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.

low-key glamour: monaco in an afternoon

Monaco is home of the eponymous Grand Prix, the belle-époque Monte Carlo casino, scores of luxury yachts, and–let’s not forget– actual royalty.

Despite the evident glamour, I’ve always found a visit to the second-smallest country in the world surprisingly low-key.

It’s the natural beauty that catches my eye: the hardy Mediterranean flowers and cacti clinging to cliffs, the clouds that drift across the mountains, the views that leave you hard-pressed to identify where the sea ends and the sky begins. The setting lends a wild charm to the rows of shining white yachts and the clusters of buildings.

In case you were wondering, Monaco feels just like France. Though Monégasque is a recognized language, spoken by some residents and appearing on the occasional street sign, Monaco doesn’t give the casual visitor the same jolt of newness as when crossing the border from Menton to Ventimiglia, Italy.

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There’s not a ton to do here, so don’t come expecting art museums or a wealth of hip cafés. Rather, be prepared to walk, as Monaco is best explored on foot. In my opinion, Monaco offers one of the most beautiful walks on the French Riviera, and one of the best places to watch the sun set. You don’t even have to plan ahead or bring a backpack–just maybe don’t wear heels. (To capitalize on the country’s glitzy image, visitors often dress up in their trendiest outfits to take pictures with the view from Monaco-Ville, the old section of town that sits on a rocky cliff jutting into the sea. A great photo op, but what you don’t see is the way they have to sidestep down the steep hill in stilettos).

If you come by train, upon exciting the station you’ll soon find yourself across the street from the bay. To fuel your walk, I’d recommend a scoop of gelato from La Gelateria (conveniently located, as fate would have it, right next to the train station). From there you can cross the bay and begin the steep, winding ascent to Monaco-Ville.

At the top, you’ll have a nice view of the city. (Monaco, the city, and Monaco, the country are geographically the same).

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On the other side you’ll see the Palais Princier, the official residence of the prince of Monaco since 1297, and once home to Grace Kelly.

The palace is delicate from the outside, a subtle white or buttercup yellow color depending on the light. Upon seeing it for the first time, my friend remarked that it looked like a paper cut-out. I knew exactly what she meant, and envisioned some Mediterranean mountain giant snipping merrily away with a pair of scissors.

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The old part of town is very small, with just a few restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, most of them are tourist traps, selling piles of refrigerator magnets and average sandwiches. The buildings, though, are lovely. It feels more apt, almost, to describe them in terms of flavor instead of color, as they bring to my mind shades of saltwater taffy. melon, strawberry, orange creamsicle

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Continue through the old town to the Musée Océanographique. If you have time, the aquarium is worth a visit. I’ve been there twice and was fully enthralled both times. It’s easy to spend a good two hours staring at tiny seahorses.

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acs_0390 acs_0403 If you want to stay outside, continue on through the botanical garden along the edge of the promontory. Exiting the garden, you’ll have a view of the port. This is my favorite view in Monaco. acs_0395acs_0398acs_0393acs_0404 acs_0396  As night falls, head back to the palace to see the lights click on, turning the building a whimsical pink.

acs_0401acs_0416acs_0400  End your night on the right note with a glass of wine somewhere. And don’t miss your train!


For more on Monaco (aquarium, casino): Mediterranean Magic, a Walk around Monaco

 

sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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population, 21: exploring Île Saint-Honorat

(a South-of-France staycation, ii)

When the throbbing commercialism of Rue d’Antibes and the reality of competing for a spot on the beach prove tiresome, just hop on a ferry and leave the bustle of Cannes behind for some peace. Île Saint-Honorat is a storybook-lovely spot for a tranquil morning walk: or, if you’d rather, a weekend (or lifetime) of dedicated prayer. At last count, the island was home to twenty-one people: all Cistercian monks. img_3423

Île Saint-Honorat is one of four Îles de Lérins. All four islands are part of the commune of Cannes, though the smaller two, considered îlots, are uninhabited. Sainte Marguerite, the other island accessible by ferry, is about six times the size of Saint-Honorat. Inhabitants of these islands (about forty altogether) are called Lériniens. I found it charming–a name for something so specific!– but considering the history, I think they’ve earned it: monks have lived here since 410.

Today, besides running the ferries to and from the island, the monks produce red and white wine as well as Lérina: a liquor made from 44 kinds of plants macerated in alcohol. img_3224

For about 17 euros each, Erika and I bought round trip tickets on the speedy little Saint-Honorat III. We left at 9 am and enjoyed the crisp sea air and the view of Cannes from afar.

When we arrived, our few companions scurried off the boat and disappeared up some concrete stairs, moving like they had jobs to do: which was likely true. The island has a gift shop, a restaurant and snack bar, and even, it seemed to me, a small hotel or hostel.

We picked a path along the perimeter, determined to walk the whole thing, lest we miss something (no excuse for that on such a small island). The morning air was cool, the quiet broken only by birdsong and the occasional church bell. The air smelled faintly of pine. And the color! A feast of sage greens, soft browns, and shiny black olives. (So inviting, these olives, framed by dusty green leaves, and yet so bitter. Someday I’ll learn).

We came to an arch and changed direction, walking under it and towards the center of the island. A wide dirt path bisected a vineyard, and over the fences we saw pheasants: their startling blue feathers flashing in the bright sunlight.

As we approached the monastery, the scene changed from sleepy storybook forest to something distinctly tropical. The Abbayé de Lérins, framed by flowers and palmiers, looked like it belonged in Italy or Spain.img_3226

We tried to go inside, but after wrestling a lot of locked doors, we gave it up and continued to faire le tour. We found a chapel every few minutes, it seemed, in various states of restoration or decay. The oldest, I think (12th century?) was in complete ruins, nothing but a historic pile of small stones.

It was interesting to divine the island’s rich history through its architecture. In addition to chapels and statues, there’s even an ancient cannonball oven.

On the presqu’île (which translates literally to almost-island), the lonely Forteresse de l’ile Saint-Honorat seems to sit on the sea.

img_2343We gave ourselves three hours to explore, but didn’t need all the time. A picnic lunch and a book might have extended the visit. As we went to leave, it seemed the new arrivals stepping off the boat had prepared for some serious hiking: the ferry was full this time around, everyone wearing hats and light jackets, many carrying backpacks and walking sticks. I’ve noticed this about France: if you plan to exercise, you’d better dress the part. What felt like a light, refreshing walk to me saw these families of five dressed as one might be for a half-day hike straight uphill. In the desert.