I wonder if I will ever be able to write a blog entry while the glorious colours of my many Erasmus adventures haven’t yet receded to a blur. However, the colours of this particular trip were so bright, I don’t think they’re going to fade away any time soon. Prepare to turn a particularly vivid shade of green as I regale you with tales of the fabulous Côte d’Azur, a place where you can’t so much as raise your glass of free champagne without brushing shoulders with an A-lister. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but we DID see a celebrity. Keep reading to find out who…
We’re gradually becoming pros at organising trips on a budget; a return train between Montpellier and Nice cost us 40€ booked in advance with a railcard, and a bed in the Hotel Pastoral came to 12€ per night. Granted, it wasn’t quite as luxurious as our palatial paradise in Barcelona, particularly as we had to share a 12 bed dorm. It was pleasant enough; the room had its own shower, and we had access to a sizeable kitchen area which opened out to a yard with its own seating area, which was a pleasant place to sit and sip coffee in the mornings. One of our roommates happened to be a Hawaiian pro surfer and travel writer who practises Yoga at 8 every morning and endlessly shared stories of his adventures to far flung corners of the globe, frequently name dropping various celebrity acquaintances of his. Interesting and often hilarious discussions took place in the evenings, one of the advantages of sharing with strangers.
Our trip happily coincided with the annual Carnival, so we spent our first afternoon meandering around the various festivities. There were some very unsettling statues grinning terrifyingly down over the parade, which had been designed to fit with this year’s theme ‘Roi du Sport’ in honour of the upcoming Olympics, with scores of people in costume at every turn. Unfortunately it cost 10€ to watch the parade, which was blocked from the view of external spectators by makeshift walls. We were happy enough sitting on the beach looking out to sea in the 21 degree heat, and taking a scenic hike up to one of the most impressive water features I have seen in France, ‘La Cascade’.
In the evening, we set out to look for a place to eat, and instead ended up consuming a bottle of wine in a cosy sheltered seating area in front of a restaurant. It seems that the waiter, Sébastien, took a shine to us after his attempts to speak English, and he eventually presented us with flutes of free champagne. The mixture of wine and champagne had a soporific effect on us all, so we decided to head back towards our hostel relatively early. We hadn’t eaten by this point, and there weren’t many places serving food so late in the evening. Luckily, we stumbled across a kebab shop, which we hoped would serve falafel wraps, the veggie’s alternative to the post-night out kebab. However, upon ordering ‘un sandwich falafel’, the guy working there seemed to think we spoke Arabic, which struck us as rather odd. Jenny and I took a beginner’s Arabic course in semester one, so we were bantering away about our smattering of Arabic words, but our knowledge certainly doesn’t extend as far as actual sentences. When he started carving meat off one of those rotating spits, we hastened to tell him we had wanted a vegetarian wrap. “Vegetarian?” he responded bemusedly in French. “In Arabic, ‘falafel’ means ‘spicy’. I thought you were asking for a spicy wrap.” How he thought we were ordering the little known Arabic version of ‘falafel’ as opposed to the popular chickpea based sandwich filler version in our English accented French, is utterly beyond me. We were presented with a limp processed cheese wrap as the vegetarian option, which actually wasn’t too bad. Still, it was no falafel wrap.
The next day saw us travelling to more countries than I have ever packed into one day. We were at the station for 10am to catch a train to Ventimiglia, a town just on the Franco-Italian border, which was to be the first time I had ever set foot in Italy. The train journey was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, despite the graffiti plastered all over its interior. We were treated to glimpses of the glittering ocean, lush vegetation and elegant houses with pools which lined the Côte d’Azur, all the while prematurely musing that this is where we would choose to retire. We also decided that we should invent fabulously rich and well accomplished fictional personas for ourselves in case we met someone famous or influential in Monaco, which was to be our next stop after Ventimiglia.
Ventimiglia is quite small, so we contented ourselves with lounging on the beach before finding somewhere for lunch. My first experience of Italian pizza turned out to be a major disappointment, as what we got was a strange spongy substance smothered in oil and excessive amounts of cheese as opposed to the feat of Italian culinary mastery we thought we had ordered – I’m hoping it was just bad luck. We spent the rest of the early afternoon climbing hills, visiting the cathedral, getting lost in peoples’ back gardens and being barked at by ferocious dogs, before encountering the biggest cacti I have ever seen. Major points for adventure, considering we were in such a tiny town. When we reached the station to continue on to the next leg of our journey, a potentially awkward ticket buying experience awaited us, as none of us spoke a word of Italian. Thankfully, a lot of Ventimiglia’s inhabitants are bilingual as it’s situated so close to the border, so we were spared the painful embarrassment of having to resort to the classic English method of excessive shouting and bizarre hand gestures.
When we arrived at Monaco, we stepped onto the platform feeling as though we’d been directly transported to a five star hotel rather than a train station. It’s buried deep underground so as not to blight the glamorous ambiance of the picturesque, hilly town. Once again, unsure as to where we were going, we wandered up and down lots of hills, stairs and lifts until we finally reached the port. We took our time ogling an awe-inspiring collection of yachts on display, working our way around the entire quay. We continued along a coastal walkway towards the Oceanography Museum, completely unprepared for how majestic it is. We turned a corner, and all of a sudden, there it was, hanging majestically over a cliff edge like an immense temple, towering 279 feet above sea level. Unfortunately it was closing time when we arrived at the entrance, but when we spotted the Monaco tourist train, our disappointment soon dissipated. It’s definitely the best way of making sure you see the main highlights, including sections of the F1 racetrack, the palace and Monte Carlo Casino. Tired out from such a thrilling experience, we headed back to the station to catch the next train to Nice, stopping for a ridiculously overpriced coffee en route.