Having grown up hearing about French Fries and French toast as dishes coming from France I was gladly crestfallen when this myth was broken for me. I could never understand why American fast food brands would sell a French dish! Over a period of time I also learnt that France is beyond just Eiffel Tower and French perfumes. So, when it was my turn to visit the country with lavender blooms, I started my journey from the quainter parts of South East France, Nice and Lyon. There has been enough written about Paris on the internet so even though I did visit it, I would focus my travelogue on the France that is less spoken about.
I flew in from Barcelona to Nice. I was pleasantly surprised that Uber worked well there. The driver spoke good English and told me about all the interesting things to see in the city as we drove to Hotel Windsor which I had booked after much research given its proximity to the city center, the Promenade Des Anglais and the train station, Gare De Nice Ville. Jerome, the receptionist at the front desk was the friendliest person I have ever met at any hotel reception. He greeted me as if I was his personal friend, explained how to make my way through the city, ensured my room was ready before time and was in general a good conversationalist.
Nice is a linear city to be explored on foot. You can either chose to travel along the Promenade Des Anglais that runs on one side of the city along the Mediterranean Sea or through the lanes of the old town that run parallel to the promenade. The promenade is lined with restaurants teeming with people holding their drinks and gazing towards the waterfront. The aroma of freshly baked pastries and savories was too tempting as I walked around the lanes. The Parc De La Colline Du Chateau or the Castle Hill is an important landmark as you walk along the Promenade. The cliff top has one of the best views of the French Riviera. It was about 1. 5 kms from my hotel. This is what I did for the next couple of days. Exploring parts of old town and walking back along the promenade soaking in the beauty of the French riviera. There are trams that travel through Nice though I didn’t need them as walking was a lot more enjoyable experience.
Some notable places as I explored the old town area were:
- Place Massena- This is the main square of Nice. As with most European plazas, this square was buzzing and can rightly be called the heart of the city. From healthy juices, snack corners to more upmarket restaurants, lined with the high street brands like Zara, Mango etc as well as designer studios like Channel, Louis Vitton etc, Place Massena exuded the chic French aura. Not to be missed were the statues of the seven kneeling men, high up on poles above the square. They are meant to represent the seven continents coming together in harmony and are called “Conversation in Nice”. There were lot of by lanes around the square with smaller shops where one could pick up nick knacks typical of France.
- Cours Saleya: or the Flower market has a series of stalls laid out on the street between old buildings. The stalls sell everything from flowers, fruit & vegetables, groceries, local crafts etc. On Mondays it turns into an antiques market. You can pick up various lavender based soaps, cosmetics etc here. Towards the end of the market are the restaurant stalls which are very busy and noisy.
- Palais De Justice – Although this is the court area and sounds very serious, it is anything but that. It has become more of a city center for concerts and events. Its lined with cafes on both sides. I was lucky to be there on a Saturday which is the day of the flea market at the square. A band was playing when I entered the square making it a great start to the Saturday morning.
- Le Jardin Albert 1er – this public park runs next to Place Massena, connects the Promenade Des Anglais to the Old town. The delightful green grass and the floral display made it a good place for families to spend time specially with small children. I stopped at the park a couple of times while crossing through the old town to just enjoy the greenery.
- Castle Hill – The only thing I did with a purpose in Nice was to walk towards the Castle Hill. The 92 m high hill offers views from all sides, and I was told by Jerome that I could get the best photos of the French Riviera from there. There is a staircase right next to the Promenade des Anglais to walk up. Surprisingly there was also an elevator built into the rock which worked well. There is a long queue to go up through the elevator and it closes at 5:30 p.m. There is no queue for the return as most people prefer to take the staircase. Look for the board saying “ascenseur” to locate the elevator. Apart from viewing points for photos, the castle hill has a park on top and is a nice place to go to with kids.
There are many other squares like Place Rosetti, Place Garibaldi which are lined with restaurants. I didn’t find any hour of the day when the restaurants looked empty. The weather in April was pleasant with the cool breeze. Evenings were a bit chilly and I needed a light jacket. Food, wine, breeze and ease, made it the most memorable part of France for me. No wonder it’s called “Nice”!
While at Nice you can also make a day trip to Monaco which is the second smallest country in the world after the Vatican. The train ride to Monaco is just an hour long.
While it is a separate country, being so close to Nice, Monaco is a must do day trip as long as you have a Schengen visa. There are frequent trains to Monaco from Nice. You don’t need to buy tickets in advance. Just go to the train station and buy the tickets for the next scheduled train.
The Monaco station wasn’t very intuitive though. It was a bit difficult to figure the way out. So the best thing to do was what people did before the days of GPS, just ask around. The bus stop is right at the exit of the station. Monaco felt like an even richer version of Nice. The Royal palace and the Museum of Oceanography are definitely worth seeing there.
