Trip to Europe: Day 14 – Nice, The French Riviera

17 June 2012. This day was going to be our chill day. Most of the people planned to spend it on the beach, but I wanted to see the place. I actually had no plans on what to do or where to go, and took my time waking up (for a change) and getting dressed. As long as I was on time for breakfast, I knew I’d be good. Besides, the chances of me meeting my fellow tour people in the breakfast area was very high.

After breakfast I went back to the room to get my bag, and met with Alex who had decided that she was going to use her day to chill on the beach. Before I could go I took more advantage of the free WiFi and caught up with some Facebook and Whatsapp. I love Europe for offering free WiFi in such a large number of places.

I met up with Felicia, Shauna and Kelsey, the 3 Australian girls that came together, at reception, along with Alli, Paul and Driver Steve. Rachel and Adam were also there and Rachel made it clear that she had no intention of swimming that day as she didn’t like to. I thought that was odd for an Australian, but was amused by it more because of the way she said it rather than the strangeness of it. Guess I unintentionally stereotyped there. Sorry, Rach!

We spoke a little with Driver Steve and asked him what there was to do in the area, and he suggested us meeting at the Parc du Chateau for a picnic lunch. That sounded great to all of us, especially since it was a Sunday, and we agreed to meet back at the hotel at about 1:30pm so that we could all leave together.

I didn’t know what I was really gonna do, so I left the hotel with Kelsey, Shauna and Felicia and we decided to walk along the promenade and see what was happening. It was such a beautiful day, and I remembered Steve saying the previous night that Nice gets 360 days of sun a year, so the chances of the weather turning bad was extremely unlikely.

What a gorgeous day it was, and it was evident the moment we stepped out of the hotel. We walked for barely 2 minutes and there was Port de Nice where all the yachts were docked.

Port de Nice

The girls and I were marvelling at the beauty of the place. It was almost surreal. Since we were at the start of the promenade, we already saw some people jogging and cycling, and I thought to myself that they were so lucky to have a lifestyle such as that. What a beautiful place to go for a run, and at the same time, to call it home.

The promenade

We stopped occasionally to take photos and it was not long at all before we got a close-up view of the ocean. I had never seen the Mediterranean before, and then I knew exactly what my mother had constantly gone on about. Mediterranean blue….wow.

After about 25 minutes of walking, while constantly looking at what people were getting up to on the beach, we spotted a significant number of people from our group. They were clearly enjoying themselves, but we were wondering why they appeared to be “falling” while in the water. It didn’t take us long to realise that the beaches are not made of sand, but rather pebbles. So obviously if you’re in the water standing on pebbles, its not stable. It was funny watching them trying to find their footing.

Frolicking in the Mediterranean

Shauna, Felicia and Kelsey wanted to swim but not just yet, so we left the group and continued walking for a bit. We walked quite far along the promenade before coming to a whole lot of umbrellas and deck chairs. We saw a sign advertising for a chair, towel, and umbrella for €14. That was pretty steep, I thought. Even if it was for an entire day, how many people actually spend an entire day lying on the beach that makes €14 worth it? French Riviera prices, I guess. For the girls, however, that price wasn’t that bad since (at the time) the Australian Dollar was almost equivalent to the Euro. I don’t remember if they decided to opt for that, but I think that was about the time I decided to head off on my own.

I still had no idea how to pass my time, so I continued walking for a bit, until I saw it: a hop-on-hop-off bus. The last thing I wanted to do was be a typical tourist and get on a bus like that. However, in this case, since I couldn’t make a better decision on my own and I didn’t know Nice well enough (or rather, at all) to know where to go and what to see, I swallowed my pride and approached the bus after studying the pricing that was marked on its side. At €20, it seemed like an okay price considering you could hop on and off as often as you liked. And for the French Riviera, you just have to suck it up really.

As I got closer, I observed as much of the bus as I could to see if there was a fair number of people on it already. But the closer I got, the less I cared, and eventually I was at the door. There were 2 guys there, the driver, and another rather good-looking guy chatting to him. He made way for me to pass, and I paid the driver the money. The good-looking guy winked at me as he gave me an audio device with a headset and told me to “enjoy”. I grinned and ascended the short staircase so that I could sit on the top, open deck.

There were 2 old couples sitting there, and a youngish guy probably in his late 30s. I greeted everyone as I walked passed them, and sat near the back. I noticed on the side of the bus, just below the railing, was a sort of guide showing which channel to tune in to on the audio device depending on the language of your choice – English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Italian or Dutch. After fidgeting a bit with my audio device, curios to see what the other channels would sound like, I set it back to English just as the driver started driving.

