Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sud de France - Côte d'Azur


Leaving Provence, we found ourselves on a boring motorway in driving rain. The plan had been to drop in at Aix-en-Provence but, with this miserable context, we made a split decision to divert south and take the coast road. It proved to be a good call. The weather eased off and we enjoyed a scenic drive along the Mediterranean all the way to St Tropez.
Famed for its glitz and glamour, St Tropez in mid-winter proved to be a pleasant old fishing port, complete with pretty harbour, stern sea walls to wander along, and great views out across the bay (which, in our case, included a pink blur on the horizon, created by dozens of flamingos gliding across the water at the end of their annual migration). In short, I liked it much more than I expected. The locals we met were friendly and the place had character. This was, though, mid off season. I dread to think what it would be like in high season and plan never to find out.
Continuing on, hitting some traffic and tack, we really got a feel of how crammed and over-developed the Cote de Azure is. I am sure it was gorgeous 30 years ago and clearly retains some stunning parts, but it would be way down my list for a summer vacation. Unless you get a kick out of striving for the “it” crowd” – which I find a monumental turn off – I would not recommend it.

Talking of the "it" crowd, we ended the day in Cannes, which was to be our base for the next four days. Having said that....we enjoyed Cannes. It has a great aspect of green hills rolling into the Med. The seafront is fun and, if you can ignore the monstrosity of an exhibition centre which splits it in two, attractive. We found the people welcoming and stuffed ourselves with some excellent French cuisine. By far the best thing about the place was, though, where we stayed, the Hotel Ideal Sejour
This small, quirky hotel was most of the way up one of Cannes’ hills, on a ridiculously steep street. Niko’s expression at staying in a room with a massive red 3D dragon jutting out of the walls was priceless. The place was wonderfully chilled and, without any exaggeration, run by one of the warmest people I have met, Nicole. This was her home and she made it abundantly clear that we were welcome, cooking up special dinners when we turned up late soaked through from the rain, playing with our children and doing her best to dig us out of a big hole (more on that in my next post…).
My favourite side trip from Cannes was to the fortified port of Antibes. It was great to see all the bobbing boats in the old harbour and venture on to the high sea walls where we found a giant sculpture to scramble all over and amazing views across the bay to Nice. To my surprise, it was even better to pass through the town walls, wander through the medieval streets and end up savouring the produce of a traditional provincial market. The boys loved the tit bits of fromage, pain, et saucissons.

We put aside a day to visit the odd historic hangover that is the principality of Monaco. Entering, we received a stark geography lesson as to why this place is so distinct. Monaco is cut off from France by a wall of mountain and the sea. The place is nearly impregnable from the mainland. Driving in from France, our route in necessitated a trip through tunnels and back and forth on sharply twisting roads, before we disappeared into a subterranean car park.
Monaco is an undeniably dramatic place. Mountains give way to a forest of high rise apartments greedily clinging to every square inch of half-habitable space left by the shiny, yacht-strewn sea.
Don’t get me wrong - it was great to soak up the winter sunshine harbour side and take a peek into the Casino de Monte Carlo, but the place left me somewhat cold. From my admittedly short visit, I got the feeling that scratching beneath the surface would not throw up much I like. Super rich clubs, condos and yacht parties. Tax dodgers and posers. Appearance over substance. Bernie Ecclestone’s heaven.
I tried to square this feeling with my positive reaction to Gibraltar. While both are distinct, tax-friendly, geographically secluded hangovers from older times, my gut reaction to each was very different. Gibraltar felt like a pub and it welcomed all in an understated way. Monaco felt like a private members' club. Maybe too much of this is based on one rude encounter with a waiter, but there you go. Life is too short for such places.

All said and done, it was still awesome to drive the formula one circuit in reverse on our way out (semi-exposed tunnel and all), leaning into the corners pretending we were in a formula one car as opposed to a family Renault with two kids in the back.


Our final planned stop was to Nice. Unlike a number of the aforementioned places, I immediately fell for it. Nice has a fantastic setting, spanning a wide aquamarine bay before crawling up a big chunk of rock which bites into the sea at its eastern side.  It has some grand old buildings, proudly lining the sea front and reaching into the heart of the city. Vitally, it also has that all important edge. Alongside all the culture and beauty, it is a gritty Latin city. It instantly reminded me of South America.
I was put in a supremely happy mood by a combination of chucking pebbles with my sons on the beach, quick dip into the chilly Med, strut along the Promenade des Anglais basking in the winter sun and, the piece de resistance, dining with my family on salad Nicoise and ice cold beer in the old market square. Just stunning.
We had an ice cream on the promenade and then took the lift to the top of the rock for a final view over the city and surrounds. Reaching the top the view did not disappoint. I took a deep breath, savouring it all… an uneasy feeling gripped me... my head swung round to look and my jaw dropped… SHIT. Where was THE bag. Not any old bag, THE BAG with all our passports, phones, documents…
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