Summer 2017: Côte d’Azure

Ah! Côte d’Azure – The French Riviera! A stretch of coast on the Mediterranean populated with towns which illicit images of luxury, excess and expense. Cannes, Saint Tropez and Monaco. The jet set. Our long weekend would start and end in Nice (the most international of the airports in the region), and would include two nights in Monaco.

Day Zero

I arrive in Nice and grab a taxi to take me into town. We make really good time and even though I had asked the driver how much it would be (C’est combien?) I was still a little shocked that it was about what he said – €30. We hadn’t been driving long is all. First lesson on the Côte d’Azur: everything will be more expensive than you think and the whole area is tiny. We’re staying in the Hotel du Midi because it’s close to the train station.

Day One

After breakfast it’s straight up to the train station where we’ve just missed a train and the next one isn’t for an hour. We hang out in the cafe in the station, nursing juices and trying to connect to the station internet. Ange had previously gone on a day trip to Cannes so knew my attempts would be in vain but I, ever optimistic, struggled on before giving up in a huff. The rest of the station was awash with day trippers waiting for their trains in the lobby. The cafe staff let us enjoy their chairs and air conditioning without harassment which we appreciated.

Eventually the train came and we joined a throng on the platform as we attempted to get onboard with all our luggage as well. One older gentleman managed to squeeze on with his bike which made boarding difficult for everyone else. Ange and I spotted a calm spot up the stairs and headed up there where you could at least breathe without having to time your inhalation with your neighbours exhalation.

The trains are cheap enough, which makes casual exploration along the sun-kissed towns between Nice and Monaco very doable, but also makes super overcrowding likely. Frequently we would stop at a station and have hopeful faces on bicycles turn to disappointment as it became obvious that they just wouldn’t be able to board the train.

Surprisingly everyone didn’t spill out onto the platform at Monte Carlo, so the exit was awkward like a game of tetris, trying to negotiate space and bicycles and countering exasperated looks with a pardon and excusez moi. Eventually we were on the platform, watching the still crowded train depart.

The station at Monte Carlo (Monte Carlo is the city centre, Monaco the country), is long and cavernous, cut out of the middle of a mountain. We followed some exit signs and hoped they would take us to a bus stop. After walking for miles in subterranean passages, we emerged blinking in the bright sunshine into Monte Carlo. Man that sun was strong! We found that the bus we wanted stopped just outside and so found a ticket machine and got some tickets.

Eventually the bus came and we got aboard (same system as Italy – validate the ticket on boarding) and then headed to our hotel in Fontvieille, the Columbus Monte-Carlo. We were still a little early for the room to be ready, so abandoned our luggage and headed back into town. The hotel shuttle dropped us off outside the Casino just opposite the cafe where we were to meet my friend who ran the Big Little Monaco blog.

We’d met while I worked at tripAdvisor and she had started the blog because community knowledge was lacking  – despite Monaco being so small, most of the people who worked there didn’t live there so it was near impossible finding someone to babysit for example. Hence the blog, a way of disseminating community information.

We had about an hour before meeting her so went for a wander in the sun. and soon decided that finding some shade in the park would be a better bet. Signs warned it was agains the rules to step in the grass or to bathe in fountains, so we settled for sitting on a park bench in one of the only sections of shade. Sitting beside us was an elegantly clothed fashionista who spent forty minutes on the phone, pausing briefly to let her pocket-sized dog (a pomeranian) onto the ground from the bench level. He ignored us to run around  – not straying too far and after three minutes of exploring returning for cuddles with his owner.

People had told us that “there’s a lot of money there” and that was true. Every other car on the streets was some sort of super car with a prancing horse and a full throated roar as they inched along, petrol consumed for the three minutes about ⅔rds my annual salary.

Cafe de Paris is the place to people watch. After a security check (yes: security check at a cafe), we find Melinda and sit under umbrellas and as we chat, watch the rich and famous pull up and get out of their cars in front of the Casino. Just as we had from our shuttle. Which was a minivan but still a Mercedes!