I’ll never forget what a glorious day it was, and I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of the residents of this place that belonged on a postcard.

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I continued to take in everything around me, and took a fair number of photos. At times I was reminded of Cape Town and I actually felt quite proud that we have a place almost equally as beautiful as Nice back home.

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I saw some rather odd architecture as we drove around, and I figured that it was probably the entrance to some museum or something. But there was no indication that that was the case. Then again, its not like I can understand French other than the odd word or two. So unless I saw the word musée, I wouldn’t have known what it was for.

Strange structure in Nice

There were a fair number of people on the bus by now, as some people joined us along the way. There were more that joined than left, but as the journey progressed, more and more people hopped off the bus.

I still had no idea where to go and I just stayed on the bus, enjoying my time basking in the wonderful sun and breathing in the clean, refreshing air. I hardly listened to the guide, and was more in my own world just absorbing the sights around me. I didn’t want the bus ride to end, and the thought of threatening the driver to carry on driving around the entire French Riviera crossed my mind. I remember grinning to myself.

The bus journey was a generous 3 hours long, which I was quite impressed by. Even though I didn’t actually hop on and off at all, I thought it was €20 well spent. Not only did I see breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, but I also got a glimpse into people’s everyday lives there. A simple thing like people watching as they waited at a robot (sorry, we South Africans refer to traffic lights as “robots”) or crossed the road was so fascinating, and I looked at it as though I had never seen it before. When you go to a new place, I think its best to look at everyday things you’ve even seen before with a fresh pair of eyes. We take a lot of things for granted, but I should tell you that its equally satisfying to see the way other people do things. Most times you’ll find that they do those things the same way as you do. In other instances, it may be the total opposite.

Something that Steve said to us that I’ll never forget was “Its not wrong, its just different”. That is something very important to keep in mind when travelling and especially when tasting the foods of other cultures. You can’t expect the way you do things to be the same globally. That’s what makes the world so diverse, doesn’t it? It would be so boring if everyone did everything the same way.

When the bus stopped a couple hundred metres from where it had started, my only option was to jump off. Since it was only midday, I had some time to kill. I knew I had quite a walk to get back to the hotel to meet the group for the picnic up at the Chateau, so I didn’t want to waste too much time. With this in mind, I walked in the direction of the hotel, which was back east (so the ocean was on my right). I thought of taking one of the side roads and get lost a bit. I have a decent sense of direction so I knew that as long as I knew where I was in relation to the ocean, I wouldn’t get lost.

I walked for about 5 minutes when I came across a little shop on the side of the road, and went in to get a bottle of water. It was actually like a little cafe as it had a few small tables here and there, and there were a few people relaxing with their coffee and newspaper. I walked in and greeted a friendly-looking woman at the counter. I guess she was more friendly because I said “bonjour” and not “hello”. It helps to greet locals in their own language as a sign of respect; they usually treat you better when you do. I had no idea if the proper French word for water is “aqua” or not, but that’s what I asked for and she pointed to it and said “oui”. I paid her about €3 for it and nodded as I said “merci”. It helps knowing those few essential French  words. Its all you need, really.

After leaving the shop I continued heading east and I think I hit the jackpot with the turn that I took off the main road, as I stumbled upon a market. It was just what I needed because I was feeling a little peckish, so I knew I’d get something to nibble on. In fact, it wasn’t the real reason I was happy to see it. I mean, look at this place.

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The aromas of the stalls were beautiful, and it started with the scented soap shop that is visible in the photo above. You’d expect the smells to be overwhelming in a place like this with so many things to offer, but it was pleasant everywhere I walked.

The smell I enjoyed the most was when I got to the olive stand. I love olives, so it really was a feast for my nose. I knew that as much as I love olives, it would be pointless me buying some when there was so much of my holiday still to go. I thought it would be more practical to get something that I could eat immediately.  I wandered around lazily, people watching in the process, until I finally came to the cherries stand. I had eaten awesome cherries in Amsterdam, and I knew that the quality of them in Nice would be equally good. I wasn’t disappointed when I took my first bite, and my energy was renewed.

Around 30 minutes had passed at the market and I chose to continue walking back to the hotel. The reason I bought cherries was mainly for sustenance as we were going to the chateaux for lunch after all, so it would have been silly of me to buy a big lunch.

