Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Las Ramblas, Barcelona (& the rest)

A couple of years ago I tried to learn Spanish but quickly gave it up. It wasn’t that the language was difficult, just impossible to pronounce. But I wanted to learn as I was planning to make my first ever visit to Spain. Then I thought what the hell. After all, doesn’t everyone speak English? And if they don’t understand what I’m saying I’ll do what all people throughout the English-speaking world do in such circumstances: I’ll talk louder. 

I don’t know why it had taken me so long to visit Spain. In fact, the country had always had a kind of fascination for me, partly because of its recent history, its civil war, but also its topography, the plains, the mountains, and the intense summer heat. Its cities, too, particularly Madrid, but as the budget airlines from my town only went to Barcelona, this is where it would have to be. Besides, everyone told me that it was a wonderful city, so I was almost excited about going, and almost excited is about as excited as I ever get.

I flew out on 17th March 2008 to the unfortunately named El Prat Airport. (‘Prat’ is English slang for ‘idiot’). I’d checked the airport website for transport into Barcelona. By taxi, the website informed us, ‘the taxi station central is in the exit of the terminals’. Clearly it hadn't been one of the translator’s better days. There was also a train service, which I decided to use, assuming, of course, that the trains weren’t on strike or the line wasn’t closed for ‘essential engineering works’. Well, the trains weren’t on strike, and the line was fully operational. However, in order to get to the train station you had to cross a busy dual-carriageway, which you do through a tunnel over the road, and this tunnel was closed for ‘essential renovation work’. So the bus it would have to be.

I joined the queue at the unique bus ticket machine and got as far as two people from the front when we discovered that the machine had ran out of change. I dug out my Visa card, and when my turn came I bought my ticket. I then discovered as I boarded the bus that you could buy your ticket from the driver.

The journey into Barcelona was not the most memorable. The landscape was brown and dusty and everywhere there were building works going on. Maybe this all spoke of prosperity, though, as we now know, the economic bubble was about to burst, big time.

We arrived at Plaça de Catalunya in the centre of the city, where my hotel was located. I’d seen the square in a tourist guide and it was quite impressive. Need I say that half the square was closed off for maintenance work?

Cable car to Montjuic

I checked into my hotel, deposited my bag in my room, and went down to the reception. I asked the receptionist, a young woman of about twenty, who mispronounced her English in a sweet and charming manner, which was the best way to get to Montjuic, ‘the Hill of the Jews‘, which overlooks the city. She told me that I should take the metro to Parellel station, and then the funicular to the cable car station. And she warned me, in a grave and caring tone, to watch out for pickpockets. I gave her my word that I would do. She gave me a booklet with some tokens in it, and I thanked her for her assistance and turned to go.
“You will remember to watch for the pickpockets?” she called out after me.
“Yes, I will do”, I said meekly.

I got to Parallel and took the funicular to the telefèric station. Already we were quite high up with fine views of the city. I saw Gaudi’s masterpiece La Sagrada Familia for the first time. Also prominent was a modern building which resembled the London ‘gherkin’ building. Then I went to the cable car station where cabs were leaving production-line fashion.

I have never liked heights and was glad when we made firm ground at Montjuic. I walked up to the castle and then looked out across Barcelona. The sunshine was hazy, which restricted visibility, but the commercial port could clearly be seen, also the monument of Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover America.

I pottered around for a while, checked out some huge canons, then hopped on a cable car, then into the funicular, and was soon back at Parellel and heading for Plaça de Catalunya.

La Rambla

Leading from the square to the Columbus monument is a wonderful thoroughfare called La Rambla. It was far and away the highlight of my visit. It is, in fact, a number of ‘ramblas’, called collectively Las Ramblas. It runs from Plaça de Catalunya at the north end to the Columbus monument at the south end, a distance of just over 1 kilometre. Running down the centre is the Rambla Boulevard, a tree-lined, pedestrian zone, dotted with newsstands and café tables where you can stop for a drink or a meal. The atmosphere is lively and at the same time relaxing. There were buskers to serenade you, and, while I was there, human waxworks. If I lived in Barcelona I’d walk up and down it all day long.    

