NICE: Enchantment on the Riviera

I wrote the following for the newspaper Stars and Stripes three years ago after a visit to Nice.  I’ve been back several times, most recently after Christmas.  This time we lounged on the beach, enjoyed delicious food, and soaked up that seductive ambience of the Cote d’Azur.  Nice — it’s my kind of town..niceb11

After many, many years in Germany, my husband and I and our two cats (we now have three) left Deutschland behind and moved to the hinterlands of Provence in southern France. We’ve been here five years (now eight), and it’s lovely. We don’t regret the move. But I’ve found a corner of this part of the world I like even more: Nice.

Our quiet life in the countryside has its pluses, but I miss the vibrancy and excitement of a city.  Nice offers that, as well as the sea and beaches, museums, markets, intriguing old town, excellent restaurants, lush parks and outstanding architecture, all wrapped in an enchanting ambience.niceb4

France’s fifth largest city is the capital of the glamorous French Riviera.  There’s plenty of elegance along the Promenade des Anglais, its seaside boulevard lined with palms and turn-of-the-century hotels and grand apartments.  There are traces of North Africa in the tangle of dark alleys of Vieux Nice, (old Nice). The outdoor markets and restaurants, as well as the numerous street stands, capture the flair of neighboring Italy. It’s an irresistible mélange.niceb15

Nice’s roots go back thousands of years to prehistoric times. By the 4th century it was settled by Greeks, followed by Romans, then Saracens. Nice was part of the House of Savoy (Italy) from 1388 until 1860 when citizens voted to join the Second French Empire.

The English discovered its charms in the 18th century, followed by those from other countries, especially Russians.  The Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, commissioned by Czar Nicholas II and inaugurated in 1912, is the largest Russian religious edifice outside Russia, and a top tourist attraction.

By the 19th century Nice had become a favorite winter haunt for the British.  It was an Englishman, Reverend Lewis Way, who is responsible for widening a former water front footpath in 1820 at his expense which was dubbed “Chemin des Anglais” (road of the English). In 1931 it took its final form, two roads with a palm-planted center strip, and became known as the Promenade des Anglais.niceb16

On one side of the famous avenue are Belle Époque buildings. On the opposite side are miles of beaches.  Thanks to Nice’s microclimate, even in winter you can sit at a beach café and soak in the rays.  You may even see brave souls who spread their towels in the sand and sunbathe in bathing suits.  In summer, of course, the beaches are crowded with both tourists and locals.niceb13

During our winter visit, after a stroll along the beach we climbed the steps to Castle Hill where a citadel once stood.  It’s now a maze of greenery, perfect for getting some exercise and enjoying superb views of Nice, its beaches and harbor, with the backdrop of hills and the distant Alps.

We took the easy way down, riding an Art Deco lift which deposited us on the edge of Vieux Nice. I love taking pictures at the flower market on the Cours Saleya in the heart of the old town.  I also love wandering in the labyrinth alleys in this part of the city, checking out funky boutiques, admiring Baroque churches, taking more pictures. One place that has become a favorite is Oliviera, a shop with 17 different kinds of olive oil where owner Nadim Berouti is happy to offer tastings.  The shop also has a mini-restaurant.

“When I understood that every morning I would see again this light, I could not believe how happy I was,” artist Henri Matisse wrote about Nice.  The light of the Riviera has inspired numerous artists, not just Matisse who lived in the city from 1917 until his death in 1954. A Nice museum devoted to his works is a must.Nice beach

We rode a bus up the hill to the Cimiez district where the museum is located in a 17th century Genoese villa.  Works from every period of the artist’s life are on display, including early paintings, the famous gouache cut-outs, studies (drawings etc.) for his renowned chapel in Vence, even personal effects such as Venetian furniture and Oriental wall hangings.niceb2

It was a long hike back to the center, but worth the trek to admire great pillared houses and rows of cypress trees along the route.

