04/25/2016 - 04/27/2016
I had visited the famous perfumeries of Grasse as a child with my parents, and I thought it might be a fun stop for Mei Ling and Cleo. I had vague memories of seeing the actual process of manufacturing perfumes, but when we arrived at Molinard it was clear the emphasis was on retail. There was a display of various pieces of copper equipment, but it was more like a museum than a functioning factory. Mei Ling considered making some gift purchases until I did some online research and showed her the prices in the showroom were double those on Amazon.
We also checked out the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, which the kids enjoyed due to some of the interactive displays. Overall, however, the design of the exhibits seemed slipshod and a lot of things just didn't work. After about an hour and a half we'd had enough and dragged the kids back out. The old town in Grasse was small with a pretty central square, but lost its charm about a block away from the square in any direction. We headed back to the van, regretting that we hadn't spent the rest of the morning returning to Châteaudouble.
Our last stop before Nice was St. Paul-de-Vence, a fortified hilltop village filled with art galleries and other high end shops catering to wealthy tourists on day trips from the Côte d'Azur. The older kids were sleeping so we had to bring the gondola, which limited us to a certain extent in the routes we could take. It was an immaculately clean, pretty village with loads of ivy and other greenery that had a warm aesthetic effect against the white masonry buildings. There were beautiful views over the rocky countryside as well. As in Aix-en-Provence, the legions of visitors and numerous shops and cafes projected the aura of a theme park that made me nostalgic for lovely but quiet villages like Venasque and Tourtour. I didn't get a good shot of St. Paul-de-Vence from the road so I threw in a picture I ripped from this article.
It was early evening by the time we rolled into Nice. This was our first big city since Toulouse and the crush of traffic on the Promenade des Anglais came as a shock after the quiet hamlets of the Luberon and Haut Var. I had picked an Airbnb slightly north of the Vieille Ville and we were rewarded with a parking place big enough for the Iceberg just a few yards from the apartment. We checked in, thankful for a working elevator, and then went to meet some friends of Mei Ling from her Chinese blog network. I wasn't thrilled about eating in a pizzeria the night we arrived in one of the more famous seafood cities in France, but the kids ate well and it was nice to socialize with other people for a change.
Tuesday morning we walked to the Vieille Ville to check out the markets. The fish market was surprisingly small and the produce market on Cours Saleya didn't stand up well against the huge farmers markets we had become used to. I was disappointed, since I'd spent a month in Nice in the 90's and remembered a much more vibrant market scene. Perhaps things had changed, or perhaps my memory was playing tricks on me.
We had a huge day planned with several stops on the way to Monaco so we settled for sandwiches and croissants on the way back to the van. Our first stop was Villefranche-sur-Mer, a coastal village with a citadel just outside of Nice. The lanes running north south were all staircases while narrow streets ran east west between faded pastel houses. Close to the water we encountered the covered, lantern-lit Rue Obscure. At the water's edge were numerous cafes with views of the Bay of Villefranche.
Southwest of the old town was the Citadelle Saint-Elme. It was a steep climb but we were rewarded with beautiful gardens and views of the bay and surrounding hillside.
My GPS guided us up a narrow serpentine road to the Moyenne Corniche, the middle of the three famous roads that follow the French coastline between Nice and Monaco. Our goal was the famous medieval town of Èze, but getting there was half the fun as we pulled over to take in the famous views of the Mediterranean.
Once we reached Èze, we had the unusual problem of being completely unable to find a place to park. There was a decent-sized parking lot at the entrance to the town which was full, with numerous cars circling around fruitlessly as no one was leaving. We drove up and down the main road a couple of times and saw nothing that didn't seem like it would lead to a towing or a boot. The only turn-off inside the town was a road leading uphill marked Col d'Èze, which didn't look very promising in terms of finding parking within walking distance of the old town. When I looked it up later, I discovered that this would actually have been a good choice as the road led to a parking lot with a free shuttle down to the village and free admission to the Jardin Exotique at the top of the village. At the time we had no idea, so eventually we decided to head onward to Monaco and try Èze again on the way home.
