I recall this as an introduction to my report on Nice and the Côte d'Azur. Here in the New York City area, the colder side of Fall has officialy arrived, quite a contrast to the hot and brilliantly sunny time I spent in southern France in June. So even though this is five months later, it seems apropos to take a look back. Besides, the city of Nice (France's 5th largest city) enjoys a unique microclimate, and it is not uncommon to sit at an outdoor cafe in the winter months wearing a T-shirt or light sweater. So if you are planning an off-season visit, you have a very good chance for lots of sunshine and mild temperatures.
The day I left Paris it was a bit chilly and overcast, but I was meeting my friends Amy and Denise at the Gare de Lyon's Big Ben Bar in Le Train Bleu, where it always feels sunny due to the fanciful frescoes depicting southern France and Italian destinations (Paris train stations are named for the destinations they serve, and the Gare de Lyon trains head south). Readers of my Paris book know that Le Train Bleu is one of my favorite restaurants, and I have long wanted to rendez-vous there and walk downstairs to the tracks and board a train. Finally, a dream satisfied!
After a change in Marseille, we were in Nice about six hours later. Lou Souleou, a small B&B at No. 26 rue des Ponchettes, was our home for four days. For those of you who know Nice, the rue des Ponchettes runs parallel to the Quai des Etats Unis (the eastern continuation of the Promenade des Anglais) and is a short distance from the steps that lead up to the Tour Bellanda. So yes, you can hear the street noise when you are sitting outside on the terrace that the Zen and Swazi rooms share (we had these two rooms plus the Nimis single upstairs, which faced the rue des Ponchettes) but when you close the glass doors and turn on the ceiling fans or a/c the street sounds are quite muffled. Maxime and his staff at Lou Souleou are extremely helpful, kind, resourceful, and patient (I had a few unusual requests!). Rates are approximately 50 to 130 euros and the breakfast is especially nice with good coffee, fresh baguettes and other breads, a selection of great jams, yogurt, cereals, fruit, and specials like crepes or muffins. Lou Souleou is also just across from Castel Plage, one of the beach clubs on the shore, right at the point where the road curves around toward the port of Nice. Rates for a full day are 18 euros and 15 for a half-day, which is quite reasonable as you have your own sun chair, an umbrella, a table, towel, and access to the bathroom facilities. There is also a restaurant, making it really easy to stay all day long. If you haven't been to Nice yet, you might not think a chair on the beach is anything special; but much of the coastline on the Côte d'Azur is rocky, so a chair is actually valuable if not essential. Not that I haven't enjoyed arranging those rocks just so, to accommodate me and my towel -- I spent two weeks in Nice on spring break the year I lived in Paris, and I was at the rocky beach every day -- and believe it or not I was fairly comfortable. The rocks are approximately five inches in diameter and are flat, not sharp, which is why it's possible to achieve a level of comfort. I am looking at one of these rocks as I type this because years ago I brought a rock home as a souvenir and a friend painted a pretty scene on one side of it.
Many visitors don't round the corner past Castel Plage, which I think is a shame because the road winds past a beautiful war memorial (pictured below) and on to the Place Île de Beauté (also pictured below), appropriately named as it faces the the boats departing for Corsica, often referred to as the Île de Beauté.
Other culinary highlights for traditional Niçoise specialties are Restaurant Acchiardo (38 rue Droite, Vieux Nice, 04.93.85.51.16; no website, closed Saturday and Sunday) and La Merenda (4 rue Raoul Bosio, also closed Saturday and Sunday). Reservations at both restaurants are hard to secure, though confirming a table at Acchiardo is infinitely easier than at La Merenda, which does not have a telephone and has a "reservation sur place" policy. There are also seats for only about 30 people. If you want to eat at La Merenda (which means "a delicious morsel" in Nicois dialect), you must walk to the restaurant and reserve in person. There will be a line of other people there doing the same thing. I recommend going early on in your visit to Nice because there is a good chance your first choice will be fully booked, and you'll have to reserve for another day. The chef at La Merenda is Dominique Le Stanc, who trained with a handful of noteworthy chefs and later earned 2 Michelin stars at the Chantecler restaurant in Nice's Hotel Negresco. Le Stanc bought the restaurant from Jean Giusti, who'd had quite a successful run with it for a number of years, and he has stated that working in gastronomic establishments requires "more a gift for logistics than for cooking. Here, in my tiny authentic restaurant, I can once again devote myself to what I care most about, the essence of cuisine: simple dishes made from fresh produce bought daily at the local markets." La Voglia (at No. 2 rue Saint Francois de Paule, just steps from the Cours Saleya) is a reliably good and popular Italian restaurant with antipasti, pizza, and pasta dishes and a lively atmosphere.
