Invariably, as leaves begin to fall from the trees and the breeze begins to bite, denial sets in:
Do not tell me that Summer is over.
Desperately searching for somewhere warm to forget my troubles, I settled on the French Riviera as my final Summer travel destination for several reasons. Firstly, It’s warm into September, when Berlin is already showing signs of Autumn. Next, although the prices decrease sharply starting in September, and you’re still sure to be able to bust out that bathing suit for some sun-bathing à la plage.
Wouldn’t it be Nice?
We used Nice as our homebase for several reasons. Firstly, it’s closest to the airport. Second, it’s smack in the middle of the rail line that runs along the coast, so you have the freedom to go either way and the trip won’t take too long. Nice’s central location meant we could easily plan to go practically anywhere without too much forethought.
The city is extremely walkable, so staying in the old town or the new should not make much difference. We stayed in the old town, and honestly I thought I would slip and break my neck on those “historic” stairs in our flat’s building.
One time, on the way down, I touched some chewing gum on the underside of the railing. But that’s part of the charm, right?
So whether you stay in the old town or the new, you’ll have easy access to most of Nice, solely by foot. There’s also a tramline that runs along the city’s major shopping street. (Promenade du paillon)
Looming over the old town is Colline du Château, Castle Hill, also known as “the cradle of the sun”. It offers several distinct and gorgeous panoramas depending on which viewpoint you choose. The way up is also completely paved, so you’ll have no trouble reaching the top and being rewarded with a beautiful view.
The castle ruins located at the top gives the hill its name. In themselves, they’re not particularly spectacular. However, if you like Classical art or archaeology, you’ll get the added bonus of seeing some tilework depicting scenes from Homer’s Odyssey.
Promenade des anglais. I only had a tiny tiny bit of extreme anxiety watching Gernot climb over a waterfall to take this photo. (Colline du Château)
Do not make the same mistake as me and get trapped on the hill after dark. When this place says it closes at 7pm, it means, “We will put up tall gates topped with Mordor-style spikes to prevent you from leaving.” The spikes were so tall that you could not expect to climb the gate and not impale yourself through the groin. I’ve probably never been so deterred from climbing something in my life (mission accomplished, French authorities?).
We tried about four different possible exits, relying on a cached Google map on my rapdily dying phone. But alas, to no avail. After about thirty minutes of coming to terms with the notion that our bag of potato chips would have to tide me over until the next morning, we found our way to yet another gate.
Luckily, I was able to muster enough optimism to take a look, all the while my boyfriend was planning his descent through a construction site! There it was: A narrow side-exit, barely visible from afar, left open just for us. Freedom never tasted so sweet.
The memorable meals of Nice
Whether it’s something sinful like Confit du canard or something slightly less decadent, like my meal at Restaurant les garçons, I cannot go to France without indulding in duck. Before moving to Europe, I’d eaten duck exactly one time, on a cruise ship, when I was sixteen. Since then my duck consumption has skyrocketed. The most likely explanation is that I love it because it’s so unhealthy.
Back to the restaurant — Les garçons is pretty hipster at first glance. Exposed brick walls, square plates, typographically-aware menus. Pret-ty coooool indeed. Also the wine menu offers a selection from the region, and isn’t outrageously priced. It’s slightly set back on a street that branches from Place Rosetti in the old town. You can make a reservation online if you don’t want to take your chances with the crowd.
Our second memorable meal came by recommendation from our Airbnb host. We went to Acchiardo, and just barely made it in without a reservation by showing up as soon as it opened. The guy basically raffled off spots, and it was anybody’s guess whether you’d be seated, or have to wander up the street for somewhere with more vacancies. Clearly the place is pretty touristy, judging by the fact that every single one of our table-neighbors was speaking English, but perhaps that’s because it’s rated so highly on Trip Advisor. Given the Italian influence on the region and the proximity of Italy, you’d expect the food here to be good. In any event…
The most memorable part of Acchiardo was not even the food, but the couple sitting next to us. I reckon they were retired, and visiting off a cruise ship. The couple complained to one another that the server didn’t speak sufficient English, and “How could she not???”. Communication difficulties had apparently originated from the fact that they didn’t know that a bottle of wine is 750mL. Given that they were Americans, they probably didn’t grasp milliliters altogether. Eventually, I intervened to explain that the 750mL is in fact a full bottle and proceeded to feel very worldly and well-adapted.
That evening, I learned that I do not like swordfish. An important thing to know about ones self, I suppose. My boyfriend however thought his pasta was fantastic, and the grumpy couple next to us also sounded satisfied (though maybe that was the wine doing its job).
Cannes: Shore for sale!
Maybe it’s because I was born and partly raised in southern California, but the following fact came as a real surprise to me: Not all beaches are created equal. Cannes is famous for having sandy beaches, unlike many of the other towns along the coast, including Nice. So if you’re looking for some time in the sand, Cannes is a good bet.
One major downside is that a huge majority of the shore-space has been privatized. So, to sit for half a day, two rows of beach chairs away from the sea, you may pay something like 25 EUR. Sitting in those first rows was something like 40 EUR per person. I guess if you want to comfort yourself, it could be thought of as an expensive beach chair and umbrella rental…
In the end, we decided to bite the bullet. C’est la vie. The beach is what we came for. I’m positive we didn’t pick the best beach or get the best deal — If I were to do it again, I’d do some research and look for the one with the best fruity cocktails.
