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Travels: France — Èze does it

Dear Friends,

I’m working from Nice this week! Today (Sunday) I woke up at 9:30, not having any plans. I went to bed last night failing to make any. I tried, but I was spoiled for choice. Do I go to Grasse and visit a perfume factory? Or try and get into the mountains near Italy? Or go to Italy itself? This morning I had better travel sense — just choose something, and go. No pre-judgement, no research. Someone once told me Eze was pretty — okay, that sounds like a plan. So, muesli for breakfast, a little filter coffee (there’s a machine in the apartment, and nothing near outside), and a little baguette with apricot jam. I presumed the bakery was closed, it being Sunday, and hope to improve on this breakfast tomorrow by throwing in a croissant and whatever else is going.

Digression: Even if there was coffee outside, it wouldn’t be any good. I’ve yet to have a good espresso in France. They’re lifeless, one dimensional, thin and insipid. Italy is marginally better.

Digression on the digression: Think of these digressions as footnotes. Emails and blogs are deprived of pages and hence footers, which is a shame really.

Next, a shower, and then outside into the bright sunlight (sunglasses on) to find the bus to the center of Nice.

Digression: Showering: Now this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Airbnb apartment I’m living in certainly hasn’t got “bathroom” in the catalogue as a shining feature. The bath is tiny, with a shower curtain that manages to stretch half way around. It’s tiny in breadth and length — even sitting may be a challenge. I don’t want to try, as I don’t want to die wedged in a foreign bath. Nor do I wish my backside to touch the Eiffel Tower anti-slip mat. There’s also nothing against the wall to hold the shower head — so it’s really a juggle.

I’m staying on the outskirts of Nice — in a place called Carras. Three minutes walk away (depending on how well you play Frogger with the traffic) is the splendid sea. Now I’m not pulling the wool over your eyes here. It really is splendid. The following image doesn’t do it justice.

The sea is this bright blue azure ultramarine cerulean wonder. I took the photograph above at dusk on the day I arrived, so it’s a little subdued. You really have to fire up your cyan neurones to feel it. Or look here at this other photo I took a few years ago. There’s also something very curious about the beach. (Yes, they call it a beach even though it’s made of pebbles. In other words, stones.) The beach drops off steeply for at least half a meter before the sea — it’s almost as if the beach forms an embankment rather than a slope as you usually find. I suspect the sea is quite deep just a meter or two out, but really, I have no desire to find out. The blue is everything.

Digression: I Googled myself + Flickr to find that photo of mine, and one of the links that came up was this one. Some French tourist site. Note the name credit under the first photo :-)

I walked along the promenade a little — Promenade des Anglais — admiring the view and the smell of the sea, before crossing back and getting on a bus. 20 minutes later, and I’m in the middle of Nice, near the old town. I sort of know this area as I once got lost here. I know where old-town is, where Place Garibaldi is, where that restaurant that sells pissaladiere is, and where that damn hill I once climbed over in the blazing sun to take a photo is, and most importantly, where the bus stop is for the particular bus I want to take that leaves Nice, that heads east along the coast. I’ve taken busses in almost the same direction before, hugging the coast to the beautiful Villefranche-sur-mer. This time, I was up for a bus that traveled much higher up the coast — still following it — but right at the top. Èze is a hilltop village, perched up there somewhere.

Digression: Pissaladiere is awesome. Sort of like a pizza , but no tomatoes. Just fried onions, with a little anchovies and olives. I suppose I’m in France and should say “sautéed”?

The bus took about 25 minutes I’d say — not long at all. Most of it was spent climbing. Thankfully the full sun wasn’t baking down — these busses can be very sweaty affairs. I was surrounded by Germans, Dutch, Japanese, Americans and French.

Digression: For at least half the trip I drowned them out with Nina Simone in my ear — Sinnerman was the song. She once lived in Paris, I think, so it felt right. Besides, it’s an awesome song. The song feels like a journey too.

The bus trip really is fantastic. You get to see the magnificent coast, and if you sit on the right hand side, you’re practically hanging off the cliff faces. It’s a long winding road, with mostly green bushes on the left (with the odd mansion or two), and the wonderfully blue sea on the right. First, we went past Villefranche-sur-mer. I recognised it, even from so high up. All those magnificent yachts in the harbour, and a large ocean liner as well. Take a look at my photos of the area (taken just over a year ago) to really appreciate it.

There’s a particularly interesting colour scheme the entire journey. You have the azure blues on the one side, a grey blue in the sky (it wasn’t a clear day, nor was it overcast), and then this dark green, almost white rocks, and terracotta of the roofs. After Villefranche-sur-mer you have Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and far in the distance, the peninsula Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat. I’ve never been there, but it strikes me it that it must have some lovely views. Next time.

