Dec 17 2007

Bienvenue en France!

Published by at 11:06 am under France,Southern France

After Ben finally tumbled his way to the bottom of the mountain, where I not-so-patiently sat waiting, we dragged our stiff, frozen bodies to the Trento train station to catch a Euronight train from Italy to the French Riviera. Night trains are worse than hostels in that they try to squeeze four “couchettes” (two-foot-wide vinyl surfaces the train company can’t even bring themselves to call beds) into cabins that are only about five feet wide, to extract as many euros from as many people as possible.

overnight train from Italy to France
On the overnight train

After figuring out which train to board (harder than it seems as many of these night trains split in two at certain stations, so even when you figure out which platform to board from, you have to figure out which half of the train is going to your desired destination), we located our cabin, only to find the door stubbornly locked. After many attempts to force it open, I begrudgingly turned to find a controller when the door swung open and I was confronted with a large, half-naked man. “You in here?” he grunted.

“Yes?” I said, meekly. The man turned, grumbling his obvious displeasure in a language I didn’t recognize, and plopped onto a couchette, where he promptly began snoring loudly. This continued ALL NIGHT LONG. Ben and I have discussed how some sort of projectile/prodding device should come standard with a bed in all room-sharing situations. On many occasions, I’ve had to storm out of bed in the middle of the night under the guise of going to the bathroom and just so happen to violently kick the bed of a particularly offensive sleeper on my way out the door.

Between the snorer and the train’s racket, no sleep was had that night. Nor did it help our moods when our train was delayed by THREE HOURS for reasons unknown to us, as we don’t speak frantic Italian. But when we (finally) stepped off the train in Nice, France, and found it to be sunny, balmy and 60 degrees outside, we shed our grumpy moods with our fleece jackets and went for a picnic.

Vieux NiceWe’d planned on only staying in Nice proper for the night while trying to find a more permanent accommodation in the surrounding countryside, but we were so charmed by the Niçoise lifestyle — the markets, the beaches the pastries! — that we decided to make Nice our base for exploring the area, and bargained for a cheap week’s rate at our hostel.

Another reason we decided to stick to the city is because we are completely befuddled by the French transportation system. Even if you’re able to decipher the timetable/fares beforehand, which is no small feat in itself, upon arriving at the station, there’s about a 7% chance the trains are actually running. French transportation workers are ALWAYS on strike. I have no idea what prompts these perturbances half a dozen times a week, but they occur so frequently that stations keep pre-printed and laminated notification signs on hand to pull out during strikes. So, pretty much daily. We figured that if we stayed anywhere outside the city, we’d be stranded indefinitely.

French has been the hardest language for us to master those necessary conversational tidbits – particularly for Ben, as sometimes I’m able to recall the high school French I learned. The pronunciation is nearly impossible. Even Greek (once we’d learned how to translate their alphabet) was easier to pronounce, as the words are pretty much said like they’re spelled. French has words like buerre. Seriously, how do you say that?? We’ve yet to master the whole back-of-the-mouth gurgling sound that seems present in every French word. When Ben tries to say anything it mostly sounds like: ooooooooooeeeeerrrrr + hacking.

Despite stereotypes of rude, arrogant snobbery, all French people we’ve encountered have been extremely friendly, helpful and funny. My favorite demographic is the really old women, who sashay down the sidewalk in their eight-inch heels, huge fur coats, Louis Vuitton purses and D+G sunglasses. They are about ten times older than me but one million times more awesome than I will ever be.

Their best accessory is always a teeny dog scampering along at their feet. There must be some sort of competition amongst the French to see who can have the tiniest and most ridiculous-looking dog. Every French man or woman is accompanied by/carrying/cooing at a small dog. The dogs themselves are also accessorized, usually with festive Christmas-themed sweaters. The downside is that, as no posh French person would ever scoop the poop, the streets are covered in merde. Ben noted that this was a step up from the donkey crap that littered the streets on the Greek islands.

highest point in NiceThe Côte d’Azur is definitely a resort destination: unabashedly wealthy and reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque lavishness. Nice itself, unlike some other coastal towns, has more to offer than a good tan and designer shopping. The daily markets are incredible: from fruit to flowers to antiques. There’s a surprising amount of history here, with Roman ruins (just like in all European cities, ever) and medieval churches. And, of course, there’s art! Cezanne, Matisse — it was nice to see something other than classical statues and Renaissance paintings.

Thanks to Italy, however, Ben and I have tired of museums and art, so we didn’t spend too much time exploring Nice’s more “cultural” venues. In fact, sitting here trying to write about our time in Nice prompted the following conversation:

Brittany: I guess I can cover Nice in one entry.

Ben: One entry?? It deserves at least three!

