Archive for the ‘France’ category

The most beautiful city in France.

April 11, 2009

I’m going to be honest here: France was not my favorite country by a long-shot. While some cities were nicer than others and it’s obviously not fair to be judging an entire country on the basis of my own personal experience, I can’t help the fact that France simply failed to impress as a whole. There was however one major exception, one location in France which stood out above the rest and which not only impressed me but which I consider one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever visited: Nice. No, not the adjective, the location; Nice, France. It’s a city. Really!  I believe it’s pronounced ‘niece’ actually, but written as Nice. Whatever the case it really is a grand place.

Located on the very tip of South Eastern France near the border with Italy, Nice is the leading resort on the French Riviera with its vast beautiful Mediterranean beaches and crystal blue water all bordering on a lively leading resort town. It’s more or less the relaxing vacation ideal in many many ways, the very image of  the classic vacation package which you’ll find on every pamphlet. How can you not love that? Easy. You’re like me and you’re honestly not much intrigued by pretty beaches and local nightlife. Just not my thing. Here’s the kicker however; regardless of its status as a resort city, Nice easily stands on its own as a city of beauty and intrigue.

Allow me to explain more fully. Oftentimes it seems the ‘resort town’ locations tend to be a facade, an illusion carefully crafted in order to appeal towards tourists and in so doing to make some decent money. These ‘fake’ towns in truth are often rather boring and even sometimes dismal places where the resort area exists in its own little bubble of reality kept separate from the city or town proper where the average grunts live their average lives and not everyone is a bronzed beach god and the vendors sell more mundane things like food and groceries rather than exotic overpriced charms and supposedly local specialties which, again, more often than not are little traditions the locals will either shrug their shoulders about and dismiss with a casual “I guess…” or dislike outright, hating you for bringing up the foul old tradition and loathing you to your very core for so daring to stereotype them if you should have the nerve to talk about the subject.

That’s your typical travel brochure resort town. It really is!

Nice is not a thing like that. For one it’s actually an extremely pleasant place to visit even if you never once go anywhere near the beaches or the tourist trap areas. As a city standing alone and any mention of resorts or fame or even location tossed aside, Nice stands pretty damn tall amidst its competition. The streets are clean, the buildings are pleasant to look at, the people are surprisingly pleasant, there’s a good historical backing behind the city and there almost always is something interesting to search out and explore. Most importantly for me at least it also have a good vibe to it, that indescribable inner judgement where all the above melds together into one grand image to which I hold the city up to. The vibe, the pulse, the je ne sais quoi, the… I can’t think of any other  appropriate words at the moment but whatever it is Nice has a good one.

For me the moment when I realized I was really enjoying myself in this humorously named city was when I was walking up a slight incline along an average city street, the sun shinning downward brightly but an enjoyable breeze keeping things from getting stiflingly hot. I was snacking on a brownie I’d picked up from a small local bakery and sipping a cool drink while talking with my friend and enjoying the simple local scenery. The picturesque houses and small gardens with their abundance of plants and flowers of all sorts, most in bloom at the time so that the gardens were grand explosions of colour and fragrances that wafted by slowly in the light wind. It was then I thought to myself “Wow, I am really impressed by this city!”. Why? Because I wasn’t doing anything special, I was just walking to the attraction I’d wanted to see and yet still despite being ‘in-between’ sights I was enjoying myself and the locale around me immensely. Anywhere given enough time and money can create sights and experience you’re bound to enjoy, that’s easy! But to make it so that you enjoy the simple process of getting from point A to B and that you’re continually seeing and finding things of interest even just while travelling between planned sights and sounds, that’s the hallmark of a genuinely fine place to be.

