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By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor
Cote d'Azur- Notes from a Native and Tourist
New York, NY -
Sally Jessy Raphael, she of TV talk show fame, has spent 38 years as a broadcaster, more than 20 of them on television. Just about the time she first started appearing on TV, Sally and her husband, Karl, discovered Nice, France while on a trip to Paris and, as a result of that - current feelings about the French from our side of the pond aside, they have become Americans in Nice, living there for the half of the year that they are not residing in one of their homes here in the States. Of the three apartments they purchased in the Port area one became my "home" during a four-day visit to the Cote d'Azur - Nice, Cannes, Monaco etc.
While not having sufficient time to tour the Principality of Monaco extensively, suffice it to say that it is worth a visit based upon the reputation that precedes it thanks, for the most part, to Grace Kelly. The city/country is Miami Beach with style and old world atmosphere, from its scattering of apartment houses to its classic hotels, all built around the casino which is, in fact, together with tourism, the hub of the financial state of the government and people. While there, however briefly your visit may be, there is the Grand Casino, port with yachts offering ample evidence that there is more money in this world than anyone ever dreamed of and, naturally, the Grimaldi?s Palace/Museum compete with a changing of the guards that is not exactly Buckingham but a photo opportunity nonetheless.
My carrier of choice across the Atlantic and into Europe was Air France but, as with any trans-oceanic flight of that length, one has to do all that he can, short of giving away the farm to upgrade to Business or First Class. I managed the former, thankfully. It was then on to the TGV fast train from Avignon to Nice in under three hours via the Mediterranean route giving way to my first introduction to the Cote d'Azur. Nice. Be assured that the French would rather that visitors had even a sophomoric grasp of their language and, as in other countries, they do not understand English when they choose not to but suddenly are bi-lingual if they take a liking to you and/or are in a receptive mood. It is the nature of things in Europe. As for the trains, one finds that they are on time throughout Europe. Being late to the train station is not advisable. That is the good, and bad, news. It was March when I was there and, interestingly enough, the entire trip was filled with sun and lovely temperatures for that time of the year (60-75 degrees). That is, however, why we have the Internet and, occasionally, a receptive airline voice that will update current weather at your planned destination.
One of the first thing that is apparent when in France is the love affair that the populace has with its pets, the dogs of every shape, size and pedigree that seem to be everywhere...and usually are. They are on airplanes, trains, in restaurants, everywhere. As frequently as you see them, the opposite is true of anyone carrying what we have come to know as "pooper scoopers" so the best advice to give is to keep one eye peeled about 10 steps ahead on your chosen route, indoors or outdoors.
When it comes to automobiles and drivers skirting in and out, all about, these people make New York cab drivers and Los Angeles "highway jets" seem courteous and obedient of the speed limits. They do what they want behind the wheel, when they want, how they want and where they want as in ample evidence by their "I park anywhere I want to" attitude. The local gendarmes seem to ignore any traffic transgressions and ticketing of drivers, speeding or parking on the sidewalks, has just begun to get some attention. Apparently, the local municipalities have decided that they can use the revenue forthcoming from ticketing and fines if and when the French opt to lend credence to them and actually remit payment. If you are not a smoker, get ready to take a deep breath and be able to hold it for prolonged periods of time. These people smoke so much that most California fire fighters would be on 24-hour alert if they were here. They smoke in the no-smoking sections of restaurants right under the no-smoking signs making sidewalk dining one of the more popular experiences you will likely have.
Speaking of dining, this is where you will likely rediscover Salad Nicoise (greens, tomatoes, black olives, tuna and hard boiled eggs), as I did. I happened to be in an area where this is one of the most popular dishes served, together with a new discovery, Socca, which is polenta with garbanzo beans. The cooking is rich in vitamins and fiber with olive oil, mollusks and fish, along with pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Healthy was the order of the day. France is also the land of breads and that rang truer still when I discovered the five grain freshly baked loaf that I purchased every morning (and finished) along with my American coffee (yup, they have that also - stupid they are not) served black. The local bakery was only a few steps from where I was staying and I joined Sally, Karl and Brother Steve (who lives there full-time) for coffee, a quick worldly update courtesy of the International Herald Tribune and the best recreation of all, people watching. The shop where we had our coffee also served as the local horse racing betting parlor for those with a fancy for placing a wager or two to stimulate additional interest in the day ahead.
