It’s a new era of TheMovieMind.com and what better way to set it off then by trying out a brand new feature called, “I wanted to write an update of my trip to France & Italy for my boys and family and didn’t have enough time to write a new movie/sports article so figured I would use the trip recap as a new post on the site”, otherwise known as, “The Movie Mind Abroad”. I’d like to think it’s just picking up on the groundwork I laid 4 years ago on my journey to Prefontaine’s hometown. Damn I plan well.
For a quick backstory, my close bud and former college roommate (Keys) was tying the knot in France so there was no better excuse for the The Movie Mind to make the trek abroad than this one. After all, Keys and I had collectively put up an impressive resume in our years living together, including:
- Assembling the Greatest Madden football team ever called the Eugene Felons (we were able to find a glitch in the system where a player could be named All-Pro at multiple positions; I think the created players in our likenesses earned the nod for at least 4 positions each)
- Completed a grueling First (and Last) Annual Wok n’ Du Bikeathon by deciding one [late] night to ride our bikes after having the breakfast of champions from a Chinese restaurant in CT and finishing up having dinner at the holy grail of Chinese restaurants, Chengdu 46. Miles biked: 60+. Longest miles biked prior to that trip: 3. Encounters with the law: 1. Distance we were able to walk the following day: 0. Greatest Peking duck you’ve ever had in your freakin’ life: Priceless.
- Created the most successful fictional company ever assembled in the world [in the business category of making mix CDs and marketing them as a party on a disc yet not having any sales because you care too much about the “craft”] called Hottish Productions.
- Pioneered riding bicycles to a bar so that we were being responsible and not drinking and driving yet only to find out courtesy of the police that apparently drinking while biking is an actual serious offense and not something to laugh about.
- Were known as the “Famous Pizza Men” before college ever officially started thanks to having the sheer audacity to break curfew during football training camp to order a pizza because we were friggin starving from the 10-hours of [NCAA violating] football practice that day that our nutjob coach took offense to.
- Once spent an entire 5-hour car ride playing our own version of the Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon by naming a movie, an actor in it, the character’s name, a quote, and then connecting it to another movie with a common actor and repeating approx. 1,600 times before reaching the destination.
Now that you have a better understanding of the inspiration for The Movie Mind’s pilgrimage to his partner in [alleged] crime’s wedding, I’ll get to the details.
We (now referring to Mrs. Movie Mind and me just so the story didn’t start to get weird if you still thought I was talking about Keys and me) got into Nice airport on Friday morning from a red eye the previous night. Our flight was pretty uneventful, and I literally caught 20 minutes of sleep (thanks to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which even though I am physically unable to sleep on planes still managed to knock me out briefly). We spent a couple hours walking around the beach area in Nice, which was nice.
After grabbing a quick lunch on a beachfront place, we headed to the Chateau where Keys was to tie the knot. We would be staying there for 3 nights. On our way, I received a quick indoctrination on European driving. I thought driving in Nice was tough, but at least those lanes had enough room for an actual car. Once we got off the highway heading to the Chateau, it was a road that would be the size of a 1-laner here in the US, yet it was for cars going both directions. I was almost run off the road (literally, the car was leaning and the wheels were in the dirt of the cliff right next to us) by a farm truck. I realized nobody can make fun of Jersey drivers anymore cause these people are nuts on the road. [Side note: I later wondered why they all drive so fast and dangerously after realizing that with 3 hour mid-day siesta’s, where were they so hurried off to?]
Quickly we realized that the single smartest decision I have ever made in my entire life was to buy a new GPS with world maps before the trip. We literally might still be asking for directions if not for it. It got us to the Chateau nicely, sans a very last fork in the road which led us to a random person’s house maybe 1/4 mile away from where we were supposed to be. The GPS literally directed me to drive through the vineyard between us and the Chateau. I wondered whether this was like that episode of the office where the GPS made Michael drive into the lake. Not wanting to pull a “Scott” my first day there, we decide to backtrack and take the other route of the fork. Good decision.
