Nice and Monaco

The more observant among you may have noticed that my previous post, about my time in Marseille, had very little to do with Marseille – instead, I spent my time exploring the Calanques between Marseille and Cassis.  I’m sure Marseille is lovely and all, but a couple of brief walks around didn’t yet anything of spectacular interest, so…

This post is about my time in Nice (which, by the time I’m lazily getting around to posting this, was now more than a month ago, in mid-July), and has very little to do with Nice.  Not because Nice isn’t pleasant enough – I’m sure it’s peachy.  The atmosphere was jovial and lively.  People were having fun.  The weather was great.  The food was good.  The seaside was appropriately blue and popular.  (That said, the Australian in me still struggles to understand how Europeans can get so excited about beaches that don’t have sand.  If you agree, and you find yourself in the area, I recommend heading around the corner to Villefranche-sur-mer.  It’s a small village within walking distance of Nice – or if you’re lazy, it’s one train stop away – and it has a beach much more to my taste.)

But proceeding leisurely to the point, somewhere in the middle of Nice is a local bus stop with a number 100 bus which, for the princely sum of bugger all, will take you to Monaco.  Which, let’s face it, has a bit more “ooh, have to go check that out” appeal.  So two of my days in Nice were actually spent on the other end of that forty minute bus ride, in a different country entirely.

A local bus in Nice. ‘Local’ as in, ‘going to Monaco’.

Monaco was intriguing, but when it comes down to it, both days spent there basically consisted of ogling the very expensive cars in front of Casino Monte Carlo (which, by the way, is smaller than you expect) and ogling the very expensive boats in the marina (which, by the way, are every bit as big as you’d expect).  In fact, everything in Monaco just looks expensive.  Even the people.  Especially the people.  (Well, except for the hordes of wide-eyed tourists like myself.  We just look cheap and tacky.)

Making the most of your time in Monaco basically consists of finding the best vantage points from which to ogle the expensive things.  The casino is best ogled from just in front of it (duh) unless you happen to have turned up besuited appropriately to gain entry.  Tip for any aspiring gamblers:  shorts, tshirt and thongs (that’s flip-flops, for the uneducated among you) unfortunately don’t cut it.  (One of the more entertaining aspects of admiring the casino’s frontage is the sight of the establishment’s impeccably dressed doormen denying entry to plaintive would-be guests.  That and the meerkat-like straining of said would-be guests attempting to get a peek inside.)

Shiney. Pricey.

Once finished with the casino, you can then appreciate Monaco’s supremacy in another field:  the quest to host Formula One’s most boring race.  Since Monaco’s race is a street circuit, you can walk around the roads and tunnels where some of the world’s fastest (and, of course, most expensive) cars parade quickly around in pretty much their starting order 78 times until someone gets bored and waves a chequered flag at the guy who was on pole.

That done, you’ll want to get on with some more ogling, and for the superyachts, that’s best done first from a café next to the marina (preferably with coffee), and then from up the hill in front of the castle.  On your way to the latter vantage point, make sure to appreciate the statue of François Grimaldi the Cunning, the first Grimaldi to rule Monaco, over nine hundred years ago.  (The Grimaldi family is sovereign in Monaco today, and although the reign has not been an unbroken one since François’s day, it’s been all but.)  Enjoy the gloating story told on the sign nearby, narrating his epic bravery in entering the city disguised as a Franciscan monk, and heroically stabbing a few unarmed clergymen to take over and begin his rule.

And that’s about it for Monaco, really.  Enjoy the boat-envy.

A collection of expensive floating palaces

Slightly less expensive, slightly less palatial, slightly less floating.

Oh, one point about Nice, though, before I go.  There’s a lovely cliff walk out east of the city, which I recommend.  Follow the coast around towards Villefranche-sur-mer, and before you get too high up the hill, look for a sign next to some stairs pointing to the cliff walk.  (Better yet, ask someone other than me for better directions.)  It was quite a pleasant wander around the rocky headland next to Nice.  Right up until rounding the last corner, where we strolled around to be confronted with the slightly unexpected sight of an old-ish gentlemen maintaining a nice even tan on the back of his testicles.  The walk apparently terminates in a concreted nude beach.  (Actually, ‘beach’ is not really the right word – it’s more of a random concrete platform next to the water.  But whatever.)  I have nothing against people getting their kit off in the sun, if that’s their thing – but I will admit to having been a little unprepared to walk straight into a collection of old farts browning their brown-eyes.  About face, and back to the scenery.  You have been warned.