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the heart of the city is another gem with a collection of 400 works including sculptures and canvases by New Realists, Pop artists including Andy Warhol,  whimsical creations by one of my favorites, Niki de Sainte-Phalle, and more.  The avant-garde building with glassed-in ramps around an atrium is a sensation, as are the great views from its roof terrace.niceb19

We ran out of time and postponed a visit to Nice’s Chagall museum for another trip when we rode the Nice hop-on, hop-off tourist bus to the museum where I was in awe.  The 17 huge, colorful paintings depicting Biblical scenes are amazing.  Also to marvel are mosaics, stained glass windows and tapestries.

The bus stops at other tourist highlights, including the Russian church.  It’s a great way to take in the city, its neighborhoods and seaside panoramas, as well as travel to the sights. Head sets offer fascinating commentary in numerous languages.

When we get too old for life in the country, maybe we can move to Nice.nice.b1

TIPS FOR TOURING NICE:

Le Grand Tour, Nice’s hop-on, hop off tourist bus with 14 stops www.nicelegrandtour.com

Nice’s flower market on the Cours Saleya takes place everyday from 6 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. except Monday when it is replaced with an antiques market.niceb9

Oliviera for olive oil and small meals. 8 bis, rue du Collet in Vieux Nice, www.oliviera.com

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Promenade des Arts, open daily from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. except Mondays and some holidays.  Entrance is free. www.mamac-nice.org

Matisse Museum, 164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez, open daily except Tuesday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.  Entrance is free. www.musee-matisse-nice.org

Marc Chagall National Museum, avenue du docteur Ménard, open daily except Tuesday and some holidays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from May to October. From November to April from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: 7,50 euros.  http://www.musee-chagall.frniceb18

Excellent centrally located accommodations at the 4-star Hotel Le Grimaldi, 15, rue Grimaldi.  Rates vary with season, from 99 euros for a double in low season. www.le-grimaldi.comniceb3

Favorite restaurant: La Zucca Magica (the magic pumpkin), a vegetarian restaurant run by Italians.  The decor is pumpkins, gourds and squash — hanging from the ceiling, on the tables and window sills, depicted in paintings and photos on the walls.  It’s dimly lit with flickering candles, cozy and inviting.  There is no menu.  You take a seat, order some wine, and food starts arriving — five different dishes, one after another. www.lazuccamagica.com

More information on Nice at www.nicetourisme.com

 Gingered Butternut Squash Soup with Spicy Pecan Cream was a winner at my recent dinner party.  Recipe listed in column on right. Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right

My new French knee

Ah, quelle belle cicatrice!”  (Oh, what a beautiful scar/incision!).  Every time a nurse came to change the bandage, it  was the same remark,  both at  the hospital in Marseille (2 ½  hours away) where I had total knee replacement surgery on May 14, then later at the rehabilitation hospital where I spent 2 ½ weeks.

Are they crazy, I wondered?  Nothing beautiful about this long (8 inches) red and puffy line on my hugely swollen knee.  When it was first uncovered, I was horrified.  It seemed enormous.   Then they showed me an x-ray of my new knee – more panic.  It, too, seemed gargantuan.  How would I ever walk with those chunks of metal (titanium) inserted in my leg?  A plastic substance (the knee cap) is between the two  pieces of titanium.

It did not take long to realize I could walk.  The day after surgery, a therapist had me on my feet walking (limping) up and down the hall on crutches.  He, too, admired the “beautiful”  incision.

It was the work of Dr. Jean-Pierre Franceschi, Marseille’s famous orthopedic surgeon who is the team doctor for the city’s soccer team.  One nurse referred to him as “a star.”  Tall, dark and handsome, he looks as if he belongs in Hollywood,  not bent over an operating table inserting new knees and hips in France’s second city.

When I finally made the decision to proceed with this drastic operation, I wanted the best doctor, a surgeon whose proficiency would get me back on the ski slopes.  It had to be the celebrated Franceschi.  The surgery report I received after the operation stated that the duration of the procedure was a mere 35 minutes.  Amazing, but I hope the renowned doctor did not rush.

