sweet serendipity in the eagle’s nest of the côte d’azur

Anyone who visits me gets to see Èze.

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A vigorous, hour-long climb up and around a mountain rewards the casual hiker with a brilliant view of the Mediterranean from a postcard-perfect village.

 

I’ll break my rule and describe this hike as “breathtaking”–but only because you will not be able to breathe once you reach the top, I guarantee it. This hike is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for people wearing Birkenstocks and swimsuits (not that I would know anything about that).

 

The trail takes you from Èze-sur-Mer–the part of Èze located on a stretch of coastline, accessible by train–to Èze Village, a medieval town perched high on a mountain. The trail is called Nietzsche’s Footpath, and the writer apparently found inspiration and peace on this very trail. Nietzsche wasn’t the first to frequent this trail: that honor probably belongs to hoofed creatures. Le Chemin de Nietzsche was originally a path for goats.

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If the views are fit for praises, the climb itself could only have been named for a nihilist. My last visit had my calves aching badly enough to wake me in the night two days later. And I only made the descent.

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The trail is rocky, an ankle-sprain warning zone. It’s easy to imagine a goatherd leading his animals up the mountain for cheese-making purposes. It feels wild and real, and the effort makes the payoff so sweet. After perhaps 50 minutes of hard work, you turn a corner and can see the village above, its cheery yellow clocktower like a welcome.

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I spared my parents (and Dad’s year-old knee replacement) from making the trek in the snow when they visited, but typically I consider Èze one of the most worthy day trips when visiting the coast.

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Last Friday was forecast to be beautiful, so I woke up with a goal: getting to Èze to visit the botanical garden at the top. I hadn’t seen the garden on my previous visits, instead choosing to save a few euros. Then I realized the garden is the only place you can get the full panoramic view from the village that calls itself “the Eagle’s Nest of the Côte d’Azur.” It was 4 euros to enter, the price of a cappuccino in Cannes. Suffice it to say: it was worth it. acs_0454

I wandered around with my camera for awhile and saw a girl around my age doing the same thing. She appeared to be alone too. We smiled at each other. I made another loop around the garden and noticed her again, speaking in English to another girl who appeared to be alone. Just for fun, I went up and introduced myself and asked them how they found themselves in Èze.

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Erika, originally from Japan, currently living in Kenya, was traveling alone on a Julia-Roberts-style solo voyage. Clarisse recently left her home in Brazil to spend a few months in Aix-en-Provence learning French.

We would travel together for the rest of the day, and my quietly spontaneous trip to Èze would morph into a fun, frenzied journey to three different cities (one of them a country, if we’re being specific). We would be climbing up a hill to a pink mansion, running to catch trains, eating gelato in Monaco, and falling asleep over a late dinner of pizza. I wouldn’t get home until after midnight.

If each of us started the day like something out of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we would end it more like the Cheetah Girls.

 

(But of course, I didn’t know any of that yet.)

 

How easily we might have missed each other! One minute, one hour, one delayed train. You can’t force serendipity: that’s what makes it so sweet. But you can improve your chances.

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I say: do what you want to do, alone or not. Take the train, take the hike, buy the ticket, and don’t be afraid to talk to strangers.

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Even if you don’t have company, you just might find some.

attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”