After nearly three weeks in Nice, we are searching for new experiences, and Lynn found that we had not visited Cimiez monastery when we were next door at the Matisse Museum.
The church is smaller and simpler in the Romanesque style than the Baroque eye-candy in our neighborhood. But the ceiling frescos are worth the visit, and most of the paintings in the side altars date back to the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
The monastery was established in the 9th century and is the site of the founding of the Franciscan order in the 13th century. Situated right across the little park from the Matisse Museum, the monastery has its own gardens and cemetery, where Matisse is buried.
The gardens are extremely well maintained and display quite a bit of greenery and color even in the dead of Nicoise winter. Of course, orange and lemon trees are everywhere, reminding us of the fruit on our own trees at home going unpicked.
On our way out from the monastery, we stopped for lunch in the park facing the Matisse Museum. This is a delightful green space where families bring small children, people bring their dogs and old men play boules, the French version of bocce, except is it played with metal balls.
The circular park features busts of the great jazz musicians, all of whom are American and one of whom is a New Orleans native son.
When we returned to Place Massena, we caught a new view of the Carnival stands and infrastructure being built for the celebration here that actually starts after Mardi Gras. What do these people know about parades–they only have two that roll several times over the course of the two-week celebration. And only one, the flower parade that rolls along the promenade, throws anything. Flowers. Who would have guessed?
Apparently, the Nice Carnival is a manufactured event dreamed up by the Tourism Bureau only about 20 years ago to bring tourists to town during the down time of off-season. (Where have we heard that before?)
Huge grandstands line two sides of Place Massena, and part of the Place is already barricaded off for what looks like a broadcast studio or mobile police station.
Boy, what could we teach these folks about Carnival.
If Nice is Newport on the Mediterranean, then Cannes is Los Angeles.
In Nice, the Belle Epoch hotels and apartments majestically overlook the rocky beach and cerulean waters on the land side of Promenade des Anglais. In Cannes, buildings of the same style have been butchered by bolting on garish contemporary luxury goods mini-malls facing the street on the beach side.
The seaside walk along the shore is well landscaped, overlooking an actual sand beach, but the water here is a nondescript murky green.
Cannes is unquestionably all about the movie industry. The walkways in the promenade near the Palais des Festivals feature handprints of American and European movie stars. The sleek restaurant where we ate an overpriced lunch also operates an outpost in Los Angeles, which makes perfect sense. The historical sightseeing monuments consist of a small castle and an 18th century church once visited by Napoleon.
The bus ride from Nice, still the same fare, takes nearly two hours. The route runs through fully urbanized areas once it turns north off the Mediterranean at the Nice airport. There is no discernible difference from one town to another, and one starts as soon as the other ends.
From the station, we walked the three blocks down to the shore. Strolling along the beach promenade, we marveled at menu prices in the beachside restaurants that were open during off season. Prices were easily half again more than what the beachside restaurants in Nice charge. We returned via the street side, window shopping at the glitzy stores of designer names, from Armani (which has its own cafe) to Zegna. Harry Winston even has a small storefront on Blvd. de la Croisette. Every last store has at least one if not two black-suited security guards standing out front to screen people entering.
One of our enduring interests is to stop and compare prices at the real estate agents that stand on virtually every block in France. In Paris and Nice, believe it or not, the price of an apartment in some pretty desirable neighborhoods is not unreasonable. In Cannes, they don’t even post prices in some of the windows. That tells you something–if you have to know the price, you can’t afford it. Apparently, the Californie neighborhood is where the richest of the glitterati congregate, because prices there range upward in the mid-single digit millions.
Generally unimpressed with Cannes, we caught the 2 p.m. bus back to the comforts and delights of Old Town Nice. We arrived home just in time for an early cocktail hour before our third dinner downstairs at Chat Noir Chat Blanc. (Melt-in-your-mouth seared foie gras with quince for an appetizer.)
That was the last time we’ll see Giorgio, as he was heading to Marseilles to see his son Wednesday and Thursday, then on to a meeting to discuss opening a third branch of his restaurant near Paris to accompany the one he already operates in Orleans. So Giorgio is not only an splendid chef but an ambitious entrepreneur, something truly rare in France. We wished him the best and promised to stay in touch.
Monday is wash day. There goes a beautiful morning. The forecast had been for clouds. But domestic chores must be done, and that includes a run to the larger Casino grocery store for ingredients to tonight’s dinner at home–our third in a row.
