Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Nice, not nice, nice, not nice and nice again, near nice...

Written 5th March

Never get tired of that one!

There is nothing more more depressing, in my view, than the sight of a palm tree, silhouetted against a stormy sky, being whipped by the wind and lashed by the rain, unless it is the sight of two such palm trees.

I had high hopes for our Cote d'Azur mini-break.  As usual, Bill had come up trumps with suggestions of things to do and van-friendly places to stay near Nice, and way back at Mena, Ian had positively raved about Antibes.  And by March, a place which boasts 300+ days of sunshine can't be bad... can it?   

It all started well.  We sailed down from the mountains, through Grasse, France's home of perfume, and on into the bright lights of Cannes, cruising down the glitzy prom until we found a spot far enough away from the 'no motorhomes' signs to be undisturbed.  Heading out for a walk at midnight after a late dinner, we happened unexpectedly upon an irish bar run by an aussi with a kiwi sidekick where the purchase of a red wine and half a Guinness got us a further two glasses of wine, two shots of sambuca and some friendly antipodean banter on house.  We were finally kicked out at 2am with the promise of a shower if we came and found him in the morning - both he and the kiwi are van-dwellers so sympathetic to the privations of life on the open road - and merrily wobbled our way home.

Unfortunately in the morning, whilst everyone we met at the bar agreed that he was around somewhere, he was nowhere to be found so we had to forego the shower but it was a nice offer!

We headed back into Cannes to drive along the front in the daylight and on round the coast to Juan les Pins and Antibes where the only people out enjoying the sea were the kite- and windsurfers, the weather being so extreme by this point that the guys on land were fighting their sails to get to the beach and the ones on the water seemed to be spending more time with air under their boards than water - impressive stuff!

We battled our way through the weather and traffic to Nice - stopping for more internet and the poshest Mc'Chocolate we have so far encountered! -

before a Carrefour detour and the drive along the 8-lane motorway which is the Promenade des Anglais, Nice's famous sea-front.

Our destination was Beaulieu s/ Mer, a small seaside town between Nice and Monaco where Bill advised that free and unrestricted parking could be found by the marina and there we holed up for the rest of the day - Bill, we can also vouch for the levelness of the fifth space to the left of the westbound bus stop :) -  venturing out only much later to find the bars just before out of season early closing, one of which turned out be full of english people and run by an woman with an unexpected home counties accent - nice ;)  

Fearing a complete washout and already thinking of Italy, we were greeted by the welcome sight of a  watery sun when we peered out of the curtains the following morning so set off forthwith to make the most of it in Eze.

Perched way up the cliff en route to Monaco, Eze was another early recommendation, this time from my friend Laura from work - "you must, must, go to Eze, its amazing!".

And it was.  With traced settlement  origins back to the bronze age and the early Celts, Eze also has Moorish ancestry.  Originally part of Provence, it became part of the County of Savoy and was first properly established as a defensive castle by the Dukes of Savoy in the 14th century before becoming part of france again in 1860.  It is one of those places visited and written about by many and its main literary claim to fame is that Nietzsche composed Thus Spoke Zarathustra whilst walking up the mule track which now bears his name.

Crowned by the remains of its castle, the old town clings to the side of a rocky pinnacle, jutting out from the main cliff face and it is genuinely stunning.

Due to the height restrictions, any parking, let alone our preferred free parking seemed at first impossible, until we snagged a free space further up the road, courtesy of a hi-vis jacketed council worker who offered to move his car for us - brilliant.  We were further indebted to the kindness of strangers when the thingamy wouldn't connect in the only cafĂ© in town with internet and the girl let Will pick up his email on the till computer - sometimes people can be so unexpectedly nice.  The french keyboard and lack of mouse was a challenge for passwords and overly scripty webbased mail though... :)

Essential mail dealt with, we set off to explore and found what can only be described as absolutely the prettiest of winding typical streets we have thusfar encountered.  We have, by choice and circumstance, missed out on two other 'perched villages' in the last couple of days (Les Baux de Provence, south of Avignon and Mougins, north of Cannes, both also in our 1001 places book), but to be honest, Eze more than made up for the lack of these other villages and after all, it would be dreadful if we had arrived here with 'perched village fatigue and therefore didn't enjoy it :) 

We climbed first to the very top and the Jardin Exotique in the ruins of the castle with a view down into the bay and as far over as Cap Ferrat, Nice, Cap d'Antibes, Cannes and St Tropez in one direction

and the mountain overlooking Monaco on the other.  

The cacti were impressive,

the sylph-like feminine statuary understated and elegant

and the sunny seats of the 'contemplative space' warm and comfortable and the perfect place to respond to my dad's cheery text from his mid-ski run lunch break atop a sunny mountain in Mayerhofen where he and T&K are en vacance - we know so many people who are currently skiing somewhere this week!

We wandered back down through the narrow streets,

past the artisan craft shops and posh hotels which are de rigeur in this sort of place - although definitely a higher class of tourist tat here! - and seeing fingers of cloud just beginning to caress the top of the Grand Corniche, decided to head on upwards.

 We arrived at Fort Revere, at the very top, just in time to see the view to the sea disappear into the mist and on the north facing side it was sadly the same, with occasional 'windows' floating past, through which we could see the snowcapped alps before they were swallowed up once more.

We stopped for lunch, just in case it was going to clear - we have finally given in on the cheese/pate standoff so I now have delicious french cheese made by monks to a secret recipe (or so it said on the packet in Carrefour... ;)  Will says he can't tell the difference but he is a cheese philistine, it is worlds away from the other stuff, simply heaven! -

but it didn't so we descended through the cloud,

 along the Corniche, down through La Turbie and back into Eze to Fragonard.

