A previous blog, ‘Travels With Ron’, described how we arrived in Nice. We had travelled for many hours, rented a vehicle, found our way to Old Town Nice, deposited our vehicle under a flower market, and took a Pedi Cab to our little flat that would be home for the next week. I, for one, was trying to recover from the previous night’s misadventures. However, it seems I must have a short memory or we are very resilient because, after a brief night’s sleep, we both rose early to marvel at the vista below our window. Our little flat overlooked the rooftops of Nice with the Mediterranean Sea framing our horizon. The suite was small but clean and quaint. We were very excited to begin discovering Nice and, besides, we had no food for breakfast.
Out the door at first light, we soon blended with the numerous shoppers of Old Town Nice. Following the winding street, which had appeared so ominous the previous night, we found our way to the hill terminus and Place St. Francois. To our inestimable surprise we discovered the fish market teaming with people and fish. Place St. Francois is, apparently, a focal point of activity with tables set in the middle of the square and all sorts of strange creatures from the ocean depths sprawled on tables for all to view. We were hungry and ready to absorb some local color as well as the promised French cuisine. Parking ourselves on the edge of the square in a little creperie, we sampled our first genuine French crepes. Throngs of shoppers surged past while we enjoyed tea and consumed the very essence of this ancient community. We soon learned that all of our culinary needs were accessible within this little square. We purchased granola, milk, juice, and some nice red Bordeaux for the big guy….and no, I wasn’t planning to have it for breakfast!
We initially wandered the narrow streets of Old Town in a perpetual daze due to the multitudes of sounds, smells, and the ostensible disorganized nature of the streets. We frequently became lost and, when attempting to return to a particular store, it could no longer be found. It seems vendors open their doors for business at irregular hours and close during siesta time in the afternoons. Once their gates are closed, there is no evidence of their existence. We would discover a favourite store that sold bread or cheese one day but it was lost to us the next.
Nice is the fifth largest city in France with a population of about 1 million although Old Town covers only a few square miles of the city. Nice was originally founded by the Greeks of Marseille in 350 BC and was named after Nike, the goddess of victory. Through the ages, the town changed hands many times. Its strategic location and port significantly contributed to its maritime strength. The natural beauty of the Nice area and its mild Mediterranean climate came to the attention of the English upper classes in the 18th century, where an increasing number of aristocratic families began spending their winters. This has continued today with, the picturesque Nicean surroundings, attracting not only those in search of relaxation, but also seeking inspiration. The clear air and soft light has been of particular appeal to many outstanding artists.
Our flat was located in the heart of Old Town next to a monastery and at one of the highest points in Nice. I discovered that we could access a most beautiful park by taking the stairs above our flat. After passing through a gate, the passage opened onto a very large park and botanical garden called Castle Hill (Colline du Chateau in French). It is considered the birthplace of Nice, and is the site of an early trading post established by the Ancient Greeks in the 3rd century B.C. It later became a formidable medieval town with walls. Eventually, however, Castle Hill became a home for cemeteries and was converted to a park towards the end of the 19th century.
Collin du Chateau, today, offers a few concessions, a large field for soccer or exercise, and an artificial waterfall. From this park all of Nice and the Mediterranean can be viewed from its many lookouts. Traversing the park, on the opposite side from our flat, the Promenade des Anglais is visible along the seashore. Castle Hill and its many trails soon became my running route as I could avoid the narrow streets and crowds of Old Town. I would take one of the many ancient cobblestone trails and ascend on the opposite side of the park to run fairly unimpeded on the Promenade des Anglais.
Castle Hill and the Promenade comprise the historical origins of Nice and we, through blind luck, found ourselves in the epicentre of this most historic city. Nice’s current beach was originally an undeveloped ribbon of sand prior to urbanization. In 1820 when a particularly harsh winter in northern Europe brought an influx of beggars to Nice, some of the English gentry proposed the construction of a walkway along the sea so the beggars could make themselves useful. The Promenade was first called the Camin deis Anglés (the English Way) by the Niçois in their native dialect. After the annexation of Nice by France in 1860 it was rechristened La Promenade des Anglais. Today, for the locals, it has simply become the Promenade or, for short, La Prom. Most sunny days, cyclists, babystrollers, and whole families can be seen strolling along this beautiful boulevard. The Promenade has its blue chairs and cabanas perfect for a lazy time along the Mediterranean although the beaches are noticeably rocky. There was one little section of sandy beach but people seem just as inclined to spend warm days lazing on the rocks.
