Europe 2016 diary: day 12

Wednesday, 9 November, 2016. 14:22

We woke up around 07:00, after I had a better sleep, which was nice. We cleaned up and went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant again. I had muesli topped with fresh fruit and some dried figs, with yoghurt. I didn’t feel like anything else, so had two of the small bowls of this. M. ate some slices of bread with Nutella before getting some cereal with milk. She also asked for a cappuccino made upstairs at the bar, rather than getting one from the push button coffee machine in the buffet, since the one she’d had from there yesterday wasn’t very good, and the bar made them better. She also made me a pot of tea from the selection, seeing that they had a peppermint and liquorice blend. It tasted pepperminty but the liquorice was very subtle.

After eating, we went to pack all our things and check out of the room. I handed back the ticket for our car, and the receptionist gave me the car key, a parking garage exit ticket, and a note on which was written the parking spot. She said the car was in the garage under the same block as the hotel and how to find the lift to get down there from the street outside. We wheeled our bags out, but had to climb two steps to the lift before descending down four levels to the bottom of the car park, where we found the car. We packed it carefully, then set up our route to Nice on Google Maps so we could navigate our way safely out of Monaco and to the rental car drop off spot in Nice.

The Rich Spot and the Sea
Goodbye to Monaco

We pulled out of the garage, turned onto Avenue Princesse Charlotte, and promptly ended up taking a wrong fork somewhere that saw us descending a hill on a sinuous road that diverged from the Google route, which headed up the hill. There was nowhere to turn around or even stop to check the map, but by taking brief glances at red lights to help M. we managed to determine that we could get onto a parallel road that eventually merged with the route we wanted to take. I followed some signs to Cap d’Ail, which I recognised as a small cape on the coast between Monaco and Nice, and that turned out to be the correct road to get us back on track. We rejoined the blue line route and managed to stay on it the rest of the way.

It was a scenic route right along the coast, with some wonderful views along the coast and out to the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean looks kind of weird – it’s really, really flat, like a polished table. I’m used to the ocean having obvious waves on it, even off into the distance, where the horizon always looks a little rippled, rather than dead straight. I sort of see why people sailed around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years before anyone ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

At one point in the town of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, we took an odd turn inland, that weaved a tortuous path up the hill through narrow streets. I had to go slowly when oncoming traffic appeared to be sure not to hit either them or the wall on the other side, and of course cars behind beeped because they wanted to go faster.

Before long we were descending a hill into the outskirts of Nice. Now we had to find a petrol station to fill the car with diesel fuel before reaching the hire car drop off. We spotted one handy on our side of the road and I pulled in. However, it was all automated and required a card to pay. I tried both my Visa card, which gave the message that payment was denied, and my Amex card, which gave the message that the card was not accepted. With no other options, we had to drive off again without fuel.

Now we entered the city and I was afraid that all the petrol stations might be on the outskirts where there has been room to build them, so we may not even pass another one before reaching the drop off point. We approached a complicated roundabout with six or seven different exits, and M. was trying to figure out which one we needed to take before we ended up on the wrong road, and voilà, right there at the entrance to the roundabout was a tiny petrol station, essentially just two pumps by the side of the road. The problem was, it was completely full of cars, and there was no room to pull in without blocking the traffic behind us. But fortunately, we got a red light and had to wait a while anyway, and by the time the light changed, miraculously one car had pulled out of the station, leaving a gap for us. However, this involved driving over a fuel hose that a man was using to fill a car double parked one car width away from the pumps. I edged forward tentatively, and the man waved me in, to drive the front wheels over the hose. I stopped close to the car in front, right next to a diesel pump.

This was good so far, but then I realised that the man with the hose worked at the petrol station, and was filling all the cars. It seemed to not be a self-serve. So I stepped out of the car, said “bonjour” to the man, and waited. He finished filling one car double parked in front, and moved to the one double parked behind it with the same hose. When he’d done that one, he pushed the hose under our car to disentangle it. He waved at a lady inside the tiny booth on the pavement side of the pumps (there was no space for cars on the right side of the pumps), and she came out and filled the car for me. I then followed her inside to pay. By the time I returned, the cars in front had moved, so there was clear space to pull into the roundabout.

By now, M. had determined which exit from the roundabout to take, so we got onto the correct street without further hassle. From here it was just a few more turns and minutes of driving until we reached our destination, at Avenue Gustave V. I’d had a good look at this street in Google Streetview before leaving home, to see if there was any parking near the Hertz office. The street looked impossible to park in, and there was no obvious Hertz garage entrance, but there was a public car park underground, with an entrance on Avenue Gustave V, and apparently the parking was directly beneath the Hertz office. So the plan was to go into that car park and park there. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise we were so close, until we were almost past the intersection where I could make a right turn into Gustave V and the car park, so I was in the left lane! I slowed when I realised we’d just passed the intersection, and I saw that by making a very sharp right turn around a traffic island I could still get into the street. But there was a lane of cars to the right that I had to get across! Someone beeped, and I realised there was a car coming up on the right. I let it go, and then there was just enough of a gap that I could turn across the right lane and into the street. Phew! From there it was an easy enough zig zag into the car park entrance, which thankfully was achieved without further drama.

