Now we know why the rich went to Nice

Once the rains cleared out, the last two days in Nice have been spectacular. Now we know why the rich Europeans migrated down here in the winter.

Friday we climbed up Castle Hill, where forts had been built to defend the city as far back as the Romans.

The Romans built a fortress here some 2,000 years ago. Later in the Middle Ages, a Romanesque church was built on the site. Both are being excavated today.
The Romans built a fortress here some 2,000 years ago. Later in the Middle Ages, a Romanesque church was built on the site. Both are being excavated today.

Much later, in the 16th century, the defenders of Nice built a fortress of their own to repel invaders, but Louis XIV had the fort taken down during one of the brief periods when France ruled Nice. It’s never been rebuilt since.

Nice from Castle Hill

The views from Castle Hill are worth the 90-meter climb, which is actually fairly gentle with lots of stops for views and photos. The views from the hill overlooking Nice are spectacular, and our visit to the Museé Messena on Saturday confirmed that those views were pretty much the same all the way back to the 19th century.

The Musee Massena is formerly the home of the last aristocrats in Nice.
The Musee Massena, formerly the home of the last aristocrats in Nice, is now an excellent, informative museum of the history of Nice for the last 500 years.

Nice is as much Italian as French. Here in the Vieux Ville the street signs are in two languages, and pizza is as prevalent in on the streets as baguettes. As our waiter one night told us in perfect English, “I am from Italy; most people here are Italian.”

For much of its history since the Romans, Nice has been part of either the regions of Piedmont, Sardinia or Savoy. The name Savoy in Italian and French is spelled Savoie. You might recognize that name in south Louisiana.

Nice was taken over by the French from those various houses of what is today modern Italy for several centuries. It did not become officially and finally part of France until 1860. And that was after an election of the people that was widely accused of being rigged.

Nice as we know it today is a combination of Miami and Newport. European aristocracy and the uber-wealthy (often the same group) in the late 19th century discovered that winters in Nice are quite a bit more pleasant than they are in London, St. Petersburg and Berlin. So the snow birds a century ago built elaborate hotels and homes to spend their winters among the palms and citrus trees while gazing out over the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

One of the Art Deco masterpiece hotels along the Promenade des Anglais facing the waterfront. Today it's a Hyatt Regency.
One of the Art Deco masterpiece hotels along the Promenade des Anglais facing the waterfront. Today it’s a Hyatt Regency.

Today Nice is strictly a summer resort. Even the storied Hotel Negresco can be booked for less than 200 euros a night in January, and most of the other spectacular hotels along the Promenade des Anglais can be had for less than 100 a night.

But we have been told by the locals that in the summer you literally cannot see the ground because the crowds are so big. I guess the rich Europeans, Asians and Arabs have migrated farther west and south to winter in Miami and the Caribbean. They don’t know what they are missing.

This could be the Caribbean too, except we are all wearing coats and scarves.
This could be the Caribbean too, except we are all wearing coats and scarves.

 

Rainy day

Nice was gray, cold and drizzly, so no grand explorations on Thursday. One of the benefits of an extended stay is you don’t feel the urgency to do something special every single day.

Nice is the drizzle.
Nice in the drizzle.

We spent the time close to the apartment visiting a couple of neighborhood museums on our 20 euro passes. Each of them charge 10 euros, which must be the agreed rate for them all, because the Espace Donation Ferraro only contains about 40 contemporary works on two small floors. Of the 40 works, only about 20 are worth seeing.

The Palais Lascaris is a huge 17th century Baroque residence built for one of the leading families of Nice. Today it houses the second largest collection of musical instruments in France (after the one at the Louvre). The architecture is as interesting as the collection of antique instruments of just about every type, except for horns. Strangely, there are only a couple of brass instruments, but dozens of harps.

By 2 p.m. we were hungry but had a hard time finding a lunch spot that was not overpriced and over-menued. All we wanted was a slice of pizza or something simple without running up a dinner-sized tab. Unfortunately, a lot of places close up at 2 p.m. and do not reopen until 7 p.m. or so for dinner.

Then we stumbled into L’Heteroclité, just around the corner from our apartment. It is a lunch-only place, open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The owners have a young son.

