Paris and the French Riviera

 ... magnifique!

by James Tierney

Who says the French don't like us? After a 12-day visit there it was obvious that this isn't the case although, sometimes they have reason NOT to like us. Some of us travel to other countries with the idea that our American way of life and conveniences will be there for us. Hello! You're in another country. Why travel if we expect a Dunkin' Donuts on every corner and we can't adjust to the coffee there. One of the main reasons for travel is to experience our differences and adjust to them for the short period of time we'll be there. Their gripe is not with us individually but with the global economy, which is encroaching on their proud French heritage.

McDonalds and Disneyland now and, surely, Dunkin' Donuts coming soon. French is their language and they want you to learn it, or at least try, rather than you expecting them to learn and speak English. That old cliché, "When in Rome.."  applies wherever you are. They know who our President is but do we know who their President is? Jacques Chirac. We found the French very cordial and accommodating during our stay. Sure, you'll always find the rude one but don't generalize that the entire country is like that. When we see a rude person here, do we think our entire country is like that? I think not. Just a few words learned, like, oui, non, merci, bonjour, bonsoir, and pardon break the communications barrier. Contrary to popular belief, the French people DO appreciate and are indebted to us for what we did for them during World War I and II. Our differences are with the leaders of our countries and their politics.

The restaurants have French food. Surprise? Cold cuts for breakfast. Strong, strong coffee served in small demitasse cups. Wine, served like water, is common place and you may find omelettes on the dinner menu, as well as gogot de monton (leg of lamb with herbs), daube (braised beef with spices and red wine), soupe de poisson (all liquid fish soup). You get normal accommodations, i.e. bed, dresser, bathrooms (but with bidets), TV, etc, but don't expect your regular TV programs. The only English programs are CNN and BBC. You may get old episodes like Providence or Home Improvement dubbed in French. There is a Japanese channel that featured Colombo speaking Japanese. The Lido, rather than Moulin Rouge with its distinctive French flavor, seems to be the place the tourists flock to with its international shows like Vegas and Broadway. If it's Vegas and Broadway you want, why go to France? As I said earlier, go with the flow and adjust to their way of life for a more meaningful vacation.

There are many things different from ours, mostly subtle, and certainly easy to adjust to. The Euro was the easiest adjustment because of its being on a par with the dollar, or the difference so insignificant that you're not concerned with the exchange rate. The former Franc had an exchange rate of 700 to 1 and the Italian Lira was about 2000 Lira for each $1, making it difficult to relate it to the dollar. The old currency became invalid on 3/1/02. Be thankful you don't drive in Europe. Gas is about $1.20 a liter which is over $4 a gallon. All you see is small cars like Renault, Peugeot, Fiat, etc. and they park on sidewalks (legally) because of lack of parking facilities. They don't have parking meters but rather a single automatic parking ticket station on each block where a parking ticket is purchased and placed on the dash board. Construction crews have mobile traffic lights, which they set up at each end of the construction site eliminating the need for a traffic officer. Hmmm, here's a book from which we can take a page or two. We should also seriously reconsider the metric system which seems to work so effectively in most other nations.  

France has 96 departments (states), regions (counties), prefectures (cities). The city of Nice is in the Provence region in the Maritime department. The European Union, formed 40 years ago, was most beneficial to Europe, opening up the borders enabling the smaller countries to have the benefit of larger country living conditions. They can move freely from country to country and apply for jobs across the borders when unemployment is high and wages are low where they live. There are 16 countries in the union now with others soon joining. If the countries of Europe can do it why can't the US do it with Canada and Mexico? Europe still monitors for illegal activities between the borders. Customs doesn't always prevent illegal activities.

