Play Nice: discovering the Nicoise specialty

Let me preface this post by acknowledging one thing: I know an entry on recommended things to do in Nice, France probably makes me sound like an over-indulgent jerk. The jury is still out on whether or not this is true… but for today, let’s just assume it’s not. Now that that’s on the table and out of the way, we can move on to the chatting about the most beautiful beach city I’ve ever seen: Nice!

When I sat down to plan my first European adventure, Nice wasn’t exactly on my radar. I’d always heard the French Riviera referred to as the place for stars–not us lowly, over-stuffed backpack hostel travelers. As a 24 year old in between jobs, it seemed far too rich for my blood. Thankfully, I was wrong. Nice is both magical and affordable when planned right.

On this trip, I traveled to the beachy city by train with my boyfriend, Jack. We’d just come from snowy Paris, and were thrilled by the prospect of warmer temps.

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Upon arrival, the upper-sixties days and crisp, moonlit nights were intoxicating. As far as I was concerned, Nice had a train that ran through town, picturesque, jagged cliffs, and about a zillion stones on the beach just begging to be skipped into the sea. When coupled with the cuisine, I simply saw no reason to leave.

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But we only had a few days in the city, and had to make the most of our visit. There was much to see and taste, and only so little time to do it all. After checking into the air b ‘n b flat we rented and freshening up, we hit the cobbled streets and headed for the classic-quaint neighborhood of Vieille Ville (Old Town).

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Of course, we were both stoked to see the water, so we beelined for the beach. Nightfall was close when we made it, and the contrast of the neon sunset played beautifully against a thirsty night sky.

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Views like this just beg for romance, so be sure to bring somebody to hug and squeeze on with you.

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We were starving, and found a beachside bistro just outside the nearby Promenade de Anglais for dinner. Much to our surprise and delight, the bartender was American–a welcome familiarity after spending three weeks fumbling through cities speaking broken French and Italian. She suggested tapas, as is usually par for the course in the Mediterranean. Thick circles of calamari came out fried and salty, tasting of the ocean. It was a perfect introduction to our temporary city.

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After that, we moseyed our way over to the main drag of downtown, where we stumbled across the first uncorking of Harvest. We sampled local bites and festive wine, and tried to make conversation with locals who more interested in stealing our money. We didn’t mind; they were friendly and harmless enough. Note: if you’re traveling in the fall, check online for harvest wine celebrations in the city you’re visiting.

Once we’d had our fill, we scoped out different local hangouts for (what else?) more wine. When scoping out an authentic watering hole in a foreign city, a good rule of thumb is to stay away from the main drag. These spots are almost always tourist traps waiting to scam and disappoint you with high prices and low quality. And as tempting as it might be to go with the familiar option, don’t give into the draw of an Americanized spot! Half the fun of traveling abroad is getting out of your comfort zone, so a pick a place that looks interesting, go for a 4 euro glass of wine, and give in to the intoxicating element of surprise.

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The next morning, we set out for a full day of exploration. We got ourselves lost in zig-zagging streets, alleyways, shortcuts and longcuts, and every second of it was great. Half stressful, half freeing, this is where the magic happens. Allow yourself to get a little lost; it’s the only way to find the hidden treasures.

Nice has become known as an artist colony of sorts, and plays home to plenty of high and low galleries. Be sure to carve out some time for browsing works you know you can’t afford; it’s fun to daydream, and who knows–maybe one day, you will?

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We were feeling pretty luxurious in our pretend personas by the point, and thought a glass of wine was in order. Well, I thought wine was in order. Jack, every suds-thusiast, wanted beer. We compromised with this fabulous Irish pub–never mind what is was doing in France?

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Snug & Cellar was ab.so.lute.ly. FULL of interesting, off the wall locals–including an aging socialite turned author who claimed to be the estranged heir to the throne of some small European country (not bitter at all). According to slightly-drunk him, he was driven out by jealousy and competition, and had to settle for Nice, where he could write and make his story known in peace. I’m not sure what happened to him, but he definitely confirmed all suspicion that royal families are super screwed up. Go figure.

Note: if you’re working with a tight budget, bars like Snug & Cellar will be your best bet, where great pours and tastes are fairly priced, and happy hour brings not only cheap drinks, but cheap eats, too. Grab a table outside for a side of people-watching.

While we’re on the subject of budget, it bears mentioning that there is plenty of free fun to be had in Nice. On a sunny day, grab a chair and head to the beach. Depending on the time of year, you’ll be able to take a dip–just don’t forget to bring some kind of water shoes; the rocky shores and sea bed aren’t so kind to bare feet.

If testing the waters is out of the question, veer right and head up to Castle Hill. It’s a quick urban hike, but the steep stairs might be strenuous for older visitors. That being said, suck it up, because these views really can’t be beat.

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Other awesome freebies include strolling the open air markets for a firsthand look at the delicacies that make up the Nicoise cuisine. You can even pick out your fish and have them cook it for you right then and there! If you’re like me, you’ll want to try everything. I suggest beginning with the following, and seeing where that gets you.

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If fresh off the boat isn’t your style, you’ll find plenty of small spots around the markets for lunch. After all, it wouldn’t be a trip to the Riviera without a taste of tapas, olives, gnocchi, and a Nicoise salad–or as our waiter said, “Le Nicoise Specialty! Mmmmm, so cheap!”  So find a corner cafe and dig in.

We loved this one!

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For another wallet-friendly adventure, stroll through downtown and marvel at Nice’s incredible public playgrounds. Their pedestrian areas read more like art installations, and the playgrounds feel more like hands-on museums. Is any wonder everyone is so happy here?

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There’s plenty to more to see and do in Nice–certainly enough to keep you busy for a few days. We would’ve stayed a lifetime longer if we could, but the luscious pasta of Italy was beckoning us onward. My advice? Carve out some time in the summer, find a flat to call yours for a few days, and let the seabreeze sweep you away. You’ll be glad you did.

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Until next time,

megan_sig

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