The special today was osso buco–for 8.50. I couldn’t resist. It wasn’t the greatest I have ever had, but I doubt I will ever have osso buco in a bowl of polenta for 8.50 anywhere else. By comparison, the other daily special was a hot dog for 7.50.

Lynn ordered the ham and cheese crepe, which came out covering a huge plate, even folded over. With a pichet of pretty good vin ordinaire, the total lunch bill came to 19.50. Only down side is they don’t take credit cards, but a small inconvenience for such a small price.

 

Right place, right time

We have struck gold again, both in location and weather.

Our apartment on the unpronounceable rue de la Barillerie (even the French have a hard time with the name) is all of two blocks to the Mediterranean.

And the weather here so far is nothing but azure skies that match the colors of the Med with temperatures climbing to just about 60 F each of the last two days. Even though it is some 10-15 degrees warmer here than in Paris, most people still wear scarves and heavy coats, including us. The breeze coming off the Med is quite cool; after all, we are in the middle of winter.

The Mediterranean is an impossible blue without so much as a hint of green.
The Mediterranean is an impossible blue without so much as a hint of green.

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On Tuesday, our first full day in Nice, we found the Hop On/Hop Off tour bus and booked it for two days (one day is 22 euros, two days is 25). It sounds hokey and so very touristy, and it is. But the round-about bus tour is the easiest way to quickly learn a new city and choose which attractions are the most interesting to you. And the tour bus will bring you right to our choices without having to resort to local transit.

The Matisse Museum is tops on the list, but it is farthest from where we are, so the tour bus makes even more sense.

Matisse actually lived in this house for a while, although he spent most of his last years at the Hotel Regina across the street. The Regina is now a very high end condo.
Matisse actually lived in this house for a while, although he spent most of his last years at the Hotel Regina across the street (see photo below). The Regina is now a very high end condo.

On Wednesday, we caught the tour bus, took it to the park in front of Musée Matisse and wandered in for a delightful afternoon of culture, lunch on the grounds in the brilliant sunshine and a visit to the Archeology Museum next door, complete with Roman ruins. We purchased the 20 euro Nice Museum Pass good for seven days, so two museums the first day pay for the pass.

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The Roman ruins of the original city are also across the street from the Regina.

Then back to the seashore for another afternoon beverage and a walk through our neighborhood. Lynn had purchased all the fixings for a French ravioli dinner earlier, so we planned to dine in after two sybaritic evenings of culinary art in the neighborhood.

The night before, on the recommendation of both Silvio our landlord and Georgio our chef downstairs, we made reservations at Bistro D’Antoine. This is rated one of the best restaurants in Nice by Trip Advisor, and it was obvious why. We shared a rabbit terrine that was big enough for a main course. Lynn ordered the duck breast that was served unsliced, a cylinder of perfectly prepared magret accompanied by potatoes and celery root pureé.  I enjoyed pork cheeks that came out in their own pot simmering in gravy to be dunked into the polenta on my plate. We went through every last morsel of bread.

Service here is professional and efficient. Don’t expect the staff to fawn all over you. They run a tight restaurant. We were fortunate to get reservations at the last minute, but we had to take the American seating at 7:15 p.m. It was worth it. We splurged a bit on the wine–31 euros for a deliciously rich Rousillon.

Thank goodness the place was right around the corner from our apartment. I’m not sure we could have waddled back much farther.

Bon jour, Nice

The train arrived right on time at Gare Nice-Ville, and we took a ten-minute, 24 euro cab ride to the Cours Saleya, a long, pedestrian-only food, flower and trinket market lined along the street on both sides by restaurants.

Our landlord Silvio had left instructions that if the cab could not get right to Rue Barillerie, which is too small for cars, then we could get off and walk through the market about 20 meters to the apartment. It was more like 200 meters.

We found our street and had no problem identifying our host. Silvio was standing right there in front to welcome us with a bottle of chilled Prosecco, offer us fresh oranges on the table, meet his wife Francesca, familiarize us with the apartment, tour the neighborhood, then jump in their car to drive back home in Turin, Italy. A most gracious European welcome.

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Silvio departed quickly for Turin, but not before a gracious kiss of the hand for Lynn.

Once again, by sheer luck, we have hit the jackpot of neighborhoods. Our apartment is in Vieux Nice, a warren of tiny streets, the longitudinal Cours Saleya market, inumerable restaurants and bars, and the Mediterranean two blocks away.

