Four nights in Nice (Parte un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Nice With Las Vegas Interlude
View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

I knew vaguely of Nice by way of a Frenchman, George, who I worked with at a men’s clothing store on Fremont Street in Las Vegas when I was sixteen. George was a flamboyant character; an excellent salesman with a heavy accent. It was the early seventies, and George almost always wore the brightly colored, tight fitting, and highly flammable acetate shirts with long pointy collars that we sold at the “Knight and Squire”. In his mid-thirties with hair in long dark curls that trailed down his neck, a slightly large rounded nose, full lips and a prominent chin, he had an annoying habit of patting me on the ass. With his rich accent he spoke often of his vacations in Nice, explaining that Nice was a stylish, elegant, beach city in France, where the wealthy dined at fine restaurants, played on their yachts, and in clubs, and in the casino in nearby Monte Carlo. But unfamiliar even with beach towns in California, I was too young and naive to be impressed—which was a great disappointment to George.

He was eventually let go for some reason or other. Maybe for the long unscheduled vacations? Or his tendency to return after long lunches with alcohol on his breath? Through a gossipy co-worker I heard that George had fallen on hard times and was working maintenance, “cleaning rooms and emptying garbage cans at the MGM Grand Hotel”. But never one to fall too far, George, who appeared nearly the same—except for his nose, which was taking on the size and veined red glow of one belonging to an alcoholic—explained to me one afternoon some years later when we ran into each other at a gas station on Flamingo Road, that he now worked for “Lee”.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t know Lee. Who is Lee?” I asked, holding a bright yellow helmet under my arm with one hand, and with the other clenching the gas pump handle to fill the tank of my Suzuki 250cc “Champion” dirt bike.

Preceded by a classic nasal snort of French disdain, George patronizingly explained, “Liberace of course!”

I had no reason to think George’s relationship with Liberace was a lie. George was wiping gas-pump-grime from his hands with a dainty white handkerchief, standing outside a huge limo with the Nevada vanity plate “88 Keys”. This was Las Vegas, and as I did live in the neighborhood, I had driven past the Liberace house many times, around the corner from the one where Redd Foxx was occasionally seen in his driveway shouting at his neighbors to “…get your car washed! You’re givin’ the neighborhood a bad name!”, the house with a black grand piano cutout on the garage door, where everyone local knew “Lee” lived.

He told me he was Lee’s “personal dresser”. I didn’t know what that meant, and didn’t care to ask, although I was a little curious if Liberace himself was sitting in back behind the heavily tinted windows, half dressed. But it didn’t matter, because George made it very clear: I was far below his station in life now, and he could hardly admit he had ever worked retail, selling clothes on Fremont Street, much less waste any more time on a lengthy conversation with me at a gas station. That was the last time I saw him in person, and it was many years before I ever heard anyone mention “Nice” again.

Monday, In France, On the Road to Nice…

Nice was a surprise. I had little idea of what to expect, even having read about it in the tour books. This was after all, the “French Riviera”–whatever that means. Christine informed us the name is anathema to the French, mostly because it was coined by the Brits, who discovered and bought and built up much of Nice as a resort for who else? Themselves. The wealthy Brits. For the French, this was the Côte d’Azur.

We arrived by coach after a few hours on the sunny highway from Avignon. Descending into the mountainous dry east, catching occasional glimpses of the Mediterranean to our right, dark blue slivers between the hills, or as we got closer, silver shimmering behind the enormous sprawling developments and skyscraping townhome complexes. As we passed, Christine pointed to the vineyard of “Brangelina”, remarked that the wine was in fact reputable, despite being owned by Hollywood moguls, (with a few of us wondering what happens to it after the divorce), and she mentioned Cannes, St. Tropez and a few other well-worn and familiar names of communities we would not visit on this trip, advising us of the models and movie and rock stars who frolic in this Southern sun, enjoying the lavish homes and splendid company their fame has purchased. But not to worry, she advised, we would be taking a day trip to Monte Carlo, the capital of Monaco, where she would tell us the real story of the tragic death of Princess Grace.

Eventually we emerged on the Promenade Des Anglais, the main drag, at least four lanes of traffic that runs the length of the Baie des Anges, along the tremendous beachfront crescent from the airport, past all the hotels and resorts to the hodgepodge of bars and restaurants that mark the perimeter of “the old city”, where the road changes its name to the Quai des Etats-Unis, and where the beach abruptly ends, severed by the intrusion of Port De Nice on the right, and steeply on the left, a very old hilltop ruin the Parc de la Colline du Château.

