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St Paul and Vence

Last day in the south of France and the snow is still falling. The col de Vence had been taken over by tobogganers and those trying out their latest ski gear. So I made use of the time to visit the towns of St Paul and Vence. Both are known for their connections to the world of modern art; in the 50s and 60s many important figures lived here including Matisse and Chagall.

They would be horrified by the idea of living in St Paul today. The place has been turned into one of those unpleasant museum villages, like Eze, where the streets have been rebuilt and restored so heavily that only luxury survives. The only thing more surprising than the poor quality of the art in the galleries is the price that is being asked for it. The whole area is surrounded by luxury hotels and spas.

Vence still retains a feeling of a town that could be lived in. It is large enough to have people who are neither involved nor interested in modern art and the cafés are places that one can enjoy a drink without being patronised. There are two pieces of interesting art in the town. On an upper road is a Dominican chapel, decorated by Matisse. The little museum attached shows the various possibilities that Matisse worked through before deciding on the calming flowing blues and greens that predominate. The black and white tiled areas are a stark contrast. They perhaps echo the monochromatic dress of the Dominicans but there use here is quite startling. Also the local cathedral has a mosaic by Chagall, tucked into a badly lit corner where the baptismal font is located. This is a beautiful account of the finding of Moses in the bed of rushes as a prefiguring of Christian baptism.

But it is to Saint Paul that the visitor is directed for a fuller account of the modern art scene along the French Riviera. Here is the Fondation Maeght, a private foundation housing works by Miró, Léger, Giacometti, Chillida, Hepworth and many more. I say housing but the true delight of this excellent museum is its relationship with the gardens, terraces and woods that surround the fine piece of modern architecture by Josep Lluís Sert. The larger pieces of sculpture are the high point of the collection, great terraces of Miró sculptures, blocks of Chillida’s granite that echo his own farm museum outside San Sebastián. There is also a fine collection of more recent art in the main buildings as well as interesting temporary exhibitions. It is a fine institution that has been going strong since 1964.

Back to Nice for dinner where a pleasant bistrot, IN VINO, rue d’hôtel de ville, produces an acceptable meal. It only cost ten euros less than last night’s Michelin starred extravaganza however. Why bother?

The Nice Riviera

Nice still attracts a lot of visitors but I have to wonder what sort of a time most of them are having. I think a lot of them arrive with a very vague notion that this is an important historic city filled with monuments. In fact the attractions of Nice are quite hard to define. There are the museums which show an important legacy of early twentieth century art but few monuments of importance. The beach is well known but is not particularly fine and can be extraordinarily crowded in high season. The one thing that everyone seems to know about Nice is that it was a centre of the early tourism industry with the English giving their name to the Promenade des Anglais.

The visitors want a flavour of this famous past to understand why this became the best known tourist coast in the world. The truth is that the present can be quite a disappointment. A superficial visit will show a hugely busy modern city with a major traffic problem which the locals try to get around by driving as fast and as daringly as possible, roads everywhere, elevated, underground, twisted and turning, to try to get rid of some of this problem; very busy people who have lives to lead and aren’t particularly fond of the huge quantities of visitors that arrive each year; an architectural heritage that is mainly based in 60s and 70s brutalism, buildings everywhere, few of them good and many of them astonishingly awful; bad restaurants at every street corner and indifferent hotels. There are, as I mentioned above, few monuments of interest.

If I list the drawbacks it is not because I want to dissuade people from going to Nice but rather to explain how extraordinary the area is that can cope with these disadvantages. But the visitor that travels to Nice and the surrounding area has to realise that it takes a lot of planning and understanding to enjoy the place fully.

One way to do this is to go out of season when tables can be found in the better restaurants and prices are many per cent below normal. Another way is to leave the city centre and explore the surrounding hills and just take a look at some of the scenery that attracted people here in the first place. Because there is some of it left.

