Visiting Nice: What I Learned

Hello, everybody! As you may have noticed, things have been a bit quiet here on the Armchair Anglophile. It’s not because I threw my hands up and decided I’d had enough of this blogging thing–it’s because Husby and I were taking a much-needed holiday (our first together in almost 3 years!) I requested a trip somewhere warm, by the sea, and as we’d both enjoyed Nice on the Cote d’Azur during a one-day stop there during our honeymoon cruise, we decided to give that a go.

Excellent decision.

We had a fabulous time, ate ourselves inside out, swam in the Mediterranean every day, and learned a few things. I highly recommend a trip there if you’re considering it–the place is definitely worth a visit. If you do go, here are a few things I learned while I was there.

1. Unless you’re loaded/hate to cook, consider renting a holiday flat instead of going the hotel route. This tends to be our default when travelling, because I LOVE food and cooking and I would have wept with despair if I hadn’t been able to take advantage of all the incredible food on offer at the daily farmers’ market in the Cours Saleya. We went a bit crazy, and feasted like you wouldn’t believe. And saved a lot of money in the process. There are a few websites where you can find flats for rent–we used homeaway.co.uk, though I’d probably use holidaylettings.com because it’s a bit easier to pay. The flat cost us £550 for the week, less than £100 per night, which is less than what you’d pay for the vast majority of reasonably decent hotels in the city. Plus, we didn’t have to eat out every night, which is expensive.

2. Don’t rent a beach chair–buy a cushion. As you probably already know, Nice has rock beaches, so you may be tempted to go for one of the beaches that has deck chairs you can rent. But hold up a sec: It costs at least 15 euros per chair per day to rent a beach chair, at least 5 euros for an umbrella, and another 5 if you want a beach towel. For two people, you’re looking at almost 50 euros for the day, and if you’re going to be there for the week, well, you do the math. Much better solution: go to one of the crazy household junk shops around the city and pick up a padded mat. We got ours for 13.90 each, and they were great. So great, we even brought them home with us for future trips. If you want to splurge, you can also get actual chairs at these places, as well as umbrellas. We found ours at the shop next to the Intermarche supermarket on Boulevard Gambetta; there are also places across from the train station, and there’s a shop near the Cours Saleya in the old town that looks like a cookware shop but is massive and seems to have everything, so they’d probably be a good bet as well. Another thing you can get there:

3. Beach shoes. Again, rock beaches, which hurt like a sonofabitch when you try to walk on them. Pick up some cheapo beach sneakers that you can wear right into the water. We found some for husby at the same place as the cushions, for 8.90.

4. Day trips. Nice is really well served by a bus and train system that can take you to all sorts of outlying spots. We read a bit about how great Eze is, so we decided to make a day trip of that. Kind of a bust, in my opinion. It’s a tiny medieval village at the top of a coastal cliff. You can get there one of two ways: take a bus directly from the Nice port area, or take the train from Nice to Eze-sur-Mer and hike up to the medieval village along a long and fairly challenging route that was apparently beloved by Nietzsche. Once you’re there, you can find a perfume factory/outlet, if you’re into that, and the village. The village has a certain quaint charm, but it’s stuffed with overpriced creperies, shops selling tourist tchotchkes, and some of the worst artwork I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I admit, I was a bit disappointed. We elected to hike down the cliff and take the train back. We found a hidden waterfall on the way, which was pretty cool, and met a fellow American who, it turns out, basically ran DC comics for almost 30 years, which was also pretty cool. Nice views from the hike down, and it only cost 1.50 each to get there by bus, and about 3 euros to get back by train (30 minute bus ride, about 15 minutes by train), so it’s not as if I felt like I’d wasted a bunch of time or money or anything.

Menton was our other day trip, and that was much more to my liking. It’s like a smaller, slightly quieter version of Nice and struck me as being a good spot to come if you’re travelling with kids (and, clearly, I wasn’t the only person who thought so). Lots of nice restaurants, most of which seem to be a bit cheaper than the eateries in Nice, and the area is also apparently the center of citrus production in the south of France. So swing by the Artisanal Jam Factory and pick up some of their marvellous lemon, lemon-lavender, or orange five-spice jam (or any of the other dozens of jam flavours they have). You can also stock up on honey, lemoncello, and even citrus-flavoured wines (which are definitely worth a taste). There’s a shop just opposite the Jam Factory that has lavender super cheap, too, if you want to bring some home. Far less expensive than it is back in Nice. If you’re after a spot of sea bathing, there’s even a rather sandy beach: Imperatrice Eugenie, named after Emperor Napoleon III’s fashionable wife. It takes about 30 minutes to get from Nice to Menton by train.

Other stops: Villefranche is a sweet, charming little town just one train stop down from Nice. It’s where all the cruise ships stop, though, so you may end up in a big crowd. Monaco is a popular stop, but we decided to give it a pass because there didn’t seem to be much there we wanted to see. Ventimiglia in Italy is just one stop further down from Menton and apparently has a market every week. There’s also Cannes and some of the non-coastal Provencal towns that we didn’t get a chance to see, but which I’m sure are all lovely.

