21 June 2014

le côte d'azur

lessons learned during a three-night sojourn in the côte d'azur, the beautiful mediterranean french riviera:

Nice is not so nice. 

antibes is adorable. 

monaco is... absurd.

and as beautiful as the colors of the buildings were, as much as i love the mediterranean sea no matter which corner of coastline i'm inhabiting, as legendary and fantastical as some of these cities are, i wasn't crazy about the côte d'azur.

we departed florence on the morning of sunday, may 4, and i was excited to get back to the comfort of a francophone place and to get to see the southeast of france. on this trip i'd seen paris and central france, and back in 2010 i'd had a wonderful trip to normandy and brittany, but i'd never traveled south.

a late afternoon train blurs italy into france.

as usual, the train ride was gorgeous but long. our stay in the beautiful milan train station was fun - we built our typical Baggage Fortress™ (as maddy calls it :)), searched fruitlessly (punny?) for snacks, and were told to get off the floor and sit in seats (which were completely full, and no one actually forced us to move, so we stayed). the train from ventimiglia to Nice felt more like a coastal shuttle and filled up as we passed through monaco and beyond. there were all manner of people, from american tourists sporting shiny new "MONTE-CARLO" baseball caps to a crazy guy pacing the car, shouting angry arabic into his phone, throwing trash, and drinking beer.

it was our first introduction to the contradictions of the south of france. the posh, inaccessible luxury of cannes, saint-tropez, and monaco; the lower-income, seedier, often immigrant neighborhoods that characterize parts of cities like Nice and marseille, as well as other towns.

we arrived in Nice in the evening and had to trek - by walking, tram, and shuttle bus - to get to our hostel on the very outskirts of the city. we'd read on our favorite travel source that this was the best hostel in france, but unfortunately were disappointed in everything from the two hours it took to check in to the food selection, location, and a lot of weird fellow guests. not to mention that the workers were largely american or other europeans who defaulted to english rather than french, so we barely got any language practice. one bonus was the unlimited hot chocolate, coffee, and tea offered in the common area. we made the most of those as we huddled on the sofas to charge phones, catch up on social media, write in journals, and plan the next day. no shame whatsoever in the bartenders' weird looks and even pointed comments at our excessive consumption of the nesquik. backpacker's mentality: if it's free, we'll take it!

we'd only even come to Nice through process of elimination. we wanted to spend some time in a french-speaking place on our travels; the southern french coast was on the route; monaco would be a fun stop-off; we were interested in marseille's up-and-coming arts scene but scared off by reports of insecurity in the city. somewhere like cannes was beyond our budget; Nice seemed like a good place to stay to see other areas even if maddy had been last year and her feelings on the city itself were neutral at best.

so Nice was going to be our home base, but we'd be travelling to other cities and in particular would spend a whole day in marseille... unfortunately, this was the one time our planning failed us. we'd assumed it would be day-trip distance to marseille, and had researched souks and museums we had to see. our one failure was in the actual feasibility of the travel itself. we only realized while sitting in our Nice hostel, reading my lonely planet, that marseille is actually three hours away by train. a stopoff on the way to barcelona that we wouldn't be able to make. that was disappointing, but we tried to make the most of our time anyway, as we always do.

we set out on monday morning for a jam-packed day one of fitting every highlight of the french riviera into just two full days in the region.

first was "vieille ville" (old town) Nice, characterized each morning by a diverse antiques market that runs parallel to the sea.

classic posh france.

gate to the sea.

classic architecture.

love the colors.

we had to walk up by the main plaza again to catch a bus.

the levitating man statues are all over the main plaza. they just look odd.

not a bad bus stop.

the hotel regina was henri matisse's last home.

after a ride past dozens of these charming, pastel-covered buildings, we'd arrived at some roman ruins...

...a monastery that i was sad not to have time to see...

...and our final destination, the world's preeminent matisse museum!

no photos were allowed inside, but suffice to say that we loved it and i came out with a newfound respect for matisse. they didn't have many of the later, large-scale paper collages that i know him for. instead, draft sketches. patchwork tapestries. extra bits of tissue, collage pieces tossed aside. stained glass samples from an entire chapel he designed himself in a nearby town. statues. his very first still lifes. photos of the artist's life.

unfortunately, with our tight timeframe, we strictly limited our time in the museum.

old men actually playing pétanque in the adjacent park.

after matisse, we were back downtown and running across the city - literally, developing shin splints getting to this stupidly far plaza - to make the 100 bus to monaco at 2. i love that there's just a local bus headed to another city, technically another country, like that! two or so euros well spent.

the bus is also the scenic route to monaco. while it takes a bit longer than the train, the view is worth it.

by 2:45, we'd arrived in monaco! and we hadn't eaten anything so our first priority was FOOD.

lucky us, famished in a land of riches. ended up spending our collective life savings on cafeteria-style salad and pellegrino.

if it cost that much, i had to take a picture.

