Category Archives: Nice

Nice VII

And so after dinner at The Windsor hotel we strolled for the last time along the Promenade des Anglais towards the venue of our final night in Nice – the Casino Ruhl.
Sarah, excited to be stepping foot inside a gambling house for the first time, examined my denims.
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“Tom, do you think you’re dressed appropriately? Don’t you need a tie at least?”
“As long as I’m not naked and I have some cash, they’ll let me in, don’t worry.”
If the gaudy lights and red carpet outside the Casino Ruhl were an attempt at sophistication and glamour, they failed. The Casino’s facade was tack, brash, at odds with the rest of the City. It was as though, half apologetically, the casino was trying to ape its natural counterparts in Las Vegas. Up close, the red carpet and decorations had a tired, end of the pier look, as though the casino was saying, ok we know the whole thing is seedy, but come in any way and hand over your money.

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At the kiosk we showed our passports ( a sop to money laundering) and headed to the bar.
My first surprise was the cost of the drinks. Not only were they not free (ok I’m no high roller) – they were eye-wateringly expensive.
We sauntered past the slot machines – big heavy-duty machines each with their own leather chair bolted to the floor – and headed for the tables for a game of 21.

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I slipped into a seat next to a leathery looking man in his sixties. The croupier wordlessly slipped him two cards. Lifting the corners, he glanced at their value and tossed a couple of chips at the dealer. A sour faced woman in her early thirties, dressed entirely in black, she wordlessly tidied his stake and awaited instructions.

With a micro tap of his index finger the man requested another card. The croupier snapped a card on top of the existing hand, this time face up. A pause, then with a tiny shake of the head he indicated that he was happy with his position. The croupier then turned over her own two cards. A Jack and a two. Without hesitating she slipped a third card from her shoe and snapped it perfectly on-top of her existing pair. Seven of hearts. So to beat the house our friend with the grey slicked back hair and gnarled fingers needed twenty or twenty-one. He flung his hand away and cursed under his breath while the croupier scooped the chips into a round little hole to her left, a hopper containing the broken dreams of a thousand gamblers.

The next hand began. Now as well as the two cards dealt to my friend on my right, I was given my own pair. Mimicking the pro, I lifted the corners. An ace and a three! Immediately I panicked, whenever I played pontoon at home on the carpet in front of the fire with my older brother (the last time I’d actually played the game) an Ace had the twin values of either eleven or one. The embarrassment of ploughing on with card after card when I was already bust was terrifying. What should I do? Sarah, toying with her hair and looking around to see if anyone had noticed that she was hanging round with the Cincinnati Kid, waited for my shrewd gambling decision. I nodded for another card. The croupier turned over a three. So now I had seventeen (or possibly seven).
I decided to stick, as did my fellow player. The croupier flipped over her hand – a five and a ten. She flipped over another – a nine. She was bust! My ten euros were now twenty! I was a winner, I was a success! I turned to my comrade in arms, hoping for a high-five of victory, but he didn’t look up, instead he growled the same curse that he had uttered when he lost the previous hand.

Flushed with success I decided to transfer my fantastic winning streak to the roulette table. This time the table was surrounded by punters. We bought twenty Euros of single white chips and played red or black. At one point I had doubled my money. My head told me to walk away. But of course I didn’t. Six minute later I was five euros down. We decided to play on the numbers part of the baize. Casually, I threw a chip onto number 33, I reckoned that one last throw might bring us a jackpot.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, assuming that I knew what I was doing. The croupier, a young man with a thick-set forehead and sallow cheeks watched me place my bet, then disdainfully throwing my stake back at me!
Sarah whispered, “Why is he doing that?”

To which I replied. “I’ve got no fucking idea.”
Obviously there was some unknown gambling protocol that I had failed to adhere to.
Realising that really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we decided to people watch.
The pontoon guy had sauntered over to the roulette table. He was doing his same stern-faced curse at the result of every spin. Then I spotted a very glamorous lady playing the wheel.