Mercure Nice Marché aux Fleurs hotel window view
View from our room at Hotel Mercure Marché aux Fleurs

We got a ticket and parked down a couple of levels, after looking to see if there were any Hertz signs but didn’t find any. We did see a Hertz van however, so parked in an empty spot right near that. Then we unloaded the car carefully, checking we hadn’t left anything behind, and walked to the lift and went up to the street. We came out in a back street and had to walk around the block to the Hertz office. I’d read some online reviews of this Hertz office, which were pretty uniformly terrible, all claiming that the staff tried to rip them off, or insisted there was damage to the car when it was pre-existing, and so on. But we handed over the rental papers, the parking ticket, and the car keys, and the lady smiled and asked us if the car was full of fuel, and what number parking spot we’d left it in, and we were done.

We walked out to go the fairly short distance to our hotel, about three blocks along the beach. It began spitting rain as we walked, the sky having grown grey since yesterday. The Mercure Marché aux Fleurs is an older building, with no lifts, and a few steps up from the street. So we had to carry our luggage up, and then up a flight of stairs inside when we checked into our room up on the first floor. And so we arrived in our last hotel for this trip. Our room has a view of… neighbouring buildings. But we have a balcony we can stand on and look at… the neighbouring buildings.

Marché aux Fleurs
Marché aux Fleurs, in the rain

After dropping our things and taking a look at the map of Nice the hotel receptionist gave us, we decided to go for a walk to the nearby Marché aux Fleurs, or flower market. This is also a fruit and vegetable and cheese and smallgoods market, with many of the interesting and colourful sorts of produce such markets have. We had to use umbrellas to keep the rain off, though it was fairly light, and eased to a stop by the time we left the market. To get there we walked past the Opera House, which is directly across a narrow street from our hotel.

Fleurs, at Marché aux Fleurs

We headed over to the Hard Rock Cafe to have a look at their memorabilia and souvenirs. M. bought a shirt and also a bottle opener that we can stick on the fridge, being magnetic. Leaving here we crossed the street to walk along the beach for a bit, just to see it even though it was cold and miserable weather. I was briefly shocked and surprised when I saw that the beach was covered with stones! I hadn’t considered that at all and had been expecting sand like we have at home. I guess this is what happens when you have an enclosed sea with no coral reefs.

Next we walked in the direction of the main shopping strip, to check out Galeries Lafayette. M. thought it might be as fancy and architecturally interesting as the one in Paris, but it turned out to be simply a rather ordinary, if high end, department store. It sits at one corner of Place Masséna, the main square of Nice.

Place Masséna
Place Masséna

Written later

By the time we left it was getting on to lunch time. We tried walking a block more down the main mall, but it appeared to be just shops selling goods, and no cafes or other food places. So we turned east into a side street, which seemed a bit more promising. We soon found some cafes, but M. spotted a boulangerie down another street parallel to the mall. It was called La Boulangerie, and had four or five small tables set up inside where a few people were eating sandwiches or quiches or savoury tarts that they’d bought. M. was intrigued by a large cakey thing, but we couldn’t tell what it was by sight. She wanted a piece, so we got one, as well as a slice of tart des legumes for her, heated up, and I chose a prepared plate that had salad and cheeses on it. The lady who served me also put three chunks of baguette on the tray for us, as well as two plastic cups of water.

La Boulangerie
La Boulangerie, where we had lunch

We ate the savoury stuff first and it was all good. My salad plate had three different types of cheese, which I ate with chunks of bread. One was like a soft Camembert, but square as though it had been sliced from a square stick of cheese. One was Brie-like, and the third was a blue cheese, all very good. When M. finished her tart, she tried the cake and declared it to be custardy. The lady had called it a “diplomat” when I asked for a piece, but checking online recipes by that name shows nothing resembling what this was. It was basically almost like a cheesecake, except made of a firm egg custard, not very sweet at all, and perhaps with a hint of aniseed. I’ve never had anything quite like it before.

Earth, Fontaine du Soleil
Bronze statue representing Earth, Fontaine du Soleil

After this simple but good lunch, we walked back towards the mall at Place Masséna and past the Fontaine du Soleil, which contains a giant stone sculpture of Apollo, with four horses on his head, surrounded by five bronze statues of various mythological scenes representing the planets, set into a fountain. From here we crossed back into the old town to have a walk through its narrow streets and see what it was like. This turned out to be pretty cool, much nicer and more authentic and considerably less touristy than the old town of Monaco. There were a few souvenir type shops, but also plenty of genuine shops for locals, such as butchers, grocers, hairdressers, second hand shops, and so on.

Cathedral Saint Réparate
Cathedral Saint Réparate

We passed the Cathedral Saint Réparate and went in for a look. It was well looked after and beautifully decorated, and well lit, unlike many churches we’d seen in Italy. It even had soft music playing to offset the echoing of footsteps as a few people wandered around, looking at the various chapels and things. We’ve been seeing a few other tourists here in Nice, mostly British. I guess they come here for the warm sunny weather even in November when it’s 13 or 14 degrees.

