A Travelogue from a Leap Year on the Côte d’Azur
The week at the Carnaval de Nice wouldn’t have been complete without an excursion along the coast, landing eventually in Menton to celebrate the annual Fête du Citron. This was the 83rd year of the festival, but this year with the theme of “Cinecittà” — the dream and nostalgia of the Italian cinema of the 50s and 60s, the “belle epoque” featuring such great filmmakers as Visconti, Fellini and Leone.
The citrus festival is as kitsch as it gets and is described by the Menton tourist office as “an unforgettable travel between the monuments, motifs and representations of Italian cinema all made of oranges and lemons!” Yes, the monuments and floats are made up of real oranges and lemons…using up to 145 tons of the colorful fruits! We did not want to miss it.
It’s 1.50€ to ride the #100 bus from the Old Port in Nice all the way to Menton at the Italian border (as are almost all buses in the vicinity), but we chose to make a stop at Villefranche-sur-Mer to have a leisurely lunch in the sun with Frédéric Latty, the Director of the Institut de Français. He chose one of the popular cafés on the sweet port.
The Institut de Français is graciously allowing us to film a scene of a House Hunters International episode in their magnificent villa overlooking the sea this coming April. Frédéric and the institute are long time friends and colleagues — as so many of you readers have been students there (and perhaps will be in the future, so if you contact him, please be sure to let him know I sent you!).
While we were enjoying the gorgeous sun at an outside table, Gerry Forth walked past us and into the café. He and his wife, Jann, ‘starred’ in an episode we filmed in this very spot:
“Californians sell their Vineyard to Afford a Summer Home on the Costly Côte d’Azur” – Season 70, Episode 6.” Synchronistically, we were ‘scheduled’ to have dinner with them the next night at Le Bistot Antoine, and as it turns out, their episode aired just this past week.
Villefranche-sur-mer is a maze of tiny charming streets and stairways worth a tour and/or a romantic vacation. We wandered the Italianesque pathways to take in the atmosphere, the scenery and the views. It oozes with charm and it’s no wonder so many Americans choose it as their home-away-from-home and vacation destination. Attendees at the Institut de Français undoubtedly always fall in love with the village.
Up the stairs back to hop on the #100 bus we went, with Monaco as our next stop. (Note that if you get off and back on the bus, you must pay another whopping 1.50€ when you get back on!) The casino in Monte Carlo still draws busloads of lookie-loos, standing outside waiting to see someone rich and famous or just to ogle the Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Maseratis and other elaborate and expensive vehicles that grace the parking spaces out front. Our favorite, however, was a tiny pink and black Mini Cooper with a pink and black leather interior that seriously stole the show (as far as we were concerned!).
No trip to Monaco is complete without a stop at the Zara store just around the corner from the casino. It’s France’s best Zara, catering to an upper-class clientele and therefore has the best selection of clothing! I’ve been known to make a trip to Monaco exclusively for this, even though a much larger store is just steps away in Nice. (I did score a great little skirt. Ladies, don’t miss it.)
Back on the bus after an expensive coffee at the Café de Paris, we headed east to Menton, just another 45 minutes away along the beautiful Riviera coastline. The views are breathtaking as the bus winds through Roquebrune and Cap Martin to Menton. Because of the parade route in Menton, the bus stopped at the edge of the city and that meant walking all the way in — a good 20 to 30-minute walk along the oceanfront.
Once in the center of town, we picked up our press passes at the Tourist Office and took a quick tour of the “Jardins de Lumières” before it closed for the night — giant designs constructed of lemons and oranges filled the Jardins Biovès in the center of Menton, all devoted to the Italian cinema theme. Among them were Amarcord, Le Nuits Blanches, La Dolce Vita and nine others, each as impressive and fantastical as the next. The oranges and lemons are held into what appear to be wire frames using rubber bands (yellow and orange) that get replaced daily as they shrivel and die (sad, but true). The scent from the citrus is heavenly, I might add.
The parade along the waterfront and through the center of old town started at 8:30 p.m. sharp with seven mile-high floats (slight exaggeration) all made of oranges and lemons accompanied by a myriad of performers, some of whom had also paraded in Nice at the Carnaval. We stood on the street at the very beginning of the parade, trying to take as many photos as we could. Again the crowd, but those standing on the street, were uncharacteristically solemn and barely cracked a smile or moved a muscle all during the parade while we New Orleanians were dancing and laughing while dodging confetti and paper streamers.