Brittany: But all we did was sit around and eat crepes!

Ben: … and it ruled.

It’s true that we spent an embarrassing amount of time sitting in cafés or on the beach eating crepes and drinking cappuccinos, but that’s not ALL we did. For instance, I also ate a croque banane (a chicken and banana panini) from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called “Le Banane.” For those of you who know that one of my favorite childhood sandwiches was banana and mayonnaise, you can see why Le Banane was a highlight of Nice pour moi.

We are also enjoying France for its diversity. In Greece, you see Greeks and eat Greek food. In Italy, you see Italians and eat Italian food. There are actually a few black people in France! It’s much more reminiscent of home. We took advantage by eating Vietnamese food and visiting an Irish pub.

views from the topA couple of days into our week in Nice, the stars aligned such that the trains decided to actually run AND we were able to get ourselves to the station at a reasonable hour. So we were able to enjoy our first day trip from Nice, to a small village called Eze (said ehz, not etzy, like Ben and I were saying it to a much confused ticket cashier). Well, we thought we were going to Eze. It turns out that the train takes you to Eze-Sur-Mer, which is actually below Eze. Yes, literally below. The geography of the Côte d’Azur is such that some towns are situated on cliffsides, meaning that in order to get from Eze-Sur-Mer (at sea level) to Eze (elevation: 1,000,000 feet), we had to hike an hour up a nearly vertical trail. We uncharacteristically splurged by spending one euro on a bus ride up the mountain, despite advertisements that Nietzsche had “pondered” on that trail.

The center of Eze is a spectacularly maintained medieval castle, and we wandered freely around its intricate alleys and arches. Numerous cafés and souvenir shops have carved out little spaces in the castle walls. At the top of the castle is a huge jardin exotique, which is basically a garden full of cacti. The panoramic view of the coast was worth the hour spent walking through the garden to the top while trying to convince Ben that he SHOULD NOT EAT the cactus fruits.

Fragonard parfumeurOutside of the castle, we visited one of many local parfumeries. The Côte is known for its fields of fresh lavender, particularly near Grasse, a small town north of Nice, which alone contains 40+ parfumeries. Ben and I hopped on a free tour of the Fragonard parfumeur in Eze, and saw the perfume-making process from the distillation of essential oils (did you know it takes three tons of rose petals to make one liter of oil??) to the creation of scents, soaps and cosmetics. We also enjoyed learning about the scent-makers – the men who combine the oils to make perfumes. These men, called “noses,” have to be born with a “good nose,” receive special schooling, can identify hundreds of smells with one sniff, are banned from smoking, drinking and eating spicy foods, and are only permitted to work (smell?) for two hours each day. Only about 150 noses still exist in the world, 100 of which are in France. Ben asked the tour guide how much a nose was paid. Perhaps he’s found his calling?

Next on Euros Ate My Dollars: Ben lives out his James Bond fantasies at Monte Carlo!

NEXT: Casino Royale »



5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Bienvenue en France!”

  1. Ben's Dadon 17 Dec 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Nice seems very niece – too bad it’s in France. I think the strikes have something to do with the government wanting to get rid of a law that prohibits anyone from ever being fired or laid off. Also, they are trying to get them to work as much as 30 hours a week (10 if you’re a Nose). Actually I don’t begrudge the Noses their 10 hour work week – imagine what they go through when navigating those sidewalks covered in le do do.

  2. Jillianon 18 Dec 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Leave Nice and head to Paris! It gets boring and is much more expensive since it’s the vacation spot of the rich. I didn’t care for Nice or the nearby towns. Though I will say Monte Carlo is an experience. I think you should sit at the cafe right near the casino and watch the rich walk in. That’s what I did. We had a hot waiter too. Maybe you’ll get him. Oh and about the trains…it’s the way of Europeans, and I will say the French strike just as much if not more than the Italians. So enjoy, though if you look at the local paper or ask people they will tell you when the strike will be. They have planned strikes and they are usually due to Europeans not wanting to go to work for a couple of days. Hope you enjoy France. Miss you both!

  3. Pierre van Eckon 18 Apr 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Hey guys – I’m sorry that I’ve only now discovered your Blog somewhat after the fact. Clearly you’ve had a very great time (bar the odd manic cop etc.) and I’m positively envious! Thanks for sharing your experiences and pics – perhaps you may wish to also add some to the travel community at trivago?
    Cheers from Cape Town,

  4. Elmer Smuinon 18 Jun 2011 at 6:43 am

    I realize I constantly keep returning back again to your weblog site. Fantastic articles. Many thank you for posting.

  5. KarlFBlankenbeckleon 13 Jun 2015 at 9:35 pm

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