Following a flying visit through Turin (Torino in Italian – how much nicer) (I wouldn’t recommend), I left Italy behind me (weep) and moved onto my next country of exploration: France. As I had been learning French for the previous forty days (I worked it out – forty exactly), I assumed conversing with the natives (just on the basics, of course) would be a bit of a breeze. It had taken me a couple of weeks in Italy to perfect asking for a table in a restaurant, so I figured that all the practise I’d had (with my iPad) in French would stand me in great stead for hitting the ground running en français. Wrong. Turns out as soon as I crossed the border I was suddenly fluent in Italian. It was like I was born bi-lingual! I was all “buongiorno”, “si”, “grazie mille”. They were my defaults over even bloody English! This would have been great had I still been in Italy… but trying to buy a bus ticket from the airport to the city centre in Nice with my newly-contracted Italian pharyngitis was, quite frankly, highly embarrassing. (Disembarking the bus at the other end was in fact even more embarrassing: timing the backpack donning to the exact moment the bus driver performed a sharp hit on the brakes led to a near-catastrophic backpack vs. Rachel situation, which, however embarrassing for moi, was, I’m sure, highly entertaining for all other passengers. I won the battle (with the help of a stocky Frenchman) through the skin of my teeth, stepped off the bus and walked gingerly to my hostel, praying that my string of embarrassing incidents wasn’t going to advance to three.)
Reaching the hostel with no additional mishaps – thank the lord – I checked in, dumped my now despised backpack (I had forgiven it for the Slovakian trip (literally (the scars are still quite shocking)) but the bus incident had triggered my negative thoughts regarding the backpack to resurface (and I know it’s not the backpack’s fault, but one can’t help but blame those closest to them)) and met the first of my five new roomies. Alex (pronounced ah-lex (with a brief but definite emphasis on the first syllable) was a Russian thirty-something male who spoke as much English as I do Russian, as much French as I do currently (although none of the same words), liked to sleep in nothing but his boxer shorts, and developed an excruciatingly irritating favourite sitting position of top-bunk-leg-overhang (and I was the lucky bugger who had to dodge his smelly feet if I wanted to use the bathroom). I wouldn’t say his presence made my skin crawl, but he definitely wasn’t husband material. The other lucky inhabitants of dorm 15 over the four-day duration of my stay featured two French Canadian students (great banter), a Spaniard now living in Dublin (who I would have bet good money on being an Irishman living in Malaga) called Jesus (even better banter*), a young British couple who joined me for the England v Malta World Cup Qualifier (great banter), a Hungarian Wizz Air cabin crew member who got hit on by the director of Cartier while buying a train ticket to Monte Carlo (great legs), and a South American whirlwind of a girl who – immediately on entering the dorm – took the piss out of Ah-lex for his ridiculously burnt schnozzle (clearly the best banter of them all).
With my newly ignited love of hiking in indecent heat through beautiful coastal scenery at its most passionate, I could not not seize the opportunity to do just that on my first full day in the city. On consulting with reception on the best route to take to hike to the beach at Eze (a village a little further east) I was met with (as opposed to the admiration and ‘you go girl’ spirit I was expecting) a bemused, dazed look, a gaping mouth and an unmistakable double take. “You want to HIKE there? In THIS heat?” [ARE YOU MAD?] (Subtext.) I did indeedy want to hike there (and probably was indeed a little bit mad). Anywho, off I trotted in my sportswear, backpack and cap (always) to embark on the coastal hike from Nice to Eze, of which I had no idea on distance, duration or possible deathly hazards. (Because clearly no one had ever contemplated let alone completed this hike in all of the Côte d’Azur.) But I was feeling optimistic. Six hours, twenty-four kilometres, three suncream reapplications, two dodgy-smelling toilets, a wrong turn through the most swanky of seaside estates, a sandy apple and a now-warm homemade houmous and avocado sandwich later, I reached Eze beach. Ha! Obviously first on the agenda was obtaining ice cream, so the extortionately priced double caramel magnum from the roadside shack went down a treat. Then it was to the beach! By now – around 5.30 pm – the heat was fading and the crowds were thinning, with just a handful of others enjoying the last of the afternoon sun. Once I had licked off all the chocolate and caramel from around my mouth I performed my now-perfected clothes-to-costume (bikini) manoeuvre, with no sight of (not even the flashest of flashes of) any private parts. The quick dip in the water was great – relaxing, refreshing, reinvigorating. The getting out of the sea was not. With a strong tide and a sharp, rocky sea bed, my chances of executing an eloquent exiting were slim at best. My strategy was slow and steady. Slow I mastered like an Olympic champion. Steady… not so much. As I approached roughly one-and-a-half metres away from the shore I took a very slow, very steady and very embarrassing tumble to the right. (Now just imagine how shallow the water is at this point.) And all of a sudden, I was sitting. Literally sitting. Sitting in about one foot of water, alone, in front of three old Frenchmen resting leisurely on the beach (I have no doubt that there was humour and pity in their eyes, behind their dark glasses), wondering how on earth I was going to get up, let alone with an eloquent execution (that was both me and the locals pondering this conundrum). So I continued with the slow and steady gameplan (I really couldn’t have achieved anything of speed even if had I wanted to) and – somehow – launched myself up from the floor (physically and symbolically), got to my feet and continued my slow, hesitant and painful journey to my towel and pile of clothes. Ouch. Having had such a physically exhausting day, followed by such a mentally exhausting five minutes, I lay back on my towel and fell into a blissful near-REM level snooze, in which I was able to forget the day’s most recent incident and instead bask in the achievements of my long coastal hike.
