Friday, 29 August 2014

Cannes and Monaco - where the rich play

What's all the hooha about? I took a tour to find out. Leaving Nice on the cote d'azur we mini-vanned our way along the coast, past the beautiful bays with the luxury villas, spying Bill Gates home in the distance, Bono's place further along, a dead banker (killed by financial mafia) lived in yet another before he died; burned to death in his bathroom.

Most of the other villa owners seem to have super lifestyles and if I had their wealth I wouldn't be wasting it on casinos or luxury yachts. Maybe just a luxury car would do it for me. Still, I'm unlikely to truly understand that sort of luxury cote life.
Cannes is west of Nice, Monaco is east.

At Cannes we wandered along the beachfront, past the conference centre/palace where the film festival is held. The real red carpet entrance wasn't available - they're renovating it for the next season. Then there was  the famous La Croisette Boulevard with the luxury hotels, cars and restaurants.

The Carlton Hotel is large and distinctive and I had a wry smile as I thought back to the days when I was corporate sales manager of the Carlton Hotel in Auckland. At the time, that hotel was the largest 5 star in NZ. I arrived there after Michael Jackson had left and just as the hotel was about to go into a steep decline through toxic mismanagement. It marked the end of my career in travel and tourism - a shame as I enjoyed that industry.

The Cannes Carlton is a different kettle of fish and certainly not in decline. Outside were parked only luxury cars belonging to guests and, of course, there were passers-by like me who couldn't resist photographing these cars, most of which seemed to belong to rich Arabs. Our tour guide drove us past a 2m€ Bugatti, parked next to the owner's luggage car, a luxury 4x4. It's obscene really.

Cannes is small. It focuses on tourism, the film festival and conferences but there's not much else and so lacks a real residential life. People who live there serve these industries.

Monaco scrambled to put on some decent weather for us but finally got there. Even tinier than Cannes, it has separate 'neighbourhoods' such as the Old Town, Monte Carlo (the business district). This country is so tiny you can go around a roundabout and travel from France to Monaco in a second. The roundabouts even indicate when you cross from France to Monaco. I found that bizarre. I also found some of the rules for residency and citizenship bizarre too but extreme wealth makes for insane rules and restrictions to keep us riff-raff out.

We learnt how to distinguish which residents had citizenship, which ones only had residency, which ones had blue-blood, simply by their car registration plates. You must be a landowner to live there. Therefore you must have many millions to do so. The workers have no rights to live in Monaco - they must commute from 'the rest of the world' each day, whether that's Italy or France. Some of the workers would, however, have been stationed on the luxury yachts moored there.

This principality has a royal family - the Grimaldis who live in a palace. Call that a palace? What a let-down architecturally. All money and no flair, boring. Same for the homes of the royal family-nothing impressive from the outside there so I didn't even bother to take photos of them. Coming from France and having visited Italy I think I know what a palace should look like.

The ostentatious changing of the guard was downright silly; less colourful than England and less humorous than Greece. More like bored policemen - maybe they were. They had a line of cannon and a pile of cannonballs. Just who they would have fired at beats me.

I did like the colourful alleyways in the old town, and the food was the best of our trip. It was cooked correctly and had flavour. Waiting staff were run off their feet but weren't always very welcoming or attentive. You need to have lunch early or you'll never get a seat. Beware of smokers. They are tolerated everywhere and it always made our pit stops for food or drink highly unpleasant. Europe is much less 'evolved' than New Zealand.

Naturally I would have liked a James Bond  moment inside or outside the casino but it's all rather sordid really. Yes, you can enter the Monte Carlo casino (in theory) but you must pay to go to a cloak check and I doubt our attire would have got us farther in than that so I did a U-turn and walked straight back out. Other tourists didn't mind tramping up the shoddy red carpet to the entrance. The architecture is cool but the outside ambiance is not.

More Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys parked outside. It's not discrete or classy. Just crowded and noisy and full of traffic. By the way, there is more than one casino. Passersby vied for space to do selfies of themselves and the cars. It just confirmed to me the whole place is a sell-out to tourists (a tasteless theme park) and rich people with little taste. Disappointing, well I had to find out.

Laura probably enjoyed our tour van travelling along the Formula One track/streets. Others may have enjoyed cocktails under brollies but those drinks were super expensive.

What does Monaco do well? There's the garden by the Oceanographic Institute. It's pretty, has sea views and interesting statues.