After our chat we headed back to the hotel. Unfortunately the hotel shuttle didn’t do pick ups so it was back onto the public bus. After checking in and being suitably wowed by our room, we got changed and headed out to find a place to eat. We wandered down near the water along a promenade of restaurants literally five minutes from the hotel and settled on a relatively quiet restaurant.

Constantine – Atelier du Goût apparently means Constantine – Taste Workshop, and it’s a lovely leafy spot nestled alongside larger flashier restaurants. After an amuse bouche of tomato and mozzarella, because of the cost, we decided to share  starter of a pyramid of crispy artichokes but I never came to terms with it. It was like eating a pile of sticks. Following that I had the steak and Ange had the lamb. Lastly we each had a dessert, she had the cheesecake and I had the chocolate bombe. The bill made my eyes water.

Day Two

The next day we were up early, ready to get a good spot for the changing of the guard. I guess we were glad we did – our position right by the chain fence allowed us unfettered views across for the ceremony. But having come from London and having experienced their changing of the guard it didn’t explore any new ground.

Then came the tour of the Prince’s Palace. Oh my. I get that the castle is still in use and that it is the family home of the Grimaldi’s but there’s not much to see and what’s there is boring. The audio guide gamely attempts to inject some context, but the whole thing can be summed up by the humourish contrast between the classic historical significance of portraits from the 18th Century and Ralph Wolfe Cowan’s 80’s kitsch portrait of the royal family (he does portraits of the rich and famous).

It’s only €8 to get in, but I’m really unsure if that’s money well spent or not. Actually we got the combo ticket and after the castle and changing of the guard I’m wondering if the Prince’s collection of cars will be worth it.

We decide to take visit the church where the royal family members are buried once they die, and duck down the medieval alleys jam packed with restaurants and souvenir shops towards the cathedral. We stroll into the church and surreptitiously take photos of the flowers adorning the graves of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace, noting that Princess Grace has exactly twice as many.

Then we head down to the harbour for something to eat. The Grand Prix had only just happened a week ago so there are workmen every where taking down hoardings and moving hay bales. There’s nowhere to eat with a view of the marina so we try one of the few restaurants who have actually reopened. I think this whole area was where the pit lane was during the race. We opt for something quick and easy – burgers, and are impressed with how tasty they are. The fries were the ones cut like little scoops making dipping in sauce that much easier.

We swing past a large open air swimming pool with water slides and it’s tempting to find out how much it costs to get in to take the edge of the heat.

But we had decided we wanted to check out the free public beach at the far end of Monaco and so headed to the bus stop to get there.

Monaco’s Public Beach is nestled beside the pay beaches and so you can watch those willing to pay lounging on sun loungers under the shade of the sun-umbrellas and sipping drinks.

In contrast, the public beach was a strip of sand baking in the heat. We had not thought to bring towels, so found a shaded area beside the fence between free and paid beaches and dumped our bag and clothes there. The sand was hot (but not Crete hot), and the water refreshingly cool.

There was a net on a boom a couple of hundred metres from shore, presumably to keep any fish out but it had the rather nasty effect of not allowing the detritus to float away, so to get out to the clear water you had to navigate cigarette butts and other flotsam and jetsam. After our swim we came back to the shore and dried off using the sun’s heat. There were showers there on the public beach so we could wash the sand off our feet, which was a nice touch. Then we headed back to the bus stop with wet pants and back towards the hotel.

 The Exhibition of HRH The Prince of Monaco’s Vintage Car Collection is not far from the hotel, so we stopped in on the way back. The experience is the opposite of the disappointment I felt for the combined changing of the guard and castle. The Prince has collected a lot of luxury cars. And motorbikes, and racing cars. They’re laid out nicely and with little placards explaining what model each one is.

We then head back to the hotel for a swim and then decide on room service for dinner.

Day Three

We’re heading back to Nice as I got to see very little of it on arrival, so book the shuttle to get to the train station in time for our departure. As we’re waiting for the shuttle to leave another couple asks the concierge to order them a taxi for the station. Instead they come with us and we happen to notice familiar tags on their luggage as its being placed inside the shuttle. Turns out they are also going on the MSC Armonia! They’re heading to Marseille for the start of their cruise and we answer their questions all the way on the short trip to the station.