Franceschi’s skills are in demand, so it takes months to get on his surgery schedule.  I made the May appointment in early January, and fretted off and on from then until the operation.     What if I ended up worse instead of better?

It’s been a month since surgery, and, according to medical personnel, I am doing very well.  I can bend the new knee leg to an angle of 120 degrees.   A therapist at the rehab hospital told me 130 degrees is what they aim for.  I am almost there.

I’ve also been fortunate as I have had very little serious knee pain.  Discomfort, yes, but that’s to be expected.  The dreadful part for me has been headaches and insomnia, said to be nasty effects from the anesthesia, but that’s another story.

Fabulous French health insurance

I feel very fortunate to live in France and be covered by the French national health insurance.  My husband and I also have a supplemental insurance since the national insurance does not cover everything 100%.  For both, we pay €4,520 (about $5,650) per year.    

The benefits may make some Americans cry.  My 11-day stay in the Marseille orthopedic hospital,  the surgeon’s and anesthetist’s  basic fees,  a transfer by ambulance to the rehabilitation hospital in Forcalquier (about  1 ½ hours from Marseille),  2 ½ weeks at the live-in rehabilitation hospital, all medications, plus 20 follow up sessions of physical therapy now that I am home – all completely covered.

Not covered:  Dr. Franceschi’s additional fee (you pay for his fame) €500 (about $625), and the extra charge for a private room at the hospital in Marseille, €75 per day or $94.   Some of this may be reimbursed by the supplemental insurance.

In France, the standard fee paid by the national insurance to the surgeon for knee replacement is between €400 and €500 ($500 – $625).    According to the July 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, a knee replacement in the U.S. costs between  $17,800 and $42,750.  These figures  also include the anesthetist’s fee and hospitalization, nonetheless they indicate that medical costs in the states are clearly over the top.  An American friend who lives in Aix en Provence recently paid €140 (about $175) for an MRI of his back.  Consumer Reports states than an MRI in the U.S. costs between $504 and $2,520.  Yet many Americans still vehemently oppose mandatory national health insurance?

Hospital Stay

Care at the Marseille hospital was fine. The food was not great, but perhaps a bit better than standard hospital fare.  Lots of healthy fish and spinach. One fish dish with a tomato/caper sauce was excellent , and I plan to try and duplicate it.

The French are fanatics about pre-surgery disinfection. Both the night before the surgery, and again the morning of the operation, you have to take a shower washing with a special red disinfectant.  There are even instructions in the shower as to how to proceed to disinfect the entire body – including hair.  Husband Bob (dubbed Mr. Clean by one of his daughter’s previous boyfriends as he is obsessed with order and cleanliness) was horrified when he saw that the tiles on the lower part of the shower were black with mold.  How sanitary can that be?

Shower mold aside, the room was spacious with an extra bed for a family member to spend the night with the patient if desired.  Mr. Clean is a dedicated husband, but I dared not ask to him to spend nights in the hospital with me.  However, my days were long and lonely as Marseille was too far for most friends to visit.

Every morning therapist Philippe, a jovial type who liked to kid, came to put my new knee leg on a contraption which bends the leg. Each day he increased the bend angle.  I also walked the hall several times a day –and in the middle of the night when sleep escaped me.

I had a favorite nurse: Monika Kiss, an angel from Hungary who was extra kind and caring.  She and her husband, a builder, are out to see the world.  They have lived and worked in Russia, Austria, the Netherlands, England and now France.  Monika speaks at least five languages, and is now studying Spanish as she hopes for a job in Spain next.  Her favorite job was at the Cambridge University  Hospital in England where she termed working  conditions “the best.”

Vanessa, a perky nurse’s aide in training, loved to talk about the U.S.  She’s never been, but dreams of visiting  ”California, New York,  Brooklyn.”   She says most everyone in France thinks Americans are crazy, but her father reminds her, “If it weren’t for the Americans, we’d be Germany today.”