Salad Nicoise is one of the most popular dishes in this region of France.
The local market was nearby and that meant the opportunity to shop for some succulent pears, apples, oranges and bananas to add to any meal since the French are not the same big breakfast fans as are we Americans. Welcome to the world of smaller sizes when it comes to clothes and decidedly narrower waistlines. For them a simple coffee and croissant was enough. There are dozens of restaurants along the old port area where we ate fresh seafood caught by the local fishermen. Nice is a town (it is not a city by any stretch of the imagination) where walking about is easy and local buses are easy to utilize at any time you choose them as an option.
Paris is a bit over an hour by plane (Nice is the second largest airport in France but still a town) or five hours by the TGV fast train. Heading east from Nice, on the way to Ventimiglia, Italy, one reaches St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat and its magnificent villas, then Beaulieu-Sur-Mer and its harbor and seafood restaurants (I wondered if Georges de la Tour named his winery Beaulieu after the town), followed by Monaco/Monte Carlo and, finally, Menton, a spa town and the Lemon capitol of France with Belle ?poque villas and the Jean Cocteau Museum. After crossing the border ,with no one there to check passports or ID, one arrives Ventimiglia and its huge Friday open air crafts market, all less than 40 miles from Nice. Get there if you can. It is a "trip" in every sense of the word, pleasingly so. If you decide to head west from Nice you will come to Cap d?Antibes and then Antibes, the home of the Picasso Museum, followed by Juan-les-Pins and Cannes, St- Tropez (yes, with is topless and nude beaches...another photo opp) and, finally Marseille, the second largest city in France.
The English first discovered the Riviera/Cote d?Azur in the 17th Century, followed by the Russian aristocracy and, lastly, in the early 20th Century, wealthy Americans. Palaces. palatial hotels, gardens, parks, villas, marinas and promenades all evoke the spirit and luxury of pure pleasure. Nice is the capitol of the French Riviera and is nestled in the Alps Maritimes with a population of 400,000. The Mediterranean and a ferry for the islands of Corsica and Sardinia are there for the taking and some have been known to make the trip all the way to the African continent and Tunisia. Don't plan on that at any time soon.
Nice is the capitol of the French Riviera and is nestled in the Alps Maritimes with a population of 400,000.
The six mile long seafront Promenade des Anglais, with the beach on one side, starts at the airport and is only five miles from the center of the city, past the classic deluxe Negresco Hotel and its Chantecler Restaurant, where dinners will run about $100-150 price fixed. The Le Meridien is another deluxe hotel a few blocks away and home to the city?s one casino if you would care to indulge for a bit. Highly recommended is a stroll into the Old City with its treasure trove of baroque art from the 17th & 18th Century and its cobblestone streets, quaint shops and the Cours Saleya, a fruit, vegetable and flower market during the day (except Wednesday when it converts to antique dealers) and then restaurant row at night. A good and restful stop is the Albert 1er Jardins Park where you can watch the children on the carousel (every French city seems to have one) followed by the Tourist Train and its 40 minute tour of the city. Your best bet is to be dropped off at Castle Hill where you can catch the next train back. The price is right, only $8. Get your share of exercise and walk to the Chateau stairs, then up to the Castle Hill Park for a sweeping view of Nice. When you come back downstairs head over to the War memorial, a colossal edifice commemorating the 4,000 inhabitants of Nice who died during World War II. Ten more minutes and you are back at the Port; but, first, the Place Massena, the central point for the city with its fountains, promenade and skateboarders, Galeries Lafayette - an enclosed mall and shopping on one side and Old Nice on the other. Whew!!!! Time for a nap.
