Monthly Archives: February 2015

Nice V

The train ride along the Riviera coast is one of the most beautiful in the world. Hugging the very edge of France, the route forces you to look out to sea and then down at the surf breaking on the light grey rocks below.

Fauna of all types and varieties skim past, as do many hues of blue – the sky, the sea and the flowers – a riot of colour and gorgeousness. Of course, more interesting than the vista outside are the passengers, forced to endure this quotidian exposure to paradise as they commute to work.
The stick-thin hotel maid nursing her chubby baby, the fat businessman clutching his battered briefcase, the ground- worker; his ochre, Auden-lined face glumly staring at the scratched gun metal bulwark of the carriage, whilst to his right Nirvana flashes by. No matter, it will still be there tomorrow for him to ignore all over again.

The gaggle of young italian students – backpacks, sunglasses, bright orange skinny jeans; all falling over themselves to chatter the loudest. One buck-toothed ingenue stares up at the line of stops, simultaneously gossiping with a friend whilst tugging at the shirt of another as she realises that they have missed their station. As the cacophony of their voices rattle along, the realisation that they have overshot their target is firstly met with carefree indifference, then nervous hilarity (hands over mouths in mock horror) followed by mock scolding, until finally hugs of instinctive, platonic affection spread amongst the group.

They all stream out at the next platform, their volume fading as they exit the carriage, accompanied by the ground worker with the sun-ravaged face, who does that universal pause/push-past that commuters do when negotiating infernal, dawdling tourists.
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Finally, the long TGV train pulls into Ventimiglia Italy. If pristine Monte Carlo is for millionaires, then Ventimiglia is for ordinary normal Italians. Down at heel, tatty and unkempt, Ventimiglia feels relaxed, at ease with itself. We took a stroll down one of the roads. I began to wonder if I was an Italian and I didn’t own a cafe or restaurant or a little fashion shop, what on earth would I do? Food and clothes. There didn’t seem to be anything else to sell or do in this sleepy coastal town.

We strolled down to the scruffy beach, the dust from the pebbles throwing a haze into the late afternoon sun.
Then I saw some nuns skimming stones. Dressed in black habits with a white band above the head, they stood in the early evening sun laughing and joking.
The elder nuns took photographs as their postulant charges skimmed pebbles across the waves.
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After the excesses of Monte Carlo, the contrast between the two communities could not have been greater. What must it be like to eschew material possessions, have no money, no love or physical contact with the opposite sex? But then I stopped thinking about my first marriage and went back to contemplating the nuns.
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Dusk began to fall and so we headed back to the train station, said goodbye to Italy and sped towards Nice. The next day would be our final 24 hours on the Riviera.

Nice IV (Ok, Monte Carlo really)

To access the principality of Monte Carlo from the train station involves a two hundred meter walk through a tunnel clad entirely in Italian marble. It’s as though the intimidation of wealth begins before you turn a corner.

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What strikes you first is the paucity of civil infrastructure, i.e. hospitals or schools or council buildings – I didn’t spot one. The only structures that Monte Carlo has room for are apartments. Squeezed around the marina or up on the hills, hundreds of little boxes all crammed together, bunched up in their desperation to avoid unpleasant things like common people, society and worst of all – taxes.

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There is actually a hospital in Monaco, The Princess Grace. Boasting a generous 120 beds, this particular infirmary specialises in free medical care for the poor, the disenfranchised and the terminally ill. Don’t believe me? Ok, you’re right, it doesn’t do any such thing. Anyway, let’s not concern ourselves with people who are sick, let’s go and have a gawp at the boats instead.

I once took a trip on a motor yacht. A friend of a friend hired one to show off to his mates. I remember the excitement as we cruised out of the bay and headed out onto the open sea. We marvelled at deep blue of the Med and the fresh bracing air.
After about half an hour I was of course, bored to death. The endless chugging along to nowhere in particular, the faint sickly stench of diesel fuel and the nausea of the rolling swell made for a tedious, ultimately pointless trip. Don’t get me wrong, the teak poop deck (or whatever it’s called) was very nice and the chandelier was pretty, and they don’t call them gin palaces for nothing. But if you want to get pissed and talk shit it’s easier and cheaper to stroll down to your nearest Yate’s Wine Lodge.

