Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Riviera

It's mid-October, the time of year when the weather finally makes Phoenix a pleasant place. Turns out that it's about the same time of year the weather starts to make London unpleasant. So this weekend we chased the last remaining bit of summer down to the south of France.

If Ibiza is Europe's Las Vegas, than Nice and the French Riviera is Europe's Southern California. Beaches alternate with rolling hills and craggy outcroppings, creating bay after bay, and all richly carpeted with lush flora. It's the kind of place that when you step off the plane, the walkway to the terminal building is glass so you can see the pinkish resort town in the distance sweeping towards the deep blue Mediterranean. Mind you this is before you even get to the terminal building.

The coastline is dotted with dozens of towns, each with a different flavor and claim to fame (Cannes for its film festival, St. Tropez for its beach). Since we had two days, we picked out three towns: Eze, Monaco, and Nice.

Eze is really three places. East of Nice, there's a little cluster of buildings down by the ocean with a train station; up over the cliff and inland, there's a nondescript town where the bus let us off; but perched high on the peak between them is the medieval village of Eze. Eze is like nothing I've ever seen. It's less of a village than it is an enormous, rambling castle. Shops are carved into nooks wherever they can fit, and the paths that serve as roads roam here and there, up and down stairs, through archways.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed off to Monaco. At this point, I should explain that because we left London so early in the morning, we only had 2 hours of sleep the night before. So when we got to our hotel in Monaco, we were pretty exhausted. We settled in for a little nap around 3:00, I set the alarm for about 4:00, and we woke up at... 7:15. Crap.

Oh well. We set out to find dinner and found the city surprisingly empty. I know October isn't exactly the high season, but it was early October and the weather was still pretty hot. Even the area around the famed Casino wasn't too hoppin'. We eventually found a nice place to eat, but our overall impression of the city was: where are all the people?

Also, for a place so notorious as a stomping ground of the rich and famous, it's surprisingly plain. It could be any coastal town built up in the 1960s heyday of bland architecture. Oh yeah, except for those yachts in the harbor.

The next morning we took the train back to Nice, which is more colorful and has far more character. We started the day with a bit of a dud, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

Looks great, right? Well, turns out it's in a pretty lousy part of town and is, on Sunday mornings at least, closed for services.

The rest of Nice, though, is quite wonderful. There are both modern open spaces

and a great Old Town that feels more like neighbors Spain or Italy than France. Here, winding, narrow alleyways suddenly let out onto squares; in such heavy sunlight, the effects are dramatic.

My favorite thing, though, was the walk up the mountain to a park and man-made waterfall; with your back to a rushing waterfall, this is the view.

Also while on the mountain, I discovered why the view from the airport is so impressive. It's right at the edge of the bay's natural arc. I thought this photo was one of the best I had ever taken until I realized that I had framed, with exotic foliage, the Nice airport.

We spent the evening lounging, which given the laid-back attitude towards everything in this beach town, seemed a good way to while away our last few hours.

See the facebook photo album here.

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