Upon pulling up to the entrance of the Chateau and it looks literally like a castle in a fairy tale (I know this because Mrs. Movie Mind told me it did). I literally uttered, “sweet oden’s raven” when I pulled up. It was just in the most perfect setting I’d ever seen, with a long driveway lined by trees and set amongst nothing but vineyards. We pull in and right away see Keys and the future Mrs. Keys sitting on a table outside. It’s the first time we met her in person and you’re damn straight we brought it in for the real thing.
The soon to be newlyweds were wrapping up some last minute wedding deets (things like one of Keys’ buddy’s flights was cancelled that day and he was figuring out how the hell to get him over there) so we went to the room in the chateau and explored the grounds a bit. We sat and listened to…absolutely nothing. It was so quiet, serene, and picturesque. Some more peeps started arriving and got to see Keys’ bro-ski for the first time in like 8 years. Also got to meet Future Mrs. Keys family for the first time and quickly learned they were really good peeps. It was nice to be in a completely foreign land and yet feel so welcome right off the bat. Keys hooked us up with the first of about 106 glasses of wine I would have on the trip (note: conservative estimate). We proceeded to the pool and I wasn’t scared to be the first one to jump in (actually I was quite scared and waited to make sure nobody was around). It’s pretty damn cool floating around in the pool with some vino while overlooking nothing but quietness and vineyards. Off to a great start.
That night we headed over to a villa that Mr. & Mrs. Keys had rented since they graciously invited everyone over for dinner and drinks. It was great seeing Keys’ ‘rents…haven’t seen them in like 8-years either. We hung for a while at the villa and saw lots of other peeps that I hadn’t seen in like-ok you get the point. We had excellent wine (FYI the area we were in specialized in Rose wine so that’s mostly what we had while there) and a home cooked French dinner. It was freakin delicious wine, not too sweet, and even more amazing was after drinking the equivalent of a barrel of it, I did not get a hangover. I feel like a connoisseur now that I know to order Rose wines from Cotes De Provence. After the dinner, there was a very heartfelt speech from both Keys himself and Mr. Keys. The speeches would bring on Mrs. Movie Mind saying “I just love his family!” for the 1st of merely 250 times! At this point we had both been well passed the 24-hr no sleep mark and were it not for the abundance of wine we consumed, may have passed out right there in the pool. Nonetheless we made it back to the chateau and got a good night’s sleep.
Morning of the wedding we woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. We headed out to explore some of the nearby towns to try and stay out of Key’s hair before the wedding. Side bar: I give the dude big props for hosting all the guests for basically 3 full days including leading up to and after the wedding. I don’t know how you guys feel but I know after my wedding the next day I was ready to hit the honeymoon and get the hell out of dodge as fast as possible. I give Keys credit for taking care of everyone the whole time, including for a full day after the wedding. Not easy to do.
Nonetheless, we explored 2 small towns that morning and afternoon: Cotignac and TourTour. Both towns literally required driving through the mountains to get to. Imagine it being 20 miles away yet taking an hour and a half to get to. On some of the turns the GPS made it look like we were literally doing a 180-degree turn and driving right back over where we were. If you went 6-8 inches too far the right, you literally fell off a cliff. Not kidding. Those 2 towns were absolutely gorgeous though. They were completely authentic small French towns and we were able to sit at some cafes and overlook the piazzas (I forget the French term for it already and am melding our Italy trip into there but you get the point). This was the first of many instances when I ordered something and had absolutely no idea what was coming. I know, I’m adventurous. I must say I made a strong effort to speak the lingo but I was reminded by the Mrs. that it was “New Jersey-French”. I’m not sure but I don’t think that was a compliment. Every time I tried to say “merci (medrrrr-seee)”, it came out a lot more like “say mercy motha-f’er!!” Still I tried, but every time I sought to bring in the French accent, it kept sounding to me like everything I said was “I surrender”. I kid I kid!!! I think this might be a dynamite time to mention that I honestly thought the French people were extremely courteous, nice, helpful, and just cool peeps. Basically, not at all like you hear them spoken about in America and maybe that’s because most Americans are a-holes. I don’t know, could be either. I don’t really think all ‘Marcans are a-holes but I do think we sometimes seem shocked that other places do things differently than we do. I’m guilty of that at times but I’ve found things go a lot smoother if you adapt a little bit. In reality though, I think some of it had to do with the fact that we were fairly remote and not in the big cities (ie. Paris) so these were genuine, kind, real people. Look at it like the midwest of France, only much, much nicer looking (I still love ya KC).