Bidding our new friends farewell, we get our tickets and find the platform for the train to Nice. We don’t realise that the platforms are really long so while we are on the correct platform, when the train pulls in it’s about 200m further along the platform from where we are with all our luggage, which results in a mad sprint to get aboard before it pulls away. This time there are plenty of seats and we square our bags away and settle in for the short trip.

As per usual, we’re too early for our room to be ready so deposit our luggage and head out to have a look around Nice. We decided to do a Hop On Hop Off bus tour and seek out the stop as listed on the website. That proves to be problematic. The address listed is on the wrong side of the road from the direction of the route. There’s also an issue around what time the buses are supposed to start.

Now, we had researched the bus service and it had received unrelentingly negative reviews. Everything from rude drivers, broken headphone sockets and dire commentary. They also had mentioned late running buses and buses stopping running early, but nobody had mentioned stops that weren’t stops.

Ange and I had differing opinions on what the situation was: I couldn’t see why they would have an incorrect address on the website, while Ange was of the opinion that the direction of the route and the company logo on the bus stop on the opposite side of the road was more of an indication of the pick-up point. Ten minutes later we had our answer as I spotted the bus in the distance – Ange was correct. At least that was my thinking until the driver drove straight past us.

Muttering to myself, we headed up to the next stop on the website route – the train station. It was then that I realised that they would start the route in two places and that the driver wasn’t actually driving the route, he was just going to his starting point. Of course none of this important information was on the website, but I guess that was just another aspect of the service that was deficient.

The Hop On Hop Off tour was perhaps the worst I have ever been on. And I had been on the one in Budapest where the night tour was exactly the same as the day tour. So the same commentary and everything. In Nice the tour was in two parts – the first bit was around the town. The commentary here was boring with shorter gaps between notable spots.

The second part was the long distance between Nice proper and the Citadel Saint-Elme in Villefranche sur mer. This was boring and with longer gaps between notable spots. Forewarned about the sketchiness of the service, we knew to try the headphone sockets before committing to seats and not to try and get value out of the commentary.

The best parts were at the Villefranche sur mer where the large double decker bus negotiated the steep, windy and narrow lanes near the citadel. Villefranche is where the larger cruise ship dock and the dark blue waters were spotted with boats of every size. We elected to get off the bus at Le Port and walk around the Pointe de Rauba-Capeau to the Waka Bar – a New Zealand owned bar on the beach at Nice.

It’s a lovely stroll though not much shade as our luck continues to hold with the weather. We walk past the port and cant see much at all which is disappointing as it’s full of flash looking yachts with some weird pipes at one end of the marina. Turns out one of Nice’s major exports is concrete. Weird having something so pragmatic and mundane juxtaposed with all the trappings of luxury.

We pass by the monument to the 4,000 Nice locals who died during WW1 and then around the point pause while taking photos of each other sitting in the ‘c’ of the I Love Nice sign. Ange fits nicely, me… not so much! The views from there back across the bay are spectacular, and you can very easily see the appeal of the place.

Next stop is the Waka bar – apparently owned by a Kiwi, the bar sits overlooking the beach and serves reasonably priced food which we appreciate after the expense of Monaco.

The upstairs has comfy arm chairs and its nice to recharge the batteries after the walk around the cape. When Ange’s langostini wraps come I have a momentary pang of food envy, but it’s quickly forgotten when my burger arrives accompanied by the ubiquitous “shovel cut” fries.

 After pausing to let our food settle, we head back out into the sunshine and head further into town to get back on the Hop On Hop Off bus, this time for the purposes of visiting one of the two art museums on the hills behind the town, where the richer folk live. We only have enough time to visit one of the Museums of Chagall or Matisse. I admit to not knowing a lot of either of them so we choose at random and select Chagall.

