It is Sunday morning and the market square in Nice is coming alive surrounded by the pastel 500 year old buildings of the Cours Saleya. A dusty pink sky turns pale blue as chirping birds welcome the morning. Rapid fire French is tossed between vendors. The selection of produce, meat, cheese and spices makes me yearn for an apartment with a kitchen; the darkest of baby salad greens, tiny and succulent zucchini with the blossom still attached, any spice which has ever graced a cookbook page. A woman straps an arm load of flowers to the basket of her bicycle and slowly pedals off down the ancient street. The French joie de vivre is no where more evident than in their markets of the southern coast.
My vacation plans supported a long weekend, inadequate for the trek back to the United States for Thanksgiving. An hour and a half flight to the south of France for a four day weekend seemed a reasonable alternative. The combination of ancient walled hilltop villages, Mediterranean coastal strolls, French food and wine, and warm November weather validated my choice. And, of course, the markets. I choose Nice as my base; equidistant from the eastern destinations of Monaco and Menton and the northwestern hillside villages of Saint Paul de Vence and Vence. My arrival day, along with the early mornings and late evenings, would be adequate to cover my goals for Nice.
One of the bargains of European travel are the buses of the south of France. One euro transports you an hour or so east to Menton or northwest to Vence. Four euros bought a day pass, including the trip from the airport to my Nice based hotel, plus unlimited bus and tram travel on that first day. My flight touched down on time just before noon. By lunch, I was checked in to my hotel, unpacked, and on my way to see the city. Remembering the Matisse museum in the hills, I turned away from the sea, hiking up and up. There was no reason to stick to an itinerary, so when the Chagall Museum popped up and invited me in, I accepted.
Marc Chagall was born a Russian Jew but spent much of his life in and around Paris and the south of France. Perhaps most famously, he created the painting which now adorns the ceiling of the Paris Opera House – the Palais Garnier. I was less aware of the spectacular collection of Old Testament paintings – a large number of which are housed in this Nice based museum which he planned during his lifetime. The audio guide, included with the 7 euro 50 admission, explained each of the roughly 20 large religious themed paintings which are a layering of biblical images over scenes from his life in Russia. The museum is dedicated exclusively to Chagall. I suggest you give it a try even if you don’t consider yourself a fan. Neither did I before experiencing this museum. I left with a new-found respect for Chagall’s works.
Since it was late afternoon and a bit rainy, I used my bus pass to ride the rest of the way up the hill to the Matisse museum. The museum is free and is housed in a picturesque salmon Italianate villa surrounded by a Roman ruin strewn garden. This hilltop neighborhood deserves an hour or so, but the smattering of works in the Matisse museum is incomparable to the Chagall. If you can only handle one art museum per trip, I would recommend the Chagall. Using my bus pass a final time, I returned to the seaside and spent the evening wandering the streets of Old Nice. Take a good map with you. The tightly wound and overlapping streets are a maize. Getting in proved easy, but finding my way out was a bit more challenging.
With Nice fairly well covered in my opening day, I planned three full days of bus exploration. I began by returning to one of my favorite places in Europe, the old walled cities of the hills north and west of Nice – specifically Vence and Saint Paul de Vence. The number 400 bus runs from the Avenue de Verdun in Nice thru Cagnes sur mer, St. Paul de Vence, and ultimately Vence. As we whisked thru the hillside towns, I jotted down stops which appeared interesting to explore on my return trip.
Vence is one of my favorite old villages, big enough to be intriguing, small enough to wrap your hands around and with a real town vibe. It houses the requisite churches, markets, and restaurants. On the small main square is the unassuming Vence Cathedral, home to a Chagall mosaic. I most appreciate religious art when displayed in the venue which inspired its creation. Don’t miss the opportunity to savor a small piece of Chagall’s art in its intended setting. The old village consumed an hour or so wandering past wine, cheese, and food shops, markets and provincial fabric stores. This is a better place to shop than the more touristy St. Paul de Vence. If you want to purchase a souvenir or gift from this region, Vence is a good town to select something. I was searching for an interesting restaurant and ended up back where I started on the main square. I settled into a tiny five table restaurant for the first of a series of memorable meals. The three course menu and glass of French red wine was accompanied by the waitress’ soft singing while the cook kept time whisking eggs in a metal bowl. The music (both live and what was actually playing) was exclusively French which earned this restaurant bonus points. An elderly woman dined alone at the neighboring table. When the waitress asked if her meal was good, she responded it was “parfait”. She rolled her “Rs” like Edith Piaf in Rien de Rien.
Saint Paul de Vence is a tourist trap. That said, popular tourist destinations exist for a reason. In the case of St. Paul de Vence, the village is spectacularly located on a rock strewn hilltop, surrounded by ancient olive trees and the old stone walls. It overflows with art museums.
As the bus rounded a corner, a man was practicing the clarinet on his apartment balcony overlooking the walled city. The view was enough to compel me to jot “buy clarinet” quickly into my journal before hopping off the bus. On the way up to the town, the road wraps around a petanque court. In past visits I have paused to watch a game and this day was no exception. Stop for a moment. There is no need to rush. A man with a cigarette dangling off his lips tossed the silver orb onto the court. He paused in mid-air, statuesque, his arm outstretched, the ball nearly frozen just beyond the tips of his fingers. It landed and rolled to the soft applause from his friends acknowledging his near perfect throw. The beauty of St. Paul is the ambiance. Absorb some here before heading into the town, strolling the narrow cobbled streets, peeking into a church or hidden courtyard, and perhaps stopping for a drink. I caught the bus back to Nice. In hindsight, I wish I had made one more stop in Haute de Cagne. If you have the energy left, consider the hike up to this last hill-side village which some have written is the most beautiful of all.
