Diary of our trip to Nice, France

June 5-8, 1999

Sat. June 5

Got up at 4:30 a.m. We had packed up our camping equipment the night before. Got 1/2-price tickets to Nice with Daily Mail promotion with British Airways. Walked to Bath Rd. in Maidenhead and waited for X39 bus from 6:15 to 6:40 but it didn't come. Caught a cab with a lady to Maidenhead train station, caught train to Slough, then cab with Asian driver to Heathrow Airport. Got there at 7:40, just in time to check in. Big lineup of people with bicycles in oversize luggage area. Left from terminal 1, supposedly at 8:40 but were delayed in taking off for 20 minutes. The plane was full so Louise and me sat 2 rows apart. Had brunch of ham and cheese sandwich and coffee. I talked to the girl on my left side who was marketing manager for a big American flower-growing company. She was interesting. The girl on my right was French and going to St. Tropez to get married. She was very happy. Louise sat beside a Jewish couple from London who bragged about their grandkids and were staying at a 5-star hotel in Cannes. He thought Louise should sue the X39 bus company.

It was very sunny in Nice; the plane circled once over big hills. Could see lots of cities near the coast. The airport was very clean and modern with lots of rich people. We waited for our camping equipment but it didn't come. Luggage wheels were also missing. Went to BA counter and got a form from a French girl and another very pretty one with brown hair. Then lined up for a Hertz rent a car -- this took about an hour. Very hot as we had our good clothes on; Louise wasn't pleased. Bought a phone card and called a campground in Vence 7 miles north. I hadn't forgotten my French despite not using it very much. Finally got a little burnt-orange Peugeot car, 5-speed. Louise figured that Hertz had gotten a deal on a car with such an ugly colour. Set off with our suitcases and a vague map of the area. Very modern architecture in the Cote d'Azur area, nice, well-marked paved roads. The car took a bit of getting used to as the clutch was different from mine. Decided to go to Cagnes Sur Mer about 4 miles away. Very pleasant area, lots of cafes. Found a free parking lot, then sat under a willow tree and ate some snacks. Saw a few gypsy trailers and people offering donkey rides to little children. Very hot out. Put on hiking boots, walked up through alley lanes to the old town which was called High Cagnes. Very narrow, steep streets, lots of flowers, quite hot. Went into the castle, cost $2.40 each to see an exhibition about olives and interesting modern paintings. Castle had been a mansion home in the 1700s; 1 room had a beautiful painted ceiling and a tremendous fireplace mantle carved with marble statues. Open air courtyard with big tree growing in it. Saw great views of hills around the town -- could see planes landing at the airport which was built on landfill in the ocean, and hills to the north where we were headed later.

Walked around outside, saw cafes and postcard shops; returned to the town, bought drinks, ice-cream bar and some pastries for tomorrow. At 4:30, returned by coast road to airport, got camping equipment but luggage wheels weren't there. Blue canvas tied with yellow rope containing camping equipment had come open but nothing was missing. Drove back through Cagnes, got lost, discovered that Cagnes had alot of ugly areas full of garages. Drove north through St. Paul de Vence, seeing big hills, villas, tremendous valleys, and lots of olive trees. There wasn't as much traffic inland. Arrived in the town of Vence; they were having a concert in the main square. It was a hard place to find your way around; drove east out of town, consulted a map, then drove back through town. Arrived at Domaine de la Bergerie campground at 7, still light. 3 German fellows on motorcycles were checking in too. Found a site among lots of trailers and shady oak trees. Very quiet campground. Too chilly to swim in pool although it looked attractive. Set up tent. We hadn't brought any cooking equipment and the restaurant at the campground was open, so we went there; lots of people having their dinner out on Sat. night. Sat under a canvas canopy, no bugs. Selected from the fixed-price menu; Louise ordered eggs and lasagna and I ordered fish soup, chicken and french fries. With 1/4 litre of wine, meal cost $43. Seemed like a few things had gone wrong on arrival, but it worked out really well. Perfect temperature for camping. All in all, quite a day.

Sun. June 6

Very pleasant in the campground with shade from oak trees. Beautiful facilities, lots of limestone pieces lying around, buildings all made out of stone. Bought coffee at restaurant ($4.50 a cup) and ate our pastries. Big hills behind. Decided to go to Nice for the day. It took about 20 minutes to drive, nice and sunny out. Drove into Nice along Promenade of the Anglais, found a free parking space downtown in a residential area. An elderly French lady told us to watch out for pickpockets. Walked 5 blocks to beach; everyone was out bicycling or walking along the promenade; half of it was blocked off for bicycling and roller skating. Very classy, really felt like the French Riviera; saw people walking their poodles and a few skateboarders. The beaches were mostly free; a few hotels had private beaches. Lots of restaurants on the beach. High prices e.g. rent a deck chair for $20 a day. Lots of older fellows with much younger girls. And homosexuals.

