On Wednesday after the Ironman – our last full day in Nice – it was down to just Melissa and Lori and I. Melissa’s family had moved onto Austria, Martin and Renata were back in Prague and Andre & Joanie were about to head to Czech as well. We celebrated our last night in Nice by dining at Chez Juliette on the narrow, cobbled Rue Rossetti in Nice’s Old Town. We had been trying to eat here all week, but each attempt found it closed. There were no hours on the window and no indication of when it might be open. Nice’s restaurateurs are nothing if not quirky. Luckily for us though, it was open on this night and we were seated at a table on their tiny outdoor patio (I don’t recall us eating a single meal indoors while in Nice and could never figure out why anyone would).
It was worth the wait, friends. Melissa ordered the sea bass & sausage with herb potatoes, Lori chose a wonderful pasta and I went with perfectly grilled pork medallions in a grain mustard sauce. We shared a bottle of cool, dry house white wine, which was a perfect compliment to the food, not to mention a nice way to combat the lingering, early evening heat. As we ate, a jazz trio played nearby and we talked about our plans for the next day – Lori was going to Venice and Melissa & I were headed to Paris. We finished with dessert and coffee – a crème brule which nearly brought me to tears, and espresso.
As we walked along the narrow alleyways and time-worn cobbled streets back toward our apartment, we tried to take it all in one last time – Nice, with all of it’s smells and sights and sounds. Laundry was strung from apartment windows directly above our heads, adding a touch of authenticity – it was a reminder that this was a “real” city where people lived and worked, not just a tourist town. The din of French voices over dinner and drinks, street performers taking smoke breaks and passing the hat for donations, the aroma of fresh bread and good coffee and the pleasing, newfound familiarity of the place after a week of walking its streets. We thought about the spectacular view of the Mediterranean from the balcony of our 6th floor rental apartment on Quai De Etats-Unis, and of eating fresh bread and fruit and coffee there when we woke, overlooking the fragrant morning sea. We would miss this town – our Nice.
We decided to take the train to Paris. Although flying would have been about the same price and much faster, neither of us had traveled by train before and we were drawn by the romanticism and novelty of it.
We arrived at the train station in Nice, tickets in hand (we had purchased them earlier in the week), and, not quite knowing the drill, made our way onto the platform to wait. We weren’t quite sure what to do with our luggage. Do you check bags on a train? We had no idea.
As we sat there pondering this and other similarly vexing topics, I started to take it all in. There is something decidedly different and exciting about a train station. Its old school. I imagined all of the people who must have caught trains here over the years and decades past. People in suits and nice dresses, hats and gloves, back in more formal days. Train stations conjure up those images in ways that airports just can’t. Flying commercial is the 21st century’s version of bus travel – done out of necessity and endured. Any romanticism associated with commercial flight died with the advent of the TSA and flip-flops.
We sat at the rail side restaurant, sipping a cold Heineken, snacking on potato chips and reading a London Daily Telegraph – a newspaper still sized the way a newspaper ought to be. 18” wide, unlike the anemic papers back home, which have narrowed with the passing of years and the arrival of the internet and hard economic times. Sitting there sipping my beer, reading the paper in the train station – I was intensely happy.
The 6170 train to Paris pulled into the station right on time. It was the high speed “TGV” train, which travels at speeds up to 100 mph. We boarded the train with minimal confusion and loaded our bags in the appointed luggage area at the front of our car (no checking bags… cool!) We had purchased 2nd class tickets because we didn’t see the need to pay the $60 extra apiece for 1st class and upon finding our seats, were glad we didn’t. There was plenty of room. We sat facing two other seats, only one of which was occupied by a reserved, older man who napped and read the entire trip. The trip would take around six hours and I intended to enjoy every bit of it.
Within minutes of pulling out from the station, Melissa was asleep. I took the opportunity to venture up to the bar, which was only one car up from ours. I ordered a good French pilsner (1664) and sat there watching the countryside roll by, contemplating our trip so far as well as what lay in store for us in Paris. I wrote a bit in my journal, attempting to capture at least some memories of Nice. The trip was already a blur and I vowed to do better about writing while in Paris. I would take my journal everywhere.
By 6:30pm we pulled in at the classic Paris Lyon train station, which was built for the World Exposition of 1900. Despite the crowds and general chaos of the station, we were easily able to navigate our way to the taxi stand (due in no small part to the fact that the word “taxi” in French is spelled T-A-X-I), where we found a cab to take us to the hotel.
Now, if you have never taken a taxi in Paris, you are missing out on some quality entertainment. I clearly know nothing about the personal life of our cab driver, but I don’t think I would be dabbling in the absurd to speculate that he has some anger issues. He was a nice enough fellow at first, helping us with our bags and asking our destination in English. Once he got going though, there was something vaguely demonic about his nature. I’m not sure, but at one point I think we may have struck and killed a pedestrian. It may have been a speed bump – I just don’t know. I didn’t ask questions.
The thing is, all traffic is crazy in Paris. Scooters, motorcycles, cabs, everyday people – they all drive with this aggressiveness and reckless abandon that is truly breathtaking. If the French fought their wars the way Parisians drive, the Nazis wouldn’t have stood a chance. Lane markings mean little and turn lanes are non-existent. If someone wants turn right and they are four lanes over to the left, they will turn right – everyone else be damned. This is followed by the predictable angry cacophony of horns, cursing and hand signals – non of which, by the way, included a middle finger. That would be too obvious, too easy – not stylish enough. Scooters and motorcycles bob and weave, darting suicidally between lanes, filling the slightest of gaps. Even cyclists are daring and fearless. Somehow, it all works out though – we never saw an accident the entire time we were there.
We arrived at our hotel – the Marriott Renaissance, just blocks away from the iconic Arc de Triomphe – and felt as though our time on a great amusement park ride had ended. Though we worried about the emotional health of our driver, we admired his skill and focused aggression, and we were ecstatic that we did not have to drive while in Paris.
After a long day of travel and a long week in general, we were worn out. Following a quick rest at the hotel, we showered and walked down to the lobby where we asked the concierge for a dinner recommendation – somewhere within an easy walk, preferably. He reserved us a table at Chez Gabrielle on rue de I’Etoile, just a couple of blocks from the hotel.
As we walked down Aveneue de Wagram from the hotel towards the restaurant, we faced the Arc, and were taken aback by its size and scope. It is truly an impressive structure and a testament to the megalomania of Napolean Boneparte, who had it commissioned in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz. More about the Arc later.
We dined on steak (me) and some kind of wonderful fish, the likes of which I cannot recall (Melissa). My side was a traditional French potato dish, scalloped and cooked with heavy cream in a small pot. It was unbelievably, sinfully good, and I dared not finish it for fear of entering an irreversible coma for the balance of our trip. We again had a house white wine, which was wonderful, and ended our meal once more with crème brule – the house specialty. The waiter was warm and friendly, the prices were surprisingly reasonable and the atmosphere was just what we were hoping it would be – small and quiet and off the beaten path.
After dinner we made the short walk back to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the difference in temperature between Nice and Paris – it was a good twenty degrees cooler.
We collapsed back at the hotel, completely exhausted but looking forward to getting out and about the next day.
Next: A Moveable Feast comes alive