Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nice is nice...part I

On Wed. (7/21) we headed off to Nice in the South of France.  We debated whether we should drive or take the train.  The benefit of driving is we would be able to stop along the way and explore little towns.  The risk of driving was that the car could break down (again) or we could get a flat, or we could get seriously lost.  Plus, driving is just so much more stressful with the traffic, figuring out the signs, etc.  The benefit of taking the train was the opposite of all the risks of driving and the only downside was that we wouldn’t be able to stop and explore along the way.  The trip time was basically the same via car (with no stops) or train.  Ultimately, we decided to take the train and then we would rent a car in Nice if we felt we needed it.
We had to leave the house at 5:30 am to catch a train to Paris and then we had a 9:30 am train from Paris to Nice.  We had purchased Eurail passes before we left for France that were good for 6 days travel during a two month period in France, Italy and Germany.  The pass equated to $66 a day, so for long trips, it made a lot of sense.  For our trips into Paris, we just buy a ticket, as we purchased a card that gives us a 50% discount on all train tickets in Burgundy for the summer, so our tickets to Paris only cost 20 euro round trip.  If we had purchased round trip tickets from Paris to Nice, it would have been about 350 euro, so the $122 for using the pass for two days gave us a substantial savings.

Our train from Paris was nonstop until we got to Marseilles, where we changed trains and then had several stops along the way to Nice (like Provence en Aix, Avignon, Cannes).  

Waiting for train in Marseilles

About two hours into our train ride, the terrain really started to change from the flat, farm land of where we are staying, to the gently rolling hills of the Provence area.  Once we left Marseilles, it was beautiful Mediterranean coast line and interesting cliffs and low mountains.  We could tell from the train that this area was much drier that the northern part of France.  We saw lots of fields of lavender, sunflowers and various vegetables.  And, of course, acres and acres of vines!
We arrived in Nice around 3 in the afternoon, consulted our handy Garmin and headed to our hotel.  It was suppose to be very close to the train station, and after making one wrong turn and getting back on track, it turned out to be about a block from the station.  Back in June, when we had decided to do an excursion to Nice, we planned on two nights.  I have really wanted to avoid paying for any hotels, as part of the way this trip is affordable for us is because we’re staying in our exchange home and not in hotels.  So, when I looked for a hotel in Nice, I looked for an inexpensive option.  I got a recommendation from Michelin for a hotel/hostel that was suppose to be quiet and seemed suitable for us.  We were able to get one room with beds for 5 and a bathroom in the room for 120 euro a night.  It was a very good deal, but I knew from the pictures that the room would be very sparse.

I had warned everyone that it would really just be someplace to sleep, we wouldn’t be hanging out in the room much.  As we walked into the hotel, the entry way was fairly narrow, so I had everyone wait outside while I checked in and got the key.  Turns out our room was #1, on the ground floor directly next to the entrance to the hotel.  When I opened the door to the room, I knew we were going to have issues.  Yes, there were beds for 5 people (2 doubles and 1 single) and yes there was a bathroom in the room.  
However, the only window opened onto the courtyard (I use that term very was actually the small parking lot of the hotel, as well as the area where guests congregated around small out door tables to eat breakfast and in the evening to drink, smoke, & listen to music.  (You can see our window to the far right, behind the green bush.)  There was no air conditioning in the room, nor any fan.  When the window was open, everyone outside could see directly into our room.  The room itself was so small that if you wanted to have more than one person in the room, only one person could be standing at a time...everyone else had to be sitting on a bed.  There just wasn’t enough floor room for multiple people to be moving about.  The bathroom was quite small, with a plastic folding no real privacy.  The room was the size of our walk in closet at home (I am not kidding).
We got everyone into the room, moved the bags up against a wall, opened up the window (as it was at least 95 degrees in the room) and flopped on the beds.  I reminded everyone, it was just a place to sleep.  James looked at me like this was news to him (in fact, he said something to that effect).  It was clear he was not happy with the arrangements.  Was it possible that I hadn’t told him I was booking us into a hostel?  I knew he knew we were all sharing a room.  I knew he knew what a great price I had gotten.  I’m not sure what he was expecting...but it certainly wasn’t what we had.
We all agreed that we needed to freshen up and then go explore Nice and not return to the room until it was time to sleep.  So, that’s what we did.  We headed out towards the beach and explored the various sights of Nice.  The area around our hotel was not that nice...I don’t know why I thought being near the train station would be ok...I guess because Michelin had given this place relatively high marks (for what it was...not as a luxury hotel).