Revelling in our location and good fortune, Miss Caroline and I soon developed a daily rhythm to our Nicean life that saw us rise about 8:00 AM. I would embark on my morning run, venturing both north and south along the waterfront. From these runs I began to gain some bearing of the city’s design and proximity to our residence. Caroline would set out to discover the streets of Nice. We would generally meet back at our flat by about 11:00 AM to enjoy a healthy lunch overlooking the city. During our first noon in Nice we were startled by a very loud explosion that we learned was a cannon blast. It seems in earlier days the local town administrator would discharge the cannon as a call for his wife’s return home to cook his lunch as she had a habit of shopping well beyond the appointed hour. I thought this was a very useful tradition and would encourage its’ implementation in Kelowna and throughout Canada. (just kidding!!) During the afternoons we toured the city together appreciating the Promenade des Arts, the ever enjoyable Promenade des Anglais, lazed on the rocky beach, and even took a little tourist train around the city.
The Promenade des Anglais appears to be the centre of Nice. It runs along the seashore for about 5 kilometers from Nice’s port, with its beautiful yachts, to the airport. The Promenade is teeming with people much of the day riding bicycles, running, rollerblading, walking, or just gawking at the topless women on the beach. I ran the length of the Promenade several times in our week and began to feel like one of the locals. One day I was just beginning my run at the port end when a young man, seemingly in his 20s, passed me. Being the competitive sort that I am, I picked up the pace a little and found I was able to stay with him. After a couple of kilometers I began to gain and, with a race winning surge, passed him. Now I had to keep ahead but a kilometer further he passed me again. We were both trying to appear nonchalant, as if we were unaware of each other’s existence, but….race on!! As the Promenade’s terminus loomed ahead, I passed him once more and broke the tape of my imaginary race, stopping to show my run was finished and so was I. He trotted on past while I stopped to gather myself. That’s when I noticed he also stopped a few yards further. Our eyes met and we exchanged a slight smile….or maybe his was a laugh, as he was finished and I had 5 return kilometers ahead.
Old Town is very old and has the feel of an 18th century village with windy streets of cobblestone, laundry hanging overhead, and patio restaurants with people enjoying a coffee or wine and lively conversation. The rest of Nice appears much more modern where most local residents seem to frequent. They can be seen going about their daily business and enjoying meals in the multitude of outdoor restaurants. The French must spend most of their time eating as the restaurants are always busy but I don’t recall ever seeing an overweight French person. The police, at least in the city centre, patrol on Segways and people commute by bicycle, car or a very space age-looking train system. Bicycle transportation is encouraged with numerous blue Velo bicycle stations on many corners where people can use or rent city-owned bicycles to commute around the city. We tried to rent two of these bicycles but never discovered the actual process. I think a local telephone number is required to rent a Velo.
After our little afternoon tours, we would return to our flat to relax for a couple hours before dinner. I would usually enjoy a glass or two of local wine then we would descend to the city for a restaurant meal. We had hundreds of restaurants to choose from with all ethnic foods represented. Closer to home in Old Town there were numerous options along the ancient streets with tourists and locals enjoying the many culinary choices of the area. Further afield the Cours Salaya offered restaurants on both sides of a very large street that had been replaced by the morning vendors. Yes, this is the same treacherous street that had offered us so many challenging moments during our first night in the city. We learned to forgive the street as this area was such a source of activity, fresh foods, crafts, and fine restaurants. We returned to this very busy and colourful street several times to enjoy our evening meal with many others. Our favourite place to dine, however, became an Afghani restaurant located at the bottom of the hill just below our flat. This restaurant offered delicious curries, quality wine, a friendly Afghani waiter, and the best pakoras we have ever eaten.
After our initial challenges of driving in France we were not entirely excited about reliving the anguish of our first night in Old Town, not to mention the possible $13,000.00 Euros bill revealed in the fine print of our rental contract. Our lovely Peugeot, therefore, remained in the depths below the flower market for the first three days. On the fourth day, however, I felt we needed to reap some benefit from this pricey exercise. After all it was costing us money just sitting there. So on the fourth day we ventured out of Old Town on four wheels to expand our European horizons.
We decided to drive north to Monaco. I had visited this community as a young man but had little recollection of it. The coastal highway was very picturesque as it wound through small towns and offered many ocean vistas. After passing a few small villages we saw a sign directing traffic to Saint Jean Cap Ferrat and the Rothschild Estate. The former is a promontory and home to some of the wealthiest landowners in France while the latter is the estate of one of these landowners, Beatrice Rothschild. Caroline had researched this estate prior to our departure from home and regarded this tour as one of the most anticipated events of our trip. So we made a slight detour from our intended destination and sought out the Rothschild Estate.
