I woke up early on a recent Saturday morning, head pounding and stomach churning. The dreaded “UK Flu” had been making an appearance every few days and it seemed today was its day. I looked at my pile of “stuff” in the corner of my temporary bedroom and was filled with dread at the thought of schlepping all my stuff from train to train to train to plane to bus – from Bradford-on-Avon, England to Nice, France.
I wanted nothing more than to curl up under the covers and get some more sleep. But Nice was calling.
I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to my weeklong break in Nice. My friend Maureen (“Moe”) had invited me to stay with her, the British Airways ticket from London was dirt cheap, and I had an open week between house sits. My expectations were pretty low – a little sun and maybe a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe. That’s all.
So, I dragged myself out of bed, popped an ibuprofen and loaded up on coffee. As sipped my coffee, I checked my train ticket from Bradford-on-Avon to London Gatwick and suddenly realized my train departed an hour earlier than I remembered…departing in just 20 minutes! (Damn!)
I grabbed my pile of stuff and rushed to the train station, making it with just 3 minutes to spare. Suddenly, halfway to Bath (a very brief 12-minute ride) the train stopped. It just sat there, unmoving, for about 10 minutes – pulling into Bath just as my connecting train to Reading was pulling out. So, I cursed a little and popped another ibuprofen.
And then I sat down on a bench and started to laugh. Attitude adjustment time!
“How many people would give ANYTHING for the chance to visit Nice?”
“Quit your whining and embrace the adventure!”
Many hours later, I emerged through Nice customs and was greeted by the smiling face of Moe (Moe’s Atlas.com) – a friend I had met at the TBEX travel blogger conference a few months ago. She’s a former Wisconsinite who has called Nice home for many years. I was warmly embraced by Moe and I finally began to embrace Nice.
We walked through the airport exit into a beautiful Nice night and I inhaled deeply. It smelled and felt different than I expected. Different than my hazy memories from my last trip 30 years before.
Nice is fun. Historic. Laid back. Beautiful. Artistic. Delicious. Addictive.
Tips for exploring the unexpected Nice
Wander Old Town – Moe’s apartment is set in the midst of Old Town (“Vieille Ville” according to the locals), the most interesting and historic area of the city. The area is filled with cafes, restaurants, butchers, flower stalls, and small “Mom ‘n Pop” shops. The Old Town area runs along the Mediterranean Sea and includes the area just west of Castle Hill and south of Promenade du Paillon. Wander through the narrow streets and get lost in the maze, enjoy the amazing architecture of the Opera House and other beautiful old, French buildings.
And then stop at one of the many sidewalk cafes, sip a cappuccino (or a beer), and watch the real Nice go by.
Relax at Happy Hour – I expected Nice to be ridiculously expensive, but luckily Moe had her finger on the pulse of affordable Happy Hour options in town, many places offering a glass of wine for 2 Euros. Head over to Place Garibaldi in the Old Town area and check out either Cafe de la Place or Campo Cafe. Both offer happy hour prices on wine or beer plus free munchies like chips, mixed nuts, olives.
Savor the Sunsets – Nice is set along the Mediterranean Sea and is surrounded by the foothills of the Alps, making for stunning scenery and amazing sunsets. Walk along the promenade, enjoy the street musicians, and soak up the atmosphere. Another fine option – sip a glass of wine and enjoy the view from the rooftop bar at Le Meridien Hotel.
For a more challenging sunset view – tackle the stairway up to Castle Hill!
Hike Castle Hill – The hill overlooking Nice is a somewhat challenging climb that offers stunning views of the town, the Port, and the surrounding mountains. At the top, you can view the remains of Chateau de Nice and stroll through the large park, stopping at the waterfall (Cascade Dijon). There is also an incredibly photogenic cemetery located on top of the hill – a stunning final resting place.
Explore Jazz Clubs – On a balmy Tuesday evening, Moe and I were dragging our tired asses home after a long day of exploring. The game plan – a bottle of wine and a classic chick-flick, “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
A few blocks from her house, we ran into a couple of Italian musicians lingering just outside a jazz club. Moe knew them so we stopped to chat and they invited us into the club. We agreed…”just for a song or two.” (Yeah, right!)
