Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cote d'Azur, Land of Reveries (2)

While in Marseille and Antibes, I had a chance to communicate with some locals, which gave me a refreshing perspective on how the French folks are influenced by Asians.

On the fourth day of our stay in Nice, we took a two-and-a-half-hour train trip to Marseille, the third largest city in France. In order not to waste time fumbling around at subway stations, we decided to take a taxi to get to our target destination, the Vieux Port (Old Port). My plan was to have a bouillabaisse (a kind of spiced fish soup/stew) lunch there and to take the “petit train” tour round the old quarters of the city.

In a mix of broken, long-out-of-practice French and much more fluent English, I chatted with the handsome, high-spirited Caucasian taxi driver on the way. From our short conversation, I found out that he’s married to a Thai immigrant. He had met her in a Thai food restaurant in Marseille where she used to work. After they got married, she opened a small Japanese sushi restaurant, as experience told her that competition in Thai food was too keen. He sounded so full of joie de vivre that it was hard not to feel affected. I then asked him which restaurant at the Vieux Port offered the best bouillabaisse. He advised us to try the Mirarmar seafood restaurant on Quai du Port, near Hotel de Ville. He also told us frankly that he liked fish per se but not bouillabaisse.

After getting out of the taxi, we located where the “petit train” terminus was. As the next run wouldn’t start until 2:00 pm, we decided to have lunch first. We walked across the road to explore the row of brasseries and bistros stretching the full length of the quai, mostly with tables set under canopies on the outside. The Mirarmar was a full-house and the bowls in which bouillabaisse was served looked huge. We hesitated and doubted whether the price of 58 euros per bowl was really worth it. We walked past a couple of eateries and then out of nowhere bolted an over zealous restaurateur who almost grabbed me by the arm and ushered us into his bistro. Unable to fight his passionate appeal, we finally acquiesced and sat down. After the meal, we regretted not taking the taxi driver’s advice.

The “petit train” took us rumbling through a sleepy, yet historic part of Marseille called the Panier. The district is well known for hiding Resistance fighters from German troops in its warren of criss-crossing lanes, dark alleys and side streets during World War II. In January 1943, the Nazis, aided by some French police from Paris, evacuated 30,000 inhabitants from the area, sending 3,000 of them to concentration camps before blowing up 1,500 houses. But the raid failed to kill the feisty, freedom-loving spirit of Marseille.

On the way back to the terminus, a few playful kids from the streets jumped on board and took a free ride, exhilarated and triumphant. The driver probably knew it all along but decided to let them have some fun, as there were empty seats any way.
After the 65-minute tour, we spent whatever time was left in doing leche-vitrines at the nearby Lafayette Galleries. Had there been more time, I would have liked to take a ferry trip to Chateau d’If, the famous island prison on which an essential part of Alexandre Dumas (Pere)’s novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was set.

On the taxi journey back to the train station, I was drawn into a friendly chat (in my staccato French again) by the middle-aged, proud father-of-two taxi driver. He told us excitedly that he would be visiting Montreal on October 1 on the invitation of a Canadian friend to see the autumn foliage. One of his sons is a taxi driver who is fluent in English and has visited the United States several times. The other son is a local journalist and is married to a professor of English. One of his cousins is working as a marketing manager for L’Oreal in Shanghai while another relative is a lawyer in Marseille responsible for vetting contracts for French expatriates in China. Seemingly proud and happy with the achievement of his lot, he came across as totally contented with what life has given him.

Two happy taxi drivers in one day. Was that my luck or what?

The morning of our fifth day was spent in Cannes and the afternoon in St. Raphael. Had I known that all the marches only open in mornings, I would have switched the order of visit around, as St. Raphael is known for its two food markets: one at Rue de Victor Hugo and one at Rue de la Republique.

We found the main shopping street in Cannes, Rue d’Antibes, without any difficulty. Both local and international brands could be found on this bustling street. I found and bought a pair of suede shoes at a sell out price of 20 euros at a shop that was about to close down. The Boulevard de la Croisette, which is the seafront street that abuts the famous Cannes beaches (Plages de la Croisette), purely hosts luxury brand shops. From a bench on this boulevard, we feasted our eyes on the spectacular boundless stretch of bright azure water. The Palais des Festivals et des Congres, which is located at one end of the said Boulevard (where the Old Port is), was unfortunately off limits.

While in St. Raphael, we had a hearty lunch of fish fillet in a cream sauce with spaghetti at one of the small, family-run eateries right opposite the Marche de Victor Hugo. The owner told us that the fish he used were bought fresh that morning from that market. The delectable meal kind of made up for our lost chance to browse the market. After lunch, we went to the seaside promenade of the Old Port to browse around, where many of the shops and eateries congregated. Like all other Cote d’Azur towns, St. Raphael’s sea front at the Old Port was enthrallingly color-imbued, even on a somewhat cloudy day.

