Nice, Cote d’Azur, France
Sometime in August, 2011
At Nice, we clamoured out of the train and into the insides of Palais du Luxembourg. A charming thought, but no. This of course, was Gare de Nice-Ville, a station built in the Louis XIII architectural tradition – an ecclesiastical mixture of Dutch Baroque and Italian styles – very rich, very confusing, very belittling. After a routine photo session in, outside, just outside, above the trees and under a train, we decided to walk into the city. The Arles stone sculptures welcomed us wholesomely and we felt a surge of excitement stepping into the French Riviera.
The tourist centre was on the other side of the road and we were confronted with advertisements for Є22.85 day passes which allowed you to do the most routine things and not come back home with interesting stories. I refused to buy one. Do you have any idea how ‘expensive’ these things are? In Vienna, I bought a pass just after landing and immediately went bankrupt. So I stood by and let those smile ridden tourism officials fool my friends. What assholes. As I waited for them to realize the pointlessness of this exercise, I made good on another of my afflictions, the habit of collecting free trash including but not restricted to magazines, flyers, newspapers, bus schedules and other assorted garbage – just in case someone back in India needed to know when the last Bus 100 left Monaco.
|The Gare de Nice-Ville was built in 1867 in the Louis XIII style. While the exterior of the building is rather magnificent in a Royal way, the insides are designed to urge you to vacate the building.|
We walked along the main street, L’avenue Jean-Medicin rather comfortably and I realized this was because we had conveniently placed our excess luggage in a large locker room which looked suspiciously like the U.S. military storage facility of the Indiana Jones’ fame. Unlike the latter, we were assured that we could retrieve our valuables upon return. In France, it is incredibly rare to come across a cloak room and when you do, they are managed privately and charge you a fortune and then you immediately go bankrupt.
Another thing about Nice is that it is a ‘gay-friendly city’ which means that if you profess your sexual orientation on a megaphone just outside the station, you will immediately be befriended by a herd of locals who will then invite you over for a carnival at their home. No, that won’t happen. I just made it up. But I do think it is rather pompous to advertise yourself as being gay-friendly. I was incredibly excited about being in the Azure Coast, but what really intrigued me was the gay-friendliness. As we walked, I saw many gay men and women, but they were all strolling with gay women and men (respectively) and they all looked happy. This made me wonder if the French had mistaken joy for homosexuality, which is just as well.
The weather was excellent. Summer in the French Riviera is like winter in Chennai – surprisingly hot. I got myself a Fanta and was delighted to find that it tasted orangeier than its Indian sibling. I quickly concluded that it was because they used fake tangerine flavouring instead of fake orange. The avenue was lined on either sides with assorted bakeries in colourful neo-classical buildings which themselves looked like large delicious pastries. I was pleasantly taken by the air of wealth and friendliness here and we would stop often to photograph everything with our digi-cams.
|Notre-Dmae de Nice on L'Avenue Jean-Medicin was built in 1864 in the neo-Gothic style.|
The basilica, Notre-Dame de Nice was a splendid structure. All white and regularly restored, it shone brilliantly in the Mediterranean sunlight. This and her sister basilicas in France belong to the neo-Gothic style of architecture – a reactionary style that emerged in England and was transported to continental Europe to battle the emergence of neo-classicism. This is exactly the kind of movement which says “I am not going to make new things better, I am going to make new things old, fuck you very much” and the French exceed in the act of preservation.
We missed the bus to our accommodation and had a comfortable hour before another swung around so we decided to unwind at Place Massena. Growing up, one of my fantasies has been to sit well dressed in a street cafe in a French town square and sip coffee while reading the newspaper and smoking a cigarette – the kind of smug aspiration that accompanies one’s being brought up in a middle class Indian household. When I say middle class, I do not mean the LV swinging ‘Oh we can afford only the Audi A6’ kind of middle class but the one which routinely thinks of itself as being wealthier than it actually is or can be – the result being our thrift – but I digress.
