off the week after Christmas.

A friend who was spending the holidays in Southeast Asia offered to let me stay in her apartment on the French Riviera, and another French ami invited me to his house near Apt in the Luberon mountains for New Year’s Eve.

Instead of flying, which would have been prohibitively expensive, I rented a car and drove, an option that also would afford me a long, quiet journey around the beautiful upper arm of northwestern Italy and southeastern France, by way of Genoa, Monaco, Nice and St. Tropez.

At my friend’s apartment in the hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas I planned to read books and stare out the window. Hoping for an out-of-season heat wave, I even packed my bathing suit.

To say I never needed the Speedo is an understatement. The vacation didn’t work out quite as I had hoped, and I keep asking myself why. Why isn’t every trip an idyll?

Things started out well enough, except that I put a dent in the car before I got out of the rental-car company’s underground parking structure. I gnashed my teeth, knowing that even though I was fully insured, I would pay for the damage in taunts from colleagues who insist I’m a bad driver. I say you can’t make an omelet without bending a few fenders.

As soon as I got out of rainy Rome, I saw snow on the Apennines. After about an hour on the road, I took a quick detour through the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. I found a beautiful blue tray in a souvenir shop for my friend who was lending me the apartment in Bormes. I never visit someone without bringing a gift and am astonished when my guests fail to think of it.

Other things that annoy me: rental cars that smell like dirty ashtrays, European pop music on the radio and impatient people who honk their horns at filling stations just because it takes me awhile to find the gas tank.

Over lunch at a restaurant in Sestri Levante on the Ligurian Coast, I realized I was getting cranky in my old age. Sestri Levante, where I had stayed 15 years earlier on a walking tour of the Cinque Terre, didn’t seem as appealing as I recalled, partly because the cook was stingy with the clams in my spaghetti alle vongole and the sky was overcast.

The A10 Autostrada takes a giant curve inland around the Riviera di Levante, but views of the azure Mediterranean are scant until you reach Genoa. When I finally saw the sea that day, it was the drab gray color of Hudson Bay. That was just as well, because I needed to keep my eyes on the road as the A10 passed through countless narrow tunnels and crossed hair-raising viaducts on its way to the French border. On top of that, signs warned of winds so strong that campers were advised to pull over. Every so often a blast hit my tin-can-size Fiat, knocking it toward the median like a dust bunny flying in the wake of a broom.

My nerves were shot by the time I stopped for the night in Bordighera, a pleasant, low-key Italian beach town where I had reservations at the Hotel Villa Elisa, whose Web site described it as Victorian. England’s long-lived dowager queen was a fan of the Riviera, and the hotel has an unmistakably stuffy British air.

There was a pecking order at dinner in the restaurant: Return guests got the best tables by the windows; I sat by the door to the kitchen. I was surprised to find a full house, chiefly starched middle-age couples and a few families with well-behaved children dressed in their Christmas best.

The next morning there was time to walk along the Bordighera beachfront promenade, separated from the business district by a train track. The wind had died down, but it was frigid and people were having a hard time sunbathing in mufflers.

Traveling in the off-season usually saves money and helps you avoid crowds, but you can’t count on the weather, which can make or break a trip.

Back on the road, I noted that, apart from language, the differences between the French and Italian rivieras are minimal, although once you cross the border it’s evident that les Francais are mighty proud of their country. Road signs identify seemingly every land form, although many of them wouldn’t rate a name, much less a mention, on US expressways.

Around noon I exited the highway, heading south over the Massif des Maures to ritzy St. Tropez. Its fabled charms had escaped me on an earlier visit, but west of town a delightful coast road leads past vineyards, olive groves, marinas, gated estates and seaside villages, including Cavalaire-sur-Mer and Cabasson. This was new territory for me: the real Cote d’Azur, where the rich and famous come for privacy, not to see and be seen.

Bormes overlooks the low-lying Iles d’Hyeres and a peninsula tipped by the Fort de Bregancon on an almost-island, connected to the mainland by a pier. Since 1968 Bregancon has been the summer retreat of French presidents from Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy, while common folk have settled in the area around the nearby port and waterfront town of Le Lavandou.

