Saturday 29 October 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 3: The Côte d'Azur!

Trailing our luggage we walked through the early morning streets of Marseille and climbed the impressive flight of stairs to the station, flanked by sculptures representing the African and Asian countries of the former French empire, of which Marseille was the principal port. We were not travelling so far, however, and were looking for the train to Nice for our next stop.

We were in good time and easily found our train which was waiting for us at the indicated platform. This was not a TGV, and the first class coach had compartments: we had not travelled in one of those since our trip to Switzerland two years before! No catering on board, but we were travelling between breakfast and coffee time, so that was not a problem.

The journey took us out of the city and then along the Mediterranean coast with frequent glimpses of the sea, always azure and sometimes in little rocky coves and at other times great sweeping bays. Main roads or winding little roads accompanied us from time to time and we passed through, and occasionally stopped at, towns along the way, some of them well-known such at Toulon and Cannes. In due course we arrived at Nice and stepped off the train into the baking heat of another French Riviera town.

Our Edwardian Travel-themed room at the Nice Excelsior
The Nice Excelsior Hotel was close to the station, just a few metres along the street that actually emerges from a tunnel beneath the station, in the direction of the seafront. We were there in a few moments and although well in advance of check-in time were told that our room was almost ready and we could wait in the lounge if we wished. This we did and were soon taken to a beautiful room decorated with murals of the town and with furniture modelled on trunks and packing cases, a hotel with a real travel theme! The room was at the back of the hotel with a balcony overlooking the courtyard garden and we began to wish we had more than one night booked here.

We asked for advice on where to find a good cup of coffee and set off for the recommended café in a little square near the main shopping street. We liked it so much that we returned later for supper, no English spoken but really friendly personal service, and the proprietor turned out to be the father-in-law of the lady at the hotel who had recommended him. Newly in business he was very enthusiastic and was serving mostly local people, mostly on the pavement outside, which was where we also sat.

Fortified by coffee we set off to look around the famous Nice flower market and then bought a light picnic lunch which we ate in a pleasant park where we could sit in the shade of trees to avoid the full sun.

After lunch came to walk up the hill to the viewpoint at the Parc du Chateau - a long climb but a café at the top where we discovered the delights of iced tea. The view over the Port de Nice (basically a marina) on one side and back over the city on the other was amazing. We could look along the whole length of the beach, the Avenue des États-Unis and the Promenade des Anglais right along to the airport with its runways marking the other end of the sweeping bay. Stunning view, well worth the climb. We spent some time here and then made our way down, the short way down to the seafront, and then walked along the Avenue des États-Unis and the Promenade des Anglais. The beach and the promenade were busy but not crowded and we walked some distance enjoying the sunshine and seeing this famous seafront. It had been only a few weeks since the dreadful terrorist murder and there was a heavy presence of armed police: I'm not convinced that they made me feel any safer. I felt as safe as I do anywhere else anyway.

Eventually we felt we had walked enough and we found a bus stop with a service to the railway station, which was, of course, almost to the door of our hotel, so we waited for the bus and rode back. On the way we passed a closed street with new tramlines being laid: it is not only in the UK that the value of trams is being rediscovered, and this will be the second tramline in Nice, the first already being in service.

After a shower we returned to our little café for supper and then strolled through the shopping streets (safe enough from spending too much at that time of the night!) back towards the seafront until it was time to return for bed, ready for departure the following morning. We'd have spent some time in the bar at the hotel but for some reason it was closed that evening, and that was the only evening we had.

Breakfast was not such a hurried affair as the previous day and we had time to enjoy our room for just a a little longer before setting off on our very short walk to the station for our next train, a Paris-bound TGV to Cannes for another day at the seaside. As this was only a short ride we were travelling standard class, and our seats were on the upper deck of a duplex carriage, so we had even better views of the coast.

Cannes station is rather curiously built underneath the inner relief road of the town - I expect the railway was the only "gap in the urban fabric" into which the road could be fitted - but although it mean that the platform area was rather dark and drab, the building was new and bright and airy. There were left-luggage facilities at the station and so we left our suitcases there so that we would be free of them for our day visit to Cannes. It is a short walk through interesting streets from the station to the seafront, and the seafront at Cannes is amazing. There is a lot of beach, sandy here rather than the pebbles of Nice, but most of the beach area is private, belonging to the hotels fronting the road behind the beach. Also along the seafront roadside is a long row of the most exclusive clothes and accessory shops I have ever seen. There is money here: living in Stamford I am used to seeing Ferraris and Bentleys every day, but only in Cannes have I seen two Lamborghinis parked together at the kerbside ...

We did get on a beach in Cannes, there is a public section and it was not overcrowded so we had our usual walk along the waterline. We visited the gift shop at the arts centre which is the centre of the famous Film Festival, and in the very hot weather discovered a real liking for iced tea!

Soon it was time to head back to the station, recover our luggage and board the Paris-bound TGV for our next overnight stop, Avignon. It was a real joy to enter the air-conditioned interior of the station and to relax on the train and watch the coastal scenery go by, retracing our route of the previous morning; was it really only yesterday? Then in the outskirts of Marseille, our train turned north and followed the Rhône valley. We were on our way to Avignon.

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