As it was St. Paddy’s Day I hunted out an Irish pub and had a plate of Irish stew with the specific gravity of soup, but it filled a gap. I went down as far as the statue of Columbus atop his high column. A friend of mine once told that he is pointing the wrong way, east instead of west. I pottered around some more (I‘m a good potter-arounder), then went back up the boulevard and found an indoor market selling fruit and vegetables, what they used to call costermongers, about 200 years ago. I took a photograph of one of the stalls, and here it is….

Barcelona costermonger

Back up the square the sun was beginning to set with the light suspended between day and night. It is the nicest time of the day. I took my camera out to try and capture the moment for posterity. As I was standing there a small, seedy looking man with a face like a wizened beetroot sidled up alongside me and began at once talking to me in English. He told me he was a student from Tunisia and that he also spoke Spanish, French and Italian. “I speak very good English, yes?” he said. It wasn’t bad, but neither was it fantastic, but unfortunately (for him) he irritated me from the word go, so I said I hoped that his affirmation of his polyglot excellence wasn’t a case of rhetorical hyperbole, if he would forgive the tautology as all hyperbole is, of course, rhetorical.
It had the desired effect as he obviously didn’t understand a word I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Say?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What did you say?” he repeated.
“Say?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
I would have preferred, of course, to have knocked him to the ground and got the boot in a couple of times, but as I didn't want to spend my first night in Spain in a Spain police cell, I contented myself with this infantile gibberish and then wandered off. 

I spent a sleepless night in my not-too-comfortable hotel, and the next morning went down to the reception where my new receptionist friend was on duty once more. I asked her the best way to get to the Sagrada Familia. She told me which metro to take, and again cautioned me about those nasty pickpockets.
“Are they still out there?” I wanted to ask her, but that would have been too cynical, and it wasn’t the place for that.

La Sagrada Familia is probably the longest running ecclesiastical work-in-progress in the world today. Construction began in 1882 and was only one quarter complete at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926. By 2010 about half the work was completed, when the cathedral was also sanctified during a visit by the Pope. But it remains highly controversial, with claims that the work is not respecting Gaudi’s intentions, and that the stone is being machine-shaped and not carved by hand by artisans. 

Sagrada Familia

Funding for the cathedral is mainly from Japan, which may (or may not) have accounted for the large numbers of Japanese tourists when I was there. I took the regulation photos, did a bit more pottering around, then headed off back to La Rambla.

I went to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, but they were closed for the day. The approach to the museum had a sloping ramp which was very good for wheelchairs and fantastic for skate-boarders. There were considerably more of the latter. Unable to see any modern paintings, I decided to go to one of Gaudi’s houses, just off La Rambla. I’d read somewhere that there were some magnificent sculptures on the roof. Is it necessary for me to say that the roof was closed for renovation? But they did let us have a look at the empty basement, and didn’t charge either. So that was a bit of good luck.

Among the tokens that my receptionist friend at the hotel had given me was one for a self-service restaurant where you could eat as much as you like for about 8 euros. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but the food was excellent, both hot and cold, and literally all you stuff inside you. And you don’t have to leave a tip, either!

I spent the rest of the day wandering up and down La Rambla, looking at the human waxworks, taking some snaps, and was pretty worn out when I got back to the hotel.

Another awful night, but the next morning I was leaving. My receptionist friend was still on duty and wished me a safe journey. I walked over to Plaça de Catalunya, half of which was still closed off, though the workmen had yet to make an appearance. A few dossers were still sleeping on the benches as I walked towards the bus stop. They probably had a better night than I did.

As I was boarding the bus I gave a beggar lady 5 euros and she said something to me in Spanish which I didn’t understand but seemed to catch the word Dios (God). The bus pulled out and as we rounded the square I saw a municipal worker emptying a litter bin. It was the last thing I remember of Barcelona.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Graham Greene lived here - OK?

