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On The Road Again At Last!, Pt. 3; Nice and Aix-en-Provence, France

A rather ordinary time in Nice followed by a better day and a half in Aix-en-Provence

In my previous post in this series about our recent epic journey to Switzerland and through France, we had spent three nights in Lyon, seemingly perpetually eating the entire time before finally embarrassing ourselves during lunch in a two-Michellin Star restaurant, and then we were aboard the train and on our way to spend New Year’s Eve and the following two nights in Nice.

Friday, December 31, 2021
Anna was a little fried on the train from a couple too many glasses of wine with our shambolic lunch at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges so by the time she had awoken, our train was already in Nice:

Nice is the seventh most populous urban area in France and the prefecture of the Alpes-Maritimes department. The metropolitan area of Nice extends beyond the administrative city limits, with a population of nearly 1 million on an area of 744 km2 (287 sq mi). Located on the French Riviera, the southeastern coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea, at the foot of the French Alps, Nice is the second-largest French city on the Mediterranean coast and second-largest city in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region after Marseille. Nice is approximately 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) from the principality of Monaco and 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the French–Italian border. Nice’s airport serves as a gateway to the region.

The city is nicknamed Nice la Belle (Nissa La Bella in Niçard), meaning ‘Nice the Beautiful’, which is also the title of the unofficial anthem of Nice, written by Menica Rondelly in 1912. The area of today’s Nice contains Terra Amata, an archaeological site which displays evidence of a very early use of fire 380,000 years ago. Around 350 BC, Greeks of Marseille founded a permanent settlement and called it Νίκαια, Nikaia, after Nike, the goddess of victory. Through the ages, the town has changed hands many times. Its strategic location and port significantly contributed to its maritime strength. From 1388 it was a dominion of Savoy, then became part of the French First Republic between 1792 and 1815, when it was returned to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the legal predecessor of the Kingdom of Italy, until its re-annexation by France in 1860.

It was relatively late when we arrived so we checked into our hotel, Villa Otero by HappyCulture, where we’d be spending the next few nights and then walked into town to celebrate the end of probably one of the most awful 12-month stretches globally in at least 50 years (not including the previous year, I guess).
Anyone who has read this blog at any time before the world came to a halt would probably be aware of how much I hate Google Maps when we’re in an unfamiliar environment and it managed to disappoint once again. This time it had us making a detour through one of the sketchier parts of town where homeless people lived in tents and more than one brawl between extremely underprivileged immigrants broke out as we walked, but a little over half an hour later we were in the town centre… And it was dead, almost eerily quiet. This is a city that under normal circumstances usually hosts four million tourists per year, but now a lot of the bars and restaurants weren’t even open and the ones that were had very few people in them, quite strange for around 9:00pm on New Year’s Eve. We pulled up a seat at one place that had a couple of tables with people on them, us opting to sit outside under the heaters out of paranoia over the uptick in Covid cases across Europe at the time. We ordered a couple of drinks and a snack, but there was just absolutely no atmosphere at all so after another round we paid up and set out into the drizzle to find something, absolutely anything, where it would feel like a normal New Year’s Eve. After a few laps of the entertainment district we found the place that was the most happening, but at the same time it kind of made me cringe; we had stumbled upon Van Diemen’s, an Australian pub. I’m not a fan of going to Aussie bars overseas, because it makes the trip feel sort of pointless if I’m not really going to be hanging out around the locals and doing what they do, it just reminds me of some people we know from Singapore who have traveled all over the world, but generally hang out with their Chinese tour groups and eat in Chinese restaurants most of the time while they’re away, and that simply isn’t for us. To make this situation even weirder, I kept getting served by a fellow Aussie guy who asked me whereabouts in Australia I was from. I told him that I was born in Gippsland, Victoria, but moved to Melbourne as soon as I got the chance and when he heard that he asked me whereabouts in Gippsland. I replied that I was born in Traralgon, to which he respond that he was from Bairnsdale and that he had moved to Nice about two years ago to go snowboarding. It turned out I had traveled halfway around the globe to be served by a guy from a town 100km (60mi) from where I spent my formative years.
We ended up having a fun night at Van Diemen’s, grabbing a couple of burgers there for dinner and the city got a bit busier as the night went on. From our table in a heated tent area we witnessed another brawl and when the clock struck midnight we celebrated with the people around us. About an hour later we took a walk along the esplanade to see what else, if anything, was still happening before getting a ride home. For some reason the streets were busier at 1:00am than they had been a couple of hours before, that is until the cops showed up, and then most of the people cleared out. Some scene’s from New Year’s Eve in Nice:

