In David's Words...
My initial reaction to my secret #fwtripswap destination wasn't nearly as positive as Michael's. To be fair, I had just visited France in April for the Paris marathon and post-race trip to Bordeaux. I was eager to check off a new country from my list, so finding out that I would be going to Nice felt a tad disappointing. I admit that must sound disgustingly entitled. "Woe is me. I'm going to France."
However, my tune quickly changed as I read through the Cote d'Azur Lonely Planet guide and suggested itinerary Michael had prepared for me. That feeling of disappointment instantly turned into excitement and nervous energy. There were so many beautiful places I had to visit. How the hell was I going to cram everything into a 3-day weekend?
I landed in Nice late Friday, so I had little time to explore the city that evening. Instead, I checked into my Airbnb (perfectly situated a few blocks off the Promenade des Anglais), grabbed a quick bite at McDonald's (no judging) and mapped out my plan of attack for the next 3 days.
After calling it an early night yesterday, I woke up completely refreshed and ready to get a start on the day. My first stop was the markets on Cours Saleya in Vieille Ville - Nice's Old Town. Dozens of stalls line the pedestrian street, selling the day's freshest produce, meats, baked goods and flowers. It's fun simply exploring the rows of stalls and chatting with the friendly vendors. I decided to buy some fresh pastries, meats and cheeses for the road.
My next stop would be Castle Hill just to the east of Cours Saleya. Visitors can walk up a steep but easy path to the top of the hill, from where you are treated to sweeping views of the city and coast. At the summit, there's a nice park with plenty of open space to relax. This is where my bounty from earlier in the day came in handy. I pulled out the meats and cheeses from the market and made a tiny picnic for myself. Castle Hill was the perfect stop for an early lunch.
After a lazy morning atop Castle Hill, I made my way back down into Vieille Ville. The old town oozes charm with it's tiny alleyways and colorful but dilapidated buildings. There is a distinctly Italian feel to this part of the city, which isn't surprising considering the region's long history with neighboring Italy. It's easy to get lost in the maze of side streets, but all roads in old town seem to lead to Place Rossetti. It makes for a good jump off point when exploring Vieille Ville.
Clearly, the snacks I bought at the market did not suffice. I decided to check out Cafés Indien for my obligatory coffee stop. The shop roasts their own coffee beans and even sells Nespresso-compatible capsules. I was tempted to buy a case of capsules for my parents before realizing I had nowhere to pack it for my return trip. After coffee, I walked up a few blocks to Chez René Socca. As the name suggests, this pub/food stand serves up some of the city's best socca - a chickpea pancake and classic Nice snack.
I decided to take a break from the "historic" side of Nice and head over to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC). The museum is located just north of the Promenade du Paillon - a beautifully restored public park that runs through the heart of the city. MAMAC's marble, Star Wars-esque exterior sits in direct contrast to a skyline otherwise dominated by red terra cotta roofs. Inside you will find a diverse collection of avant-garde art from various movements including including new realism and American pop. Make sure to check out the museum's rooftop for panoramic views of Nice.
To cap off a busy day exploring Nice, I headed over to rue Bonaparte - one of the city's buzziest revitalized streets. The pedestrian area is teeming with bars, restaurants and boutiques. I nabbed an outdoor seat for a glass or rosé at hipster hangout, Comptoir Central Électrique, before ending the night with some pizza at Attimi.
After a full day of activities highly concentrated in the center of Nice, it was time to go a bit further afield. I started off the 2nd day in the leafy northern neighborhood of Cimiez. The bus dropped me off right outside Parc des Arènes de Cimiez. There is an unfussy, totally local vibe to the park. When I arrived that morning, people were setting up shop for what seemed like a neighborhood festival. I grabbed a quick coffee at one of the tiny stands before setting off to explore the rest of the park. On the eastern edge is the Cimiez Monastery. Perhaps more impressive than the monastery itself is the surrounding garden. For much of the morning, I was the only person there, which made the experience all the more tranquil and memorable. On the opposite end of the park sit the ruins of an old Roman ampitheater as well as the popular Musée Matisse. I actually opted to skip this museum due to its hefty 10€ entrance fee. To be fair, I'm not much of a Matisse fan.
I wandered my way back through the park to grab a pan-bagnat - similar to a nicoise salad but stuffed between two round baguette slices. I ate the sandwich while walking through the streets of Cimiez and peering up at the grandiose Belle Époque style buildings. At the bottom of Cimiez Boulevard is the Musée Marc Chagall. On the first Sunday of every month, the museum is free to visitors. Regardless, I would have paid to visit the museum. Although the permanent collection is not massive, it still represents a significant portion of the famed artist's works. The main hall in the museum showcases Chagall's large-scale paintings depicting various scenes from the Old Testament. Chagall played a critical role in designing the museum itself, so you can feel the seamless connection between the art and the its surroundings.
wrapped up the museum around 2:00 PM in the afternoon. With plenty of time left in the day, I decided to hop on a train and head to Monaco. What better (and easier) way to check off another country? Monte Carlo is only 15 minutes from Nice by train. Tickets cost under 4€ and run multiple times every hour. I didn't really know what to expect when I got there. All I knew about Monte Carlo was Formula 1 racing and casinos. The city was preparing for the upcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix, which literally takes places in the streets of Monte Carlo. Therefore, most roads were closed off and spectator stands were being erected around every corner.