These private beaches are also strict about outside food and drink, so you’ll have to be sneaky if you bring something in. The guy managing ours ultimately permit us to discretely have our outside food, but frankly it made me feel paranoid that we’d get yelled at. In my book, few things are more stressful than getting scolded in a language you don’t fully understand.
After visiting Notre-Dame d’Espérance, where an Italian family was celebrating and taking wedding photos, we walked down this lively street and found a spot to eat. By 7 or 8pm, it was already very busy, so we would’ve needed to come even earlier to have a “full selection” before us. There are also shops and art galleries for your perusal after the meal. (Rue du Suqet, Rue Saint-Antoine)
Èze: A village in the clouds
The Village of Èze is perfectly perched to provide the most beautiful views of the mediterranean sea. On a clear day in the “Eagle’s Nest” of Èze, you can see three countries in as many directions:
- France’s Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat to the East
- Italy’s Corsica to the South
- Monaco to the West
Unfortunately the clouds crept in almost as soon as we’d made our ascent and obscured our would-be view of Corsica. It would’ve been a good idea to check the weather report in advance, at least to know at what time of the day to arrive.
Getting to Èze
From the train station, you can take a bus all the way to the top of the hill. It comes only every 45 minutes, so unless you plan in advance, catching the bus is a matter of sheer luck.
The trip itself is about fifteen minutes worth of curvy roads and blind corners; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bus have to work that hard to go uphill. The bus driver and residents along this road apparently have a deal for alerting each other when they’re coming around a bend by honking, which is necessary because the road is so narrow the bus occupies both lanes when it makes a turn.
Left: Eglise Notre Dame de l’Assomption. See the fog rolling in? This ultimately sealed our fate of being unable to see Corsica that day.
Right: The view of Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat from the Exotic Gardens of Èze, also a worthy demi-day trip in its own right.
Le jardin exotique d’Èze
Modeled after the exotic gardens of Monaco, Le jardin exotique d’Èze has a seriously impressive collection of typically desert-dwelling cacti and succulents. Barrel cactus, cholla, yucca, prickly pear, aloe, that horrible “furry” cactus I pet when I was three years old — all can be found in the gardens.
Frankly the 6 EUR entry fee feels a bit steep, but you’d be mad not to pay it once you’ve reached the top. Apart from the gardens, there isn’t a whole lot to do in this small village. There are two five-star hotels in Èze, one with a fancy restaurant attached, but honestly we didn’t eat anything while we were in town. There are some touristy spots for art and pottery, but nothing particularly moving. You clearly come to Èze for the view, and that itself is completely worth it.
Chemin de Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s Trail
There are two main ways to get to and from the Village of Èze — by riding the bus or by hiking Nietzsche’s Trail. From the bottom, it’s estimated to take 1h30, though many report doing it in closer to an hour.
We elected to climb down the trail instead of climbing up, partially because it was still so hot in September but mostly because I forgot to bring hiking shoes. Oops. We saw several people roughing it in flipflops, so it’s not that it isn’t doable — it’s just slow. It took us a little more than an hour to get down, when it should’ve taken 45 minutes. I can rightly blame my ballet flats.
It’s said that Nietzsche’s daily climb up this trail is what gave him hallucinations/inspiration to write the final third of Also Sprach Zarathustra. After doing the trail in warm weather, I can completely understand how Fred went a little bit mad!
Although sweat inducing, the path itself is well-established. There are only a few places that are very rocky and uneven, while other places are completely paved in concrete.
This sign seems to indicate that you can go straight to the beach after your descent. We found that the beach was too rocky, but still a nice place to sit in the shade a cool down.
The views along this path are worth your sweat. At times it seems difficult to differentiate between sea and sky — perhaps that’s one of the hallucinations that helped Nietzsche along with his book.
At the bottom of the path you’ll find a rocky beach, but plenty of shade to cool off and even jump in if you’re so inclined.
Each of these towns has something special that distinguishes it from the others, and makes it worth visiting in its own right. Nice with its gorgeous city views from the top of Castle Hill, Cannes with its sandy beaches and lively restaurant scene, and Èze with its eagle-eye view of a stretch of the Riviera and gorgeous hike.
Be aware though that the weather is a fickle creature in the Autumn — it blessed us with both sunny days and a heavy thunderstorm. In retrospect, we still got fantatic weather, even if we woke up one night to an apocalyptic downpour — the next day was dry anyway.
In addition, it must be said that there are also inland experiences waiting for you if you base yourself in Nice. For a break from the beach and a taste of the French countryside, try a day trip from Nice by train to Entrevaux. It’s just as accessibly by train as many of the other cities on the coast, but will give you a totally different vibe.
In short: don’t be put off by the hoards of tourists or cruise-ship-goers! Visit the French Riviera in the early autumn for better prices, slighty cooler weather, and calmer crowds. Be sure to brush up a bit on your french, or at least know some basics (Merci, Si vous plaît, Où sont les toilettes? 😉 )