Graham Greene (1904-1991) was one of the most celebrated and successful writers of the twentieth century. He began his long career as a novelist in 1929, his many books including Brighton Rock (1938), The Third Man (1949), The Honorary Consul (1973). In the 1960s he was so famous that a man was going around Europe pretending to be him. To his many admirers he inhabited a world known simply as Greene-land.

So anyway, in June 2008 I was in Antibes in the south of France, where Graham Greene lived for many years from 1966, and decided I would like to see the apartment block where he lived, and what better place to enquire its whereabouts that the main tourist office.

One of the assistants was wearing a Union Jack lapel badge, so I went over and asked her if she could tell me the location of Graham Greene’s residence in Antibes.
“Who?” she asked me with a puzzled voice.
“Graham Greene”, I said.
She asked me to repeat it.
“Graham Greene”, I repeated.
She asked me to write it down.
I wrote it down.
She read the name aloud, couldn’t pronounce Graham. “Graa-ham”, she said. She asked me who he was.
“An English novelist who lived in Antibes”, I told her.
She was still puzzled. She asked a colleague. He thought that he’d heard the name but couldn’t be sure. She telephoned someone, again couldn’t pronounce Graham. She waited. I waited. Then she wrote something down and hung up the phone.

She copied her notes onto a piece of paper and gave it to me. It was the address of Graham Greene’s house. She’d written his surname without the ‘e’ - Green. She told me there was a plaque on the wall with Graa-ham Green’s name on it.

I found the address that she’d given me and saw the plaque. I wanted to scrawl on the wall in 10 feet high graffiti: GRAHAM GREENE LIVED HERE - OK? But instead I just took a photo and then went to look at Antibes. 

Apartment block in which Graham Greene lived

On my way I came across a street with a large banner stretched across it. On the banner was a quote from - guess who? - Graham Greene. It said that Antibes was the only place on the Côte which had retained its spirit and the only one in which he felt at home.

Peaceful people-watching site in Antibes

I agreed. It had a kind of understated charm, in contrast to its flashy neighbour Cannes. There was nothing outstanding to look at, its attraction more its entirety than the parts that made it up. It was a place to just go and hang out. Nice cafés in quiet spots to sit with your café crème or glass of beer and watch the people go past. And who knows, maybe or two of them may even have heard of Graa-ham Green. But it’s not certain.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Rome, AD 2006

Ponte Vittorio Emanuelle II with Castel Sant'Angelo in background

To travel through time is a wonderful dream and an impossible reality.  For if it were possible to travel through time then a man could travel back and kill his father while he was still a boy, and then the man would never be born and so could never travel back to….. you get the picture.  

But imagining for one silly SciFi moment that time travel were a possibility, where I wonder should I go ?  Perhaps to London around 1602 and to the newly-constructed Globe theatre for the first ever performance of Hamlet, with Dick Burbage as the eponymous hero and the lad himself as the Ghost (allegedly).  

Or maybe to Kansas City circa 1940 when a young alto saxophonist by the name of Charles Parker, Jr. got up for a jam session blow already playing what would be the new bebop and was hooted and jeered off the stage (once more allegedly).  

But no, it would be neither of these, but to Rome in 51 BC that I would set my time-travel digit, the year the mighty Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in defiance of Roman law, and marched on Rome to confront his conniving triumvirate allies Pompey the Great and the pathetic Crassus.  The wily and skilful Pompey, realising that he lacked the forces to defeat Caesar, made a tactical withdrawal, and Julius entered Rome in triumph, and in a bold gesture typical of the man, abolished the Republic and declared himself Emperor. Traitors were summarily executed, thrown from the Tarpeian Rock or strangled, each death confirmed with the words: ‘He has lived’, perhaps spoken by Cicero himself, the greatest orator of his time, and maybe of all time.   