For dinner, we stumbled into a little place called Chat Noir/Chat Blanc. It was the closest and enjoyed a number of rave reviews on Trip Advisor. It’s not just next door–it has the same address as our apartment.

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Chat Noir/Blanc is part of our building at 20 rue de la Barillerie in Vieux Ville Nice.

Georgio the owner was working solo this evening, because he said it is low season. The only other patrons were a couple from Cologne and another couple from the neighborhood who walked in as we were finishing dinner.

Food was so different from Paris but no less excellent. Lynn’s turbot was prepared perfectly, crispy skin side up and served on a bed of potatoes  and cabbage with just a touch of chorizo. My own dinner was grilled shrimp over a bed of green pasta infused with fish stock, which added a richness that was hard to define but easy to appreciate. It was equally delicious.

Georgio was quite garrulous, and we struck up a conversation about his time working in restaurants in Denver. He offered to meet us at the restaurant the next day at 6 p.m. for his own personal tour of the neighborhood. We plan to take him up on the offer.

And on to Nice

After a sleepless night fretting about getting heavy luggage down four flights of steps, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m., nearly three full hours before dawn in Paris.

I was concerned about the coordination of having our luggage downstairs ready to be loaded, leaving one person in the apartment to monitor Uber’s progress via WiFi, which could not reach the ground level. Not to worry–Uber showed up precisely on time. I made one last run up the 42 steps, left the keys on the counter and slammed the door shut behind me, praying we had not forgotten anything in the apartment. If so, it was gone.

The Uber ride was short and cheap–6.94 to Gare Lyon. What a concept.

We were now a full hour and a half early, so all we could do was wait in the freezing cold train station. It was the coldest we have experienced in all our time in Paris.

After a most pleasant train ride down to the Mediterranean, we alighted in Nice, some five hours and a world removed from Paris.

The buildings have changed from gray stone to beige stucco, roof lines from slate covered Mansards to tiled gables, colors from the bright red of Paris awnings to the pastel blues and greens of window shutters. Palms and orange trees grow everywhere. Even on a cloudy day, the Mediterranean is three shades of blue as we drive along the Promenade de Anglais from the train station to our neighborhood in old Nice.

Au revoir, Paris

Sunday, our last day in Paris, is cold and wet, so we felt no real obligation to go out and do anything. Besides, Saturday would have been hard to top.

But by early afternoon, we felt like getting out a bit, so we walked around the corner to one of the little restaurants we have frequented so many times. At our first visit, the bartender said he could fix a Bloody Mary, and what’s better on a cold, dreary Sunday than a tasty Bloody Mary? His were the best we have had in Paris, spicy but not too Tabasco-ed up. And at 7.20 each, the least expensive too.

We ate in, enjoying a pot of chicken soup Lynn had made from the last roasted chicken we had bought down at the Maubert market. Then it was time for a last Havana Club and NFL football game at Pomme d’Eve. We shook hands with Steve the presumed owner and promised to return. We all agreed that this little neighborhood is the best of Paris.

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We will return, perhaps in an apartment on a lower floor.

A tour of rue Laplace

No, not named after the town upriver of New Orleans
No, not named after a town upriver of New Orleans

If you have been reading along, you know that our little one-block street includes two wonderful restaurants right across from our apartment. We had dinner at ChantAirelle Saturday night for our third meal there. By now, we are considered regulars, and the owner presented us with complimentary glasses of champagne and the double-cheek kiss of friendship to Lynn when we sat down to our table. Later, when we told him that we are leaving for Nice on Monday, he printed out a Google map to St. Paul de Vence and recommended we visit there, which we will.

Unfortunately, the other great restaurant on our street, Ciasa Mia, seems to be on break this week after the holidays, according to a hand-lettered sheet of paper taped to the window. Our loss.

But the rest of our little street includes a number of other commercial establishments. Starting from the rue Montagne St-Genevieve end, at 1 rue Laplace is our favorite NFL locale, Pomme d’Eve. Next door to this strange little South African bar is a shop selling African clothing and accessories. No relation–the African clothing store features items from much farther north.

