I always knew food would be a problem throughout my long trip down south in France, but I realise it even more now, when my taste buds have been finally satisfied with some good rasam after nearly three weeks. Onto more interesting things…
It began with a weekend stay in Nice. This city in the southern coast of France is blessed with great weather, rocky beaches and great accessibility to all the cities on the coastline. In fact, in one day, you can visit three countries – France, Monaco and Italy. That’s nearly what I did, but not in one day. The castle hill (Montée du Château) offers some breathtaking views of the beaches below. It’s worth taking a trip up there; it is also accessible by an elevator.
The first meal at Nice Life International Cafe was quite good. We had some tortilla and salad with olives, tomatoes and cheese – typical Mediterranean fare. My second trip to this place didn’t leave me very happy though. Happycow (guide to vegan/vegetarian food all over the world) almost completely let me down during this trip. The exception was Menton.
Menton, about half an hour from Nice, is known for its Lemon Festival and fittingly, we were greeted at the station by some orange trees weighing down with oranges. A walk along the promenade is highly recommended here as well. This place is relatively quiet compared to Nice or Monaco but no less beautiful. The main attraction here was Musée Jean Cocteau or Museum of Jean Cocteau. Jean Cocteau, who lived in the previous century, was a complete artist – painter, designer, poet, playwright, film director. Most of his works struck me as bizarre. One interesting play/movie was ‘La voix humaine’ or ‘The Human Voice’ which has only one character – a lady talking on the phone to her lover who is leaving her. Original handwritten versions of this work were on display in the museum.
If not for anything else, I wouldn’t mind going to Menton again just to eat at Loving Hut. That was in fact one of my motivators to visit this place. Having been a Loving Hut loyal in Leuven for the last couple of years, I was curious to try out a new Loving Hut and was I satisfied or what! This one was much bigger than the one in Leuven and offered local flavours in their food. I had ‘Crostini with sun-filled tomatoes’, ‘Rainbow Rice’ and ‘Pancake with a scoop of lemon icecream’. This was to be my last good meal for days to come. The only other vegetarian restaurant which I have enjoyed even more than this in Europe was ‘Ginko’ at Graz, Austria, which offers mostly Italian and Indian cuisine.
Ventimiglia is a small town in Italy just an hour away from Nice by train. My TER train experience was really good throughout this trip – punctual, frequent connections even during weekends and the tickets were much cheaper compared to Belgium. You could buy a ticket starting from the origin to the final destination and stop over at any of the intermediate places within the day. Ventimiglia is surrounded by hills and they offer more breathtaking views of the coastline. The narrow lanes of the old town here reminded me so much of the narrow paths in highly populated residential areas that we often find in Chennai especially in places like Triplicane and Mylapore. The old town of Nice also looks very similar. The weather plays such an important role in the lifestyle. Throughout this region, it almost never snows. The first big difference I experienced in Europe in this aspect was at Graz where buildings typically have large courtyards in the middle and the staircases are out in the open, which is not at all uncommon in India but impossible in Northern Europe because of the cold weather. Aspects like these were only highlighted even more during this trip – people hanging clothes out for drying, riding scooters and in general being livelier.
Monaco was different from most other European cities (countries). This land of the richest was densely populated with multi-storey buildings with elaborate roof gardens, roads teeming with luxurious cars and was also very clean. The cactus garden ‘Jardin Exotique’ offered good views of the whole city (country) and I enjoyed seeing the stalactite/stalagmite caves again. It was extremely hot that day and we didn’t have much time since we had to set off to the summer school. Salad lunch started that day and did not stop for the next ten days.
The route from Nice to Peyresq, where I was going to attend a summer school, was very scenic. We were mostly driving along the course of the river.