Of touristy things I actually did little during my stay in Nice. I saw the ancient roman ruins the city boasts, an active archaeological dig site open to the public with a small museum and walking path to wander along. Not particularly big nor was there much to actually do there, but it was certainly worth the money to visit if only because of just how damned scenic it is. I saw and walked along the winding upwards paths of the hill where once a castle used to sit, now converted into a large park with an absolutely mesmerizing view towards the peak where the entire landscape of the city around you is left open to the eyes and your worries just tend to drift away amidst the Mediterranean foliage and gentle warm breeze. And I wandered the old cities twisted narrow streets, my senses assaulted by the fragrances of the restaurants and food vendors, my eyes dazzled by the curiosity and volume of small details to note and enjoy as I walked. I would eventually eat a fine bowl of Gnocchi for dinner in that district served by a friendly older lady while listening to the pleasant sounds of local music before heading back to where I was staying at the time and off the next day to another location.

Not really much seen when it comes down to it. Some old ruins, a nice park (Which also contained its own slightly less old ruins), and an older local market area. Not much. But the simple act of walking from place to place, to see and enjoy the city around me and soak in the ambiance was something I found so pleasant that it pushed Nice into my list of favourite cities I’ve been to. Looking up the various details on Wikipedia now and reading about Nice to refresh my memory, there’s so much I haven’t seen and so many things I never even knew while I was there. That I still loved the city so much having seen so little just stands as a testament to how great of a place Nice really is, and I desperately want to re-visit and to search and explore it more thoroughly in the future.

Other cities in France boast their own sights and sounds and I do not try to lessen their grandeur with my adoration towards this one place, but few come close to so tying everything together and making the city such a cohesive and enjoyable whole as Nice does and for that I praise it.

What’s funny is that I label Nice the most beautiful city in France when, looking the city up now, I find that historically it’s much more of an Italian city than anything else if I were to label the city as ‘belonging’ to a certain way of life. But that aside the city is French now and has been for a very long time, so I call it the most beautiful city in France.


A wanderers view on Paris and the image of France!

December 9, 2008

Of all the cities in the world, Paris, and France in general for that matter, seems to have a sort of global ‘image’ of what everyone thinks it’s like. A sort of French stereotype that extends right into the very fibers of France’s global popularity. For example, you mention Paris to someone who’s never been there, and you’re pretty likely to get a “Ah, the city of looove!” or a “Baguettes, wine and cigarettes!” story. It’s remarkable, I’d go so far as to say nowhere else in the world is there such a vivid idea of what a place is like created by and perpetuated by people who have never been there.

“Get to the point, how accurate are those then?” you demand, so I’ll quit buggering around. Paris, and much (But not all!) of France in general, is not a thing at all like those stereotypical snippets you see in the commercials or the travel brochures, or those cheesy little clips or the outrageous characters from children’s shows. Some bits are correct; yes, for mysterious reasons unknown to man, baguettes *are* ridiculously popular as a breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner there. And without any possible doubt, *yes*, the french are completely in love with cafe’s and many seem to spend seemingly their entire days sitting in those little plastic outdoor chairs sipping at a beer and smoking a cigarette, how they can ‘afford’ to do that all day is another mystery, but it is indeed a fairly true stereotype as far as these things go (Which is to say not very true at all, but still true enough to be funny in a “Hey look, he’s wearing a beret and eating a baguette” kinda way!).

But that image, that grand story of what Paris is supposed to be like, only actually pops up occasionally then is blown away like wisps of smoke. Just enough to snap a postcard perfect picture or have one of those “Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m in Paris right now!” moments before it’s quickly forgotten in favor of reality.

Keep in mind that all my travels through Paris as well as the rest of France were either by train or by foot, so unfortunately I missed many of the grand tourist traps or had to walk through the city proper before I could find the carefully set up locations I’m supposed to see, which needless to say sort of broke the illusion on more than one occasion.

