By Keli Sim-DeRitis
It was February 2008 and we had arrived on the French Riviera and were about to begin our quest for some new products to add to our French Pottery Collection at www.poggibonsigifts.com. We are searching for one artist in particular whom we had heard lived in Grasse, the fragrance capital of the world. Ah, the Riviera home to beautiful hand-painted pottery breath-taking views, gorgeous architecture, glamorous movie stars, and beautiful beaches warmed by the Mediterranean sun…except, we found, not in February.
We were trying to be thrifty this trip because the exchange rate was the highest it’s ever been (about $1.50 for every Euro) so we spent some extra time trying to find an economical hotel. We visited several three-star inns in Grasse which were very charming but out of our budget, finally we decided on Hotel Panorama. It had never been charming but appeared to be clean and functional and it was a deal, we thought, at 70 Euros a night with free parking the little desk clerk assured us. As it turned out Hotel Panorama was a two-star dump and the “free parking” was only free at the public lot across the street until 8 the next morning when we would have to feed the meter in order to keep the car from being towed.
We checked in, got our room key and tried to cram our multitude of bags into the tiny elevator, I got in the elevator first and pulled my bags in behind me, it was clear that Michelle and her bags wouldn’t fit so we would have to go up separately. I managed to get myself and all the bags out of the elevator and up the hall to the room.
The room key fit into the lock, but as hard as I pushed and jiggled and pulled, the door wouldn’t budge. Not only didn’t the key open the door, but it got stuck in the lock and I couldn’t get it out. Michelle arrived and took her turn at trying the lock. She pushed and jiggled and pulled and swore, but neither the key nor the door would move. “What do we do now? It can’t be that difficult, we’re idiots!” she raged. I ran down the stairs to summon the little desk clerk who arrived and tried to impress us with his pushing and jiggling and pulling–he didn’t swear but he was thinking bad thoughts–with the same result. He asked us, “What went on here?” I just shrugged my shoulders and tried to look innocent.
We were moved to a room on an upper floor. After more schlepping of bags we were moved to a cold, stark little room on an upper floor. We were greeted by two lumpy little beds, garish wallpaper and paint peeling from the ceiling (a common theme among our hotels this trip). Michelle immediately tried to turn up all the wall heaters, but they were tamper-proof and wouldn’t move. She didn’t want to risk another incident so she put on all her clothes and huddled under the covers while I searched the internet on our laptop—at least our little dump had WiFi– to plan our itinerary for the next day.
When we checked in we had ordered a 7am wake-up call and breakfast delivered to our room at 8, but since we had changed rooms because of the key incident, our wake-up call never arrived. We woke with a start at 7:45 and Michelle dashed out to pay for parking before the 8am deadline. The coffee was a little cold when she rescued our breakfast on her way back because, of course, it had been delivered to the wrong room. On the good side, the shower was warm and the croissants were very tasty. As we left we asked the desk clerk about ceramic studios in Grasse, she didn’t know of any. This was not a good start for our morning.
Our plan for this day was to explore Vallauris a famous pottery center, just half an hour from Grasse. Pablo Picasso lived here for many years and helped to revitalize the local ceramic industry. We had ordered ceramics from one studio here and were looking for others. As we left Grasse it started to rain. We’re from Seattle so a little rain is not a deterrent. We made an ever-so-slight detour–30 miles or so–through Monaco (too much chatting and not enough navigating). Driving on the winding roads of the French Riviera is stressful, the Med is a long way down and the breathtaking views take away your concentration…even in the pouring rain. Thankfully the French are polite drivers unlike the Italians who would have surely driven us off the road.
I was very impressed that Michelle didn’t lose her cool when we pulled into a “cash or pass-card only” entrance to the A8. We didn’t have any change because we had used it all in the “free parking” lot at the Hotel Panorama, we tried to use our credit card multiple times but it didn’t work, we later learned that some French auto-pay machines can’t recognize U.S. credit cards because of the little metallic bird logo which interferes with the electronic transaction somehow. There was a long line of cars behind us so we couldn’t back up. Michelle had to use the emergency buzzer and in halting French summon the attendant who gave us change for a 5 Euro bill so we could get through. There was much honking and clapping behind us. This day was getting better and better!
By the time we reached Vallauris it was pouring buckets complete with flashing lightening and rolling thunder. The longest thunder roll we had ever heard rattled the car windows. We stepped out into a virtual flash flood. Water was gushing up out of man-hole covers and cascading down the streets like rivers. We had one umbrella between us and we sloshed our way down the flooded sidewalks. Most of the stores were closed with their awnings rolled up still we splashed our way along peering in at the beautiful ceramics through the dark shop windows.
We eventually escaped into a cafe and ordered cappuccinos and chocolate crepes. We sat down at a little booth, removed our wet coats and watched it pour outside. The waiter brought us our delightfully warm coffee and crepes and plunked an entire jar of Nutella down on the table between us. We lathered our crepes liberally with the gooey goodness and sipped our cappuccinos which were made with Illy Caffe–our favorite! We were still slightly damp but warm and happy and we hated to leave, but the day was wasting and we had ceramics to find.
As we dashed out of the café it hardly seemed possible, but the rain picked up a bit, thankfully we found our car at the car park right away which is an unusual occurrence for us. We sat in the car shivering with our noses dripping and our feet drenched, in fact, my shoes never recovered and squeaked the remainder of the trip. No ceramics for us in Vallauris, at least not today. To this day we are still searching for the illusive pottery artist of Grasse.