On the last day of our stay in Nice, we ambled out in the morning to the markets at Cours Selaya for a second time to buy (more) souvenirs. Afterwards, we took an early afternoon train to the ancient town of Antibes. The Greeks were the earliest settlers in 5th century BC and they named the town Antipolis (meaning “the city across”). That’s how the name “Antibes” originated.

As it was a Sunday, the Office of Tourism in Antibes was not open and we couldn’t get a map of the town. Luckily, the road signs were clear and helpful and all we had to do was to follow the sign that read “Vieille Ville”. Experience in the past few days told me that all places with the words “Vieux” (“old” for masculine nouns) or “Vieille” (“old” for feminine nouns) are superbly interesting places. On reaching the Vieille Ville, an unbelievably large cluster of restaurants, bistros, cafes, shops and art workshops leapt out. There were even a few Chinese and Vietnamese food eateries.

We decided to take a tour of the area first, just to whet our appetite. Stopping at one of the shops that sell trinkets and accessories, we chatted with the lady shop owner, who seemed quite surprised to find that we’re Hong Kong Chinese living in Canada. She told us that she was very happy living in beautiful Antibes. Who wouldn’t be?

For lunch, we settled for a crepe and pasta eatery owned by a lady who appeared grouchy at first. We ordered seafood tagliatelles (a kind of flat noodles) in creamy cheese sauce and Caesar’s salad. Both were extremely scrumptious. While eating, a stylish, smart-looking Eurasian young lady in a chic white tunic top and black trousers sitting at the next table started to make conversation in broken English with us. She was having lunch with her early-teen daughter. She told us that she came from a parentage of Moroccan and Vietnamese descent and grew up in Paris. Recently she moved with her family to Antibes. She mentioned that real estate in Antibes was priced at about the same level as in Paris.

Learning that we are of Chinese origin, she got all hyped up and told us breathlessly that she had been yearning to visit Hong Kong, Shanghai and other cities in China, having been impressed by modern and prosperous Dubai on a previous trip there. At this point, the little girl mumbled something to her mother. The lady explained that her daughter’s name was “China” and she was asking her mother why she was repeatedly saying her name. Then she gushed forth about how China is the world’s growth engine and is the country of tomorrow, and that both Europe and the United States are done for. I certainly didn’t agree with her but preferred to keep my opinions to myself. My friend remarked to me that China’s propaganda abroad was apparently working.

When the eatery owner presented us the bill, I told her that the food was delicious. It was then that I saw her face relax in a grin. On leaving the eatery, we continued our browsing through the Old Town until it was time to walk back to the train station. How I wished I could have more time wandering into other parts of this lovely town and venturing into other Cote d’Azur gems that I didn’t yet have a chance to explore.

On that note, our six-day tour on the Land of Reveries came to an end. Time to wake up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cote d'Azur, Land of Reveries (1)

If Paris could be likened to a mature lady of understated glamour in elegant poise, with a certain savoir-faire that comes from a polished culture and living with the best, then an apt symbol for the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) would be an unworldly youthful dame of great verve and beauty with an infinite power of imagination. By the end of the 19th century, the Cote d’Azur was already a magnet for inspiration-seeking artistic painters and writers, who were drawn there by the balmy weather, paradise-like scenery, bright colors and clear lights. Since then, it has become a mecca for world-wide tourists in search of reveries.

The five-and-a-half-hour TGV (high-speed train) trip from Paris to Nice (on September 20) didn’t feel that long, probably because of one’s excitement and yearning for the destination. My plan was to make Nice our home base and to take daily excursion trips to nearby Riviera towns. Thus I had chosen a hotel very near to the Nice-Ville train station.

As the train sped past unending expanses of vineyards and farmland, which were punctuated by an occasional industrial hub, one couldn’t but sense that the wine and agricultural industries must be a vital part of the French economy. Official data say that over 60 percent of the land in France is used for agricultural purposes, the country is self-sufficient in food supplies and that it is a leading agricultural exporter in the European Union and the world’s second largest agricultural producer after the United States.

My own wild guess is that wine and agricultural exports may well have been the country’s key economic stabilizer in recent times of global financial turmoil. Only myopic nations and cities would give short shrift to agricultural farming. This reminds me of the Hong Kong youngsters who formed the Land Justice League and who mooted the point of returning village and country land to farming mode. Something tells me that they are the visionary lot. But the question is, how many Hong Kongers are sensible enough to heed their voice?

As the train journey drew towards its end, meandering stretches of sky-blue coastal waters adorned with a lone sail or two and charming seaside resorts were in sight through the train’s windows.

It was mid-afternoon when we set foot in the magical city of Nice. The Provencal sun was smiling warmly on us. What better thing to do than to take to the legendary Promenade des Anglais right away? From our hotel, it would take us less than fifteen minutes to walk down to the seaside. We took Rue Berlioz and then continued on Rue de Rivoli, at the end of which stood the palatial Hotel Negresco which dates back to 1912 and which graces a lot of Nice’s postcards.