Walked through a fruit market, $10 a pound for fruit. Walked around the medieval part of Nice, extremely interesting and charming. Lots of people with their laundry hung outside of stone buildings 6 storeys high. Great pedestrian area, little train going through with tourists; it cost $9 for 40 minutes. Saw lots of art galleries and a store where they sold lucite blocks with things sealed inside like seahorses ($250 each). Went to St. Reparate Cathedral, very baroque inside, service going on; organist had songs recorded on MIDI so he could wander around and listen while it was playing.

Walked up the hill to the site of the castle which was torn down in the 1700's. Had to make use of a pay toilet, cost 47 cents. Had picnic lunch overlooking the whole town and orange tile roofs. Big park at top, lots of children playing, families having a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Tremendous view overlooking the harbour, very green water. Saw a huge ferry loading to go to Corsica, big hills behind and endless traffic. Area kept up very well; pavement was decorated with mosaic pictures. Plenty of history here; hill had been occupied since 400 BC; saw foundations of an old cathedral. Felt tired so lay down on a bench and slept. Site of castle at top of the hill is now a gift shop; saw tourist train, cooled off in the spray from an artificial waterfall. Walked down the hill towards the small naval museum; it was free so we looked at models of boats, old maps and pictures of Nice. It used to be a little sea port; now it's a big city. Walked down to the beach road and saw a big classical war memorial set into the hill. Louise wanted to walk out to the lighthouse; saw different people on the wharf sunbathing, lots of homosexuals, and 14-year-old kids driving around on scooters.

Walked back west on the ocean promenade. I was interested in seeing the contemporary art museum but missed it. There are museums of Matisse and Marc Chagall but didn't see those either, too nice outside. I decided to have a swim even though it was late in the day, beach was stony, water a bit cool. Were glad we went to Nice today, very relaxing, pleasant just walking around. Returned to the car, took off for Vence; had a problem getting onto the freeway (was in wrong lane), lots of traffic coming into the city. Saw some awful apartments: high-rises right beside the freeway with laundry hung outside. Exited at Cagnes, not sure which way to go; drove up a dead-end street past some awful campgrounds (lots of trailers, no tents). Louise spotted a pizza place so we stopped and went in. Fairly small restaurant on street corner, ordered different pizzas and a small pitcher of red wine. Very pleasant dinner, were stuffed. Had ice cream. Louise impressed the waitress with her French. Thought we were in St. Paul de Vence but in fact it was part of Cagnes. Returned to the campground; talked to man from Switzerland who spoke excellent English. He thought it was crowded there. Surmized the campground must be crowded in the summer because they had long rows of showers. No kids there now, only older people.

Mon. June 7

A bit cloudy but it soon cleared. Had a shower, very nice being outdoors, 21 deg. Restaurant was closed so took off in car, stopped in Vence but they'd never heard of take-out coffee. Went to St. Paul de Vence, which is an ancient hill-fort town and tourist mecca. Parked up the hill near the bus parking area; lots of tour buses. Saw chap sweeping out his restaurant so asked and he made 2 cafe au laits, sat on patio and enjoyed them with buns. Walked up to the Maeght Foundation, a modern art gallery of Catalan architecture on a hilltop estate with interesting statues outdoors and inside. Very classy. Saw 2 American homosexuals going into the gallery; they had a chauffeur in a Mercedes. Walked down the hill and across the road to St. Paul de Vence, a hilltop town with 1 street and lots of art galleries, gift stores and American tourists. We enjoyed looking at the paintings. Louise saw 1 that cost £35,000 but we didn't buy it. Beautiful surroundings, great views over the countryside, nice and hot out. Returned to car and had lunch.

Drove south to main east-west freeway, had to pay toll, got off at exit for Antibes. Went to tourist information kiosk, girl recommended parking by the harbour. Found it OK, cost $2 an hour to park. Lots of huge yachts. Saw a steel statue of a chicken, walked into the old town, saw a nice small beach with quite a few people on it. Excellent views of the bay all the way over to Nice. Antibes used to be in a different country from Nice so they were enemies of each other. Saw inside cathedral. There's a big Picasso collection in the town museum where he painted in 1946 but skipped it as it was so nice outside. Lots of cars trying to negotiate narrow streets; glad we were parked and not driving. Saw a black cat sitting in a flower box outside someone's window. Walked over to a nice sandy beach in the western part of the town; sat beside an older French couple from Paris. I changed and swam, Louise joined me and had a great time swimming; no waves in sheltered bay, clean water, only a few weeds which Louise didn't like. Chatted to the couple from Paris, told them what we'd done; they asked us "When do you sleep?" Thought of taking the train to Cannes. Walked back to the car, wandered around the harbour and saw tremendous yachts, very nice people but unbelievable wealth. Felt Antibes was a great destination, very beautiful and pleasant, not overrun with bus tours, kept up very well; the French don't let the place deteriorate like the English would. Too tired to go to Cannes; I was starting to get a headache, so set off in the car to Vence.

