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Rich in its traditions and a centuries-old culture, Nice -- not to mention nearby towns and villages all along the French Riviera -- deserves your attention. Belle epoque Nice is France's fifth largest city with a population of 345,892, and it is France's second most popular destination (Paris, natch, is the first). Smack dab in the center of the French Riviera -- otherwise known as the Cote d'Azur -- it's also an excellent starting point for exploring the 80-mile landscape where tan-legged locals dressed in colorful fabrics and espadrilles sip pastis in seaside cafes. Add the brilliant fusion of medieval villages perched high on mountain ledges and swank enclaves like Cap d' Antibes and Aix-en Provence, and it's easy to understand why everyone loves a call at Nice.
It's down the road from Cannes and the planet's most illustrious film festival, where in 1949, a bikini-clad starlet dropped her top in front of Robert Mitchum, the cameras clicked, and the red carpet razzle-dazzle officially began. Once home to Colette, rumor has it that she opened a beauty shop when she first arrived (her 18th-century house is supposedly still standing on the tiny Boulevard d'Aumale).
Just beyond Cannes is St-Tropez -- an instant-oomph and anything-goes fishing village made up of tiny ornate streets and colorful pink-tinged facades. Head off in the opposite direction from Nice and you'll find yourself in the fairy tale principality of Monaco with its high-flying style. In a word, gorgeous! Smaller than New York's Central Park, it's a "toss the guidebook and just explore" destination. You'll find it easy to take the twists and turns along the cobblestone streets of the old city of Monaco-Ville, past the Prince's Palace where the Grimaldis have ruled since 1297. To peek in on the action at the Casino, just follow the Ferraris, Rolls-Royces and armored cars.
Nice is bordered by Provence to the west, the Alps to the north and Italy, another world, just 20 miles to the east. An "easy to get around on foot" seaside town, Nice itself is great for touring independently -- and even without a car, it's a snap to head for the open road.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Sardinia • Sete • Seville • Sorrento • St. Tropez • Taormina • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
French, though English is understood and generally spoken at most tourist attractions. But it's not uncommon to find that most waiters, shopkeepers and taxi drivers don't speak English. The French consider it impolite to assume everyone speaks English -- so it's best to begin by asking if English is understood. The gesture is appreciated. The official language of Monaco is French and Monegasque -- a mixture of French and Italian -- but English is understood and spoken more readily than in France. Monsieur, Madame or mademoiselle (for very young girls) should follow bonjour. Merci should always precede a departure from any shop, whether you were helped or not. Besides, it's so much fun to say.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency in France and Monaco is the Euro. Currency exchange can be made in most banks, post offices and train stations; ATMs and credit cards make traveler's checks nearly obsolete. For the best exchange rate, use ATMs -- they're found almost everywhere in towns and villages along the Riviera (though, as you roam further into the countryside, you will find fewer ATMs). Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants, shops and tourist attractions -- the key word being 'most.' The further away from main attractions and cities, the more likely it is you'll need cash. For up-to-date information on currency exchange, go to www.oanda.com. Note: some ATMs in England require a PIN to be only four digits long, so plan ahead. Also, many display only numerals on the keypad. For pin codes that include letters, commit to memory or jot down the translation to numbers.
Hint: In France, a 19.6 percent sales tax (VAT) is tacked on to many purchases -- however, if you spend $175 or more at any one participating store, you can get the VAT refunded (with some exceptions). For additional information on refunds, visit www.ambafrance-us.org.
Prints Charming! In other words, the South of France's signature fabric and/or anything made from it. Fresh-pressed olive oil, wines, lavender soaps and perfume. Bear in mind that it is possible to ship wine home, but very costly -- so the best bet (and bargain) is the carry-it-yourself method.
Where You're Docked
The Port Nice on the Quai du Commerce, about a 30-minute walk to the center of Nice. Everything you might need is close at hand -- tourist information, taxis, telephones, currency exchange, a free shuttle service (in season) and left-luggage lockers. It's a good idea to have port information in writing (port agent's telephone number, boat location, etc.) when leaving the area. Having it in writing is the best way to communicate when you and your taxi or bus driver are language-challenged.