We explored both Cotignac and TourTour, looked at the amazing ancient buildings and architecture (I can be cultured when I want to be), took lots of pics, had some amazing food (hello steak and frites!) and cheap delicious wine, and headed back to the chateau. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that when we sat at a cafe in Cotignac (our first stop) that the Mrs. actually started tearing up. She was literally that happy about sitting there since she always wanted a very “authentic” trip like this. Very cool.
Upon getting back to the chateau, we laid out by the pool, had some more wine (I could actually enjoy some now since I didn’t have to worry about wandering 6 inches too far on the road and dropping off a cliff), and got ready for the wedding. Oh yeah there’s one small detail about pulling back up to the chateau when we got back there: there was a red-carpet laid out about 300-feet long all on the dirt driveway leading up to the entrance. I told Keys it was about time he recognized there was some American royalty in the house and that he didn’t have to go to those lengths for me but I still appreciated it. It was at this point that I jokingly wondered if he would be riding up the red carpet on a white horse. Ok I wasn’t joking.
Once it was time for the wedding, we got all dolled up (that’s Butler NJ-speak for a suit) and headed out there. We had a little [more] wine, marveled at the gorgeous setup of the wedding (2 nice flower pillars with the red carpet behind them and vineyards and rolling hills in the background), and soaked it all in. The ceremony was really touching and they meshed the 2 different cultures and religions together beautifully. I was 1 seamless ceremony with 2 traditions, and not the other way around. The bride’s dress was absolutely beautiful (this is not to say I am a dress aficionado by any stretch. In fact, I think all brides’ dresses are beautiful so my opinion may not carry a lot of weight here. However, my wife and the other ladies she made friends with all gushed about it so I think that gives it a lot more credence then my own word). Another side note: I thought the pastor did a very nice job with the whole thing. He had a very sincere speech/homily and was able to speak some parts in German so both families could understand it. But Keys, I hope you did notice that the dude was a dead ringer for John Kruk. Really, I thought you flew in the Krukster from the Baseball Tonight set in Bristol for the wedding. At least he must have been some long lost relative.
The wedding ceremony transitioned to a gorgeous reception with seating set up in the outdoor courtyard of the Chateau. There was a ton of dancing, great food, and plenty of laughs and smiles all around. It’s really amazing how you can tell when two people are genuinely so happy and their families feel the same way. It really just makes the whole event. Another cool thing about European weddings is that they do not shut down at 11pm or midnight like over here. I think we made it to about 2am and were being mocked for “turning in early”. Basically I had gotten less sleep in 2 days than since senior year in college when we’d go right from Foxwoods to 8am religious studies class and I was being mocked for it!
The next morning was a nice brunch at the chateau with everyone hanging around, relaxing, and telling stories from the night before. I was thrilled to be able to see my boy Keys again and spend some time more with him and his new bride. After the brunch, we decided to take a quick trip to Saint Tropez and see the beautiful beach and town. I had mentioned that the roads heading to TourTour were bad, but it’s because I hadn’t yet seen these roads. When I say we were driving through the mountains, man I mean we drove through mountains. Over them, around them, under them…this was crazy driving. The weather wasn’t the best that day so we didn’t get the full effect of the town but you could still get a good feel for it. It’s a really gorgeous town on the waterfront with some big boats in the harbor and tons of shopping to do. Basically, you need to be a player to roll there in style so needless to say I was not rolling in style.