Saturday, January 1, 2022
New Year’s Day was obviously going to be even quieter than the eve so we got up and strolled around this beautiful city to get some coffee, this time navigating on Google Maps ourselves without taking its suggested route and it turned out our hotel was only about a 10 to 15-minute walk out of the city centre. As I had predicted there were very few people out and about, although Anna did get meowed at by a man for some reason, but fewer people meant we got to take in a virtually unobstructed view of Vieux Nice, otherwise known as the Old Town, while walking around, wandering through the Saleya Course street market and past the Nice Cathedral along the way before heading up Castle Hill to the Castle of Nice. A few more photos, this time Nice in broad daylight, well, a bit overcast, but you get the point:

Onward up to the Castle of Nice, which Wikipedia tells us:

The Castle of Nice was a military citadel. Built at the top of a hill, it stood overlooking the bay of Nice from the 11th century to the 18th century. It was besieged several times, especially in 1543 and in 1691, before it was taken by French troops in 1705 and finally destroyed in 1706 by command of Louis XIV.

Nowadays, Castle Hill is used as a park. It’s the most famous public garden in Nice, and a “must see” place for the numerous tourists who visit the city. It offers many amazing panoramas, and provides a beautiful view all day long from sunrise to sundown, highlighting various landscapes depending on where one looks: the Harbor at sunrise, the Promenade des Anglais at sundown. That’s why Castle Hill is called “the cradle of the sun”.

As for the hill itself, Castle hill is a 93m (305′) limestone rock, but none of this sheds much detail on the place, however, a sign on the wall as we were about to enter, quoted verbatim, did:

Castle Hill, considered to be the cradle of the town of NICE, is an old fortified site that was occupied by the Celtic Ligurians.

It derived its name, NIKAIA, from the Phocian-Greeks when they set up a trading post near the coast in the III century BC.

Romanized in early Christian times, it gave birth to the higher-lying medieval town where the former cathedral of Sainte Marie stood.

Protected by the castle of the Counts of Provence, then the Savoy sovereigns, in the 16th Century, it became a formidable citadel gaining a powerful rampart around the lower part of the town (nowadays «Old Nice»).

Louis XIV ordered the dismantling of the entire defense system after the french occupation in 1706 during the War of Spanish Succession. The hill, definitively relieved of its strategic purposes, then became host to the new cemeteries in 1783.

It was converted into a park, enhanced and doted with its magnificent waterfall at the end of the 19th Century during the Sardinian restoration.

That makes the history of the place a little clearer and, now continuing our hike, also helps us know what we actually saw. It may “only” be under 100m high, but you have to factor in that the bulk of that was gradually winding steps so it took a bit of effort to get to the summit, but once there it was worth it. We strolled up the stairs, first past the cemeteries, then onto the remains of the Cathedral of Sainte Marie, before making it up to what’s left of the castle itself. Once there in the park at the summit, it was obvious why this part of Nice is considered a must see, we may not have been there at dusk to see “the cradle of the sun”, but the views were stunning nonetheless, although I will never understand why people were swimming in the sea in that weather:

It was only about 2:30pm when we started making our way back down, this time slowly passing the Port of Nice on the east coast, an area we’d explore further on a day when a bit more would hopefully be open, and as we headed toward the Esplanade we had to slow ourselves down a little, because there was a group protest marching along. One could only assume they were protesting against Covid vaccine mandates, due to the main banner at the front of the rally reading “Freedom! Resistance. No to the past, No to genetic experimentation. Stop dictatorship. Stop muzzle. Stop propaganda. Stop discrimination” (cheers, Google Translate, at least you seem more reliable than Google Maps, but I have no way of confirming if this translation is correct without the help of a french person).

I wasn’t kidding!