From there a road climbs to the old village of Bormes, its hillside houses painted makeup-kit colors. Cars aren’t allowed in the center, so I parked in a lot and quickly found the Cafe du Progres, where I downed an espresso and called my friend’s cleaning woman, who had the apartment key.

She sent her teenage daughter to meet me at my friend’s place, which occupies the first floor of a house on a narrow, quaintly cobbled street. The girl unlocked the door to a small, enchanting suite of rooms decorated by my artist friend. While she turned on the electricity, I nosed around, finding a salon with a small fireplace and deep-cushioned settee, pretty bedroom, light-filled kitchen, dining room and bath. There were casement windows with wide views of the coast and green shutters to batten down when the winds buffeted the palm trees.

The apartment lacked nothing, except, it gradually dawned on me, heat. When I asked the girl to show me the thermostat, she pointed out a small electric space heater. Silly me. Who needs central heat on the French Riviera?

It was almost as cold inside the apartment as outside. There was no hot water until the boiler kicked in, and the warmth-radiating range of the space heater was about 2 feet. So I bundled up and drank a few glasses of red wine at La Terrasse, a cozy restaurant near the Cafe du Progres. At a table by the fireplace I ordered a classic French meal, starting with oysters, followed by a steak, salad and cheese.

But the warmth generated by dinner quickly fled once I got back to the apartment. I put on two pairs of socks, leggings, a nightgown and sweat shirt, turned on the space heater and dove into bed, pulling the duvet tight around my neck.

The next morning the hot water worked. In the shower I decided I was still alive and able to make the best of things, beginning with buying groceries and wood for the fire.

Then I explored endearing Bormes-les-Mimosas, named for a variety of acacia with delicate yellow flowers too wise to bloom in January. I stopped in shops along winding Rue Carnot, the town museum and 18th-century Eglise St. Trophyme, on a little courtyard named for the late French President Georges Pompidou, a faithful summertime parishioner.

Toting a cheese sandwich in my lunch sack, I climbed the hill behind the village to the Chapelle Notre Dame de Constance, a rustic chapel where a plaque reads, “If you cannot appreciate the beauty of creation from here, I can only pray for you.”

Back at the apartment, I tried to take that to heart. I put on more clothes and fed log after log to the fire. I felt a little funny and had no appetite for dinner, but I figured it was the cold. I watched Out of Africa, the only DVD in the house, wishing I was in Kenya with Robert Redford, and then got violently ill. I felt worse than when I had gotten sick from eating a fish sandwich in Istanbul, Turkey, and colder than I had been on an ill-conceived spring camping trip to Alaska.

The next morning I woke up with an empty stomach knowing I had to get out of the Cote d’Azur immediately. It’s one thing to appreciate the beauty of creation and quite another to freeze to death while doing so. Fortunately, somebody must have been praying for me, because it took only two hours to drive from Bormes to my friend’s house near Apt. Passing Aix-en-Provence, I got an unexpected treat: a view of painter Cezanne’s beloved Mont St. Victoire as a storm dumped snow on its peak.

When I reached my friend’s house that afternoon, he put me right to bed and I didn’t wake up until 8pm. By then it was time to celebrate with what the French call reveillon, a fancy-dress occasion with none of the rowdiness that usually accompanies an American New Year’s Eve. There was a roaring fire in the salon, and one of the other guests had brought her elfin 7-year-old daughter, who decided my lap was the best seat in the house. We drank excellent Champagne, and my appetite had returned, thankfully, because the midnight buffet featured foie gras.

It is, I think, much better to stay at a friend’s place when the friend is there. Things looked up as I started to feel better, a truth about travel I often forget. Most of us are ruled by feelings, so a stomachache or grim weather can make any paradise seem like hell.

I had a fine time driving back to Rome two days later, stopping for the night at a hotel overlooking beautiful Portofino. Along the way I decided that 2008 had not been a stellar year but that it was over. Soon there would be another spring and more trips to take, which I vowed to plan better than my little misadventure on the French Riviera. Sometimes fly-by-night travel exceeds expectations, but in general a trip is what you put into it.

All I wanted to do was sleep in my own bed. When I rounded the Coliseum near my apartment, my heavy heart soared, a feeling worth all the week’s travails. I hate to admit it, but one of the main joys of travel is making you miss home.

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