Day Nineteen

7 10 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006. Nice, France.

After our usual breakfast we packed our daypack for an adventure to the seaside. We stopped by the hotel desk on our way out to request a taxi to the airport Tuesday morning. Then we headed to the tourist info center for the bus schedule to Nice.

According to the schedule the next bus left Valbonne at 10:45. It was only 10:00, but we weren’t sure exactly where the bus stop was, so we decided to go ahead and locate it, then hang out in that vicinity to be sure we didn’t miss the bus.

The bus stop provided an interesting observation point. We sat in the shade across the street and watched a slice of village life. At most stops busses pull up to curbside, but this one was set up as both a stop and a turn-around, so they had to get off the main road and pull in to a loop. Local busses arrived frequently, slowed just enough to see if someone would flag them down, then roared on through. Recycling bins located opposite the stop shelter used the same drive-thru, and residents parked their cars there long enough to unload paper and bottles, creating additional congestion. Bus drivers pulled into the small circular drive-thru area however they could fit, sometimes driving right over a concrete curb and small median in the middle if another bus was already in the main lane. No one seemed to mind, though.

Around 10:45 our bus (#230) drove right past the bus stop without pulling into the circle. We jumped up and followed it a bit down the street until the driver turned into a parking and service area. Okay, we thought. He’s getting gas and then he’ll resume his route. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. A different bus pulled up and stopped so I stepped on and tried to communicate with the non-English-speaking driver. I showed him the schedule we’d received with our departure time highlighted and explained the bus hadn’t stopped. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, then pointed to the service area around the corner and suggested we inquire there.

The men at the service center didn’t speak English either, but when I showed them the schedule they just shrugged and pointed to the next departure time. 11:50.

By this point my enthusiasm was flagging. We debated giving up but decided to wait and see if bus 230 showed up at 11:50. It did. We got on. And we sat in the first seat so we could follow our progress along the route and keep our bearings.

We needn’t have been concerned. All the stops were clearly marked, and the depot in Nice was a huge garage with digital departure boards like the ones in airports and train stations. We arrived right on schedule at 1:00 PM greatly in need of a bathroom and almost as eager for lunch. The depot fronted a road undergoing major construction adding to our confusion about which way to go. We didn’t even know which direction led to the beach, but we followed a sign indicating the way to the historical district.

It was a good choice. We soon found a popular lunch spot that specialized in “socca” (more about that later) and also sold quiche, pizza, and appealing salads. And–oh joy–it had a free toilette. A self-cleaning toilette, no less! When you flushed it, a motor whirred and a little arm clamped over the edge of the seat which then turned itself one complete rotation. The cleaning device washed and dried the seat as it passed under the arm. Tres cool!

George ate quiche and I ordered a salad with small brown olives and veggie fritters. The picnic-style tables had bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on them. We’d learned from Mary to request water in a carafe, thus avoiding the expensive bottled water. Plus, you get a lot more.

We topped off lunch with caffe-flavored gelato in homemade waffle cones. Feeling much better we began exploring the narrow lanes of Nice. The irregular angles, muted colors, and shuttered windows reminded us very much of Venice. The buildings here were generally several stories taller than the ones in smaller villages like Valbonne. We passed shops of every kind, from name-brand designer clothes to art to bakeries, jewelry, hats, shoes, and leather coats. Very ecclectic. We passed a flea market, walked under some arches, and there we were! The Promenade des Anglais–a paved walkway that follows the Mediterranean shoreline for who-knows-how far. Steps lead down from the Promenade to rocky beaches and restaurants. Sunbathers can pay for a chaise lounge on a private-ish beach or spread a towel on the smooth stones. I can understand why people would want to save money, but those stones didn’t look very comfortable.

You may have heard that women go topless on French beaches. This is true. From hot, young babes to saggy old grandmas, they’re everywhere. In fact, there are so many I’m surprised George didn’t walk right into a pole with his attempts to avert his eyes. But honestly, it wasn’t very tantalizing. The whole sunbathing scene was unglamorous and really just kind of depressing.