|Place Massena is Nice's central square and one of the city's most popular transit and recreational junctions.|
Place Massena was all that. A grand central square in the heart of a veritable jewel in the French Riviera paved with Italian black and white marbles in the kind of illusive pattern which makes you wonder if you are going up or down or round and round. Fantastic street lights à la Cannes would light the square at night but even during the day it looked just splendid. Families and couples and tourists and students were sunbathing on the vast green lawns that flanked the square. Unlike India where lovers turn parks into honeymoon destinations, the romance here was open and frankly rather uninteresting. One could lose oneself in the scene and be knocked over. It is fortunate that the square is pedestrian save for the slow aerodynamically designed tram which crosses every now and then. This is also good because the tram would simply brush aside the inattentive bystander rather gently.
Hunger struck and we found ourselves lucky to be in the region’s gourmet capital. Nice holds patent over such dishes as Ratatouille and Salad Niçoise. In addition, the French Riviera is home to some of the best sea food in the world. Unfortunately for me “Je suis allergique aux fois de mer” which meant that I could not indulge myself with expensive and life threatening eatables. I was happy to avoid the expense. While the connoisseurs went in search of some ‘deadly catch’, my friend and I decided to find a place more suited to our middle class ways. In a by lane by the square was a simple shack that sold crepes. Gastronomically speaking, we could not have been more diametrically distant. The crepe, a dish that has taken the global fast food industry by surprise is originally the native of Brittany, a north-western French province. We were in the south-east. We have a version of the crepe closer to home in India. It is called a dosa and it has taken over the fast food industry in India by surprise masquerading as the staple South-Indian dish.
|This juicy three course meal at Place Massena set my friends back Є27 each. They say the food was heavenly. It'd better be is what I say.|
We put aside our digi-cams and any other pretence and quickly ordered a Nutella crepe – because we felt entitled to the luxury – and some coffee which we each shared rather gay-ly. The onlookers were friendly. Our waitress, who also tripled up as the proprietor of the shack and its chief and only chef, took silent pleasure in feeding us with an ever so slight smile. The crepe was crap but the joy of one-upping our mates who were probably spending Є30 each on fancy meals was satiating enough. After the satisfactory meal, we were presented with a little printed bill tastefully crammed into a bowl of coffee beans. Once we finished eating the complementary beans by the handful, we unfolded the bill to an unpleasant surprise.
Є11.95. Did we even have that much money on us, collectively? We were just beginning to find out as the notes came out first and then the coins – the twos and the ones; the cents rolled out at an increasing pace past the fifties and the twenties, the tens, the fives and the twos. Well, isn’t that just nice. Replacing the coffee beans now was a pile of metal into which we tastelessly crammed the stupid bill. Our benevolent host lost her smile as she mined the pile into her apron with both arms. “Casse-toi” she must have thought. Here we were, two grown men, completely broke save a cumulative thirteen cent fortune, seven thousand miles from home and in an expensive-ass foreign land. It was interesting.
|The Azure Coast.|
The lack of money does something incredible. It makes one appreciate the city for what it is instead of what it has. Pennilessness would have been my preferred state of existence if I were a philosopher worth his salt. But I am not. Still, the city transformed before my eyes and the buildings, the Square, the people and the vegetation all transmogrified into a statement of collective aspirations. The cool sea breeze was liberating and the view of the grand Cote d’Azur just beyond Place Massena was everything I had dreamed of. The cold clear water of the Mediterranean Sea brought to my mind the stories of myth and histories of a hundred civilisations. The touristy things along the way lost significance and I was immersed in a proverbial sea of thought and admiration.
This however would not have happened if I had gone for the day pass. Freedom of choice is essential while travelling. Despite our poverty, we still had our digi-cams – we were the pauperazzi © - and were strolling on the Azure Coast. Nice really is a beautiful city. It captures the spirit of the region in its food, fashion, art and architecture. To me, it is more French than the self-important edifices of Paris could ever be. This sounds a little high handed coming from the guy who ate crepes in Nice, but just beyond the thinly veiled criticism of its urban placeless and historical timeless, lie a bricolage of interesting experiences that can only be termed as ‘Crepes Nicoise’.