And next door to the African clothing boutique is–inexplicably–a Subway. It is rarely open, but in a city of 13,956 restaurants (according to Trip Advisor), how can a Subway survive. Actually, the better question is why?

Are you kidding?
Are you kidding?

Next door to the Subway is a little shop offering small electrical appliances. It has a tiny courtyard in front, and students like to use this as a gathering place.

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Our two favorite restaurants are next, and the last shop on that side of the street is a fine wine store. It too seems to be open only sporadically, perhaps by appointment.
On our side of the street, across from Pomme d’Eve at the corner of rue Montagne St. Genevieve is L’Ecurie, a restaurant reportedly renowned for its steak. Tragically, it is closed due to the death of its owner, who apparently passed just the day before we arrived in Paris.

Next door to the shuttered L’Epicurie is an elegant office that publishes and produces fine books. They actually work a regular schedule of seven or so hours a day Monday through Friday. None of the other retail shops on our street seem to be bothered with such burdens.

The entire street is cut off to vehicular traffic by a large renovation project to a building right in the middle of the block. Since we arrived here nearly a month ago, we have yet to see any evidence of work on the building.

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Our apartment is bookended by two bars. They obviously cater to students, large numbers of whom hang out in the street outside smoking cigarettes. (Paris finally banned smoking indoors not long ago.) Each of the bars displays a sign prominently posted in the window asking patrons to respect the peace and quiet of the neighbors and residents. They sort of comply.

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Keep it down!
Keep it down!

Finally, on the end of our street at Rue Valette past the bar next door is a travel agency. They too seem to operate sporadically.

All in all, rue Laplace is a delightful little street in the heart of the university area known as the Latin Quarter. We could not have picked a better neighborhood, and we would gladly–eagerly–come back here to stay again. If we can find an apartment on a lower floor. Those 42 steps up and 42 steps down will not be missed.

 

Last regular day in Paris and one more museum after all

Saturday is our last full day in Paris. Sundays tend to be very low-key here, as many restaurants and virtually all retail stores close. So our goal was to get one last experience of Paris in its full flower of life and activity.

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The trees are bare, but the Tullieries has a charm that still draws me and a lot of other people there to enjoy the park.

One of the few things we had not done yet was to walk through the Tuileries, the park that extends from the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde. The Tuileries has always been one of my favorite places in Paris, a beautiful garden lined with walking paths, huge ponds, lines of trees (leafy in the summer but not now), statuary by the dozens and no fewer than four different cafes. Even though we are in the depth of winter, today was beautiful, and people flocked to the Tuileries: joggers, families, a dad playing tennis with his very young son, old couples shuffling slowly along, tourists gazing at their maps and taking selfies (can the selfie stick be banned in all world capitals?).

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At the Place de la Concorde end of the Tuileries, the Paris Ferris wheel has become a fixture. We decided to invest 12 euros a piece for the ten-minute ride. It’s worth it.

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Looking up the Champs Elysées toward the Arc de Triomphe from the Ferris wheel. The Christmas tents are still up on both sides of the Champs.

After the ride, on such a beautiful last full day in Paris, we crossed the Pont de la Concorde to the Left Bank and the National Assembly with the intent to walk all the way back along the river to our neighborhood. But when we reached the Musée D’Orsay, to our surprise there was no line. On Saturday. On a beautiful Saturday.

The old train station's clocks still keep accurate time.
The old train station’s clocks still keep accurate time.

We couldn’t pass up this opportunity. We walked right in, bought tickets, checked our coats, and there we were, inside the signature museum of Impressionist art in the world.

Degas's Tiny Dancer was just at NOMA last year.
Degas’s Tiny Dancer was just at NOMA last year.

More than two hours later, satiated on Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Pissaro (did you know he was born in St. Thomas, now USVI?), Manet, Cezanne, Rodin, Seurat, Degas, Delacroix (no, not  born in St. Bernard Parish), Toulouse-Lautrec, etc., etc., we staggered out, starving. It was well past 3 p.m., and all we had eaten was our customary croissant from the patisserie at the bottom of our hill when we started today’s journey earlier in the morning.

So we took the RER C to expedite our passage back to our neighborhood and popped into a St. Germain streetside establishment for a hot pannini and a cold beer. Reasonably resuscitated, we walked the rest of the way back to the apartment, drinking in the atmosphere and discussing where to eat dinner tonight and lunch on Sunday. Important issues on your last days and night in Paris.