When we left the chateau and region on Monday morning, Keys and his new bride finally got to head out to Saint Tropez for their relaxing honeymoon. While he did provide me with in-depth details of their honeymoon week, I swore I wouldn’t disclose them in this article since some women and children might be reading it (just kidding Mrs. Keys). We ended up saying our good byes to head out on the rest of our journey. It was an amazing 3 days in an awesome location, celebrating a great occasion with a kickass party. By the way, did I mention that Keys slyly dropped that “Brad & Angelina” were staying in the chateau behind where we were? The funniest thing is that he’s a very humble guy and not a name dropper at all so it just sounded funny when he said it, but at the same time I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them drop in on the wedding with gift in hand for the couple. Much to my Mrs.’ Dismay, it didn’t happen (not sure if she wanted to meet Brad or call Angelina a home wrecker more though).
The day we left the chateau was our busiest day of the trip and even though it was hectic, it was still a blast. We drove to Cannes and I stood on the red carpeted steps where the Film Festival is held each year (2 red carpets in one trip…not too shabby). I also vowed to return as an actual invited guest one day. It also needs to be said that if anybody is going to the South of France – you must stop in Cannes. It’s got an authentic small French town feel, yet also the presence of a big city. Oh yeah, and it sits on a gorgeous beach.
After spending a few hours in Cannes and enjoying every minute of it, we headed off to the mecca of excess known as Monaco. For someone who’s a middling player in low-level carnie casino games that likes to fashion himself as a gambler such as me, it was paradise. I marched right into Casino Monte Carlo like I owned the place and actually left closer to owning it then when I walked in. I sat down with 100 EU and plopped it down on the blackjack “tourist table”. I call it that because when you go in there’s an open gambling room anyone can play in. Then there’s a room behind that you need to pay an entry fee to get into. Then there’s yet another room behind that which I’m pretty sure you must own at least a small country to get into. Needless to say I only made it into room #1. Nonetheless, it took me all of 30 minutes to double up precisely (plus a 5 EU chip for a souvenir. Not too shabby.
Couple of notes for those of you interested in checking out the casino there…first of all, it’s not Vegas. I’m sure you knew this already but it’s 1000x more reserved there and so sitting at the tables sounded like you were at a funeral. Personally, I like some rowdiness so it was hard to get the adrenaline pumping too much. Second, they play blackjack differently. It took me a few hands to figure out what the hell was going on but basically the dealer does not take his 2ndcard until everyone around the table takes the hits they want. Therefore, it’s hard to say when you take a dealer’s bust card because it’s actually 2 more cards away. Just a little tidbit in case you play there. I’m pretty sure the Prince of Monaco just decides there when he feels like taking your money anyway, win or lose.
Also, remember when Rodney Dangerfield said to Smails in Caddyshack, “My dingy is bigger than your whole boat”? Well, let’s just says some of the boats there had life-rafts bigger than even Dangerfield’s boat. Chris Rock once said, there’s wealthy, and then there’s rich. Let’s just say in Monaco, the guy who owns the $500k Rolls Royce Phantom convertible with custom teak wood that sits directly out front of the casino is merely wealthy. The guy with the 300’ yacht that looks like a Celebrity cruise-liner with a helipad on it parked behind the casino…well I suppose he’s rich.
One more note about the casino…when walking in they asked me to take off my hat. Now normally I turn right around whenever I’m asked to do that, but it being Monaco and Casino Monte Carlo and all, I happily obliged. But let it be known that next time I’m at a place in NYC with a bunch of wannabe’s, hipsters, and trust-fund babies/hedge fund guys, and they ask me to take off my hat, I will politely respond that I take my hat off to go inside Casino Monte Carlo in Monaco, not some rat-fest bar with pee stains on the floor.
