Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Parlez-vous français?

Nice, France - The unofficial capital of the French Riviera. Pop ~ 400k. Very popular destination for Europe’s holiday season (These people take vacation for months - not weeks - at a time). It’s genealogy dates back to Ancient Greece where it was first established by the Greeks as an important trading route on the Mediterranean. That was sometime a couple hundred years BC. Then the Romans came along and in their quest to control the alps discovered the benefits that this little puppy had to offer soooo, naturally, they wanted it for their own. There was, apparently, a fair amount of back and forth through the years - seesawing between an independent municipality and a territory of Italy. In 1860 following the second Italian War of Independence (w/ Austria), Nice was awarded as compensation to France’s King Napoleon III for offering his assistance (imagine that - France coming to the aid of somebody ELSE) on the field of battle. A bone of contention for the Italians who still regarded the city as a national interest and even occupied it during WWII. As a result, today it enjoys a native culture that blends both French and Italian and welcomes many others from around the world.

Arrived in Nice on Thursday evening after a lonnnng day of making connections along the French coast - Figueres, Montpellier, Marseille. Anxious to be both at my destination and in a town with some friends, I had no shame in playing third wheel for the next day and half with Mr. and Mrs. Quirke - Sean and Lauren (brief bio’s - Sean from Minneapolis; Lauren from Chicago. Met at big Chi-town Hedge fund. Continued romance through MBA school. Now engaged and thrilled about the burden of a third wheel in the French Riviera). So Thursday night, the three of us went out for some pizza on a street in the famed “Old Town”, as they call it. This particular street is probably better characterized as somewhat of a tourist trap as there are maybe 30-40 restaurants lining a pedestrian-only alleyway; each with outdoor dining rooms. I’d say 32 of the 35 were pretty damn homogenous - Italian umbrellas offering almost identical menus mixing in some French cuisine. Pizza and wine - good by me. After dinner, it was back to the hostel for a good sleep. First true hostel experience with dormitory-style living. Stayed here two days without so much as an introduction to any of the 5 roommates. Like ships passing in the night.

The next morning brought with it plans for a day trip out to Monaco. Just a 30 minute train ride away, Monaco, yet another in a string of beautiful vacation towns along the Riviera, plays host to Formula One’s biggest race every year - the Grand Prix. The stands, signs, and racing pits all still lingered just a week and a half after this year’s race. We made our way up to the famous Monte Carlo Casino and gawked at the lineup of cars in the valet line - Ferrari’s, Rolls, Mazeratti, etc. From there, up to the Prince’s (Albert I think) castle atop the cliff. Not much to the castle but a cute and quiet town surrounding it with souvenir shops and a grand cathedral. Unknown to me before, Monaco is not technically considered to be a part of (though militarily protected by) France. It enjoys its own sovereignty and independence…technically speaking. And it is with such independence that they enforce famously low tax rates and instill a “business friendly” climate that, together, has spurned a reputation akin to that of the Cayman Islands. “A shady place in the sun,” as Lauren‘s travel book put it. We stopped for lunch on the way down from the palace and splurged for gelato before catching the train back to Nice. After a regroup at the hostel, I met the lovebirds later in the afternoon for a brown bagged happy hour at the beach…romantic don’t ya think? A very pleasant evening - clear and warm. The three of us, again, had some dinner and afterwards hit up an Irish Pub in town with live music. The next morning, Sean and Lauren flee to Rome for a little privacy with plans to meet up again with the group in Munich and Vienna later in the trip.

