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.

the last garden in france

Today’s post is a little different. I’m sharing the essay I wrote for a World Nomads travel writing contest (effectively the contest of my dreams). The prize includes a fully-funded trip to Argentina and a workshop with NYT contributor Tim Neville. I wrote on the theme “Making a local connection.”


635435bb-24d2-407d-a2f3-ab8f5ecfe99eI never imagined gardening could produce such passion, fervor, and urgency. Then I moved to Montluçon and next door to Monsieur C, a man who speaks exclusively in exclamation points, wears overalls and a sun hat, and jabs his finger at you when he speaks–and he’s usually talking about his garden.

For a week he had beseeched me, in his apocalyptic way, to come visit his backyard, “the last true garden in all of France.”

You must see it! Before it’s too late!

In early spring, the yard burst into white-bloomed glory. I could appreciate the view from my kitchen window, but Monsieur C wouldn’t relent. I followed him to the garden.

He showed me the white cherry tree that produced delicious fruit–and was crawling with bugs. C’est pas grave, he assured me: when you eat it, just close your eyes!

He bemoaned the plucky little birds that peck at his asparagus, and he revealed the leeks, hidden under a screen to keep flies away. This way, he said, I can enjoy them longer than anyone else! Aha!

He spoke often of his superior methods. I didn’t have to wonder if the neighborhood rivalry ever got ugly: I already knew. The cheery white cherry tree was enough of a reminder never to underestimate Monsieur C.

He was giving me a ride in his sputtering Citroën when he slammed on the brakes in front of a house several blocks from our street.

See that cherry tree? Finger jab. That is one good-looking cherry tree, he said. I agreed. He then told me a story. He had once asked the gardener to let him have a branch; start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C cried, and he wouldn’t take my money!

One late night, he crept through the fence, snipped a branch from the tree, and roared off.

An older widower as traditional as Norman Camembert, Monsieur C was set in his ways. His ways were the best! But hidden behind the ornery exterior was a sweetness.

I’d see it when he would knock on my door, offering a couple of ripe clementines or a boxed éclair. He had a budding friendship with a crow. His face lit up when he told me how “Coco” had swept away the bread he’d left for her on the patio. The cats that assembled, eager for scraps, weren’t treated as kindly. Oh! He’d yell, hitting a pot with a spoon.

My French neighbor presented his garden like a proud parent. And he was proud: of his land, his home, his cherry tree. I don’t know about the last true garden in all of France. But I think I met one of its last true gardeners.


Some details have been changed due merely to space constraints. Capping a story at 2,500 characters was hugely challenging for me. (2,500 characters is what I need for like a grocery list)

World Nomads announced the winners today, and I was not among them. I knew it was a long shot. My story is quiet. It doesn’t benefit from taking place in one of the sexy destinations du jour. Is it even “travel”? In the traditional sense, maybe not. Still, I dared to hope.

I hoped that someone would take a chance on me, believe that I have something worth saying. Hoped to be frolicking with Argentinian llamas in one short month.

Disappointment hurts, it really does. But what I also know is that hope and effort are worth the risk. I wrote “The Last Garden in France” in February, at a time when I was feeling down about pretty much everything. I dragged myself to work and back like I was underwater. I wanted– I didn’t know what I wanted. Having a deadline and a word limit gave me something to focus on and care about.

I started writing more, getting into a solid routine. I slowly whittled down my story into a lean piece of around 480 words, a wonderful exercise in concision. My parents read each draft, suggesting ways to kill the odd extraneous adjective.

I read “The Portable MFA” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” and the David Sedaris collection “When You are Engulfed in Flames.”

I wrote everyday, edited old stuff, mined my memories. I took myself seriously. I rediscovered a passion.

It’s interesting how finding out that I lost today felt like a punch to the gut.

I am reasonably happy, reasonably healthy, and I still don’t know where I’ll be in the next 6 months. In other words, nothing has changed. (Except for me, just a little).

Maybe the sudden pain is the feeling of hope evaporating. But maybe that’s what hope does when you don’t need it anymore.

This contest got me writing, and that’s one place I’m hoping to stay.

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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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secret garden: serre de la madone

Menton, France has a Secret Garden beauty, rich as it is in dilapidated grandeur. img_3917

There are candy pastel hotels tucked in the hills, once wedding cake-grand but now closed with broken windows. The small downtown area houses murals, fountains, and statues that show their age. A striking yellow staircase leads from the Basilique St. Michel down to the sea, but it begs for a fresh coat of paint.