Anyway, after about 10 minutes of walking, we came upon the more tourist friendly areas of Nice, with pedestrian shopping areas, friendly people, and no overt smell of urine (yes, the area around our hotel definitely had a high urine smell...eeeewwww!)
We made it to the sea and found some seats on the boardwalk and sat down to relax and enjoy the view.  And what a view it was...the Mediterranean sea was a beautiful two-tone blue.  The water gently lapped at the shore.  

The beach area was fairly narrow and to our surprise, the beach was all stones/rocks...not sand.  Hmmm, guess I didn’t read the correct guide book...I had no idea that the beaches were rock beaches.  Oh well, they were still beautiful.  

We sat for a few minutes and then a life guard came up from the beach and ordered everyone off the seats.  He was only speaking French, so we had no idea why we were being told to move.  We thought perhaps we were sitting on “private” chairs, as they did overlook one of the many private beach clubs.  So we moved off of the chairs and went to sit on benches, that were clearly for public use.  Then, a number of police and firemen showed up and started clearing the beach area and then they started clearing the whole promenade where we were standing.  We still couldn’t figure out what was going on, but we had several guesses.  
James thought they were clearing the beach so that Brad and Angeline could have the beach to themselves (the hospital where she had her twins was right behind our hotel...and Kerry says that she rented out the delivery room for an entire month before her due date to ensure that the room was available when she went into labor (at a cost of $250,000)).  I told James that they probably had access to a private beach and wouldn’t need to hangout with us peasants.  After a few minutes, it became clear there was a safety issue.  At that point, it appeared it was a bomb scare/threat.  Either someone had left an unattended bag in the tunnel under the promenade or there was a suspicious package.  We watched for a few more minutes and then decided we should leave, just in case they decided to detonate the object.  We never heard a boom and later that night when we were walking on the promenade again, it was re-opened.
We had a non-descript dinner on the main avenue on the beach front and later discovered the area where all the good restaurants were!  We decided that in the future we need to explore more and not just settle on the first restaurant that we come upon.
After dinner, we walked some more.  We headed down to the chateau, which you were suppose to be able to climb to the top of and have a fabulous view of the bay and the entire area.  

Chateau from below

Alas, by the time we got there, it was 8:30 and the park & stairs had closed at 7:30.  We had to settle for this view:

We also climbed down to a great point where we took a few more photos.

We also got to see a guy peeing on the sidewalk on the path down to the beach.  Now we knew why Nice smelled like pee!!!!

The kids decided they wanted to go down on the beach, so we did.  After getting their feet wet, they really wanted to go in (but there was a lot of debate between the two of them before they actually went in the water).

We were much too far away from our hotel to walk back and forth, so the kids went in the water in their clothes.  The beaches are definitely tops optional for women, which was a little surprising to the kids and a little entertaining for James.  We had sat down next to a lovely French couple and their two kids who were having a picnic on the beach.  After they finished eating, the kids went back in the water and the mom decided it was time to change out of her bikini, into her clothes.  Which she did, directly in front of James...about 4 feet away.  As James said...ahhh...dinner and a show!  The couple then proceeded to make out while the kids swam.