Oh yes, no doubt about it, Rome is definitely where I would go if time travel were possible.  And I did finally make it Rome, albeit with a lapse of 2,057 years, on 6th November 2006 to be precise, arriving at Campino Airport around 8:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time plus 1.

Campino is Rome’s second airport and it looks it too!  It is a tiny airport which closes overnight, and on stepping out from the terminal building I was confronted with the inevitable construction works.  I quickly navigated the obstacles (for some reason I’m always in a hurry) and looked for a bus to the city.  I found one just about to leave and hopped on.

The bus was spacious and comfortable with only half a dozen of us travellers onboard and we were quickly on our way.  The driver was evidently in training for Monza as we sped along through the suburban Roman night, passing everything on our way.  But I love driving into new places at night, watching the suburbs slip past, more alert than I normally am, which probably isn’t saying very much.

We made the normally 40 minute journey in 30 minutes, and arrived at Termini, the main rail terminal in the centre of Rome. There is a large open space in front of the terminal, which looked deserted.  I quickly spotted a Metro sign and a narrow, dimly-lit flight of stairs leading downwards for about 10 or 15 yards, then apparently turning to the left.  I went down the stairway with some trepidation, not knowing what was around the turning, and found myself at the barrier to the escalators down to the platform. There was not a soul around.  I bought a ticket from a machine and went through the barrier and down to the platform……to find it heaving with people!  Then when the train arrived it too was packed.  I squashed myself on board and held on to what I could.

A beautiful Rome street.  My hotel was up there somewhere.

The Rome Metropolitana is not as extensive as the London underground or the Paris metro, and has very few stations in the city centre.  Its purpose is to ferry commuters from the suburbs into the city, so it did not take long to get the station of Circo Massimo, where I got off. 

Circo Massimo, or, to give it its Latin name, Circus Maximus, is where ancient Romans would go for a relaxing afternoon of chariot racing.  Nothing remains of the original stadium, which is now a public park, but with a little imagination you can still see the chariots with their white stallions charging around the circuit to the roar of the spectators and the occasional screams of a slave being whipped for some minor misdemeanour.  

I got to my hotel next to the temple of the god Mithras, above the house of Aquila and Priscilla where St. Peter lived, and up to my room with a balcony overlooking a paved garden with palm and fruit trees - and how cool is that? The next morning I was up with the larks (though it was November so that was pretty late) and off for my first jaunt around the Eternal City.

I have never liked superlatives since nothing is ever that simple.  But if I did like superlatives I would say that the Beatles were the greatest pop artists of all time, Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale the greatest poem ever written, and Rome the most beautiful city in Christendom.  So, after dodging a hustler trying to sell me dodgy raffle tickets for a phoney charity (I know a dodgy charity raffle ticket hustler when I see one, that nun’s habit didn’t fool me), I set off in the direction of….the Pyramid.

Yes indeed there is a pyramid, but this isn’t what I was after, but the cemetery nearby which all English travel books call the Protestant Cemetery, but which is, in fact, the Non-Catholic Cemetery.  So my demands at passers-by for il cemitero protestante produced blank looks and “Non lo so”‘s.  Eventually a young woman helped me out, and after a bit more searching, I finally found it.  Right behind the pyramid, in fact!

The Pyramid from the Protestant Cemetery

The cemetery is where the tombs of two of England’s greatest poets are located - Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.  And it took no effort at all to find them as they were certainly the most visited graves in the cemetery, with very clear and prominent signs directing the visitor.  Shelley’s tomb is at the highest point in the main part of the cemetery, and Keats’ in what looked like an extension.  Also, confusingly, Keats’ grave does not bear his name, though the one next to it does.  I lingered awhile, then set off to find the river and a nonchalant stroll into the centre.

There is always something inevitable about taking a wrong turning, but I took one and found myself on a long road with row upon row of shops selling nothing but motor cycles.  But eventually, after asking an elderly Roman: “Dove si trova il fiume, per l’amor di Dio?”, I found what I was looking for.

