So I’ve emigrated to London! It’s been a whirlwind year of wrapping things up on my various South African hustles (and also working to earn my financial “cushion” for arriving in an expensive city with no job lined up), selling the contents of my apartment, sorting and packing my wardrobe (my “A-list” clothes to take with me and my “B-list” clothes to leave with my parents and collect at a later date) and trying to squeeze the most out of my last few months in Cape Town. Hence the lack of blog posts… By the time my departure date arrived I was in desperate need of a holiday. Fortunately I’d anticipated this in advance and planned a trip to the South of France.
The South of France, Le Sud de la France, Côte D’Azur, the French Riviera; many names, one stretch of sun-soaked, ocean-flanked land. A popular destination for very rich people and their very fancy yachts, Vitamin D-deprived Brits and a few bohemian types, this part of France stretches along the Mediterranean coastline all the way to Italy and includes the buzzing city of Nice, the independent state of Monaco, the name-droppy towns of Cannes and St Tropez, the grittier Antibes and a host of smaller villes. It’s also very compact; I stayed near Nice and was a half hour drive from Monaco, Antibes and Cannes, an hour from St Tropez or a 2 and a half hour train from Genoa on the Italian border.
Why France? Well I’ve been relearning the French I’d picked up on my 2 month high school exchange so I thought it an ideal opportunity to practice. I also needed a Schengen visa and hoped the French would be generous in giving me a long term multi-entry visa so I can YOLO around Europe whenever I want (they gave me a year which was decent, maybe next year I’ll get a 2 year from someone). Unfortunately I picked a very very bad time to go. I’d booked everything except for my flight because usually flying anywhere in Europe from London is very cheap, so I was SHOOK when I typed in my dates and got quotes all over 200 pounds! I tried changing the airport to nearby Cannes but this was even worse. It was only when chatting to my Uber driver on the way from the airport that the penny dropped; Cannes bloody Film Festival! So, don’t be like me, spending nearly as much on a 2 hour flight as my one-way Emirates ticket from Cape Town to London and check when the CFF dates are, and while you’re at it, also check the Monaco Grand Prix as Monaco doesn’t have their own airport and will choke up all the Nice and Cannes-bound planes too. I considered making lemonade and doing a day trip to Cannes as a pleb to soak up the atmosphere but a quick Google search turned up all of humanity saying FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT DO THAT YOU WILL LIVE TO REGRET IT! Bah, humbug.
After looking up pics and reviews of some of the smaller towns, I decided on Villefranche Sur Mer. I could have stayed in Nice, the Airbnb rates were good (fortunately these weren’t affected by the Cannes crowd) and there were some really nice ones, but I specifically wanted to stay in a small town so I could chill TF out, walk to a beach every day and just have relaxed vibes. Villefranche was perfect, it’s crazy picturesque and only a 15 minute bus to the centre of Nice. It has its own train station if you want to explore a little further out. It also has a much nicer beach. It’s technically a pebble beach but the pebbles are teeny tiny and have the look and feel of sand with the added bonus of not getting into every nook and
fanny cranny. Nice is also a “pebble beach” but those lumpy, grey things are ROCKS! Airbnb options were slim but that did help the decision-making process and I settled for one tucked into the mountainside that had a large balcony with the most insane view and a bus stop right outside. Priorities. It did end up being a 20 minute walk to the beach but the exercise was needed after all the baguettes and camembert I was consuming!
My trip was quite different to my usual travel style. I didn’t have a hit-list of places to visit, sights to see or even restaurants to try. I was so profoundly un-curious I didn’t even Google Nice one little bit; I just didn’t want the pressure of trying to fit a bunch of things in, working out how to get there etc. All I wanted to do was sleep, read, lie on the beach, stroll around and eat baguettes and pastries. Case in point, I arrived at my Airbnb by noon and immediately went to sleep until 5pm. This was in part due to my little whoopsie the previous night; I was convinced my flight from London was around noon and had spent most of the evening faffing about until 11pm when I decided to do my online check in and book baggage and was appalled to discover I was actually flying at 7am, necessitating a 4am wake up call to ensure I’d get to the station in time for the first Stansted Airport train of the day at 5am. I hadn’t even packed yet. Classic Tarryn… So this is not at all a guide to visiting the South of France, it’s really just a travelogue of my experience there and some of the photos I took. The only advice I can give you with regards to visiting this area is to DO IT! It is honestly, truly, insanely, ridiculously beautiful. There’s plenty to explore; the city is easy to get around on foot but also has busses and trams, there’s a great mix of different ages, there’s a wide variety of day trips you can take to nearby places and, contrary to the reputation of the French, I found the Niçois people to be friendly and warm.