Anna was getting more and more annoyed at me as I tried to get some decent pictures of the protest and eventually just power-marched ahead down the road, waiting off to the side for me when she figured she was far enough away from the french disease farm. Rightly so too, because there had been a massive uptick in Covid cases in France with what turned out to be 219,126 new cases on January 1 alone (right) and that wasn’t even half of the amount they would be getting four weeks later! Maybe a good time for me to hold my breath and get past them too!
Once we had put the protesters in the rearview mirror we needed coffee, but there wasn’t a whole lot around that was open until we finally stumbled upon a place that had coffee cups that looked like they were formed out of various types of tumours. Anna loved them, but for me as long as these were vessels containing caffeine, I would be a happy man. We drank up and walked back through Place Masséna to the hotel to put our feet up for a bit, passing Fontaine du Soleil, or The Sun Fountain, along the way, a seven metre (23′) tall, seven ton sculpture with a pretty amusing history:

When the Sun Fountain was unveiled in 1956, the people of Nice were not impressed.  Apollo’s “job” according to mythology is to carry the sun across the sky every day and he usually does this in his chariot pulled by 4 horses.  But this Apollo didn’t have a chariot and the 4 horses were on top of his head, forming a sort of crown.

The spectators claimed that he looked like an advertisement for the most popular automobile at the time, the Renault 4CV, known as the “4 horsepower”.  So the magnificent Greek deity was saddled with the nickname – “the 4 horsepower statue”.

Our view of The Virgin

Now, I know nothing about cars, however, I may have mentioned before that the only car I’ve ever owned was a 1993 model, 1.3 litre Suzuki Swift sedan, which I abandoned in a parking lot after nine years of ownership when I first moved overseas. That 68 horsepower mean machine wasn’t exactly tearing up the roads, in fact it used to rattle if you went too fast, but I love watching the international specials on Top Gear and The Grand Tour so I’ve seen Jeremy Clarkson mention multiple times that the average Renault is generally not what most people would want in their garage, and not just for its yellow headlights. Thus I realise that having a nickname derived from that brand of car, even if this particular model was the most popular, isn’t particularly flattering for the statue, but it gets much worse:

But there was a bigger problem – and it was located further down the nude sculpture.  Some conservative inhabitants of the city thought that his “manhood” was too large, while some older ladies thought it was too small, and college students took to decorating it as a prank.

In an effort to calm the controversy, the sculptor took a hammer and chisel to his creation to reduce the size of the offending member. This operation earned Apollo a new nickname. Now, instead of being called “4 horsepower”, he was called “the virgin”.

His embarrassing surgery proved to be insufficient; it wasn’t enough to satisfy the Catholic women’s “League of Feminine Virtue”. He was still nude as were the bronze statues. The virtuous women gained enough support that in the 1970s the fountain with its naked sculptures was dismantled.

We kicked back in the hotel for a couple of hours and once we felt rejuvenated, had our usual pre-dinner drink, and then we were off to find something to eat and since we were on the Mediterranean, seafood was the obvious choice. We walked through Place Masséna again, past the token ferris wheel that almost every major city seems to require now, and before long we had settled into a seafood restaurant for some great locally-sourced ocean fare, picking up some dishes and a fantastic crustacean platter. Once done we settled into a bar for the night, a common theme when on holiday:

Sunday, January 2, 2022
Being a Sunday and the lack of tourists, there was very little chance of anything being open today either and we were right. There was absolutely nothing to do except retrace our steps of the previous day around the port in order to take in the sights without the burden of antivaxxers, then we found a different coffee place that was open, but ate at the same restaurant again. When taking a longer look around the port, it became abundantly clear how much this town relies on tourism. Sure, it was a Sunday and almost nothing was open, but it was also difficult to imagine that changing any time soon on any other day, as was evident looking at the restaurants in the area and their menus, many of which contained foreign translations, particularly in Mandarin. In fact, some restaurants even had their signs written in Chinese, but I can’t imagine many people visiting from the mainland in the near future so a lot of them weren’t even bothering to open at all, but at least for us there was hope in sight; tomorrow we would be traveling to Aix-en-Provence.

