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.

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