Sunday, April 09, 2006

Vive la France: An Afternoon in Nice

I love the French.

There, I've said it. In a generation of French haters, I'm not afraid to come out of the closet. Sure, they can be mean. And yes, they can be surly. Uh, OK.... they can be demeaning and rude. But if they weren't, they wouldn't be French.

I learned a long time ago that the French just don't hate Americans.... they hate everyone. Maybe hate is too strong a word. How about... "get annoyed" by everyone.

With a beautiful country, amazing wine and fantastic food, gobs of tourists invade France on a regular basis. The Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spaniards and Danes... and don't forget the Japanese, Thai, Swiss, Canadians, Polish and Greeks. Throw in a heaping helping of non-French speaking Americans... and you get a stuffy scene.

That said, you've got to go to France.

I've been in and out of France nearly 20 times in the past 10 years... and have come to love French living. I opt out of the larger, fancy hotels and look for the quiet, boutique spots (like Caron de Beaumarchais in Paris). I've had the big, fancy expensive dinners but have come to love what I call "eating off the street". This would be ham and cheese baguettes, loaves of hot bread, gallons of coffee (café creme), light salads and plate sized bistro pizzas. I love the café and bistro life in France, and have learned that the majority of French citizens happen to agree with me.

Last week I ended my quick in and out to Europe in Nice... in the heart of the cote d'Azur. It is an amazing gem of a spot... nestled in between the overrated Cannes and the spectacular Monte Carlo. Nice is a great mixture of French heritage... flower markets, Palaces, a charming old town, a hip nightlife and a simply beautiful coastline. It is an excellent place to experience the true "French" way of life.

I was shocked to find fairly reasonable prices everywhere I went... much cheaper than those in the UK. Celebrating their Provence locale in the heart of the Riviera, you find amazing wine, olive oil, salts and spices that are worth the trip alone. But what makes Nice special are the people.

This is a place that loves NOT being Paris. Unlike the Parisian's who love to remind you how great they are as well as their fair city, the people of Nice celebrate life on their own schedule. They embrace those who come to spend their money, and love to share their knowledge of the good life. They sip coffee in sunny cafés and walk arm and arm through markets. Like the Italians, they shop for market items daily and plan on having company every night.

Few places celebrate their natural resources like Nice... a lesson the rest of the world could learn from. If you are planning a trip to Europe, plan a trip to the cote d'Azur... you'll learn to appreciate the European way of life on a whole new way.

Air France, BA, Air Inter and many international airlines serve the Nice-Côte d'Azur airport. Rail connections from Paris via TGV, or by car on the Autoroute du Soleil, A6 - A8. Try NOT to book a tour with a car, you won't need it.

Suberb. Temperate winters are what started the Riviera craze in the 1830's; dry, hot summers; spring and fall usually perfect traveling weather. Enough rain to keep all that greenery in bloom, usually in November and February, but it rarely lasts long.

This is the land of the Mediterranean diet, in its best French-Provençal-Niçoise form. Fresh seafood, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, artichokes, olives and olive oil, garlic and onions, orchard fruits, thyme, rosemary, sage, basil. Bouillabaisse has its local variations all along the coast. Nice specialties include ravioli and gnocchi; salade niçoise with tomatoes, tuna and anchovies; pissaladiera, an onion-and-anchovy pizza. Pan Bagnat is a breadroll filled with everything in the garden, drizzled with olive oil. Aïoli is garlic mayonnaise, often served with fish soup. Pistou is a version of pesto, a paste of basil, garlic and olive oil, sometimes with parmesan or pine nuts incorporated. Tapenade is a paste of black olives, anchovies, capers and oil. And of course, the lemons of Menton. Wines are fresh and fruity Côtes de Provence, Bandol, Cassis, the rare Bellet from near Nice, and local wines from the regions of La Gaude, St-Jeannet and Menton.

Provençal specialties-perfumes, honey, herbs, lavender, olive wood bowls and artifacts-are available in shops throughout the region. Biot and Vallauris are renowned for pottery and glass. Tourrettes-sur-Loup has more than a dozen real, working artisans-weavers, gold- and silversmiths, jewelers, leather craftsmen, potters-who sell their wares from their workshops.
The food markets are irresistible: Forville in Cannes, the Cours Saleya in old Nice, the Cours Masséna in old Antibes, the old town in Vence, the Halles and the Place aux Herbes in Menton. All of these have vendors of locally pressed virgin olive oil, too. Flea markets on Saturdays in Antibes, Sunday mornings in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Grasse, of course, has perfume. Carved wooden santons, traditional figures for Christmas. (Travel specific facts provided by