I catch the train from Milan, Italy to Nice, France with only 30 seconds to spare. The high-speed train covers the distance in only a couple of hours (although, in typical Italian fashion, there is a 65-minute delay at the border for a reason identified only as “fire on train”). Over the next few days I am planning on exploring the French Riviera with some friends, and I’m looking forward to spoiling myself on the fashionable southern coast of France.
Legendary French service
I arrive in Nice over an hour later than expected due to the “fire,” and unfortunately that means that the ticket office in the train station is closed, so I am unable to reserve my next ticket, to Lyon, that I will need in a few days. Never mind that this is the city’s main transit hub, and that it’s still relatively early in the night—this is France.
Truth be told, I expected difficulties with transportation in France. Most travelers can use the automatic ticket machines to book their tickets, but the machines are not compatible with rail passes. (Why? Because France.) Also, only a limited number of seats are designated for pass holders, and we must pay an ancillary fee for designated long-distance and high-speed routes (which is most of them). So, the scads of tourists who visit France on a rail pass every year must make their train reservations in person at a ticket window during the narrow range of open hours and often find that they are required to pay a significant amount of money in addition to what they have already spent on the so-called “unlimited” pass. It’s a recipe for anger.
I have vivid memories of the Nice train station from nine years ago. Then, as now, I needed to make a reservation for onward travel, and so joined the long queue in the ticket office. Only one agent, a trainee, was designated to serve international tourists, and consequently the lineup was very long and slow-moving. Meanwhile, the half-dozen other agents, designated to assist only French tourists, chatted gaily to one another, serving nobody. Tension began to build as our agent took her break, leaving us to simmer, unmoving, in the summer heat (France was in the midst of an unprecedented heat wave at the time.) When she returned and was unable to help the next customer to his satisfaction, the customer began to shout and curse, prompting our agent to burst into tears, declare that she will not work a moment longer (and also clarifying to nobody in particular that she can’t be fired), and flee, leaving our lineup of international tourists without anyone to help us at all. The remaining agents looked on with disinterest (yes, monsieur, I understand you are frustrated, but you see, I am working the counter for domestic customers. My job is not to assist international customers such as you.) After a very long pause, during which nothing happened at all, a supervisor lazily slid behind the counter and began clearing the backlog of international customers. In all, the process of making a train reservation took 2.5 hours—longer, in fact, than I waited for anything else in Europe on that trip, including the notoriously busy Vatican Museum.
In any case, I’m in Nice again, and I am unable to make a reservation tonight, so I hop on the modern streetcar and head towards the apartment rented by my friends Adam, Tristan, and Kelvin from Vancouver.
Tales from the fifth floor
The rental apartment is on the fifth floor of an old, ornate building in the east of the city. Floors in Europe are numbered starting with zero, and old buildings have high ceilings, so it’s long way up. I’m tired, hungry, and late, and by the time I haul myself up five flights of narrow stairs, I am ready for some wine. Adam already has it poured.
We drag ourselves to the nearest restaurant, a small French bistro on the corner. It’s easily the best meal I’ve had so far on this trip around the world. The food and wine are superb, the atmosphere is perfect, and the service is friendly. The French sure know how to dine. Bellies full, we return to the apartment for an uncomfortable night’s sleep on a pullout sofa.
The following morning, Kelvin and I try to buy food for breakfast at the grocery store, but it’s closed (it’s Sunday!). We are forced to shop instead at the corner store, which is a charming wooden-floored shop run by an old bespectacled man. He helps us pick out several ripe peaches and a baguette, charges us a fortune (1 dollar per egg!), and then puts all of our purchases lovingly in a paper bag.
After a late breakfast, the four of us head out to explore Nice. The city is quite beautiful, as one would expect from a place that has been a favourite vacation spot for centuries. It is covered with public art, such as the colossal “Square Head,” a multi-story bust with a box covering most of its head that doubles as an office building. Nearby, running along the length of a grassy central promenade, an array of jets and misters periodically turns the entire place into an interactive fountain, a sort of combo of art installation and kiddie splash pad. At the beach, people laze around getting sunburned and drinking beer. Extremely expensive cars rumble along the streets. It’s all very civilized.
