The first part of my glamourama trip to the Mediterranean starts with an overnight luxury train (at least it used to be) and a wander around Nice.
I used to really like planning my trips. I used to buy and devour the guidebooks. I’d read travel advice, reviews and trip reports online. I’d pull up Google Maps and pour over the satellite images of the places. It was a way to extend the trip by making it start earlier. All that advanced planning was a way of vicariously going to some place, and because it actually all culminated with a trip, it results in the ultimate payoff of an actual experience.
Lately, though, I just don’t have the drive to do any advance planning. Booking travel I’ll do. I actually derive a strange pleasure from that part. I love pouring over time tables of trains, planes, buses and ferries to figure out how to get from point A to point B. I’ll read enough about a place to know where I want to stay, and then use some hotel booking sites mapping function to pick out a decent hotel, comparing the reviews across numerous sites to find a place that is good value for money.
Once the hotel and travel is booked, though, I lose all interest in researching further. I am not sure why I’ve made this shift, or if I can even pinpoint when it happened. Perhaps the novelty of being a “traveller,” something I came to late in life, is now wearing off. Perhaps I have just learned the lesson that the best experiences I have when travelling are those that I don’t plan, and thus subconsciously determine there is no point in planning. Perhaps I am just getting lazier. All are possible explanations, though the actual answer I don’t have the foggiest clue.
What all this lack of actually planning trips leads to, however, is the fact that the trip I took this past weekend ended up just sneaking up on me. I booked the travel and hotel two months ago, and then promptly ignored anything else related to the trip. That’s not to say that I had forgotten about it, just that it really had no emotional grip on me prior to leaving. Right up until I left, I felt neither joy nor anticipation at the prospect of going, and I really should have. After all, I was going to Monaco and that stretch of the Mediterranean known as the Riviera to see one of the most prestigious and glamourous sporting events on the face of the earth - Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Even the day I was scheduled to leave, I spent most of the morning playing on the internet and not packing. Only with 30 minutes to spare did I decide I should figure out what to take, and as always I ended up taking about 20 pieces of clothing that never saw anything other than the inside of the wardrobe at my hotel. With time ticking away, I finished packing and headed off to catch the Eurostar to Paris.
When I planned the trip a few months back, I debated how to get down to Monaco. Given its distance from London, flying would have probably been a reasonable option, and the one that most people would have taken, but I’ve done a lot of flying in my time and am kind of sick of it. On top of that, given the amount of oil burnt through and carbon deposited in the air from the running of an F1 race, I figured I would try and minimise the impact of my trip by taking the train.
The trip started out quite nicely. One of the benefits of having booked my train two months ago and forgotten about it is that it came as a pleasant surprise to arrive at the station and find that I had booked myself in Leisure Select, an upgraded fare that includes a nicer seat, free alcohol and a meal. I arrived in Paris already feeling that the trip was embracing the spirit of the glamour of Monaco and the Riviera.
Paris to Nice also held the promise of glamour. I had booked myself a sleeper bunk on the overnight train. The overnight from Paris to Nice is known as Le Train Bleu, or maybe it isn’t anymore. Soon after it started running in the late 1920s, it became known as the Blue Train based on the dark blue carriages. Agatha Christie wrote a novel set on the train in 1928, and Russian Ballet based a ballet on it. The train featured such passengers Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII).
After reading that, I couldn’t help but feel that the trip held the promise of something grand and romantic. Perhaps I would become embroiled in an affair of international intrigue involving state secrets stolen and sold to shifty international criminals. Maybe I would stumble across the body of one of my fellow passengers, and have until the morning to solve the crime before the police in Nice retrieved the body. At the very least, there would be some dark and mysterious woman who I can’t help but feel an instant attraction to, and who of course feels the same. I’d grab her in my arms and say something romantic and manly like, “don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll do the thinking for both of us.”
Of course, I should have heeded my own advice from riding the rails from Paris to Hong Kong four years ago and not expected much from sleeper travel. It was comfortable enough, but instead of the glamour of a 1940s romance, it was in the end nothing more than a hostel dorm on wheels, making it feel like a hostel suffering through an 8 hour long earth tremor. You share a small cramped space with 5 people you don’t know, some of whom snore and have nocturnal gas problems.
I know I’m not the greatest bunk mate either. I never knew this about myself, but when I turn over, I tend to fling my arm up in the air. Normally this isn’t a problem, as there is nothing above me but air. On the top bunk of the train car, however, there is a light fixture encased in plastic, and every time my arm hit the plastic, it made a loud “ZZZZZZIS-BANG” sound, as my arm dragged along the corrugated plastic lifting it slightly before letting it drop back down with a thud. It woke me up each time I did it, and I can only assume the rest of the carriage woke to the sound as well. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much rest.
In the morning the train does run along a line with some amazing scenery. The line winds its way along the coast of the Riviera, often seperated from the water by nothing more than a thin strip of rocky beach. It is amazing that on a coast with such high priced real estate that the train tracks often have the best views and best access to the water.
The train arrived in Nice just before nine in the morning. I was actually staying over the border in Italy, as hotels anywhere on the French Riviera were outrageously priced due to both the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix being on that weekend. I saw one hotel in Monaco that was charging £2000 for a single night. I couldn’t check into my hotel in Italy until after 3 PM, so I figured I would spend the morning wandering around and checking out Nice.
The town is quite pretty, and there is a very nice promenade that runs the length of the waterfront in the centre of town. The waterfront is all beach, though I was surprised to see it a rocky beach and not luxurious sand. Up from the waterfront is a nice little pedestrian area with shops, restaurants and bars.
While in Nice, I missed an excellent opportunity for a photo that really captured the vibe of the place. I was walking along the street when a young woman on a scooter pulled up and stopped at the lights. She was wearing a red, calf-length dress with a slit up the side to the top of her thighs and a pair of red, three-inch high heels To top off her outfit, she had on a worn black leather coat and a black scooter helmet. She was stopped at the light, her left leg stuck out through the slit, out holding up the scooter. You could see all the way up her smooth looking legs.
There was something about the image that screamed to me, “this is Nice!” It was glamourous and sexy, and also practical and impractical at the same time, an impractical choice of clothing and footwear for riding a moto-scooter, though the scooter itself being such a practical choice for a warm-weather, crowded city with high gasoline prices. People here, not just in Nice but in Europe, live in tiny apartments and drive cars or scooters that would be laughably small in North America, but splash out on the clothes and vacations that North Americans are more reluctant to waste money on. The girl in the red dress and three inch high heels on the scooter. It is the image of Europe.
I took this one two days later, which is kind of similar in feel
To soak in more of that glamour, I headed down to the marina and had lunch overlooking the million dollar yachts. With the gentle waft of a sea breeze cooling the patio on which I sat, I had a plate of the sea’s bounty and a nice glass of wine. When in Nice, do as the Niceans do... or is that Nicers? Nicites? Whatever, I ate a decadent lunch and then topped it off with a creamy ice cream cone.
After lunch and a brief constitutional to work off the calories, I headed towards Italy.
Continue in Gasoline and Glamour part II: Living in a Dan Brown Novel