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.
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.
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.
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 moisture. 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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ll be back in Menton at the end of February for its Lemon Festival (14 Feb.-4 March) www.fete-du-citron.com
American Club of the Riviera: americanclubriviera.com
Restaurant Coquille d’Or: xx 33 (0) 4 93 35 80 67
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.
Like my blog? Tell your friends. Feedback is most welcome. Leave a Reply below. Sign up (upper right) to become a Tales and Travel follower so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.
With its gorgeous landscapes and numerous attractions, Provence is a Mecca for tourists. French. British. Dutch. Belgians. Asians. Russians, and many more.
Friends and relatives who come to visit us in the Luberon hills also enjoy the allure of Provence. Carol and Noel, friends from Germany who have retired to northern Italy, arrived in early October. Soon after came John and Mickey, VR’s (husband Vino Roberto’s) brother and sister-in-law from northern Ohio.
We kept on the move and had fun showing off our Provence favorites. A hit with all was Carrières de Lumières in Les-Baux-de-Provence. Words fail to describe this amazing place –vast caverns, formerly quarries, where a unique multimedia presentation enthralls all. The show changes every winter.
“Klimt and Vienna” is this year’s show, ending Jan. 4, which features the works of turn-of-the-century artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, plus Fritz Hundertwasser, projected on the walls and floors. Wander through the immense space, engulfed by the gigantique tableaux. Enjoy the mesmerizing musical background.
“Klimt is now one of my favorites. The show is awesome. I could have just sat there all day looking at the images,” said Carol. We, too, are overwhelmed with the production and return every year to see the new show.
The ancient town, Les-Baux-de-Provence, with its medieval château, spectacular views and boutique lined cobblestone streets, is also captivating. ”I’ve been to a million of those cutesy towns that have become little more than amusement parks. Les Baux seemed, to me, to have retained some of its soul,” commented Noel.
Mickey was especially intrigued with the site where the ruins of an 11th century citadel dominate a plateau perched on a rocky spur. She listened to the explanations on an audio headset at each numbered stop throughout the historic site. “I love castles,” she said.
Carol and Noel were also impressed with Roussillon, a touristy town whose attraction is its Sentier des ocres (ochre footpath). A trail descends into a gorge of orange/yellow walls, then winds through the woods bordered by these exotic, colorful cliffs. The area was also formerly a working quarry.
Noel had made a special request . He remembers a scene in the movie, “In Like Flint” with James Coburn, during which Coburn savors Bouillabaisse, Marseilles’ signature dish. He had to eat this legendary fish soup in Marseille. I did some
restaurant research to find a place serving authentic Bouillabaisse. Many restaurants have a version for tourists. My find, Le Ruhl, has a perfect setting on a hillside just adjacent to the Mediterranean. Great views – but the food? OK, but not great. Next time I’ll try another restaurant for Bouillabaisse
Before lunch we had hoped to take a boat ride of the calanques (dramatic fjord like inlets in the limestone cliffs between Marseille and Cassis), but due to the fierce Mistral which blows too frequently in these parts, the boats were not running. We braved the winds and took a long walk through the Vieux Port, then on to the J4 Esplanade, Marseille’s swanky new addition for 2013 when the city was the European Capital of Culture. I never tire of admiring the dazzling architecture of the new Villa Méditerranée and MuCem ( museum of Mediterranean and European culture).
Mickey and John did get to see the calanques. On a delightfully calm day we boarded the sightseeing boat in the enchanting port town, Cassis, for the excursion through parts of this dramatic coastline. It was market day in Cassis with vendors selling clothing, food, purses and all manner of souvenirs.
Markets are a major Provence attraction. Mickey accompanied me to Forcalquier, a town near our home known for its big Monday market. “I loved the shopping you did at the outdoor market,” she later said. “ I really liked that you were able to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, produce, eggs, fish and sausages direct from the farmers the same morning they were picked. I enjoyed listening to you get a better price for the shawl/cape you purchased, especially after the seller informed you this would be the last time he was going to be at the market with his items.” (It was a coat I could have done without. But when my bargaining was successful, I could not resist.)
VR and I recently joined the American Club of the Riviera. Their October agenda included an event during Mickey and John’s visit I knew we should not miss – a tour of the Henri Matisse Rosary chapel in hillside Vence above the Riviera. A documentary, basically an interview by American Barbara Freed with the late Sister Jacques Marie, the nun who played a major role in the realization of this unique structure, preceded the tour. Freed has translated the nun’s book about her relationship with Matisse into English and served as director of the documentary. She was on hand with more fascinating commentary. It’s an unbelievable story – the deep friendship between this renowned artist who was not religious and the Dominican nun, and how she influenced, inspired and encouraged him on the chapel project.
An overnight stop in Nice, my Riviera favorite, preceded our trek to Vence. We strolled along the seaside Promenade des Anglais and wandered through Old Nice.
Then back into the hills to Sospel, a town VR and I had visited many times. We had even considered moving there. We became friends with Marie Mayer who
runs a chambre d’hote (bread and breakfast), Domaine du Paraïs, where we always stayed. Her late father, Marcel Mayer, was a well known sculptor. She invited us for an aperitif in her living room filled with some of her father’s remarkable art works.
Noel and Carol are foodies like VR and I. ”Food, of course, is always high on our list,” Noel said. “The afternoon at the Dutch guy’s place was unforgettable… everything about that afternoon was wonderful – the intimate setting, the company and the food, which really was excellent.”
He was referring to Table du Bonheur, a special eatery in the hinterlands where we had an excellent lunch. (See previous post, Table of Happiness, Sept. 2, 2011)
Our food extravaganza with John and Mickey was an over-the-top meal in Italy – a lunch of multi courses at an agriturismo (farm inn), La Locanda degli Ulivi, hidden up a very long, very narrow, very windy road in the hills above Dolceacqua, a small, picturesque town just north of Ventimiglia. This was a first for me and VR. We will return, but VR said I can drive up that taxing hill next time. We must have had at least six different antipasti before two different types of pasta followed by the main course, rabbit, and the dessert. Not gourmet cuisine, but a fun experience in a livey, cozy – and very Italian — ambiance .
Throughout our drives, Mickey, who is very interested in vegetation, often asked me the names of different trees. I failed . All the lavender fields fascinated her. She’d like to come back to see them in bloom (usually July). Olive trees were another favorite. ”The olive orchards were amazing to see. It might be interesting to see the trees when in bloom or when the farmers are harvesting the olives. I noticed olives were served at all the meals.”
I asked her what was most memorable about her visit. “The view of the mountains was unbelievable, and the winding roads took our breath away. What a wonderful trip and fantastic weather! The sight reminded me of what heaven must be like. Not a lot of noise, heavy traffic, or trucks unloading but just a peaceful, restful vacation place.”
Not quite heaven, but Provence has its charms.
Like my blog? Tell your friends. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. Coming next: Incredible Iceland Part II –horses, fish, food, adventure. And, for a taste of fall, try my recipe for Spaghetti Squash Gratin — above right.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.fr
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.com
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
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