It was shocking to us how it was possible they could be so unmoved by it all. One couple held position on the edge of the curb and were yelling at those in front of them who were freely moving in the street to move back and get ‘in line.’ The woman kept pulling on my coat wanting me to get back so as to stand on the curb as she and her husband were. (Clearly, she did not have Mardi Gras training or even think for a moment that the street was a a free space in which to move — that she could have stood anywhere she liked!)
Fortunately, not all the spectators were as uptight as she and her husband were, but one cannot help but wonder what there is in their cultural make-up that would make them actually box themselves in — the rules they were following were rules they had made up for themselves, as no one suggested for a second that they must metaphorically ‘color inside the lines’ as the French are known to do so well.
The parade made a couple of rounds, then at 10 p.m. the fireworks were set off while we set off to catch the train back to Nice to end a very long and very eventful, exciting and enriching day. A day like that wasn’t enough for us…so Friday morning we got back on the train and headed east to Ventimiglia, the town in Italy closest to the border with France, just on the other side of Menton, where on Fridays a massive open-air market takes place along the “lungomare” (seafront). The merchandise is generally of a low quality, but it’s fun nevertheless, and one never knows when a bargain might appear before your very eyes — my big bargain was in under garments!
Lunch on the Italian Riviera among the tourists was nothing to ‘write home about,’ but the whole experience of being in Italy for even a few hours was well worth the easy and inexpensive train ride. That evening we met Jann and Gerry Forth of House Hunters International fame for dinner at Bistrot d’Antoine (27, rue de la Préfecture, 06300 Nice, phone 04 93 85 29 57). It’s my favorite and one of three restaurants by the same owner (Armand Crespo) in Old Town that rank top of the list of great bistrots at ridiculously reasonable prices. It’s there I couldn’t resist the “salade de veau façon vitello tonnato” — as delicious as it is pretty. (Le Bar des Oiseaux and Le Comptoir du Marché are equally as good — so try any of them and be sure to reserve in advance as tables come at a premium!)
Saturday was shopping day, but not before lunching at another of my favorite restaurants, Il Vicoletto, with Margo Lestz, Curious Rambler blogger, journalist and author of “Curious Histories of Nice, France” and “French Holidays and Traditions, Curious Histories.” It wasn’t until reading Margo’s chapter about Carnaval time in Nice that I learned many funny and interesting anecdotes and facts — like how Silly String replaced the tradition of throwing things like egg shells filled with soot or flour (!) and that the Nice Carnaval inspired the one in Rio de Janeiro! You will giggle through the two succinct little books like I did. To get your copies, visit her Web site.
Sunday was another marathon day, first visiting the Musée Chagall where most of the museum was closed while a new exhibition was being installed, then a trip across town to visit the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral which was recently reopened after a major renovation, then spontaneously hopping the train (again!) to visit Grasse and the perfume museums. We learned the hard way that the train station in Grasse is outside of the city and that buses into town run very infrequently on Sunday. In the cold and rain, it wasn’t fun but was comical thinking we might be stranded in Grasse. A bus finally came, we had tours through two museums (very interesting!) and a stop at the Fragonard boutique (impossible to visit without making at least one purchase). After smelling enough delicious scents to be reeling, we boarded the #500 bus at the Gare Routière not far from the museums to land in Nice close to the apartment and look back at our week of Carnaval.
* Carnivals all over the world are very different, framed by the culture within they take place. We can only expect the French to behave like the French at their own carnivals and festivals, which may never have the same exuberance as in other places and cultures.
* Synchronicity followed us throughout the week, most of which I didn’t even bore you with in this missive. “Synchronicity is a concept, first explained by psychiatrist Carl Jung, which holds that events are ‘meaningful coincidences’ if they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.” (Wikipedia.org) This is how I know I am in the right place at the right time. You should try it as a way of being confident in the choices you make in life.
* American friends living outside of America are easily made and are more and more often found here on the Riviera. Those who have moved from Paris to Nice are loving it just as much. Could I live here 100% of the time? Maybe, but I don’t have to make that choice while I can enjoy the best of both worlds. I highly recommend it!
* There is so much more to discover in the region, that it may take a lifetime, but that’s okay — life is an adventure and we can only do what we can do, and enjoy every minute.
* Nice is…nice!
A la prochaine,
Editor of Parler Nice
The Adrian Leeds Group
(with the Pink Cooper Mini)
P.S. Le Matisse is available for rental…and if YOU aren’t there, I surely will be! Visit Le Matisse to book your stay before high season kicks in and the availability is gone! We also represent the luxurious two bedroom-two bath apartment next door, La Côte du Paradis, if you need or want more space.