There, the sweeping vista of the scintillating, sapphire blue Mediterranean washed over us! From afar, the deep purple blue sea melded with the cloudless cerulean sky and rushed towards us in an astounding azure, changing into a lighter shade of azure as it neared, then into a crystal light blue nearest the shore. The subtle blend of different nuances of blue was so magical that it simply left one in wordless awe at the wonders of nature. Against the changing hues of blue, the off-white pebble beaches were dotted with jovial, colorfully clad bathers and sun bathers, young and old, many with an enviable healthy tan.

Our first meal in Nice was taken at a family-run eatery on a street parallel to the Promenade des Anglais (I forgot the name of the street) and consisted of hearty omelettes aux champignons and salade Nicoise (romaine greens, tomatoes, tuna, anchovies and hard-boiled eggs, dressed in vinaigrette). The portions served were huge and we enjoyed both the meal and the friendly service.

The next morning was spent browsing the Marche aux Fleurs (flower market) and the food market in Cours Selaya, which runs parallel to the Quai des Etats-Unis, followed by a late lunch at one of the seafood restaurants in the market and an exploring visit to the Vieille Ville (Old Town).

The markets en plein air simply oozed with colors and activities. Freshly cut flowers and robustly growing plants of every imaginable species and shade of color were vying for shoppers’ pick. Souvenirs of lavender pouches and lavender soap were in abundance and reasonably priced, as were colorful fruits and vegetables, honey, fruit preserves, aromatic dried mushrooms, bon bons, nougats, pastries, raw fish fillets and other kinds of seafood. I was so drawn to the aroma from the stall that sold dried mushrooms that I had to buy some cepes and some mousserons, both types of which burst with fragrance.

For our late lunch/dinner, we had spaghetti with seafood and a big pot of mussels cooked in garlic sauce at a restaurant called “Paradice”. The restaurant owner was engaged and friendly and gave us a big jar of water for free. He smiled profusely when I offered courteous compliments for the exquisite cuisine.

The Old Town consists of a maze of narrow cobblestone streets in which hide a host of quaint small shops that sell all sorts of merchandises. Some of the shop owners even make their own products. I bought a pastel-color shoulder bag made from irregular pieces of quilts of matching color sewn together. All the bags and sacs are hand-made by the lady shop owner. At another shop, my friend bought a pair of psychedelic colored culottes made in Tunisia. As we wandered around, we were attracted by the deeply resonant singing voice of an amiable old lady who had her hair wrapped in an Arcadian blue-and-white scarf, dressed in a pinafore over a demure frock and carrying a woven basket, and who likely performs regularly in the square for free. Patrons of nearby plein air cafes rewarded her with hearty rounds of applause. It was easy to be lost in the heart-warming ambiance of the place.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on one of the sea side benches and gazing out into the sprawling stretch of twinkling sapphire blue and conjuring up wild daydreams.

The next day (September 22) we took a mid-morning SNCF train to Monaco. Unfortunately, direction signs in the Gare Monte Carlo were sorely lacking and not user-friendly. It felt like the Municipality was trying to give train travelers a snub. I found it difficult to navigate out of the train station and we ended up using the most inconvenient exit.

Once outside the station, we followed Rue Grimaldi and walked down Rue Princess Caroline to reach the seaside promenade. It happened that the 2011 Monaco Yacht Show had just kicked off the day before (September 21) and it was the second day of the big event. The Route de la Piscine was packed with people and vehicle traffic. By vehicle I mean Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, Jaguars, Bentleys, Mercedes and the like. Port Hercule was bristling with new shiny yachts and the show would include 100 megayachts of up to 90 meters, as I would later find out.

We ordinary folks of course didn’t come for the show. So on we ambled in the embrace of glorious sunshine and light sea breeze, which everyone could enjoy, thank God. We were so mesmerized by the postcard-perfect view of the Mediterranean that we walked right past the Monte Carlo Casino without knowing. It was only when we reached Plage du Larvotto that we realized this. So back we turned on Avenue Princess Grace until we came to the Grimaldi Forum, where a display of luxuriant carpets and rugs of the finest craftsmanship was being hosted. From here we moved to the neighboring Jardin Japonais (Japanese Garden) and savored the tranquil oasis in the midst of the opulent resort hub. The bamboo fences, the Tea House, the stone lanterns, the little red wooden bridge, the waterfall and the pond were all imbued with a “Zen” air of soothing calm.

The day’s tour ended with a brief visit to the casino complex perched high and mighty on the hillside, where we fed our eyes on an amazing view of the port while enjoying a delicious scoop of ice cream at the tourist-packed, fountains-furnished Jardin du Casino. As the majestic main casino was not yet open, I just satisfied myself with a quick tour of the American one, which was no different from any Macau or Las Vegas counterpart. My friend didn’t bother to join me.

Compared to earthy yet not-of-this-earth Nice, Monte Carlo is without doubt of the “regal” category. The comparison is like one between Catherine Deneuve and Grace Kelly in their prime. My preference should be quite obvious.