I spent some time at the Musée Océanographique de Monaco. While it's by no means the best aquarium in the world, the museum still has some great exhibits and ocean creatures on display. Following my trip to the museum, I walked over to the Monte Carlo Casino. I had no intention (or desire) to go inside. The scene outside was pretty fascinating already. Imagine dozens of Aston Martins and Ferraris lined up outside, sunglass-class douche bag owners arrogantly walking into the casino and hundreds of tourists taking photos like the paparazzi. Just another regular day in Monte Carlo. Across from the casino are the Monte Carlo Pavilions. These futuristic orbs (for lack of a better word) house boutiques from many of the world's top designer brands. Unfortunately, everything was closed on Sunday, so I didn't get to drop any serious dough (because that was exactly my intent...).
When I got back to Nice from Monaco, I decided to end the day with an evening run down the Promenade de Anglais - the main thoroughfare running alone the city's coastline. I had basically spent the last full 2 days stuffing my face at every stop, so a little bit of physical activity was much needed. I've always loved going for runs in new cities. It's a great way of exploring without focusing on your precise location or destination. Running often uncovers some of the most interesting finds you don't see in a Lonely Planet guide or travel brochure.
My flight back to London was scheduled for late in the evening. I kept going back and forth on what I should do. I had to check out of my AirBnB by 11:00 AM, so there were some logistical complications. I didn't really want to schlep my luggage around with me all day.
At the very last minute, I decided to try renting a car. I walked into Hertz near the train station, and thankfully, they had one automatic vehicle left for the day. I figured I could throw my belongings into the trunk and explore the surrounding area. It would be so perfect, like a classic Hollywood movie: no clouds in the sky, rooftop lowered, scarf blowing in the wind, driving along the coast of the French Riviera. Reality quickly set in when I had no idea where I was going and nearly got into a wreck. Thankfully, I survived the day unscathed and got to see some amazing places in the Cote d'Azur.
My first stop was Èze - a tiny cliffside town less than 30 minutes from Nice. The drive to Èze via the Moyenne Corniche was both terrifying and breathtaking. The road literally skates the edge of the cliff. A part of you wants to stare out the side window at the jaw-dropping views of the coast and Ligurian Sea. The other part of you just wants to stay alive and remind you that you're driving in a foreign country.
I safely arrived at Èze and found a parking space at the foot of the town. From there, visitors walk up a steep hill to get to the center of the village. Yes, at times, Èze is frustratingly touristy. If I didn't know better, I would have thought the village was this weird Korean commune in the middle of France where everyone has a selfie stick and iPad. With that said, the town is beyond picturesque, and the views more than make up for the crowd. After winding through a maze of tiny alleys and cobblestone streets, I made my way up to the Le Jardin Exotique at the top of the hill. The garden is filled with a variety of exotic plants and sculptures, all of which are further enhanced by the iconic views out into the sea. No matter how touristy it was, Èze was without a doubt, one of the highlights of the trip.
From Èze, I decided to climb even higher and drive to Fort de la Revère. In complete contrast from my last stop, there were only a handful of people exploring this old military base. As I looked over the edge and saw Èze in the distance far below me, I quickly realized how high up I was. This is what gives the French Riviera it's well-deserved reputation. There are few places in the world where land and sea clash in such a dramatic fashion. To one side, all you see is crystal clear, blue waters. As soon as you turn around, you're find yourself staring straight at the dramatic Alps. It was pretty surreal.
With a few hours left before my flight, I decided to visit Fondation Maeght right outside the famous town of Saint-Paul de Vence. As much as I wanted to visit the town, I was running short on time and had to skip it. The museum is situated in a densely forested area and houses a great collection of 20th century European art. The Miró Labrynth in the back garden is particularly whimsical and features a variety of sculptures by the late artist.
My final stop before flying out was to the city of Antibes about halfway between Nice and Cannes. I originally wanted to visit the Picasso Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on Monday, so I ended up exploring the surrounding neighborhood by foot. Aside from a few interesting buildings and outdoor sculptures, I really didn't get a good feel for Antibes. Perhaps I was too ambitious attempting to visit so many places in one day.
All-in-all, I don't think I could have asked for a better #fwtripswap destination. In typical "David" fashion, I accomplished quite a lot in 3 days. But then again, "accomplishing a lot" really wasn't the goal. In retrospect, I probably would have cut out a few stops so I didn't feel as time constrained.