Along with exploring Nice itself (obviously) one can’t take a trip to the biscuit-named city without visiting it’s two exceedingly exclusive neighbours. The Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone of the French Riviera, if you will. First up was Edina (Monte Carlo / Monaco) (which I didn’t realise, until after my visit, is in fact a different country – not just a pretentious, self-obsessed French city as I had initially thought). I took a packed lunch (budget bitch) (fresh baguette, carrot sticks and, of course, hou-hou (houmous)) and ate it perched on a big concrete slab looking out over Hercules Port. Everything was absolutely fabulous until a rather rotund seagull took an interest in my picnic, clearly used to hoovering up all of the uneaten lunches of the super-skinny WAG-type inhabitants who, I judgingly assumed, spent their diamond-encrusted days wining (and evidently not dining) at one of the region’s many swanky bars and bistros. But me? Mais NON are you getting your grubby beak on my full-fat hou-hou (did he not get the memo on my feelings towards the king of all dips?). I successfully guarded and guzzled my lunch, and set off to explore the city state’s capital. It was like something out of a film. The main feature – Casino de Monte-Carlo – attracted a swarm of shameless tourists and millionaire wannabes, photographing, posing with and pouring over the array of seven-figure priced cars parked enticingly outside. I don’t really see the appeal of having your photo taken while standing next to another person’s car (and I do like cars), but it was a spectacle to watch none the less. However, my sneakers and cap weren’t exactly the most appropriate attire for such a wealthy environment, so after absorbing a little of the glitzy [definition: attractive in a showy and often superficial way] atmosphere I headed back to the station and back to more normal civilisation.
Next was the turn of Patsy (aka Cannes). A little less head-in-the-clouds that her best friend, but still housing a decent amount of decadence, it was much more up my street. And this time I dressed up for the occasion. In my ‘sophisticated’ dress (no denim shorts and stained tee), sandals (no Nike tick), handbag (no hiking backpack), made-up face (no spots or uneven skin tone) and NO CAP IN SIGHT: I was much more in keeping with my lovely surroundings. I window-shopped, wandered and whiled away the time (all the while paranoid of my scalp burning, my mascara running and tripping up in my non-supportive footwear). But I thoroughly enjoyed it. The shops were interesting without being intimidating, the people were well turned out without being total twats and there were food and drink options that wouldn’t break the bank (along with lots mixed in that most definitely would (one of the menus I perused charged €20 for a non-alcoholic cocktail…)).
After a successful afternoon (pretending to be) living the high life in Cannes, I headed back to Nice to enjoy the final evening of my stay. I decided to treat myself to a night out of the hostel kitchen, instead sampling the city’s most famous dish (Salade Niçoise), the region’s most famous tipple (vin rosé) and the country’s most unauthentic nightlife (an Irish pub in which to watch England play footy). Every element was really rather nice.
*Jesus (Spanish name and pronunciation) works as a nurse in Dublin. (This is a true (slightly upsetting but equally hilarious) story.) He had just taken a patient up to be x-rayed on the top floor of the hospital. The next of kin asked the patient’s doctor where their relative was. The doctor looked down at the patient’s notes and confirmed: Jesus has taken [said patient] upstairs. (The initial reaction of the family member was not the most joyful.)