Tag 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.

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.

Nice

The Story of Our Five Days in Nice (France).

We flew to the South of France on an Easyjet Boeing 737. The desperate shuffling of passengers to get to the front as the ground staff announce the start of boarding has always baffled me. I think it’s the English urge to get “settled”. Why rush to get on? They wont leave without you.

Anyway, after shouting at Sarah to hurry, I was pleased to find us at the front of the queue (Well, I like to get comfy you see).

Our seats were at the rear of the plane. I read somewhere that the back of an aircraft was the safest place to be (apparently, planes don’t reverse into mountains).
As our fellow travellers boarded, my breathing became shallower, my hands felt clammy, my heart began to race. But it wasn’t the terror of being entombed in a silver tube burning gallons of kerosene in an illogical attempt to defy gravity, rather it was the fear of my ultimate flying phobia – a brat in the seat behind me.

Sarah was settled in next to me debating which variety of microwaved toasty she would like to scald her mouth on as I fidgeted and craned my neck to scan for the dreaded infant. She bid me to remain still.
“Tom, just relax. We will be off in a minute.”
“Look, there’s one coming now, it’s getting nearer.”
“Tom, just calm down, they look a perfectly nice family.”
“The parents seem ok, it’s the red faced urchin I don’t like the look of.”
The smiling thirty-somethings parents scanned the row numbers as they squeezed themselves inexorably nearer. Twenty eight, twenty nine….thirty two, thirty….three – there, perfect. And where do you think they ended up? You know it sister.

The smiling cabin crew snapped the overheads shut and fussed everyone into their places as the Irish burr of the pilot reassuringly purred our route over the PA system.

I closed my eyes. Maybe the kid with the E numbers smeared over his sticky intemperate mush would be perfectly behaved, maybe he would just nod off in his mummy’s arms? What did it matter that he was directly behind my head? The flight was short, it didn’t – thump! Oh god, we hadn’t even taken off and it had started. Thump!

It isn’t the actual kick that drives you insane, it’s the anticipation of the tiny toes tapping the back of your seat that’s unbearable.
“Tom, just ignore it, we’ll be there before you know it, read your guide to Nice.”
“I am trying to ignore it (thump), but it’s not easy when you’ve got parents who can’t control their bloody kids (thump).”
“Tom! shush, they’ll hear you!”
“Good! “(thump).
As the big tin bird eased herself into the stratosphere, the blonde terror behind succumbed to fatigue and fell into a fitful slumber. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, the racket from the fat lady to my left shattered my attempted cat nap. Her vast paw swirled inside her plastic cashew tub, like Trevor Brooking choosing the FA Cup quarter finalists.

After a moment or two, the pasty white claw pulled another catch of nuts out of the tub, her elbows nudging me with each swirl like a JCB digger excavating a drain. The chubby old dear then daintily threw them into her pie hole with the skill of a serial grazer. This might not have been so bad if she hadn’t been forced by some unknown sinus condition to to breath exclusively through her mouth.
This dual use of her gob meant her mastications were amplified by fifty percent.
I leaned over to Sarah and whispered
“Do you think she’s coming to Nice to sample the gastronomy?”
“Shush Tom, she’ll hear you.”
“Good!” (Nudge)
To make a point I put my fingers dramatically in my ears . Sarah dragged them back out.

Then thankfully, my ears did some popping as our pilot pointed the nose towards the Med and we began our descent. The aircraft banked steeply to the left and, just above stalling speed dropped altitude in ever greater increments until tarmac began rushing past my window.
Do you hold your breath just before the undercarriage smacks onto the blackstuff? There is always that two second moment when I think – is he going to make it? then there is the bang! another smaller bump then a final little skip before the anti locks and reverse thrust decelerate us into taxi speed. And there we were – Nice.
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