If I urge people to walk or hike it is because I have a genuine belief that this is the right way to see a place. So if you can drive just the few short miles up to La Turbie and head up into the Parc de la Grande Corniche and go for a walk. I did this today and after twenty minutes through the snowy trails I arrived at a point from where I could see the most spectacular panorama. To the east lay La Turbie, crowned with its most extraordinary monument the Trophée des Alpes, a huge Roman monument on the via Julia. Beyond were the headlands of Menton and Bordighera in Italy. To the north the ring of the Alps was majestic, covered in snow and glinting pink in the late afternoon sun. Underneath Monaco and Monte Carlo were as clear as a map, the twin turrets of the casino standing out by the giant pleasure craft in the harbour. Further west is the perched village of Eze and beyond the great headland of Cap Ferrat, Nice itself, and Antibes and the resorts along the riviera. The situation of the city and the beauty of what else is here was so apparent. I walked along the edge of the corniche looking over the sea and the mountains alternately. Later I descended a magnificent path to the coast at Cap d’Ail and walked along a sea promenade to Monaco, to be met by the cars from the vintage Monte Carlo rally. This was a day that people in the nineteenth century would have recognised, and delighted in.

Dinner in the SUPERB, Restaurant Christian Plumail l’Univers, 54, bd Jean Jaures, Nice. 04 93 62 32 22. Book if you can.

A diversion to Piemonte

I don’t believe in wasted days but there was little gained by driving up to Alba yesterday evening, realising that there was no way I could do any useful work and then driving back to Nice today. I am now the proud owner of a set of snow chains for a Ford Fiesta. I have eaten fresh fungi porcini from the forests of the Roero. But apart from those two facts there is little to show for my time and certainly little that will advance the cause of the Piemonte part of this walk. And despite my refusal to believe that time is ever wasted, there are days which, if they happened to fall on Friday the thirteenth, would make for positive proof of an old superstition. Having wasted time in the car I wasted money on snow chains, chose a bad restaurant for dinner and a worse waiter.

Cars are a device which should be spread a lot less liberally across the planet and particularly among certain nationalities. French drivers are aggressive and have little time for people who don’t know where they are going and less for those who do not know what they are doing but they do know how to handle a car. They have accidents but not through inattention or bad technical ability. They have accidents because they leave so little room for error. The Italians, so close and in many ways so similar to the southern French, have a completely different problem. They honestly believe that they can drive a vehicle through a solid object. This is usually another car but it can be a barrier or even a building. They will drive into a position where there is NO POSSIBILITY of avoiding having to stop yet only touch the brakes at the very last moment in utter disbelief that the queue of 30 cars waiting at a toll booth hasn’t magically evaporated before they arrive. One nice trait of Italian drivers is that most of the time they don’t get angry, they are too busy getting past the next car in front of them that they have no interest in the one they have just passed. Only rich Italians get angry behind the wheel. The BMW 6 series seems to attract the same personality all over the globe (and the X6 interestingly). In fact rich Italians seem to be the angrier in all sorts of circumstances.

My waiter was French and was not unpleasant. He brought me the things that I ordered so if it had not been such a pointless day all around I probably would never have focussed on him at all. But he had that annoying mannerism, which I had thought nearly extinct, that you find among a few people who work with tourists which is the inability to understand a word you say. It doesn’t matter that you speak better French than he does, he knows you are foreign and knows also that he will not be able to make out a word of any language that passes your lips. Without being immodest I am a reasonable linguist and the French word for bread is not beyond me. But as it reached his ears I could have been asking for a seared unicorn liver. “Comment? Du vin?” I spat p at the start of the word at him several times with no effect. I pointed at the next table. “Du sel?” Eventually the centime dropped.

It is all of course a sign of a deep lack of imagination and engagement. If he was interested in his job or his customers this would not happen. So I will not be returning to tonight’s restaurant. Stupid of me to think I could find something worth eating in the cours Saleya.

It always feels good to put all the grumbles into one edit. A more positive day tomorrow I am sure.