Monaco had its own Jardin Exotique which I'd heard good things about, so we found the closest parking garage and descended about eight levels into the mountainside without finding a parking spot. Just as we concluded we had been Èze'd, we found the one empty spot in the entire structure and wrangled the Iceberg into it. The Jardin was well worth the effort of parking, a magnificent and sprawling collection of cacti and other greenery with an intricate collection of walkways with amazing views over Monaco and the Mediterranean.
From the Jardin we took a city bus along a winding route through Monaco, eventually ending up in its walled old town Le Rocher, improbably perched on the plateau of a rocky peninsula and surrounded by cliffs. It didn't take long to explore the tiny neighborhood, as all roads led to Le Palais Princier. The open square in front of the royal palace was ringed with beautiful, classical buildings and there were great views over the harbor.
We walked down the Rampe de la Major to a quiet neighborhood near the port, where we encountered an incongruous sculpture of a Lion Man having relations with a Snake Woman in the middle of a park. It seemed to be a favorite for kids to climb on.
The walk to Monte Carlo was more arduous than it appeared on the map and we stopped for a snack at La Marée, an extraordinarily expensive seafood restaurant with great views of the port. I was able to put together a meal that didn't completely obliterate my checking account as we Googled the various yachts below. The champion turned out to be the current eighth largest in the world.
The casino was off limits because of the kids, and we weren't dressed well enough to go inside anyway. Instead we admired the architecture of the casino and the adjacent Hotel de Paris, and enjoyed the pristine Sky Sculpture within the well-manicured Place du Casino.
Getting back to the car was something of a struggle as it took a long time to locate the bus stop, an even longer time for a bus to arrive, and an eternity to reach the garage as we inadvertently took the bus going back to Le Rocher. By the time we'd maneuvered the Iceberg out of the eight level garage we were eager to get back to Èze for dinner. Fortunately, there was no problem parking in the late evening and we disembarked in search of a restaurant in the old town. Èze was one of the steepest of the coastal villages, and practically every step was either uphill or downhill. Unfortunately we'd decided to bring Spenser's stroller which magnified the annoyance of the constant staircases.
We were never able to find an appropriate restaurant in the old town. The one place that was open and had an available table turned out to be a Michelin two star when we arrived. Even we aren't crazy enough to bring three babies into that kind of restaurant. We ended up in a small restaurant on the main road that had average food and way below average service, so it was after 10 by the time we finally escaped. We made a beeline back to Nice and crashed.
We hadn't spent much time in Nice itself so the next day we decided not to rush out of town after checking out of our Airbnb. We walked a few blocks up Boulevard Jean Jaurès for a closer look at La Tête Carrée library, which I had noticed while driving the previous day. From the street this looks like a massive avant garde sculpture of a man's head mostly encased in a cube, but in fact it's a functional seven story office building and library. What appears to be a flat metal surface of the cube is actually an aluminum mesh which permits full visibility from the inside.
We crossed the boulevard and ambled around the narrow lanes and pretty squares of the old town, then found the elevator to the top of Castle Hill just off the Quai des États-Unis. Castle Hill is the highest point in Nice and the former site of the Château de Nice, now in ruins. There were amazing views of Nice and the Baie des Anges, and a great playground for Cleo with a pirate ship theme.
We spent some time in the park hunting for a 19th century artificial waterfall whose exact location no one seemed to know. Even after we heard its sound it took another fifteen minutes to find it at the bottom of a narrow staircase behind the cafe. It was a no go for strollers and Cleo was sleeping so I went down alone to be sure we weren't missing anything, and it really wasn't anything special.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the old town that looked much better than it actually was. On the way back to the van we encountered another beautiful playground on the narrow strip between Avenue Félix Faure and Boulevard Jean Jaurès. This one had a sea creatures theme and was full of creative and fun structures for the kids to climb. Cleo and Ian were both awake at this point so we let them clamber on the wooden turtles and whales to their heart's content.
Eventually the kids tired themselves out and we bid a late afternoon departure to Nice. We had to be in Cannes by the early evening and there were still a couple of stops to make.