From culture and shopping to letting the sun go to your head on their famous rock beaches, there's nothing to deter you from loving a day or two in Nice. It's a compact city and you can easily navigate the city from one end to the other in under an hour.
Car Rentals are a good bet -- and many local agencies are well priced. Major brands such as Hertz (www.hertz.com) and Alamo (www.alamo.com) are also found in Nice, both in town and at the airport. Count on spending approximately $60 (50 euros) for a one-day, economy-car rental. Cars here mostly use diesel, not unleaded gas. We're sorry to say agencies don't point this out, so check. A mistake will cost you lost time and almost $300 in repairs.
Bus service throughout the region is frequent, not just for local stops, but even to Monaco. Buses such as the Grasse-Nice bus travel through Pre-du-Lac, Le Rouret, Roquefort, Villeneuve-Loubet and Cagnes-sur-Mer with at least 10 roundtrips daily. Most of the buses connect with each other at Station Central on Avenue Felix-Faure. The fare for rides within Nice is $2.40 (2 euros), but you can buy a five-ticket carnet for $15.35 (12.85 euros). Catch the #2 or #12 bus for the beaches. For additional information, call 04-93-13-53-13. Buses for Monaco, St-Tropez and Cannes depart from the Municipal Bus Station on Boulevard Jean-Jaure. For information on long-distance bus travel, call 04-93-85-61-81.
The SNCF (French Railway) station is a 10-minute walk from the Port of Nice. Making coastal stops between Marsailles and Monte Carlo, it's easy to tour on foot once arriving at your destination. A typical roundtrip from Nice to Monaco, first-class, will run about $10. For information on destinations, timetables and fares, visit www.sncf.com.
If peddling around sounds like fun, consider renting a bike or moped from Cycles Arnaud on Rue Francois (04-93-87-88-55) for $18 (15 euros). Be prepared to leave a deposit of at least $406 (340 euros).
Promenade des Anglais: The city's most visible image. A curving 4.3 mile (7 km) palm-lined seaside boulevard with a broad boardwalk just above the rocky beach, it stretches around the city's spectacular Bay of Angels. Framed by both the sea and ornate belle epoque apartments and hotels, the frou-frou Negresco Hotel is the standout. The Old City's labyrinthine streets are ready-made for walking past the closely packed buildings with their red-tile roofs -- where not much has changed since the 17th and 18th centuries.
Cimiez Quarter: The 17th century Franciscan Monastery sits high above the town's center. In the gardens, there is an ancient sundial where, if you stand in the correct spot, your shadow will give you the correct time. Although a mostly residential area, the Matisse Museum, the Marc Chagall Museum and the Archaeological Museum are here. Roman Empire remains on the Hill of Cimiez include an original wood amphitheater built for nearly 600 seats, then rebuilt in stone during the Severan dynasty in AD 193 - 217 for 5,000 (it's used today for the annual Nice Jazz Festival), and Roman bath complex.
Matisse Museum: Art's a-flutter in a 17th-century Genoese villa and his grave is nearby (he lived at 1 Place Charles Felix for nearly 20 years) and covers all periods of his work. Wednesday -Monday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m; closed Tuesdays. 164 Ave. des Arenes de Cimiez.
Chagall Museum: Holds the largest collection of his work based on the Old Testament. Wednesday - Monday: October - June, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; July-September, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Ave. du Docteur-Menard.
Lascaris Palace: Originally crossed the old city from gate to gate. It was formerly the home of 17th-century nobles and contains beautifully baroque ornaments. The most elaborate is the Noble Floor -- an actual pharmacy from the early 18th century, replete with Delftware accessories still in place. Tuesday - Sunday: 10 a.m. - noon, 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. Closed Monday. 15 Rue Droite.
