July 8, 2012

Cote d’Azur

Our time in Italy is not over yet. We still have 10 more days to go, but for now, we have dipped into Southern France for the next week. We rented a car and crossed the border to spend a few days on the French Riviera. First stop: The Principality of Monaco.

Driving into Monaco for the first time is just stunning. It’s the second smallest country in the world (behind the Vatican) but lays claim to the most millionaires and billionaires per capita. In 1869, Monaco’s famous casino was bringing in so much money that the country was able to do away with income taxes. For this reason Monaco has become a popular tax haven for the fabulously rich.

The city is book-ended by two cliffs – each one claiming one of the country’s two prized possessions: the royal family and the casino.

Perched above the yachts in the over-the-top harbor sits the Prince’s Palace where the royal House of Grimaldi reigns. I toured through the palace and got to see the courtyard staircase where new royal princes, fiancés and babies are presented. This is also where Albert II (the reigning Prince of Monaco), and Princess Charlene just got married a year ago.

We also visited Princess Grace’s tomb, which lies with all of the other Grimaldi Princes in a cathedral near the palace. Only a church in Monaco would have an organ that changes colors like the inside of a limousine.

Finally we had read that there was a strict dress code and high cover charge to enter the world-renowned Monte Carlo Casino. Somehow we traipsed right in and immediately began playing some video poker before they could kick us out. It turns out that the casino has an outer wing for riffraff like us. The important people are in private gambling salons.

After 6 hours we zipped out of Monaco – having broken even – with another country bagged and big smiles on our faces.

We continued our drive along the French Riviera, learning that this section of land stretching from the Italian border to Cannes is basically one big metropolis. The urban sprawl never ends, but famous little town names pop up along the way.

Nice is nice. It has a classic long boardwalk lined with fancy hostels and clear blue water. 

My only qualm with Nice is the lack of sand. These rocks have to be positioned just right and even then they’re not remotely comfortable. Next time I’m in Nice, I’m either bringing an air mattress or $25 per person for a lounge chair.

Nice brought out our adventurous side…like eating anchovies and cliff jumping.

Hands down, Nice has the best nightlife of anywhere we’ve seen so far. And by "nightlife",
I don't mean drunk people at discotheques...I mean that people of all ages are simply out enjoying the evening.

Even at 11:00pm, the boardwalk was full, the rock beach was packed with picnickers, all of the volleyball courts were taken, and there were people still swimming in the ocean! I’m not sure I would have needed a second day in Nice, but I could have done for several more nights.

Our last stop along the Rivera was in Cannes.

We stood on the red carpeted staircase leading up to the Palais du Festival – the site of the annual International Film Festival in May.

We cruised the strip full of palm trees, Lamborghinis, and lots of people trying to prove how wealthy they are.

The best part of Cannes was what we discovered at the beach…real sand! We were in heaven.

Due to the French Rivera’s proximity to Italy, the influences have been surprising. If people weren’t speaking French, we would easily forget which country we were in. In fact when it comes to food, there have been a lot of stereotypical Italian things that we never saw in Italy but we have observed them in France! We've seen a storekeeper making fresh pasta by hand and a man tossing pizza dough in the air. Restaurants serve olive oil and balsamic vinegar with bread (this is not really Italian). Paninis look like paninis. And I hate to admit it, but after 2 weeks of intense taste-testing, the best gelato I’ve had so far has been in Nice.

Our tans are back in full-force and we have really enjoyed our time along the Cote d’Azur.

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