Nougat de Montségur
Nougat de Montségur

We walked most of the length of the old town, passing a nougat shop near the end, Le Nougat de Montségur, with huge rounds and cakes of nougat decorated attractively with nuts, fruits, and other ingredients. A lady tempted us in to have a taste, explaining how it’s made with pretty much just almonds and no sugar. M. suggested we could get some to take home for gifts and selected the original topped with almonds, and also one with apricots because her mum likes apricots. We asked for a slice, and the woman got a huge mezzaluna chopper ready and placed it on a square log of nougat to indicate the size, suggesting a chunk that must have been a kilogram or more. We said smaller, smaller, a few times, and she millimetred her way to the edge until we had a slice about two centimetres thick. I’d seen the price on the wall and thought this was still an awful lot, but M. said yes, and the lady cut the chunk for us. I was thinking maybe half that might be good, but M. asked for one about the same size of the apricot. We ended up with two huge chunks, which I knew was going to cost a bit. The lady weighed the nougat and rang up the price, putting a docket on the counter for us to see. It was a bit over €70. M. held her shock well as I paid, until we were outside the store and a few steps down the street, when she said she had no idea it would cost that much.

Spice sale
Spice shop in Vieux Nice

Continuing, we passed an area populated with Middle Eastern food places, then emerged onto a main road which marked the border of the old town region. We turned around, heading back to the nougat place, where we took a different street parallel to the one we’d walked up, so we could see more of the place. We walked back this way to our hotel to rest a bit and use the WiFi to look for somewhere good for dinner.

Streets of Vieux Nice
Street of Vieux Nice

The problem with France is that traditional French cuisine is not very vegetarian friendly. Many places have virtually nothing meat-free on the menu. I found some good sounding places nearby, judging from various reviews, but it was impossible to tell if they could cater for M. However there were also several Italian places that came up in a search, and these are usually fine because of the various pasta options. We decided to go for a bit of a walk to check a French place called Le Panier, which was the top rated restaurant on TripAdvisor, and ask if they could do vegetarian and if so, book a table for tomorrow night. It turned out however that they were closed on Wednesdays, so we couldn’t ask at all. We decided to simply try coming back tomorrow when they opened and see what happens.

For tonight however, we returned to the Marché aux Fleurs, which is lined with restaurants on either side. An Italian place at the west end called La Favola had reasonably good reviews, so we stopped in there. We got a table inside the building, rather than in the plastic screened area outside. This is effectively an inside area, as it’s completely enclosed in plastic sheeting and canvas, and heated, but it must somehow get around the non-smoking laws, because people smoke there while eating. This is a bit annoying, as it drifts inside the building too.

From the menu we chose a ricotta and spinach arancini to share as an entree, then M. chose the gnocchi with truffle sauce, and I picked spaghetti alla frutta di mare. It was only after we’d ordered this that we saw the sizes of the dishes being brought out to other diners. A woman near us got a lasagne, and it came in a big square baking dish, about 30cm on each side. It was enormous. Her partner had a plate of pasta which came on a huge oval dish, which must have been 40 or 45 cm long, piled high with pasta. We were wondering how big our arancini starter would end up being.

Gnocchi with truffle
Gnocchi with truffle sauce, La Favola

When it arrived it came on one of the huge oval dishes, with mounds of garden salad topped with shaved parmesan, two arancini, each about the size of a large orange, and a small bowl of some sort of dressing or sauce in the middle. The arancini were fried golden and crispy on the outside, and were really cheesy and gooey inside, really delicious. The sauce seemed to be some sort of thin cottage cheese or something mixed with a few chopped herbs; it was cold and not strongly flavoured at all. I have no idea if it was meant to go on the salad or the arancini, or both.

This was almost a meal in itself. But then our pasta arrived. M.’s gnocchi wasn’t too bad, simply a single layer spread across the enormous plate, covered in a creamy sauce and shaved black truffle. But my spaghetti was piled high and must have had fifty or sixty small mussels mixed through it, as well as a few dozen clams, chunks of calamari and octopus, and one giant prawn on top. I also got a plate to put the mussel and clam shells on, and a couple of refresher towelettes in packets to clean my hands if I needed them to dismantle the seafood. The spaghetti was very good, flavoured with chunks of fresh tomato and of course all the seafood. M.’s gnocchi were also good, especially with the truffle adding to the flavour.

Spaghetti alla frutta di mare
Spaghetti alla frutta di mare, La Favola

With all of this we decided to try an Aperol spritz as our drinks, since I’ve been seeing them advertised everywhere. I had no idea what it was, other than Aperol mixed with prosecco and soda water. It turned out Aperol is a bitter orange flavoured liqueur, and the drinks were bright orange in colour, with a slice of orange as a garnish. It was lighter and more refreshing than wine, which was good for a change, particularly with such rich food. I couldn’t finish my spaghetti, but had a bit of M.’s truffle gnocchi when she was full. The waiter optimistically gave us dessert menus, which seemed full of equally huge desserts, but we could only say no and ask for the bill.

We returned to our hotel, only a short walk which barely would have worked off any of the dinner. And with that we ended our first day in Nice.

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