Modern and Contemporary Art Museum: Home to a collection of French and American contemporary artists from the 60s to present day, including Warhol, Oldenburg, Rauschenberg and Yves Klein (a native son). Tuesday - Sunday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.; closed Mondays. Promenade des Arts, $4 (FREE first & third Sunday every month).
Been There, Done That
Cannes: Follow the lido to the posh beauty and beach crowd on Galion Beach, across from the Carlton Hotel. Not to worry, you don't have to be a hotel guest at any of the hotels along the Croisette to use the "private" beaches. The Carlton's just happens to be the coolest one. It'll cost about $25 for the day to use the beach, but that includes a chaise, umbrella and easy access to its terribly chic restaurant (about $70 for two) where the dress code includes bathing suits (front row seats along the Mediterranean will set you back about $35). As if you need more enticements, massages are available.
And don't miss venturing to the Old City, also known as Le Suguet. It's great for strollers, shoppers and diners. Head east past the Festival Palace and climb the steps of Rue Mont Chevalier beyond the narrow lanes lined with ivy-covered buildings with wrought-iron balconies. Next, take Rue Panisse to Rue St. Antoine.
One of the best ways to see the sights here is to hop on the Petits Trains. Choose between two itineraries or combine them (Daily, except November: 30-minute tours from 9:30 a.m. - 7 p.m. or 11 p.m., depending on season). Take a seat at one of the cafes and simply take in the entire street scene. Another stop in Le Suguet is the Church of Notre-Dame-d'Esperance on Place de la Castre. The 17th-century building is considered the city's most historic museum and admission is free.
Should you find yourself in Le Suguet on a Monday, run don't walk to the Forville Flea Market on Rue Felix Faure. If you're more serious-minded about your collectibles, we suggest France's best antique show at the Casino Croisette each July and December (for exact dates, contact Association des Antiquaires de Cannes, 13 Rue d'Oran, 06400).
Head up the hill to the Castre Museum inside a 12th-century castle that belonged to the monks of the Lerins islands. Here you will find a beautiful collection of archeological and ethnological objects and a wonderful collection of musical instruments from all over the world (Tuesday - Sunday: June - August, 10 a.m. - 1 p.m., 3 p.m. - 7 p.m.; September, 10 a.m. - 1 p.m., 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. Closed Mondays and throughout November).
Try to at least peek in at the Eglise Orthodoxe Russe St-Michel Archange on Boulevard Alexandre III. This fabulous 19th-century church with its brilliant cerulean blue onion dome and a gilded triple cross offers services at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 9:30 a.m. - noon Sundays.
Naturally, you can't visit Cannes and not stop in at a casino. Inside the Festival Palace (handprints of famous movie stars are at the foot of the entrance steps) is the most famous one with a pedigree that dates back to 1907 -- the Casino Croisette, a.k.a. the Palm Beach Casino. You need to be over 21 (and show your passport), and men need jackets; it's about $10 just to get inside.
Most definitely see Ste-Marguerite, the first-century B.C. Roman town where the Man in the Iron Mask was held prisoner by Louis XIV, beginning in 1698. One of France's great mysteries as to his identity, Dumas suggested it was the king's twin brother. Ferries only cost about $10 for the roundtrip and depart at 30-minute intervals from Maritime of the Islands (Maritim de Isles) Station.
Eze: The medieval village is so beautiful, that you'll think you've stumbled unto a Hollywood movie set given its narrow roads shaded by tunnel-vaults, stone houses, ancient fountains and pretty little shaded squares. The invigorating one-hour hike down the Friedrich-Nietzsche path from the village to the sea is awesome, just keep in mind it's a serious hike back up. The not-so-easy climb up from the village to the Jardin Exotique is likewise worth the hardy trek, not only for the colorful blooms, but also for the music-to-the-eyes panoramas of the Mediterranean in impossible shades of blue.
Grasse: The perfume capital of the world, this medieval village is hemmed in by lavender fields and meadows of wildflowers. The perfume business began here in the 16th century and has been a popular with tourists since then -- given the smell of the flowers. Queen Victoria vacationed through several winters here, mostly staying at the home of the Rothschilds.
