Nice

It's hard to know what to say about Nice. Undoubtedly there is a perfectly valid town there somewhere, but we never really managed to find it.

We got off the train a little before noon, not sure what to expect; from what we'd seen of the Riviera so far, from the train, we were afraid Nice was going to be pretty expensive. That part turned out just fine, though; only a couple of blocks from the station, we found a lovely old place for a more than reasonable price. The proprietor was helpful and friendly; his cats - we never found out how many he had, but they were all over the place - weren't.

We got an enormous room with a recently remodelled bathroom (complete with color-coordinated bidet) and a view of the courtyard. It hadn't been raining when we arrived, but by the time we set out to look for lunch it had started again. "Every day," the proprietor said gloomily. "Rain, rain, rain. You will see. It will rain all day."

That didn't sound encouraging, but we were hungry and anyway the light drizzle was nothing after the toad-strangler we'd endured back in Arles. We put up our windbreaker hoods and set out.

And that was when we ran into something very strange: we couldn't find a place to eat.

I mean, nothing. We couldn't find a café open; we couldn't even see any closed ones. OK, it was Sunday, but this was France, for Le Bon Dieu's sake. I just hadn't imagined such a situation could possibly exist; I wasn't at all ready for it and I didn't know what to do.

Which is what I mean about never really finding Nice. Beyond doubt there are many fine cafés and bistros and restaurants in that city, if one only knew where to look. We didn't. We walked all over, up one street and down the next, getting drizzled on and growing more and more desperate, but evidently we were looking in all the wrong places.

Then at last we came upon a long pedestrian-only strip, lined with tacky souvenir shops and tackier eateries. (I didn't see a single one that I would call a café in the classic French sense.) A tourist-trap mall, the sort of place I would normally avoid like the Ebola Virus; but right now we were in no position to be picky. We found a reasonably decent-looking place and let the hard-working Vietnamese waiter show us to a table.

The tables were jammed in too close together, and the too-loud voices from the surrounding tables were mostly in English, but the food was surprisingly good, if distinctly overpriced. By the time we were done our clothes had dried and we were feeling a good deal better.

It was only a few blocks to the seashore, where people strolled along the broad walk or sat on benches overlooking the beach. By now the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared and a big yellow Mediterranean sun was warming things up in a most welcome way.

The beach at Nice is very famous, very popular; and, from all I've heard, in the summer months very crowded as well. Now, though, the season was over; the people - mostly locals, I suspected - were scattered out pretty sparsely along the long strand.

"It's very...picturesque," Phyllis remarked.

"Yes," I agreed.

"A little too picturesque," she said, a little while later. There was a bit of an edge in her voice, or maybe that was just my imagination.

We crunched clumsily along in our boots, making a good deal of noise and probably not presenting a very graceful sight. The beach at Nice has one major problem: no sand. The whole thing is covered in big coarse gravel, like railroad ballast. People who want to lie down and sunbathe either bring padded mats or rent them, although I saw a lot of hardy types sitting and lying on nothing thicker than a towel and a few not even bothering with that.

How anybody can stand to walk on that stuff barefooted is more than I can understand. We didn't try.

The water wasn't too rough, but a bit on the cool side for swimming; only a few were splashing around, and then only for short intervals.

Finally Phyllis said she was going back to the hotel - she claimed to be feeling tired, but I think she was just pissed off at me for looking at all the topless babes - and I walked on alone, enjoying the sun and the sea air and the fine displays of skin, stopping to watch a remarkably coordinated lad:

Probably there is a "balls" joke to be made here, but I'd rather not.

The walk and the warm sea air did seem to do me good, though; I found myself able to breathe easily for the first time since I came down sick in London. As the sun began to drop toward the horizon I went back to the hotel and collected Phyllis and we went for a last walk along the beach in the fading light.

A light fog was moving in and the air was getting a bit chilly; still a few people sat along the beach, watching the dusk fall over the sea.

We walked back into town, looking for a place to get dinner. We didn't have any better luck than we'd had before. In the end we went back to that damned tourist strip; it was that or starve. The place where we'd had lunch was jam-packed and we couldn't really afford it a second time anyway. After a good deal of looking around, we settled on what looked like a decent enough place.

It wasn't. I'd never had a bad dinner in France before, but this was a first. The food was mediocre - the fries in particular were almost as bad as McDonald's; the taste of stale grease was overpowering - and the service was execrable. The waiter failed to bring forks; we wound up filching them from a neighboring table. He also stepped on my foot. Twice. I couldn't believe I was in France...and in fact I heard the waiters talking among themselves in Italian, so maybe the French don't have to take the blame for that overpriced greasy-spoon.

Next morning we got up early and went out to get breakfast before our train left. And - you're way ahead of me, aren't you? - we couldn't find a thing. Not so much as a simple neighborhood patisserie. "What the hell do people eat around here?" we muttered, more than once. But of course the problem was ours, not theirs; we simply didn't know where to look.

All the same, Nice is the only place in France I've ever been where I had any trouble at all getting fed; or where I ever got fed badly. And for that reason it remains the only place in France I feel absolutely no desire to return to - and that's probably very unfair of me, but I can't help it. Depressing as it is to admit it, I've finally reached the time of life when good food, eaten in a civilized environment, is more important than naked tits.

At last, just as we were about to give up, we found a small shop where they had some wrapped sandwiches for sale. We bought several and hurried off to the station; and a little while later, as the train rolled eastward toward the Italian border, we unwrapped a couple and took famished bites.

They were perfectly dreadful.

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