Finding the estate, we paid $23 euros each and began wandering through the bountiful and striking landscape. We learned that Beatrice was married very young to a much older banker who had a penchant for gambling and alcohol. Although Beatrice was very wealthy, in those days, it was the custom that the husband assumed control of his wife’s estate. (another custom to be instituted in Canada…kidding again!!) The Rothschild family became concerned about this man’s squanderous vices and Beatrice’s impending acquisition of a huge inheritance upon her father’s death. Their divorce was, consequently, arranged and Beatrice took her vast wealth to Saint Jean Cap Ferrat where she lived her days developing a magnificent garden and home. She was noted for her procurement of many structures and florae from throughout the world.
I soon learned why Caroline had such a strong desire to visit this estate. As is her inclination, my good wife, has a certain affinity for animals thus feeling some connection to Ms. Rothschild. Beatrice apparently had exotic tastes in pets having owned such animals as a mongoose, monkeys, dogs, gazelles, and flamingos. Apparently Beatrice’s proclivity for animals extended to the eccentric as she, on at least one occasion, arranged a wedding between her dog and a neighbour’s. Beatrice also had special chairs for her mongoose and a favourite dog in her bedroom. So far there have been no doggy weddings in our home….thankfully, but I have noticed dog hair on a chair in our bedroom after returning from a trip.
The home and grounds were quite magnificent but after an hour in the garden and listening to a digital tour guide, this poor traveller found a nice little tea room while the aspiring princess, Miss C., tirelessly basked in every inch of the estate, possibly searching for gazelles or an errant mongoose.
After a couple of teas and a very nice pastry we boarded our little Peugeot to seek out the prince’s residence in Monaco. As is my habit, however, I immediately took a wrong turn and we found ourselves circumnavigating Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. Finally, back on the coastal highway, we resumed our journey on a very narrow and winding road that promised our arrival in Monaco. We did manage to find the miniscule Principauté de Monaco that encompasses less than one square mile of land mass. It seems Prince Albert and his family, the House of Grimaldi, have governed this tiny country mostly uninterrupted since the 12th Century. I’m not sure how well they have done in their governing because we found ourselves driving around in circles, mostly through a maze of tunnels, in pursuit of very evasive parking. We would follow a large blue “P” sign for parking but after a few corners would be deposited into another tunnel. We never did find parking but did manage to drive down, what we perceived as, the main street. Monaco seemed very wealthy but a little neglected and they certainly need to work on their parking. After visiting the tunnels of Monaco for about a half hour we found a sign directing us back to Nice and that is where we went. All was not lost, however, as we did see the Rothschild Estate and enjoyed many beautiful views along the coast.
During the next few days we were happy to resume our Nicean lives but the draw of further travel consumed us one day causing our exodus for Marseille. This time we took the coastal highway in a southerly direction. We made very slow progress, however, as the roads were busy, narrow, and winding. We drove through a modern and clean St. Laurent du Mar and the much larger municipality of Antibes where I embarked on my usual adventure of getting entirely lost and driving around in circles for about an hour. About noon we stopped in a beautiful little village called Ste. Theoule-Sur-Mar. Free parking was actually available next to a lovely little beach where we stopped for a swim. I simply appreciated the ambience on a park bench while Caroline changed into her swimming attire and enjoyed her first plunge in the Mediterranean. The water was calm, the day was warm and few people lounged along the beach. Ste. Theoule-Sur-Mar was one of the nicest spots we visited in the Cote d’Azure.
After about an hour of wonderment we begrudgingly boarded our little Peugeot as Marseille was still a long drive. We travelled through the very upscale communities of San Raphael and San Maxine before reaching, St. Tropez, the destination of many rich and famous.
Having heard of this celebrated community we decided to make a quick detour and see what the fuss was all about. It seems Brigitte Bardot came to St. Tropez in the ’50s to star in Et Dieu Créa la Femme (And God Created Woman; 1956) and transformed this peaceful fishing village into a sizzling jet-set favorite. Tropeziens have thrived on their racy image ever since with yachts, like spaceships, jostling for million dollar moorings, and infinitely more tourists jostling to admire them. It is said that 100,000 tourists a day visit this small community in the summer months. Out of season, however, its cobbled streets and an old fishing quarter, have attracted artists since the mid-1800s. Today the beautiful beaches along the coast, both north and south of St. Tropez, still attract hikers and those looking for a more solitary experience.