Turns out, we had just stumbled into the best jazz club in Nice – Shapko – and became “groupies” for the rest of the week.
Shapko is a small, quirky place offering live music nightly. In the center of the small venue, the stage is covered with a large oriental rug with an ornate chandelier hanging overhead. (Kind of feels like you’re in your Grandma’s living room.) The upper level has comfortable couches for lounging while enjoying the music.
Moe and I grabbed stools at the bar, ordered white wine, and stayed until closing.
Watching the scene unfold from my perfect perch at the bar, I witnessed an unexpected side of Nice. Not at all stuffy like I had imagined- an eclectic crowd “danced like nobody’s watching” and seemed so joyful and uninhibited. They reminded me of the blonde woman in “Under the Tuscan Sun”, who ate ice cream every day just because it gave her pleasure!
The joy and energy were infectious and kept us coming back for more, night after night!
(For location and a current music schedule check Shapko’s website.)
Exploring the Nice area
Ancient St. Paul de Vence – One of the oldest villages in the Cote dAzur area, this perched village dates back to 1540. Built on a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, it’s built in a perfect location for fighting off the enemies. The area has its roots in art and was once the base for famous artists like Picasso and Chagall. The old buildings have been perfectly renovated and now house expensive art galleries and beautiful shops.
(Catch bus 400 from the rue Verdun/Albert 1ere bus stop, which is between the Meridian Hotel and the start of the Promenade du Paillon gardens,)
Stunning Eze – Possibly my favorite spot around Nice, Eze is another perched village built on rock 1400 feet above sea level. It’s really, really old, SO cool, and extremely photogenic.The village is centered on the ruins of a 12th-century castle and parts of the village date way back to the 11th century.
We stopped at a cafe, ordered a coffee and a croissant, and then wandered slowly through the ancient stone alleys. Stunning!
(Eze is reached by bus #82 or bus #112 from the bus stop on the east side of town, 2 blocks inland from the Port at the Max Barel bus stop.)
Ritzy Monaco – Ritzy and glitzy, Monaco is a small city-state famous for rich people who drive nice cars and sail the Mediterranean on their expensive yachts. It’s a quick jaunt from neighboring Nice and feels like a different world, a world that wasn’t quite as welcoming or as comfortable. A very different vibe from laid-back Nice.
We wandered near the famous Monte Carlo Casino and then took the bus up to the hilltop Palace where the royal Grimaldi family resides. As we were waiting at the bus stop, a local woman strutted by wearing her designer thigh-high boots and expensive, beige cashmere coat. She looked me over, taking note of my hot pink jacket, practical (ugly) Sketchers walking shoes, and blonde wind-blown hair. Then she turned up her nose and strutted right on by. (I didn’t really blend in there! She probably thought I was homeless!)
(From Eze, take bus 112 for the 20-minute drive to the beautifully stuffy principality of Monaco.)
Tasty Italy – For a taste of Italy, take a day trip across the border for an amazing pasta lunch. Just across the Italian border, the village of Bordighera holds a traditional open market along the waterfront on Thursdays, selling cheap Italian goods (made in China?) and all kinds of local foods. Stock up on sun-dried tomatoes, delicious cheese, and HUGE lemons! Once your shopping is done, head uphill to the Old Town area for an authentically Italian, and incredibly delicious, pasta lunch.
(Take the 40-minute train ride from Nice to the Italian border city of Ventimiglia. Change trains there for the eight-minute ride to Bordighera.)
Helpful travel links:
Bus schedules and information – click here.
For a great breakdown on specific Nice bus stops – click here.
Train schedules and information – click here.
Hotel information – check HotelsCombined.com.
Stories of an American expat and “Solo Travelista”, check out Moe’s Atlas.
Enjoy soaking up the Mediterranean vibe of this unexpectedly fascinating city! Drink the wine, hang out at a jazz club, and dance like nobody’s watching! (They probably aren’t!)