The Old Town is filled with tiny winding streets where ancient steps take you past 17th- and 18th-century buildings -- and below arched tunnels. At the top of the Old Town is Place aux Aires, where the daily market of flowers and regional edibles winds around a pretty, three-tiered fountain that splashes water through the center of the flowers.
Notre Dame du Puy Cathedral on Place Godeau (first built in the 10th and 11th centuries, then rebuilt in the 17th) is notable for the huge 18th-century clock tower and the three Rubens inside. First commissioned from the then-unknown artist in 1601 by the Archduke Albert for the Santa Croce di Gerusalemme in Rome, they were offered to Grasse in the 19th century. There's also the 1754 painting, "Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles", by Jean-Honore Fragonard. The Office of Tourism has conveniently laid out an historical 90-minute walking tour.
The industrial side of the perfume business is located in the countryside and villages surrounding Grasse -- and some of the ancient factories can still be seen along the southern edges of the Old Town. Free tours of the principal factories show the process of making perfume, each with their own little museums and retail shops. The International Perfume Museum tells you all you wanted to know about perfume (and more). There's some wonderful antiques relating to 3,000 years of perfumery including Marie Antoinette's travel case (8 Place de Cours, daily 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.).
Menton: More Provencal village than Riviera resort, this is an oft-forgotten town on the outskirts of Monaco, only a mile from Italy's border. Narrow streets are filled with cafes and the fragrance of freshly baked breads from the boulangeries. Try to take a short detour about a mile out from here and take the road that climbs to Roquebrune-Cap Martin, Vieux Menton and the Church of St. Michel. It's a great spot for viewing Italy's Hanbury Botanic Gardens in La Mortola. Check it out in the early evening and you get to watch the sun set over Monaco. On the way back out of town, try to spot the 1,000-year-old olive tree along the road. The filmmaker, writer, and artist Jean Cocteau loved it here so much that he chose the 17th-century bastion to house his works. Now known as the Cocteau Museum, he decorated it himself. (Bastion du Port, Quai Napoleon-III, Wednesday - Monday: 10 a.m. - noon, 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays). He also decorated the Marriage Hall at Town Hall with painted frescoes depicting the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, the subject of his film "Orphee" (Rue de la Republique, Monday - Friday: 8:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.).
Monte Carlo: Where do we begin? The Prince's Palace on Rue Colonel offers tours through its state apartments from June through September, which includes the Throne Room, an excellent collection of paintings by master artists, tapestries and Princess Grace's portrait. A morning tour is perfect if you want to catch the 10-minute Changing of the Guard, any day at 11:55 a.m.
The Oceanographic Museum & Aquarium was under Jacques Cousteau's direction for over 30 years, so along with exploring this vast aquarium, you'll get to see his diving gear. Check out the skeleton of the 66-foot long whale (Ave. Saint-Martin, May - June, September: 9 a.m. - 7.p.m; July - August: 9 a.m. - 8 p.m.; October - December: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.).
The Monte-Carlo Casino & Opera's on Place de Casino shows off magnificent gaming halls of sumptuous detail with carved ceilings and walls filled with spectacular paintings. Not surprising, given architect Charles Garnier designed the Paris Opera. One of Europe's oldest casinos, the marble and gilded gold is polished within an inch of their lives. Both the American and private salons charge admission. Enter the ornate atrium and take the vast staircase to the Opera Hall, where many of the world's best opera and ballet companies have performed. In order to faites vous jeux (lay your bets), you'll need a passport and be over 21, and jackets and ties are required for the men -- and most definitely, no shorts or sneakers anytime.
The Cathedral of Monaco on Rue Colonel Bellando de Castro houses the tombs of the former Princes of Monaco. Of particular interest is the pulpit (c. 1500), the Great Altar and the Episcopal throne in white Carrara marble. Note: contrary to reports, Princess Grace is not entombed here, but at St. Nicolas Cathedral.
