Over the last month (… and a-half), I started a few different blog posts, but usually fell asleep with my computer on my lap mid-sentence. So here is a quick review of my travels in the South of France! I left Minneapolis on a Saturday evening and arrived in Nice, France on Sunday evening. The packing crisis was eventually resolved – I even had 30 minutes to spare before I headed to the airport. At the time, I thought packing my life into one (heavy) suitcase and a carry-on was pretty impressive. However, dragging around ¾ of your body weight is a lot more difficult than I anticipated… especially when you have to go up a few flights of stairs. Yes, Mom, you were right, but more on this later.
Early Monday morning I made my way from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer where I attended a French immersion course for one month. The first day was the only day we were allowed to speak any language except French without being fined two Euros. Language class began and it was reconfirmed that I knew how to say “Bonjour, je m’appelle Kari” (“Hi, my name is Kari”). Nothing more, nothing less.
I've learned, once again, that learning a new language can be both frustrating and tiring; it’s a learning process that makes you feel like a little kid 99 percent of the time, because you are constantly making mistakes and saying things that you don’t mean to say, or just spending time lost in conversations. After the first week I could understand a bit more and over the course of the month it was very rewarding to see the progress I had made, even if I still do spend a lot of time lost in conversations.
Villefranche is about a 20-minute bus ride from Nice or an hour walking on the boardwalk by the sea. It is a small town and like many towns on the French Riviera, it thrives during the summer. It was very quiet during November/December, and although I didn’t get to swim in the Mediterranean, I was able to appreciate the town without thousands of tourists! It is one of the most beautiful bays on the Riviera; the harbor is filled with sailboats and around every turn on the mountains there is a picturesque view.
People have always told me, “Everything in Europe is old,” but I never realized how old until I arrived in Villefranche. Down the hill from my apartment was a 15th century citadel; laws have been put in place that prohibit residents from changing the look of the old town in Villefranche, so in many places it feels as though time has stopped. One of my favorite parts of the Old Town was the architecture. Along a narrow street there was a row of arches that was created underneath houses. At first it looked like any street, but after taking a closer look you can see that all of the arches are different. Apparently one homeowner decided he needed more space one day, so he built an arch to expand his house outwards. After his neighbor saw that it worked, he decided to build an arch too, and so the domino effect continued. If you stand by the first arch you can see the different designs and shapes of all of the arches. No one is allowed to change them, so their individuality will live on for centuries to come.
Living in Villefranche during the low season gave opportunity to meet restaurant and store owners. Chez Betty’s was the local café-bar-hotel; Betty, the owner, was like another French teacher. She wouldn’t serve you a coffee or a glass of wine until you ordered it properly and she'd stand there and make you repeat whatever you wanted ten times, or until you said it correctly. She’d sit down at a table with you to practice speaking French and she’d tell stories about her “glory days.” You can tell that tourists and students from L’Institut appreciated her hospitality and help learning French from the decorations inside the café. People from all over the world have sent her license plates that she decorates the walls with and if you get her talking, she has a story to go with each and every one of them.
During my month studying at the Institute I spent the weekends seeing the surrounding area. During my first weekend I explored Nice, Menton and Monaco. Menton is the last city in France before the Italian border. There were beautiful gardens there and rocky beaches you can walk for miles.
Monaco – officially known as the Principaute de Monaco – was something else. Everywhere you turn there is a skyscraper, Prada, Hermes or Van Cleef & Arpels store, or better yet, a palace! The cars are all sparkling clean; the boats in the harbor are gorgeous, and no one goes anywhere underdressed. At the top of the hill in Monaco is the Palace. You can walk around the Plaza in front of it, read about the history of Monaco and most of all admire the incredible view.
Above: Click on the photo to scroll through a gallery of photos from Menton and Monaco
The second weekend I took the train to Antibes, which unlike Villefranche, is in full swing all year round. I was wandering through the Saturday morning antique market with other students from the Institute admiring a few things when we met an older gentleman named Giro. He insisted on taking us to another market that was supposed to be bigger and better; I learned that depends completely on what your definition of better is, but he loved flee markets and finding treasures (antique paintings, plates, etc.) there. I didn’t think we were going anywhere else with him, but we got back in the car and ended up spending the day winding through a number of medieval towns.
Medieval towns can be touristy, but I adored them because locals enjoyed a relaxed life and were always excited to show you their favorite café or view. All of them were designed in a circular fashion, so you wind around and around before you reach the top, that without fail, always has an incredible view.
Above: Click on the photo to scroll through a gallery of photos from St. Paul de Vence (one of my favorite medieval towns).
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild – the Rothschild museum – is a seaside villa built on San-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, not far from Villefranche. Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild built the villa between 1905 and 1912 with a fortune she inherited from her father. She filled the mansion with works of art, beautiful furniture, and textiles. She built nine gardens around the Villa, each with a different theme. The Baroness donated the villa and its gardens to the Académie des Beaux Arts upon her death.
After the French course ended I stayed in Nice for a few more days, took it slow and enjoyed going to museums that I hadn’t had the chance to see and walk around more of the city. On Sunday morning I ran into what turned out to be a flower market that went on for blocks and eventually turned into a farmers market. I hiked to the top of Nice where the old citadel sits and walked around the Roman ruins that remain. (Nice has only been a part of France since 1860, before that it was under the control of the Counts of Savoy, a state of the Roman Empire.)
One of my favorite things about living on the French Riviera was watching the sunrise and sunset a few times a week. I stayed right on the beach during my last few days on the Riviera and watched some of the prettiest ones I’d seen during the month while sitting on the rocky beach and listening to the sea.
Photos: Last sunrise and sunset in Nice before heading to Paris