This pearl of France could use some polishing.

That’s what makes it special, though. It’s cozy, instead of glamorous and glitzy like other spots on the Côte d’Azur. It’s calm (though admittedly I’ve never been here in prime tourist season).

Menton has long been a haven for foreigners, so much so that the town holds a sort of “tourist cemetery” high on a hill with a view of the sea. img_3889

Menton also contains a number of botanical gardens, many of them created by foreign botanists attracted to Menton’s unique climate. Menton is typically about three degrees warmer than other parts of the Riviera on any given day. It’s sheltered from harsh weather by the hills surrounding it, meaning that plants found nowhere else in France can still flourish here (not the least of which is the Menton lemon, celebrated every year with a monthlong festival. To see what I thought of that, click here).

I visited Serre de la Madone, a garden designed by Lawrence Johnston, a wealthy American (though he died in 1958 before he saw the project come to fruition).

Like much of Menton, it’s a cozy contradiction: nine hectares of manicured wildness.

img_3909 Despite the villa, greenhouse, and mossy statues, the garden lacks a human presence. It feels as if it was designed and then left alone, left to the elements. Actually, that is what happened, to a certain extent. When Johnston died the development of the unfinished garden was left to the plants, as he didn’t leave any plans. img_3905

There’s upkeep of course; there was a man weed-eating when I was there, the noise cutting through the tropical tweets of the birds, but the garden cast a spell even so. It seemed beautifully abandoned, despite evidence to the contrary.img_3886

I slipped over stones and ducked under vines, noticing subtle movement everywhere.

Frogs startled, splashing into algae-green pools, thick like pea soup. They croaked from lily pads, perhaps motivated by mating season, so loudly it actually hurt my ears. img_3902

Beetles and dragonflies whirred, and ants marched steadily. img_3930

Brilliant orange fish bobbed, friendly, to the tops of pools.img_3913

At the end of a shallow pool sat a greenhouse that looked both abandoned and ready for guests, a Mad Hatter’s tea. Fat lizards scurried up the walls.

three-hour tour

I am lucky to live in one of the last true gardens in all of France.img_0714

Well, that’s what my landlord and neighbor would say. And did say, yesterday, on what ended up being an hour-long tour of the property followed by several glasses of Bourgogne.

Never did I imagine that gardening could produce such passion, such fervor, such urgency. And then I met Monsieur C, who, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, snuck onto someone’s property under the cover of night to snip off a branch of a prized cherry tree before racing away in his car. Hence the beautiful white blooms in my front yard.img_0748

He had been telling us for a week. You have to come see the garden! Now! Before it’s too late! 

My friend from the States, currently on a badass solo backpacking trip, was visiting for a few days. It seemed like a good way to show her la vraie France and le vrai jardin in one go. img_0702

Comment tu t’appelles mon petit ?! Monsieur C demanded. Je m’appelle Sherrell, she responded. Hein?! He looked to me. What’s the French equivalent? 

C’est pas très français, en fait ! I responded, repeating her name in a stronger French accent. After all, none of the sounds are foreign to the language. He shrugged it off. Hmm. I will call you…Suzanne ! He boomed. Anyway.

We followed him back to the garden.

So what exactly constitutes un vrai jardin? I wondered. There must be fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers! The flowers must be a certain distance from the vegetables! The fruit trees as well!  

He showed us around in what seemed a very intentional order, looking to me and Mary to translate to Sherrell when he said something he thought was particularly important. Here was the apricot tree, the apple tree, the white cherry tree that produces delicious fruit: filled with bugs. But c’est pas grave if you simply close your eyes!

Here are the tops of the garlic, the onions, the leeks that he keeps under a special screen to keep the flies away so that he can enjoy them for a longer season than anyone else.

He pointed out a baby pear tree with the fondness one reserves for a beloved pet.

He told us about the little birds–mésanges–that eat his asparagus, and about all the hacks he uses to avoid using chemicals in the garden.

With a kind of tenderness, he told us about his budding friendship with a crow he’s calling Coco.

We sat and had wine as he told us stories I tried to translate. Then it was time for his nap.

Au revoir Suzanne ! 

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