In the afternoon we climb 90-odd meters to Parc du Chateau, the hilltop site of a ruined fortress and lots of ice-cream carts. Along the way, we encounter an old graveyard, the Cemetery Colline du Château, the final resting place of the aristocracy for centuries. It contains the monumental tombs of many wealthy families, some inscribed with dates stretching back to the early 1800’s. Almost all of them are ornate and ostentatious; some are downright tasteless. A winged angel carved in marble stands erect over the portrait of the various family members buried beneath. A naked Adonis stretches out, propped up on one elbow, by the tomb of a wealthy woman, his flowing locks and rippling abdominal muscles practically begging to be caressed by the drunken, boa-wearing participants of some stagette party scavenger hunt. Three marble maidens cast themselves in anguish on the tomb of a particularly well-to-do gentleman, shedding their stone tears in an eternal show of sorrow.
We spend some time on top of the mountain soaking up the views of the surrounding ocean and city while drinking a little espresso from a paper cup. It’s undeniably lovely.
Where the really rich go
Nice is certainly a popular destination for the average rich, but it looks positively slummy compared to some of the neighbouring towns. Monaco, the little principality known for its luxurious casino and yachts, is only a short train ride away, and many of the ultra-rich choose it instead as their base in the region. Closer to Nice, though, is the hilltop village of Eze, a charming village of gardens and villas where you don’t need a tuxedo to be allowed in.
We take the train to Eze Sur Mer, the sea level sister of the historic city, which is perched high on the hilltop above. Wishing for some exercise, we hike to the top in about an hour, expending considerable energy and patience in the process. Most people wouldn’t dare attempt such a steep approach, so we are alone, except for the occasional German who steams past us, wearing sturdy boots and pulled-up socks, planting his hiking poles with military precision.
The first thing we see when we reach the top is the entrance to a luxury hotel, the Château de la Chèvre d’Or (palace of the golden goat). We peer into the private gardens and see a paradise of lawns, benches, paths, and fountains. Bronze statuary of elephants, stags, and other exotic and powerful animals make it look like a colonial playground, a sort of Jungle Book-themed resort for the extremely wealthy. Non-guests are welcome to come for dinner, at an average à la carte price of €200 per guest, drinks excluded.
The main attraction of Eze is its botanical garden, which crowns the hilltop and offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside. My favourite part is the so-called ‘exotic garden,’ which hosts many different species of cacti and succulents. The very top is surrounded by the graceful figures of women cast in bronze by a famous sculptor. It’s almost too perfect to be real.
Of Greeks and Rothschilds
After a lovely lunch in Eze, we decide to save our knees and take a bus back down the mountain. We wait for nearly an hour—it’s apparently a public holiday, which means, since this is France, that public transit barely operates. Eventually, though, we make it down the hill, and then walk towards our next destinations: a pair of extravagant mansions on the coast that are now open to the public.
The first mansion, the Villa Kerylos, was built by French archaeologist and all-around smarty-pants Theodore Reinach who had a passion for ancient Greek villas. His home is in the style of an ancient coastal Greek villa, except kitted out with the best early 20th century conveniences. No detail was neglected, from the shape of the stone pillars surrounding the inner courtyard, to the style of the main bath. Stunning mosaics cover every square inch of floor, many reproducing scenes discovered at archeological sites in Greece. It’s at once extravagant and tasteful, the best example I have seen of how to spend a fortune on a house while maintaining at least some semblance of artistic and personal decency.
Further down the road is a mansion with a different vibe altogether. The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was also built in the early 20th century, for the Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild, one of the ultra-wealthy heirs to the French Rothschild fortune. The palace is decorated like a wedding cake, with a forest of pillars, endless rooms and anti-rooms, plastered fenestrations, trumpeting cherubim, and enormous carpets formerly owned by the king of France. There’s even a set of chairs reserved for the exclusive use the baroness’s pet dog and mongoose. It’s like Mattel designed the house for Gilded-Age Barbie. The outside is painted pink, for goodness’s sake. Béatrice was so eccentric in life that she even held a wedding for her two dogs and invited the wealthiest and most famous people of the day to attend (and, fearing the social reprisal of a refusal, they did attend). The gardens are no less magnificent. They are divided into sections—Japanese, French, exotic, rose, and so on—and cover more acreage than is decent on land so valuable.
Our visit to the Rothschild mansion is cut short due to closing time. (Why close so early? Because France.) So we head back to the apartment to get some rest, stopping at the train station along the way to book tomorrow’s train ticket. Mercifully, there is no lineup and the attendant is friendly. It’s a pleasant surprise.