My first baguette was a huge disappointment. I bought it in a bougie-looking bakery in Nice just before closing time and it was already stale! I ended up using it to make fancy fried croutes for my scrambled eggs. The next day I bought a baguette from my corner gas station and it was perfectly lovely. Go figure. I also bought my first pastry at the same Nice bakery which was supposed to be a pistachio version of a chocolate eclair with beautiful lime green icing and a sprinkling of the crushed nut on top, but for some reason they’d decided the addition of almond was necessary and the whole thing, cream included, tasted like marzipan, bleurgh! My second attempt at a chocolate eclair ended up being filled with a very average-tasting chocolate cream so if you’re wondering where to find a nice, classic, white cream-filled eclair in Nice I really can’t help you.
Arriving in Nice and taking the coastal drive through to Villefranche I felt as though I’d arrived in a slightly more historical-looking version of Miami South Beach. Palm trees flanked the streets and the most beautiful pastel, colonial buildings sat side by side with breathtaking Art Deco architecture. Nice has a very Italian feel to it, not least because it belonged to Italy until the 1800’s. The Old Town quarter is wonderfully charming with its narrow, paved streets, al fresco cafes, warm coloured walls with elegantly peeling paint and softly glowing lamps.
I ventured into this district on a Saturday evening after doing a touch of window shopping on Avenue Jean Medicin, the main high street which is closed to cars and bikes but still open to the trams and runs all the way down to the cream and burnt red chequered plaza. After my baguette fiasco and a similarly disappointing linguine vongole (clam pasta) along the Villefranche waterfront the previous eve I didn’t want to take any chances and turned to Google for supper guidance. I was craving Asian food because I always seem to do this thing of wanting the cuisine of an entirely different and unrelated country while travelling. A baffling amount of restaurants seemed to be closed on Saturdays, but I ended up snagging the last table at the teeny but very hyped Le Banthai where I ordered the prawn Tom Yum soup which finally lifted the curse of food-related disappointment. So you heard it here first, kids; TripAdvisor > spontaneity
I managed two out of five beach days before the rain rolled in (well, day one was also sunny but I didn’t make it to the beach because of that whole sleeping for 5 hours thing). I even swam in the Med, which locals had told me was cold but we’re used to cold seas in Cape Town and it felt significantly warmer than the Atlantic, even a bit toastier than Fish Hoek where I swim comfortably, so I ignored the advice andd bobbed about happily in the gentle ripples. After the sun went on leave I briefly considered doing a day trip to Monaco, St Tropez or Antibes but this didn’t seem all too appealing in the rain and while a fresh stamp in my passport carried a certain glam factor, I doubted I could afford to eat in Monaco- do they even let you into their country if you’re wearing sneakers?
Instead I decided to do something my Uber driver had recommended, visit the pink Rothschild’s villa in St Jean Cap Ferrat. Despite being in a completely different town it was only a 20 minute walk to the hilltop estate and being a decor buff I enjoyed wandering the elaborately decorated rooms in this extravagant home designed by an eccentric baroness who built it as a retreat after inheriting a fortune from her daddy Rothschild and divorcing her man-baby husband before he could claim his stake in it. She painted her entrance hall ceiling to look like the sky, had frequent parties for all her undoubtably fabulous friends and once hosted a wedding for her dogs. You go, Baroness! Luckily, the incessant rain finally buggered off in time for me to squelch around the lush gardens and get an insta-worthy snapshot of the pink facade.
A return trip to this bit of France is definitely on the cards for me in the future, either after the sweltering summer and school holiday tourists have passed or at a similar time next year (late spring or early autumn are the most ideal times to head this way, excluding Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix of course). I promise to be a better tourist next time!