Nice. It really is.

View of Castel plage / Quai des États-Unis from Quai Rauba Capeu (Nice)
© Alison Jordan

Yeah, so Nice is actually very nice it turns out. Which is a bonus really as I had no idea about the place before I decided to move here for my sabbatical year. Usually a stickler for research, personal recommendation or at least a 70% thumbs up from TripAdvisor before going ANYWHERE, I’d consulted none of the usual oracles before I plumped for the jewel in the Côte d’Azur crown as my base. But you know, how wrong can you go with sunshine 300+ days a year?*

I already feel quite at home after six weeks here – in spite of the innumerable tourists who insist on spoiling my vision of languishing among the native Riviera glitterati, sipping champagne and exuding continental chic. *tsk*

However, despite the ease with which I’ve taken to living in glorious sunshine 24/7 (…actually, it’s been unseasonably cloudy and stormy of late – but I want to keep the illusion going for those of you who are stuck at your desk staring at a spreadsheet right now) – I have felt a bit in limbo recently. I’m caught somewhere between tourist and resident, unsure whether to focus on seeing the sights or getting stuck into local life. So far I’ve done a bit of both, and not really properly succeeded at either…

In the first week or two, I was a woman on a mission. Still in my road trip mindset of ‘got to tick it all off the list in the space of a few days’, I’d walked for MILES (sorry, KILOMETRES) all over town, seen all the major points of interest – at least from the outside – and spent at least 50% of my time on the beach in an attempt to attain a natural St Tropez glow. I’ve not actually made it inside any of the art galleries as yet – the day I decided to visit them all in one fell swoop was a Tuesday. When they are all closed. I hadn’t thought to check, thinking (smugly) that having been in the country for a whole month I was au fait with the French habit of closing museums and suchlike on a Monday. I definitely didn’t feel much like a local staring at the closed doors of three separate galleries along with a handful of lobster-skinned, Teva-shod étrangers…

Having subsequently slowed down a bit on the checklist ticking, I’ve taken a more leisurely approach to my sightseeing, enjoying the freedom of leaving the map and camera at home** and meandering aimlessly down to Place Masséna (the central city square), through the old town’s warren of narrow, colourful alleyways and out along the coast on a fairly regular basis.

The 7km-long palm-fringed Promenade des Anglais is really rather impressive. I love the view from the curve around the coast towards the port (from where the main pic above was taken) – where you can see the full length of it stretching into the distance. It’s especially pretty at night with the streetlights blazing a trail all the way around the curve of the bay towards the airport which sits out on the next peninsula. I walk, cycle or run along it most days, and the spectrum of humanity in evidence always makes me smile: coachloads of snap-happy tourists; gaggles of boisterous (but well-behaved) teenagers; families engaged in genial discussion, tense negotiation or full-scale rows; lovestruck young couples strolling entwined and oblivious to everything outside their bubbles; dog owners walking, carrying and occasionally pushing (in prams – I kid you not) their generally minuscule and frequently terrified-looking charges; a constant stream of runners, cyclists and rollerbladers of all ages and abilities weaving in and out of the throng; and the quiet observers watching it all go by from their seats in the shade of the canopied terraces. All of life is here.

Green spaces are few and far between though – a shame considering one of my favourite things about France is the simple beauty of the shady tree-lined avenues found in the majority of its city parks. There are two main verdant areas: the Promenade du Paillon in the heart of the city – a 1.2 kilometre-long stretch of urban landscaping with manicured lawns (which you’re not supposed to sit on), play areas and a reflecting pool; and the Parc du Château at the end of the promenade between the old town and port – a rocky hillside topped by peaceful, shady lawns (which you are allowed to sit on), tree-covered pathways and a waterfall. Plus an incredible view across the city. No actual château though – it was destroyed in 1706 on Louis XIV’s orders, leaving only the low-walled archeological footprint of the 12th-century castle behind. I favour the latter for its more tranquil vibe, despite the extra effort to reach it. Many stairs + sweltering heat + lack of fitness = state of near-collapse at the summit… or you can take the lift, as I found out AFTER the first breathless ascent.

A few weeks back we went to what one of our French friends described as a ‘Leftie’ festival on the hill. ‘La Fête du Château’ was a warm and fuzzy bohemian affair where, due to a rejection of bare-faced capitalism, prices were low (yay!) but, due to the chaotic nature of non-hierarchical structures – and the inevitable French disregard for the concept of queuing, waiting times were long (boo). In addition, the stall we chose for our Mojitos had the French equivalent of Rowan Atkinson’s shop assistant in Love Actually preparing them, when what we needed was the speed and dexterity of Tom Cruise’s bartending skills in Cocktail. I had to stop myself from leaping across the table and making them myself, it was so PAINFULLY slow to watch. The fact that we got to keep the plastic beakers bearing a print of Che Guevara’s visage and handy 5-25cl measures marked on the side was, quite frankly, small comfort at the time.

