Postcards from France
I am on Eurostar, the wonder-train, speeding under the English Channel. In 20 minutes we will emerge blinking in the sunlight on French soil. That’s what it takes, 20 minutes and 1000 years of history to bring this damp little island into Europe.
You see why I love the train? It’s not just because the journey becomes part of the holiday, nor simply because it’s nicer and friendlier and you can get the feel of places before you actually arrive. It’s all that history and romance that comes with it. Especially this one. Paris is just the beginning. Nice, so nice, especially at this time of year, is waiting for me way down south on the Cote d’Azur. So is my husband. We have agreed to meet, like clandestine lovers, in the Mediterranean sunshine. But first I want to do a stop-over.
Montpellier, a bit further along the coast, nearer to Spain is supposed to be one of France’s hidden treasures, as sophisticated as Paris, but with a beach and warm Mediterranean blood coursing through its veins. Arriving late in the afternoon I find a city warm, balmy and buzzing with life. I hop on rather a jazzy looking tram, which turns out to be designed by haute couturier, Christian Lacroix. How chic is that? ‘A Streetcar Named Lacroix’. Buy the dress, sniff the perfume, take the tram.
Out and about the next day I’m gasping for a coffee. The Place de la Comedie, huge and baroque and splendid is where the smart cafes are around here but so are the snootiest waiters. Instead I follow the tiny side streets to the old town, where the coffee is better and so is the service. They say that Parisians come to Montpellier for the shopping. I can see why. Everything nudges everything else; a church, the town hall, buzzy cafés, designer boutiques, all sharing the history and charm of old Montpellier.
I like this city. I like its wit and its nerve. But my train to Nice awaits, as does my romantic assignation. Meanwhile, rural France, soft, warm and effortlessly striped in the early shades of the coming autumn starts unfolding outside my window. Each view is like a postcard. As we start hugging the coast it becomes twilight and my postcards take on a pinkish tone, while the sun, in its absence, turns the sea a deep purple.
There are about a million people on the Nice platform. One of them taps me on the shoulder. We’ve done it. No romantic smoke, no soaring music, but the view from our hotel window is straight out of a movie. There it is, the Med, inky black by now and scattered all over with glittering spangles of reflected lights. Call it bling if you like. We call it magic.
We wander about, following the scent of lilies and roses and sweet basil and find ourselves in the heart of the legendary Nice Flower Market. We explore further, into Piazza Garibaldi, where everyone speaks a mixture of French and Italian, mostly in the same sentence.
We meet Nadim, owner of Oliviera, a charming bistro where you can taste every olive oil in the world and eat a fusion of Italian/French/Middle Eastern food. As we leave, full to bursting, we munch sweet almonds, dipped in chocolate and dusted in the finest sugar from Auer, the oldest and best chocolatier in Nice.
We remind each other that we have a reservation in three hours at one of the best seafood restaurants in Nice, La Pescheria in the Hotel Boscolo. Can we be relied upon to be hungry?
A brisk walk along the Promenade des Anglais does the trick and we’re there, taste buds tingling ready for the best than Nice can offer. I hesitate about eating octopus, but what a revelation. Not a hint of rubbery texture, but deliciousness that melts in the mouth, tasting of the sea. Each course is equally superb, fresh, tasty and presented as a work of art. I find that the further south you go the less ‘French’ the food becomes. Nicoise (like the salad) food is about olives and tomatoes and garlic and gorgeous greeny golden olive oil Forget creamy sauces, forget foie gras, this is robust, fine food that recognizes its Frenchness but speaks of its location.
I spend our last evening checking on home exchanges in Nice and in Montpellier. As you would expect, we’re spoiled for choice. This trip of discovery is a perfect way to try living like a local in France.
Unbelievably two days have disappeared and our train to Lyon and Paris is pulling into Nice station. We’re on our way again. It starts to rain. Outside my window a field of tired sunflowers, their heads heavy with blackened seeds droop on their stalks. “Off with those heads,” I murmur. “This is France. Where is that guillotine?
Lyon next stop and then Paris. Watch this space.
Sandra used www.railbookers.com to plan her trip.
She stayed at the Pullman Antigone hotel in the heart of Montpellier.
In Nice she was at Hotel Meridien overlooking the Bay of Angels.
LIVING LIKE A LOCAL:
Charming apartment : ID 226081
Duplex Apartment: ID 439030
3-bedroom house with a panoramic view: ID 424661
2-bedroom apartment in the heart of Nice: ID 358213
EATING AND DRINKING:
Best bar/bistro: L’insense at Musee Fabre, Montpellier
Best coffee: Café de l’Esplanade, 21 Boulevard Sarrail, 34000 Montpellier, France
Best ice cream: Arlequin Gelati Italiani, 9 Avenue Malausséna, Liberation,06000, Nice.
Best olive oil: Oliveria, 8 Rue du Collet, 06300 Nice, France
Best fusion food: Oliviera, 8 Rue du Collet, 06300 Nice, France
Best restaurant: La Pescheria, Boscolo Hotel 12 Boulevard Victor Hugo, Nice, France
Best market: Nice daily Market