French Riviera Loungin'

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Oct 08, 2009

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Monday, September 14, 2009

As much as we enjoyed Venice and Cinque Terre, we were really looking forward to getting back to France. The language advantages for us not withstanding, France just functions better than Italy.  Italy often feels like a nation that fixes everything with duct tape.  We gave up hope of sending any postcards in Italy because either the post office hours were different from office to office or we couldn't use cash at ANY of them.  As much as we could figure from the signs at the post offices, they were in the midst of changing out their cashiering system, but who really knows?  At one point we stood in line for 15 fruitless minutes before giving up while the group of four clerks behind the desk talked among themselves, barely helping only a single individual while never acknowledging anyone else.  We didn’t exist.  Even the Italians in front of us were put off.  Insert Italian Shrug ™ here. 

There isn’t really a lot to talk about concerning our week on the French Riviera because we continued our Italian slow down with more sun, pool and beach time.  We spent the first four days in Villefranche-Sur-Mer, another steep sea village, but right between Monaco and Nice and with a small bay-large yacht port (and a nearby cruise ship port to boot.)  The three-plus hour drive was mostly easy highways until the end when we faced the twisty and not-for-the-faint Grand Corniche (for more on the three Cornishes: )  This road was originally built by Napolean and has some really spectacular views (it’s also supposedly where Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco died in her car accident and was filmed for To Catch A Thief.)   When we changed down to the Middle Corniche I was pleased to be able to relax a little on an easier road, but it still required a lot of attention.

We spent all four Villefranche days at a small hotel called Hotel La Fiancee du Pirate that stands at the top of the town and has great views over the harbor.  The hotel has only 15 rooms and the proprieters, Laurence and Eric, make the place feel more like a bed and breakfast.   Loved the crepe "pancake" breakfast out on the terrace.   The place was quiet and the pool area relaxed around the cold water on hot days. Our first two days, in fact, were spent by the pool and leaving only to find dinner.  Our first night we ended up at a local restaurant/sports bar because we didn’t want to deal with driving the tiny, winding roads down below and it was the only restaurant we could find nearby.  We were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food.  Marisa had pasta with garlic herb sauce and I had a plate of meats and veggies to dip into a pot of very hot Camembert cheese.  France takes its food very seriously.  Even most of the so-so looking places such as this seem to give an effort to provide good food.

The next evening we ventured down into the village and again it was a white-knuckle ride on steeply inclined roads way too skinny for two lanes.  The prerequisite scooters weaving through traffic and unhelpful road signage added to the fun, but we managed to get down to the water front parking lot and wander up the car-free walkways looking for restaurants.  There a row of restaurants right across from the yacht port dock and I’m sure they provide great meals, but they all come off a bit stuffy.  Old money stuffy.  La Mere Germain is supposed to be the best of them and it appeared to be filled with a lot of Mr. and Mrs. Howells.  I’m pretty sure they’d have considered Marisa and I to be Mary Anne and Gilligan as we did not arrive by yacht via the restaurant's little water taxi as others did.

Walking up from the pier we discovered a few establishments of interest before settling on a newer restaurant named Les Garcons, or The Boys.  It had a nice courtyard and the menu was mostly traditional French and Italian.  History moment: until about 150 years ago Nice and the surrounding area were often ruled by Italians.  Their food influence is clear throughout the French Riviera.  Marisa had the shrimp risotto and I had the duck with a soy, ginger and sesame sauce along with some perfectly understated jasmine rice.  I also had a foie gras mousse.  All were excellent and Marisa twice crossed her food Maginot Line to have some duck and foie gras for the first time.  Her non-duck and goose liver eating days were now doomed because France serves a lot of duck and it is good eating when cooked right.   And the foie gras is absurdly good.  She felt guilty, but loved both.   We shared the chocolate fondant cake (oh, and if I don't write about my desert in future dinners it's because I again had the fondant, I really like the fondant with a glass of red) and had a great bottle of Provencal red wine.   Over desert we enjoyed some extended and fun conversation with two English ladies out on a birthday holiday week before returning up the crazy, steep hairpin turns to La Fiancee.

We spent the following day in Nice, the east edge of which was literally just down the street from the hotel.  I was last in Nice nineteen years ago and it has really grown since then.  I was a bit stunned and disappointed at how much more busy and commercial it had become.  We parked and spent the day wandering through the old town, some new town and then up the famous Promenade des Anglais where we stopped for an afternoon drink on the beach.  We had an assortment of tasty snacks along the way including some delicious coconut ice cream, various pastry and meat Chinese items and some Vietnamese nems (fried rolls).  Old Nice is packed with shops and galleries and has some fantastic ones that we spent time wandering through (including one of the best spice stores we'd ever seen). 