Moving on from Monaco we headed off to San Remo, a small beach town across the border of France. I won’t bore you with the details of having to return a rental car in the country you rented it to avoid paying a ridiculous fee, but let’s just say I would have needed to stay in the casino another 4 hours to cover the cost. Instead, we dropped the rental car off in Menton, France and then train & cabbed it to San Remo from there.
Once we got to San Remo we were exhausted but had a nice little dinner at a very delicious and authentic restaurant. I had my first of many Caprese salads which was the best one I ever had (up to that point). The thing was, each one I had after it was even better. I had also made a crucial decision to avoid eating any pasta of any kind while in France as a way of saving it up for Italy. Man did I sure make up for it. Having fresh pasta each night with delicious homemade ragus is probably one of the most incredible things you could experience.
After spending the morning laying out on the beach in San Remo, we headed off to the next stop, Lucca. This was the longest shot of driving and I sure got a good taste of the Italian drivers at this point. I had been warned by many people at the wedding that it would be a tough go because Italian drivers were nuts, but I have to say it wasn’t that bad (caveat: until I got to Rome, but more on that later). We were finally doing some highway driving and even though I sure felt like I was flying, people kept passing by me like I wasn’t even moving. It is probably worth noting that when we picked up the new rental car in San Remo it was a manual, which is something I probably hadn’t driven in over a decade. Some nifty maneuvering and a burnt clutch later, I managed to get the hang of it.
We arrived in Lucca which is sort of the start of the Tuscany region and let me tell you, this place was literally unbelievable. I would say that anyone heading to that region of Italy MUST stop and spend some time in Lucca. It could just be a day or 2, but it is completely worth it. I had really wanted to go to Parma but it was too far out of the way of our path. Also, I only wanted to go there because it sounded cool when I read Playing for Pizza by John Grisham. But everything that Grisham illustrated in his novel literally came to life in Lucca. It was everything I imagined that Parma was, only in a different spot.
After an enjoyable day in Lucca, walking the cobblestone streets, sipping wine in a couple of piazzas and enjoying some meats and cheeses, we headed off to our official “Tuscan retreat” in San Quirico d’Orcia. It’s a very small town situated roughly between Siena and Montelpulciano amidst gorgeous rolling hills covered in vineyards and olive trees. You couldn’t see 100 yds without looking at one of the two. It was a very quiet town with a sort of medieval feel. We used it as our home base in Tuscany in order to go out and explore form there. Thankfully we were also able to get a bit of R&R here as well.
We took a nice day trip to some wineries in Montalcino and got to see the Toscano country-side. Since we were kind of winging it, we’d drive along the main areas where the wineries were and just pull into any we saw that looked nice. I’m sure all the wine-snobs out there are thumbing their nose at that approach, but we quickly found that no matter where we stopped, we weren’t disappointed. We essentially received private tastings because we stopped at a number of places that were small and nobody else was there at the time. We were schooled in the region and history, with some places being passed down from generations in the 1700’s. We also had our fair share of tastings of the particular variety of wine the region is known worldwide for, the Brunello di Montalcino. These are some of the best red wines I’ve ever had. These wines are highly regulated to ensure any wine with this label meets certain standards (made with the Sangiovese grape), and while they are a deep dark color they are so utterly smooth and light.
Now, you might be as smart as we were and tried to run out to your local wine store and pick up a few bottles for dinner. The problem is, we had a bottle at a restaurant (keep in mind restaurant markups) for 18 EU and then looked for that specific bottle here at home. When we had to go into the “special” room at the wine shop I knew we were in trouble: $130 retail (look for an Altesino Brunello di Montalcino). That’s at least a $250 bottle at a restaurant. Needless to say, we won’t be enjoying those again anytime soon.