The museum itself is quite well done – a great space allowing the large canvases to really shine, with an audio-guide that adds just the right level of context and even an auditorium with a movie in English and French discussing Chagall’s life and work. The only thing is I hate his work. I didn’t before we arrived. But then after we’ve seen it, I keep thinking – how? How did he persuade others that he was good and how did they persuade the Government that the museum needed to be built to house his works? It’s like people saw his work and he said “yes, I’m an artist” and they gave a Gallic shrug and accepted it. The only stuff I did like was when he veered towards cubism.

We stopped off afterwards at the cafe for an ice cream and discussed what we each thought about his work, and whether we should have gone to Matisse. I shrug – I didn’t know what Chagall was like so I don’t feel bad about visiting the Museum. I’m not going to beat myself up for not knowing something I only just learned.

We catch the last Hop On Hop Off bus back to the train station and then walk the short distance back to the hotel. We ask there what restaurants they recommend and they say Rosinis will be the only one open, as it’s Sunday. We head over to have a look and the servings look enormous. We head instead across the road where a delicatessen is just closing up. They have some nice meals in a box but they need heating in a microwave and they don’t have space for eating, so we move on. After a walk around the block we come to terms with the fact that Rossinis really is the only place open and so head back.

In an attempt at portion control, Ange orders off the kids menu, while I plow through an enormous pizza by myself. We then decide to split a dessert but somehow they decide that we are both having it they need to make it double sized. Sigh! How do the French not have an obesity epidemic? The food is sooo good.

Day Four

We  had late flights (me back to London, Ange to Belgium) and decided to head to Menton for a day trip. Menton is on the Italian border and is where the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield spent some time. We caught the train from Nice through Monaco and on to Menton, the small beach towns on the way beginning to look very familiar!

After arriving, we headed through town to the beach, our first surprise were the wicker huts built in the median of the main boulevard leading through town. Then there was a grass maze, with the grass at least a metre and a half high (5 feet).

We’d wanted to find directions to Katherine Mansfield’s home but the Information Centre had inconveniently closed for a siesta, so instead we headed down to the beachfront for lunch.

The sun was blistering and the restaurant options ample, so after a while we found a place in the shade at La Mandiboule, a relaxing spot right on the beach with swinging chairs, and ordered our food. I got a toasted sandwich which came with fries and Ange had an enormous baguette. But more impressive were the virgin cocktails we got served in mock cacti with bendy straw and umbrella.

Afterwards we headed in the other direction and came across a mini train like we had been on in Bratislava. Again, just like in Bratislava, we had to decide whether or not to take the train ride – it would take an hour and then we would have maybe fifteen minutes to get back to the train station in time for our train back to Nice. Google Maps said it would take twelve minutes to get back, so we decided to go for it. The train tickets were only €8 each so the cost of getting it wrong was not going to be calamitous.

The train ride went through three distinct areas – the water front, showing that Monaco and Nice aren’t the only ones with flash boats, the hills above Menton, providing gorgeous views over the ocean, and the narrow streets where the locals live. The audioguide actually added some good levels of colour commentary and announced its pithy insights by the lights inside the train flashing. A nice touch, considering there were some lengthy stretches between them.

I’d been keeping one eye on then time and was surprised when we were dropped off on schedule and we only just had enough time for a quick thank you for the driver before hauling ass across town to the train station, making it with a few minutes to spare. As the train pulled away a lady came up to me and asked me in French if the train was the one to Cannes. My mind went blank and I just nodded. Ange asked me afterwards why I didn’t answer her in French and I said that the only french phrase I could remember right at that time was “je ne regrette rien” (I regret nothing) – a bit of a surreal answer to a reasonable question.

The train went back to Nice and we enjoyed the view of the beaches right alongside the rail tracks – many people in the water and the little towns spotted along the way making me think it might be quite nice to stay for longer in one or more of the little towns to soak up the sun. Surely it would be cheaper!

We arrived back in Nice and walked the short distance to Villa Otero, picking up our luggage and heading back to the train station where the airport bus left from. There’s a little delay in the bus arriving but we have padded our schedule sufficiently for that not to cause any undue concern.