We found St. Tropez to be a fairly small community although, as always, I had great difficulty finding a place to park our car. I immediately found myself driving through the very narrow, and one way, streets of St. Tropez’s old town, where only pedestrians are supposed to venture. People were glaring at us as we navigated the narrow streets but there was no going back. One big blonde Tropezien (or tourist, I’m not sure which) was determined not to move off the road so we had a little standoff before I slipped past with my red glaring face serving as warning for any false moves. We finally burst into the sunlight of the port area and drove along the waterfront before finding acres of parking. Along the waterfront we began milling with the thousands of tourists who were ogling several monstrous private yachts flaunting their wealth along the shore. A few white-haired men appeared to be having a meeting on one yacht while one lone man on another was eating his lunch on deck as a chef prepared his salad. It was difficult to visualize their lives with 100 foot jet-like boats that must have cost millions just to operate. Each had several deck hands, cooks, and, probably, paid companions. A large yacht called Seven Sins, perhaps, provided some indication of their business pursuits. I snapped some close-up pictures, hoping to later identify some rock star or Mafia leader that I could brag to my friends about having mingled with on my recent trip abroad.
Tourists milled along the wharf amid numerous artists displaying their wares. We particularly liked one old artist and bought a print of his work for $10 euros. It wasn’t an original. We wandered up and down the waterfront until becoming weary and stopped in a little creperie where we enjoyed a quiet afternoon repose while watching other tourists filter by. The crepes, in my estimation, were not up to the usual French standard. Caroline didn’t, apparently, care much about crepe quality as hers were dripping with Grand Marnier. She voraciously slurped up any errant juices, completely disregarding any etiquette or propriety. Having heard about the wonderful French coffee, I decided a little taste was in order. I ordered an Americano that appeared to be about a half cup of very thick coffee. It was excellent and could potentially see me converted back to this murky elixir. Most French coffee drinkers appear to have an even smaller cup of much thicker coffee.
After our little restaurant stop we found our car and headed back to Nice as fatigue overcame us and Marseille was still a long distance further. We would have to save Marseille for another time. It was our last day in Nice as we were moving on to Italy the following morning.
After a wonderful week in Italy we returned to Nice for a flight out the following day. The return drive was fairly uneventful as we were now experienced European travelers. We arrived in Nice about 2:00 PM and deposited our rental car. We had booked a cheap hotel directly across from the airport where we would be departing for our journey home the next morning.
As it was our last night in Europe we decided to take the city bus into Old Town and seek our Afghani restaurant with the delicious pekoras. This seemed like a simple and inexpensive task as the hotel proprietor told us where to access the bus and how much it would cost. We boarded a bus and were deposited in Old Town where we were soon dining in the Afghani Restaurant. It was located very close to the Place St. Francois and our previous little Nice residence, bringing back fond memories of the previous week. The meals lived up to our memories while we sat for a time, just soaking in the street life. Eventually tearing ourselves away from this wonderful area, we boarded a bus that promptly drove us 5 kilometers in the wrong direction and stopped, telling us that there would be no further bus service that night. We quickly flagged down a cab and, after adding $25 Euros to our dinner bill, were dropped off at our budget hotel. We could be heard snoring shortly after 9:00 PM. Our last restaurant meal had been, likely, our most expensive of the trip but well remembered.
The next morning we were up at 4:30 AM, across the road, and on to Heathrow that was just as busy as it had been two weeks previous. There were a few tense moments when Caroline’s bag was searched for explosive material that look remarkably like bird-shaped soap. Thankfully it was. They eventually released her whereby we negotiated the endless lines and boarded our flight to America. The return trip passed through Seattle where Homeland Security always makes any trip interesting but we endured and were soon rolling our bags out of the Kelowna airport to find our vehicle. It seemed like we had been away for months instead of two weeks.
We had experienced another culture, in fact, two cultures and were happy to return to Kelowna and our human-sized showers, mostly toll-less highways, and Tim Horton’s. It was a good experience but not without its challenges. We had experienced the highs and lows of tourist travel without regret. With the passage of time the lows, however, have diminished and the highs are still imbedded in our thoughts with the help of numerous pictures, wonderful experiences remembered, a few extra pounds courtesy of the fine food and wine, and much learned about other lands and cultures. I would encourage anyone to visit this fine city and stay on the mountain top, as was our luck.