Not particularly spacious for a guy like me

Monday, January 3, 2022
The featured image of this entry has Anna standing in front of a giant sign with the hashtag #ILoveNice, one that I think could’ve been a little more accurate if it were actually #IThoughtNiceWasAlright, but we needn’t dwell on that. All I had to do was have one final shower in our cubicle that was so small (right) that I needed to open the door, stick a leg out, and lift an arm in the air, in a similar vein to some of these standard figure skating poses, in order to wash my armpits, and soon we would be crammed into the tiny elevator to make our way down to the lobby, check out, and before long we would be aboard the train to Aix-en-Provence as we slowly gravitated back toward the Swiss border:

Aix-en-Provence, or simply Aix, is a city and commune in southern France, about 30 km (20 mi) north of Marseille. A former capital of Provence, it is the sub-prefecture of the arrondissement of Aix-en-Provence, in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône, in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The population of Aix-en-Provence is of approximately 143,000. Its inhabitants are called Aixois or, less commonly, Aquisextains.

After a relatively brief train trip and a quick trek in a taxi we were shortly checking into the guesthouse in which we would be staying for the next two nights, Maison du Collectionneur, and if Aix-en-Provence turned out to be a bit of a nonevent like Nice, at least we had a beautiful room to stay in. Seriously, Anna was absolutely in love with this place, even if it did have a substantial amount of deceased Mickey Mouse pieces among its cool art instalments, both in our room and downstairs in the common area:

Like almost every occasion in which we had reached a new location on this epic holiday, we arrived in Aix-en-Provence in the middle of the afternoon, but after eating the free calissons left on our bed and getting some coffee, we still managed to cover a lot of ground before the full dark of night in a town that had plenty more action than Nice, passing through some tiny back streets, along large, open squares and thoroughfares, and past some beautiful, old buildings, such as the Place d’Albertas, Church of the Madeleine, and the Town Hall with its clocktower on an evening when it finally wasn’t drizzling. The rest of the evening followed suit with almost every other night on this trip; find a place to have a drink or two until we got hungry, find a restaurant in which to eat, on this occasion feasting on stuffed guinea fowl and beef paleron at La Bouchée, and then pull up a seat in a cosy bar or pub. However, we didn’t want to overdo it as it was a Monday night and this place looked a lot more interesting than Nice so we’d have a bit of exploring to do on Tuesday, but a look back on that first eight or so hours in Aix-en-Provence:

Tuesday, January 4, 2022
This was our first full day for the year thus far in a town that actually had some action so we wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately it was Tuesday and there was a big market really close to where we were staying:

The big market days in Aix-en-Provence are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This is when the daily market opens its doors to even more street sellers from the region, widening the remit. It stretches out through the neighbouring streets and snakes down the iconic boulevard, Cours Mirabeau

In front of the impressive law courts, additional food sellers set up in Place des Prêcheurs. Here you’ll find a wider range of produce, with many stalls selling pre-prepared meals and others packed with different coloured herbs and spices.

It’s a perfect opportunity to try olives infused with chillies or garlic, and discover some local rosé wine, from expert wineries too small to export their products abroad.

Recently renovated, the market showcases the magnificent church, Eglise de la Madeleine and Roman ruins discovered during the recent pedestrianisation.

At the adjoining Place du Verdun (another great place to grab a coffee), the market moves into its arts and crafts section, giving way to local designers selling everything from pottery and handmade wicker baskets, to anything scented with local lavender.

It’s here that you can find lots of Provençal soap for a fraction of the price you’ll find in the surrounding high-end shops.

As the market hits the top of the iconic Cours Mirabeau, where writer Emile Zola used to meet painter Paul Cézanne after school, the stalls change yet again. This time selling textiles – Provençal tablecloths, and depending on the season, summer dresses or winter scarves and coats.

It’s a great opportunity to buy panama hats, straw boaters or the iconic French beret, as well as every kind of shoe, belt and bags. Stallholders will happily bargain if you’re buying more than one item.

Finally, at the western end of Cours Mirabeau, by the large Rotonde fountain (the most well-known of all its fountains), the vibe turns distinctly flea market. Traders offer second-hand books, alongside antique chairs and furniture.