You'll find the Princess Grace Rose Garden near the entrance to Fontvieille Park. Filled with thousands of rose trees representing more than 180 varieties, stroll here from sunrise to sunset any day of the week. And don't forget to see the Rock, a 330-foot tall prime perch for Monaco's many stunning views.
St-Tropez: Two sun-worthy hotspots are Le Club 55 and Tahiti Beach on Pampelonne Beach. Club 55 is no ordinary hipster-haunt. Made famous by Roger Vadim and Bridget Bardot in 1955, a beach brunch beckons here anytime where they serve up platters of good food and star power. Tahiti is parfait (perfect) for lunch amid the uber-rich and famous sunbathers -- topless or in the buff. For sunless fun, see the Annonciade Museum for their extensive Impressionist art collection with works by the likes of Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Bonnard and Paul Signac. (Place Grammont, Wednesday - Monday: 10 a.m. - noon, 2 p.m. - 7 p.m.; closed Tuesdays and throughout November).
St. Paul-de-Vence: Beautiful 13th-century medieval fortified village perched between two deep valleys whose ramparts remain intact. Enter by the north gate, La Porte Royale; this will lead you to Rue Grande, which runs the full length of the village. This really is a must-see in spite of the throngs of tourists and overdose of cheesy souvenir shops. If you take the first right and the next left once inside the gate, you see the cemetery where Chagall is buried, marked by a simple white stone. Visitors, as tributes, add the small stones around it -- a long-held Jewish tradition. Famous artists used to come to stay and eat at La Colombe d'Or, paying for their meals with their work. Today, all who come to sleep or eat can enjoy an impressive collection of paintings by Picasso, Matisse and many others.
Just outside the village is the one of France's most highly regarded museums, the Maeght Foundation. Established in the 1960's, art dealers Aime and Marquerite Maeght bought paintings from Jews that had fled to the South of France during the war, as well as exchanging artworks for food from Marguerite's father's grocery store in Cannes. Miro, Arp and Calder fill the gardens with amazing sculptures -- and inside, you'll find paintings by Bonnard, Matisse, Chagall and more. Not just a museum, artists actually work and live there (July-September: Daily, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.; October-June: Daily 10 a.m. -12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. - 6 p.m.). Note: Visitors must park in the huge car park at the foot of the village.
Vallauris: The pottery capital of France, this small town has a lot going for it -- namely the 360-degree views of the Bay of Cannes, the Iles de Lerins, and the Esterel Mountains. Famous for its pottery since Roman times, it's where Picasso created thousands of ceramic pieces between 1947 and 1971, some of which were produced in limited numbers and with exclusive rights by Madoura Pottery. Stroll the tiny streets filled with colorful little workshops of perfume makers and olive wood carvers.
Dine Ashore Favorites: Mussels a la anything, pizza, Nicoise salad, fish soup, stuffed sardines, Grand Marnier-flavored crepes wrapped around chocolate or cherries. Check out outdoor markets like Cours Saleya in Nice for another regional favorite, socca -- a chickpea drizzled-with-olive-oil flat bread. Keep in mind that restaurants close anywhere from two to four weeks during August, so it's best to check ahead. We do have two non-restaurant recommendations: The Ceneri Cheese Shop on Rue Meynadier in Cannes because it will take iron will to step away from the to-die-for truffle-infused Brie and -- Vogade on Place Massena in Nice because the gorgeously rich pastries and chocolates will put you over the moon and the ice cream is made downstairs (ahh, hazelnut).
Restaurants in Nice
Chantecler: Best of the best. The menu changes often, but hope for the roasted suckling lamb. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $65. Daily 12:30 p.m. - 2 p.m. Hotel Negresco, 37 Promendade de Anglais, Nice.
L'Ane Rouge: Few things taste better than the lobster risotto with truffles. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $30. Friday - Tuesday noon, 2 p.m. 7 Quai des Deux-Emmanuel, Nice.