A section of the cliff walk in Nice. Not pictured: geriatric genitalia.

Hiking through the Calanques in Marseille and Cassis

I may have only just got to Marseille, but my first full day there was spent elsewhere.  (Tardy posting note:  I was in Marseille for a few days in early July, 2012.)  One fellow traveller told me he thought the best beaches in the area were in Cassis, not Marseille, and another said she’d heard the Calanques were worth exploring.  As Wikitravel helpfully explained to me, the Calanques are a series of fjord-like inlets/cliffs/promontories running from Marseille to Cassis.  Apparently they’re accessible from the Marseille side by taking the number 21 bus from Rue de Rome, but hey, two birds, one stone…

So come 11:05, having paid my €5.60, I was on the train to Cassis.  By midday, I’d made my way into town at Cassis (the train station is a way out), taken a quick look over the beach (pretty girls getting their tops off:  check;  sand instead of pebbles:  check;  space to swing a cat:  no check) and was on my way out of the tourist information centre with an inadequate but free tourist map and a largely useless brochure about the Calanques.  Pro tip number one for anyone following in my footsteps:  decent trail maps do exist – buy one.

The beach at Cassis at sunset (after the topless girls had left: it seemed rude to ogle with a camera…)

Here followed about seven hours of constant walking and climbing around the Calanques.  Which are stunning.  I realise that most people are a little more averse to that much walking than me, especially given that there’s really quite a lot of quite taxing clambering up and down steep valleys.  And so if you’re such a person and you find yourself in Cassis, you’ll be pleased to know that there is an excellent beach that is only an hour or so’s (admittedly difficult) walk/climb in, in Calanque En Vau.  Either way, pro tips two and three:  take plenty of water, and wear decent shoes.  I did it in my FiveFingers, which was manageable but not ideal, since the trails consist purely of small stones exactly the wrong size for shoes with very thin soles (ie they’re pokey and they hurt).  Oh, and I’m not kidding about the water – assuming you’re there on a warm day, you will sweat bucketloads.  I drank more than four litres of water while walking around, plus another litre while eating dinner straight after.

Calanque en Vau (seen from farther into the Calanques)

Looking down into one of the Calanques in brilliant sunshine

Other than that, there’s not a lot for me to say about Cassis – it’s better in pictures than in text.  Oh, other than to thank the two lovely French girls I ran into on the way out, and who showed me a good place to dive in and cool off after a particularly sweaty stretch of climbing, before they kindly gave me a lift back into town.  They’re staying in Cassis on holiday and are liking it, but they did explain that it’s a little too well-to-do for people in town to be friendly and approachable.  They recommended I go to Sanary-sur-mer, which is apparently friendlier.  So maybe I’ll do that.

(Update from later:  I didn’t end up going to Sanary, unfortunately – it was on my way to Nice, and I would have liked to go for a night, but so far as I could tell from a quick search online, there aren’t any hostels in Sanary, and the hotels were either full or expensive.  So I just ended up in Nice early.)

A nice spot for a swim after a hard day’s walking

Oh, finally, pro tip four:  see pro tip one, and get a decent map.  It’s apparently possible to walk along the Calanques all the way back to Marseille (to meet up with that number 21 bus), which I would really like to have done – especially for the possibility of seeing them at sunset.  Instead, I spent sunset somewhat less spectacularly, sitting at the train station writing a draft of this post while waiting for the last train back.  I’m sure I could have walked it, too – I think I probably got close to half way before turning back, and by the time you add the 3.5km walk from town to the train station (the shuttle bus had stopped running), I wouldn’t be surprised if I covered about the right distance.

Oh well, c’est la vie…


Post script

You can indeed get to the Calanques from Marseille on the number 21 bus – I did it the next day.  Catch it right to the end of the line, and wander into the national park that sits directly behind where the bus parks at its final stop.  A few slightly easier bays to get to, perhaps, if you’re not quite so up for clambering through valleys…  Still stunning, though.

The Calanques along the coastline south of Marseille


Another nice spot for a swim — this time nearer Marseille