Our trip began in Paris, the "City of Light", where the names we heard all our life came to life: the Eiffel Tower, Arch of Triumph, Notre Dame Cathedral, Champs Elysees, the Seine, the Louvre, the Left Bank, Sorbornne University, and sidewalk cafes. We took a city tour to see the entire city and get our bearings, visiting some of these sites along the way, including the D'Orsey Museum and it's elaborate collection of magnificent paintings of Impressionists like Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. We stopped at Notre Dame Cathedral, probably best known for Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame with Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and the gargoyles. However, it was here also that Napoleon crowned himself emperor, yanking the crown out of Pope Pius VII's hands and placing it on his own head before crowning his Josephine empress. The Arc de Triomphe is Paris's busiest traffic hub, with a dozen streets converging on the square onto a rotary. It has been called "vehicular roulette with more balls than numbers". It was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate the victories of his Grand Armee. The greatest State funeral was Victor Hugo's in 1885 with his coffin placed under the arch, and the arch's happiest moment was in 1944 when the liberation of Paris parade passed beneath it. It is also the site of the permanent tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in whose honor the eternal flame is kept burning.

The next day we experienced the Paris Metro (T) for an extended visit to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Spending a couple of hours at the Louvre was a very broad brush of the entire complex. It is estimated that if you spent two minutes at each of the 30,000 works on display it would take you three months to get through the 14 miles of halls. We did manage to see a great deal, including the beguiling Mona Lisa, the armless Venus Di Milo, and the headless Winged Victory.

There are three observation levels at the Eiffel Tower for a spectacular view of the city, the most impressive from the top level, at 300 meters high (900 feet). This tower was saved from demolition with the advent of the radio and it's value for reception, and it has so much greater value to communications today. This is without a doubt the most recognized structure in the world. Paris's beauty is overwhelming, especially in the illumination of night, when it certainly IS the city of light.

A tour of the Palace of Versailles, a short distance from Paris, was absolutely breathtaking. Louis XIV built this immense and sumptuous estate, a symbol of power and absolute monarchy, and modeled according to the Sun King's wishes to reflect his perception of power. We visited the beautiful enchanting apartments with priceless paintings and sculptures, the hall of mirrors, the many fountains, courtyards, gardens, stables and coach museum. The estate includes an opera house, a ballroom, and a colonnade that more vividly conveys its size. We rediscovered French History in it's Houses of Parliament situated on the estate where the Congress of the French Parliament still meet. We saw Queen Marie Antoinette's bedchamber where each royal birth was witnessed by whatever number of people could fit into the chamber. There is a huge portrait of Louis XIV, the famous one of him posing like a model with his legs exposed to the thighs. He would be the envy of many a supermodel.

We did the Lido as most tourists do although I would have preferred the Moulin Rouge. I drew the short straw. The show WAS spectacular, an extravaganza reminiscent of the old Broadway musicals, with special effects adding to our enjoyment. We had a gourmet dinner cruise along the Seine River at night with lights reflecting off the banks of the river, giving new (old) meaning to the Left Bank which was so prominent a place for musicians and artists of years past, and still is to a great extent. We had the pleasure of another dinner show at the Paridis Latin, Paris's oldest cabaret theatre, before leaving Paris for the Riviera. We traveled from Paris to Nice by train, another French experience on the high speed French rail system, enjoying the passing countryside and rubbing elbows with the locals.

The French Riviera or Cote d'Azur (blue coast) is situated in the Provence region of France on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, about 70 miles long, and runs from St. Tropez in the west to the Italian border in the east. We settled into a Nice hotel and toured the Riviera for the next several days, beginning in Nice, the Grand Old Dame of the Cote D'Azur which featured the Promenade des Anglais and Place Massana (shore road), flower mart, Matisse grave, the Marc Chagall Museum and his celebrated collection of biblical old testament paintings, and the grandest of the hotels, the Negresco, with its Empire and Napoleon décor. We were there on Rememberance Day (Veterans day) and observed a parade and service at the War Memorial in memory of World War I and II veterans. This day is extremely important to the French. They were in the war longer than us and were liberated from Nazi invaders. While in Nice, we dined at quaint little restaurants in the EZE village high in the mountains with spectacular views of the valleys below.