I love cities with rivers and Rome with its Tiber is one of the best.  It was peaceful too, just the occasional jogger or Roman walking his/her dog.  A couple of youths yelled across at me if it was permitted to fish and I shouted back “Non lo so”.  

All along the embankment there were wonderful stone bridges: Ponte Sisto, built by Sixtus IV in 1474 in the ruins of the Pons Jani-culensis; Ponte Mazzini and Ponte Principe Amedeo; and Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, the bridge which connects the historic centre of Rome with the Vatican City.  It was here that I left the embankment to join the tourist hoard.

Il Ponte Sisto

From the bridge I followed the via della Concialiazione which leads St. Peter’s Square.  The avenue was created in 1936 following the reconciliation of the Italian State and the Holy See.  It has been described as ‘the most disliked avenue in Rome’.  [Teresa Cutler - Life In Italy dot com]

St. Peter’s Square was full of people in the warm November sun, mostly tourists, a few nuns, who knows, maybe even the occasional pilgrim. Together we will have outnumbered the total Vatican City State population of 800 persons.  There was no sign of the Swiss Guard, nor of the Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope.  I had no wish to join the ten hour queue for the Sistene Chapel or the Raphael frescos, as much as I would obviously have liked to have seen these glories of il Rinascimento.  I used to be a big fan of Raphael until I wearied of the endless Madonnas that he churned out for his ecclesiastical clients.  Maybe he grew weary of them, too, but kept going as they were good for business.  So I had a wander around the square, took a few predictable snaps, and headed off back to the river.

I crossed Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, hung a left, and toddled down to the next bridge in the sequence, the famous, the incredibly famous, the fabulously famous….what‘s it called again?….ah yes, the magnificently famous Ponte San Angelo, previously called Pons Aelius, built by Emperor Hadrian and completed in AD 134.  It leads directly to the Castel Sant’Angelo, the cylinder-shaped mausoleum of the aforesaid emperor.  

Ponte San Angelo leading to Castel Sant'Angelo

I didn’t go to the top of the mausoleum to enjoy the unforgettable views of the most beautiful city in Christendom, but instead wended my weary way in the direction of the Spanish Steps.  It was here that Keats lived when he and his companion Joseph Severn arrived in Rome.  He’d been told by his physician in 1820 that a winter in England would kill him.  So he journeyed to Rome where a winter in Italy killed him.  He died on 23 February 1821 in the house overlooking the Spanish Steps.  He was 25 years old.

The house is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, and next door is a shop appropriately named Byron, though I suspect that this was more contrived than accidental.  The museum was just closing when I got there, but I managed a quick shufty before being ushered out.

The square outside, la piazza di Spagna, was calm and pleasant, despite the many tourists, but I headed off to find the Trevi Fountain.  It was smaller than I imagined, and completely hidden behind a wall of tourists and souvenir vendors.  Also the sun was setting casting long shadows over Neptune and his friends.  It is said that if you cast a coin into the fountain and make a wish then your wish you will come true and you will return to Rome.  I didn’t, so it hasn’t and I haven’t.  

Keats-Shelley Museum at the Piazza di Spagna

That night in the hotel I watched part of a football match on TV between two Italian teams.  The usual pundits were in the studio, surrounded by a collection of medieval suits of armour and busty young women with low cleavages who leaned forward and pouted each time the camera was on them.  

The next morning I was out bright and early to get to the Colloseum before the crowds.  It was a good strategy, and would have worked, too, if others hadn’t had the same idea.  But it was another glorious day as I wandered slowly down the long via de S. Gregorio, past the famous Palatine Hill, arriving at Constantine’s Arch, built in AD 315 in celebration of the emperor’s victory on Massenzio, three years earlier.  It is remarkably well preserved. Beyond it is the biggest amphitheatre of antiquity.

