“Le Grand Départ” from Nice
I prolonged my summer a few days for the sole purpose of being in Nice for the “Grand Départ” of Tour de France. Initially scheduled to take place from June 27th to July 19th, the annual biking competition was postponed, but to follow the same route, with no changes, from Nice to Paris. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organizers, in agreement with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), decided to delay the Tour de France to start Saturday, August 29th and run til Sunday, September 20th, 2020. This was my chance to see the launch, rather than when I am normally at the finish line in Paris.
A couple days before the race, my Provençal friend, Barb Westfield, invested a two-hour bus ride from Aix-en-Provence to join me. She’s a one-time racer and huge fan of the event, so the chance to be present when the riders hit their pedals for the first time was a special opportunity. We took advantage of the time together to do a variety of things in Nice and make the most of the end of summer on the Riviera.
Barb is one of my Corsican vacation companions and is as much of a beach lizard as I am, so the moment she landed, we dropped everything, grabbed the beach bag equipped with floating noodles and water shoes, then headed down to the pebbles for an afternoon of fun in the sun.
Little did we realize that the organizers of the Tour de France were at that moment setting up the barricades along the Promenade des Anglais, the route of Stage 1, as were the large media trucks, eating up every inch of space along the famous coastal road. It made getting to and from the beach a big challenge on Thursday afternoon with our beach chairs in tow. Place Masséna was entirely blocked off cutting the Tramway access through the Place, adding to the havoc. To get down to the beach, we had to walk a long way around to find an entry point. No matter…we were determined to have a last hurrah on the Baie des Anges…and we did, basking in the sun and enjoying the gorgeous sea by floating out and riding the tide.
The Niçois are used to such encumbrances. Events take place all year long, such as the annual Nice Caranaval, the Jazz Festival, the Ironman France Competition, to name just a few. Ever since the terrorist attack on the Promenade des Anglais a few years ago, the Niçois have gotten quite accustomed to heightened security, and getting around during these events more of an obstacle course.
A recommendation by a friend sent us to dine that evening at Babel Babel at the far eastern end of the Promenade des Anglais near the Castel Beach, just parallel to the Cours Saleya. The wait staff escorted us upstairs to their balcony overlooking the Quai des Etats Unis, now completely void of cars in preparation for the Tour de France which would be passing there two days later. The view from this vantage point overlooking the Baie des Anges and the Coline du Château, just at sunset, was one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Occasionally one or two bikers would cycle by, otherwise, there was not a car in sight, nor was the noise from them. The Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine Babel Babel serves is way up there for being creative, innovative and delicious. I wanted to lick the bowl that had once housed “l’aubergine rôtie au tahini avec un oeuf parfait” (roasted eggplant in tahini sauce with a poached egg on top). Heaven had hit earth.
Friday we took the day to explore Antibes. I hadn’t been there in many years. It’s just a 17-minute train ride from Nice and the station is close to the port and La Vieille Ville—the old town. We wandered around, shopped and had lunch in the garden of a little restaurant. It was less than enjoyable. I have nothing to show for the day there except a pair of earrings I purchased as I realized upon leaving that I hadn’t taken any photos. The reason for that is that there simply was nothing of interest to record.
No offense to lovers of Antibes, but the appeal of the seaside town escaped us. The population appeared to be largely geriatric, and we surmised that the average age was 65. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going on there. The old town was not very charming or interesting. There is a lot of new construction, which means that the architecture is about to become even less lovely. I know a few people who live in Antibes and love it, but as I said, I personally got nothing from it. Perhaps they can show me a side of Antibes we missed.
That evening, we made up for our less than perfect day in Antibes by having dinner at the Club House of the Club Nautique de Nice, a suggestion by one of our clients who lives in the area of the Old Port. She’s thinking of becoming a member, but you don’t need to be one to partake of dinner on its terrace, which overlooks Coco Beach and Le Plongeoir. The setting is magnificent, the food excellent and the prices reasonable. It’s a bit more of an effort than any one of the hundreds of restaurants in my immediate neighborhood, but it’s worth it.
Coco Beach is tiny, just beyond the port of Nice on the side of the Club, but it’s not exactly a beach. It’s really a series of rocks perfect for sunbathing, with ladders to give access to the sea. It’s unique and strikingly beautiful, plus the view over the sea and the Bay of Angels is really is quite breathtaking. Nice’s locals know the secret spot and have been coming for generations to swim with the fish and dive.
Le Plongeoir is an iconic restaurant hovering above the sea on a famous pillar of rock and at the base of the diving boards themselves. It was here at the end of the 19th-century that a stylish fishing boat was secured on the rock and during “La Belle Époque” diners could be perched six meters above the waves. The restaurant is connected by a walkway to the charming terrace. It is here that we filmed a portion of an HGTV Mediterranean Life that is scheduled to air September 15th. (As soon as we have the actual air times, we’ll let you know.)
Early on Saturday we staked out a front row seat at the Café Balthazar on the Promenade des Anglais, planning to sit there all day long, eating and drinking, working on our computers and iPads to eventually see the big event of the Tour de France live, up front and up close. It turned out to be the perfect spot for the best views and the overall atmosphere of the exciting “départ” of the annual event.
The first stage of the race which departed from Place Masséna at 2 p.m. rolled in front of us a few times before finishing just a few meters down the road. Meanwhile, we were watching the race live on our various electronic devices. When the cyclists were just moments away, evident by the sound of the race’s official helicopter, even without watching their progression on our screens, we’d head to the barricaded street to get a front position to see them pass…so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss them.
At one point it started to rain, which wreaked havoc with the riders. Not only did the rain slow them down, but several slid out, crashing along the route. It was not a pretty sight to see one of them crash directly into a directional sign while on one of the mountain roads. To be so up front to view the race in the rain, I fortunately had my newly-purchased official yellow Tour de France umbrella in tow that came in very handy indeed.
Here’s a video of the riders as they whizzed by in a flash on the second passing along the Promenade des Anglais.
At the Fan Park along the Promenade de Paillon on Sunday morning, fans took an opportunity to buy souvenirs, watch an initiation to cycling for children, along with shows and entertainment. Access was restricted in the interest of safety—each zone was limited to 450 people. Wearing a mask was compulsory…of course.
With the Tour de France in town and heavily promoted, one would think that the city would be extraordinarily busy, but it really wasn’t. One can only imagine that the usual crowds shied away in fear of the spread of Coronavirus. And the precautions were evident since it was near to impossible to get close to any of the ceremonies or activities. When we stood up against the barricades to see the rides whiz by, we were elbow to elbow with other spectators, but everyone was wearing a mask and if not, were quickly reprimanded by the others. The Tour de France helpers were handing out free official masks and were dosing out hand sanitizing gel from huge vats strapped to their backs to anyone and everyone who was there braving the crowds.
The event was the perfect send off and climax to a wonderful summer by the sea. This is likely the last Parler Nice for a while…not sure when I will return. As I write, I am on the train back to Paris for La Rentrée—which means “real life”: back to work, back to school, back to the grindstone and back to normal, everyday life…except it won’t be normal and it doesn’t have to be everyday life. One thing I’ve realized having spent seven weeks in Nice, is that I don’t have to be sad about leaving, because I will always have Nice and can always come back as easily as I left.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(at the Tour de France)
P.S. Après Midi returns to Café de la Mairie September 8th! To look into our Après Midi future, visit that page for who will be speaking next and what their presentations will be about. And plan to attend them all, in person or on Zoom!