Drove by the coast road, saw beautiful long stretch with stony beach and lots of places to park for free. Bought groceries at a little shop by the road. Am getting onto the car and the French road signs. Lots of cars double-parked everywhere. Checked out a few restaurants, finally found a nice one in the town centre of Vence with fixed-price menu for 79 Francs. Had draft beer, green salad, I had taggliatelli, Louise had roast beef. An American man from Florida sat beside us; he worked for IBM and was there on business. Another American couple came to the next table so everyone had a great time chatting. The waiter was homosexual but very efficient. We learned later that lots of homosexuals moved there because it was illegal in England until the 70's. The restaurant was quite noisy with people talking and laughing, dishes clattering, waiters yelling, scooters racing by outside. Dinner cost $41. It got dark about 8 p.m. Left about 9 and walked through the original part of town, interesting plaques describing the history of Vence. It used to be a fortress town and had a Roman road through it which was still there; also a big ash tree 400 years old that was barely hanging onto life. Saw an altercation between a lady driving a Mercedes and a Moroccan fellow. Louise was tired so we returned to campground. Gave a French fellow and girl a ride about 2 blocks; he had a little hamster in a cage. Louise said she was asleep 2 minutes after she lay down.

Tues. June 8

Louise packed up. Had to wait for the lady to come and open the campground office; campsite cost $55 for 3 nights. Restaurant opened so we bought cafe au lait and had it with buns. People were very friendly at the campground; men all went to the camp store in the morning to get a stick of French bread. A nice sunny day, could see the hills clearly. Had to be at the airport at 4 p.m., decided to go to Cannes for the day, because the Jewish lady on the plane told Louise she should walk along the boardwalk. Filled up car with gas, drove down to the main E-W freeway, had to pay $3.50 toll. Cannes was very busy with traffic, confusing layout. Found a parking spot (major achievement); it was only $2.35 for 2 hours. Saw very exclusive shops, decided we should buy Louise a fancy bathtub with a built-in gold pillow (didn't ask how much it cost). Discovered we were only about 6 blocks from the beach so headed there and saw the Carlton Hotel. Very high-class people on the "boardwalk", certainly an older crowd. Lots of people selling paintings of sunsets, more beaches fenced off (privately owned) here than in Nice. Saw the convention hall where the Cannes film festival is held, stars' palm prints on sidewalk in front. Crossed a big parking lot to the old part of town, very hot walking up to the castle and church on top of a big hill. Took photo for a young couple. Looked inside the cathedral, bells rang at 12. Very windy at top of the hill.

Returned to main street of town, impressive Victorian town hall. Thought Cannes was hugely overpriced ($12 for a hamburger, $9 for a glass of lemonade). I also thought it was noisy, overrun with tourists and with few redeeming features. Found a washroom so changed into swim suits, swam at free public beach, beautiful wind and waves, could hardly drag Louise out of the water. Didn't want to get a parking ticket so walked back to the car, paid for another hour, bought pop and had lunch sitting on the grassed boulevard overlooking the Mediterranean. Looked inside the Carlton Hotel, Louise liked the sand-coloured marble floor. Car was hot inside; took the coast road east. On the way through Antibes, saw a spectacular view of Nice with snow-covered mountains behind. Didn't want to go home, 28 deg. out.

Arrived at the airport at 3:45, unloaded everything from car and wondered how we ended up with so much stuff. Packed it all into 2 suitcases, put camping stuff inside blue plastic sheet. Glad the car worked out well; saw another one with a smashed window. Checked in, very efficient. Went to British Airways luggage counter and my girlfriend was there, gave us our luggage wheels. The pilot said the skies over Europe were busier than ever so sat in plane for 1/2 an hour waiting to take off. Louise sat beside a very classy lady who said the French Riviera had grown alot in the last 25 years. Had salmon and pasta for dinner with beer and tea. Took 1 hour and 40 minutes to get back. The steward doing the announcing was homosexual and very funny. Grey and cloudy in England, only 17 deg. Not many people at the airport, no lineup at Customs. Luggage all arrived, ran to catch X39 bus at 7 p.m. Arriving home, decided it was easier to go camping in France (despite going on the plane) than unloading after car camping in England.


Conclusion: I would recommend the French Riviera for everyone. You don't have to be rich to go there and it makes a great once-in-a-lifetime trip.


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