Not Venice, Vence

Three kilometers up the road from St. Paul-de-Vence, through the hills northwest of Nice, past cypress and olive trees there is another beautiful, town perched on a summit.  Vence is a bit larger (and a bit more relaxed).  Although we didn’t do any shopping, its shops and art galleries are more affordable.  Locals (not only busloads of tourists) actually eat at its cafés.

Vence looks like an old medieval walled town, but underneath its ramparts it is really a Roman one. A section of the old Roman road cuts through the center of town.  The road, the Rue des Portiques ran right next to our hotel.  I couldn’t believe that nearby stones dated from the 2nd century.  Its cathedral, the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul, is built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars.

We checked into our hotel and were astounded to learn our hotel room had a rooftop terrace.  This was our view!  I went crazy snapping pictures up there.  We explored the medieval streets, patinaed squares and admired the Provençal architecture.

In Place du Peyra, the urn-shaped Vieille Fontaine is often photographed.  I liked how the mineral content and source of the water was mounted in the ancient city wall.  It tasted pretty good too.

After spending the last two days avoiding the crowds in Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze and St. Paul-de-Vence, it was a treat to sit a cafe and eat at a restaurant with locals.  The “local” below became really friendly once our snacks were delivered.  Believe or not, the puffs were actually peanut butter flavored!  In France!  We couldn’t believe it.  It was so nice having a dog around that we got permission to give him a bit of cheese.  He even did a couple of tricks for us.

Vence’s only disappointment was that the Matisse Chapel (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence) was closed.  If you want to visit, be sure to check the opening hours.  The nuns who run it have better things to do than cater to sweaty tourists like us.


Take It Eze-y, The Cote D’Azur Town Of Eze

Eze is a dramatic village perched 427 Meters (1,400 feet) above the Mediterranean sea.  Like many ancient hill towns, it is car-free.  We love car-free towns because they are more pedestrian and very peaceful.

Eze’s star attraction is the Jardin Exotique, a cactus and succulent filled garden planted around the ruins of a 14th century castle and filled with sculptures.   They had nice plaques explaining the sights and history of the area.  Very educational.  I loved the idea of filling castle ruins in with plants to make a unique garden.  It was really cool, but the real start of the show were the views.  Amazing.

Eze is so beautiful that it has become a tourist town…literally.  There are almost no full-time residents.  Virtually all the buildings are shops, art galleries, hotels or restaurants.  It has become a popular honeymoon destination.

The private terrace of one of the hotels

The Romans inhabited Eze.  Around 900, the Moors conquered the village, attacking from the door below.  They held it William of Provence took it from them in 973.  Like nearby Villefranche, its strategic position and proximity to nearby Nice meant that rulers built heavy fortifications.  Eze functions as sort of “eagle’s nest” overlooking the sea and surrounding mountains.   The Phoenicians, Turks and the Principality of Monaco also occupied the city at different points in time.

They weren’t the only ones who came to Eze.  The philosopher Nietzsche spent time here.  The trail you can hike down to the water (in the town of Eze-Sur-Mer) is called the Nietzsche Path in his honor.  We had on hiking clothes, but it was raining so hard that a hike down a steep (and possibly muddy) path didn’t sound like a ton of fun.  Walt Disney also spent time here.  He doesn’t have a path.

We Took The High Road – La Grande Corniche

Three roads link Nice to Monaco.  They are called “Les Trois Corniches” which translates to the three cliffs or cliff roads.  The word comes from the word “cornice,” the decorative frieze that runs on top of buildings.   They are some of the world’s great drives.  When the rain and cruise ship passengers chased us out of Villefranche, we decided to drive the Grand Corniche.  What better time to take a drive on dangerous, cliff side road than in the rain?

The Low Corniche running out to the peninsula to St. Jean-Cap-Ferat from Villefranche-Sur-Mer

The peninsula with the Low Corniche from above

The Low Corniche (La Base Corniche or Corniche Inferieure) runs along the water, 50 meters above the Mediterranean.  It runs through Villefranche, past the entrance to the Cape Ferrat (known as the peninsula of billionaires), into Beaulieu-sur-Mer (chic Belle Epoque resort town), into Eze-Sur-Mer (from which you can hike up the Nieztsche path to the medieval hill town of Eze) and Cap d’Ail before arriving in the Principality of Monaco.

View from the Moyenne Corniche

The Middle Corniche (La Moyenne Corniche) is higher, culminating at 472 meters above sea level.   It offers impressive views of the sea and the towns above.  We took it out of Eze, going over the viaduct.  The Viaduct of Eze is known as the Bridge of the Devil.

The Viaduct of Eze on the Moyenne Corniche

Built in the early 20th century, the Moyenne Corniche is the newest of the three roads.  Even then tourists were causing congestion on the Low Corniche.

The Moyenne and Low Corniches from the Grande Corniche

We took the Grande Corniche out and drove the Middle Corniche back.   It wasn’t easy to stop for pictures though as we had to cross a lane of traffic to pull off and then get back out.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but luckily it rained (so there wasn’t too much traffic).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop like that on a busy day.

The Tete de Chien outcrop from Eze

From Eze, you can see the Tete de Chien promontory which dominates Monte-Carlo.  Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), was killed when her car went off a cliff on the Moyenne Corniche near there in 1983.

The High Corniche (La Grande Corniche) is the highest of the three with a height of 500 meters above the sea.  It has staggering views and a historical pedigree.  It is the site of the Via Aurelia, the road used by the Romans to conquer the territory to their west (aka France).  La Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon alongside of the old Roman road.