Day 3 in Nice - transfer day. Next stop - Hotel Paradis. Wake up, pack up, and down to the lobby for breakfast and wifi. Enter address in to Google Maps - 1 Rue de Paradis. 6.2 km away? Too far to walk. OK, looks like the tram will get me close. Within maybe 6 or 7 blocks. Should be easy enough to walk from there. On the short tram ride , something looks a little off on this map (one that I picked up from the train station). Why are all of the roads that lead to Rue de Paradis zig-zagged and not square like the rest of the town? Hmmmm….my stop. Time to get off. I set out in the direction of Rue de Paradis following this here trusty map. Everything going swimmingly and then….it becomes abundantly clear why the roads on the map are not at normal right angles - yep, straight uphill (you‘re all probably thinking “Well Duuuuuuhh!” but it never crossed my mind). I set out for about an hour hike up the road…following the map the whole way. Right turn. Left turn. Right turn. A steeper incline with each change of direction. A times, a 4 to 5 story stair climbs. Lugging 50 lbs on my back the whole way. Sweating like a pig. Almost there. Man, this is a little more secluded that I expected. Haven’t seen a car go by since about halfway up. There it is - street sign that reads: “Rue de Paradis” with an arrow pointing up. One more climb and a right turn. Okaaaaay….made it. Now, where is this thing? 1 Rue de Paradis, right? Pull out the paperwork. Yep, 1 Rue de Paradis. But there is no 1 Rue de Paradis!!! The street numbers start at 2. Check the paperwork again. I must be going crazy. Fine, let me call and see where exactly they are. After Barcelona, I won’t be surprised that there’s no sign outside the hostel broadcasting its whereabouts. Dial the number and press “Send” from my new international cell phone. No dialing. Just a Spanish-speaking operator saying something that I can’t understand. GREAT! Ok, now what? Back down to the previous turn. Like I said, not many cars passing by. Eventually a guy comes whizzing by on a scooter to witness something completely out of place and must have noticed the look of total confusion upon the face of what we might call back at home a “Benny”. Mercifully, he pulls over, backs his bike up and drops the kickstand. “Bonjoure!” “Bonjoure”. And that’s about as far as the constructive verbal communication went. It soon became very apparent that he didn’t speak a lick of English and I not a lick of French. It was clear he was here to happily help however he could. After a minute of back and forth with nothing but head shaking and shoulder shrugging from both parties, I finally point to the address on the paperwork. 1 Rue de Paradis, 0600 Nice. “Ahhhhh”. His eyes go wide with recognition. He points to Nice and starts on about something or another. I think he’s trying to tell me I’m in the wrong place. Oh, is this little town halfway up the freakin Alps is not a part of Nice? I motion to the ground around me and ask, “Nice? Is this Nice?” “Yessss, this is Nice.” WTF. I point to the street sign above my head pointing in the direction of Rue de Paradis. He’s now confused. Again, he points to the address on the paperwork and then points back down the hill. OK, I don’t know where the hell I am right now but it’s clear that it aint anywhere close to Hotel Paradis. He accurately interprets my body language at this realization. The thought of walking allll the way back down was just too much to bear! He motions for me to come to his bike. What a nice guy….but there is NO WAY I’m fitting on that thing with this damn backpack. Just then, a small car goes honking by. Of course, the scooter guy knows the driver and motions him to pull over. They go back and forth. The man in the car appears just as pleasant and just as English-speaking as his buddy on the scooter. The passenger door flies open, he clears the seat and they both motion for me to get in. Sanity check - I have no idea who these guys are or what they’re saying but I’m pretttty sure this isn’t’ a plot to harvest my organs…pretty sure…I climb in. He smiled a bunch and after a couple unsuccessful tries at communication, we rode down the mountain in quiet and without incident. He kindly let me off back at the tram stop. All organs still where they belong. Back to square 1. Phone still not working. I board the train and head back to the hostel convinced that ONCE AGAIN I am the victim of an online scheme. Exhausted and drained, I return to Hotel Andares to inquire and about any rooms for the night. “Room es impossible for tonight”. Let’s try this again. I sit down in the very same kitchen I had just a few hours earlier and pull up the internet. This time bypassing Google maps and going straight to Hotel Paradis’s website. I follow the link to “directions”. There are, apparently, TWO streets on the map of Nice with the name Rue de Paradis. The one that I found and the other - a pedestrian-only street in the heart of town. “A twelve minute walk” from the train station. You have to be shitting me. What an idiot!!

Once finally settled in at the new hostel, I took a quick shower and then headed back to the train station for an afternoon trip out to Cannes. Didn‘t know much of Cannes other than that an international film festival was held here once a year…in May. Just missed it. Great beaches at Cannes. They even had sand (Nice - a beach of rocks). Walked around town, down the promenade, and up to the castle for a better view. Lots of fancy hotels and flashy money…not necessarily quite my speed but the beaches were great. I could hang here for a day or two if this were a different trip with a less ambitious itinerary. Back to Nice later in the evening for a quiet night and a good sleep.

My final day in Nice was a Nice (impressive I held off this long?) and quiet one. Made it to Basillica de Notre Dame for an 11am Mass. Pretty church with history dating back to the 12 century. Felt like what an authentic medieval church should. I then walked down to the beach and sat to admire the approaching storm. Streaks of lighting and dark black clouds on the horizon. I decided to wait out my plan to visit a village on the outskirts of town to see if this thing was coming our way. Sure enough, in about 20 minutes it was squarely upon us. A full blown Nor’Easter on the Southern coast of France and I, with turkey panini, beer and my book, was perfectly content to take it all in under the cover of an awning at a waterfront café. The storm may have lasted a full hour and steady rain continued for another two. I eventually braved the elements and made it back to the hostel to wait it out. Finally, at around 6pm, the sun broke and produced a gorgeous afternoon and evening. On this, my 6th day of vacation and the last on the Mediterranean coast, I figured it was time to finally take a swim. A rock beach I’ll never get used to but the water? The water was splendid. Cool and clean, it was exactly what I was hoping for…and about 10 degrees warmer than the Atlantic Ocean was just the week before. I sat by the beach afterwards to take in what was left of the day’s sun before heading back for a shower. The next day would bring an early wakeup call and a 5:56 train out of Nice with connections at Marseille, Lyon, Geneva, and Bern before eventually getting into Interlaken 13 hours later.

No comments:

Post a Comment