Construction of the Colloseum got under way in AD 72 when Vespasian was emperor.  He was of the Flavia family, which is why the Colloseum is also known as the Amphiteatrum Flavium.  It had a capacity of 55,000 spectators for its gladiator and wild animal tournaments, and for its fantastic naval battles, known as naumachie.  It is also the site at which many of the early Christians were martyred, before Rome, realising it was losing the battle, decided to adopt Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, and to mould it to their own ends. I went inside and stood in line just a few short minutes at the ticket office, then through the turnstile and we’re in!


I’d been in Roman amphitheatres before, in Arles and Nimes, as well as the magnificent Antique Theatre in Orange, but none compared with this giant edifice at the very heart of the Roman Empire in which so many emperors had walked. I tried to imagine the spectacles that would have presented themselves to the audience almost 2,000 years earlier, but my feeble imagination let me down yet again, just when I needed it.   Or perhaps it wasn’t one of my better days.  So I just stood there, looking and feeling very much the tourist, and gazed down into the hypogeum, the warren of underground tunnels where the animal and human performers were herded for their grand entrances, and which now takes the place of the wooden arena floor which was destroyed by fire.

I came across a small exhibition of vases and other artefacts from the even earlier Greek civilization depicting images of Achilles and the siege of Troy. And I admired and photographed the magnificent views over what remains of the Forums of Caesar, Augustus and others, and the ruined temples and arches.  How grand it all must have been in its time!  Then, after about an hour, perhaps more, I left the building and walked up the via dei Fori Imperiali, and spent some time wandering around the ruins. I felt a sense of epic history all around me.  I also felt an overwhelming desire for a pizza.  So I made my way to the Colloseo metro station, past a loud demonstration which was unfolding, and took the first train to Termini, where I knew there was a reasonable restaurant.  

Constantine's Arch from the Colloseum

After dining and checking out i romanzi gialli, the ‘yellow novels’, which is what Italian publishers call their crime novels, and of which there was a large selection in the Termini book shop, I set about the ever time-consuming quest of finding somewhere I could buy postage stamps for my postcards.  I tried a succession of tobacconists (the usual outlet) where I received the constant reply: “Finito”.  I went to the station post office but they were queuing out of the door.  Eventually I tracked some down and then set about the next task of finding a post box.  The trouble was that I didn’t even know what colour they were.  Red?  Yellow?  Pink?  Finally, I asked an attractive young woman in the Tourist office, and she offered to put them with her mail for me.

Finally I made my way back to the airport.  My brief visit was over.  In the daylight I discovered that the airport was also a military one with many signs warning you not to take photographs.  I checked in, bought a cheese and ham sandwich and waited for my flight to be called.

Once onboard the plane the captain told us how long our flight would take. About three hours.  Then I suddenly realised that we measure our plane journeys not by the distance that we travel but by the time the journey takes.  So I was wrong all along.  Time travel is possible.  I take it all back.  

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Raoul Dufy

Intéreiur à la fenêtre ouverte

Le Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice has a fine collection of colourful paintings by the French artist Raoul Dufy.

Dufy was born in Le Havre in 1877, and in 1900, after a period of military service, won a scholarship to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  He was initially influenced by the impressionists, and then by the Fauves, or wild beasts, with their bright colours and bold contours.

After a brief flirtation with cubism, Dufy finally created his own distinctive style, working in both oils and watercolours, with many of his works depicting bright and colourful scenes of the French Riviera, including many in its capital, Nice.  Below is a painting of the majestic sweep of the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) in Nice.

At the top of the post is another view of the Bay through an opened window, this one painted in 1928 and entitled Intérieur à la fenêtre ouverte, and below is his painting of Nice Casino (no longer there) which the artist painted in situ on the Promenade des Anglais.

Raoul Dufy died in Nice in 1953 and is buried in the Cimiez Monastery Cemetery in the north of the city.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Côte d’Azur

 Espace Masséna, Nice.