We started the evening at a great little wine bar in the heart of old Nice ( trying out some nearby Provencal reds along with a great plate of various local cheeses and some fresh baguette.   We spent some time people watching from our perch in front of the slim and busy alleyway before heading to a football bar to watch France play Serbia in an important World Cup qualifier match.  It’s most fun to watch it with the locals at a pub.  The pub didn’t serve food, but allowed food to be brought in.  We both got sandwiches from the popular Kabab place across the alley, grabbed beers and settled in for the match.  I’d forgotten how French crowds are about their national team – they really do care about the team, but you wouldn’t know it listening to the slew of sarcastic and team denigrating remarks that are constantly being made.  During the big moments they are on the edge of their seats, but following a disappointing series of play the body language of many says they expected failure, so it’s no big deal.  It’s an odd mix of hope and existential malaise.  Very French.  Fittingly existential, the game had no resolution as it ended in a tie.

We spent our last day sunning by the pool again and snacking on items from a local market.  I drove down to the center of Villefranche again to bring back food from a Vietnamese restaurant that we’d seen on our previous trip down.   (For those who may not  know, due to France’s colonial history with Vietnam there are a lot of Vietnamese French, thus Vietnamese cuisine here is easy to find and generally very good.)  We had a crab and asparagus soup, excellent fried rice, more nems,  a fantastic yellow curry and a killer sweet and sour chicken dish.  Another excellent bed picnic was had.

The next stop was three days at the beach resort village of Juan-Les-Pins, part of Antibes.  It’s another small town with a bay full of yachts.  We booked a hotel online at the last minute and got a great price on a room with a huge terrace at the Helios Hotel ( ).  The terrace was literally a room of its own with loungers, a big table and chairs to relax in.  Additionally, we got to be entertained by the Rear Window style voyeurism available in a nearby apartment complex.  Marisa also made friends with a terrace visiting dove she dubbed Sterling.  One thing we’ve gotten used to is the preponderance of doves making their cooing sounds.  We don’t have them back home, so there is some novelty in them even if they aren’t a whole lot different from pigeons.  The hotel was two blocks from the beach and they had some prime property staked out there, so we spent our time either on the terrace or at the beach.  The beach conditions improved greatly here – the water was warm and super clear with calm conditions.  The sand was finally proper beach sand and we continued to get ridiculously brown under the sun, drinking cold beers with our picnic items gathered from nearby markets earlier.

One of the joys of France is food shopping at the various markets:  the boulangerie and patisserie for bread, sweet and savory pastries and sweets of all sorts; the charcuterie for meats; fruit and veggie stands with local produce; and the myriad of delicatessens with a dizzying array of choices.  We found one small deli, Cesari Traiteur (12 Bis Av Marechal Joffre) that we kept going back to since one item after another in the tiny, but efficient space looked enticing if not recognizable.  Mostly, though, we came for the potatoes. Like many delis in France, this one had a rotisserie chicken contraption out front slowly turning the poultry over heat.  At the bottom they normally place whole baby potatoes where they are basted in the poultry juices pouring down from above.  At this particular deli the diced potatoes wallowed in the warm, herbed poultry grease and the results were mouth wateringly ridiculous.  We were addicted at first bite.  We’ve had them since at other delis, but none of them were as decadent as this.  Pure potato crack.

Juan les Pins is a great little beach town and has a surprisingly active late night scene with clubs opening at midnight and a bevy of open air bars lining the two small main streets that lead to a casino.  Unfortunately, I was fighting off a travel cold, so we really didn’t take full advantage outside of strolling the drag, eating dinner and having a drink or two at the bars between window browsing.  (We did visit the local Tiki bar, Pam Pam, that has live Brazilian music and dancers to enjoy while you suck down your over priced theme drinks.  Worth the visit.)  We picked up some Cuban cigars, though, to have later in the trip (unfortunately, my lungs wouldn’t accept them just yet). We had dinner one night at Le Perroquet (yes, The Parakeet) that consisted of a delicious Daub de Boeuf (a Provencal beef stew on noodles) for me and a disappointing scampi with mango chutney dish for Marisa.  The best food really was to be found at the specialty shops.

One afternoon while sitting outside at a café we did happen upon what appeared to be our future selves.  A sunglassed, smartly dressed older gentleman was at a table smoking his pipe, reading his book and drinking a Coke.   Soon we watched his mate saunter up and take her seat next to him, decked out in a summer strolling dress fresh from window shopping.  Both looked tan, relaxed and enjoying their nonchalant afternoon in their peppy little beach town.  Yep, that’s where we want to be some day.

The atmosphere in Juan Les Pins was very relaxed and we could have stood for a few more days of beach lounging, but the non-stop tan fest had to be halted so that we could travel north to Provence.  By this time we were tired of the Mediterranean food fare and tourist crowds and really looking forward to the wines, foods and terrain of Provence.
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Where I stayed
Hotel Fiancee du Pirate
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