Peyresq, located on the French Alps, was a medieval village. Life was hard there and it was home to atmost 250 people till the French revolution. That’s when the people were driven away from there since most men had died in the war and the village was abandoned to the forces of nature. It was rediscovered in the 1950s by a Belgian professor and he initiated the process to reconstruct this place and turned it into a place that will exclusively hold scientific meetings and will be open only during summer. There are only two people who live permanently there to take care of the day-to-day requirements. Food has to be sourced from the nearest town, which is about half an hour drive away. Apples grow locally though. I had to live mostly on salad and bread throughout the duration of the school. It was a true experience of the harsh mountain life in a way.
The best part of this place is the view of the mountains and valleys it offers. The ephemeral nature of these scenes, especially when there were clouds around, was awe-inspiring. I spent many an evening listening to Pachchai Nirame gazing into the lush green pine trees stacked up on the sides of the mountains.
If not for the beauty of the landscape and the intense and engaging lectures we had, it would have been hard to survive the school. The idea of having an isolated place to hold events like this worked though. The camaraderie we had by the end of the two weeks wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Nevertheless, I was glad to have finished the main course of the stay and be back amongst people once again.
The last leg of the trip starting at Nice again offered more cloudy views of Côte d’Azur (The Azure Coast). I felt like I couldn’t tire of walking along the beach. The azure blues changed to grays following the clouds overhead. The perfect weather of warm and cloudy but not rainy continued throughout the weekend.
Cannes was the next stop. I was pretty disappointed firstly by the railway station. I thought it would be similar to Monaco but it was quite the opposite. I thought the Film Festival was held in some historic building, but it just looked like a normal modern glass-panelled building. The only highlight was the short boat ride that we could take to two nearby islands. We went to Ile-St-Marguerite and soaked in more of the blues.
Grasse was a change from all the other cities we visited. It is inland on the hills and is famous for its perfumeries. We visited Parfumerie Fragonard, which exists since the 19th century. The guided tour left me a little dizzy though. It requires months of processing and tonnes of flowers just to produce a small bottle of perfume. Perfumes apparently come with three notes of smells – the softer one originates from citrus fruits like lemon and orange for example, the middle one from flowers like lavender, rose and jasmine, and the hard note, which is what lingers on for a long time even when the perfumed person leaves the place, from musk or other such substances. This perfumery continues to produce new perfumes with the help of their ‘noses’. These are people who have to train for 9 years before they can smell different perfumes and come up with new formulae. Institutes for training ‘noses’ exist only in a few places in the world like Grasse and Paris. Fragonard also manufactures soaps in different flavours like rose, lavender, jasmine, orange and lemon. Fragonard seemed to own most of the main shopping street. They also have their own fabrics, garments and accessories. We also visited a well-displayed Jewellery and Costume Museum displaying collections from the 19th century. A couple of interesting things I found there – some of the floral designs on cottons were inspired from India and the tradition of giving the key-chain of the household to the new daughter-in-law existed there! It went a step further. When the husband dies, the wife throws the keychain into the grave symbolically to signify the loss of her ‘power’ in the household. Anyway, this practice resulted in having elaborately-decorated keychains that you could tie around the waist and had curious objects such as scissors hanging from them.
Back in Nice, dinner at the vegan place called ‘Le Speakeasy’ was a complete disappointment. The food was tasteless, the place untidy and the requirement to eat something for at least 7 euros was a bit too much to ask for. The thoughts of eating at a vegetarian place remained forgotten for the rest of the trip.
Monaco beckoned us once more and we witnessed the very popular tourist attraction of ‘changing of the palace guards’ at 11.55 AM sharp. It was quite underwhelming to me and was nothing but a few guards marching away from the palace and being replaced by another set. We visited the palace which still continues to function. Lavishly decorated walls and paintings were all over the place. I particularly liked the silk draperies, marble busts of various princes and princesses and some of the paintings. The very modern painting from the 1980s felt quite out of place and only served to enhance the beauty of the older paintings.
We took some customary pictures outside the Casino. We made full use of the 1-day bus pass and also went to the Monte Carlo district of Monaco. The tennis fan in me particularly wanted to see the Monte Carlo Country Club, where the Masters 1000 tournament (won by Nadal 8 consecutive times) is held every spring. I was not disappointed and had a glimpse of the clay courts.