When our kids finished swimming, we headed back to the hotel (leaving the beach about 9:45 as the sun had just finished setting).  It got dark quite a bit earlier down here in the South of France!  We walked for quite awhile, looking for the street our hotel was on.  At one point, Kerry said...I think we’ve walked too far.  I said no, I’ve been looking at every street we’ve crossed and we haven’t crossed ours yet.  We walked a little further and decided we’d better get the map out.  These damn maps!  I can’t read them at night when I have my contacts in (I know I’ve complained about this before!)   We struggled with the map a bit and walked a bit more.  Ultimately, we walked about two extra miles, having walked past our street, because at the point where the street we were walking on crossed our street, our street had a different name.  Turns out our street changed names three times between our hotel and the wonder we missed it.  The kids were troopers...they walked for over an hour in wet clothes, with hardly a complaint.  It was 11 pm by the time we got back to the hotel and we had all gotten up that morning at 5 was a long day.  But, of course, it was going to get a little longer.
The courtyard (again, I use that term loosely) was filled with young folks, drinking, laughing, smoking and listening to music.  When we opened our window to get some air...we could see all of them and they could see all of us.  It was just like they were partying in our room, but of course there wasn’t enough room for that!  The smoke blew directly into our room, so we got the benefit of that pleasure also.  In the bathroom, there was a small window, which when we opened it, we discovered it was connected to the room next we could hear everything going on in that room...through our bathroom...which meant they could hear everything going on in our bathroom...lovely!
We all needed to shower, since we’d been traveling all day, so that took about an hour for all of us to get through the shower.  We then turned off our light, left the window open, listened to the folks party and tried to go to sleep.  While the folks partying watched us trying to sleep.  It was pretty damn funny!  Everyone finally stopped partying a little after one and the smokers finally gave up by two...we all crashed because we were so tired.  Of course, the courtyard came to life again at 7:30 am because continental breakfast was served from 7:30 to 9:30.  We missed it, with everyone not being able to get ready until a little after 10...because we each had to go into the bathroom, individually, to get dressed, as not to give even more of a show to the folks in the courtyard than was necessary.  I have to say, even as I write this, I cannot express the true feelings of being in this room, on display for everyone outside.  I didn’t take any pictures of the room...I didn’t have the heart to.  Kerry didn’t either because she said she didn’t know what she would say to anyone who she showed the pics to...”hey, look at the great room my sis booked us into.”
After lying awake, watching my family try to sleep in these fairly difficult circumstances, I knew I was going to have to do something.  After all, they had been hoping for a little break from the farm house, a little luxury (meaning air conditioning and tv), just a little pampering.  What I had given them turned out to be rougher than the farm house (Katie even said that I had managed to find a place that made the farm house look good in comparison!)  I got the computer out and found us a nice multi-room suite at the Quality Suites, directly on the ocean, with AIR CONDITIONING.  I showed everyone the pictures and everyone agreed we should change hotels.  (Of course, we could not get any refund on the first hotel for the unused two nights...oh well!)  So I booked it and we packed up.  We couldn’t check in to the new hotel until 3, so we left our bags in our room and went shopping and eating until about 1:30.  

Then we walked down the promenade to our new hotel, with the idea that we’d check in, the kids and Kerry could hang out in the air conditioned splendor, while James and I grabbed a cab to go get our bags at the old hotel.  It was a very long walk...much longer than I anticipated, partly because it was so DAMN HOT!!!!  And, since we were walking down the promenade, there was no shade.  We got to the point where we were counting down the addresses.  Finally we got there and walked into the air conditioned bliss of the lobby.  
As I checked in, the manager told me there was a slight problem.  The prior guest in the room we were to have had had broken the sliding glass door the night before, so our room was not going to be available.  He said that he could give us 3 different rooms (since our room was for 6 people), however, only one was ocean facing and it was on a different floor from the other two rooms.  I pointed out that we had children with us and they couldn’t stay on a different floor from us.  He suggested we see the rooms and then decide.  The bellman showed us the rooms...(as we rode up in the elevator, I told Kerry, this is why I didn’t check out of the first hotel...just in case) but he ended up showing us the room with the broken door and then two other rooms.  When we got back to the lobby, the manager said that he’d been able to get the window repair person to commit to fixing the door within the next hour and 1/2, so we could have our original a couple more hours.  It looked like we were going to just sit and wait in the lobby.  We weren’t thrilled at the wait, as everyone wanted to relax.  The manager must have sensed we were in need of something good happening (or he could smell us and decided he didn’t want us in his lobby for a couple of hours) and he said, wait...I can give you the room directly above the one you were to’s all ready and clean and available now!  So we took it and settled in, happily with this as our new view!

James and I got a cab and went to pick up our bags, which went very smoothly.  When we got back to the new hotel, Kerry and the kids were in the ocean, which was directly across from our room.  James and I went around the corner to get wine and cheese and bread and then watched them cavort in the waves while we drank wine.  Ah, paradise at last!  A little while later, we saw the delivery people bringing the replacement door.  We would have been waiting over 3.5 hours if the manager hadn’t discovered the other room for us.

So, here’s one of the lessons that I learned in Nice.  I’m 45.  I’ve stayed in many 4 and 5 star hotels in my life.  I’ve stayed in many roach motels when I was young.  I am now too old to stay in roach motels.  If I can’t afford to stay in a relatively nice place...I shouldn’t go, I should just stay home!  I only want to rough it when I camp...and even then...I need a bathroom!  So, James...please remind me if I ever try to book us into a cheapo hotel again (especially if I try to cram 5 people into one very small room!)   Stay tuned for part II, a post about all the great sight seeing we did and all the things we loved about Nice and the surrounding areas.

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