La Merenda: Fried zucchini blossoms and pasta with Ementhaler cheese-flavored pesto. Monday-Friday noon-2 p.m. No credit cards. No phone, so show up to make reservations, which are a must. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $60. 4 Rue de la Terrasse, Nice.
Good Eats in Surrounding Areas
Chateau de La Chevre d' Or (Eze): A Relais & Chateaux member. Enough said. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run you about $80. Daily noon - 2:30 p.m. Rue du Barri.
Chez Tetou (near Cannes): Right on the beach for Oscar-worthy bouillabaisse. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run about $40. No credit cards. Thursday-Tuesday noon - 2:30 p.m. Ave. des Freres Roustan, Golf-Juan.
Hotel Le Saint Paul Restaurant (St. Paul-de-Vence): Owned and operated by a one-time-Relais & Chateaux executive. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run you about $65. Daily noon - 2:30 p.m. 86 Rue Grande.
Le Louis XV (Monte Carlo): Alain Ducasse 's three Michelin star dining room with diners wealthy enough to bask in his exalted aura. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run you about $160. Reservations highly recommended.Thursday-Monday 12:15 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. Open for lunch during July-August. Jacket and tie for men. Hotel de Paris, Place du Casino.
Petit Port (Menton): Homemade everything, including the bread. The grilled sardines rock.
Per person cost for three courses including wine will run you about $48.Thurday-Tuesday noon - 3 p.m. 1 Place Fontana.
Spoon (St-Tropez): Alain Ducasse, take two, this time with a Mediterranean version of this Paris original. Per person cost for three courses including wine will run you about $80. Daily 8 p.m. - 2 a.m. (dinner only), Hotel Byblos, Ave. Paul-Signac.
Closest to Port: Kyriad Nice Port Hotel. Clean, simple and inexpensive. Flots d'Azur has a great location and is very sweet. Request rooms on the upper floors if view matters.
On a Shoestring: Hotel L' Oasis. Anton Chekhov wrote some of "Three Sisters" here and Lenin came to stay in 1911. Centrally located in nice with clean, well-looked after rooms. Hotel Balmoral in Monte Carlo also offers fabulous bang for your buck.
Total Splurge: Hotel Negresco offers beck and call service across from the sea in Nice. The Carlton in Cannes for sunning among the Gucci, Prada, Dior, oh my! Hotel Byblos for Hollywood hipsters who love things covered in ornate, yet tasteful glitz and clubbing at Caves du Roy. Hotel Hermitage in Monte Carlo because it's a lavish retreat with a lovely spa.
Here are our choices for the best ship-sponsored shore excursions:
Best Choice for Nosing Around the French Riviera: From Nice and Cannes to St. Paul-de-Vence and Grasse -- and even Cap d'Antibes. Duration: Up to 8 1/2 hours Price: Up to $149.
Best Choice for a Cook's Tour: Cooking Lessons in Mougins under the guidance of famous chef, Alain Llorca at the Restaurant L'Amandier's cooking school. Approximate Duration: 4 1/2 hours. Price: $185.
Best Choice for Card Sharks: Monte Carlo. Duration: Up to 4 hours. Price: Up to $75.
Best Choice for Luxe Living: A Bird's-Eye View of the Cote D'Azur by helicopter. Duration: Up to 4 hours. Price: Up to $248.
Staying in Touch
Nice -- Cyber Cafe Bio / English keyboards / 16 Rue Paganini
Cannes -- Cybercafe 06 at Le Petit Caboulot / 8 Place de la Foux
Eze -- WiFi Hotspot / 1138 Ave. de la Turbie
Grasse -- Cybercafe 06 at Le Petit Caboulot / 8 Place de la Foux
Monte Carlo -- Stars 'N' Bars / 6 Quai Antoine 1er
St-Tropez -- FCDCI / 2 Ave. Paul Roussel.
For More Information
On the Web: French Tourism Board and Monaco Government Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: France Exchange
Photos of church, flower market and Matisse Museum appear courtesy of the Office du Tourisme et des Congres de Nice.