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.


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