I was disappointed our day did not allow time for us to visit the Cousteau Oceanographic Museum. That looked like something of quality and substance to do but you need at least an hour and a half for that. I resorted to photographing a shark sculpture outside which was promoting an exhibition on sharks. I'd go back just to visit that but the rest doesn't bear repeating.
It's an item on the list ticked off.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Nice in Provence

So many visitors love Nice and a fraction of them come to stay permanently. Nice is the fifth most populous city in France, after Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse, and it is the capital of the Alpes Maritimes département. It's bustling, cultural, slightly italian in architecture. Nice (Nicaea) was probably founded around 350 BC by the Greeks.  It got handed around but eventually was given to France as thanks for helping Italy in their war against Austria in 1860.
Tourism really got going by the
 English upper classes in the second half of the 18th century, when an increasing number of aristocratic families took to spending their winter there. Nice is the second most popular French city after Paris. It's easy to see why. The climate is delightful year round, there are many schools and institutes of higher learning, there are always cultural events and conferences throughout the year, tourism is big business. There is easy access to agricultural areas for wine-making, olives, vegetables and fruit, flowers for perfume-making, and the leisure activities of the rich or famous keep things ticking along.

 Place Massena is the main city square. The tram runs through it so you can travel from the northern end of Nice right through to the beach for around 1.35€. I did that and found myself the object of a stereotypical Nicois trying to 'pick me up' - in the nicest possible way.

He admitted he was being indiscrete in asking me questions about myself. I wasn't bothered as I was getting off just a few stops down. He introduced himself as Danny, around my age (old, he said), with his long wavy salt and pepper hair, craggy face, shorts and charming smile. He wanted to give me his phone number but I said visits to Nice would be extremely rare and I had a boyfriend. No problem about the boyfriend it seemed, but he was disappointed he wouldn't be able to show me around on my next trip to the city. Much as I would love to live nearby, I think it's very unlikely, the way things stand.

As I explored the city by day I noticed the city provided cooling relief to residents and tourists in one of its squares. Mists of water sprayed up and everyone took advantage of this pleasant sensation in the heat. It looked a bit otherworldly. It looks a different sort of other-worldly at night.

No stroll is complete without walking along the waterfront and connecting to the Promenade des Anglais. The tourism office is located there and they'll give you detailed maps of Nice. You'll admire the happy water skiers, swimmers and sunbathers, artists, restaurants.

Talk about eating, the old flower market in Vieux Nice doesn't sell flowers at night but instead offers hundreds and hundreds of seats for dining outside under cover. There must be a hundred restaurants all connected in this way. They are interspersed by night markets, working artisans, and souvenir shops open every evening until very late (not at all like most French cities).

Exploring Place Massena at night, you'll come across a Place that never sleeps. The summer evenings are so warm you just want to get out and about and see what's happening. Youths were putting on a concert, or rather some sort of hip-hop theatre. They had great personalities, knew how to work the crowd, were very fit and had imaginative choreographies. Naturally donations were welcomed - they deserved it.

I came across a man making giant bubbles to amuse children, They really were huge (the bubbles) and I tried to capture them with my camera but tracking them in the night breeze wasn't easy. This time around at Nice I did NOT meet up with President Clinton or anyone else famous, to my disappointment, but wandering about is still a most enjoyable and interesting experience.
There's very good shopping to be had in Nice, whether you're a millionaire or barely subsistence. Get in early with your accommodation bookings though. The TGV goes as far as Nice  and there's an international airport, full of private jets. You can also be peddled around in a bicycle cab.

There's a horrid little restaurant/ karaoke place still there, called Le Maori. What an insult. There's nothing Maori about it, a ripoff of the term. I'd say something if I thought they cared.

I photographed many buildings at night, such as the cathedral, the opera, and the Chemin de Fer building. The only thing that sent me back to our rented apartment was my aching feet.

I'd like to go back, for a third time, one day. It's probably too expensive to live there (other than in a tiny apartment without a lift), but working there would be so interesting and lively. One never knows.
Visit this site for lots more tempting information:

Monday, 25 August 2014

Beautiful villages of the Luberon

Just inland of Aix en Provence is an area called the Luberon. It's home to some of the most picture-postcard villages in France. Indeed, some of them are members of a prestigious group call the Most Beautiful Towns in France. I wasn't disappointed. Our tour guide took us to Roussillon. This village is famous for its houses coloured with local ochre. It's a completely natural product and they have bylaws promoting its use to preserve the character of the town.
Ochre is a natural pigment mixed with sand. It's used in colouring the outside of houses, by artists and textile dyers. The shades range from yellow through orange, terracottas and red to almost purplish. The cafes and houses are so colourful. You can tour the ochre museum if you have time. And there are scrummy local ice-creams to be licked.
This part of France features in the movie A Good Year (Ridley Scott Director) with Russell Crowe in the lead role. Our tour ended up visiting many of the film locations such as Gordes (Renaissance Hotel as Fanny's bistrot) and La Canorgue as as the villa/chateau La Siroque. We passed through Bonnieux where most of the cast and crew stayed. Ridley Scott has a home and vineyard in the Luberon so he was effectively filming in his own backyard.
In this area one can see the Marquis de Sade's castle still visited.  It was fun visiting the locations but even more fun knowing these places are real, ancient and steeped in history and local 'colour'. 
Gordes is a perched village located 38kms east of Avignon. During World War II it was an active resistance village. It's beautiful and to keep it that that way, all the new buildings in Gordes are made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls.
Gordes has famous markets and it's hard to negotiate people in the main square. I wasn't tempted by the local produce, or clothing but almost bought some lavender. It's everywhere in soaps and toilet water and little lingerie bags. On the heights is a castle and not far away a cistercian abbey. We didn't have time to visit the interior of the castle or abbey. It was tiring enough wandering he streets up hill and down dale. Worth visiting though.
We visited the town of Lourmarin and the outside of its castle, where an art exhibition was being held. They hold art and musical events here regularly; the Luberon Valley being a magnet for artistic folks. Albert Camus lived and died in Lourmarin.
The least interesting or impressive of our town visits was to Ile sur la Sorgue. It's a quaint town enclosed by a river, thus making it, effectively, like an island. One of its main claims to fame seems to be a series of water wheels. Wool and silk industries profitted from the supply of water and wheels. Water quality in this part of France is very good as it all gets filtered by the limestone rocks. You don't need to filter the water that comes out of the taps as there are no additives, just good quality tastefree water.
The other claim to fame is that it has the highest concentration of antique shops anywhere in France. I wasn't about to check them out. There were certainly some eccentric little shops stocking all sorts of hand-me-down stuff or brocante.

So, if you'd like to do a bit more than just laze around on the cote d'azur, go inland a little bit and discover these charming villages, film locations, local produce and wines. The countryside is breath-taking.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Napoleon's soft spot - Malmaison

Here's a quick diversion from Provence to somewhere closer to Paris. It's definitely worth a visit. Back to Provence next post... promise...

Originally a seventeenth century chateau, the National Museum of the Chateau de Malmaison was bought by Josephine Bonaparte in 1799. She was Napoleon 1er's first wife. Originally from Martinique, she married Count Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779. The couple had two children, Eugene and Hortense but the Revolution took the head of the very rich count.

Josephine became one of the leaders of the Directory and thus came into contact with General Bonaparte who married her in 1796. Napoleon formally adopted her two children; Hortense is the ancestor to many current heads in Western Europe.

Napoleon crowned her Empress himself, at his coronation and all might have been well if the older Josephine had given Napoleon an heir. Unfortunately she didn't so a divorce took place in 1809. She kept her title of Empress and her house of Malmaison with its enormous grounds. In 1814 she became friendly with Tsar Alexander I of Russia who visited her just before her death.

She died in 1814 of a sore throat, in the rose bed in the photo, surrounded by luxury as she had lived. Some of the property's renovations were incomplete after her death.

Napoleon often spent time here in this idyllic spot, having council meetings and relaxing with picnics and indoor games with the aristocracy. In 1815 he visited Malmaison for the last time, on his way to permanent exile on Saint-Helene. Perhaps he shed a tear for a woman who had cared for him but who had been jettisoned for expediency.

His second wife didn't follow him to exile. She had already taken their son to Austria. That son, Napoleon II died young there of tuberculosis. He may have been better off on the island of Sainte-Helene with a bit of sea breeze and his adoring father. Oh well.

The park is only six hectares these days but was considerably bigger in Josephine's day, indeed, the size of a town. Most of the 'lawns' are mowed only twice a year, leaving them wild as they were in 1814. The rose garden that she loved is being renovated, but this season has been so wet the roses are suffering mildew.

The furnishings on display are some of those that were used by Napoleon and Josephine - sold but returned to what is now a museum. Others are from the same period. Special items include the Austerlitz table, and the Empress's bedroom in old rose colours. She seems to have had a thing for swans, throughout the house.

Napoleon's  council room is decorated like an army campaign tent- quite extraordinary. You can see a portrait of Josephine on the wall in the photo. The furniture, paintings, rugs and beds are all first class and in good condition. The couple certainly lived well when not at the Tuileries or Fontainebleau.

Napoleon's office and library are interesting to view. He worked at this desk. The room has a hidden staircase to his upstairs apartments. What struck me was how VERY Napoleonic it all is. Sounds funny to say it so, but I've seen many French pieces of furniture from this period but what's here is definitely the best. The use of eagles, Egyptian motifs is everywhere.

Malmaison is just on the outskirts of Paris so it's quite doable as a tourist visit, but I suspect most tourists don't know about it. Most visitors seem to be French. It's closed on Tuesdays, like most French monuments. Good news- there's an audioguide and brochure available in English. Photos are permitted WITHOUT FLASH.

Want to see his swords, famous paintings, billiard room, the music room, dinner service, Prince Eugene's bed, portraits of Napoleon (soon got porky after marriage)? It's all here.