Paris. Paris struck me as a massive, sprawling old beast. It’s old and lazy, grumpy beyond all reason, dirty and not a little smelly… and yet all that considered extremely fascinating none the less. The truth is that Paris is easily one of the most unexpectedly diverse cities I’ve encountered, but in a different way than most. Paris is a city where many, many cultures and ideologies, ways of life and beliefs all cram together and jostle each other rather uncomfortably and yet somehow seem to get along well enough they haven’t all killed each other yet. Where Canada likes to do the ‘live together in harmony’ thing, classical “Everyone’s separate cultures working together towards a common goal!” and the USA tends to be much more melting pot style assimilation thing, Paris embraces the “Go do your own thing over there!’ philosophy in many respects. Somehow it works too, and if anything is to be said about Paris it’s that there has got to be a shop or store for everything you can possibly conceive by the sheer volume of different people and ideas there are. Probably a factor in why Paris is so influential in the fashion and design sectors, since for inspiration just walk down a street long enough and you’re bound to encounter at least a couple different cultures and the like, one of which is bound to catch your eye eventually.

But six hundred and forty nine words in (654 now) I’ve yet to have really described Paris in any way, so I’ll quit with the pseudo-ideological musings and skip to the facts.

First off, arriving into Paris via train is a wreck. The train station is confusing as hell, and the information staff both overworked and seemingly understaffed for the massive amount of confused tourists like myself pouring in. Finding your way around the city can be a pain in the ass if you’re not familiar with the underground system, and that itself is yet another journey within a journey (Not completely unlike London in that respect!). The streets are, honestly, kinda dirty and there were more beggars than I’d care to count, especially outside the main train stations. The people are either rushed with their own business or assholes, and there’s an overall ‘grey’ feel to it all that’s hard to describe . It’s a rather grim and depressing first impression that frankly left me wanting to get back on board the train and take the next one to somewhere, almost anywhere, else.

But with immense fortitude and courage (And a lack of any other options with a dash of stubborn stupidity!) I persevered those first dark hours, and reluctantly, slowly, Paris began to open up to me. Tentative at first, bit by bit I began to find more and more ‘hey, that’s neat!’ moments, that slowly grew into a general feeling of fun and enjoyment. The streets never get any less messy, and frankly Paris has the overpowering stench of piss in many areas, people are still grumpy, and that ‘greyness’ never really goes away. But you start to see beyond that, beyond that into the nitty gritty little details that make Paris one of the grandest cities in the world.

You talk to a guy who recommends a little restaurant you’d never have taken notice of before, get there early enough to grab one of the tables at the small little dining area, and eat the best damn crêpe you will ever eat in your life served in this amazingly quaint small-restaurant Paris place that feels like it’s torn from the pages of a classical memoir . Or you’re walking along when you hear a the sound of music slowly coming closer and closer, and finally a trio of… wandering buskers?… comes into view, dancing slowly along the street as they play their instruments. And then there are the more grand and planned events, like walking under the Eiffel tower for the first time and suddenly being struck by just how big it is in reality. Far grander and majestic than anything you’d thought from television or books. A massive giant spire of metal reaching into the sky. Or as another example; visiting the Louvre, THE Louvre museum, and walking along it’s creaking wooden floors surrounded on all sides by near priceless antiquities and art. The sheer opulence and grandeur of it all! Never mind Napoleons tomb, which as I remarked to my friend, more resembles a giant religious temple than a tomb to such an extent that future generations, very very far future generations, would see it as some sort of primitive tribute to a God as they tries to decipher the mysteries of ancient humans.

Eventually the good just starts piling up, and next thing you know rather than hating Paris, you’ve rather discovered you like the place regardless of it’s many flaws. There are still the occasional wisps of ‘Oh wow, that is so french!’ but for the most part you’ve come to realize Paris is a unique city all its own that really seems to resent being stereotyped. For many who go there with a specific ‘It must be like this, and only this!’ mentality I can only assure Paris would be a complete disappointment, but for those willing to give it a short and get to know the real Paris as best they can, it’s a magnificent city that you’ll find yourself looking forward to visiting again sometime in the future.