What do you mean ostentatious?

What do you mean ostentatious?

So the demographic of the boat owners in Monaco is Oil-rich Arabs, go-getting Captains of Industry desperate to preserve their hard-earned wealth and eighties pop stars. If you are one of those types, Monte Carlo is the place for you.

We decided to have a relaxing lunch quayside. Sarah perused the menus of the various eateries located around the marina.
“How about this one dear?” I asked.
“Hmm, it’s a bit pricey. And the one next door is too.”
“Sarah darling, we are in Monte Carlo, they’re all pricey.”
“Good point.”
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And so we settled down to a plate of pasta, a glass of grog and watched the world go by. The boats themselves were all a hive of activity, cleaners, chefs, people wearing deck shoes, stern oriental types dressed in white, tanned gorgeous people sporting ray bans, all scurrying up and down gang planks looking busy and serious.

The only thing missing were the owners. They are probably as disinterested in sailing as me, it’s just that they bought one because, well, they just can.

And if tedium takes hold, they could always go to the Casino to throw their money away.

It's the laughing gnome!

It’s the laughing gnome!

After lunch it was time to jump back on the train and journey over the border to Italy.

The man who broke the bank.......

The man who broke the bank…….


It was then, just before we left, that I met one- an owner that is. Deciding to take one last stroll down the dockside, we paused in front of a particularly large specimen. A sleek beauty, gleaming in white and chrome, becalmed in its bay with the sparkle of the sea reflecting on its pristine hull; she was indeed an impressive craft. I stopped next to a squat little man with slicked back silver hair and the usual deep perma tan worn mainly by the super rich and hoboes.

His teeth – white as the boat he was stood next to gleamed at me as he smiled his “Please ask me if this is my boat” smile.

Too impatient to wait for my inquiry, he announced in a grating Texan drawl, “She’s a beauty, huh?”
I turned to him and smiled back.
“She certainly is, is it yours?”

The little fat man seemed to grow an inch as he replied, “You betcha buddy.”

“Yes it’s very nice, there’s only one thing wrong with it old chap.”

The American’s face fell as he spun round to scan the haunches of his pride and joy for blemishes.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Well it’s just that White is the wrong colour, if it was mine, I’d have painted it blue.”

And so we left the little chap steaming on the quay, as we bid adieu to the ostentatious excess of Monaco and made our way to Italy.

Nice III

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On the morning of our first day we took a stroll down the Promenade de Anglais. A long and wide sweep, with a pebbled beach abutting the white stone of the sea wall on one side, imposing high terraces looking out onto the med on the other.
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A bracing day in March gave us a lungs full of Riviera air as we decided to unlock two municipal bikes and rent a few hours worth of pedal power to speed up our sightseeing duties.

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I squinted at the instructions to free our blue contraptions. The local council in Nice, quite rightly eschewing traditional means of collecting bicycle-based income (i.e. euro coin in slot) had instead decided that the best way to release the cycles from their cage was by some indecipherable source code that one had to programme into the pad on the lock and then wait for a message to be sent to your phone.

After thirty minutes I gave up.
“Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I vote we revert to Shanks’ Pony*.”

Weaving in and out of the smug locals barrelling down the blue cycle lane on their nifty machines, we decided on taking an early lunch on one of the swish restaurants located down on the beach.

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Was it too early for some grape? Well, sat on long comfy loungers, pushing the smooth grey pebbles around with my sandals, and staring out at the endless horizon that was the Tiffany blue Mediterranean, I decided, that no, it wasn’t too early for wine.

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Rested and relaxed we decided that in very short order we would catch the train to Monte Carlo. Yes, definitely time to pay up and go. No doubt about it, if we wanted to catch, I mean if we really wanted to get to Monte…er, Waiter!

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*slang for walking

Nice II

What differentiates Britain from Europe? Is it the culture? The climate? The conversation? Possibly. Here’s one – passport control. After your trip to sunnier, more pleasant climes, compare the stress of re-gaining entry back into Blighty with strolling into France, Spain, Greece or Italy?