Around forty, she wore an expensive, multi coloured blouse and white designer jeans. I deferred to Sarah for an estimation of the quality. She confirmed that they were very expensive clothes. Then the ice. She wore three diamond rings, the most impressive of which was on her engagement finger, a luminescent stone with an internal fire that shone even in the subdued lighting of the casino. Wearing the same surly look as my pontoon friend, she peeled off one €50 note after another from an ever reducing wad as she gambled bigger and bigger. The croupier relieved her of her money by placing it over a slot in the table and pushing it down with a clear plastic cleaver, consigning the note to its fate with a sharp snap of his wrist.
After a while Sarah whispered to me, “Theres something about this place I don’t like. What is it?”

“It’s obvious. Have you noticed something ? Nobody talks and everybody looks so serious? There’s one simple explanation. We are on a room full of addicts.”
Sarah looked around. Of course, that’s why everyone looked so miserable, they were all feeding an addiction. That’s why victory and defeat were greeted in the same desperate, slightly aggressive manner – they didn’t care if they won or lost, they just wanted the buzz of the bet.

We left shortly afterwards, breathing in the cool fresh air of the Mediterranean that crashed up onto the pebbles on the other side of the road.

Nice VI

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The next morning we awoke to the sound of mopeds buzzing along the streets below. Opening the white shutters I stood for a moment to consider early morning Nice.
Bread vans, stylish ladies in rain macs, cafés taking their first customers of the day. A busy town, but not Manchester or Liverpool busy (endless car jams, miserable crammed busses) rather bustling thoroughfares mainly – like Italy – revolving around food and cafés. Everything is centred around the commercial concerns of eating and drinking.

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We ventured into the vieux ville, the oldest quarter of Nice. Terracotta and orange buildings jammed along old narrow streets, most of the shops selling in one way or another things to do with the consumption of food and wine.
The local delicacy is Socca – a pancake served with coffee or, if it’s not too early (for a weary English palate at least) wine.

We wandered down the alleys, weaving in and out of the queues for Socca and other local delights. Then it struck me – where were the supermarkets? Where were the fast food outlets? The Tesco Expresses ? The Mc Donald’s ? (I think one British chain tried to expand into France and were given short shrift) There were big stores out of town (Carrefour) but they don’t get a look-in in Nice town centre. At the edges of the old town we sat at one of the many cafés that borders one of the many squares in Nice. Then a busker arrived. I like buskers – not the annoying sponsored musos that stand on corporate logos in London tube stations- I prefer the impromptu, talented performers that invite you to appreciate their talent.

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That morning, Nice didn’t disappoint. Instead of a bearded student strumming a badly tuned guitar we got an opera singer, with her own accompaniment ! She belted out O Ma Babbina Caro , seemingly indifferent to the occasional clink of cents into her cup.

After our restorative cappuccino we wandered off to the largest open space in Nice, the Place Massena. A vast open area bordered by pink civic buildings with a long double tram line bisecting the open civic space.

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By this time it was near enough to lunch as to make no difference, so we decided on a light repast (how I never came back the size of De Nero’s corpulent Jake la Motta I don’t know).

I plumped for a salad together with a slug of the house white. A word to the wise, don’t bother getting anything but the house grog in Nice – it’s always vastly superior to any screw top bottle of vinegar peddled by Supermarkets back home. The wine in Nice is invariably clean, rounded, with fragrant bouquets (that’s enough wine wanking. Ed.) and is invariably a perfect accompaniments to most dishes.

I can do that, honest!

I can do that, honest!

After our lunch we chanced upon some more street performers. This time it was a group of lads throwing themselves up in the air propelled by what seemed to be secret spring hidden under the stone slabs.

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Perfectly in synch and full of youthful exuberance, I was reluctant to dawdle lest Sarah spent too long comparing these boys abs to my own poor excuse for a wall of iron, but captivated as we were by the athleticism and joy de vivre of the performance, we dawdled a few moments longer.

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Our final experience of impromptu street theatre was back on the Promenade de Anglais, where roller bladers slalomed up and down the walkway.

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Then it was time to head off back to our hotel to ready ourselves for Sarah’s initiation into the glamorous world of the casino…

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.