...and then casually commandeering the restaurant bathroom to change into ~fancy clothes~ and wedges because we had to look like high rollers in monaco, even if we weren't spending a penny.

we picked up a map at tourist info and started walking - straight to the casino de monte-carlo.

the casino was huge and ornate and lavish and the cars outside were exclusively ferraris, maseratis, lamborghinis.

then we were walking around the back of the casino, towards the water.

maddy and i casually taking selfies on the red carpet... from outside.


in addition to a million photos of scenery and yachts and crazy buildings, we took plenty of photos of each other.

more impressive than usual because i'm in HEELS.

lots of giggles and pretending to be cooler than we are.

selfie at the casino. tamar is always a floating head.


of course all i can think of is that monaco's flag is identical to indonesia's.

we kept walking to get to the upper part of the city/country.

the views in all directions were literally awesome. so much extravagance in such a small little state. really, on just one little hill.

fancy watches + fancy yachts.

and finally, after a heck of a lot of steps, we were at the palais princier.

abandoned tile shop.

the cathedral, where grace kelly is buried:

charming. [who pays multiple euros for a souvenir penny?!]

the musée océanographique has a walrus.

i'd heard that you can see all of the country of monaco in four hours, and i can affirm that this is true. i can also affirm that you can't stay there longer than four hours - at least i can't. at that point, we'd seen the cathedral and were walking back towards the downtown (monte carlo) area, through some gardens but not really sure where the bus stop was. something just snapped - i had to get out of monaco ASAP. the excesses are so excessive there. not to mention that everything is so aggressively pastel. i went from loving seeing it to hating being in it super fast. plus, we were hungry and couldn't afford another meal. and we couldn't figure out where the bus station was, so after an hour - that's five whole hours total in this country - we ended up at a train station, taking a commuter train back to Nice. finally.

walking into the train station.

then we ended up wandering Nice a bunch looking for any sort of decent meal, finally forced to settle on subway because there were actually no other feasible options at all appealing and/or affordable. at least we were able to eat it on the (pebbly) beach, dip our fingers and toes in the water.

when we wanted dessert, we spent forever again wandering looking for a crêpe, and the only decently priced one was at a bar full of lonely old men where the servers seemed to have forgotten that crêpes were on the menu. a city in france with bad crêpes?! yes, folks, we found one.

speaking of questionable, these sitting levitating yogis or whatever they are light up in technicolor at night. and we saw this lady with cheetah-print hair TWICE in two different places in one day. 

it's hard for me to articulate why i felt so sure that i didn't like Nice. after all, it's rare that i travel somewhere and come off with a negative feeling of the new place. actually, it's kind of refreshing to not feel so overwhelmingly positive about one city. it validates how much i genuinely loved everywhere else we went, and makes the overwhelmingly long list of places i compulsively need to revisit just a teensy bit shorter. i'd be happy to give the côte d'azur another chance, sure, though i'd probably want to return to bavaria first. i'd even go to monaco again, but only if i were truly just on vacation and had money to spend. but Nice? i think once is enough.

basically, it was all my least favorite parts of france concentrated into one place. like leering men, absurdly high prices for everything, no decent healthy and/or vegetarian food anywhere.

anyway. enough of my complaining.

the next day, we started by talking and walking and climbing the "château de nice," not a château like we knew in touraine but a big hill with various parks, lookouts, and public spaces.

walking towards the hill.

at the base.

the city's jewish cemetery.

then there's the famous waterfall. the view looking out was pretty, but i wasn't smitten with the park. the waterfall is fake, super tacky but built in the 1700s. like the fake-old-but-actually-old grotto we'd stumbled upon in munich, this inexplicable tourist draw raises the question: if it's tacky but hundreds of years old, is it still just plain tacky?

more things that are dumb about Nice: "roman ruins" sloppily half-covered in plastic tarp. and the fact that every single public bathroom costs money. in paris, they're free. in Nice, we even got turned away for the bathroom at mcdonald's.

the life.

since we weren't making it to marseille, we settled on seeing a town nearby called antibes. we didn't know much about it, except it's cute and small and wasn't Nice. the bus ride was longer than we'd anticipated, and wasn't so comfortable due to more drunk crazy people. regardless, we arrived in... actually a pretty desolate-looking town? seemed pretty grim for the first half-hour or so until we realized which direction we had to walk. then within a few blocks, there were people and gelato shops and things happening and life was good again. we found an awesome bakery and got different combinations of quiches, tartes, and ratatouilles for lunch. finally some good food in the french riviera.


stepping off the beaten path but in a more charming area, we walked along the water on stone streets.

the picasso museum in antibes is one of the best in the world, but it wasn't worth our six euros - in just a couple days, we'd be at the best picasso museum in the world. barcelona!!!! i was definitely very excited about barcelona.

looking out over the beach.

through the sailboats: the old fort of antibes.

we finally snaked our way to the gorgeous beach, where it was time to sit, relax, and enjoy the water and sand - and, thanks to tamar, eavesdrop on some cute young dutch families.

this was probably my favorite single spot in the côte d'azur.

and i had french sand in my Toms for weeks after.

wading through shallow water and contemplating that in less than 24 hours i'd be off to the last new city of my gap year - my last weekend of this adventure.

in the town, we each picked out three vintage-style postcards - one monaco, one nice, and the same sunny "côte d'azur" print - that'll go on our dorm room walls next year. across states and an ocean, we'll have a little reminder of this yearlong sojourn and our travels together. 

there's always time for a bit of fussy french ridiculousness:

an all-white clothing store.

oh good, flower arrangements for all your yachting needs.

finding our way back to Nice was again weirdly difficult - the bus stop in antibes wasn't marked anywhere - and we were wiped by the time we got back to the hostel. grabbed a cup or two of hot chocolate and were off to bed (waking up our cold 60-something german roommates in the process, despite our best efforts). and wednesday morning, we were packed up and out the door to walk, shuttle, tram, train, and taxi our way to españa.

the taxi leg came in when we got to a gorgeous, fancy, modern station in avignon only to realize that our next train departed in an hour from the town's other station. and to run up and escalator, down some stairs, through an entrance, and up a ramp, arriving at the platform in time to watch the local train fade into the distance, so close yet so far. 

avignon tgv.

luckily, avignon is a small place and taxis were easy to find. unluckily, the other station wasn't nearly as cool.

but you know what is even more cool? barcelona. next post!! so close to finishing off this blog.

x, m

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