The Mediterranean Sea, however, was beautiful. We strolled along the Promenade to one of the breezy covered areas that are topped with tinted glass, allowing just the right amount of sunlight to filter through. George emptied his pockets and headed to the water for a swim. I sat on a bench and journaled. When he returned we crossed the main road back into the city to explore a while, observe humanity, and soak up the slow-paced Mediterranean lifestyle. Fran the Speedo Man had explained that Nice was formerly part of Italy and still maintains a Latin vibe. He also said a lot of French people don’t like to claim it for that reason, but he likes Nice. (Maybe because a guy in a Speedo isn’t conspicuous?)

A few random observations:
~ Yorkies are everywhere! Other froo-froo dogs, too, but a plethora of Yorkies.
~ Motorcylces go wherever they please, sometimes rounding corners way too fast given the crowded streets and sidewalks. I kept expecting one to squash a Yorkie.
~ Likewise, people on bicycles and rollerblades zip around, dodging pedestrians and dogs. I’m surprised we didn’t see any collisions.

The only bus going all the way back to Valbonne (the last stop on the route–thus the nearby parking/service center) departed at 8:30 PM so we decided to wait around rather than hassle with changing busses somewhere mid-route. Since we had lots of time we returned to the Promenade. The sun was beginning to set, so we sat on the ledge overlooking the beach and watched the subtle changes of color in the sky and the slanted light on turquoise water. We also watched beachgoers pack up at the end of the day. The evening chill had caused most people to cover up, but one group of Asian men were just coming out of the water and making their way to the showers on the wall directly below our perch. One of them was wearing only a swimsuit liner. I don’t know if he lost the rest of his suit in the water or what, but the effect was ewwww. His friends were laughing at him which may have had something to do with the decision of one of his pals to strip down to his BVDs. Apparently BVD boy proceeded to frolic in the shower. Their gaggle of giggling female friends found this exhibition highly amusing. They kept pointing and snapping photos. I suppose the guy must have been posing for them, but I wasn’t tempted to look down and find out.

We wandered back into the city to look for a snack. Cafes were abundant, but nothing captured our fancy. Some were too expensive and some looked sketchy. We wound up back at the socca place where we’d eaten lunch. I’d noticed a lot of people ordering plates of thin, fried bread that resembled crepes, but were piled on the plate in a heap and weren’t filled with anything. After watching three teen girls order plates of this mystery crepe-bread I surmised it must be the specialty of the place. Socca. It was the first and least expensive item on the menu at 2 Euro. I ordered one serving and a carafe of water.

I’d say Socca can best be described as a thin corn pancake. We couldn’t decipher the subtle nuances of flavor, but it was tasty. Most of the people seated at the picnic tables around us were also eating it–we guessed as an early-evening snack to tide them over until the main dinner event. Many also had small pitchers of wine to wash it down.

By this point we’d adopted the Latin pace full guns. We took our time pinching off bits of socca and people watching. When we’d cleaned the plate we went to a shop that sold biscotti and other similar twice-baked goodies. We selected samples of chocolate, apricot, mandarine orange, and a thin praline-like cookie. Then we made our way back to the bus garage to await the 230 to Valbonne.

Something we noticed. French people are polite. They greet each other and say “merci” a lot. They aren’t loud or abrasive. Everyone who boarded the bus said bonsoir (good evening) to the driver, and he thanked them when they paid their fare. Everyone who got off the bus said, “Merci, monsieur! Au revoir!” Even though we’re not conversant in French we tried to be considerate and never pushy. Hopefully we redeemed the bad American rep just a tad–at least for a few folks.

When we reached our hotel, our host was at the desk. We went ahead and paid our bill, leaving one less matter to attend to in the morning, since our taxi was supposed to pick us up at 8:30 AM to head to the airport. We chatted with our host a while and discovered his wife’s brother–an Italian–owns an international restaurant at the Galleria in Houston. He asked us to tell him hello if we’re ever there. I mean, hey, we’re from Texas, too. Must be neighbors, right? 🙂

We packed our bags and set an alarm to get up at 6:45 AM so we’d be able to enjoy our final breakfast at Les Armoiries before jetting to London and then back to the U.S.

And so, the end draws near. Tomorrow: our journey home.


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