My Impressions of the Cote d’Azur and Venice

Sunrise over the Grand Canal

Well, we are 9 days into our trip and it has been fairly hectic so far: 5 days in Nice, 2 days in Venice, and now we are in Como, Italy. Up until now, the trip has felt like a normal vacation due to the fact that we were with friends (hence lots of drinking and running about). But now the realisation is setting in that we are on our own, and that this is no ordinary vacation. It is time to slow down the pace a bit and conserve energy for the long haul ahead. So today, being a bit cold and miserable, we will be staying in our cozy dungeon (literally the basement of a 15th century palace in the center of Como), that has the world’s smallest bathroom (ceiling about 5’7″) but has a lot of charm nonetheless. School-time for the kids, and catching up on blogs and photos for the parents. 

I was pleasantly surprised by Nice, in that despite being the second most-visited city in France, the place has an easy charm that is not spoiled by hordes of tourists. The natural beauty of the location is impossible to deny – the wide bay with high cliffs to one side and the old town nestled below makes for a wonderful mix of things to visit. The famous Promenade des Anglais is the beachfront pedestrian / bike zone, well used by tourists and locals alike. Joggers can be seen at all times of the day or night, as well as cyclists, dog-walkers, fishermen, lovers, and yes, the odd hobo or drunk too. I found the Niçois to be very friendly and helpful, despite having to put up with tourists for most of the year.

I had almost the exact opposite reaction in Cannes – horrible traffic to get to the waterfront, and then once you get there, nothing to do except look into the windows of the endless high-end boutiques selling stuff we will never want or need in this lifetime.

We went for a drive into the interior, to visit Grasse (another great example of a tourist trap), and the on to the medieval village of St-Paul-de-Vence. This is a place that deserves its place on the tourist trail as a not-to-be-missed destination. I’m sure that I could have spent days exploring the wild interior, places where most tourists would never go, but that will have to wait for another time.

Venice, only a short flight away from Nice, might as well be in a different universe. This is a place that was never on my radar due to its popularity as a top tourist destination. This usually sends me running the other way. But Sophie wanted to celebrate her 40th birthday there, and so I was willing to go and have a look. There is no denying that it deserves its place as a world class destination, but you can imagine my feelings of trepidation when we counted no less than seven huge cruise liners in port as we flew in to land. 🙁

Our apartment was very well situated not too far from the train station, in a quiet area (slightly) less well trodden by the hordes. We went out exploring at dusk, after the hordes had retreated to their luxury liners. There was something magical about wandering around the narrow alleyways and across bridges in the twilight, the streetlamps projecting light at each corner or intersection. After wandering in a seemingly random way, you all of a sudden find yourself in a wide piazza, with a few cafes and restaurant terraces beckoning you in for drinks or food.

Venice at dusk

We eventually found our way across the Rialto bridge (jam packed) and on to the piazza San Marco. This is undoubtedly the best time to visit the piazza – in the daytime the crowds are overwhelming! On the way back to the apartment, we were on the lookout for a good pizza restaurant. Now there in no shortage of choice, but finding good authentic pizza is a bit of a challenge… Next it began to rain, lightly at first but then a serious downpour caught us unprepared and we had to run for it. We ended up in the little restaurant that was located right below our apartment, called il Bari. It was about as authentic as you can get – the pizza was great! The only drawback was that they closed early and so they literally had to kick us out.

The next day we got 24hr. passes for the waterbuses, and spent all day either fighting the hordes to get on, or to get off of the buses. The phrase “packed like sardines” is very appropriate to describe the overcrowded nature of these boats. God forbid one capsizes in between two islands… Nothing much to be said for the islands – for me the best part of Venice was right where we were staying! Our friends treated Sophie to a gondola trip for her birthday, again I would say overrated, but it was a nice gesture.

Murano viewed from Venice

Our trip to Venice was over before we could really get to know the place. I’m glad we went, and I can appreciate how special a place it is, but like any similar place, it really has become too popular for its own good. Our current location in northern Italy, seems like a world away. More on that in the next post.