The second and third days I spent exploring the coast between Nice and Italy. The 100 bus is worthwhile even if you never get off. It snakes along the coast on the Corniche Inferieure, the lowest of three parallel roads which hug the mountainside as it cascades down to the sea.
Red roofed villas cling precariously to the steep mountain cliffs, fingers of land jut into the ink blue sea, and a mix of small and large houses tumble-down the hills towards the coast. At the very top of a rock cropping I could spy the perched Eze village. I can not differentiate the mountain base from the stone buildings of the town. An hour later, the bus pulled into Menton, one mile from the Italian border. In the old city, I stopped for an Italian pizza and French wine – a culinary gift from this city which is a French and Italian hybrid. Rather than retracing my steps thru town, I turned out to the beach and walked the coastline. In late November I had the shore to myself. Heading back towards Nice, I spontaneously jumped off the bus at the base below the village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The small walled village was nearly abandoned for the season. I can imagine it overrun with tourists in the summer. If you are in this area in early fall or late spring, it might be a perfect stop.
The hike up the hill was quite steep, and I hugged the edge to escape the cars flying down the twisting road. About a mile up the hill, I turned at a sign pointing up a stone stair case which simply said “to the village”. It delivered me to the central
part of the old village. The 10th century Grimaldi castle was closed for the season – as were most other sites. Come Christmas, I imagine the town will return to life.
The final stop for the day was where I picked up on day three, Monaco. Monaco is a tad pretentious. I watched a man in vivid green eyeglasses clad in tight leather pants and black suede boots fumble with his Dolce & Gabbana camera case. I felt a bit under dressed. The small country appeared painfully perfect; manicured lawns freshly combed each night and streets lined with pink palaces draped in the red and white Monaco flag. There was not a drop of litter nor a spot of graffiti anywhere. The ubiquitous police carried whistles and “tweet tweeted” at all
infractions. Tweet, tweet – “get off the lawn please”. The perfection was nerve jarring. I explored the area around the casino and the old village atop the hill where the royal family lives, prays, and strolls in their perfect waterside garden. A few hours in the principality was memorable, and for me, adequate.
My final stop was Villefranche sur mer. It was a juxtaposition to the perfection of Monaco – a small and authentic French fishing village.
On Sunday, the flea market was in swing in the garden between the bus stop and the harbor. During this warm
last weekend in November, couples strolled the wharf side where the light splashed across the water and the old wooden fishing vessels bobbed in the harbor. I ducked into a small restaurant in the wharf hugging old town for my final meal of the trip. It was as memorable as the first. In this quaint fishing village, it seemed right that I ended my trip with a fish bouillabaisse. I had considered staying in Villefranche, but its close proximity to Nice and the ease of bus connections made me glad I stayed in the larger, and more central, Nice. That said, Villefranche was a perfect ending to a relaxing long weekend.
Hotel: Nice Garden Hotel (11Rue de Congres) – A simple, clean, well located and inexpensive choice in Nice city near the pedestrian zone of the Rue de France and Rue and Place Massena. It is a 10 minute stroll to Old Town. This hotel scores well for its value. I would certainly return.
Vence: La Cassolette (10 bis Place Clemenceau): Tiny square side restaurant serving traditional French food. Arrive early or make reservations (I’m sure there is out-door sitting in the summer). Open for lunch and dinner but closed Monday and Wednesday (except during July and August). A 3 course lunch menu was 26 euro.
Menton: Several compelling choices are on and near the place du Cap at the end of the pedestrian old town area just before the sea. I enjoyed the pizza at Vesuvio for a simple and relatively inexpensive meal in a lovely setting on the place.
Villefranche sur Mer: La Grignotiere (3 rue du Poilu): Delicious seafood bouillabaisse served in a charming restaurant filled with locals during this off-season in November. A 3 course lunch menu was 16 euro.
Nice: There is a lovely breakfast option on the corner of Cours Saleya and Rue Louis Gassin. Bread, home-made jams, eggs, in a cozy and classically French setting.
A handy crepe restaurant on Place Grimaldi just around the corner from my hotel. The ambiance was old-time Paris with Edith Piaf posters, old gramophones, and jazz music. A very tasty and cheap option in central Nice.
Buses: You can buy a ticket from the driver. Get on, give him your 1 euro coin (he will make change, but avoid putting down a 10 euro bill) and tell him your destination. From the airport to Nice, buses are 4 euro but the ticket covers all buses and trams the first day. The buses do not stop unless someone is waiting at the bus stop or you press the red button on board to request the next stop. Bring your A-game and pay attention to the order of the stops. Popular stops like Villefranche sur mer Octroi or Monaco Place d’Armes will probably always be requested. Lesser know stops like Torraca, which sits below the village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, are less likely to be requested. Often, the TV screen on board will scroll the order of the next 5 stops – which makes the entire process much more simple.
The 98 bus stops all along the promenade in Nice. The 400 bus to Vence and the 200 bus to Antibes stop on Rue de Verdun just south-west of Place Massena. And the 100 bus to Menton/Monaco departs from the Rue Catherine Segurane just south of the Place Garibaldi.