After arriving in Eze (I knew I was there as the bus had obviously reached a peek in its ascent. Also, everyone got off the bus.), you’re faced with this large hill that you have to climb. It was once a fortified stronghold, and it’s easy to see why. Having said that, while walking around the upper parts of what feels like ramparts, I found a gate that had a sign on it: “This is the gate used by the Turks when they invaded Eze.”

The place is about 430 metres high (says Wikipedia) — and you’ve got to pay an extra 6 euros to get right to the top — where you find a large garden of succulents. I found the succulents completely uninteresting, given the magnificent views all around.

While there, my stomach started to indicate that food and water would perhaps be a good idea. Besides, I had looked at my watch — about 12:15 — and knew that if I didn’t find something soon, I’d have to fight for cheap grub with sweaty tourists.

Now if you look at the photo above, looking down to the sea, what do you see on the left hand side? A little balcony, no? Well, that’s the balcony for the restaurant of Chateau Eza. I came across the place while trying to find the top — they make it difficult with multiple dead-ends everywhere. Each dead-end tends to have a great view, and some stall or other selling art or art-like goods. One of them had the hotel entrance. At the time, I swore and retraced my steps, trying to find the route.

Well, standing on the peak, overlooking the sea, with stomach grumbling and facing the humbling experience of having to dodge my way past at least 20 Japanese schoolgirls, I decided to eat there. Okay, I admit it, I did actually do a quick Google — it had 4.5 stars with over a hundred votes on some site or other, so it couldn’t be all that bad.

Digression: There’s something interesting when someone bows to me. I bow back. Or have a strong compulsion to do so. That must be simply from the cultural experience of having watched many movies of Japanese folk bowing to each other. Strong stuff — culture. Or empathy.

Well, I found the hotel quite quickly — it appears my compass works well when heading toward food — and found the delightful concierge who told me to attendre for a moment while she checked whether I could be seated, not having made a reservation and all. Some of this happened in French. Thankfully she switched to English for the important bits. “Une table pour un s’il vows plaît,” is about all I can manage. That, and “Malheureusement, je ne parle pas français”. Oh, and “C’est magnifique,” which is said after the starter. I kid you not.

Well, I was taken down some steps and led to a chair — on that very same balcony I saw earlier. My god, the view was amazing. A bottle of water appeared (“non-gazeuse”), and 10 minutes later, a plate of three skewered delights arrived, together with a menu. I have no idea what two of them were, I wasn’t paying attention (and sometimes the heavy French-accented English is a little difficult to understand). The third was a tiny goat’s cheese — which was surprisingly yummy. One of the skewers appeared to end with a marshmallow. I can’t be sure though — I was already inebriated on the experience. I then spent 5 minutes interpreting the French menu. No Anglais version here mate. Luckily I have a good dictionary on my iPhone, and the staff were friendly and helpful.

Digression: I have had a marshmallow before — at a posh place in Tel Aviv. I suspect this wasn’t a marshmallow.

After I placed my order, another waiter came along and ushered me to my seat inside the restaurant. The view was even more stunning from inside here.

So, here’s what I ate and smelled and gazed at. Recall that at this point I’ve already eaten a little snack while waiting outside.

First to come around, the amuse-bouche. This was really very very nice. Imagine a small glass vessel, perhaps the size of my cupped hand. Inside, lined along the edges, are julienned fresh beetroot. Inside, a beetroot mousse that just melts in your mouth, leaving a creamy beetroot flavour that’s just awesome. It’s somewhat pinkish, as you can imagine, but not as pink as you might think. And light. So light. Unbelievably light. It must be held up by the will power of the chef. Some crushed walnuts were on one side of the mousse, just a few, and on the other, some kind of parmesan chip. The glass bowl was served on a piece of slate, which also held a dollop (I’m sure there’s a better word for it) of fig chutney. Of my. And then artfully sprinkled over the fig chutney, and trailing a little like the tail of a comet, was some wonderfully salty salt. The fit chutney was amazing. Having it with a little of the salt was incredible — a little explosion of pleasure.

Staggering. Really, you don’t get better than this. Wonderful flavours, wonderful smells, wonderful textures.

Oh my, I forgot the wine! So, soon after I sat down the sommelier came over. I knew he was a sommelier as he had a white cloth hanging off one arm. He also had a sommelier lapel pin. He knew what I was going to eat — and when I asked him for a white — indicating a demi-boutelle (one glass was definitely not going to cut the mustard here) — we settled on a Pouilly-Fume (La Demoiselle de Bourgeois) from Henri Bourgeois. ZOMG. Apparently it would hold up to the Turbot, which I had ordered as my main meal. Lovely wine, really lovely. A lot of flavour (from gooseberry to, well, all sorts of interesting stuff) — and a heady aroma. It was lovely. I enjoyed every drop.

Where was I? Snacks, done. Wine, done. Amuse-bouche, done. Right, starter next.

