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