5. Don’t pay for evening entertainment. As soon as the sun goes down, head to the Promenade des Anglais at the seafront. The place seriously comes to life at night, with all sorts of performances. We saw two people doing what I can only describe as a ballet with a football, and a group of skaters who made rollerblades into a thing of beauty. Amazing. Another (unexpectedly) free source of entertainment turned out to be the Nice Jazz Festival, which was going on throughout the week we were there, by some incredible luck. They had some amazing acts lined up, and we were contemplating buying tickets and then realized it’s being held on outdoor stages right next to Place Massena, the city’s major square, so surely you could hear the music from the square? Yes, you could. We took one of our beach cushions and sat on the steps near the fountain and listened to John Legend one night. Ok, I know, not exactly ethical, but we’re not wealthy and it did save us more than 50 euros. And believe me, we weren’t the only ones who had that idea.

6. Check out the garden near the Matisse Museum. We were all set to visit the museum, which is a LONG haul from the city centre, so plan your trip accordingly, only to find out that nearly all the normally free museums in the city are charging 10 euros admission this summer because they’re doing some kind of special Matisse…thing. We resented the idea of paying for museums that would be free any other time we visited the city and just decided to poke around the area a bit instead. And that’s how we found the most beautiful garden next to an old monastery abutting the park that houses the museum. It was gorgeous, fairly quiet, and offered wonderful views over the city. Definitely check it out.

7. Try some of Fenoccio’s crazy gelato flavours. Fenoccio’s pretty famous in the city–you see it all over the place in the touristy areas. The gelato’s ok, not necessarily the best I’ve ever had in my life, but they have some really wild flavours, like cactus (sweet and floral), beer, and vanilla and rose peppercorns (quite lovely). Yes, they’re overpriced, but how often do you get to come back from vacation and tell people you had cactus ice cream? Give it a try, just once.

8. Visit the Cours Saleya market. There’s a food and flower market in the old town every day except for Monday, when it’s a big flea market. Even if you’re not shopping for cooking ingredients, it’s a good place to get souvenirs and gifts, like lavender sachets, flavoured salts, and carved olive wood. At night, it adopts a rather party-like atmosphere, as restaurants spill into the market area, and stalls appear selling jewelry, paintings, and all manner of artwork.

9. Take an early-morning trip to the beach. Yes, the water will be cold, but bracing, and it’s wonderfully peaceful, just you and the waves and some of the bravest tourists (many Germans, we noticed–they’re a tough lot!). Pick up a pastry on the way and have breakfast on the beach. It’s how we spent our last morning, and it was heavenly.

10. Find a good patisserie and forget your diet. There are more places to eat in Nice than you can possibly begin to wrap your head around, and a lot of the food is incredibly delicious. Treat yourself. Eat croissants and whatever else looks good. Gorge on some buttery deliciousness and swim it off later. We got really attached to a place called the Fougasserie, which was down Rue Benoit Bunico heading towards the market. Their pastries and breads are AMAZING! And if you don’t want to commit to an entire pain au chocolat, they have a lovely assortment of petite breakfast items for only 45 cents each. They also have sandwiches, pizzas, and all sorts of other yummies. I dare you to walk in there and walk out emptyhanded.

A few other things:

Don’t get cheated on water. Restaurants will automatically try to give you bottled water, which they charge an extortionate amount for (it’s often cheaper to drink wine!). If you just want tap water, ask for ‘un carafe d’eau’. You’ll probably have to ask a few times, as I noticed waiters tend to conveniently forget this particular order. Stick to your guns.

Pay attention to the prices. Someone told me to try socca while I was in Nice. It’s a traditional Nicoise dish, a chickpea crepe. It’s pretty good, but keep in mind, it’s just a crepe. A lot of restaurants offer it, and many charge ridiculous prices. Don’t pay more than 3 euros for it.

Bone up on your French, if you know it at all. I took 8 years of French, then had about 8 years of not practicing it much at all, but fortunately most of the knowledge came back quickly and I was able to put it to really good use. The notion of French people being obnoxious snobs is a stupid stereotype; the French people we met tended to be quite lovely and patient. Many spoke some English, at least, but not all, so it’s helpful if you know a bit of French. They certainly appreciate it if you make the effort. Also, ticket machines don’t know you’re an English speaker, so knowing French is helpful if you want to use a machine to buy a train ticket.

Ask for a coffee and you’ll probably get an espresso. If you want a coffee American style, you need to ask for un caffe long or caffe americano.

Places to Check Out

L’Art Gourmand: Incredibly delicious biscuits, candies, gelato, and pate des fruits. They’ve even got a little salon de the on their balcony where you can enjoy a coffee or one of their fabulous teas while customer watching. And you can pick out some biscuits to enjoy with your drink while you’re at it. The shop’s really beautiful to look at, and everything’s a treat for the eyes. A word to the wise, though: order your gelato to go, because the prices shoot right up if you get it to eat-in, for some reason.

Comptoir du Marche: Just across from L’Art Gourmand, this restaurant was recommended to us by the owner of the French cafe in Stockbridge where Husby and I go every Sunday morning. The food there is as delicious as it is beautiful, which is definitely saying something. The menu changes so frequently it’s not even printed up–it’s written on a blackboard that’s deposited beside your table. You’re given olives to munch on while you contemplate, and sweet black cherries to round everything off. This restaurant is small and tends to be popular, so make a reservation and be sure to keep it. When we were there, a party of Americans showed up more than an hour late for their reservation and were indignant that they couldn’t still have a table. Remember: just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean the whole world is.

Palais des Thes: This was an exceptional find for a tea lover such as myself, and an accidental one, too. We were out just wandering around and I suggested we divert up a street we hadn’t been down before. And lo, there she was: tea Mecca. It’s hard not to go insane in this beautiful, bright store, with its rows of teas you won’t find anywhere else. Pack some up and bring ’em home to remind you of warm Mediterranean afternoons.