I ordered (avoiding the foie-gras, so popular around here), the poached fig. Boom. Here it is in all of it’s glory:

So, that’s the poached fig in the middle. A lovely sweetish wine jus surrounds it. Fresh fig on the side, together with some Jamon Iberico. Those tiny grape-like items are quite surprising. They’re tomatoes. The red one, in particular, had a staggeringly peppery flavour. I asked — apparently they’re a speciality of Nice. Oh, and on top of it all, a dollop (yes, a dollop) of “sea-salt ice cream”. Or something like that. It was yummy.

Wonderful presentation, as you can see. Picturesque, is what it is. In fact, each dish was brought covered by an ornate silver cover (there must be a name for this — I don’t know what it is) — deftly removed with dramatic aplomb and a wide arc of the arm. I was always amazed at what was unveiled.

Well the starter was very tasty. If I had a complaint, it would be that it was a little too sweet for a starter. But just a little. A tiny smattering, a teensy weensy heavy handedness on the sweetness of the jus. But I’m not going to complain. It was gorgeous, and I ate it all. If I wasn’t surrounded by liveried waiters, I may have licked the plate.

Digression: A lady opposite had the ornate silver cover dish of her plate removed, and there, nestled upright amongst her food, was a tiny sprig of lavender, obviously just lit before delivery. It was a subtle and quite lovely smokey fragrance that emanated from her table for a few minutes.

The main was a speciality of the house — “wild turbot, cooked slowly”. It had a sort of crunch wild-hair topping — I couldn’t tell you what it was — and was served on a crushed tomato “Cœur de Bœuf” (heart beef). In other words, a slice of de-pipped beef tomato, somewhat crushed :-) Various other vegetables (and a cep or two) were on the plate as well. Oh, and a mussel or two. Blech! I enjoyed this, in particular it went well with the wine, but I found it lacked punch, lacked zazzzzzz. I found myself yearning after the amuse-bouche. It looked lovely though.

Dessert was delightful. Some reasonably traditional (at least, in its inspiration, pear dish). Poached pear on a kind of cake stuffed with a chestnut concoction.

Digression: The cake reminded me of a savarin I once ate. He’s a famous french gastronomic dude I know little about.

Afterwards, they served coffee together with a few bonbons, which were all absolutely yummy.

I think by the time I took this photo, I had already eaten one. That pretty plate on the left holds hemispheric sugar cubes….

That was my meal! I suspect I spent close to 3 hours in their company — all the while looking out at that wonderful view.

Afterwards, I sauntered down to the bus stop, waited 20 minutes with some lovely music in my ear (“A Song For You”, by Leon Russell, “Bowie”, by Flight of the Conchords, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by Crash Test Dummies, “Lady D’Arbanville” by Cat Stevens”, and yes, “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations).

Digression: These songs are on my “happy list” which then turned into my “travel list” — songs I know I like that I ensure are downloaded before I travel. I thought the last song was a happy one — until I shared it with a friend who pointed out that the lyrics are actually sad. However, I find it’s sung with so joy, so I’ll pretend I don’t know that.

Now, the thing with old towns like Nice is that the streets aren’t built to drive tanks through. They’re narrow, and consequently often only one-way. This has consequences. In particular, the bus stop will be in a different place. The return trip had me get off quite near the old town — so close that I could actually see it. Now I remember there was a famous ice cream shop down there — it serves over a hundred flavours, from Cactus to good old Vanilla. It’s called Fenocchio, and it’s in a really quaint square, which is a little difficult to find when navigating the narrow streets. Needless to say, my food compass won. Here’s a look at the square itself:

At this point on was on a Facebook chat with a friend who instructed me to eat their house special, Le Comté de Nice. I stood in the queue for 10 minutes, wondering whether this is really something I want to do. No, it was not that I had just finished a gourmet delight 2 hours prior. It was the queueing itself. San Franciscans love to do this. I don’t like it as much. Well, I got to the head of the queue, ordered my ice cream, and was told (in English) that it’s not something you can just order — I had to sit down at a table. Thankfully, I was led (almost by hand) to an empty table, and told to wait.

The ice cream appeared 5 minutes later:

There’s no sense of scale here. As friend Jo has a tendency to say, without exaggeration I’m sure, it was the size of my head. Amazingly tasty. All sorts of flavours going on here, from honey to citrus to pine nuts to .. Oh, and those candied fruits. I could have sworn they were cumquats. Cumquats are amazing. Sweet & sour in one beautifully sized package.

Needless to say, dinner with a light affair tonight. I had bought some interesting looking apples yesterday, so I peeled them, put them in a pot with some water, and made an apple sauce. Now, I’ve only ever done this 3 times in my life — I have no idea what possessed me to do it today. It turned out rather well — the apples were really sweet — I added nothing. No cloves to be had though. I also dipped a piece of baguette into the apple — lovely!

Well, that was my day. I’m glad I went out in the end, and glad I had this experience. Now, back to work.

Love, Jon

PS. This was originally distributed as an email to my friends — who encouraged me to blog it as well. I will try and do so more often.

Originally published on September 16, 2012.