A brief time on the French Riviera

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October, 2004

Montpellier was the first place I ever realized I didn’t know how to communicate with another human being. It was while ordering a sandwich at a simple roadside cafe.  Up until this point in my young life I had spent my time either in English or Spanish speaking nations–both of which I can navigate my way around fluently–yet on my first day in France when I went to order that sandwich, I realized my linguistic well had run dry. Like a typical American, I simply pointed to the sandwich in the window, and mumbled an embarrassed “Coca-Cola” to wash down the shame in my throat. Since that experience I have made an effort to learn a smattering of the local language wherever I may be, and my French has improved slightly as well. Though ashamed, it being France and all, the sandwich was absolutely heavenly.

I spent but a mere few hours in Montpellier while waiting for a train out to Nice, but what I managed to take in during those couple of hours pleased me immensely. While being a fairly large city, Montpellier retains the feel of a montpeliermedium sized village. Pedestrians mill incessantly from one market to the next amidst the cobbled streets, and public squares and fountains provide a picturesque backdrop to the intricacies of daily life. One such public square, Place de la Comedie, is the heart of the historical dstrict. Located only a few hundred meters from the main train station, it is a worthy outdoor venue for enjoying a bite to eat while between trains. It is also very near to  Montpellier’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, a scaled down version of the real thing in Paris, yet impressive nonetheless.

Moving eastward, I headed out for the heart of the French Riviera into the booming beach city of Nice. Though the weather had taken a turn that was decidedly towards autumn, the energy of a Mediterranean beach town still lingered in the air. While Nice, the 5th largest city in France, has a large 800px-Nice-seafronthistorical district with numerous squares and cathedrals, the heart of the action centers on La Promenade des Anglais, or simply, “La Prom“. The promenade is the see and be seen capital of the Riviera, and being nestled between the golden shores of Nice’s beaches and the lights and glamour of Nice’s nightlife, the promenade is the perfect artery for exploring the Rivieran capital. Though a little chilly to take in the beach scene, I did make my way out that night to a unique little  underground bar nicknamed “Thor”, that models itself on the concept that all of the patrons are cavemen drinking together inside of a massive bunker. The ceilings are low and the lighting is dim, and the entire place has the appearance of being hidden deep in a cave–with booze and dancing though, of course. It has a fabled live music scene and a lively atmosphere, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a little nightlife when in town.

While not quite in my price range at the time, no trip to the French Riviera would be complete without a trip to St. Tropez. Withall of it’s glitz, glamor, and yachts, I feel I can honestly say that at one point I was the poorest person in all of St. Tropez. Needing to take a number of public buses to get tropezout to the town from Nice, the journey was an adventure in itself, and not one that I would recommend making in one day. If heading to St. Tropez, plan to spend a bit of time there, as doing it as a day trip from Nice is simply too time consuming and not worth the venture. That being said, spending time in the enclave of the rich and famous offered a unique insight into a world with which I am not very familiar. For example, I have never worn designer sunglasses and a rhinestone engraved motorcycle helmet while sitting on a Vespa to pick up my dry-cleaning. We observed one young couple doing such a thing while we enjoyed a meal of crepes and coffee overlooking the harbor.

Wanting to check out the beach in St. Tropez, and not having a private yacht at my immediate disposal, I was forced to take an overpriced taxi to the outskirts of town to a sliver of heaven called Plage des Salins. A nondescript patch of sand that is home to a simple restaurant, Plage des Salins is an outpost of an escape where few seem to venture. While not the most picturesque or “happening” beach on the French Riviera, Plage des Salins is a place to walk aways down the rock-strewn sand, find your own private little salinspatch of nature, and completely disconnect from everything besides that gaping blue Mediterranean that is spread out before you. Speaking of things being spread out before you, Plage des Salins is considered by some to be towards the top of list of the world’s nices nudist beaches. It’s that isolated. If you’ve made it as far as St. Tropez, why not go all the way and head out to this sleepy little windswept outcrop removed from the rest of the world. I made it there, and it was as tranquil a moment as found anywhere on the globe.

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