Cote d'Azur, Land of Reveries (1)

The five-and-a-half-hour TGV (high-speed train) trip from Paris

to Nice (on September 20) didn’t feel that long, probably because of one’s

excitement and yearning for the destination. My plan was to make Nice our home

base and to take daily excursion trips to nearby Riviera

towns. Thus I had chosen a hotel very near to the Nice-Ville train station.

As the train sped past unending expanses of vineyards and

farmland, which were punctuated by an occasional industrial hub, one couldn’t

but sense that the wine and agricultural industries must be a vital part of the

French economy. Official data say that over 60 percent of the land in France

is used for agricultural purposes, the country is self-sufficient in food

supplies and that it is a leading agricultural exporter in the European Union

and the world’s second largest agricultural producer after the United

States.

My own wild guess is that wine and agricultural exports may

well have been the country’s key economic stabilizer in recent times of global

financial turmoil. Only myopic nations and cities would give short shrift to

agricultural farming. This reminds me of the Hong Kong

youngsters who formed the Land Justice League and who mooted the point of

returning village and country land to farming mode. Something tells me that

they are the visionary lot. But the question is, how many Hong Kongers are

sensible enough to heed their voice?

As the train journey drew towards its end, meandering

stretches of sky-blue coastal waters adorned with a lone sail or two and charming

seaside resorts were in sight through the train’s windows.

It was mid-afternoon when we set foot in the magical city of

Nice. The Provencal sun was smiling

warmly on us. What better thing to do than to take to the legendary Promenade

des Anglais right away? From our hotel, it would take us less than fifteen

minutes to walk down to the seaside. We took Rue Berlioz and then continued on

Rue de Rivoli, at the end of which stood the palatial Hotel Negresco which

dates back to 1912 and which graces a lot of Nice’s postcards. There, the

sweeping vista of the scintillating, sapphire blue Mediterranean

washed over us! From afar, the deep purple blue sea melded with the cloudless

cerulean sky and rushed towards us in an astounding azure, changing into a

lighter shade of azure as it neared, then into a crystal light blue nearest the

shore. The subtle blend of different nuances of blue was so magical that it simply

left one in wordless awe at the wonders of nature. Against the changing hues of

blue, the off-white pebble beaches were dotted with jovial, colorfully clad

bathers and sun bathers, young and old, many with an enviable healthy tan.

Our first meal in Nice was taken at a family-run eatery on a

street parallel to the Promenade des Anglais (I forgot the name of the street)

and consisted of hearty omelettes aux

champignons and salade Nicoise

(romaine greens, tomatoes, tuna, anchovies and hard-boiled eggs, dressed in vinaigrette).

The portions served were huge and we enjoyed both the meal and the friendly

service.

The next morning was spent browsing the Marche aux Fleurs (flower

market) and the food market in Cours Selaya, which runs parallel to the Quai

des Etats-Unis, followed by a late lunch at one of the seafood restaurants in

the market and an exploring visit to the Vieille Ville (Old Town).

The markets en plein

air simply oozed with colors and activities. Freshly cut flowers and robustly

growing plants of every imaginable species and shade of color were vying for

shoppers’ pick. Souvenirs of lavender pouches and lavender soap were in

abundance and reasonably priced, as were colorful fruits and vegetables, honey,

fruit preserves, aromatic dried mushrooms, bon bons, nougats, pastries, raw

fish fillets and other kinds of seafood. I was so drawn to the aroma from the

stall that sold dried mushrooms that I had to buy some cepes and some

mousserons, both types of which burst with fragrance.

For our late lunch/dinner, we had spaghetti with seafood and

a big pot of mussels cooked in garlic sauce at a restaurant called “Paradice”.

The restaurant owner was engaged and friendly and gave us a big jar of water

for free. He smiled profusely when I offered courteous compliments for the

exquisite cuisine.

The Old Town

consists of a maze of narrow cobblestone streets in which hide a host of quaint

small shops that sell all sorts of merchandises. Some of the shop owners even

make their own products. I bought a pastel-color shoulder bag made from irregular

pieces of quilts of matching color sewn together. All the bags and sacs are

hand-made by the lady shop owner. At another shop, my friend bought a pair of psychedelic

colored culottes made in Tunisia.

As we wandered around, we were attracted by the deeply resonant singing voice

of an amiable old lady who had her hair wrapped in an Arcadian blue-and-white scarf,

dressed in a pinafore over a demure frock and carrying a woven basket, and who

likely performs regularly in the square for free. Patrons of nearby plein air cafes

rewarded her with hearty rounds of applause. It was easy to be lost in the heart-warming

ambiance of the place.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on one of the

sea side benches and gazing out into the sprawling stretch of twinkling sapphire

blue and conjuring up wild daydreams.

The next day (September 22) we took a mid-morning SNCF train

to Monaco. Unfortunately,

direction signs in the Gare Monte Carlo were sorely lacking and not user-friendly.

It felt like the Municipality was trying to give train travelers a snub. I

found it difficult to navigate out of the train station and we ended up using

the most inconvenient exit.

Once outside the station, we followed Rue Grimaldi and

walked down Rue Princess Caroline to reach the seaside promenade. It happened

that the 2011 Monaco Yacht Show had just kicked off the day before (September

21) and it was the second day of the big event. The Route de la Piscine was

packed with people and vehicle traffic. By vehicle I mean Lamborghinis,

Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, Jaguars, Bentleys, Mercedes and the like. Port

Hercule was bristling with new shiny yachts and the show would include 100

megayachts of up to 90 meters, as I would later find out.

We ordinary folks of course didn’t come for the show. So on

we ambled in the embrace of glorious sunshine and light sea breeze, which

everyone could enjoy, thank God. We were so mesmerized by the postcard-perfect

view of the Mediterranean that we walked right past the Monte

Carlo Casino without knowing. It was only when we reached Plage du Larvotto

that we realized this. So back we turned on Avenue Princess Grace until we came

to the Grimaldi Forum, where a display of luxuriant carpets and rugs of the

finest craftsmanship was being hosted. From here we moved to the neighboring Jardin

Japonais (Japanese Garden)

and savored the tranquil oasis in the midst of the opulent resort hub. The

bamboo fences, the Tea House, the stone lanterns, the little red wooden bridge,

the waterfall and the pond were all imbued with a “Zen” air of soothing calm.

The day’s tour ended with a brief visit to the casino

complex perched high and mighty on the hillside, where we fed our eyes on an amazing

view of the port while enjoying a delicious scoop of ice cream at the

tourist-packed, fountains-furnished Jardin du Casino. As the majestic main

casino was not yet open, I just satisfied myself with a quick tour of the

American one, which was no different from any Macau or Las

Vegas counterpart. My friend didn’t bother to join me.

Compared to earthy yet not-of-this-earth Nice, Monte

Carlo is without doubt of the “regal” category. The

comparison is like one between Catherine Deneuve and Grace Kelly in their prime.

My preference should be quite obvious.