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The Côte d’Azur is the Cure: Stories from the Land of Cheese

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The anticipated trip was upon us: my mom’s arrival to the Land of Cheese! I was seriously counting down the days until her arrival. In addition to spending some quality time with my mother—which is invaluable as a new mom—we were also planning a trip to the French Riviera, a.k.a. the Côte d’Azur. Ooh-la-la! It was to be our first major road trip since we moved and we were psyched to be going with a built-in nanny.

My mom arrived safely in Switzerland on a Wednesday and we wasted no time—we were heading for France on Saturday. With the stay-wag packed (and I mean packed!) we pulled out of the garage. Brad printed out directions and handed me the four-page document … all seventy-eight steps. I wondered if I’d packed enough to get us to the fourth page.

The trip was estimated to take about five and a half hours. The directions took us into France, then Italy, and back into France. While in France, we followed signs for the Mont Blanc tunnel. I was super excited about seeing my friend Mont Blanc up close and personal, as I often see him on walks with Tycho in the vineyards. The road became less highway-esque and more two-lane-nail-biting-should-be-featured-
in-a-car-commercial as the car climbed to the tunnel. Winding through rocky cliffs that made us more than a little nervous, we caught glimpses of the massive mountain. As Mont Blanc is a glacier, it continually has a snow-covered precipice that stands out for miles. We arrived at the tollbooth, paid our euros, readied our ice-picks, and began our journey through the mountain.

Now, you would think that this massive tunnel would be different in some way—oh, I don’t know—extra cool and maybe even blue? But no, it was just a tunnel. At over seven miles long though, it’s a little nerve racking. Seriously, if you stop to think about it (best to wait until you get out of the tunnel to do this), you are driving through a glacier. Driving through Mont-Blanc-the-glacier—it’s a little disconcerting.

I was never very excited about driving. Growing up in Ohio, road trips were a monotonous blur of agricultural fields and the sprawling outskirts of towns. But, driving through France was a real delight. The topography was dramatic: lush green grass and trees adjacent to jagged cliffs. The scenery did not disappoint once we headed into Italy either. Towns were stacked on the hillsides, struggling to fend off the aggressive landscape that threatened to smother them.

After our successful journey through the mountain, we were more than ready to refuel our car and stomachs. Thankfully, we were in Italy where even the most basic rest stop serves up some excellent coffee. What a treat. We joked that we could just tour around, sampling the delicious grounds at the many rest stops.

Our band of merry travelers pulled into the apartment/hotel about six hours after we left Switzerland and were greeted with by the sun and a fresh Mediterranean breeze. The room we stayed in was perfect: modern and clean, with two bedrooms, a nice sitting room, and a kitchen. The terrace was the best part, as we had a view of the Mediterranean … well, apparently we did. The concierge swore it was there behind the clouds. If we looked to the right though, we could see the medieval city of Èze. Like many medieval cities, Èze was built on a hill. Actually, in my geography book, it qualifies as a mountain, as it was a beast to push a stroller up. The structures, stacked one on top of each other like a sand castle, were breathtaking. The narrow streets invited you in … and their labyrinth twists and turns did not release you easily.

Recharged by our successful arrival, our crew set out to explore Èze. Trekking up the mountain, we were greeted with shops, flowers, and smiling tourists. Once in the old city, we explored the ancient narrow streets, where we lost ourselves in the stores and art galleries around every corner. We also noticed a beautiful garden nestled into the fortification. A restaurant with an outdoor terrace beckoned to us and we sat there and plotted our strategy: our plan was to explore Monte Carlo, Cannes, and Nice in the following three days.

Monte Carlo was our first stop. We were immediately struck by the incredible wealth and beauty of the city. Leaving our car in the Jardin Exotique parking structure, we set out for the harbor. The harbor with the incredible yachts—yachts with swimming pools and helicopter pads. The combination of the sun, Mediterranean views, and the incredible yachts was surreal. The harbor was bookended by the casino and the palace, both beautiful in their own way.

A note about Monte Carlo—it is a 3D city. It is built on a hillside. Consequently, there is an extensive elevator system to aid pedestrians in their ascent. This confused us as we made our way to the sea. A local noticed our confusion and helped us navigate the elevator system. She asked how old our daughter was and when I answered, “eight months,” she promptly responded, “Oh, she’s not that big for an American baby!” I so wanted to answer, “You’re not so bitchy for a French woman.” But, alas, as she was helping us, I just flashed her my big, orthodontic American smile.

We made our way along the water from the casino to the palace, stopping for plenty of photo ops along the way. We wove our way along the sea and noted all the preparations for the upcoming Grand Prix. The narrow streets and hills seemed to be toxic when flooded with sexy Formula 1 cars.

After exploring the incredible palace and surrounding village, we wanted to head for home. The parking structure looked close by on the map but remember, we were in a 3D puzzle. We seriously couldn’t find where we’d parked our car. Come to find out, there is more than one jardin exotique. We would follow signs to the jardin exotique, only to find a different exotic garden each time. We finally stopped to ask directions, but the only people we could find were clearly locals and clearly didn’t speak English. The man helping us with directions basically chuckled and said, in French, “It’s not easy!” Ha! Thanks, buster. After considerable effort, we located the parking structure, sank into our car, and blasted the air conditioning all the way back to Èze.

The second day, we explored Cannes. It was a low-key day, much like Cannes itself. We walked along the water, dipped our toes into the Mediterranean, and watched preparations for the film festival. We could easily imagine the stately hotels and sandy beach providing the ritzy backdrop for the upcoming festival.

Our final day at the Côte d’Azur was reserved for Nice. The tour book said Nice was “brash and bold and in your face” so we had low expectations. In reality, we were really pleased. The waterfront was breathtaking, there was a funky open market, the old town a nice surprise, as was the local entertainment, or local color, if you will.

We ate our lunch on the boardwalk and were entertained by a rollerblading woman with unashamed rhythm. She was totally ’80s with her walkman and wristbands—and, like the Madonna song, she chose to “express” herself. She had all the moves, sort of a cross between old-school roller-skating and ice-skating. She turned heads as she made her way up and down the coast.

Then, there was the man who took your money to pee. Often in France, you pay to use public restrooms. The attendants keep the place tidy and offer you your ration of toilet paper. This attendant was a true find though: wearing a red Speedo and a tan that was more than skin-deep, he had a soap opera blaring and his beach chair strategically propped so he could survey the beach and boardwalk entrances simultaneously. There is something odd about accepting toilet paper from a man who is barely dressed. He took his TP responsibilities—and tanning—seriously.

We hated to leave Èze the following morning, as it was such a gracious hostess. We took one last wistful glance and set out for the open road and the promises of fresh cappuccino. The Mediterranean air and sun was just the salve for a grey winter and Èze was the perfect base camp to soak it all in. And, for the record, there is a jardin exotique in Èze as well … and it’s just as illusive!

Photo courtesy of author

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