Our next stop was Grasse, the birthplace of perfume, where we visited the famous Fragonard Perfumerie and received an education on perfume. Perfume was originally developed for the tanning industry, specifically for gloves, and spun off as a separate industry. The aristocracy used it considerably as a "dutch" bath rather than bathe. A perfume "expert" who makes $20,000 a month is called a Nez(nose) and can distinguish between 6000 scents. There can be anywhere from two to 500 different fragrances in one perfume. We discovered in their workshops and laboratories some secrets of the magical world of perfume. We stopped at St. Paul de Fence, situated on a mountain overlooking a beautiful countryside. The military observatory was originally built as a means of monitoring the frontier which separated France from the Italian House of Savoy, the Royal House of Italy. This medieval walled town is filled with historic buildings, hidden alleyways, restaurants, and shops.

It was on to the Italian Riviera and the towns of Ventimiglia, featuring it's infamous mammoth marketplace and San Remo, the capital of the Italian Riviera, featuring a casino and also known as the Flower City, with its flowers known throughout the world. Winding along the spectacular coastline on one side and mountains on the other with villages perched up in the valleys which cut through the mountains, we stopped at the charming town of Villefranche on to St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat and the impressive Rothchild Villa and Gardens. Beatrice Ephrussi, the Baroness of Rothchild was somewhat eccentric, building a palace totally in pink which resembles the Renaissance houses of Venice, Florence or Ravenna. Architects had to sometimes build models on the real scale. Seven separate gardens surround the villa, covered in 10 acres, created around different themes, including French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, lapidary, and exotic. She would supervise 30 gardeners from a balcony as if she were the captain of a ship and they were sailors working and wearing red tuft berets. The villa suggests words like elegant, magnificent, and exquisite.

St. Tropez was site of the 1956 film, "God Created Women", starring Brigette Bardot, who still lives here. We viewed her house and other multimillion dollar homes while on a harbor cruise. Movie stars, artists, and writers still come here each summer when the population grows from 5000 to 120,000. Once an old fishing village, the old charm has been replaced by a very pricey, glitzy, and trendy fashionable resort. Another familiar name, Cannes, was the next stop with a visit to the site of the annual Foreign Film Festival where they award the Golden Palm and the city becomes one big party with stars posing without restraint for the paparazzi and thousands of movie fans swarming the beaches and streets to catch a glimpse of the stars. This stretch of the coastline has an enormous number of designer and jewelry shops for the rich, as well as an area for the not so rich.

"Nobody was in Antibes that summer .. except me, Zelda, the Valentinos, the Murphys, Mistinguet, Rex Ingram, Dos Passos, Alice Terry, The MacLeishes, Charles Brackett, Mause Kahn, Lester Murphy, Marguerite Namara, E. Oppenheimer, Mannes, the Violinist, Floyd Dell, Max and Crystal Eastman." Just the right place to rough it, and escape from the world.

F.Scott Fitzgerald in a letter in 1926.

The Old Town, Antibes, is a truly authentic unspoiled cobblestoned village which maintains the dignity and atmosphere of the past. A visit to the Picasso Museum where Pablo Picasso spent 1946 living and painting in the Grimaldi Castle where over 200 of his paintings and pottery are on display. Known as the luxury yacht capital of the world, Antibes has some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Last, but certainly, not least, we had a panoramic tour of the Principality of Monaco, the country within a country, like San Marino in Italy. The main attraction here is the tomb of Princess Grace in the Cathedral of Monaco, St. Devote, where we paid our respects in a very somber remembering few moments. We watched the changing of the guard at the palace, visited the Jacques Cousteau Oceanographic Museum, and enjoyed the picturesque scenic harbor. The Monte Carlo Casino was a sight to behold, the "beautiful" people coming and going in Lamborguinis, Jaguars, Mercedes, Ferraris, Rolls Royce's, etc. It was apparent that they were there primarily to be seen by the paparazzi and gawking tourists. It is fashionable to be seen in Monte Carlo, except for the gawking tourists, of course. The Hotel de Paris, next to the casino, was where Crepe Suzette was invented when a clumsy waiter set a pancake on fire and His Royal Highness graciously named it after the lady with whom he was dining at the time.

It was au revoir to France, an exciting and educational experience.

April 4, 2003


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