Mimosa and Menton

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Mimosa – not a cocktail with champagne and orange juice,  at least  not in southern France.  Here it is  “a tropical shrub or tree of the leguminous genus Mimosa, having ball-like clusters of yellow or pink  flowers and compound leaves that are often sensitive to light or touch.”

High in the hills above the French Riviera, and along the coast,  those blossoms are bright yellow, bursting forth in February, heralding the beginning of spring. The glorious show of nature calls for celebration.menton.5

La Fête de Mimosa in Tanneron, a tiny  town at the pinnacle of the Route d’ Or (golden route),  honors the colorful spectacle every year.  Garlands of yellow decorate buildings, cars, posters.  Stands sell local products.  Bands play.  Shots are fired. Folks come from afar to enjoy – and photograph — the splendor.

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The narrow, twisty road leading to the town, the Route d’Or, offers magnificent photo opps of the blazing trees against a background of gorgeous scenery.  But, to get that perfect shot, you may need to risk your life.  There are no places to pull off, and traffic when the blossoms are at their peak is heavy.

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Sorry about the garbage bin. Need to master photo shop

We joined friends of the American Club of the Riviera at the festival, then continued on to Menton, our favorite coastal city on the border with Italy. We have decided the time has come to downsize, sell our house, and move closer to civilization.  We love the tranquility and beauty of our surroundings in the Luberon countryside, especially the ever-changing view of the hills from our porch/balcony.  But, it is probably not the best place for old folks (us).

I love the Med … and Menton.  It is almost like being in Italy.  Lots of Italian is spoken.  Answering machine messages are in two languages, French and Italian. I have been studying Italian on and off for years and relish  the opportunity to speak.  Italian restaurants abound.  You can walk across the border to Italy.

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Menton’s Old Town

Perfect.  We’ll move to Menton … that is, we’d be happy to move to  Menton.  Our mini trip was a reconnaissance mission, basically to check with real estate agencies on the availability of large, vacant apartments to rent on a long term basis.  We no longer want to be property owners.

We rented an Airbnb studio in the Vieille Village, the city’s ancient town with narrow alleys and steps, lots of steps.  It is pedestrian only, no shops,  no restaurants.  Those are below in the centre ville, town center,  down many more  steps. The old town is not the best place for my decaying knees, nonetheless fascinating, charming, and, had the weather been better, super photo opps.

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Menton’s Old Town

Our  Menton dream came to a depressing crash with reality:  the type of apartment we seek is almost non-existent.

This is the Mediterranean coast, vacation/tourist territory.  Apartments to rent are furnished, rented for the season, and mainly small.   Nonetheless, we left our contact details with numerous agencies just in case something with our criteria becomes available.  We expanded the search to nearby Roquebrune. There a few realtors did offer a glimmer of hope for the future.menton.6

We did visit one apartment, 100 sq meters, considered large.  It seemed small to us:  no storage space, tiny kitchen, just one bathroom, two very small bedrooms. The living room, however, was spacious with large windows and lovely views.

This will not be easy on many fronts.  We  came home and surveyed our big house and all the contents, many treasures collected over the years..  No way will we be able to move all this stuff to an apartment, even a big apartment.

Bob would prefer to rent a house, which may make more sense for us.  That may be even harder to find.  But, we can and must begin the process:  eliminate, sell, trash lots. We will put the house up for sale this summer when roses are in bloom, pool in operation, and it is at its best.

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No Mediterranean sunshine during our Menton visit.

We will bug those real estate agencies.  We are going back to Menton at the end of the month during the town’s renowned lemon festival for a luncheon sponsored by the British Association of Menton.  Maybe some of those folks could be helpful.

We won’t give up:  Menton or bust!

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Celebrating Lemons and Bicycles

menton.9.aFruity floats, gigantic citrus creations, fabulous flowers. The annual Menton Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is an explosion of color, scents, and scenes in honor of the city’s prized small yellow fruit.menton..13

We were enthralled with it all during a visit many years ago, and returned a few weeks ago to survey the scene of dazzling orange and yellow sculptures once again.menton.15a

This Riviera city, the lemon capital of France on the border with Italy, has been celebrating the lemon with festivities every year since 1929. The festival attracts some 230,000 visitors who come to admire 145 tons of citrus fruits which make up the creations and exhibitions.

