Nice, Monaco, et la Cote d’Azur
Often, while travelling, you visit a place that while interesting, doesn’t live up to the hype. The Batu Caves were that way for me, for example, with their poured concrete floors, piles of trash, and embedded gift shops.
That was not the case with Nice and Monaco. If anything, it was as far opposite as it could be. I’d wanted to visit this area for as long as I can remember, and it was better than I’d hoped.
This is the story of how I fell in love with the Cote d’Azur, as trite and pretentious as that sounds.
One of the common threads about places I’ve loved is a feeling of comfort and relaxation. That might be the only thread. This doesn’t mean a cushy chair on a beach at sunset (though it could be), but just a feeling in a place where it occurs to you, all of a sudden, that you just feel calm. You are comfortable with where you are, and you think “Yeah, this is lovely. I’d like to stay like this for a while.”
There’s little consistency among places I’ve felt like this. At one end is Byron Bay and Cherbourg. Oceanside towns are certainly a reoccurring theme, but at the other end is Hong Kong. Oceanside for sure, but certainly the pick if we played “One of these things is not like the other.”
Nice is now on the list, and it’s partly for the obvious reasons (climate, beach, etc), but the added component is the people I met at Meyerbeer Beach Hostel. It was the first hostel where I felt at home. The small common area was exceptionally conducive to meeting new people, and for communal drinking games. My love for the people I met there (love you guys!) had a profound effect on my opinion of the city. It had to, since the room was one of the loudest I’ve ever stayed in, and consistently I got the worst sleep I’ve ever had in a hostel. As in, the building was meh, but the people were brilliant.
There was always someone to eat with, always someone to drink with, always someone to explore with. I haven’t had this feeling of belonging since Byron Bay, which is probably why, like Byron, I extended my trip multiple times. Nearly two weeks in Nice, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why I left. To see more, I suppose.
No, that’s a lie. I know why. My first week I met a bunch of great people. They all left. That was hard. Met a new group, they were awesome, but they were all leaving at the end of the weekend. I wanted to be the leaver this time. Such is the joy and heartbreak of travel. I take solace in the fact that I have a pretty solid track record for visiting people I’ve met while travelling.
My days in Nice unfolded as thus: Work in the AM, find lunch (usually some pretty mediocre sushi), walk around a bit, find dinner, drink with people from the hostel. Repeat. No complaints.
Here’s what some of the Cote d’Azur is like:
Nice is a medium-sized city that feels much smaller, since most of what you want/need is right around the waterfront. The buildings are typical ornate French, and you can walk just about everywhere. Though the maps show many pedestrian streets, that’s an oxymoron in French. They drive anywhere, and everywhere.
I didn’t do many “touristy” things in Nice. There are museums I didn’t visit, for example. I did hike up to a castle overlooking the city (shown in the above photo, and a big deal for this sedentarian). Walking along the beach is a perfectly acceptable way to spend time, in my opinion, and I did that a lot. Not on the beach however. While the waters of the Mediterranean are a shade of cyan I’ve never seen before (almost azure, if you will), the beaches of Nice are all fist sized rocks that are annoying to walk on and nearly impossible to navigate when you’re being attacked by waves.
Waves. Call me biased, living on the coast of the world’s largest ocean, but for some reason I just didn’t expect the Mediterranean to have any reasonable waves. But I’ve seen smaller waves on some coastlines of actual oceans. When storms would approach, the waves were actually fairly sizeable.
While I found Nice as a perfect place to just be for two weeks, others might not be as content. That’s Nice’s other great charm: as a stepping off point for a bunch of excellent day trips.
Which brings us to…
And Hong Kong is exactly what came to mind when I first saw Monaco. This tiny citystate has the highest GDP in the world, and the highest population density. Rising from the Mediterranean, buildings fight for views of the sea until the steep mountains put an end to the fun. It’s as iconic as it is impressive and gorgeous. There’s just something about the intense and clever management of space when there are too many people in a confined area.
Sometimes, like Battleship Island, the result is a nightmare (Kowloon, for all it’s anarchy, did sort of work in its way). With Monaco, most certainly due to the ridiculous amount of money here, it’s a terraced, immaculately manicured, utopia.
For one euro fifty, you can catch the bus from Nice, and a 45 minute journey along the coast is a feast for the eyes in itself. The bus stop in the middle of Monte Carlo is just a few steps from the Casino and the curve and tunnel made legendary from dozens of F1 races.
Everything is up or down in Monaco. The flat streets are few, and usually confined to the water’s edge. There are escalators and elevators, but mostly it’s ramps and stairs. A workout, for sure, but since you can walk from one end of the country to the other in an hour if you schlep, it’s not as bad as it seems. You can even walk back into France and not notice (countries are just lines on a map, folks).
The ornate Casino is… well for 10 euros I passed on going inside, but the lobby was lovely. There’s lots of shopping all over, as you’d expect, but the prices on food and drinks aren’t overly expensive, at least not any more than in Nice. There are grocery stores for those on a budget.
You can cover just about everything you need in a day, though I went back for a second day as I just liked being around it all.
While there’s no escaping the conspicuous oozing of money (from the cars to the yachts to how crafted and clean everything is), it’s interesting to see how many of the buildings are sort of… kitsch. And not on purpose. Check out this building, on the inside of the Fairmont Hairpin:
Sort of ratty 70’s, right? A lot of the big buildings were like this. Clearly built in an opulent, but earlier, era, and then just sort of left to age. Poorly. It’s a weird dichotomy. Everything is clean, but yet some of the buildings just look dated. To be honest, it humanizes it all. Makes it more like a real city and less like some shitty Vegas theme hotel.
Despite of the ostentatious wealth, or perhaps because of it, Monaco is a lovely way to spend a day. Just wandering around the city, staring at the sights, it’s all quite pleasant.
Cannes, if you don’t recognize the name, is the home of the yearly Cannes Film Festival, easily the biggest and most important of its type in the world. I bet during that week Cannes is party central, and an absolute riot.
The rest of the year? Uh, meh. It’s so over-the-top commercialized it feels like a tourist trap (which, I guess, it is). The beaches (real sand this time), are OK, but with so many advertisements everywhere, and none of the charm of Nice, I don’t really see the point. Visit, sure, to say you’ve seen it, but you barely need a full day there.
While not technically part of the French Riviera, Marseille is a logical stop as you move down the coast. It’s France’s second largest city, largest port, and… well, to be honest, kinda shitty. I really didn’t like it here. It’s dirty, there’s graffiti everywhere, you can’t go 5 minutes without seeing armed police and flashing blue lights. I never felt unsafe, but I never felt comfortable either.
The most telling was a 20-25 minute walk back to the hostel after dinner one night and passing 150-200 people… all men. There’s something odd about that. Creepy, even.
I know it’s unfair to judge a real city like Marseille against a tourist spot like Nice, but when it comes down to it, the choice you make when travelling is spending time in places that are awesome. Marseille is not awesome.
Worth a day trip, certainly, as there are some beautiful parts:
One of the coolest are the Calanques, sort of Mediterranean fjords. You can hike to them, or take a boat tour. Even in mediocre weather, they were quite lovely, and unlike any coastline I’ve seen (in person).
Can I read the signs: Pretty much, yeah
Do I have a funny accent: Oui