(weekend trip report: Nice, Grasse, Monte Carlo, Cannes)

As you know, readers, I grew up in Denver. I go to school in Iowa. I have seen the oceans of the world perhaps six times in my young life, five of which were ten+ years ago, and always in the whirlwind of vacation – dive in, photo-op, shower, forget. The salt never sunk in. Most of the time the ocean strikes me as a mythical creature, an El Dorado, a Fountain of Youth.

So, we got to the Côte d’Azur, and I was floored.

That sea! That sky!

From the top of a 17th-century observation tower in Cannes.

As we live, as we travel, we learn things about ourselves. Here’s what I learned this weekend: I have a thing about boats. I mean, we saw some pretty sexy (s[aix]y, har har, thanks Martin) cars in Monte Carlo, you know, all the Casino’s high-rollers showing off their Ferraris, their Rolls, their Lamborghinis, nbd. I appreciate them like I appreciate Greek architecture and beautiful strangers: for the clarity, the perfection of the form. But boats – oh, man. Boats.

No, Molly, said our program director. You can’t buy a yacht today.

Someday, I promised myself, in the most serious part of my heart.

But back to the itinerary. All hundred-ish of us gathered sleepily at the Office de Tourisme in Aix at 8:30 Saturday morning. Yamina was convincingly willing to leave latecomers behind (laconic French shrug), but eventually we all got settled in two buses and took off for Nice with Mark and Carol, our bilingual guides. My bus learned quickly that Mark was not only extremely kind and funny but also tremendously well informed – I stuck to him like an oversized barnacle for all subsequent walking tours.

Nice is stunning. Mark informed us that the city is almost more Italian than French, and indeed, the houses seem to climb up the hills in a particularly sun-drenched Italian manner. But the English left their own mark when they “discovered” Nice a century or two ago; the long main avenue is the Promenade des Anglais, so-called for the British habit of dressing in their Sunday best and and strolling up and down it, a habit the Mediterranean natives found mystifying but the English considered “good exercise.” The Russian aristocracy who fled there after 1917 had their say as well. It’s a beautiful mélange, but the town remains dominated by the sea, that perfect, endless, azure jewel.

There were lots of cute French babies like the one in the foreground.

The beaches are not sand, although there is a broad artificial patch of the stuff, presumably for American tourists; they’re “pebbled” with smooth grey stones that press painfully on your feet. But once you get in, the water lifts you off them, so gently. How to describe the sensation of floating in clear water, just slightly salty, the breeze on your face and the sun in your hair? How can this be my life? All I know is, magic exists. I felt it that day, and I won’t forget.

Eventually, though, we left the water, washed the salt off in handy beachside showers, and set off on the walking tour (with Mark, natch). We arrived at the hôtel de ville, i.e. the town hall, just in time to see the confetti cannons fire for – at least – the second wedding of the day. Because French law does not consider your married until you go through the municipal ceremony, weddings queue up outside the hôtel on Saturdays. I saw three brides that afternoon. That’s a lot of confetti.

The bed ends about where that window hits it (you can kind of see through the glass). Apparently people all slept slightly propped up way back when, to preserve their hairstyles.

Passing several prime examples of Baroque architecture on the way, including the opera house, we came to the palais Lascaris, ancestral home of the noble family of the same name, now converted into a museum. We enjoyed the sweeping marble entry hall, the ceiling frescoes, the abbreviated bed, and the large collection of musical instruments, but agreed among our sun-drunk selves that, after all, it was bit dour.

So! On to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was at least as notable for its architecture as for the art inside (remind you of any museums in Denver?). We were short on time, so we ran up to the roof, madly snapped pictures, and tried to run back down, but got ensnared by the exhibits. It’s really hard to pass up a chance to see your knowledgeable guide in action.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Nice.

Then it was back to the bus with us and off to Grasse, perfume capital of the world. I don’t actually know that, but it sounds good, doesn’t it? And it is famous. We toured the Fragonard parfumerie there, breathing deeply and gawking at the amount of rose petals needed to make one liter of rose essence. Did you know that the perfume-maker, the one who actually mixes the scents, is called the “nose” (le nez) and that there are only about 150 noses in the world, of whom only two are women, and that a nose can distinguish and memorize more than 2000 more unique smells than the average person? How do you find that out about yourself? Anyway, very interesting, and there were some delicious smell tests at the end, but in spite of the factory-direct prices I opted out of the purchasing part of the expedition. Whenever I buy perfume I forget that I own it.

From Grasse we rolled into our hostel, which was, I think, a outstanding example of its species. Sparkling clean, three bunk beds with spotless white sheets, a shower and bathroom in every room, and a bar/dining room/hangout area. Sangria, dinner, showers, and then we donned our classiest clothes. CASINO TIME.

Casino Monaco, Monte Carlo.

As it turns out, the best part of our hour-long visit to Monte Carlo was how fly everyone looked – you haven’t seen a hundred people look like that since senior prom. It should happen more often. Yes, the casino was glitzy, the cars were shocking, and the lights were dazzling, but if you didn’t want to pay the €10 cover charge you were stuck in the main foyer. Not to be deterred from fun, Valerie, Jennifer, and I wandered out, found some incomprehensible slot machines, bought some delicious and unabashedly overpriced gelato, and watched the boats. They were preeeeeetty. We think we saw the Prince of Monaco’s yacht.

They whisked us away before anyone could get into too much trouble, though, and returned us to the hostel, where a discotheque complete with cheap bar was in full swing. Probably not a bad idea to let us hit 1 AM there rather than Monte Carlo, n’est-ce pas?

One of the paintings. Sea and sky - and boats!

Day 2 was Cannes and back. Several of us found a promising Italian restaurant and had a leisurely, two-plus-hour lunch like the southerners we’re learning to be. Then another excellent walking tour, including the Cannes mural, a tiny museum filled with the most beautiful paintings ever, and up a million stairs to the top of an observation tower from which we had a panoramic view of the whole city.

Mural in Cannes, full of cinema luminaries. Mark could name all of them. Damn but I love smart people.

By this time, the sun, the walking, and the discotheque were catching up to us, so we were not the least unhappy to find our way back to the bus. I swear everyone slept the whole way back to Aix, it was that quiet.

Beautiful is the only word for la Méditerranée. I’m a goner. She’s got me wrapped around her little finger. I’m sure I’ll see her again. Someday. With my yacht.