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
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
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
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.