Monday, March 19, 2007

Along the French Riviera

March 13, 2007

I think we’ve found our way through the Looking Glass into the postcards of southern France. No medieval knights with bloodied swords have crossed our paths yet, thank goodness, but I’m still highly suspicious that this is all real.

Today, after 10 weeks in Aix-en-Provence, we've headed southeast to the French Riviera, the Cote D'Azur. We're bathing in the soft March sun, in shirtsleeves, a mile from the Italian border in a park facing the port city of Menton, set dramatically beneath the cliffs that define this stretch of Mediterranean Coastline.

Kathy and I are in delicate negotiations over four days planned soon in Paris (“I’ll trade you a boat trip on the Seine for two hours in the Louvre … That sort of thing.) The nostalgic melody of an accordion carries across the water as we pass an uncorked bottle of white back and forth, high-class winos sharing cheese and baguette on another absolutely perfect day.

Life is slow here, as it should be on a beautiful, quiet March Tuesday. Sun bathers in swim suits lie on the beach, in front of the speckled, aquamarine sea. A mother pushes her toddler in a stroller. An older couple walks painfully past, pointing to our makeshift lunch and nodding approvingly. We face the yellowed houses of the old city, set against a steep hill with the black, onion-domed spires of the cathedral near the top.

“I can’t believe we’re here,” Kathy says, just back from two weeks work in Boston. “Of course, you never went away. If you did, you’d appreciate it much more.”

Not really. This is life, for a change, without a goal, without a destination, without the beating of a clock. It is what makes southern France in the off season of winter so wonderful.

“I’m taking my nap,” Kathy says. “Wake me when you want to go.”

Evening, March 13, 2007

Our little Nissan Micra Must corners well as we hug the side of the road, snaking high above the Mediterranean, the waves lapping the shore hundreds of feet below. We zip above the cluttered, multistoried casinos of Monte Carlo, then past gated, rose-walled villas with red tile roofs. Suddenly before us is the medieval fortress of Eze, a village we’ve never even noticed in the guidebooks. We make a quick U-turn and decide to explore, an hour of serendipity in a day already filled with sunshine and scintillating views.

The Moors, it turns out, attacked this fortification in 900 AD, so we figure it qualifies as “charming” in Realtors’ lexicon. A bit more recently a wealthy American bought the whole place and now the castle is lined with tres chichi boutiques, leading to a very exclusive 10-room hotel, where the son of a Swedish king used to winter in the middle of the last century. Chateau Eza is the name and it boasts of having received Conde Nast’s Johansens Travel Award as the “most excellent European Waterside location.” Not surprising. Set some 1,200 feet above the sea, its views rival those of the Ventana Inn, an exclusive resort high above the Big Sur coastline. But we paid $250 for a night’s room there 15 years ago and, until April 1, you can get a room here for a tad less. (Of course you can also get a suite for more than $1,000 a night.) Maybe someday.

March 14, 2007

The Welcome Hotel in Ville-Franche-sur-Mer is a single room wide and freshly painted orange. The dancer Isadore Duncan stayed here. So did the artist Jean Cocteau, who painted the L’Eglise S’Pierre, the little church across the street and below our sun-drenched balcony. Behind the church, the harbor of Villefranche-sur-Mer sparkles in the morning sunlight. To my right are three outdoor cafes, painted in orange and pink and yellow. And just past them are the turreted walls of the town’s citadel.

A teacher in Kathy’s school told us to come here, and it’s lovely, just beyond the reach of traffic madness that seems perennial in the bigger French Riviera towns of Cannes and Nice. Here the morning is quiet; the car is parked for 36 hours.

I think I may have found my next job doing PR translations for Welcome Hotel, the chain that owns this place. It described one hotel in the mountains as a place "for thirsty eaters of poetry, devourers of pure morning air, climbers on the Milky Way, skiers on the infinite.

Mais oui. But I actually consider myself a hungry drinker of literature.

