Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Buongiorno to Bonjour - Tuscany to nice Nice

It is a very scenic drive along the Italian and French Riviera from the little township of Montecatini to the wonderful seaside city of Nice. We passed through 172 (81km of it in tunnels) on route from Tuscany to the French border. The first glimpse of the bright blue Mediterranean will be etched in my memory for some time. Stunning!

We stopped on the way at a Perfume Factory where we are taken on a tour through from essential oils stage through to packing. Little did I know that it takes 3000kg of lavender flowers (as tiny as they are) to produce 1 litre of essential lavender oil. You start to understand what makes perfume so very expensive. Of course the object of the exercise is to buy and the spenders in our tour group were at it again. Truly amazing the volumes of stuff people buy. More mind blowing is where they put it all. Several have bought another suitcase on the way and Ambrogio, the driver is heard muttering on departure days "Mama Mia the bus is full".

As we got closer and closer to Nice the roads became so narrow and windy, I wondered how we were going to get around them. I know the buses are incredible in themselves technically but the driving ability is something else.  Amazing views were never ending.

We are staying at another luxury hotel, with 2 beds for me to choose from, windows that open up wide (great for hanging the washing up to dry) and a huge wall mounted TV's. I am a little weary of CNN and BBC as there is nothing else in English. The net book has been fantastic as I can keep an eye on the NZ Herald. Internet access and cost varies from place to place. Here it is on an access password that lasts for 30mins. You can have as many as you like but you have to use Wi Fi in the lobby. To access from your room is 6 Euro for an hour....expensive.

We were given a couple of hours to refresh on arrival and then it was off to Monaco and Monte Carlo. This excursion was an optional extra and was well worth it. We stopped for a couple of photo stops along the way high up on the cliff tops overlooking the bays and out into the Mediterranean. Luxury boats are in abundance and some of the houses were like nothing you have ever seen before. We took a short walk past the well-known aquarium and were told that Prince Rainier was a very good friend of Jacques Cousteau hence the aquarium. We went into the Cathedral and walked past the many tombs inside and were able to see those of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier - fresh flowers on them both. From there we walked through to the Palace and had some amazing views of Monte Carlo, into the marinas, and could make out the Grand Prix circuit in the distance.

Following a very French dinner it was back onto the bus and off to the casino. The road we were travelling on had the markings of the start positions for the Grand Prix and our bus driver after not a lot of encouragement did a standing start with the bus from pole position! He is an Italian after all! Mark, the tour director who is great but a very proper English gentleman was wondering what came next. There was more....they no longer allow a drop off by tour buses close to the casino but that did not detour our driver who managed some pretty hair raising illegal manoeuvres and an illegal bus stop. He told us when I stop you have 15 seconds to get off....attack, attack attack. He is so very funny but by this time Mark is raising his eyebrows and I think preferred not to look where the bus was going next.

We walked through some very well groomed gardens complete with fountains cascading down. Arriving on a corner across the road from the "old casino” (which you have to pay to gamble, although we could go into the foyer and look at the ornate furnishings) we stood to cross. It was there that we saw a parade of cars that were just dollars on wheels. I was utterly gobsmacked. Mercedes of many different models were a dime a dozen as were Bentleys, Ferraris, Porches and Rolls Royce. I saw more of those cars in 15mins than I have seen in my entire lifetime.

A cafe close on the street looking out to the main square had caviar for 240 Euro for 10g. I guess price does not matter when you are in that league. The diners didn't all look like they were enjoying themselves and some of those dripping in gold with designer clothing looked totally bored by it all.  The woman usually dressed in wonderful exquisite designer dresses wearing amazing shoes were generally young or wished they were and on the arm of a man who generally older in years and wearing white......maybe the men thought it made them look younger! We were able to go and try our luck in the new casino just adjacent to the sidewalk cafe. I lost 5.50 E but was able to play for 45 mins on that. Some had a few good wins and Marlsye won 150 E and has never played a slot machine in her life! As we left the square just as it was getting dark, the shimmering lights, the sparkling cars, the jet vapours in the sky and the luxury launches lit up on the water in the surreal surroundings made for a magical scene.

There was much indecision about whether to go on the included tour to the "perched village" (so named as it is perched on a hilltop) of Saint Paul de Vence. We were leaving at the respectful time of 9am and would be back by lunchtime. The thought of a swim in the Mediterranean was a strong pull but I decided that I was here to experience and see as much as I could and went off to see St Paul. I was glad I did as it was a beautiful, old French village and there was plenty to see and experience when wandering its narrow alleyways. After seeing the very old village laundry (11th century), the grave of Marc Chagall in a quaint cemetery high on the hill we wandered back through the very French shops admiring the art. The village has been frequented by the likes of Kerry Grant and Roger Moore and we sat and enjoyed a cold drink at the cafe in the square where the celebrities have visited. The petanque boules were close at hand but there was not enough time for a game.


Back in Nice I took the tram downtown (1 E -solo voyage) and wandered through the shopping area toward the beach and the Promenade des Anglais. In 1822 the orange crop at Nice was poor and the workers faced a lean time so the English residents put them to work building the Promenade which is a wide and very long boulevard fronting the bay.

Split by islands of palms and flowers it stretches for about 6km . Fronting the beach are rows of cafes, villas and hotels, some swish others decaying. The sand is non-existent and instead the beach is covered in stones which are larger than those at Brighton.

The water is incredibly blue and was amazingly warm. There is nothing like a swim in the Med at the French Riviera and now I can tick that one off. It is not so pleasant sitting on the stones afterwards but many do. The beach was covered with people and incidentally...yes topless in the norm and everyone no matter what shape and size wears a bikini! Guess I was happy being abnormal!

There are several private areas that are cornered off with umbrellas, sun loungers and bars attached. You could rent a lounger and umbrella for 20 E a day and there were mats laid out over the stones down to the water. Water sports as you can imagine is huge and there were no shortage of people lining up for parasailing, wakeboarding, biscuit rides being towed by a very new Nautique. (I know that will interest some).

Craving for a salad, we stopped off a one of the many cafes for a fresh Greek salad and a glass of Italian Prosecco for dinner....yes I know I am in France! After Spain we are back in France again so plenty of time for sampling the local gastronomical delights.

Leaving the beautiful Nice we travelled along the boulevard, busy with the morning runners, joggers and cyclists. We had tried to hire a cycle yesterday as the cycle lane runs along the entire stretch of the bay however you had to give your credit card over the phone and that not was worth the risk.
We turned inland to head west just past the airport with its line-up of at private jets. I lost count after 50. Apparently they step off their jets onto a helicopter and fly to Monte Carlo. Leaving the very beautiful Nice and the lifestyle of the rich and famous behind...soon it will be Hola from Spain.

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