In May 1980 I spent two aimless weeks tramping around the hinterland of Provence, visiting sites of Roman antiquity: Arles, Nimes, Avignon, Orange. I remember being in the grounds of the Palais des Papes in Avignon, mindlessly watching a lizard trying to hypnotise me, when a member of the CRS, unseasonably overdressed in riot gear (it was a hot day), indicated for me to leave.  They cleared all the grounds, the palace too, and herded us into the square just outside, la place de l’Horlorge.  The reason soon became apparent when a procession of Young Communist demonstrators arrived,  banners waving and slogans shouting, clearly peeved over something.  I wanted to photograph the ’event’, but had left my camera in my hotel, and although the hotel was on the square, right there where the demonstration was unfolding, the hotel management, for perfectly reasonable reasons, had locked the door and the closed the window shutters.   The restaurateurs had done the same, but their customer diners were still eating their meals and sipping their wine on the terraces and at the tables laid out in the square.  Then a man (or women, I no longer recall) thrust a leaflet into my hand.  Thinking that it must be one of the demonstrators, I put it in my pocket.  It was only hours later when I read it that I discovered it was from a nearby store, clearly profiting from an assembled crowd to advertise their wares.

During this same trip I also visited Marseille, and went up the Rhône as far as Lyon and then on to Grenoble.  But I never got down to the Côte d’Azur, or its capital Nice, la belle ville.  I had to wait another 26 years before making it to the most visited region of France.

It was May 2006.  We flew into Terminal 2 of Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport.  The airport is right on the coast, at the end of the famous Promenade des Anglais, the long avenue constructed by the English at the beginning of the 19th century and modestly bearing their name.  They also built the first luxury hotels of the Côte: l’Hôtel des Anglias; l’Atlantic; le Westminster; le West End.  The bus from the airport takes the promenade route with its palm trees and views over the Mediterranean, before turning left and across the city to the railway station of Nice-Ville, opened in the 1860s at the time of the Second Empire, and with the collaboration of a certain Monsieur G. Eiffel, who went on to build a tower .  My hotel was located not far from the station, so I quickly deposited my luggage, by which I mean my shoulder bag, then set off to look for things.

The main drag from the station to the promenade is the Avenue Jean-Médecin.  The said Jean Médecin  was mayor of Nice from 1928-1944, and again from 1947-1965.  His was the driving force behind the town’s regeneration prior to the Second World War, and was mayor when the Italians occupied Nice.  During the occupation fascist officials removed the name plaques from the Promenade des Anglais and took them to the mairie, but Médecin refused to accept them, and they were throw on the ground in front of the town hall where they remained until the city was liberated in 1944.  In 1943 Jean Médecin was forced to resign as mayor, but was in office again after the war, and became a fierce opponent of the Gaulist party of Charles de Gaulle.  

Jean Médecin died in 1965 and was succeeded as mayor the following year by his son Jacques, who was mayor until 1990.  Not a cut off the old block, Médecin fils was a supporter of the far right National Front, as well as a Gaulist deputy in the National Assembly.  In 1980 he was accused of political corruption by novelist Graham Greene, accusations which continued to grow throughout the Eighties.  In 1990 he fled to South America but was arrested in Uruguay in 1993 and extradited to France where he was tried and convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment.  Upon his release, fearing new charges against him, he fled back to Uruguay, where he died in 1998.

I wended my way down Avenue Jean-Médecin, dodging the excavations for the tramway under construction, and arrived at the magnificent Place Masséna.  To the left of the square is the Espace Masséna, with its gardens and fountains, and to the right the Jardin Albert 1er.  I loitered a few minutes, taking in the panoramic expanse around me, then headed off across the square, past la Fontaine du Soleil, the Fountain of the Sun, and into the old town.  

I came across another square, la Place du Palais, and stopped off at a café-restaurant and ordered an omelette and a salad, then ambled a little further into the Cours Saleya, where the flower market, le Marché aux Fleurs, is located.  The square is oblong in shape, with the stalls occupying the centre space, surrounded by a collection of restaurants, some offering bouillabaisse, but none I could see offering the local Niçois fish stew.   There was also a genuine Irish pub (Ma Nolan’s) selling very acceptable Irish stew (as I was later to discover) which you could eat outside under a canopy. Overlooking the square were some apartment blocks, which the local estate agents could certainly advertise des res.  

