Sunday, June 7, 2009

French Riviera & Monaco

On days 2 and 3 of our weekend away we stuck close to the small stretch of beaches in and around Nice. We spent the morning in Monaco, a tiny pocket of a country that feels rather invented. The whole of it is less than 1 sq. mile and ruled by a prince who lives in a Disney-looking castle.

You might guess from its small size and income-tax exemptions that Monaco is basically a bunch of fancy condos stacked on a harbor stuffed with yachts. Atop the crowded hillside also stands the church where Grace Kelly is buried and the famed Monte Carlo Casino. We stopped by the church but missed the casino. My favorite part of Monaco is driving the winding coastal roads on the way there. Grace Kelly filmed "To Catch a Thief" here. Ryan and I didn't have a convertible, but I still felt a bit glamorous.

After lunch we drove back into Nice and walked the Promenade Anglais along the water. Nice's fancy beach front was less glamorous than expected. All the beaches are rocky, and the expensive hotels seemed to be only full of snobby tourists. I kind of expected to see someone famous or something. It is just down the road from Cannes after all.

A better surprise awaited us in the Nice's old town center. Rick Steves' book offered up a great walk through the heart of the city and explained a lot of its history. We ended atop Castle Hill, which, as you might guess, was the site of Nice's castle. Nice was, until Napoleon, part of Italy; and many locals still speak Nicoise, a dialect of Italian. It started to rain, so we ducked inside a tiny restaurant and again ate way too much delicious French food.

My plane left Nice at 5:00 on Monday, so the next day we drove down the road to Antibes. This is a tiny village to the west of Cannes with a real sandy beach and a great market. It was nice to get away from the tourist crowds and just be mellow. It was even hot enough to swim a bit. Ryan and I got pretty pink from our sunbathing, but I got back on the plane with salty hair and a belly full of Camembert and Rose. As we touched down in windy, rainy, Berlin I felt a bit smug that for one weekend I had managed an escape to the beach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


As I gathered my books last Friday afternoon my phone rang. I walked out of the classroom with a loud groan, Ryan had called to say he had to stay in France the whole weekend. This plus the days he'd been gone already plus more business travel the next week. Then he told me his boss' solution: fly me to France for the 3-day weekend, put us up in a hotel, and give us free reign of a rental car. I was on the verge of squealing. How jet set are we?

So I rushed home to book a flight, hotel (we got the last room in the last hotel in Nice I'm pretty sure), and throw all the stuff I could think of into a suitcase. I got to the airport by 5pm and touched down amongst the palm trees just after dark.

We have an aging copy of Rick Steves' France and I gave it a good scouring. During breakfast we decided on a tour of the villages of the Cotes du Rhone (this is Ryan's favorite wine after all). We wound through tiny villages and vineyards, up the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains (does Dentelles come from "Dents" meaning teeth? They kind of looked like teeth). We spent a lot of time getting lost and getting detoured due to a big bike race. But Ryan definitely enjoyed driving the snazzy rental too fast through the curvy roads.

We stopped for lunch in a tiny hillside village with only one cafe. The waitress declared serving lunch "impossible!" I think she assumed Americans= hurried tourists. She told us she could potentially put our orders into the kitchen but didn't know what time, if ever, we could be served. I thought maybe we should go elsewhere, but Ryan told her we weren't in a hurry. This turned out to be a good move, the food was both prompt and delicious. (Is this some kind of test to weed out picky tourists?) After lunch we finished a loop through the mountains, stopping for Chateaus and wine tasting.

The amazing thing about Provence is how effortless it is. In Germany most everything is new (thanks WW2), all the old-looking buildings are really replicas. But Provence looks like it was built a couple hundred years ago and then left to its own devices. All the wood is weathered, and vines creep up or hang down as if to reclaim the village back to the rich soil. Shop after shop displayed colored glass plates and patterned quilts that could have been discovered in someone's attic, and yet everything is so chic. This is what amazes me about the French. Its the same thing with the scarves French women casually drape around their necks-- it always looks effortlessly perfect.

We finished out the night in Arles, Van Gogh's home for many years. One thing I hadn't anticipated about Provence is how choc-a-block it is with Roman ruins. Arles is basically an old medieval town based around an ancient Roman arena and theatre. We spent the evening drinking "Van Gogh" wine and enjoying a menu of soup, lamb, and chocolate profiteroles. If there's one thing I've learned about Provence, it can only be truly appreciated at a snail's pace.