This year’s theme, the lemon in China, featured a mammoth dragon, a pagoda, a temple, animals and more all made of lemons and oranges.menton.2a

The exhibits are set up along the Jardin Biovès, a long promenade lined with the colossal fruit constructions. An elevated ramp in the middle is especially popular with the camera crowd who line the steps for overall shots of the scene. Stands selling the fruit, citrus liqueurs, soaps, jams and postcards do a brisk business.menton.17a

Menton’s microclimate with more than 300 sunny, temperate days per year is ideal for growing the tangy fruit. There are some 80 varieties of lemons, but it’s the Menton lemon that is prized by chefs for its perfume, distinctly flavored zest and pulp, and high sugar content. While the lemon gets top billing, oranges play a leading role in the gigantic creations.menton.16.a

We had previously visited Menton, my favorite coastal city, in January. See  post, “French Riviera: Magnifico Menton.” The city, which was originally part of Italy, became the property of Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, in 1346. In 1848 it broke away from Monaco, becoming a free city, and in 1860 it became part of France. By the late 19th century it was on the map as a popular tourist spot on the French Riviera.menton.1a

This time instead of staying in Menton, we crossed the border and spent three nights in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Menton, and a lovely town on a coastal bike path. That was our plan – get back on the bikes.SR.5

Husband, formerly known as Bicycle Bob (BB), was an avid cyclist. He seems to have lost interest in pedaling, even though he invested in a snazzy, expensive bicycle a few years ago. His passion has become wine, so I call him VR (Vino Roberto). I miss biking and the great rides we have taken over the years — in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and France.bobbike

Let’s not give in to old age. Let’s get moving again. He agreed and we had a wonderful, easy ride on the bike route from Sanremo to San Lorenzo al Mare, about 18 kilometers, then back to Sanremo and another 4 kilometers in the other direction to Ospedaletti.SR.blog.7.ajpg

Old railroad tracks were converted into the wide coastal trail, used by walkers and roller bladers as well as bicyclists. It meanders through Sanremo then down the coast. No hills. No need to downshift. There are plenty of spots along the route complete with benches where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. And villages (Bussana, Arma di Taggia, Santo Stefano al Mare) for a refreshment stopover.bike

We had a fantastic and bargain lunch at Café Emy by the beach in San Lorenzo al Mare. The insalata frutti di mare (seafood salad) was huge – a meal in itself. My spaghetti frutti di mare was the best I have ever eaten (see photo).spaghetti

A unique aspect to this bike route is tunnels – several. The most famous and longest is the Capo Nero tunnel along the section Sanremo-Ospedaletti, 1.75 kilometers long. It has been converted into a memorial of sorts to Sanremo’s most famous sporting event, the cycling classic Milan-Sanremo. For more than 100 years, the race has been the first important contest of the cycling season. It will take place on March 22 this year.

Every bay of the tunnel is dedicated to a specific year in the history of the race, with some basic facts about that year’s event written on one side, with tidbits SR.blog.9.ajpgand anecdotes on the other, in both Italian and English. I was too busy pedaling to read it all, but did try to catch some phrases to break up the monotony of the dismal tunnel trek.

Total ride: 45 kilometers. It was a success. And, so was the hotel where we stayed. Fabulous. With just four rooms, the Villa Rita can’t really be called a hotel. The house sits just above the beach within walking distance of the town center. Our room had a large terrace and lovely views. I was in heaven, lying in bed, enjoying the sea view from the window while listening to the restful sounds of waves slapping the shore — and contemplating future bike rides.

breakfastVilla Rita: www.villaritasanremo.it

Menton Lemon Festival: www.fete-du-citron.com/ The festival takes place the last two weeks of February.

