Catching Rays on the Côte d’Azur
Kody and I were so ready to get to the coast of southern France! We love spending time on the beach and there aren’t many more famous than those on the Côte d’Azur or French Riviera. Our drive to Nice was blissfully uneventful which was great because we had a bit of a snafu upon arriving to our AirBnB.
This was our first experience with what has become a Trip Truth: when AirBnB hosts say there is “free street parking,” there almost never is. In this case, there was only metered parking and the meters had 4 hour time limits. We ended up parking in a garage a few blocks away that we would later end up paying over €100 for. So frustrating.
If that wasn’t enough, the not-very-friendly woman who showed us into the not-very-big studio didn’t tell us that one of the two sets of keys in the apartment didn’t work at all and when we left to get a drink, we immediately locked ourselves out of the building. She had to come back to let us in again and, surprisingly, had not gotten friendlier in the meantime.
We rolled with the punches and decided to eat at a pizzeria down the street for dinner. I opted to be adventurous and ordered a pizza with green olives and anchovies on it which, you may have guessed, was a terrible choice. Kody made a wiser decision with a burger. It was still a nice time out and we returned to our matchbox lodgings looking forward to exploring the next day.
This post is truly a story of beaches. We didn’t do much else with our week on the coast except try to soak up as many rays of sunshine and inhale as much ocean air as possible.
We, of course, tried the beach right down the street first. For as much as people talk about Nice and the beaches in the French Riviera, I feel like they leave out one important detail: there is no sand, there is only rocks.
In Nice, the rocks are not small. They are big and round and incredibly uncomfortable, especially when you come poorly equipped with only beach towels. The people in the know had thin beach mattresses to lay on. Going in and out of the water was a chore and pretty painful on our feet. We got as cozy as possible and eventually left the “beach” to stroll down the promenade and pick up some preserves at the grocery store.
Going to the grocery store is one of my favorite things to do on a vacation to a foreign country. I love seeing what food people from different regions cook with or snack on! And I love trying new things. I feel like restaurants in touristy areas claiming to serve “authentic” local dishes are just catering to our perception of a certain place, even if the locals don’t really eat those things. What you find at the grocery is what the people actually eat on a regular basis and you can see what flavors the local palate enjoys. I noticed in France they have a lot more meat flavored potato chips than we do in the States. (I tried a couple, but couldn’t really get behind them as a regular snack.) Dinner was a build-your-own cheese and meat plate with leftover tinned mussels from Lisbon.
We were no longer interested in spending time on the beach in Nice, so we set our sights further down the coast and made a day trip to the Principality of Monaco.
To its credit, Nice has some wonderful architecture. The large apartment buildings lining the streets near the water are unique and aged in such a perfectly French way. We took a public bus to Monaco and the walk to the depot was lovely.
The #100 bus runs from Nice to Menton and costs €1.50 for a single ticket. It is more than worth the price and is one of the most spectacular bus rides I’ve ever been on. The bus twists and turns through the seaside cliffs and towns of the Côte d’Azur. It’s a popular route, but the busses run very regularly. Along the way to Monaco, we spotted some beautiful places to visit later in our time here.
As I’m sure you know, Monaco is a very wealthy place. Even knowing this ahead of time (and having been to Monaco before), it is fascinating to see the trappings of wealth that the principality’s citizens have on display. Amazing cars that I’ve never heard of; enormous yachts fully staffed and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat; precious metals gleaming from store windows; and expensive clothes worn nonchalantly by people walking down the street. There’s no way to blend in if you’re not a part of that financial stratosphere.
We got off the bus and walked straight into a market set up in a small town square.
We slowly made our way up the hill to the palace where Princess Grace Kelly once lived. The palace itself is not that impressive from the outside, but its high, central position provides lovely vistas of the harbor and the city.
We visited Saint Nicholas Cathedral next. Many parts of Southern Europe are religious and require people to be respectfully dressed in order to enter churches and cathedrals, even when entrance is not ticketed. This isn’t always enforced, but in Monaco it was. I had to put on a long sleeve shirt Kody had brought along because my shoulders were exposed in the tank top I was wearing. Walking through the cathedral was a nice respite from the heat of the day and we always enjoy seeing the architecture and art inside.
Walking down the hill from the palace we passed the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. There is no better place for a museum on ocean exploration than on a cliff jutting out over the Mediterranean Sea. We took in the sights, but decided not to go into the museum itself.
Monaco is such a small place – there is no way to build out, so they simply build up. The buildings are stacked around and on top of each other and there are stairs and steep roads all over the place. The whole principality is nestled neatly in between the rocky Alps and the Mediterranean Sea.
The real test of Monaco for us was the beach. Making our way to the central beach downtown, we passed colorful alleyways full of shops, a sunbathing haven of large concrete bleachers facing the ocean, a Japanese garden complete with a koi pond, and part of the course for the Grand Prix.
The beach was right below some of the high rises of the city and just off of the main road. The rocky hills behind the buildings made for a really impressive view from the water. There was a concrete pier to walk out on and people were jumping from it into the water or sitting out taking in the sights. Most of the people at the beach were laying out, rather than swimming and the water was still pretty cold. The “beach” was gravel, which was preferable to the larger rocks of Nice. We drank some beers we had brought with us and enjoyed the sunshine and people watching.
We ended the day back in Nice with overpriced sushi for dinner.
The next destination on our tour of the French Riviera was Menton. Menton is the final stop of the #100 bus, so we were able to enjoy the entire route.
While we were sitting on the bus, a woman got on who asked me (in French) to give up my seat to her because she was disabled. I did so, but she made a big deal about it and kept sort of offering the seat back to me. When she realized I was American, her mood changed completely. She jumped out of the seat and stood with me in the aisle engaged in French/English conversation for the duration of our ride together. She pointed out neat places along the route and suggested that we visit Villefranche-sur-Mer the next day because she thought it had the best beach in the area. She was really friendly and told me how much she loves Americans, especially Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a pleasant interaction and a fun way to practice my French.
We got off the bus in Menton and went straight to the beach – no messing about! The beach was a mix of gravel and larger stones and the water was cool and refreshing. We caught a lot of rays and watched as an old man and woman got into an argument and kept throwing each other’s shoes in the water. After getting our required dose of Vitamin D, we walked to the city center for a drink and a snack before catching the bus back to Nice.
On our way to the #100 bus for the third time the next day, we stopped at an H&M and did some shopping. We liked what we bought so much that we walked all the way back to our apartment to change and wear our new threads to Villefranche-sur-Mer.
The buildings in Villefranche-sur-Mer were orange and yellow and red. The sunlight bouncing off the walls gave all the streets a dreamy, hazy feel.
The city beach wasn’t very big, but it was tucked in a picturesque bay and had the closest thing to sand we had seen. We spent the rest of the day in the kind of blissful idleness you only find at the beach – just moving back and forth between cooling ourselves off in the ocean and warming ourselves up in the sunshine. And, of course, drinking backpack beers and taking plenty of photos.
I caught the sunset from the promenade in Nice before we packed up our things to head north to Annecy in the morning.
We weren’t overly impressed by Nice itself, but we had a great time taking the bus and exploring the cities along the coast. Plus, you really can’t beat a week bouncing from beach to beach!