The heart of the French Riviera
8/12/12 - 8/13/12 94 °F
As we arrived into the area around Nice, we drove along the beaches and noticed that private companies set up shop right on the beach renting out lounge chairs, umbrellas, towels and what not, and often have a little refreshment operation or even a small restaurant. They name these places things like: Hawaii Beach, or Tropicana Beach -- almost always in English. I had heard of some these before, like the famous Nikki Beach in St. Tropez (and now in Miami and Las Vegas), but always thought these were separate beaches, not beach rental companies all on the same beach. Another lesson learned.
Nice itself is a big city, sprawling out over a large cove of the Med. Hotels right along the beach promenade are very expensive, so we found one online a few blocks inland. The Hotel Roosevelt (a Best Western, no less) was alright, with a decent location and decent price, but the rooms were a little small, European style, and it felt, well... like a Best Western back home. That evening however, as we were getting ready to go out for dinner, we heard some funny noises either in the wall or ceiling of our bathroom. I joked that there were animals in there. But the noise kept getting louder, and we deduced that someone was taking a shower above us, although we were surprised at how loud it was. All of a sudden water came pouring out of the ceiling fixture above the shower in a torrent of a waterfall. Maybe this is how they take showers here -- Everyone in the showers at the same time, now turn on the shower on the top floor and let it fall through each floor. Saves water.
I rush downstairs to let the front desk know, and while not very alarmed, they change our rooms. Two floors up, same room. Maybe now I can turn on the shower, and get my downstairs neighbor wet. Except this room smells like smoke. Yuck! Back downstairs and the front desk tells me they are completely booked and have no more rooms. I tell her we'll even pay more for a larger room. Sorry, nothing available. I am not happy, and tell the girl so. As I walk away and wait by the elevator, a senile old woman is trying to check in, but does not know her own birthday to fill in the check-in card. The front desk attendant rushes around to me and whispers that she is going to swap rooms and give us the woman's room. The woman is so senile she won't notice. Thank god! Her room is wonderful! On the top floor (no leaks from above), it is a large corner room with three balconies, a queen and a twin bed, and a large updated modern bathroom. Now this is what we expected! Now we just have to decide who gets which bed. Note to others: book a triple room instead of a double, if you want a large room.
We follow the advice of a guidebook and find one of those beach rental places: Castel; except at night, this is a real restaurant, tucked under the end of the overhead promenade where the beach ends and meets a hill that comes tumbling down into the sea, it overlooks all of Nice with the water practically lapping at your toes. It is beautiful, and surprisingly quiet. We get there just before sunset, around 8:30 and there is only one other table occupied. We are a little concerned, but the view is gorgeous. Sure enough, the place starts filling in a little later, but never gets packed. The food is good, but as the sun sets, the sea turns gold and the lights of the city come on. It's stunning!
As we walk back to the hotel, we skirt along the Old City, and walk down a broad boulevard that has been turned into one giant sidewalk cafe. While served by many restaurants, the center "aisle" of tables is as wide as four car lanes and several blocks long; tables crammed together; with, literally, thousands of people eating here. We're amazed at the numbers of people. It's the largest gathering of eaters in one spot we've ever seen. While amazed at the energy of this place, we are thankful that we found our little quiet beachfront place. A quick stop in an Irish pub to watch some of the closing ceremony of the Olympics capped off the night.
The next day was sight-seeing day among the little villages on the French Riviera. First stop was the tiny hilltop town of Eze-le-Village, or just Eze (pronounced "ez"). There are 3 roads from Nice to Monaco all running parallel to each other: the Low, Middle and High Corniches. Their names referring to how high up they are on the staggeringly steep mountainsides that cascades down into the sea. The Low Corniche running along the waterfront and the High running right along the crest of the mountains, which is actually the Via Aurelia, built by the Romans 2000 years ago.
The Middle and High Corniches provide breathtaking views of the Med, the little villages dotting the seafront, and the villas that tumble down the cliffsides, perched on amazing panoramic points. And, of course, the many yachts gathered in the coves, one bigger than the next. The "tiny" 60 - 90 footers dominated by their 200 - 300 ft. neighbors.
Between the Middle and High Corniche sits a tiny medieval town perched precariously on the tippy top of a four-sided cliff, as if it had grown out of the stone itself. Very Harry Potter like. We nicknamed it The Town of a Thousand Steps. Its itty-bitty alleyways running in every direction other than straight are barely wide enough for one or two people, and are made primarily of steps leading ever upward toward the pinnacle. Little shops lining the alleys seem carved out of the rock, and are really more like cute well-lit caves. Little cafes dot the alleys taking up every available space and stairway landing. As we get near the top and hunt for the little restaurant that is supposed to have amazing panoramic views, we find out that the terrace is only for patrons who want to eat (we don't), and the 4 or 5 tables on their balcony for drinks are all taken. Oh well. We head down more alleys, with no idea where we are or where we're going, just knowing we need to head downhill. But it's like a maze. The medieval buildings/walls all look the same. Have we been here before? I think so. But then we turn a tight corner and discover a little square we definitely haven't seen before. Finally we make it out of the puzzle, discover a charming garden clinging to the cliffside and filled with statues of animals, including two life-size giraffes, and find a little sand-floored outdoor lounge with tiki huts. Is this the South of France or the South Pacific?
Continuing our adventure we drive down to the seaside and explore Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat. Villefranche is another charming seaside village, with waterfront cafes, a fortress with great views, llittle cobblestone streets, and a pebble beach that lines a cove. Cap Ferrat isn't a town, but a peninsula (a cape) that juts out into the Med, covered with trees and spectacular, mostly hidden, villas. The small town of St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat oozes money, and as we drive through the hilly residential roads, catching glimpses of beautiful properties, we finally understand the allure, and the real money, of the French Riviera. This is where "you get it" -- this is the Palm Beach, or Southampton, of the Med.
But unlike the Hamptons, where the official car is the Land Rover, here it is an unassuming tiny and cute car - the Moke. A miniaturized version of a cross between a Jeep and a VW Thing (remember those from the 1970's?), they are everywhere in every color, and apparently nowhere else, as I have never even heard of these. Perfect for zipping around from village to village.
For dinner we find another recommended restaurant, Le Plage de Passable, another beachfront restaurant. This one is on Cap Ferrat, just below the famous Villa Nellcote where the Rolling Stones resided and recorded "Exile on Main Street". It is across the cove from and overlooks Villefranche-sur-Mer. We arrive at 7:45 for our 8:00 pm reservations, and the restaurant isn't open yet. It's difficult for us to grasp that restaurants don't even open until 8:00 and typically don't get busy until 9:00. While we wait along the beachfront, we are amused by someone trying to wiggle his yellow convertible Lamborghini out of the tiny cramped garage, his exhaust bellowing in the echo chamber. Dinner is a delicious pasta with fruits-de-mer (fruits of the sea, love that description!), and is accompanied by another great sunset setting over the mountainous background with the little Villefranche village lighting up as dusk settles.
The next day brings the next stop -- Monaco! And then on to Italy!