Ristorante Bar Emy, Via Al Mare 1, San Lorenzo al Mare, Italy, ++ 39 0183-91314SR.1a

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French Riviera: Magnifico Menton

It’s easy to understand why artists, film stars, royalty, politicians, Russian oligarchs – and plain old folks like us –are enamored of the French Riviera. The scenery, that seductive combination of mountains and sea, is the stuff of glamorous coffee table books. Add to that plenty of sunshine, good food and happy faces.coast.7

VR and I would like to join those happy faces someday, downsize and move closer to the sea.   With that long range goal in mind, we set off to Menton last week. It is the last city in France on the coast before the Italian border. At times, you’d think you were in Italy. Lots of Italian spoken, restaurants featuring Italian specials, more joie de vivre. Even though that’s a French term, the Italians seem to have lots more of it than the too-often dour French – in my opinion.coast.1

Menton has a lovely stretch of beach (stones not sand) bordered by many turn of the century mansions, not unlike Nice, just smaller. Skinny streets in the Old Town, as well as long sets of pebbled steps, climb to an imposing Italian Baroque church, then onwards to a chapel and even higher to a cemetery. There’s a busy pedestrian shopping street, an old covered market hall, and a well known museum dedicated to the works of artist Jean Cocteau. The city is also known for its gardens which we will visit next time.coast.4

We found many restaurants closed for the season in January, but thanks to the advice of a woman at the tourist office, we had a wonderful fish dinner (Branzino sotto sale). Sea bass baked under a mound of salt which locks in all the coast.3moisture. Owners of the Coquille d’Or restaurant, the chef and his wife, are Italian. Our waiter was Italian.  The fish – maybe it came from the Italian Med.

Ventimiglia, the town just across the border in Italy, has an enormous Friday market, a source of fashion bargains and more. Parking is always a nightmare, but our Menton hotel desk clerk suggested we take the train. Perfect and only 11.20 euros round trip for both of us. This time the market was a disappointment, perhaps because it’s too early for spring fashion, too late for winter?? I did find a few cheap treasures.

Then, a return to a waterfront restaurant we had found on a previous visit for another amazing meal. VR went for grilled fish.   I chose spaghetti frutti di mare, chuck full of mussels, clams, a few shrimp and some unknown critters.coast.5

Before heading back to our abode in the hinterlands, we joined members of the American Club of the Riviera for an outing in Nice. A guided visit of the Musée Masséna preceded a gourmet lunch at the Hotel Negresco. The museum, a sumptuous Belle Époque villa on the Promenade des Anglais, was built between 1898 and 1901 by Victor Masséna, grandson of one of Napoleon’s marshals, and a collector of precious objets d’art.coast.12

More opulence next door at the Hotel Negresco, another Belle Époque gem (1912). According to a guidebook, it is “one of the great surviving European palace-hotels.”   I was delighted to see a gigantic Niki de Saint Phalle Nana adding a whimsical touch under the Baccarat chandelier hanging from the dome in the Salon Royale which was built by Gustav Eiffel’s workshops.coast.6

By the time our excellent lunch (gazpacho, lamb and apple crumble) ended, clouds put an end to the sun’s rays.   No chance for good photos of Nice’s new addition, the Promenade du Paillon, a strip of parkland between the city center and Vieux Nice (Old Town). We did saunter down the Promenade des Anglais, along the sea, then crossed over for a walk to the giant Ferris wheel at the end of the new reflecting pool.coast.9

We’ll be back in Menton at the end of February for its Lemon Festival (14 Feb.-4 March) www.fete-du-citron.comcoast.8

More on Menton: http://www.tourisme-menton.frcoast.13

American Club of the Riviera: americanclubriviera.com

Restaurant Coquille d’Or: xx 33 (0) 4 93 35 80 67coast.10

More on Nice www.nicetourisme.com Nice’s Carnaval celebration, lots of fabulous flowers on parade and more, takes place from 13 Feb. – 1 March.   See my previous posts: “Nice Carnaval,” Feb. 23, 2009 and “Nice- Enchantment on the Riviera,” Jan. 12, 2012

Since I am in an Italian mood, and since a hearty soup is perfect for these cold winter days, Today’s Taste features one of my favorites, Minestrone.   See Recipe column at top right.coast.11

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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