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

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