Normally, we would have gone to the Cours Saleya market for vegetables and cheeses, but on Mondays the market changes from food and flowers to hard goods of all kinds. Books, vinyl records, masses of silverware and china, oriental carpets, art (well, framed things to hang on a wall), furniture, chinoisorie and even furs are hawked in hundreds of stalls that fill Cours Saleya and the adjacent square in front of Mary Misericordium church.
But the day was beautiful, with clear skies and temperatures just below 60 F, so we couldn’t resist enjoying the neighborhood scenery the rest of the day. We lunched al fresco at a little place along the seashore that features mediocre food, terrible service from cute young waitresses but a wonderful view of the Mediterranean. All the rest of the little restaurants along that part of the Promenade de Etats Unis are pretty much the same, and we refuse to eat in any place that displays photos of their dishes on a board in front of the entrance.
We walked off lunch by basically circumnavigating the entire Old Town, along the shore down to Place Massena, up the grassy linear park that separates Old Town from the rest of Nice and back to our apartment. Old Nice is so small that our circumnavigation took less than an hour.
We walked back to the apartment to catch up e-mails and whatnot, but we couldn’t let the sun set on such a day without watching. So we walked back through the market, which was now emptying as the vendors packed up all their wares to move to another market in another town the next day.
As expected, sunset was spectacular against a low bank of clouds that had developed behind the mountains to the west. But once the sun goes down, the air chills down too and rapidly. Within minutes, it felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees, and we hustled home for a warming cocktail.
We were unhurried but on a mission Sunday to start the day with a proper brunch and Bloody Marys at Wayne’s. My huge three-egg omelet was all of 6.50, and Lynn shot the bank account for poached eggs at 7.50. Both were excellent, although Lynn found her poached eggs more done than she prefers. The Bloody Marys were so good, I needed to test a second to confirm Wayne’s consistency. Actually, the second turned out to be even better than the first.
By early afternoon, we were properly fed and napped, so we looked around for a quick excursion and decided to catch the bus to St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat again to walk the waterside. It was worth the euro.
Had we known, we would have gone down to Cap Ferrat first when we visited the Rothschild mansion and had lunch, as our Canadian companions had. St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat is exquisite.
The St. Jean Cap-Ferrat harbor resembles the French Caribbean more than we have seen here in France. The waterfront promenade is lined with restaurants and shops. You can even walk on the piers where the boats are moored, mostly stern-to and all Med-moor style with one end secured to the pier and the other to a mooring or anchor in the water. For the most part, the boats are human-sized, although several 60-110 footers live on the outside bulkhead.
The harbor’s Nativity creche is displayed on a barge chained to the harbor wall. Like many other locations in France, the Christmas decorations stay on display throughout the month of January and the celebration of St. Sylvestre. But this one is the first we have seen on the water with a maritime flavor.
Counting two trips on the Hop On Hop Off tourist bus, we have now made this route five times round trip, and it’s no less spectacular the tenth time as it was the first.
Next excursion will be Cannes, which takes nearly two hours by Lignes d’Azur bus. But still one euro.
Lynn found another palace to visit and explore, this one in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, a peninsula about half way between Nice and Monaco, and another scenic bus ride along the same seaside highway. We learned we have been overpaying for the bus, when we purchased a ten-trip ticket ten euros, or a buck a ride. We had been paying 1.50.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, built only a little more than 100 years ago, represents the most extravagant, opulent excesses of the Belle Epoch era, even by Nice and Monaco standards. It makes the Newport cottages in the U.S. look like, well, cottages.
Beatrice Rothschild was the heir to the two richest strains of the Rothschild family. The English and French houses of the family combined their wealth in her, and she in turn married Mr. Ephrussi, 15 years older than she and an inveterate gambler. Beatrice herself, no doting wife pining at home for a dissolute husband, was known to frequent the casinos on the Cote D’Azur and the race tracks around Europe in her own right.
The unhappy couple split before Ephrussi could squander any more than his own fortune. Beatrice then proceeded to build her own personal palace overlooking the Mediterranean and her neighbors’ palatial homes at St. Jean Cap Ferrat.
Everything about the house is as over the top as its owner. After the death of her husband when Beatrice was 51, she continued and in fact expanded her life of luxury, excess and eccentricity. For instance, she staged a full-dress formal wedding for two of her dogs. Hundreds of friends showed up in formalwear to witness the pooches walk down the aisle. Beatrice even had Louis XV chairs made up in dog-size, so the little canines could have proper seats at the table.