Several movies have been filmed on the Grande Corniche.    Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly here.  In some scenes, you can see Eze in the background.  The James Bond film Goldeneye starts with a car chase on the Grande Corniche.  Pierce Brosnan as James Bond chases Russian female fighter pilot Xenia Onatopp‘s Ferrari, in his Aston Martin DB5.  It is also a popular spot to film car commercials (but so is Detroit).

Yep. That’s it way up there on top.

From the Grand Corniche, you can see some seriously expensive homes.  I’m pretty sure that this is Villa La Leopolda.  Built by King Leopold of Belgium (allegedly for his mistress), owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame and money), Bill Gates and then by the Safra family, it was put up for sale by Edmund Safra’s widow, Lily.  Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, pulled out of a deal to pay $500 million dollars for it after legal troubles with the French government, losing his $36 million deposit.  Oops.

The medieval hill town of Eze and the viaduct on the Moyenne Corniche from the Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is so high and steep that it doesn’t go through many towns (only the hilltop village of Roquebrune).  There are hairpin turns and low guard rails (if there are guard rails).   It wasn’t a relaxing road to drive, but it was pretty freaking cool.

Cycling it…even cooler.

Villefranche, Oui, S’Il Vous Plaît

Villefranche-sur-Mer is carved into a hillside on a bay between Nice and Monaco.  We chose to stay in Villefranche because it is smaller and more residential than many of the towns on the water.   That’s not to say that they don’t have the tourism thing down pat.  Cruise ships regularly put down anchor in the harbor and we paid more to park our car overnight here than we did in New York City!  As cheap as I am, I didn’t care.  The views were worth it.

I loved the pastel colored houses and church.  On the left is the Baroque Eglise St-Michel church.  While it seems as though every town here has impressive, serene churches, this one had interesting objects that appeared magical with the light streaming in on them.  The statue of Christ below was carved out of olive wood by a convict.

We fed our coffee addiction and had breakfast at a café on the docks.  People were readying their boats for a sailing competition that weekend and seeing fisherman returning with their catch provided great entertainment.  After gorging on fish the night before, we learned that the Mediterranean is almost fished out and most of the fish served in restaurants is imported from the Atlantic.  Many of the towns on the Côte d’Azur started as fishing villages.  Today, tourism is the number one industry, but Villefranche is still has a few people who still earn a living fishing.

Villefranche has been a port since Roman times and is strategically important because it could be used as a base from which to attack the port of Nice.  After the fall of the Roman empire, residents fled and built the hill towns that dot the mountains behind the water.  In the 13th century, the Duke of Provence wanted to defend the port from Saracen Turks and strengthen their hold on the coastline.  To get them to move, he made living there tax-free.  Gotta love tax-free.  The Duke of Savoy constructed the fort to defend the port and bay in the 16th century.

The vaulted Rue Obscure (dark street) provided shelter from bombardment.  Rue Obscure is a passage way under the harbor front houses dating from 1260.

Narrow, steep lanes climb up from the harbor.  They were blissfully quiet and relatively deserted until the cruise ship started ferrying passengers ashore.

We decided to pull the plug and head out to the Grand Cornishe.  Before we left, we stopped to check out this church.  Villefranche is known for the Chapelle St.-Pierre in which Jean Cocteau (a famous French artist, poet and filmmaker) painted lavish frescos with heavy black lines and pastel colors.

Oops, I almost forgot.  In Villefranche, we found a new use for a bidet.  It came in really handy to clean the mud off of his Dunks.

So I Got That Goin’ For Me, Which Is Nice

After Cannes and Antibes on our giant whirlwind tour of the Côte d’Azur, we checked into our hotel in Villefranche.  After dropping off our bags and trying to find a parking spot in the very steep and very crowded streets of Villefranche, we walked along the Boulevard Princess Grace de Monaco to Vieux Nice (old town Nice).

After so much time in the car, it was great to walk and move around.  It was a beautiful evening and the scenery was amazing.  These were the views we’d been hoping for in the south of France, a rocky coast with clear water and a gorgeous blue sea.

We stopped and watched this boxer workout.  It’s not a bad spot for a workout, I’d probably be distracted by the view.  I’m not sure who he is, but his t-shirt was in Russian.  Any ideas?

Nice’s harbor was peaceful and the boats were a bit more modest than in Antibes.

Being from the US, I’ve never really understood the concept of renting a space on the beach.  It’s common in the south of France.  Most of the beaches are rocky so I guess it’s nice to have a lawn chair that you don’t have to lug around and waiters who will bring you cold drinks.  Notice they even put down aisle-like mats so that you don’t have to touch the rocks!  I guess everyone has different ways they like to experience nature.  We have friends who like to tube down rivers with coolers tied to their tubes.  To each their own.

We so busy sightseeing that we missed lunch and hadn’t eaten more than an apple since breakfast 12 hours earlier.  Oops.  By the time we arrived in Vieux Nice, we were ravenous.  We headed to the Cours Saleya which has been Nice’s main market square since the middle ages.  Filled with cafes that spill out onto the square, there were plenty of options so that we didn’t have to wait for a table.

Luckily for us, France is a great place to be hungry.  We had a wonderful meal and gorged ourselves on French specialities.  I had salad (Niçoise, how could I not when in Nice), oysters (they don’t serve them with Tabasco Sauce), and bouillabaisse.  Near the sea, I felt pretty confident that the seafood would be good.  It was better than good.

Vieux Nice is a tangled mishmash of ancient streets and alleyways.  Strolling through them was a perfect way to end our amazing day in the south of France.