Sheltered by the Alps and protected by the Mediterranean, Nice enjoys mild winters and moderate summers (50 to 80 degrees) and its over four million annual visitors take pleasure in the art and culture, including 19 museums (Matisse & Chagall among them), convention center, three theatres, opera house and symphony orchestra. I encourage you to obtain the French Riviera Museum Pass which will allow entry to 62 museums and historic sites and, depending upon your schedule and allocation of time, ranges from $10 to $30 for one, three or seven day passes. Although you can walk almost everywhere it is best to take the bus to the baths and amphitheatre at the Roman site of Cimiez, just outside of the city center. La Belle ?poque examples include Le Negresco Hotel in Nice, Le Carlton in Cannes and L?Hotel de Paris in Monaco. It was in the late 19th century that Baroness Rothschild built her Italian Renaissance villa in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and its gardens are currently open to the public.
The local train to Cannes, half-way between Monaco and Saint-Tropez, 15 miles from the Nice/Cote d?Azur International Airport, takes only half an hour and will leave you a few blocks from the twin-domed Carlton Hotel (one of four super luxury hotels), where I had the occasion to stay many years ago. Although having opened to the public in 1912, it is able to combine old world elegance and tradition with modern day amenities and atmosphere. A time not to visit Cannes, unless you are a movie or TV star, is May 14-25 when the film festival takes place and the 75,000 residents swell by an additional 120,000 people. The Festival International du Film began in 1937 and screenings take place at the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, built in 1982 on the central esplanade between the marina and the beach. If you are in need of any assistance or information, make a note that the tourist board is located here, as well as one of the three casinos should you care to indulge for a bit of gaming pleasure.
The twin-domed Carlton Hotel is one of four super luxury hotels found in Cannes.
So, going to Cannes at a time other than when the festival is in full swing, you can easily take the opportunity to photograph yourself walking up the stairs where the red carpet welcomes the likes of Madonna, Leonardo de Caprio, and Michael Douglas. Outside are the many handprints of the famed actors and actresses that have appeared at the film festival but placing yours in concrete besides theirs is not likely, although you can measure your hands against theirs.
The convention center hosts over 110 different conferences year 'round while two-and-a-half million visitors pass through town each year. One can stroll up or down the Croisette, called the "Champs Elysees of the Riviera," past shops that only the very rich can afford and peek into the elegant hotels or enter the lobbies for a glance about at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Cannes is, as noted, a walking city with the Rue d?Antibes the other major shopping street, located only a few minutes from the railroad station and the Croisette. It was not surprising to discover that Beverly Hills is the accepted "twin city of Cannes."
The Forville market is open from 6AM to 1PM (except on Wednesday when it becomes an antique market) and brings farmers to town to sell their fresh produce, cheese (especially Chevre and goat), fish, flowers and, my favorite, ratatouille, a mixture of zucchini, eggplant, tomato, pepper, garlic, onions and herbs. Directly across the street is the two year old Cave de Forville, a wine shop, tasting bar and restaurant with 1,200 wines to buy and 15 wines sold by the glass. Maintaining one's exercise regimen, the next walk is up a steep hill to a former medieval castle of the Monks of Lerins which now serves as the Museum de la Castre. It is filled with antiquities from the Pacific, Americas and the Mediterranean; pre-Columbian ceramics and paintings of the 19th Century Riviera. Take a deep breath and climb to the top of the 12th Century tower for a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. If you plan properly, and keep moving, you will have just enough time to reach the boat docks opposite the Sofitel Hotel for the 15 minutes ride to L?lle Ste-Marguerite where inside its Fort Royal is the Museum of the Sea and the royal prison that housed The Man in the Iron Mask...for those of you that remember and might have seen the movie and/or the remake. Yet another boat will take you to Saint-Honorat, which is owned by monks who welcome you to visit their vineyards that produce Monk?s Grape Harvest. It is not surprising that Cannes is home to four marinas, 2,500 moorings and home to one of the largest boat shows in the world.