When I got back to the hotel, there were a few people there, including Driver Steve, and I let him know that he should wait for me. I got to my room as quickly as I could, freshened up (and realised how sunburned I had gotten) and quickly went back to the lobby. Kelsey, Shauna, Felicia, Ally, Paul, Adam, Rachel, Tracy and Travis had gathered together and I was happy that that was the little group I’d be spending the afternoon with.

I knew that the chateaux wasn’t far away, but I had no idea where we’d be getting lunch from. Driver Steve said he knew of a supermarket in town, nearby, that we could go grab some things, We didn’t have much choice but to agree cos we were all hungry and of course, didn’t know the town at all. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be a very far walk because my feet were quite sore from the walking I had just done on the back of the walking I had done the previous night in Monaco with my new leather boots which I’d worn for the first time. As it is, my feet were already sore when I wore those because of all the walking I did in Rome just 2 days before that.

No matter what I was feeling though, my mind was in overdrive and what kept me going was the prospect of seeing new places and people. So at the end of the day, I didn’t care where Driver Steve was taking us.

We walked for about 20-30 minutes through the beautiful town, and I forgot that the reason why the streets were extra quiet was because it was a Sunday. Then I started thinking…are shops open in Nice on a Sunday? My question was soon answered when we got to the entrance of the supermarket. No, they aren’t open on a Sunday. Driver Steve felt so bad cos he had made us walk all that way for nothing, and wasn’t sure what to do. Then a few of us remembered that we had passed a little shop on the way, which was very close to the hotel. It wasn’t a cafe or anything, but rather a tearoom, as we call them in South Africa i.e.  a pokey little shop that sells odd grocery items, snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. I didn’t really look into the shop when we first walked passed it, but I saw enough to gather that it was a tearoom-type place, so I knew there was food there.

Since it was the only place we knew of, we headed back along the same way that we had just come from.  We walked in one-by-one and there was an awkward silence as we looked around. The only people in the shop were a woman and a boy of about 14 who appeared to be her son. We greeted the both of them and gathered quickly that the woman, unlike her son, spoke no English whatsoever. There wasn’t much choice to eat and drink, but there was a little deli with some hot food. Some of the guys got a beer however I chose to get a bottle of water since I knew it would last me much longer. Besides, I still wasn’t a beer drinker (I only had 2 in my whole life, both of which happened in the previous week) and I felt very awkward even considering buying one.

We gathered round the glass that covered the hot food and one by one pointed at what we wanted so that the woman could serve us. I got myself a piece of chicken, a weird-looking omelette and a piece of baklava. It was an odd combination but I thought what the hell, that’s all that was available to eat in any case. When everyone got what they wanted, it was finally time to get to the Chateau.

Steve had told us that the Chateau was actually at the top of a hill (another name for it is actually Castle Hill), and if we wanted to get there we could either walk up the hundreds of stairs, or pay a small fee of around €1 to take the lift. It is a very prominent hill in Nice and it was obvious that we were there when it rose up in front of us. We walked around it for some time, looking for the entrance. We all thought that we were going to find the lift, but Driver Steve had an evil master plan already underway: he was going to make us take the stairs. I think Rachel and I were the least thrilled when we discovered that the stairs that we were climbing just kept going on and on in a zigzag fashion, and there seemed no end in sight.

Now, I am anything but fit, and my feet were already sore, so I felt like I was going to die at one point because my throat became so dry (after passing what I hoped was half way), that a sharp pain developed in my throat. The sips of water I took to try to sooth it didn’t help, and my knees began to feel like jelly. I knew that I wasn’t the last one, and in a weird way it comforted me a bit knowing that Rachel was pretty exhausted too, since she’s half my size!

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top. Even though I was in desperate need of an air conditioner and an oxygen mask, the view made it all worth it.

View from the top of Castle Hill

We walked around a little, looking for a spot to sit. The park was beautiful, and there were a number of people having picnics, jogging, and playing games. We needed to find Driver Steve, Travis and Tracy too. I really wondered whether they had downed a couple of cans of Red Bull because when we found them, they were happily strolling about as if they’d been there for ages.

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We finally found a shady place to sit which overlooked the central part of the park. There were some guys, whose nationality I couldn’t quite put my finger on, who were practising some rather odd somersaults. They were clearly athletes or dancers of some sort, and watching them was fascinating. We teased Rachel for the spot that she chose to sit at, which was outside our circle. It seemed like a prime spot to watch the shirtless performers.