Cours Saleya
I cut through a snick which led to the promenade, or more precisely le Quai des Etats-Unis.  Strollers and joggers vied with skateboarders, and a dapper gentleman in white slacks and white trilby walked blithely past.  Sunbathers were bronzing themselves on the pebbly beaches, and workers from the municipality trimming the palm trees.  

At the end of the Quai is one of the main visitor attractions of Nice, la Colline du Chatêau, or Castle Hill.   The hill was a military fortification from the 11th to the 18th century, and was the last bastion in the siege of Nice in 1705 by King Louis XIV of France.  After several weeks of siege the town surrendered, but the castle held out until it was reduced to rubble by 113 canons and mortars.  The king ordered that what remained of the bastion be destroyed by explosives, and what now exists is a park with panoramic views over the old town, the promenade and the bay, and the port.

I took the lift to the top of the hill where there was a refreshing breeze.The port below was full of luxury yachts, one of which had the name One More Toy.  A yellow ferry was leaving for Corsica.  I went further up the hill and enjoyed the view down over the market.  Further in the distance I could see the Place Masséna and the Espace.  And then the promenade and the Baie des Anges.  Then, when I wanted to leave, I couldn’t find the lift station!  So I walked down the long and winding road (which could be a good title for a song) and then explored the old town before returning to my hotel.  The next day I was up bright and early for a day trip to Marseille.

There are two trains services from Nice to Marseille - the high speed train (TGV) and the regional express (TER).  The TGV takes the high road inland, and the TER the low road along the coast.  The journey times are about the same for both, so I opted for the TER, which passes through Cannes, Antibes and Toulon, as well as a host of smaller places.  The trains are double-decker, the second class on the upper deck, and very comfortable.  At Antibes a lady sat next to me and struck up a conversation.  We talked all the way to Marseille, and I told her I wanted to visit the Chatêau d’If, the island prison of the Edmund Dantès, later the Count of Monte Christo, in the Dumas story.  It was a hot day and the sea breeze would be soothing.  I was disappointed to learn from the lady that the Quai des Belges in the Vieux Port, from where the boats depart, was closed due the construction of a metro station.  So instead, I took the No. 60 bus from Cours Jean Ballard to the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde high on the hill.  I’d last been there in 1980, and once again admired the views over Marseille and the Vieux Port, and the picturesque suburbs à la provençale.

La gare SNCF at Marseille with the grand escalier.

Marseille is one of my favourite places.  It has an edge to it and an identity all of its own.  La Canebière is one of the most animated avenues in France, and the Vieux Port full of atmosphere.  Visitors arriving for the first time should do so by train, as the view from the Gare St Charles is like a sudden caffeine rush.  You step out from the station, and there it is, the city, in your face!  You look down le Grand escalier, and out across the city to the basilica on a distant hill, the Vieux port hidden between the two.  With its large North African population it has a cosmopolitan feel.  And it does not feel as touristy as other destinations in the Midi, perhaps because it is an important petrochemical hub and a thriving port, and therefore has other strings to its commercial bow.

I returned to Nice on an old rattler of a train with no air conditioning and a toilet out of hell, but it was on time.  The following day it was another excursion, this one to Monaco to see the tropical garden, le Jardin exotique.  The garden is on the side of a cliff and has over one thousand species of cacti and tropical plants, some of which are over 100 years old.  It also affords magnificent views over the Principality of Monaco and across the Mediterranean.  Once again the train journey out was in a modern double-deck train, and the journey back is a metal tub.  But, as I always say, you can’t have everything.  

I spent the next couple of days relaxing in Nice, sampling the stew at Ma Nolan’s and sitting in cafés people watching.  It had been my first visit to the Côte d’Azur, but, happily, it was not to be my last.