French Riviera

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How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?Charles de Gaulle

May 11-20 2017

Following our stays in Saint Remy and Aix, we left the western half of Provence and headed to the eastern half, better known as Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera. We would be staying on the Mediterranean coast in the city of Nice for 10 days, dropping off our rental car as soon as we arrived, but taking advantage of a beautiful ride along the coast during our transit. Our AirBnb was in the old city, where we had a wonderful balcony overlooking the busy and narrow streets below.

 

 

Nice perfectly intertwines old-world charm and history with modern luxury and energy, known for great weather and world-class beaches. Nice is also home to vibrant markets, award-winning restaurants, and is renowned for its culinary scene. It would be the last stop of my parents visit before they returned to the States.

 

 

We had many great meals, with the best probably being on our last night at Le Bistro Du Fromager. At the bistro, we were seated downstairs in a wine cave where we had a couple of amazing cheese fondues, baked camembert, and regional wines. Suffice to say, we left full and in a wonderful cheese coma.

 

 

Between our meals, we spent time wandering around the port looking at all the colorful boats and buildings, checking out the markets where flowers, artists, organic fruits and vegetables, local spices, handmade soaps and perfumes lined the streets, and made our way up to La Tour Bellanda to get the panoramic overlooks of the area.

 

 

Of course, no visit to Nice is complete without some time at the beaches. The “beach” here is all rocks, no sand like we’re used to in the States. People bring mattresses or lounge chairs instead of beach towels to lay out on the beach, which they claim is easier to tan on with the rocks acting as a reflector.

 

 

The rocks are polished smooth like sea glass, and they help to make an amazing sound when the waves crash against the shore and the water recedes back into the sea, dragging some pebbles back with it. I enjoyed it, especially since it meant you didn’t drag a bunch of sand home with you, finding it in your stuff for the next several weeks.

 

 

On one of the days we would visit Blue Beach, which is one of the many private beaches that can be found between the public beach areas, where for a small fee you are provided with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and a waiter to bring you food and drinks.

 

 

As always, we like to take in some of the culture in the places that we visit. Nice is home to the famous modern artist Henri Matisse, so we made a visit to a museum dedicated to his work. Mostly explaining the approach and development of his craft, the museum did not include any of his iconic paintings, but instead focused on his sketches, photographs, and some of his sculpture and stained glass work.

 

 

Nearby the museum we would also check out some of the ancient roman ruins, including Cimiez Arena, which was an amphitheater that held up to 5,000 spectators, and the nearby baths, where we found bronze figurines of Hercules, a statue of Antonia Minor who was the mother of the Emperor Claudius, milestones from the Via Julia, an altar dedicated to Jupiter, and some sarcophagi.

 

 

We would also check out some of the cities religious sites, which my mom especially enjoys, checking out the Franciscan Monastery, which included a wonderful Italian style garden with views over the city, and the baroque style Nice Cathedral located in the heart of the old town.

 

 

While we would spend most our time in Nice, we also made a few daytrips, including a train ride north into the French Alps, a visit to nearby Monaco, a day in Villafranche-sur-Mer with a visit to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, and a trip into Italy for a taste of the Italian Riviera.

 

 

Our first daytrip would take us to the famed Principality of Monaco, a short 20-minute train ride from Nice. As a big auto-racing fan I was most looking forward to seeing the site of the Monaco Grand Prix, and with the race just a couple of weeks after our visit, the course was all set up and we timed our visit so that we were there during the Formula E race. After the race, we could walk the course, a highlight for me and my dad, also a big motorsports fan.

 

 

We walked around the old town of Monaco, set on a headland that extends into the Mediterranean Sea, known as ‘The Rock’, or ‘Le Rocher’, where we could watch some of the race from, as well as get spectacular views of the city. Perhaps the only part of the city with any historical interest, we made a stop by the Romanesque-Byzantine Saint Nicholas Cathedral where many members of Monaco’s ruling family and Grace Kelly are buried, as well as the Prince’s Palace.

 

 

We’d then head to the other end of town where we would make the obligatory stop at the Casino of Monaco, where we were denied entry for having tennis shoes, but still worth seeing from the outside and it allowed us to walk the racecourse back towards the train station for our return to Nice, overlooking the harbor full of yachts along the way. The area was full of the glitz and glamour that you would expect, with sports cars and people dressed to the nines shopping and dining all around.