Clearly no one can sit cross-legged

Each of us gradually took out our lunches as we spoke about some random things. Travis, who was sitting behind me with his back against a tree, moved his legs around uncomfortably, and the topic of being able to sit cross-legged came about. All of us complained that we cannot sit for long periods with our legs crossed. Its been an issue for me since childhood. Travis said something that I’ll never forget: “I have the flexibility of a rhinoceros”. That made my day.

It was already 4pm by the time we decided to leave. I realised that most of the time had gone climbing all those steps. Then it hit me: we had to go down those very same steps now. When we started the descent, however, it became clear that the stairs we were walking on were different to the ones we had climbed up. I guess it made no difference though, its not like we’d get lost.

Somewhere along the way, Ally, Paul, Adam, Rachel and I got separated from the others; but there were so many of us that it didn’t bother us, especially because we knew that the others also have each other. We stopped here and there to take in some of the views, and I was constantly relieved that we were going down and not up. The stairs were uneven and rather steep at times so we had to watch our footing, but at least we were in the shade because there is so much greenery along the staircase.

View from the top of Castle HillWhen we got to the bottom, the others were as clueless of what to do as I was. Adam and Paul wanted to swim though, so we decided to take a stroll along the promenade until we found a spot where Rachel and I could sit, since Ally decided that she’d like to swim too. I really enjoyed the walk I had done earlier that day, and it was nice doing it again with some company. It was absolutely hot though, and Ally realised that I was wearing jeans and asked how I was managing, but I told her that it was actually planned because I knew how hot it would be and it would prevent at least my legs from being sun burned.

We walked for a while, and eventually got to what looked like a restaurant type of place, if you can call it that. There were a lot of tables, chairs, and umbrellas, and it was the perfect place for us to relax and rest in the shade. The only thing was that people are only allowed in there if they purchase something from there. We thought ah what the heck, a drink is a small price to pay for being able to sit in comfort and enjoy the wonderful sea air.

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Adam had taken his shirt off by then (while we were still walking down from the Chateau actually), and when we found a table, him and Paul went inside to order a drink. Ally went to put on her bathing suit, I think, while Rachel and I sat down in the covered area. We knew that the guys were ordering something, so when the waiter came to us, we told him that we were with the guys and he didn’t need to take a separate order from us. He asked “Which guy, the naked one?”. We were very amused and were smiling at Adam when he joined us again.

When they came back to us we thought it was actually silly of us to sit in the covered area because we couldn’t see much, so we moved closer to the water in an equally shaded spot. The guys had their beers and Ally went with the both of them to take a dip. I don’t recall if Rachel had something to drink, but I didn’t, purely because I knew how expensive everything would be. However, I had to have something, and when the waiter handed us a menu which had ice cream on it, I just couldn’t refuse. Even though it was €9 on average for all the ice creams on the menu, I chose one. I am an ice cream queen, after all, and sometimes when you travel you have to forget about what some things cost in order to not regret it later. The last thing I wanted was to regret not having that ice cream on the beach, so I ordered the one with 3 scoops – chocolate, mint, and vanilla. Rachel ordered something with more vanilla than anything else, if I remember correctly. Hers looked just as good as mine.

While we were on the topic of cost, I explained to Rachel how bad the exchange rate was for us South Africans. The price that I paid for the ice cream was actually ridiculous. You pay less for a tub of Haagen Daz, and I’m pretty sure the ice cream I was eating there wasn’t that.

Once the trio got back from their swim, they looked so happy and refreshed. Ally had put on her dress on top of her bathing suit, and she sat down with it on. So when we were walking back to the hotel, we made fun of the damp impression it left on her “chair area”. Adam had also gotten Paul to draw a smiley face on his back with the sun tan lotion while we were descending the chateau, so by now, he had a red smiley face burned onto his back. Crazy guy.

Walking with my 4 new friends felt liberating, and really good. I had actually grown quite fond of them and their crazy but simple nature. They’re genuinely good-hearted people, and I couldn’t imagine spending the afternoon with anyone else.

When we got back to the hotel, we were exhausted. A lot of the people were going to Wayne’s Bar afterwards, but I had no interest and chose to stay in the hotel chatting with the few people who didn’t go. I don’t think I ate supper that night, but I wasn’t really hungry. I went to bed rather early, more concerned about resting my feet after all that walking than anything else. I closed my eyes thinking of the day that had just passed – the beautiful weather, the people, the green Parc Du Chateau, and of course, the blue Mediterranean. It dawned on me that now that we had just finished our first destination in France, it was only downhill from there in terms of the time left on tour. France was the last country we’d be visiting. It was time to make every last minute count and have as much fun with the people I was with as I possibly could.

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