Her collections of Venetian art, Louis XV and XVI furnishings, Renaissance tapestries, 18th century porcelain, exotic Japanese silk garments and antiquities looted from medieval churches are all on display on the two floors of the ornate, Venetian style building. The tout ensemble is sensory overload.
The house is also surrounded by 4.5 acres of carefully tended, lush gardens that are separated by theme–Rose, Japanese exotic, stone, Florentine, French, Spanish and one specific to Sevres, where much of her art and decorative collections originated. The centerpiece of the garden complex is a large fountain showing off a dancing, animated spray of water jets.
When Beatrice died in the 1930s, she bequeathed her estate to the French government to maintain its breathtaking opulence for the public to admire.
Our daily routine in Nice is much the same as it was in Paris. The sun rises a little earlier now that we are deeper into winter and a few degrees farther south on the planet (about 45 latitude). But rue de la Barillerie is a very narrow street lined by five-story buildings on both sides, so the sun never never shines directly into our apartment. Apparently, it’s been this way since the 16th or 17th century, when most of these buildings were constructed.
Unlike our Paris apartment tucked all the way back in the building and therefore completely insulated from street noise, here in Nice, we look out directly over the narrow street, where sounds reverberate. Next door to the little Chat Noir restaurant at the base of our building stands Delhi Behli, a popular Indian restaurant that is significantly larger. On the other side of our apartment is a small theater. Patrons of both the theater and Delhi Behli gather in the street at their respective doors to smoke and chat, frequently at fairly loud levels. This can go on until well past midnight.
The buildings across the street on the ground level seem to function as the kitchens or commissaries of the restaurants that face Cours Saleya in the next block. Every night we can hear the clatter of equipment, trash and bottles being hauled out about 1 a.m. The noise repeats itself about 5 a.m. if the restaurants are opening the next day, which most do.
And because the streets are so narrow, sounds can carry from around the corner. Crowds have fun on another street can sound like they are directly below our window. All this is to say that our little Nice neighborhood is lively.
We know it’s time to get up in the morning when the large street light in front of our apartment building turns off. The light in the apartment changes from a golden glow to the grayish look of dawn. The only way to tell if the sky is clear is to open the window, stick your head out and crane upward to the sky.
Our apartment itself is easily twice the size of our tiny garret in Paris. The bed is tucked into a loft that was installed in recent years, apparently a fairly common feature of so many of these old apartments with their 14-foot ceilings. The result is that our boudoir has about the same headroom as a Cal 25 sailboat–in other words, not enough for a normal sized person. At 5′ 3″, Lynn cannot stand completely upright. So we learned to crouch early on, after a couple of knocks to the noggin.
Even though our Nice apartment is much larger, it lacks some of the modern conveniences of our Paris apartment. We have no TV, dishwasher, microwave or washer/dryer in Nice. The only one we truly miss is the washer/dryer, because we have to tote our laundry a couple of blocks away to the laverie, which charges 4.50 a load for wash and a euro for every five minutes to dry. And dryer temperatures in France would be considered room temperature by American standards.
Most days, I run downstairs to the patisserie at the corner for a croissant or an apple tart for breakfast. If the patisserie is not open (and frequently it is not, although I can’t figure out their hours), I go over to the Cours Saleya market. If Cours Saleya is not active, then the croissant quest extends a couple of blocks past. It makes for a good walk.
Our daily goal is to be out of the house by 10 a.m. I know that sounds absolutely slothful, but, hey, it’s Europe and hardly anyone else is out any earlier either. (Except for the market vendors.) And we’re not so busy.
The bus ride from Nice to Monaco is one of the most scenic tours you can enjoy anywhere, as the route hugs the mountains through Villefranche, Ail and then into Monaco with continuous views of the Mediterranean and magnificent harbors below.
This for 1.50 euros, payable when you board.
When you get off the bus, you can just smell and sense the money in Monaco, where every other car is a Lamborghini, Bentley, Porsche or Ferrari.
The sky finally cleared after three days of gloom, and the temps warmed nearly ten degrees F. A perfect day to wander the Monaco waterfront for boat-watching. We started with a visit to the Yacht Club of Monaco to ask if we could get in for a quick drink. The very pleasant and polite receptionist said they would be happy to accommodate us if we have a letter of introduction. Alas, we did not, but we will know better next time.