 

 

For a bit of a change of pace, our next daytrip would be north into the rural French Alps. For Mother’s Day, we decided to take my parents on a trip on the Train des Merveilles, a beautiful scenic two-hour ride, with a stop in the village of Tende where we would have a picnic with food we picked up earlier in the morning at the markets in Nice.

 

 

The Train des Merveilles climbs the mountainous terrain through a series of viaducts and tunnels, an amazing engineering feat that includes circular tunnels built within mountains allowing the train to climb and descend through the Alps. Merveilles means marvels or wonders, and refers to the area of the Mercantour National Park in the Southern Alps where the “Vallée des Merveilles” is situated. When we were not in one of the 107 tunnels along the way, we passed spectacularly isolated hilltop villages, riverside towns, open green valleys and steep cliff faces.

 

 

Tende was an isolated village where after a picnic along the river that runs past town, we took a long walk taking in even more gorgeous mountain views and getting some delicious fresh alpine air. You could get lost in the labyrinth of cobblestone backstreet’s, but then get pointed gently in the right direction in the very welcoming town. We spent about 4 hours in total before hoping back on the train for our return to Nice.

 

 

As a half-day trip, we decided to visit another beach in the area, one that had sand. But first we took a tour of the Ville Ephrussi de Rothschild, a seaside villa located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The home was owned by Béatrice de Rothschild, a member of the Rothschild banking family and the wife of the banker Baron Maurice de Ephrussi. The rose-colored villa was full of antique furniture, Old Master paintings, sculptures, and an extensive collection of rare porcelain. Not exactly our cup of tea, but the highlight was the beautiful surrounding gardens, classified as one of the Notable Gardens of France.

 

 

The gardens were broken into nine different themed sections, including French, Florentine, Spanish, exotic, a stone garden, a Japanese garden, a rose garden, and Provencal. They were created between 1905 and 1912 under the direction of landscape architect Achille Duchêne. The garden was conceived in the form of a ship, to be viewed from the loggia of the house, which was like the bridge of a vessel, with the sea visible on all sides. The center featured a pond with fountains that would perform an aquatic ballet a few times per hour to works by Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner and Bach.

 

 

Leaving the villa, we would make a walk towards Villefranche-sur-Mer and the Beach of the Marinières, set on a beautiful bay, we would enjoy relaxing in the sand and swimming in the warm, clear blue water. We would then grab an early dinner in the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer before my mom and I made the long and hilly walk back to Nice, while Maggie and my Dad took an Uber.

 

 

For our last daytrip while staying in Nice, we would head east across the border into Italy. Just a short 40-minute train ride away, we thought it would be nice to get a glimpse into the Italian Riviera. It would be my first time in Italy, while Maggie and my parents have been to various other areas before, so I still don’t count it as a country I have visited, especially since we plan to come back later in our around the world trip. Nonetheless, we visited the town of Bordighera, stopping by the weekly market along the coast before heading up a hill into the historic town center. Here we would enjoy a nice meal in one of the many squares before strolling around the cobblestone streets.

 

 

Next we would make the several miles long walk along the coast to Ventimiglia, enjoying some gelato along the way, and taking in the scenery and culture of the area that was very different then the French side, less polished and with far less tourist, simply people living their life and going about their day to day routine. Snapping some pictures and wandering a park and some shops, we would then head back on the train to Nice.

 

 

We spent our last couple of days in the French Riviera and Provence hanging out in Nice, before my parents would head back to the States and we would catch a flight to spend a few days in Bordeaux as we worked our way towards San Sebastian and the Spanish Basque Country. We saw a lot of southern France in just 25 days between French Catalonia, Provence and the Riviera, making a lot of side trips around the region as a part of our family trip. The weather was perfect, and the crowds were still light during this time of year. The difference between the small medieval towns and countryside of western Provence and the coastal cities with Italian and Mediterranean influences along the French Riviera were quite stark, but the language and food tied everything nicely together. It left us looking forward to Bordeaux as well as visiting other parts of the country in the future.

 

 

 

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