This definitely sounds like our kind of place! Flea markets are the best, but despite this having some secondhand stuff for sale, it was still more of a food market than anything, but that’s always a great thing when you’re in France too. As soon as we arrived we saw a place selling dried pork sausages in a variety of flavours and sizes so we grabbed a paper cone of miniature ones to snack on for our walk around. These sausages were absolutely fantastic so once they were soon finished, we bought a couple of large ones from the same stall to bring back home, including a delicious truffle one. I happily could’ve done the same at the many cheese stalls we encountered, but I doubt a suitcase full of brie would hold up particularly well when you bring it back into the tropics, plus about 50% of our diet on the two Swiss legs of this trip would end up consisting of cheese so despite being surrounded buy wheels and wheels of it, I decided against stocking up.
That description of the market mentions great places to get coffee nearby and we definitely wanted some, but one of Anna’s favourite desserts are macarons so we had to find a place with an assortment of them and before long we stumbled upon a cafe with a variety of macarons so brunch was served, but there was something niggling at me; I can’t recall what it was so it mustn’t have been that great, but there was a used item in one of the secondhand stalls that had caught my eye so I told Anna I was going to go back and have another look at it. She wanted to check out some of the shops nearby so she told me to meet her “at the fountain” when I was done. Fountains are not a particularly good landmark to choose in this town, but especially down the central Cours Mirabeau where we were currently hanging out:

Aix is often referred to as the city of a thousand fountains. Among the most notable are the 17th-century Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (Fountain of the Four Dolphins) in the Quartier Mazarin, designed by Jean-Claude Rambot, and three of the fountains down the central Cours Mirabeau: at the top, a 19th-century fountain depicts the “good king” René holding the Muscat grapes that he introduced to Provence in the 15th century; halfway down is a natural hot water fountain (34 °C), covered in moss, dating back to the Romans; and at the bottom, at la Rotonde, the hub of modern Aix, stands a monumental fountain from 1860 beneath three giant statues representing art, justice and agriculture. In the older part of Aix, there are also fountains of note in the Place d’Albertas and the Place des Trois-Ormeaux.

Seems simple enough

I took a better look at the secondhand item, passed on it, and to make things easier I initially thought about meeting Anna at the guesthouse, but I couldn’t remember its name so I went back down to the other end of Cours Mirabeau to meet her at the fountain near where we had had coffee, however, we weren’t thinking of the same fountain. In fact, I must’ve passed Anna at one of the other fountains to get to the one I was at. We were messaging back and forth (left, adjusted for Singapore time) when we finally figured out the problem. In the end I sent her a photo of the fountain where I was waiting, telling her it was near the Lacoste store and to make matters worse, the one she was waiting at was near another store, the name of which sounded a lot like Lacoste as well! If we had learnt anything that day, it was never to use fountains or Lacoste stores as rendezvous points while in Aix-en-Provence.

Anna loves shopping for clothes and rings when she’s overseas and here all the shops were open, except for about a 90-minute period for those who can’t break old habits, despite it no longer being illegal to eat lunch at your desk in France due to Covid-19. There were also a lot of other beautiful and fascinating sites, so we just spent the afternoon weaving through the winding streets and alleys, visiting a gallery that had some of the terrifying Imaginary Prisons prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (photos weren’t permitted, you can see the collection here), and possibly passing about 50 fountains along the way until it was time for our final dinner in town, this time choosing La Petite Ferme. We ate like royalty again and went for a nightcap before heading back to our hotel to rearrange our luggage so we could fit all of the food, wine, and clothing that we had picked up that day into our suitcases before we caught the train once more the next afternoon and moved on to Annecy. Aix-en-Provence in broad daylight this time, as well as some snaps from dinner, several of which I have no idea what we were eating:

Overall, Nice was kind of dull for a tourist destination, but considering it was a beachside town in the middle of winter with no real tourists, I guess they were doing the best they could, however, Aix-en-Provence was a lot more fun, but they both pale in comparison to what comes next!
Stay tuned for the conclusion of this journey when we stay in Annecy, one of the most beautiful cities either of us have ever visited, and then return to Switzerland to hang out with our now Covid-free friends, as well as some others who had joined us for the last leg of our first real getaway in almost two years.

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