I had assumed that perfume factories were a) all in Grasse and b) going to be expensive, so had knocked them of the 'things to do list' but there are two in Eze and both are free - excellent!  We decided on Fragonard as it had van-friendly parking and it was the one I had heard of - easy.

As expected, the factory tour is basically a lead in to the sales pitch in the shop and we got a tour commensurate with her (accurate) view of our projected future expenditure... But we learnt the following about perfume making:

Fragonard's perfumes are made up of anywhere between 20-200 individual different essences, blended to give the perfume its head, heart and bass notes.  The local french flowers are mimosa and roses from Grasse and lavender from Provence and they import the rest from all over the world.

The perfumed essence is released from the petals by boiling them up in big vats and then condensing the steam and it takes something crazy like 3,000kg of rose petals to get 1kg of rose essence.  Rose based perfumes are expensive!

The magic maker is a man called M. Nez.  There are apparently only about 300 'noses' in the world, 50 of whom work in France, and it is their job to conjure up the 'next big thing', the exact composition of which is then captured in a repeatable formula.

It takes 7 years to become a 'nose', three of study and four of training, during which time you are not allowed to smoke, drink or eat spicy foods - there are clearly no noses in training at any UK universities I've visited! - and once employed, they only work a couple of hours a day for a very few days a week - they are apparently paid though the nose though... Sorry, that was Will taking over the airwaves... :)

Fragonard in Eze is a small factory, whose raison d'etre is to have a shop on the tourist route between Nice and Cannes so their production capability  is as small and low capital outlay as they can get away with and still lure people in with a factory tour. 

We passed a solitary man forging ducks, one by one out of balls of soap with a big stamp, a lone woman in a next door room painting the beaks on the ducks and assembling flat packed boxes for them, and two further women supervising the machines filling bottles of face cream and small tins of scented vaseline.  All surprisingly manual and soul destroying.  "daddy daddy, what do you do at work?? my friend's dad is a brave fireman and my other friend's dad makes lots of money on the stock market!"  "son, I press ducks out of soap, alone in a glass room, whilst being gawped at by tourists all day"  it's not good...

The sales pitch was surprisingly light, we learnt the difference between parfum and eau de toilette (price per volume!)

and got to try some smells.  Too expensive for van dwellers but if you like buying perfume, the factory discounts and gift packs are probably worth your while.   For future reference, my absolute favourite was Emilie, a gorgeous rose-based one which smelt expensive and one I think was called 'Eclat' which smelt of cotton candy an pinkness.  Not that I am expecting any use of these references for a long while yet... :)

Having seen and done in Eze, we headed back down to Beaulieu, planning a trip to Nice.  Part of Bill's fondness for this particular parking spot is the bus service by which you can get anywhere on the Cote d'Azur for a euro.

Unfortunately, due to the unique way in which the bus is routed through Beaulieu, the bus heading physically towards Nice is not the one actually  going to Nice, but having run halfway down the road for it, we jumped on without checking its destination, so had to nonchalantly pretend we had wanted to go to St Jean Cap de Ferrat all along...  Having got off and gone to the tourist office, we then didn't know that our ticket was valid for 70 mins so paid again to get on the next bus which went back to Beaulieu then on to Nice - oh well, you live and learn.

We perambulated ourselves along the front in the gathering dusk, in the manner of those descended from the Anglo-saxons, turning inland at the splendid  Negresco with its pink and green dome, before finding a nice bar in the pedestrian street with funky flaming patio heaters for a large, relatively inexpensive, pichet of wine.  Perfect.  

Unfortunately we dallied too long and having misread the timetable, arrived at the bus stop three minutes after the last bus had gone. Bother :(

Still, the night was young(ish), the weather fine and 8kms (or so it looked from the map) not that far, so we decided to walk, through the old port, round the headland and eventually to Villefranche where, having been walking for an hour or so already, we decided that although we had been hanging on for italy - which is now only just round the corner! -pizza was more than justified. 

We set off once more and were one headland from home when a hitherto unknown about and unadvertised night bus sailed past us - typical.  Still we got home safe and in one piece - apart from one of my socks which now has a hole in - so all good.

Today's plans had been to cycle round the villas of Cap Ferrat, but, on removing the bike wheel to fix what we had assumed was a simple puncture, Will discovered that the flat tire was in fact  because the placement of our new spanish exhaust pipe is such that it has melted a hole in my front tyre - bother again :(

So we set off on foot instead and got absolutely soaked, halfway along the Promenade Maurice Rouvier, as the clouds rolled down the mountainside once more.  Which, somewhat spoilt our appreciation of the pink villa of Fleur du Cap, once owned by no lesser personages than Charlie Chaplin and David Niven.

Fortunately though, after a coffee break in St Jean Cap du Ferrat harbour, the sky cleared and we found our way to the coast path which clings to the very edge of the peninsula and which had in fact been closed the previous day due to the sea crashing over the path...

Today however, it was much calmer, the sun almost shone and we could see Italy, invitingly sunny, just round the corner.

We found the St Hospice church with its outsize bronze Virgin Mary and Child -

apparently the donation of rich merchant in Nice who had a wish come true, must have been some wish! - and ended up walking round the whole 14kms of sea-edge paths, peering in at the fancy villas as and when fences, hedges and silently opening gates allowed - it is another world...

One of the most famous villas is the Ephrussi de Rothschild, a pink confection with white icing, sitting on the narrowest point of the peninsula which commands views down to the bays on each side.  With its nine themed gardens, musical fountain  and collections of fine art and porcelain, it is apparently one of Bill's must-see's but at €10 each was sadly a bit beyond this week's budget - another one to come back to!

With the quest for inevitable fitness well on track, we headed back to Beaulieu to a bar with live music then more english chat two doors down - definitely nice again!

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