The ambulance ride (my first)  to the rehab hospital was an amusing experience.  A bossy, chatty, 51-year-old woman sat next to me (I was on a stretcher).  Between shouting orders to the driver and talking on her cell phone, she told me her life story:  born in Portugal, six children, divorced, lives with boyfriend.  I heard about the problems with the ex, some of the children, her philosophy of life…    I had mentioned that I was a journalist.  “I’ve been looking for a journalist to write the story of my life. It’s very interesting.”  I did not volunteer.

Rehabilitation

When I arrived at the  Saint Michel rehabilitation hospital in Forcalquier, I thought I had entered paradise.  The hospital is  surrounded by green, with spectacular views of the chapel, Notre Dame de Provence (1875), atop a hill above the town.  Spotlessly clean (no mold in bathroom), a large room which I shared with another patient, a huge window next to my bed offering a lovely view, and an adjoining balcony.  Friend Lynne who visited several times called it   “your hotel.”

There I had lunch and dinner in a dining room with other patients, an entertaining group with whom it was interesting to trade stories about  surgeries, doctors, hospitals, etc.   Gilles, a retired chef, brought his own jars of sauces and condiments to season the food.  Jacques, a retired baker, was used to getting up in the wee hours and also had trouble sleeping.   Fanny, a rail thin woman with a tan that would put Coppertone to shame, sported cute mini dresses and claimed she was born with skin this amazing color.  Suzanne, who often dominated the table conversation,  told us this surgery, hip replacement, was her 17th operation.  Michelle, an artist, spent her days painting the surrounding scenery.

The food was much better than that in Marseille, including an excellent seafood paella and a tasty lamb tagine.  In French fashion, each meal was several courses:  entrée, main course, cheese and dessert.  I had heard that wine was also served with dinner at this hospital, but unfortunately that practice had been discontinued.  The nurse who admitted me explained that  “too many patients were getting drunk.”

Therapy, both morning and afternoon sessions, was excellent.  My first therapist, Carlos from Spain,  liked to chat and joke with those in the therapy room.  The lively conversation took my mind off the pain of bending the knee back and forth.  Carlos went off to another job and was replaced by Sara, a gorgeous young woman, also from Spain.  By my last week at the hospital, the “beautiful “  incision had healed and the stitches had dissolved.  I could join others in the therapy pool for water exercise.  Sara taught me numerous pool exercises which I am continuing in our pool.

There I was closer to home, so I did enjoy visits from friends, as well as their gifts of magnificent  flowers .

The rehabilitation facility was better than I ever expected, but, after almost four weeks of hospitalization, it’s wonderful to be home.

My discharge papers from Forcalquier described the “beautiful” incision as “perfect.”  I hope the new knee will be perfect, too.

Comments welcome.  Please share your thoughts.  Click on “Leave a Comment” at beginning of article.

For a taste of Provence, try the recipe just added in column at right, Chevre Au Gratin (Baked Goat Cheese), a delicious and easy spread for bread or crackers.

More photos follow in the slide show.

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Bicycling with Battery Power

Press a button on the bicycle handlebar.  Whee…, you soar full speed ahead.  It’s like magic, a thrilling sensation.

The power of electric bicycles.  I was excited.  Husband Bicycle Bob (BB), a hardcore macho cyclist, less so. Yet, we enjoyed our recent all-day excursion on these fun bicycles in the Luberon hills of France’s Provence.

Electric bicycling seems to be surging in popularity.  Baby boomers getting too old and out-of-shape for demanding pedaling?  More folks wanting a bicycle excursion without stress and sweat?   Serious cyclists who want to cover many miles, including some steep ascents where a power boost would be welcome?

Whatever the reasons, electric bicycles offer an enjoyable and easy alternative to conventional pedaling.  We rented these sturdy monsters for a day in the Provence town of Gordes with the company Sun-E-Bike which just started renting the bikes, valued at 1,300 euros each, at Easter.

