Published November/December 2012

Part One: Around the Mediterranean in 12 Days

Cruising to Saint-Tropez, Pisa, Florence, and Rome offers adventures among ancient architecture, breathtaking coastal views, and a taste of local tradition

BYJill Schildhouse
Before my friend and I left U.S. soil this past Memorial Day weekend, we agreed to a master plan: Though Rome wasn’t built in a day, we were sure going to try and see it in about 11 hours. The same with our stop in Saint-Tropez. And Sorrento. And Dubrovnik. And Venice. And so on. That’s right, we were embarking on a 12-day cruise around the Mediterranean, where we had but a single day in most ports. There was no way we were going to miss seeing the most famous of landmarks, but we also wanted to eat and drink in the culture, discover off-the-grid hotspots, and mingle with the locals. And with that common goal, an aggressive, yet well-planned itinerary, and comfortable shoes, off we went. 
Nice, France
We land in Nice, France, mid-afternoon on a Sunday. After checking into the Quality Suites Nice Excellior — just off the famous Promenade des Anglais walkway, along the Côte D’Azur (aka, French Riviera) — we immediately set out to explore the area. We cross the busy street to the beach, and I stop to pick up a few of the millions of large smooth pebbles where I had expected sand. As we stare out at the brilliant blue Mediterranean Sea stretching to meet the horizon, taking in our fill of refreshing ocean air after such a long flight, we decide it’s time to eat.
At a restaurant around the corner from our hotel, Brasserie Le Magnan, we order a cheese platter served with fresh bread, wine, and gambas Colombo (prawns). From our window seats, we enjoy watching person after person walk purposefully out of the neighboring bakery with a hot baguette tucked under his or her arm. While it appears to be dinnertime for the locals, it’s bedtime for us.
The next day, we walk along the three-mile palm-lined Promenade des Anglais — past hotels, restaurants, and shops — to Old Town Nice. Having slept through breakfast, we decide a large lunch is in order. With so many sidewalk cafés to choose from, we find ourselves leering at other diners’ plates looking for clues. A content-looking woman at La Favola is dining on an enormous bowl of spaghetti with mussels, clams, prawns, and calamari in a tomato broth, and 20 minutes later, my own delicious portion is placed before me.
After lunch, we wander through the narrow streets crowded with an open-air antiques market, and discover Granny’s Crepe Café. We each order a Nutella-filled crepe with Chantilly crème and watch locals and tourists alike meander by. Back near the hotel later that evening, we have a light dinner of traditional Niçoise salads and steaming hot bread, and call it an early evening.
Saint-Tropez, France
It’s time to board the Azamara Club Cruises’ Quest — a small 694-passenger ship lauded for its ability to reach hidden corners of the world and dock overnight in ports that larger ships cannot — which will be our luxurious home away from home for the next 12 nights. A few hours after we set sail, we anchor in Saint-Tropez, France, and set out for a little nighttime exploration.
Before we’re even off the pier of the yacht-lined harbor that looks like something you’d see in a French film, we literally walk onto an active movie set. Lights, cameras, microphones, a director, actors, and extras fill the pier area and we quickly get behind the ropes to watch a scene being filmed on the back of one of the lavish yachts.
The next day, we’re off the ship early, eager to do some city exploration on our own before we join a guided afternoon countryside tour. We walk around the narrow streets of the Vieux Port and duck in and out of jewelry, clothing, perfume, and art shops. At lunchtime, we find an open-air two-story café across from the town’s square where I have the lunch du jour, chicken and potatoes, and my friend satisfies her craving for real French fries.
Joining our tour group, we take a winding bus ride up to “the most beautiful village of France,” Gassin. Translated to Guardia Sinus, or the guardian of the gulf, Gassin sits 200 meters (a little more than 650 feet) high, perched on a rock in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in Southeastern France, and served as a medieval watchtower. Today’s misty weather somewhat clouds this spot’s famous panoramic view of the Saint-Tropez peninsula, and our guide says that on a clear winter’s day, we could see the snowcapped Alps. With olive and lotus trees, parasol pines, and blooming oleander lining our path, we take a fragrant walk through the cobbled streets of this charming Provençal village, learning the history of the well-preserved stone houses. Each member of our group takes a self-conscious shot at squeezing through the L’Androuno passage, considered to be the world’s narrowest street, and few succeed.
We then drive to nearby Ramatuelle, another medieval village built on a hill to defend itself against enemies. Sitting above the famous Pampelonne beach, we take a guided walking tour of the old streets that contain houses from the 17th century and the restored 16th century Church of Notre Dame. The village, which is in the shape of a spiral leading to the central square (Elm Square), is filled with arts and crafts shops featuring olive soaps adorned with cute cicada emblems (the bug responsible for the rhythmic song you hear throughout summer) and local spices (true Herbes de Provence).  
Market in Nice, France
Market in Nice, France
Saint-Tropez, France
Saint-Tropez, France