 

One more museum and another excellent dinner

Musée Rodin re-opened in November after an extensive renovation, and all the Metro stations are plastered with posters promoting the renovated attraction. We figured this would be a good final museum destination.

Located just across the street from the Invalides, the French Army museum, the Rodin Museum is housed in a large, handsome mansion and an extensive garden where his monumental sculptures are displayed. The building was used as a Sacred Heart girls’ school until 1904, when it was taken over by the French government as affordable housing for artists. (See, nothing’s new.)

Rodin had lived there in an apartment since 1908, and some of the other residents included Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, Isadora Duncan and Ranier Maria Rilke. By 1911, Rodin was the only occupant of the building. In 1916, just before his death, Rodin donated his works, collections and copyrights to the French government to establish the museum in his name in his old home.

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The Kiss with a Thinker in the background. Most of the sculptures inside the museum are either casts or smaller versions of the monumental pieces displayed in the garden.

Today the museum houses hundreds of sculptures by Rodin as well as a roomful created by one of his mistresses Camille Claudell and several paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and various other artist friends of the sculptor.

The big Thinker in the garden.
The big Thinker in the garden.

Since today was the coldest we had been in Paris, with the temperature hovering around 40, we decided to forego the extra admission for the garden. We’ll walk through that in warmer weather one day.

On the way back, we popped into one of the nine Le Vieux Campeur shops to buy wool socks. The nine shops of Le Vieux Campeur are all within two blocks of each other, essentially a Bass Pro Shop split into categories in separate buildings. The sock store has an entire room of socks in various weights, fabrics, designs and prices.

Back at the apartment, we did a bit of research and found a little restaurant on a street right around the corner that we had never walked down. Our street, rue Laplace is one block, but it looks like a thoroughfare compared to rue de Lanneau, which is barely an alley.

Le Petit Prince was a find. It looks like a tiny cave, but opens up into a large back room. The kitchen is downstairs in the cellar, and all the dishes are literally run up on foot by the waiters. Our waiter happened to be from Denver; he is attending graduate school in French at the Sorbonne.

Dinner was excellent. I had an rich dish of pork cheeks, tender and tasty in a relatively sweet honey-based sauce. Lynn ordered the steak in blue cheese sauce. It was wonderful. I have to think that you could dredge fried baloney in a French blue cheese sauce and make a memorable meal. Our wine was a Chinon from the Loire Valley. It was 24 euro. In the U.S. at any restaurant, it would cost two or three times as much, if you could find it at all.

Smart European Appliances for American Dummies

European appliances are so smart, so ecologically advanced that Americans–to at least these two–are incapable of operating them.

The cooktop in our Paris apartment is pretty straightforward, the refrigerator is small but works and includes a vestigial freezer that makes ice in an old-fashioned tray. But the dishwasher doesn’t heat water, the washer-dryer combo left to its own devices will cook your clothes and the microwave/convention/grill is utterly undecipherable.

Europe uses on-demand water heating, so it’s not like the dishwasher needs to be hooked to the hot water. Something in the system just doesn’t work. So Lynn cleverly soaks the truly dirty dishes in hot water in the sink before putting them in the dishwasher. Primitive, but it works.

We have finally tamed the washer-dryer combo by dialing up the dry-only (séchage) command after wash-only lavage. The monster in our Barcelona apartment last summer cooked a shirt beyond repair, so we learned the hard way. Still, the machine in our tiny Paris garret offers no fewer than 14 options. We use one setting for towels and the lowest setting for clothing, lest we fry more shirts. Lynn feels like she has mastered the monster.

Meanwhile, the multi-multi-purpose microwave defies all comprehension. We have finally figured out–sort of–how to dial up microwave cooking, but that’s the extent of our learning curve. Oddly, all the buttons are in French, except for the one that says “Stop.” Big help there–all you need to do is open the door to stop this or any microwave.

There is, however, one button that seems to make things happen. It says “arrete+1,” which means “stop” but it actually runs the microwave for one minute at a time. Good enough for us. We press a couple of buttons, turn the dial a little, then hit the magic button. It starts the machine for one minute, we check the food, then run it for another minute until the food is cooked or at least hot. We’re so smart.