We joined the queue at Nice airport with our IDs open at head height like a pair of wannabe Special Branch cops about to barge into a Drug Baron’s mansion. We approached the booth, in which sat an unshaved swarthy looking policeman slouched at his tiny desk wearing a powder blue short sleeved shirt. Gold epaulettes signified his status as a lawman (the other giveaway being the granite like shine of his Beretta connected to his belt by a curly wire). After a few seconds in the swiftly moving line-up, it was our turn to gain entry to his homeland, La Belle France. Sarah whipped off my cap,

“He can’t see your face properly, he might think you’re a terrorist.”
“What, in these shorts?”
Cap doffed, I prepared for entry. The guard looked up at me while his head remained absolutely still. He glanced at my passport for a tenth of a second, glanced at my face for another tenth, then indicated that I had passed all the stringent, post 9/11 security measures by grunting and lifting his left eyebrow.

That was it, we were in.
Travelling light with our little suitcases on wheels, we made for the automatic doors and the familiar waft of exhaled cigarette smoke from the taxi rank outside.
It was time to practice my pidgin French.

Nous sommes en vacance et nous voudrons aux Hotel Windsor?”
The driver nodded, then replied in his superfast indecipherable mother tongue.
“Er… pardon?”
“Tom, just show him the voucher with the hotel’s name on and let’s just get there, please.”
Our driver nodded and eased his brand new Mercedes into the traffic.
The short journey to the centre of nice is negotiated along a four mile stretch of the Promenade des Anglais, a road typified by the palm trees that line the central reservation. We were in fast-moving nose to tail traffic as the broad sweep of the Nice sea front came into view. I let down the window, allowing the noise of the city and smell of the sea into the cab. Then we passed the biggest casino in Nice.

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“Tom, can we go in there one night?”
“Of course, but you wont like it.”
“Why?”
“You”ll see.”

A few hundred yards further on the cab swung violently to the left as our driver gunned the engine and the Mercedes growled at an unnecessary rate of knots towards our hotel – The Windsor.
Recently updated in a quirky artistic theme, each room has been styled individually by a range of different artists.

http://www.hotelwindsornice.com/lhotel-2/chambres-dartiste/

Our chambre was a compact square, the highlight of which were dozens of red beaded necklaces draped from the ceiling, as though a hundred grand-dames had been kidnapped and their jewellery hung up as trophies.

But my favourite is the lift, which announces its journey to ones floor with a recording of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral circa 1972. we heard that tape at least 4 times a day and never tired of it.

Changed and refreshed, it was time to venture onto the streets and seek out dinner.

Two things typify Nice. The first are the scooters. Everyone has a scooter, they buzz around you like angry mechanical gadflies weaving insouciantly in and amongst the traffic. The second are the restaurants. There are restaurants everywhere. They hang around street corners, they wedge themselves up against each other in the middle of streets.

They fight for space on the promenade des Anglais. Trying to chose one is like trying to choose a diamond ring out of a tray of thousands.
Eventually we a chose a stylish-looking eatery just off the main drag. Of course it was packed. I pushed thought the sealed double glass doors to be greeted by a slim waitress ( is there any other kind in France ?) who through her gallic shuteye deduced that we had rocked up at her gaff sans reservation.

She squeezed us in under the stairs and swivelled a blackboard around to face us, on which was offered a thin selection of plates.
I plumped for the salmon fishcakes and Sarah chomped on scallops. Just delightful.

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I was struck by the volume and intensity of our fellow diner’s conversations. Everyone was talking. Of course, people talk in restaurants but the volume and intensity is often dictated by the poshness of the eatery. A quiet piano bar in London doesn’t have the same noise levels as a trendy American-themed diner in Shoreditch but in France, no matter if you are in a tiny cafe or a plush hotel, everyone chatters, everyone gossips.

We meandered back out onto the streets of Nice and decided to walk back to our hotel. We could have been in the nicest part of town or the roughest. But no matter where we were, we felt safe. Apart from the cacophony of the perma buzz of scooters, the streets were quiet.

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Tomorrow was going to be a day to explore. Tomorrow we planned the promenade, the beach and the train to Monte Carlo.