Among the great treasures of the Côte d'Azur are its small museums, and in the hills above Nice are both the Musée National Marc Chagall and the Musée Matisse. I'm happy to say that the Chagall museum is still the special gem it has been since it opened, and I do still love the Matisse Museum even though the collection isn't that strong -- other museums around the world have many more works than this one. But the building itself is beautiful and the location is lovely, and there is also the red-and-ivory-striped chair! Even those with a cursory knowledge of Matisse's paintings will recognize this chair. It used to be located on one of the upper floors of the museum, very casually situated in a corner, but now it has a special place of honor near the museum exit, which it so deserves!
To my mind, a visit to Nice is not complete with a stop at Maison Auer (7 rue St.-Francois-de-Paule), a family business founded in 1820 and specializing in bursting-with-flavor pâte de fruits (the translation is something like 'fruit jellies' but these are nothing like the those awful jelly rings) and fruits confits (crystallized fruit). Also found in Auer's beautiful boutique are confitures, olives, chocolates and chocolate covered nuts, etc., and everything is packaged perfectly for gifts. I particularly love the crystallized grapefruit and orange peels. Alziari, another family business at no. 14 rue St.-Francois de-Paule, is also an old favorite of mine -- founded in 1868, Alziari offers its own (good quality) olive oil, olive products, wines, spirits, vinegar, etc. I didn't stop in on this visit -- Alziari oil is found in several New York stores, so it's less unique to me now -- but over the years I have bought many items here. A store that that was new to me on this visit was Alexia Cenac (29 rue Benoit Bunico; no website). Great for home decor, gifts, and jewelry.
One episode did put a damper on this visit, and I share it here so that it doesn't happen to you: if you take a bus within Nice, do not ever forget to stamp your ticket in the validation machine. This little machine is located in the vicinity of the driver's seat, usually a few steps away, further down the center aisle of the bus. Stamping tickets for public transportation is a common custom in France and elsewhere in Europe. Though I am well aware of this, I am also aware that plenty of (local) riders do not even bother to purchase a ticket, preferring to take their chances that there won't be a random check. Spot checks are not unheard of, but neither are they common. So, when my friends and I boarded the bus to go to the Chagall museum, we were chatting and not entirely paying close attention and we paid for our tickets at the front of the bus and walked to the back, where there was some standing room. At the next few stops, a number of locals boarded at the back of the bus and stood next to us. Just before we reached the museum, two officials (who I would describe as being the equivalent of traffic cops) boarded the bus and were checking tickets, and all the people standing beside us quickly hopped off the bus. I assumed the officials were checking to make sure everyone had bought a ticket, but it turns out they were checking to see if everyone had stamped their tickets. A group of us were forced off the bus, and it was quickly clear that everyone in our group of about a dozen people were foreigners. Still, I believed that all we had to do was explain that we were visitors, all would be forgiven, and we would be on our way. I couldn't have been more wrong. One official asked us for our passports, and yet again I (stupidly) believed that the passports would prove our case, and all would be well. With passports in hand, the officials then told us we owed 35 euros each for the crime of not stamping our bus tickets. Much arguing and pleading ensued, to no avail. In retrospect, I believe when we were asked for our passports we should have turned and walked away because I don't think the officials had the authority to arrest us. The bottom line is that this is a scam aimed at tourists, and we saw it played out in other parts of the city. Though the law may be somewhat valid, it truly is absurd that it's enforced, and only on tourists, and the behavior of the officers is despicable, and the bus drivers should remind tourists to stamp their tickets. Most of all, the government officials of Nice should be ashamed that this is allowed to continue.
Lastly, some great changes are afoot in Nice: a pedestrian zone is being created to include an avenue from the National Theater and the Nice Acropolis Convention Center all the way to the sea, with strips of lawn and stone and all lined with water mirrors. Additionally, Nice Stadium is being constructed and will have 35,000 seats and will be multipurpose: besides football and rugby, it will be home to seminars, concerts, large-scale events, and the National Sports Museum, and will be one of the world's very first Eco-Stadiums. And city officials are considering reopening the Ponchettes roof terraces between Vieux Nice and the Mediterranean. 'Ponchettes' refers to the row of buildings between the Cours Saleya and the sea (the Lou Souleou B&B is located here), and the Terrasses des Ponchettes used to be a famous strolling area in the 19th century. Two of the buildings in the Ponchettes are 19th century vaulted halls, which have been used as art galleries for contemporary art. City officials now want the roof terrace to once again be used by the public, and this would allow unrestricted balcony views of the Baie des Anges. A splendid idea, I say!
Up next: St.-Paul-de-Vence, St. Tropez, and Marseilles!