The road continues wrapping to the left around the base of this mountain, with a massive monument to the war dead embedded in the side, and on the right, luxury liners, yachts, or other vessels parked at the Port De Nice before moving on to Monte Carlo or other Mediterranean destinations.

Did I mention surprises? Oh yes. First, the water is the bluest you can imagine. Deep, not exceptionally dark, but luminescent. Next, Nice is huge. An enormous beach city. Not a town. City. With dirty steaming streets and tiny cafés, restaurants, computer stores, plumbing supply shops, architectural and real estate offices, the ubiquitous artisanal ice cream, pizza joints, and every imaginable type of storefront you might find in New York or Los Angeles or Taipei. The “old city” nestled between the beach, Parc de la Colline du Château, and the hotel row of “new” Nice, gives the opposite impression. Not of a city per se, but of an ancient, but large, village, pungent in the mornings on certain days with the fruit, vegetables, and baked goods of the open market, its old concrete, plaster, and brick buildings fronted tightly with bars, restaurants, brasseries, patisseries, charcuteries, and other “ies” that face onto the walking streets and squares.

Saint-Paul de Vence

Saint-Paul de Vence

Though for many the beach is the main attraction in Nice, we put it off a few days, it wasn’t until after we saw the castle town of Eze, and the one time home of Matisse, St. Paul de Vence, and yes, Monte Carlo—which as far as I can tell, consists of one gaudy casino, one hairpin turn, and one big bay for oligarchs and their pretentious yachts—that we ventured to the beach. Having both proclaimed, for reasons I can’t recall, that we would not be swimming in the Mediterranean—even if it was the Côte d’Azur—we found a path down from the wide pedestrian walkway and the Quai des Etats-Unis.

This busy way, straining with pedestrians of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, bicycles, Segues, tours of out-of-town tourists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and punctuated by the constant attention of fully dressed French commandos in green fatigues or camo with dark bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles and capped in their classic burgundy berets, always traveling two or more, never walking alone, reminded us that to the French we were heroes. We were tourist heroes, crazy Americans foolish enough to brave not just France, but the Riviera, and the same stretch of Nice beach front road where almost exactly a year before, an angry terrorist had squashed sightseers and locals alike, indiscriminately, with a truck, on his mis-guided journey to what any sane person would agree will be his own hell, Islamic or otherwise.

The wide sidewalk, this busy parade route, borders the beach for the length of its crescent, the beach itself broken into public and private subdivisions, the latter discernible by the presence of umbrellas and chaise longue, fenced or walled in, much desired, especially on the hottest, sunniest of days, and which of course must be rented. These private spaces sometimes also have bars or restaurants with expensive and exclusive views of the beach.

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Public beaches frame the private, with public outdoor showers and toilets, and concrete indoor buildings embedded in the hillside and presumably (since I can’t say that I investigated one..) running under and supporting the walkway above. Instead of sand, the beaches are notoriously covered with round hard gravel: gray, white, black, mottled stones of mostly 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, but present in many sizes. To enable approach to the beach, authorities, or someone(?) provides a faded, maroon, walkway carpet.

On this aging rug we left our sandals and stepped carefully onto the stones near the lapping water. The feeling was as one might expect. Unfamiliar, prickly although not painful, and with the shifting gravel, a bit unstable. Stepping gradually into the water we found it surprisingly cold.

Its touch was magical.

Standing there, my feet shifting as the waves sucked at the rocks beneath, I felt quickly transported to another place. Or perhaps more accurately, to a realization of where I was, actually standing ankle deep in the Côte d’Azur, the breeze cooling me, the bubbling rasp of a motorbike fading away, my arms comfortably baking in the sun. Far off to my right, a huge plane lifted itself from the Nice airport, like a giant raising its head, upper body, and finally arching sharply over the sea, pushing off the runway, into a sky of blue more faded than the sea and free of all but the most distant clouds.

The  morning bustle slipped away along with all sounds but for the hissing water as it wandered through the rocks, and the giggles of two small children who we’re working hard to bury my sandals, pouring wet pebbles and water onto the rapidly disappearing Keene’s. Standing next to me, Deb appeared to have fallen into a similar reverie.

There was nothing else, just us, the beach of rocks, the warming sun, and the lapping waves of the sea.  Just these.

Still to come, Van Gogh, Avignon, Arles, Matisse, Chagall—the road goes ever on!!

…for Dick Kocher

— Christo

 

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