The perils of navigating a rendezvous without a cell phone in a foreign country are not easily forgotten, but within moments of meeting Florent at the airport in Nice our problems had evaporated into the endless blue skies. Although I didn’t realize it, I was barely keeping the pent up anxiety at bay: Lifelong dream. Must go perfectly. Must see epic sites. Who needs sleep and clean clothes when you can beat the same path as Hemingway through Paris at midnight?
Well, friends. I do. And God bless Florent. He whisked us through the low rolling mountains outside of Nice and on to the narrow, golden streets of Aix-en-Provence. We wandered through markets so vibrant with produce and color that I shamelessly snapped picture after picture of peaches, salts, flowers and spices that the locals were simply scooping up for their daily meal. After a bit we did the same: half a rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes and a fresh salad. Do you know many twenty-something males who nonchalantly mix a vinaigrette from scratch for lunch with friends? Me either. We are so incredibly fortunate to call him a friend!
After lunch, it was laundry and a nap. A few hours later I felt like a new woman as we stepped out to explore this charming medieval city. First settled by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, Aix unfolds like a treasure map for any traveler willing to depart from the masses.
We ducked into ancient little churches and peered through the dwindling light onto Renaissance-era frescos close enough to touch.
That evening, we met with some friends of Florent’s – students at the local university. Allow them to practice their English over drinks? Of course. And as they sipped beers and I nursed by ever-present café Americain a very interesting dialogue unfolded in which I attempted to piece together a quandary that had been frustrating me throughout the entire trip. As I encountered head-on the notions that Hollywood and Disney had brought me about Irish, English, French and Italians I couldn’t help but wonder: What is the overwhelming perception of Americans? Fat? Lazy? The ultimate consumers? Drinks turned into dinner and dinner turned into desert and at last I realized that any relationships worth having will see past any presumptions based on nationality or accent. And as for any less-than-pleasant passing interactions between tourists and natives – or even worse – tourists and tourists? They are not to be remembered. So months later, it is the wonderful conversation and warm hospitality that I recall from this dinner (however wonderful the food must have been).
The next morning we shared coffee and pan au chocolate in the “little park” behind Florent’s apartment. With regret, we cinched our packs and drove back to Nice for a taste of the Mediterranean coast line. Not to worry – it didn’t disappoint. After settling in, we crossed through a number of bustling city streets, trailing our host like lost puppies, when the street bowed inward and we crossed some time line into Old Nice. Magical.
Though the real magic was hiding beyond those narrow streets. Fenocchio’s gelato. Cue angelic chorus.
After a brief trip to the beach to lay on the hot black stones and attempt to coax my travel-worn tootsies into the rocky waters, we made our way up to these beautiful falls above Old Nice.
Nice marked the halfway point in our trip. Note to self: when you get to the halfway point, all you will want to do is sleep. Our hosts were more than sympathetic to our quandary of desperately wanting to see the regional beauty of Provence and essentially running out of steam. They proposed an afternoon drive. Along the Mediterranean. To Monte Carlo.
There is no comparison to French hospitality, and even then our dear friend and his family set the standard. Our memories of our time in Nice will remain vibrant and magical thanks to the wonderful kindness they showed us. Provence is truly a region as lovely as its people.
Late that night, back in Nice, we made the walk again to the unlit shore of the Mediterranean.
The beach was crowded, but provided a quiet escape from the phrenetic energy of the city at night. In a whirlwind tour such as ours, the challenge becomes savoring the moment. This night, seated beneath the stars with all of France stretched out behind us, we were given an opportunity to push past tired, past expectant, past mesmerized and onward until we just were.
Many thanks to our wonderful friend, Florent, to whom we are eternally indebted for showing us all the colors, scents and sounds – but most importantly the feeling – of life in the South of France.