Luckily for me, I’ve totally landed on my feet with my accommodation, finding a fab shared apartment with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-sibling, who, having been here for almost a year, has a ready-made set of real, actual French friends for me to socialise with. Despite having inflicted some pretty poor Franglais on them so far, they seem to be persevering with me – for now at least. I even played a (very small) part in a local music ‘spectacle’ within a week of arriving, so embedding myself in the Niçoise community started off pretty well.

Until I get a job though, I don’t feel like I’m properly ‘living’ here. The observant among you will have spotted that I haven’t changed my ‘lives in’ status on Facebook – concrete evidence if any was needed that I’m still in extended-holiday mode. I’ve only been looking for a couple of weeks, but the job search so far has borne no fruit. There are a few potentials with regard to teaching work – but all have said it’s pretty unlikely until September. And the local temping agencies so far have all told me the same thing: ‘You need to speak French’. The last one of them I approached did at least add ‘…better’ at the end of that sentence, which made me feel slightly less gloomy about my language progress, having conducted almost the entire conversation in French up to that point!

Part of the problem is that despite having an Italian and a Russian in the house, we all revert to English as our shared language (they speak it perfectly, of course). I’m considering imposing a multi-lingual adaptation of the swear box where anyone speaking in English (or Spanish – both non-English flatmates also speak that fluently *rolls eyes*), pays. Sadly I fear this would pretty much clean me out. Not ideal when I’m still seeking gainful employment…

So I’ve vowed to study more. Ok, study full stop. Instead of hoping that the mysteries of the present subjunctive are revealed based on the amount of garlic and fromage I consume (which has, inexplicably, not worked for me so far). And maybe some of that ‘study’ will be on the beach (hey, it’s called multi-tasking), but it all counts. I’ve also made peace with the fact that I may not end up working very much (/at all) over the summer, and just decided to make the most of the time before I’m too busy or tired from all the working I’ll be doing in the Autumn to see all the amazing things this part of the world has to offer. Who knows, a more in-depth knowledge of my new manor might even impart more of a sense of belonging than a part-time job filing paperwork or inputting data in a small to medium-sized local business. I might even make it inside some of those galleries…

* Ok fact-police, that’s actually a stat for the Côte d’Azur as a whole according to Wikipedia (that bastion of factual accuracy) – but I’m allowed a little artistic license, right..?

** This newly-relaxed attitude means my Nice album is not quite as extensive as I’d like … yet. But I hope the selection below gives a flavour of what’s become my new home-away-from-home.

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Road trip part 3: Provence

Ahhhhh, Provence.

The warmth. The light. The laid-back-to-the-point-of-horizontal pace of life. The inexplicable (but very welcome) surge in sightings of des beaux hommes…

I arrived in Avignon as the early evening sun mellowed the quaint cobbled streets of the old walled city. That’s quaint in the sense of exceedingly narrow in places, as the pained squeaking of tyres against both kerbs attested during my attempt to navigate some of the back streets. But hurrah for Sundays and public holidays – free parking for my entire stay after the trials, tribulations and expense of Lyon!

Avignon is famous for two things… the Pont St-Bénézet – which isn’t actually a bridge anymore, so you’re essentially paying to walk halfway across the river and back again, failing to achieve even the most basic of bridge-based objectives (in fact, pretty much bridge 101 really); and the Palais des Papes – an enormous gothic palace dating from the 14th century when Avignon was the site of the Papal seat. Six generations of pontiffs splashed an eye-popping chunk of change on the best architects and craftsmen of the day to build, amend and extend it – you know, to really make the place their own. I bet it looked impressive on the cover of Medieval Home & Garden.

I discovered a third attraction not listed in the guidebooks however, which totally blew my mind: a double-decker merry-go-round. I KNOW, right?! A.Mazeballs. It’s bad enough I was born before ball-pools were a thing, but a merry-go-round on two levels? With actual stairs? Kids these days have it SO good.

Aix-en-Provence continued the beautiful old city vibe, this time with a bit of mini-Champs-Élysées glamour in the form of the Cours Mirabeau, a wide and rather splendid tree-lined avenue leading climactically to a huge fountain – tainted only by the overpriced stalls touting tat to tourists.

The ‘proper’ markets here were the best so far though – mouth-watering produce and vivid colour-bursts of flowers set against a backdrop of magnificent buildings in the old city’s squares. I could have wandered them for hours. In fact, I did.

I’m a sucker for a bit of old-school art, so I was in my element heading out to the Bibémus quarries where Cézanne painted so prolifically; to Arles where Van Gogh did some of his best work (visited on a total whim, and all the more stunning because of it); and popping into Antibes for a whistle-stop tour of the Picasso museum in the former Château Grimaldi where he lived and painted for a short time.

The vibrancy and clarity of colour in that special Southern light I’d read about is almost tangible, and I could totally see why it captured the imagination of so many artists. Arles was by far my favourite of the three – quainter than a teeny tiny teaset on a hand-crocheted doily in the chintz-lined window of an antique shop in the picturesque village of qu’aint-s’ville. Plus it had a really cute cat.

And so my road trip approached its end as I set off along the coastal route from Antibes, bound for my home for the coming few weeks (and hopefully months) in Nice…