At this point you may be wondering, who the hell is this clown that hi-jacked The Movie Mind’s site and wrote about fancy-schmancy wines and rolling hills in Tuscany. Well as my good friend T.J. McCabe said in S.W.A.T., “I may work in the mud, but I certainly like to play in the clouds.”
Once we left San Quirico it was time for our final destination, Rome. It should also be noted that at this time I had officially had my fill of delicious wine and was looking for a good Italian beer to go along with pizza.
Now I had mentioned that the driving in Rome was less than, shall I say, civil? It was literally impossible to drive in that city because you had 10,000 little moto-scooters (driven by people not fit enough to drive moto-scooters) zig-zagging around traffic on both sides of the roads that were barely big enough to fit a single car. Thankfully as we arrived in Rome it was the end of my driving for the trip otherwise I would have had a heart attack. We returned the rental car and set off on foot around the city, exploring the myriad of monuments at every turn.
If my tone sounds a bit negative about Rome, take it with a grain of salt. First of all, it was 95 degrees when we got there and literally there had to have been a million tourists every single place we went. Also, it was at the end of our trip where we drove the equivalent of about NY – FL, staying usually only for a night (or 2 at most) at each stop. So it’s safe to assume that we were pretty worn out, tired, and just about ready to head home. Couple that with the fact that we spent the entire early part of our whole trip in remote areas amidst peace and tranquility and then finished in a huge, busy, city, and you won’t hear as favorable of a town as you normally would about Rome.
Let me say upfront though that the city is pretty amazing. You’re walking down a city street and then BOOM out pops this landmark that has been there for 2,000 years! We did a ton of walking and saw almost everything there. I’m sure there was plenty we missed but you know what they say, “When in Rome…” (Ron Burgandy: “Yes, you were saying? Please go ahead and finish your thought…when in Rome?).
We toured the Vatican and it was massive. We literally didn’t stop more than a handful of times for pictures and to read the exhibits and it still took us almost 3 hours just to get through it. I’m probably going to get filleted by art critics or something (not sure why they’d be reading this anyway) but once we got to the Sistine Chapel at the end I really wasn’t blown away. I mean is it beautiful? Yes. Is it an amazing work of art? Yes. But keep in mind there’s not a square inch of the whole Vatican that wasn’t hand painted or sculpted and ornate so by the time you hit the Sistine Chapel your sense are a tad bit dulled. Also, I think it also has a slight case of Hollywood-itis going on. Basically, everyone knows that Michelangelo (I think he was the turtle who wore the orange?) painted the ceiling and how long it took him hanging upside-down to do. The same way when Matthew McCounaghey takes his shirt off in a movie, any chick with eyes is going to swoon over the film (you thought I could get through a European excursion recap post without mentioning the McCounaghster, didn’t you?). Basically, Mikey-angelo was the name attached to it which made it that much more marvelous. But if you buried the Sistine Chapel somewhere in the middle of the Vatican, didn’t make a fuss about who painted it, and asked your average visitor to pick out there favorite exhibit, my guess is that it might be in the top 15 listed. You can also thank Brendan Fraser for that phenomenon since there are at least 60 movies whose scripts weren’t worth the paper they were typed on that made it to the big screen because some casting agent knew he would star in it.
The highlight for me was seeing the Coliseum. I could not fathom standing inside it and walking around a place that was basically the size of a minor league baseball stadium and thinking about all the messed up (or awesome) stuff that used to happen there. I was absolutely in awe when I went there. We also toured the Roma Forum which was cool, but after about the 7,000th broken column I saw, I got the picture. Other cool sites were the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Pantheon. It almost took me the entire time in Rome to stop referring to it as the Parthenon, but I eventually got it right.
We had some more good meals in Rome and that pizza and beer I had been craving and it was time to head back to the States. The trip was absolutely amazing from start to finish and there are many many memories that will last a lifetime. So just keep in mind my ability to be a little cultured next time you’re hearing me rave about the new movie that probably just made us all dumber for having seen it.