Saturday, June 4, 2016

An attempt at a 'Best Of' list

It's a bit of a rainy afternoon and I'm exhausted from getting my ass handed to me at bootcamp this morning so I figured I'd do a little writing because I’ve been trying to come up with a best-of list for Cannes and it’s surroundings. After four months here I should have something, right? To be honest it’s impossible to have a definitive list of the best of the Cote d’Azur and I will certainly not claim to know even a fraction of the things to do around here. So rather than an actual list it's turned into some of the highlights and my favorite spots/sights as of now. I've been meaning to create a spreadsheet of everywhere I've been but just haven't gotten around to it - perhaps on the to-do list for next week.

One note is that most of what I’ve done over the last four months has been via train and bus as I’ve only had a car on a few occasions. I feel as I did in San Francisco when I went without a car for about 18 months a few years ago - it’s manageable without a car but having one is really nice because you have more flexibility, more mobility to access locations inland and in the mountains, and you’re not limited by the train or bus routes and timetables. Let’s not forget that this is France and though I love it here the constant striking of workers, especially the trains, is really annoying! What I'd actually love right now is a bicycle. I want a cruiser so I can ride around town and not have to always walk two miles each way for yoga and bootcamp :)

Let’s start with Cannes vs Nice...

I’ll admit that I’m partial to Cannes over Nice. But, I honestly haven’t spent too much time in Nice over the last few months given that I’m living in Cannes. However, each time I go I’m not necessarily drawn to want to linger too much beyond the specific activity I have in mind. There are lots of museums (Chagall, Matisse, Musee Massena, and more - great in the winter), lots of shopping (more of the affordable type than designers), and because it’s much larger there’s obviously more going on.

Sur la mer - Nice
Nice is a city with a population of something between 350,000 and 400,000 so Cannes with its 70,000 Cannois feels much more like a town. For me, if I wanted to live in a French city I’d live in Paris. Nice is certainly worth a visit and it’s just a train ride away (when the French aren’t on strike…) so that’s good enough for now.

Old Nice
The old town of Nice (Vieux Nice) is quite lovely - it’s incredibly colorful, lots of restaurants, a daily market, small shops, and cute twisting alleyways. The climb to the top of Parc du Chateau is worth it for the views over the old town and the sea. The water and the coastline of Nice are stunning. The blue of the water is gorgeous both from above and as you walk along the Promenade des Anglais.. However, the beaches are pebbles/stones and not sand. Just the other day I was there and saw two guys with the right idea… they’d brought a queen sized air mattress to lay on. So bring your mattress or rent a lounger at one of the many restaurants/beach clubs!

Both the Chagall and Matisse museums are located in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice. This area is away from the sea (read: uphill) and filled with beautiful old homes and tree lined boulevards. Though it’s a bit of a hike from the train station, and even more so the old town, wandering on foot up to the Matisse museum is certainly worth it.  

As for Cannes it's quite compact - you can see the 'sights' in about an hour and then relax along the sea with a glass of rose and enjoy the day. Obviously Cannes is known for the glitz and glam of celebrities and the film festival, expensive hotels, designer shopping, and wealth, but living here I see much more than that and enjoy the quiet areas and endless people watching with a cafe creme or rose.

View from Le Suquet
Old town Cannes, Le Suquet, feels just like any other small French village with its small alleyways, cobblestones, and flowers climbing up the buildings. From the top of the hill you get views over the port and central Cannes. There's a small museum up here with an interesting collection of artifacts from across the world but unless you can get in for free it's not worth the fee - however, if you do go in, the tower of the museum does have the best 360 degree views across the area.

La Croisette is the main promenade of Cannes starting at the Palais du Festival with the sea on one side and fancy hotels/apartments and designer shops on the other. The beach here is not the best because it's taken up mainly by restaurants and private beaches from the hotels. You can pay to get a sunbed at any of them if you so desire. However, the best beach areas are along Boulevard du Midi. Palm Beach, Bijou Plage where there are fewer private areas. If it's a windy day the Palm Beach area becomes filled with kite and wind surfers. This is a favorite spot of mine to sit and watch as they zip back and forth.

A 15 minute boat ride from Cannes are the islands of Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat. Heading over here is like stepping into another world and you suddenly feel very far from town. There are wooded areas, walking trails and small beaches. A group of monks live on St Honorat and make their own wine while on Ste Marguerite you can visit the Castle and jail cell of the Man in the Iron Mask.

Kite Surfers, Ste Margurite in distance

Coastal Walks…

I love coastal walks, I just can’t ever get enough of them. Everyday I run or take a walk along the sea here in Cannes. But, even better is to get out away from town and out to one of the many trails that take you along rocky coastlines. When I first got here I picked up a free hiking book from the tourist office with maps and descriptions of over 50 walks on or close to the coast. Though it’s only available in French the maps are helpful and I can get the jist of the route. Also online here.

