Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nice is Nice is Nice

We decided to take a little break in the middle of the long 6-week stretch between February and Easter vacations (our lives are really tough) and take a train trip somewhere. Tickets for Nice turned out to be cheaper than tickets to Amsterdam, so south we went!

On Friday night, we headed in to Paris to catch our 10:09 train, which would get us to Nice at 8:30 Saturday morning. First-class tickets were only €5 more expensive than second class, so of course we bought those, as the train didn’t have any sleeper cars. We settled into our roomy, cushy seats with iPods, snacks, and books, and had a surprisingly enjoyable trip. In the morning, I turned towards the window and was greeted by this:

So I immediately woke Logan up and we snapped oodles of pictures (thanks to my NEW camera’s high-speed burst mode, I took over 100 pictures in two minutes, which on the plus side ensured at least a few good shots, and on the minus side meant I had to go through over 100 pictures to find those good shots). The train stayed along the coast for the rest of the ride, offering ever-changing views of the ocean and the sun and the clouds. It was a lovely welcome to the Côte d’Azur!

Once we arrived at the train station, we oriented ourselves and walked the 10 minutes to our hotel, which was two blocks from the ocean, tucked behind the famous Hôtel Negresco. I can totally see why it's famous:

Our hotel, Le Lido, was much less fancy, but more than made up for it in cleanliness, friendliness, and proximity to the beach. We were able to check into our room and take showers, which enabled me to survive the rest of the day despite my lack of sleep (first-class seats may be comfier than second-class ones, but that doesn’t mean they in any way resemble a bed). Then the owner of the hotel, Diane, gave us a map and pointed out the places of interest, including a supermarket so we could get cheap groceries.

Then it was time to head to the beach, which to my surprise had pebbles, just like the Normandy beaches!

Logan, of course, had to defy the ocean by building a wall. I watched from a comfortable distance (his shoes are waterproof, mine are not) but eventually had to join in the fun by building precarious towers.

By this time we were a bit sick of sitting on pebbles, so we found a café with ocean views and had some coffee. What I love about coffee in France is that you’re not really buying a drink, you’re buying a place to sit in the sun and chat and people-watch, all of which we did for a while. Then, since it was after noon (by how much I’m not telling you) Logan had his first French Riviera beer.

After that we got a bit antsy, so we headed along the beach up to a place that looked as if it would have good views. We were right.

Yes, those are people sunbathing, some of them topless. It was sunny out, but not that warm, in my opinion… I guess after a long cold winter of staring at the beach and not being able to enjoy it, any sun is better than none.

Continuing around the hill, we saw the Monument aux Morts, the memorial that every French city and town has to commemorate the soldiers who died in WWI and WWII, and sometimes others. This one was particularly striking, built into the hillside as it was.

By this time we were quite hungry (who knew that sitting on a train all night could be so exhausting?) so we found a place with outside seating and each ordered and inhaled an entire pizza. Mine had shrimps and mussels on it, which made me happy.

The hill overlooking the city was calling to us, especially since we’d heard there was a waterfall on it. We followed some maze-like paths up to the top, overtaking a group of older tourists who said something about young legs as we passed, which would have been funny except that I’d really wanted to take a break at that point and couldn’t, to uphold the reputation of young people everywhere. But the trip was worth it, as we saw Nice spread out before us:

The top of the hill also had many layers of old fortress walls and dungeons and such, but the highlight was definitely the waterfall, which we found by trial and error and eventually by following the sound of falling water.

It was impossible to walk in front of it without getting sprayed, but it was still sunny enough that the mist felt good, and it delighted the children, of course. As the sun started to go down, we walked down the other side of the hill and back along the beach to the supermarket, to buy supplies for our evening plans.

One short shopping trip later:

Yes, that’s an itty-bitty can – it cost so little I couldn’t resist. Part deux of our little pique-nique?

The bag contains peanut-flavored puffed corn snacks, something which is very popular in France even though nobody here likes peanut butter. I absolutely love those things and have been known to inhale a whole bag by myself if I’m not paying attention. The beer is because you can’t have a picnic on the beach without beer.

Alas, even in the south of France the sun has to set, so when it got cold we headed back to the hotel room, watched some bad French TV, and fell into bed, exhausted.

The next day our only agenda was to spend time on the beach, so we headed along the Promenade des Anglais (the wide pedestrian area parallel to the beach) only to find tents and barriers along the road and general excitement. As it turned out, there was a Paris-Nice bike race that was ending that day! We found out that the race would end around 2:00, giving us plenty of time to get in our lazing around on the beach.

Then we wandered around town in search of a bakery open on Sunday, that ever-elusive species, and hit the jackpot when we found one that sold pan bagnat, a regional specialty of garlic-rubbed bread, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, tuna and anchovies. I got one, but Logan didn’t, which left him with no defense against my tuna-garlic-anchovy breath for the rest of the day. It was delicious, in any case.

We found some perches on bollards to watch the end of the bike race, which was actually pretty cool despite not knowing who anybody was. I cheered just as loudly as everybody else when the winner flew by!

As the crowd dispersed, we headed into Vieux Nice as a change from the beach. Most of the stores were closed (welcome to France on a Sunday!) but the little streets were fun to explore

and we came across an ice cream place with over 50 flavors of gelato, from the ordinarily delicious (nutella, raspberry, pistachio) to the bizarre (basil, lavender, violet). Logan got cactus and I got Dragibus, with gummy candies in it, as a nod to my old favorite, bubble-gum ice cream from King Kone at home. They were both pretty good, but it was really the novelty of eating ice cream outside without getting cold that made me happy.

We also found a pretty fancy-looking but still reasonable restaurant called Le Tire-Bouchon (The Corkscrew), so we went back to the hotel to get all gussied up, then came back to wander some more so as to not be the first ones there. The Promenade des Anglais was gorgeous at night.

Dinner was spectacular – we had an amuse-bouche of toast triangles and tomato sauce, followed by potted rabbit with roasted garlic and toasts for Logan, and cream of watercress soup for me. Then I had pork medallions in sage sauce, with purple potatoes and some other sort of root vegetable, and Logan had a fish filet with apple and cider sauce. It was delicious, and we had wine, and then there was dessert! Logan got licorice-flavored crème brûlée, which could have been gross but wasn’t at all, and I had tiramisu with berries, which came on a plate drizzled with raspberry coulis and honey, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I spooned those right up. The portion sizes for everything were perfect, too, so we were satisfied but not full to bursting. It was really a lovely evening.

The next morning was our last chance to watch a sunrise in Nice, so we dragged ourselves out of bed bright and early and walked down to the beach to find…
this. A tad underwhelming. We still had fun testing out various camera settings and taking lots and lots of wave pictures (many more photos on Facebook!), and finally we were rewarded with this:

At this point, a delightful aroma started to waft towards us, and, having skipped breakfast, we tried to find it. A short while into our quest, we were rewarded with the bakery of our own favorite supermarket, which was offering a breakfast deal of two croissants or pains au chocolat, a small fruit juice, and a coffee for €2,30. I could have kissed the lady behind the counter. We took our booty back to the beach and enjoyed our breakfast while taking our last looks at the Mediterranean. Then it was back to the hotel to collect our bags and off to the train station to catch our train… It was a wonderful, stress-free break from our usual weekend routine, and we even got a little tan! It was gone in a week, of course, but we enjoyed our color while it lasted.

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