Europe | France | Cote d’ Azur (French Riveria) – Traversing the French Riviera
I spent the last few days travelling along the south coast of France. When I got to Nice, I was in good spirits and headed straight for the beach only to find… pebbles. I’ll never understand the Europeans’ contentment with pebbly beaches. I strolled along the beach smiling knowingly at the sun bathers, regretting only that I didn’t have a postcard of Australia’s Gold Coast with which I could show each person I passed and issue a hollow guffaw at their amazed looks.
A day in Montpellier
From Barcelona I had headed back into France by catching the train to Montpellier, intending to spend only one night there before moving on. The hostel some distance from the station was full, and for some reason every hotel I called at was also full. I eventually found one which had a last minute cancellation. The price was higher than what I was prepared to pay, but I took the room, not wishing to be still roaming Montpellier at sundown.
I dumped my pack and headed out to explore the town. Montpellier is a nice and tidy university town, home to 55,000 students. The old streets radiating from the centre are fun to stroll in, and the town is trendy enough to have the usual complement of shops and eateries. There are parks and gardens, and a wide open paved central area called the Place de la Comedie, surrounded by open air cafes.
I returned to my room for a shower and emerged for some dinner, only to find the place eerily quiet. It seemed like most people had gone home for the day, and most shops had closed. Hardly a soul was walking the streets, and if they were they were going about their business quietly. If there’s a lively nightlife somewhere then I didn’t come across it. I opted for a quick meal and retired to my room, spending the rest of the night watching Godzilla dubbed in French.
Very Nice indeed
The next day I boarded the train for Nice. Before the other passengers and I could get on the train, we waited while a whole orchestra got off. A few trombones, some trumpets, several violins and other assorted instruments. This went on for several minutes, and just when we thought we’d seen the last orchestral member, a gigantic double bass emerged with a petite lady underneath. I don’t know how they fit that on the overhead racks.
On the way, the train hugs the coast and I could see out to the Mediterranean and the Cote d’Azur. Seaside homes are perched on the hills and yachts are moored in the bays. On arrival in Nice, I headed straight for the tourist office to enquire about hostels. Both were 4 km north of the station, uphill, and reachable by bus. They also don’t open till 5 pm. I decided to walk around the streets near the station and by chance found a hotel offering shared rooms for a fraction more than a hostel room, breakfast included. I figured the convenience of not having to travel into town by bus from the hostel was well worth the difference, so I signed in.
The area down by the seaside is fabulous, despite the pebbly beach. The Promenade des Anglais is a wide pathway lining the beach, with people strolling along, skating or cycling. Steps from the promenade lead down onto the beach. The promenade stretches for miles in either direction, and to the west I could see Nice airport. The entire length is also lined with hotels and apartments along the way.
I walked along the promenade and saw the coast line winding in and out, all lined with apartments and beaches. Monaco is just further down the riviera and if I kept walking I could probably have reached it.
Inland off the promenade are various streets and avenues filled with shops and restaurants, where dining out is popular and not particularly expensive. I had a pizza at one of the cafes, which was produced by the rotund and jolly bar manager with a flourish and “Voila! Bon Apetit!”. I love that sort of stuff.
Nice also has a respectable array of museums, some free, and charming marketplaces in narrow streets excellent for some lazy browsing. I would certainly agree with its tag of undisputed queen of the riviera. I could even overlook the pebbled beaches.
Living the high life in Monte Carlo
The French Riviera actually starts at Cannes to the west of Nice and continues to the Italian border (where appropriately it becomes the Italian Riviera). Along the way are several other small resorts, all built on hills with holiday apartments, beaches and bays. The rich and famous own some of the most expensive property in the world here.
Being in such close proximity to each other, I could easily traverse the riviera by train. One morning, I actually spent some time momentarily in another country when I visited the tiny principality of Monaco. This country, ruled since 1308 by the Grimaldis, covers only a few square kilometres and built itself on the gambling and banking industries. To me it is more of a curiosity as a playground of the rich and famous.
I dropped by the most famous casino in the world, the Monte Carlo Casino. I could only go as far as the gilded foyer as I was stopped by a stern but polite doorman who informed me “Excusez moi monsieur, but to enter the gaming rooms you will have to pay ten euros over there.”
“Hmm, yes, I see”, I said. “And does Rupert Murdoch have to pay as well?” He either didn’t know who Rupert Murdoch was or didn’t get the joke. Most likely the latter, given the French’s sense of humour, or lack thereof.
Later that day I hiked up the hill to the Royal Palace, which in itself is not a remarkable building except for the fact that we could actually go quite close to it. The palace is perched high in the hills overlooking the harbour where millionaire’s yachts are moored and the bay where highrises spring up. Close to noon a crowd gathered outside the palace, and I joined them not knowing what they were expecting. I was hoping that Prince Rainier would emerge to personally greet everyone and, preferably, hand out complimentary casino chips. However it turned out to be the changing of the guard.
Monaco is undeniably a playground for the wealthy, but for the rest of us it provides a novel glimpse into how the other half lives.