Florian Machayekhi, who spoke English, gave us a briefing. You must pedal for the motor to be in operation, he explained.   There are three settings for different levels of motor power.  For steep hills, for example, you may wish to select the highest.  When going downhill, or in the flats, you can press a button to switch off the motor and pedal as with a regular bike.  Sun-E-Bikes have seven speeds.

We have done a lot of bicycling and did not intend to pedal with auxiliary power all the time.  However, these bikes are heavy, 25 kilos, therefore not quite like your bike back home.  I always shut the power off for downhills, and, lest being a real wimp, tried to keep it off in the flats. But, as this is Provence where the winds often blow, I was happy to press the power button to offset those nasty gusts produced by the Mistral.  And, I was no martyr in the hills, loving the easy and effortless climbs.  BB, of course, had to do it the hard way most of the time.  For the first time on cycle trips, I beat him to the top.  So, I cheated…it was still fun being first.

Florian had given us a map with a 40-kilometer itinerary through some Provence highlights: Fontaine de Vaucluse, Saumane de Vaucluse, Isle sur la Sorgue…  He suggested we have lunch at the latter where we could exchange the batteries.  The bike battery will last for 35 kilometers.  When we arrived at Les Terrasses du Bassin, the restaurant/battery exchange point, our batteries still registered full – all four battery lights still glowing.

We enjoyed lunch on the restaurant terrace where the river forms a large pool of crystal water popular with hungry ducks, but did not bother to get a new battery.  Almost a mistake.  Several hours later when we neared Gordes, the quintessential perched village and our destination, my bike was down to one battery light.  And, the last part was five kilometers all up hill.  I kept the motor setting on the lowest, thus using less power, and said a prayer that it would get me all the way back to the rental station.  I did not want to pedal that weighty bike up this killer ascent.  Luck was with me.  I made it back under battery power.

We cycled on May 8, a holiday in France, so the walkway through the forest to the scenic source of the Sorgue River at Fontaine de Vaucluse was crowded with strollers.  Riding became too risky, so we pushed the bikes up the path along the raging river.  Not easy, but the sounds and sights of the water below charging over rocks and boulders detracted from the effort.

Isle sur la Sorgue, known as the Venice of Provence, is a pleasant spot for a lunch break.  The Sorgue River splits into numerous streams flowing through the town not unlike Venetian canals.    Pedestrian bridges decorated with flower boxes and mossy waterwheels add to the picturesque ambience.

Between the towns on our itinerary we cycled past acres of vineyards, orchards, fields ablaze with wildflowers and weathered stone farm houses, all with the Luberon hills as a backdrop.

Pascal Hernoult welcomed us and the bikes back in Gordes.  The new electric bike venture is “encouraging,” he said.  “People return with big smiles.  They say it’s ‘formidable.’  They are not tired.”

Count me among those happy electric bicyclists.  Even BB admitted he was glad for the battery power to get back up that last long hill.

Watch the slideshow below for more photos.  Enjoy a tasty treat of the season: Hsin’s  Strawberry Cake.  See recipe in column at right.   Next blog post to focus on French health care — a first person account based on my upcoming knee replacement surgery.  Don’t miss it.  Click on “Email Subscription” at top of right column.

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Sun-E-Bike has 200 electric bicycles for rent at three different sites in Provence: Gordes, Bonnieux and Lauris.  Cost for rental per day is 35 euros which includes a helmet and yellow safety vest.  Half-day rental (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m): 22 euros.  Insurance: 2 euros per day.  A deposit of 200 euros or an ID card such as passport or driver’s license is required. Maps with suggested itineraries and battery exchange points are provided. Baby seats, baby trailers and panniers can be rented for an extra charge.

SuneE-Bike also offers bike rental for longer periods with hotel overnights and luggage transfer provided.  See the web site for details: www.sun-e-bike.com