So the south of France, the Cote d’Azur. I know what you’re thinking: expensive, clichéd. Think again.
I agreed to go there for a week’s holiday with a friend mainly because I’d never been and it’s one of those famous places that’s in all the books and movies and gossip magazines. Oh, and because I really like travelling with her. But as the time grew closer, I began to worry about money and, quite honestly, the standard of my wardrobe. Hey, Brad and Angelina are there growing their latest baby; this is no shabby shorts and functional-sandals beach holiday.
|The south of France / Cote d’Azur / French Riviera. Call it what you like, it’s all beautiful.
How wrong I was. I discovered that the south of France is one of the most beautiful places on earth, plus it’s relaxed, fun, affordable and very, very welcoming.
Nice is nice, even via Toulon
We flew into Toulon Airport on a cheap Ryanair flight from London. And sometimes what you gain on the airfare, you lose on time and the cost of all the other transfers. It’s a small airport but the handiest if you’re staying in St Tropez (my advice: don’t unless you are very wealthy) but not so good if you’re staying further down the coast, which we were. We had to do the airport bus into Toulon itself, which took half an hour or so. It took us to the station from which we needed to catch a train to Nice, where we had booked an apartment for the week. Lesson learned: Nice has its own airport and easyJet flies there cheaply.
But the trains to Nice were fairly regular and took about two hours give or take. It was lovely to see all the beautiful countryside and begin to fully appreciate the mountainous and coastal glory that is the Cote d’Azur, and pass through legendary towns like Antibes and Cannes. And the train had my favourite dogbox configuration so we ended up chatting to a charming French man in our compartment who worked in Monaco and offered to show us around there a few days later. He gave us his card and we promised to call. Unfortunately, soon after we got off the train in Nice, he texted my friend having found her luggage tag on the floor – not such a good sign… we didn’t call.
Nice is nicer with a good apartment
|Looking over Nice. That water is soooo blue.|
Our apartment was fantastic (booked via nicepebbles.com). Much better than staying at a hotel because we had space and privacy and could self-cater, which is not only a must in a town with such great bakeries and cheeses etc, but is also cheaper.
The apartment was right in the heart of the old town but very modern. We had the full experience of waking to the sound of calling French voices (usually from the garbage men with their noisy truck at 6 am which took some of the romance out of it!), then heading down to the local bakery for the BEST croissants and baguettes I have truly ever tasted (Artisan Boulanger, Rue du Marene). These things were addictive and the bread so light I’m sure there was no danger of putting on weight…
We got into the habit of buying a baguette every morning and making up cheese and salad rolls to take on our daily excursions. That sounds so dull but when the cheese is that good and the supermarket is full of wonderful things like pear confit and fig puree to accompany your cheese, it becomes heavenly. I actually brought small jars of these things home with me. I’m sure the French would laugh at the idea – like taking their equivalent of peanut butter probably, but one country’s commonplaces are this traveller’s joy.
Yet Nice is nicest 1 euro at a time
The best bit of advice we were given is that all the regional buses in this part of the world now cost 1euro per trip. So it was really affordable to explore the whole coast. The bus terminal is just on the edge of old town. Armed with baguettes, and comfortable shoes (I had to buy some flat shoes having only taken heels in anticipation of a life of glamour), most mornings found us hopping on a bus to somewhere fabulous. Actually, that’s a little untrue – by the time we’d eaten croissants and had a bit of time exploring Nice’s old town, walking along the beachfront or up the hill (known as the Chateau) for coffee with a view, we usually didn’t make a start on our day trips until early afternoon.
The best thing about catching buses was seeing the landscape and the houses. And wow, is the water blue in that part of the world! Cote d’Azur is no lie – it is the bluest water I have ever seen.
Day trip to Eze
First we visited Eze, a gorgeous fortified, medieval hilltop town perched high about the sea. It is all winding, narrow streets and steps (no cars), and stone houses. Right up the top is a wonderful cactus garden, well worth the entry fee (about 5 euros I remember), and including a contemplation garden of large wooden recliners where you can lie and stare straight down along the coast – divine! From there we spied umbrellas on a terrace and felt the lure of a drink with the best view in the world.
|Touring Eze from Nice|
We wound our way back through Eze and found the Chateau Eza Hotel. It only has about 10 rooms and we were able to have a hot chocolate on the terrace. Around us people sipped champagne attended to by uniformed waiters, but hot chocolate was more our budget and it was very good, presented in a white pot and delicious. And the view… worth the price (which was less outlandish than it could have been). You don’t need to be wealthy to live the life of the famous and glamorous, even if just for a moment.
The trip back was less charming – a trick to learn is that the last buses are often quite early – about 7.15pm in this case, and don’t miss it or you are stuck. Taxis are few and far between and quite expensive.
Another trick when visiting Eze (and you Absolutely Must!) is to catch the right bus. Don’t get the Eze en Mer (or something like that) – it will take you to the part of the town next to the water, at the bottom on the hill. Then you have an hour or more walk straight up the hill on a stony track favoured by the philosopher Nietzsche. Unless you are part mountain goat, I don’t recommend it. We lucked out by getting on the bus to Eze itself – kindly timetables not good planning. (You can also book a tour to Eze and Monaco from Nice over on the Viator website.)
Day trip to Antibes & Monaco
Another place we visited was Antibes, which is a lovely little town. One of our primary reasons for going there was the Picasso Museum – he spent a lot of time painting there. Unfortunately it was closed for renovation – and had been for two years! The pitfalls of buying old guidebooks secondhand! Still the town was worth a visit and I got some great presents for friends. Oh and the museum reopens later this year. Missed it by that much…
We also did the obligatory tour to Monaco. This place of legend lured us with promises of fast cars and fabulous fashion. Accordingly we put on our prettiest dresses and favourite shoes, mounted our budget bus and headed to the place fabled to change lives. Well, it did. I hated it so much I had my first cigarette in years! Yep, don’t go there.
I think part of the issue was that they were setting up for this year’s Grand Prix so it was noisy and dusty and difficult to walk around. I was also amazed by just what a concrete jungle it is. Apartment buildings jumbled on top of one another and nothing pretty to be seen in any direction. Another problem was no local knowledge – such a shame the man from the train failed us. We toured the royal castle – worth it for the Mills and Boon style 1980s portrait of Princess Grace and family, had an awful hot chocolate, got confused at the casino but drank expensive Cosmopolitans to numb the shame, then caught the bus back to our beloved Nice for a great dinner and to wonder why we ever left.
Eating & Drinking in Nice
A couple of recommendations for dinner in Nice: In the marketplace just back from the beach front there are lots of seafood restaurants and the food looks wonderful. The prices also filled us with wonder. Instead I had a delicious plate of moule (mussels) at the much cheaper, more local Socca café. (on a corner in Rue Mascoina). Communal benches on the street, a window you order from, a simple menu and some of the most delicious things you’ve tasted. Try the pissaladier – the local onion, olive and anchovy pizza – yum!
Also go to Oliviera. On the Rue du Collet, this little restaurant specialises in olive oils and with each course the fabulous owner/host/enthusiast brings you a different oil to taste. They sell them too (naturally) but the large size of the bottle was a bit of a disincentive.
Another favourite for local food and atmosphere was a café called Gesu in Rue de Gesu opposite the church – fabulous friendly service and the young boys at the next table even bought us Cognacs. Follow it up with one of 90 or so flavours of ice-cream from Fennocio – I recommend the violet, or the rose, or the ginger, or the cinnamon…