In high season the cheapest room at Welcome Hotel goes for 149 euros, about $198. But this is March and we are paying 93 euros, about $121 complete with balcony, panoramic view and a desk clerk so charming and helpful that she color-coded a map of the peninsula Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where we spent the day poking around. I plan to tell her boss to promote her. She speaks English far better than we do French but she’s stayed with her native tongue since I made clear that I am trying to learn it. In case we ever return in higher season, we walked above the town and found a lovely two star, Hotel Provencal with a garden under a palm tree and a price tag about a third lower.

Evening, March 14

Oh, to bottle this stay. Let’s start with this: cloudless skies, low 70s, low humidity, a gentle breeze, 48 hours. Add an 8 or 9 mile walk past chateaus and villas extraordinaire and then along a trail, closed, unbeknownst to us, and thus deserted. It winds along the rocky shores of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, not a person in sight. We escape by crawling under a gate that blocks the trail while workers are at lunch (rather than retracing our steps).

This walk is Carmel’s 17-mile drive on foot, without entrance fee. It’s Point Lobos State Park south of Carmel without the seals and sea otters. It’s France, where momma shades her spaniel from the sun under an umbrella, where the bathers of both sexes lie topless, where the villas are set in lush gardens of wild flowers and bougainvillea, beneath palms and cypress, facing the sea. A glass of wine at 2. A nap on the beach at 3.

Who cares about 4?

March 15

Savor each bite. This is the food France is famous for. Flavorful red rice from the Camargue. zucchini and pepper, red and yellow, diced and spiced to perfection. And a pink cream sauce, liberally doused in wine and poured thick over des loups (sea bass, not wolf, in this case). Le desert? Chocolat mousse, bien sur. Le Ruban Bleu, the blue ribbon, sits on the boardwalk at Juan-les-Pines, another Mediterranean village, and it’s packed for lunch on this Thursday. We saw the crowd and wandered in. Good call.

This is a village where Picasso lived. Down the beach, the handprints of musicians – Gilberto Gil, Shirley Horn, Little Richard, Junior Wells and just plain Fats, to name a few – stretch a block in front of the clearing where the boules players toss their metal balls toward the cochonnet (literally, the little pig), the plastic ball they score points by coming closest to. After all the players have tossed, they stand in tight circles and argue awhile, making their case, with body English for emphasis, of who has come closest. Up the beach from the boules field is the 4-star Hotel Plage with its Piano Bar Fitzgerald and restaurant gastronomique under the supervision of one Frederic Buzet. I can imagine this neighborhood in the ‘20s, its heyday, with the likes of the Great Gatsby frequenting its sprawling villas. But if it’s quieter now its elegance hasn’t exactly faded.

Once again we wander, Kathy, as always, armed with maps, leading the way. We find a path to a botanical garden with fields of wild flowers and foreign flora such as the eucalyptus, an old friend from the California Coast. And then we climb some more to the Chapelle de Notre Dame, pausing, as is the French way, for a discreet bathroom break in the woods. (Public facilities are not plentiful, one reason we’ve increased our coffee consumption on our home turf in Aix.)

After visiting the chapelle, packed with what I can only call memorabilia of the region’s history – replicas of ships, faded announcements, and a mishmash of more religious artifacts – we head down a rocky path toward the town of Antibes. Here, between the 6th and 7th station of the cross, we stumble across another gathering of boules players. My challenge in April and May will be to write about this national pastime – a cross between sport, social gathering, and debate society. I’ve sold the article. Now to report it, in French? Oo-la-la. But I discreetly snap some photos, including one of the peg used to keep score.

Our three days on the French Riviera are just about over so we celebrate on a beach in Antibes with one more crème chantilly – you can loosely call it a creampuff, if you like, but I swear this whip cream is so light it has no calories. This side of Antibes, a handicapped accessible beach next to the Club Nautiques with sailing, diving and kayaking lessons and across from just one hotel seems reserved for the people who actually live, rather than summer, here, people who live in apartments and small houses on adjoining streets rather than the grand hotels and mansions on the other side of town. A few more snapshots, pitiful attempts really to record three perfect days, and we head back to the car and our hillside home among the birds.



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