There are three major Cap (or Cape) walks around here - Cap d’Antibes, Cap Ferrat, and Cap Martin. I just went back to Cap d’Antibes this past week and was reminded of how beautiful it is. I don't think that a trip to this area is complete without seeing one of these. The trails for each of these are very clearly marked and they’re a combo of paved area, stairs, and rocks. Nothing too rigorous!

Photos from the three walks here.

Cap d’Antibes is fairly quick to do - it took me less than an hour and a half but it’s close to Cannes so nice for a quick trip. It’s easily accessible with a car which was nice this past week and I got lucky with plenty of parking. Without a car it’s a train and then bus ride away. Not so bad, but as usually happens to me with French buses I had quite an experience first finding the right bus and then getting locked in the bus on the way back when I took it to the last stop at the train station and the driver didn’t realize I was still on it :)

Cap Ferrat is probably my favorite of the three Cap walks. I took the train and started in the town of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer and walked to Villefranche-Sur-Mer to catch the train home from there so in total I think it took me about three hours. At the tip of Cap Ferrat is a lighthouse and on both sides of the Cap the views are stunning. Villefranche-Sur-Mer is a very cute colorful town with a beach and small port - perfect for a post walk drink and relaxation!

Cap Martin is past Nice and Monaco almost to Menton and the Italian border. This one I also accessed via train by starting in Carnoles, walking around Cap Martin, and then I walked all the way to Monaco and caught the train home. I think this was also three hours or more. This is an example of where it’s ok not to have a car because I had the flexibility to just walk one way and there were multiple spots I could have gotten the train for my return. This walk is interesting because on one side of the Cap you are looking along the coast to Italy and then as you come around you’re looking at the highrise buildings that make up Monaco.

Eze le Village…

When someone asks me of my favorite spot around here the first response is always Eze. This is a small hilltop village with some of the most spectacular views of the coast. As with all of the small towns around here you can either spend 15-30 minutes, because that’s probably all that it takes to walk around the few alleyways that make up the village, or you can stay and linger for a few hours. I prefer the latter.

In the spring the flowers and vines that climb the walls and doorways are in bloom making the small alleys even more charming. There are a few swanky hotels with fantastic views - you can get a drink on one of the terraces and enjoy without the price of actually staying there. The Jardin Exotique is worth a visit. These gardens were created in the ruins of the old castle sitting atop the village. It’s 6eur entry fee but there are beautiful cacti and other plants, a tranquil spot with a few lounge chairs, and then of course amazing 360 degree views from the top.

View from Jardin Exotique
Eze is a location that’s better if you have a car. Eze-Sur-Mer (the seaside town) does have a train station and then there’s a hike up hill (and stairs) that you can do to get to Eze Village and buses run from Nice. However, with a car you get to soak in the beautiful views along your choice of three coastal roads while getting there or away. I think the Moyenne Corniche (Middle Road) is the best and from Nice to Eze you get amazing views over the town of Villefranche-Sur-Mer.

Other Towns/Sights…

Antibes - if you want to go somewhere that you’ll hear more English spoken than French head to Antibes! This is a major hub for expats and many of the yachting offices are here. There’s a nice old town that still has some of it’s original ramparts, the Picasso museum, daily market, sandy beaches, coastal views, and an English bookstore (yaay!).

Menton - this is the last town before the Italian border and apparently has sun pretty much every day of the year given its location with the mountains around it. When I first arrived in February I was there in time for the annual Fete du Citron. An amazing display of floats and sculptures made of lemons and oranges.

Villa Rothschild - I haven’t been back here yet this year but the house and gardens of the eccentric Baroness de Rothschild were a highlight of my first visit here last April. Located on Cap Ferrat it’s possible to combine this with the coastal walk or well worth a visit on its own.

Coastal drive between St Raphael and Cannes - if you haven’t had enough of coastal walks and views this drive is absolutely amazing. West of Cannes you reach the red rocks of l’Esterel providing a landscape and contrast against the blue sea that’s quite different from what you see elsewhere along the coast.

Monaco - I’m not wowed by Monaco, but if you have time it’s worth a day trip. You get highrise buildings, fancy boats, shopping, the famous Monte Carlo casino, an old town and for me the best was the aquarium.

Those are my thoughts for now but I'm certain that I'll be discovering more highlights over the next few weeks especially now that the weather has gotten warmer and the beach and sea are really calling. More and more summer activities are now available. I also have more places that are still on my 'to-see' agenda that I need to get to. We'll see how much I can motivate and get my butt off my balcony chair and out and about. 

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