Return to Èze: Revisiting memories in the south of France

Champagne on the terrace at Le Château de la chèvre d’or, Èze, France

It was our twentieth wedding anniversary and our Mediterranean cruise was set to take us along the French Rivièra.  Art had been there before, but it was Patty’s first visit, and he wanted to make it special by taking her to a magical place he knew that she’d enjoy.  His destination: Èze, a medieval hilltop town overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean, and more specifically Le Château de la chèvre d’or, a Relais and Chateaux property with a spectacular terrace boasting two Michelin stars.

Our young driver Caroline dropped us at the cobble-stoned entrance to the city where we’d begin our climb, on foot, to the top.  We often walk through these destinations where the history oozes from the walls and ponder what life might have been like in the fourteenth century in a village that actually dates to 2000 BC!  Sometimes it’s hard to summon the feeling, but not in Èze.  Every step took us back another century to the fourteenth century when the first buildings that are still there today were built.  At just over 1400 feet elevation, the hilltop village is crowned by an exotic garden that we visited before our lunch at the chateau.

That lunch began with the waiter asking us if we’d like to begin with champagne.  But of course!  So he wheeled over the champagne trolley and asked us which would be our pleasure.  We chose, we drank (in their bespoke crystal champagne glasses with stems shaped like goats – in case you missed it, the French word chèvre means goat, and chèvre d’or means golden goat), we enjoyed, and we nearly swallowed our tongues when we realized at the end of our lunch that the two glasses of champagne had cost more than the rest of the lunch – including wine – all together.  But we laughed.  It was worth it for the experience.

Then it was wonderful to share Eze with son, Ian.

So we savored every moment, thinking that we’d never return.  We lived in the moment taking in all the sights, sounds and tastes.  Then, our son moved to France at the age of 21.  He moved to southern France.  He moved to Beausoliel so he could work in Monaco.  And we visited him.  And we took him to Èze to experience the village.  And to lunch.

Our experience the second and third times were just as magical, but we learned one very important lesson through this: make every travel moment count.  Feel the experiences in the present moment and just really be there.  Step away from looking at everything through your camera lens for a while and really make a point of remembering.  It might just be the only time that you’ll have that experience.  And it will stay with you to take out and think about any time you like in the future.

If you have five mnutes, come to Èze with us…

Monaco’s ‘jardin exotique’ – An unexpected pleasure

A view from Monaco's 'Jardin Exotique'

In the grand scheme of travel plans for enjoying Monaco, visiting a garden probably doesn’t rate near the top.  But it should.  Casinos, yachts and Ferrari’s go without saying, but Monaco’s gardens may just take your breath away.

We’ve just returned from another Christmas season in Monaco (with a son living in the area, it’s just where we go!), and despite having visited the tiny principality a number of times before, we had never been to its Jardin Exotique.

After Christmas shopping in Nice, we headed to our home base at the Riviera Marriott Hotel in Cap d’Ail and proceeded to figure out how we’d spend our days in this tiny country once again – we thought we had seen it all.  So, after a browse through the over-priced shops, a poke through the Monte Carlo Christmas market and a gawk at a Lamborghini or two, the discerning travelers will find themselves at the garden.

The truth is that if you never visit the garden, you will leave the principality without truly understanding it as a place in time.  That’s because from the vantage point of the garden at the top of everything else that is built upward toward it, you can see the old city of Monaco as it was in years gone by as a fortification topped by the palace and the homes and businesses of the Monegasques – before the frightening influx of the über-rich to condo-city that now surrounds the old city.  If you squint past the ubiquitous construction cranes that dot Monaco, you might just be able to imagine what it must have been like here in the 12th century atop the battlements.  Enemies would have some difficulty scaling those walls to penetrate your tiny country that was for centuries confined to that old city – Monaco-Ville.

Monaco-Ville, the old city on its fortifications

We eschewed all forms of transportation but our pieds to get there, making our way to the top via a series of winding streets, dizzying staircases, the public ascenseurs (elevators) and a public escalator or two.  Since it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the tourists were few, so we had much of the sun-filled garden of succulents to ourselves.  To say the experience was breath-taking would be an understatement.  Apart from the acrophobia-inducing vertiginous views of the city, the Mediterranean, and both the French and Italian Riviera’s, the cliffside garden is filled with over a thousand species of cacti and succulents native to areas as diverse as the USA, Mexico and Africa.  Even if you’re not a fan of these plants (which we aren’t usually) you cannot help but be impressed by both their size and numbers.

Patty enjoying the late December sunshine in the garden.
Art among the flowering cacti.

[The garden is open from 9am to 7 pm from May 15 to September 15, but closes at dusk or 6 pm other months.  It is closed on only two days each year: November 19 and December 25.  The entrance fee is €7 for adults with discounts for children and seniors. Visit their web site.]

Christmas shopping in Nice: It’s better on the Riviera!

Nice dressed for the festive season

Travel memoirist Bill Bryson once wrote: “We used to build civilizations.  Now we build shopping malls.”  And for many of us who celebrate the festive season by exchanging gifts, the shopping mall becomes a second home at this time of year.

But for us discerning travelers who would rather save our money for an Executive-first class ticket than buy one another something that will end up at the Salvation Army thrift shop in six months, we take a slightly different approach.  The fact that we rarely spend Christmas at home (as discussed earlier in reference to a Christmas cruise!) does give us a bit of a distraction.

Leaving the house in the good hands of our house-sitter, we take very little in the way of gifts with us: we’ll do our shopping when we are on the ground in the south of France, and that shopping will be minimal.  It’s the experience of shopping in Nice that we really like!

Nice is the closest thing to a ‘city’ that is within a reasonable taxi drive of where our son works in Monaco.  About 30 minutes by cab from Monte Carlo, Nice has a population of fewer than 400,000 making it large enough to have shops, services and hotels in abundance, and small enough to be happily walkable.  Add on to that its charming old quarter (Vieux Nice), its Christmas market and its fabulous festive decorations, and you end up with an experience that puts you in the Christmas spirit like nothing else can.

Le Palais de la mediteranee: Our home base in Nice

When we arrive in Nice, we’ll check into the hotel Palais de la mediteranée on the Promenade des Anglais that stretches about six kilometers along the beachfront.  Then we’ll spend a day wandering the shopping streets and lunching at a pizzeria near the market.  We’ll watch the Nice residents stroll on the boardwalk (it’s actually paved) and we’ll visit the local Galleries Lafayette, the famed department store.  It’s not quite like its Parisian sibling, but it has three floors of ‘stuff’ that isn’t readily available in North America.

Then we’ll do some strolling of our own and watch the local residents pick up their Christmas trees from the lot on the waterfront, and wander among the snow-covered trees all around the place.  Does it snow in the south of France at Christmas, you ask incredulously?  No, it actually doesn’t.  The snow is fake; those of us who reside in more northern climes always find it hilarious how snow seems to be worshipped as the very essence of Christmas.  It’s clear no one along the French Riviera has ever had to spend a morning shoveling to get a car out of the garage.

After we pick up one present for each other and a few for the son, we’ll leave Nice behind us to head to Monte Carlo and a ballet premiere.  When we get back, no doubt we’ll have more stories to tell!

Christmas tree lot along the Promenade des anglais
Art surrounded by "snow" covered evergreens in Nice.