As with all good things, this one was coming to a close but there was still time to visit Lyon so off I went. Upon arrival, I took the opportunity to hail a taxi and went to see the elegant Sofitel Bellecour Hotel in the city center. As with most cities one visits, the best way to get acquainted with your surroundings upon arrival is to take a city wide tour and that is precisely what I did almost immediately upon my arrival (2 1/2 hours) and soon learned that Lyon is the third largest city in France after Paris and Marseille and that 500,000 people live in a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was once the silk capitol of Europe. There is the Musee des Beaux Arts with many Rubens and Chagalls, the Lyon National Opera House and the Lyon Orchestra Hall, 28 bridges that criss-cross the city and Fourviere Hill, where Lyon began 2,000 years ago, with its overlook view of the entire area. Old Lyon has the largest Renaissance quarter in France and its Gallo-Roman sites are second only to Rome. It hosts a summertime festival of concerts, theatre and dance in their open air theatre and practically everything emanates from the bustling center of town, known as Presquile, set on a peninsula of land between the Rhone & Saone Rivers with restaurants and many clubs. It is easy to spend an hour or more moving through the network of "traboules," or tiny passageways, that thread their way across and through the courtyards of buildings. Paul Bocuse is the ambassador of Lyon?s culinary traditions and he still has four authentic Bouchon Brasseries located here, all worth visiting and "tasting." as is Les Halles, the covered market where stalls pour forth culinary treasures without end.
|Items of Note
Trains: The TGV (Train Grande Vitesse) require reservations and an extra fee. Most conductors, information stations and entrance guards speak English. Remember to stamp your ticket in the machine on entering the track area. TGV diagrams show the car number and where to stand on the platform for your car.
Banks: Hours are 9AM-4:30PM weekdays and they close at lunchtime and most are closed on the weekend.
ATM: Best exchange rates
Euro: www.oanda.com/convert/classic (for daily rates)
Riviera Radio: Music, news, traffic & weather, all in English
Tipping: Restaurants include tax and a 15% service charge (service compris).It is customary to leave another 2 or 3%. Hotel personnel & taxi drivers may be tipped
Shopping: Non European Union residents who stay in France less than 6 months can get a refund of the VAT (value added tax) if spending over 189 Euros at any one store (VAT is 19.6% of the purchase amount). Submit the form to customs when leaving the country.
Telephone: Public phones accept only phone cards. Consider buying a US International card that has a French toll-free number. All French numbers have 10 digits starting with 0.
Lyon is an excellent jumping off point for day trips to such places as Beaujolais and the northern Rhone (45 minutes). Within little more than an hour, the TGV fast train brought me to Avignon which was not very far from southern Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This walled city of 90,000 is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and is noted for its "bridge to nowhere" which was built between 1177 and 1185 but then damaged by several floods of the Rhone River. It was never completely rebuilt.
The place to stay is the elegant Clarion Hotel Cloitre St. Louis at the entrance to the city walls. Over 150,000 visitors come here in mid-July for the oldest summer theatre festival in France, begun in 1947 with 50 plays spread out in 20 different places. Another half a million people crowd the city at the same time for the Festival "off" with 500 shows commemorating street art.
As a historical note of sorts, in 1305 the Papacy moved to Avignon and, between 1334 and 1362, they built the Palace of the Popes which housed seven Popes before moving to Rome in 1378. Above the plaza are the gardens and a planted vineyard, a conference center next door and the Petit Palace across the plaza, which formerly was the Palace of the Archbishops but now is a museum. After a tour of the Palace you have to visit the Bouteillerie du Palais des Popes where 40 of the best wines of the Rhone are exhibited for tasting and purchasing, but you can also enter without taking the tour if you wish. For a first introduction you will find, on the Palace Square, a Tourist Train that operates April through October and takes you on a 30 minute tour of the city. Go for it and have a great time!
Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.