We got up on Friday morning and hopped in a rental car to make the two-hour drive to the French Riviera, otherwise known at the Cote d’Azur. I had been in the area a number of years ago, but it was John’s first visit.
A nice afternoon in Nice and the touching story of the Russian Orthodox church
We arrived in Nice at around noon and, after a light lunch of a loaf of bread and an apple, headed off to see a few sights in Nice. The Promenade des Anglais, their seaside walkway, is a must. It dates back to France’s Belle Epoque period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and features beautiful historic hotels where the rich and famous vacationed back in the day. It’s a great people-watching section with walkers, bicyclists, moms pushing strollers, dog walkers, and more.
From there, we walked several blocks to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. I first saw the Cathedral about twenty years ago when I was in the area for a conference but had only taken a quick look then. This time, John and I took a 35-minute guided tour.
The Cathedral in Nice, which is the largest Russian Orthodox Cathedral outside of Russia, has a fascinating history, in parallel to long-standing Russian presence on the French Riviera. The Emperor of Russia, Alexander II, favoring the climate in Southern France, built a home in Nice in the mid-19th century. In 1865, his eldest son, twenty-two-year-old Nicholas, who was to be his successor as Emperor traveled to Nice to inform his mother of his engagement to Danish princess Dagmar of Denmark. On arrival, Nicholas fell ill with spinal meningitis and was dead within hours. In their grief, his parents had the home demolished and built, in its place, a chapel with a stone in the floor marking the exact spot where their son had died.
Nicholas’s younger brother, Alexander III, married Princess Dagmar and ascended to be Emperor of Russia. After the death of Alexander III, his son, Nicolas II became the last Tsar of Russia. By this time, the Russian population in Nice had grown to the point where Russians made up half of the population of the city. Nicholas II responded to the growing population of Russians in the French Riviera by supporting the building of a Cathedral in Nice, which was begun in 1903 and completed in 1912. Nicholas II was to have travelled to Nice for the opening of the Cathedral but was unable to do so, for unknown reasons. It was only five years later when Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne and, one year later, was assassinated, along with his family.
The Cathedral still has an active congregation in Nice and building itself is quite beautiful with a number of icons and artifacts that are of great importance to the Russian Orthodox church.
Home base in Eze Village
A twenty-minute drive up the mountain, and halfway between Nice and Monaco, is the tiny, medieval village of Eze. I had stayed there years ago and it was nice to return. The village itself is a walking-only area, just a place perched on the mountaintop dating back to medieval times. The church in Eze is still a working church, and there is also a beautiful garden, mostly of succulents at the top of the village, but the other spaces have been repurposed into shops, restaurants (including the Michelin-rated La Chevre d’Or), and hotels. The small village can easily be overcome by tourists, and this was the case on Saturday evening when all manner of people were out and about, including a very rowdy bachelorette party. We did not stay in the village but were 5 minutes away by foot. We were happy to see that the crowds quickly moved on to other places at night or on a rainy afternoon.
On Sunday morning, while the bachelorette party was likely sleeping it off, and late in the day on Sunday after the rain chased everyone else away — that is when it is a joy to walk the romantic, higgledy-piggeldy streets, take in the views of the French Riviera far below, and enjoy a meal at a lovely little Italian restaurant.
Keeping up with the Ephrussi de Rothschilds
It’s doesn’t have quite the same ring as keeping up with the Kardashians, but our Sunday morning tour of the Ephrussi de Rothschild estate was quite something. This lavish house and gardens was built in the early 20th century by an heir of the Rothschild fortune, which came, first, from international finance, later in the wine business and other endeavors. The gardens include a Florentine garden, Spanish garden, Japanese garden, exotic garden (succulents), and a French garden with fountains that “dance” to recorded music every twenty minutes. The gardens reminded us both of plants and flowers we had seen recently in the Azores and some that we see at home – all were elegant and beautiful and so much was gloriously in bloom!
Ms. Ephrussi de Rothschild engaged top craftsmen and architects from all over Europe in the design and construction of the house and imported extravagantly to build her dream home. She then appointed it with an over-the-top collection of rugs, tapestries, furniture, paintings, and porcelain, much of it formerly belonging to Louis XIV and Louis the XV, many items originating in Versaille, in addition to items that had belonged to Marie Antoinette. But the most wonderful feature of house and gardens is their location – it is surrounded by the beautiful Mediterranean coast with stunning views on all sides.
Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild was quite the socialite, who located her palace near Monaco because of her love of gambling, and often had soirees that culminated in gambling into the wee hours. She also loved horse racing and acquired her own stable of horses. She famously separated from her husband, a Russian banker she married at age 19, when she was around 40 years old due to his excessive gambling, and later made fun of her own failed marriage by organizing an elaborate wedding for her dogs that was reported by international news organizations. On the dog wedding, well, I really think she was just ahead of her time.
The (possibly) very skippable Marseilles
In extended travel such as ours, there will be days and times that disappoint. It’s just going to happen. The first real disappointment for us was a foray into Marseille for lunch on the day we left France. It all seemed like such a good idea. We would leave the Cote d’Azur in the morning, get to Marseille around lunchtime, enjoy a scrumptious, blog-worthy lunch of some famous bouillabaisse Marseilleise, then get back to the Marseille-Provence airport in time for a flight to take us to Budapest.
The plan worked perfectly until we actually got to Marseille. Even with GPS the place was a nightmare to navigate, made worse by the volume of bicycles, pedestrians, jay walkers, scooters, motorcycles, and cars. Just about the time we thought it couldn’t get any worse, we turned onto a street that seemed to be pretty free of cars. What luck! Until we realized that the street was a tram street, closed to cars. Before we managed to get off the street we came close to being creamed by tram. At that point, we found the nearest parking lot and parked.
Next, we had to find a place with good bouillabaisse. As I looked for recommended restaurants, a theme emerged. They all seemed to be closed on Monday, except one, Chez Loury, down near the water. We took the 15-minute walk to the restaurant, happy to be out of the car, and when we got to the restaurant – you guessed it. It was closed. The restaurant next door, which seemed to clearly be a tourist place, did have bouillabaisse, so we got a table without checking it out. It took us over an hour for our food to come (and remember, we had a plane to catch) and when it arrived it was a huge disappointment – watery, tasteless broth with chunks of rubbery fish.
The lesson being, I suppose, that serendipity is fun, but advance planning normally pays off and, more importantly, that every day and every experience in this type of travel is not going to be the most fun we’ve ever had.