The marina was quite accessible, as we walked right along the waterside. Power yachts in the 200-foot range were lined up by the dozens, but so are regular boats for regular people. We grabbed a pizza and beer at a waterfront cafe right in front of few of the big ones and adjacent to the human-sized boats.
Lucky us–we happened upon Monaco on Media Day of the Monaco Rally, and the little cars were hammering out screaming donuts across a 200-yard slalom course on the street just above the waterfront. We were able to watch the spectacle eyeball-to-eyeball, so to speak. As in really, really close.
Talk to anyone in Nice or has ever been near Nice, and St. Paul de Vence is mentioned in almost mythic terms. A little tiny medieval village just up the mountains only about 20 kilometers from Nice, St. Paul de Vence is renowned for its art. Marc Chagall lived and died there and is buried in the local cemetery. Matisse lived there for five years designing the church. The narrow, cobblestoned streets are lined with ateliers and art galleries.
The clouds did not break as forecast on Wednesday, but we took the Nice local 400 bus along the Promenade des Anglais and up through Cagnes sur Mer for a pleasant hour up to the shrine on the hill. The 400 bus costs 1.50. No kidding. Of course, it’s 1.50 down too, so you have to invest an entire 3 euros for the round trip.
The little village was all but deserted on a cold, gray gloomy day in late January. Many, if not most of the restaurants are closed for the season, and there were probably no more than 50 of us tourists walking the tiny, narrow streets. Tourists may have outnumbered residents.
The Office de Tourisme recommended we visit the church, historic museum and chapel of the White Penitents, at a cost of 4 euros per person. So we complied.
The church is mildly interesting, but fitting of a small village and not at all spectacular. It too is a cathedral, as the French seem to have as many bishops as parishes. But the cathedral of St. Paul de Vence does not compare to St. Reparate, the extravagantly Baroque cathedral a couple of blocks away from our apartment in old Nice.
Seeing the church is free. The museum is what costs 4 euros, which includes a guide to the seven exhibits and a visit to the chapel. How do I say this?–the museum’s seven displays are wax figures relating the history of St.Paul de Vence. It’s a Wax Museum. In all candor, the wax figures are actually fairly realistic, if more than a bit cheesy in their dioramas.
We have toured the Musée du Chapeau between Carcasonne and Narbonne in the southwest of France, and the St.Paul de Vence museum ranks with that exalted level of historical display. By comparison, the Musée du Chapeau is 5 euros, so St.Paul de Vence is a relative bargain.
Actually, the Chapel of the White Penitents is worth the price of admission. It is simple and unadorned, but the mosaic at the front is a work of wonder, more than 100 square meters of mosaic comprised of tiles that average one centimeter square each. Do the arithmetic.
After our visit to the center of historic St.Paul de Vence, we made our way down to the cemetery (where else would I go?) in a fruitless effort to find Marc Chagall’s final resting place. But walking through, I found perhaps a more famous family name. Maybe the Honey Badger’s ancestors?
Monday and Tuesday were gloomy, gray and cold, so no ambitious explorations for us Southerners. We had planned a visit to St. Paul de Vence on Monday but postponed because of the weather. So we did laundry instead, an adventure in its own right learning the operation of French washing machines and dryers. And Tuesday was Lynn’s hair appointment, so that dominated the morning.
While Lynn was being coiffed, I passed the time walking up to the cemeteries on the side of Castle Hill. They are segregated into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish (Israelite in the French). The cemetery here is not Pere Lachaize, but it’s impressive enough.
From what we have seen in Paris and Nice, the French like their family tombs, so the practice was well settled by the time they made it across the ocean to New Orleans. Maybe the story about burying above ground in New Orleans because of the water table is only half true.
Perhaps it’s the weather, but Nice seems a bit more subdued this week. The Cours Saleya market, so bustling on Saturday and even Sunday, is empty on Monday and only half full on Tuesday. This is not unusual. Retailers in Nice don’t seem to be consistent in their hours. For instance, the wine store was closed Sunday and Monday, opened about 11 a.m. Tuesday but at 8 a.m. Wednesday. And the patisserie on the corner of our street was closed Monday, open all day Tuesday but closed Wednesday morning. Go figure.
Perhaps the shopkeepers are casual about their hours because this is lowest of the low season. Several restaurants are closed for “congé” or holiday through January and several others are being renovated. Giorgio downstairs at dinner Tuesday night (another fine meal with a perfectly done filet mignon), commented that no one shows up in Nice until the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. Then the crowds descend and stay through the summer and fall.