The bus from the station will drop you at Jardin De Exotique. A 5 minute walk from there led to the Museum of Oceanography. There were combination tickets available for the Museum and the Royal Palace. Its worth taking the combo tickets. While I have seen many aquariums across the globe, the one at the Museum of Oceanography was worth seeing with the huge variety of aquatic species. There was also a wide collection of sea related objects, including model ships, sea animal skeletons, tools, weapons etc. Don’t miss the photobooths to catch your pictures as a sailor.
The Royal Palace is again a 5-minute walk from the Museum of Oceanography. This palace is still being used by the royal family. There was an audio guide available which was helpful in knowing the history of the royal family and the history of each room in the palace.
There is an Italian restaurant on the way from the Museum to the Royal Palace. Its small and crowded but one of the better food options in the area. A small market area right next to the restaurant is a good place to pick up souvenirs from Monaco. There are some food stalls as well if you just prefer to pick up something to eat while on the way. The surroundings of the palace are beautiful and offer great views of Monaco city below. Since it was raining,
I didn’t go the beaches but on a sunny day would recommend a full day trip to Monaco from Nice. Alternately you can stay at Monaco and do day trips to Nice.
My next stop from Nice was the city of Lyon. Unlike Nice, Lyon was a much bigger city. The area close to the train station was more of a financial area. As we crossed the Rhone to get to my hotel, the Vaubecour, the charm of the old town started building up.
The hotel was a family-run hotel. It had a great location with the Rhone on one side and the Saone on the other. Both rivers were at walking distance. The old town or Vieux Lyon is on the Saone side. You should explore this part on foot to really experience the charm of the old European quarters.
I would recommend stopping at Café 203 for a meal there. It’s a quaint café with very hospitable staff. She was helpful in making recommendations for lunch and extremely thoughtful in ensuring guests were comfortable. I would say it was one of the best lunches I had in France. Some of the other places I would recommend in Lyon are:
- Presqu’ile District of Lyon- This area which is situated in the heart of Lyon between the Rhone and the Saone is like memorabilia of Lyon’s historical architecture through the ages. It was one of the loveliest city walks in Europe to walk through the shopping area and restaurants situated amidst a combination of buildings of both ancient and modern architecture.
- Musée Miniature et Cinema– For a film buff this is a must see. Created by miniaturist Dan Ohlmann, this unique Museum showcases miniatures of film sets and props designed with such perfection that they would give the real sized ones a run for their money.
- Cathédrale St-Jean – This striking Gothic cathedral is one of the notable sights of Lyon both during the day and night. However, be prepared for a long up-hill climb for this. Would not recommend for the week-kneed. You can see it from afar as you walk through Vieux Lyon.
- Abbaye Saint-Martin d’Ainay– This is a wonderful example of roman Architecture. Situated in the Presqui’le district. You can go inside the church though I chose to spend the time in the surrounding area as I walked through the shopping district.
- Traboules- Traboules are passageways created around the 4th century in Vieux Lyon to connect the streets running parallel to the rivers. They allowed the inhabitants to move from their workplace to the banks of the Saone quickly. The legend is that the knowledge of the traboules was a mark of being a true resident of Lyon. Most of these traboules are on private property. While they would be marked on tourist maps, if you walk through Vieux Lyon, you will surely end up in a couple. I crossed some to get to the shops on the parallel roads. I honestly did not find anything exciting about it having walked through many such lanes in Banaras.
- The Sculpture of Weigh of Oneself: I saw this sculpture of a man holding a body double situated at the banks of the Saone is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece. It is left to each individual’s interpretation. I do recommend visiting it for a few minutes of reflection standing by the river bank.
While Lyon doesn’t figure in the top tourist destinations of Europe. I would surely recommend visiting and spending a couple of days there.
Here are a few tips for the first-time travelers to France:
- I did not find it difficult to communicate with people in English which I was in France. They either spoke some English or I could find people around who were willing to help. Just be honest and ask people if they speak English.
- Reading restaurant menus was a challenge though as they were mostly in French and it was difficult to figure out what my order would look like. So for the foodies please do some research before trying the Bouchon.
- Credit cards work in most places in France. There is no need to keep excessive amounts of cash. ATMs are available at walking distance from most hotels if you need to withdraw small amounts of cash.
- Unlike Paris which was busy and not a walking city, Nice and Lyon were quiet and peaceful. They felt safe to walk around at night.
- For my fellow travelers from India – there were ample Indian restaurants in the vicinity and I saw them teeming with local residents (non-Indians). So, it definitely is popular is France and you will not miss home food if you are there for a long visit.
- The trains in Paris are not very intuitive and the train stations are not very user friendly for people with disabilities. I didn’t see escalators in many places and people had to climb up stairs with the baby strollers, luggage etc. In Nice and Lyon, I didn’t need to use any public transport as they were better seen walking and were very easy to navigate.