The French Riveria was calling. And so we traded in the gray clouds of Provence for the sunny skies of the Côte d’Azur.
Heading two hours east by bus, we made our way from Aix-en-Provence to Nice, the capital of Southern France. The tree-lined highway took us past forests and rolling green hills on our left, and lush farmlands, beautiful vineyards and quaint villages on our right.
The ride felt quintessentially French with one minor exception: the soundtrack. A mashup of pop hits played over the bus speakers: A Hard Day’s Night (Beatles), Gloria (Van Morrison) and of all things, Georgia On My Mind (Ray Charles). At least the stewardess was very French (yes, there was a bus stewardess.) Donning a Chanel-like tweed suit and flowy neck scarf, she seemed much too stylish for our humble, public transport. Greyhound could certainly learn a thing or two about a more refined bus experience.
Soon, swaying palm trees and azure waters of the Mediterranean appeared before us.
Entering the city limits, we coasted down Quai des Etats Unis, the street that parallels the famous pedestrian walkway, Promenade des Anglais. The area was buzzing with walkers, joggers and families out enjoying the sunshine. A quintessential South of France day. Below the boardwalk, individuals dotted the pebble beach. They watched the waves and laid idly about without a care in the world. We’re always amazed at how little Europeans need for the beach. Often they have a single towel. That’s it.
This was our second time to Nice and there was something comforting about the familiarity of it.
Like our earlier visit with Brian’s school exchange family in Vic-La-Gardiole, it felt a bit like coming home. It also reminded us of Santa Monica, where we lived before leaving on our travels.
With a nostalgic haze, we sought out the same hotel where we stayed before. Hotel Rex is a quaint little guest house on the main pedestrian street in New Town. Renovated since our last visit, this time around it was now well out of our budget. But for old time’s sake, we thought we’d give it a try. After negotiating back and forth in dramatic French fashion (“Quoi? Ce n’est pas possible que vous payez ce prix!”), the owner agreed to a lower price for us. It was off season and he had plenty of vacancies. Already a month in, we seemed to be getting the hang of our Cheap & Charming bargaining style.
As true creatures of habit, we spent most of our time in Nice revisiting our favorite spots from before. The colorful Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market) along Cours Saleya. The winding alleyways of Vieux Nice (Old Town). And the panoramic view of the city from Castle Hillat sunset. Surprisingly, we even recognized some of the same people. The energetic Socca lady selling her signature chickpea flour crepes. The owner of the olive oil shop with adorable mini olive trees out front. And the multi-generational family running Chez Acchiardo, a popular local eatery where we dined on heavenly homemade ravioli with bolognese sauce.
Only two years had passed, but we got the sense that if we returned 10 years from now, these colorful characters would all still be here.
The concept of staying in one place seems to be a trend for most of Europe. At least that’s the impression we got from our travels so far. We encountered extended families out for evening paseo in Seville. A father and son keeping the tradition of Damascening alive in their tiny shop in Toledo. And elderly folks still living in the same country village in Languedoc where they were born and raised. The longevity makes sense. Behind every town, village and community, there’s an inherently long, rich history that all the people share. Unlike Americans, Europeans have literally been settled on the same land for thousands of years.
Taking one last stroll through Old Town, we stopped for an obligatory ice cream cone at Fenocchio and could see the appeal of staying put. Blending in with the locals on that cool Mediterranean evening, we thought about the fact that these narrow, winding streets have essentially stayed the same since the 1700s. So too has their food, their traditions, their way of life. It’s all stayed the same.
To some, the concept of not changing may not seem like progress. But in this context, it felt revolutionary.
Here in Nice, and really all of France, people know what’s important. They hold on to tradition. They are passionate about quality. They appreciate things of true substance, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Like their love of outdoor cafés. Well-prepared food. Clean, tidy streets. Politeness in conversation. To share these same, nuanced experiences every day over the course of hundreds of years is truly amazing. Here’s hoping Nice stays exactly as it is.