Genova

Genova can feel to the passing motorist a little like an open prison,  hemmed in by mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The network of motorways seems to twist and turn and disappear through tunnels as if making for the only piece of empty space left. It is always a relief to pass by the city and begin the drive along the Riviera. The weather this morning was a reminder of the location of the city at the foot of the mountains. It was fiercely cold with a very strong northerly wind coming down off the Appenines and snow being blown around the streets. Having left the car on the edge of the old town I walked across a snow and salt filled square to the Palazzo Ducale. This is now a major exhibition centre which today featured Van Gogh and Gauguin. There was also, appropriately enough, an exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the race to the South Pole. The visitor has to be careful with palazzi in Genova so I walked down the street to the cathedral of San Lorenzo.

This fine building was begun as a romanesque church but was finished in a late mannerist style which verges on the baroque. The result is more exciting and certainly more agreeable than you might think. The mannerist interior has been squeezed into the confines of an altogether narrower building than it would have chosen for itself but the result is quite pleasing. Height is emphasised above the rather flamboyant decoration, itself unfinished, so that the whole has the feeling of something more manageable than Italy’s larger renaissance churches.

The next port of call was the street filled with palazzi, the via Garibaldi or via nuova as it was when all these fine buildings were put up. They are fine buildings, but there are a lot of them, too many now turned into banks and even perhaps too many turned into museums. The three main museums in the street are all linked together by a single entrance ticket and you soon get the measure of what you are in for. The Palazzo Rosso is the start of the tour with three floors devoted to art. This is followed by the Palazzo Bianco where there are similarly large numbers of pictures and the final link in the chain is the Palazzo Tursi which, not to be outdone, offers further examples. The quality of the painting could scarcely be uniform so it is no surprise to find that it isn’t; the common failing of similar places across Europe is to imagine that the local painters are just as good as the masters, if only the world at large would give them their due. There is the subtext that the only reason that they are not given their due is a meanness of spirit and simple bad feeling towards the town from the outside which is only to be expected.

There are many fine works on display, a list of the artists suggests as much. Mainly Italian, of course, there are works by Veronese, Guercino and a marble by Canova, as well as some surprising foreign names, Dürer, Zurabarán, Murillo and Reubens. It would take weeks to go through the pictures carefully so a rather rapid pace is required. This clearly upsets the many very willing guardians of the paintings who try to make the visitor look at everything in the order in which it was intended to be looked at. They follow from room to room, opening doors and indicating directions. Any deviation from the specified route is frowned upon and an omission is frankly scoffed at. Eyes are raised and the face takes on an expression that clearly says, “I knew you weren’t a real art lover”. No matter we have many more palaces to see.

Despite Genova being big and feeling big, it is a fine city to walk around. Not far away there is the Palazzo Spinola, another excellent building filled with art, ceramics, and sundry other curiosities. I hurried through as I was determined to see the Palazzo Reale, although as this turned out to be closed and so, for works, was the Palazzo Doria or Palazzo del Principe, I ended up being let off the hook somewhat. I happily wandered the old streets stopping for a bite of that wonderful Genovese invention, the focaccia, (focaccerie are everywhere) and mooching around the port area a little. The wind was so strong that I barely had a chance to examine the recent transformations. Renzo Piano has gone to a lot of work to try to make sense of this bleak area but he is fighting a losing battle. Ever since Genova decided to put a raised motorway right along the port side they condemned it to a slow death. One day it will be destroyed and the area will spring back to life.

I did find time due to the closure of other buildings to head up a small street to the museum of the Risorgimento. Liguria was a spearhead of the unification of Italy. Since the annexation of the old Duchy of Genova by Piemonte following the fall of Napoleon it was required to play a part in the birth of the nation. It was the birthplace of Mazzini, where the museum now stands, and of course the departure point of the Mille under the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi, himself born along the coast in Nice. The little museum shed an interesting light not so much on the events of the nineteenth century but more on the perception of those events and the feelings that ran high during the great shifts in politics that were necessary to create a nation. A brief but interesting stop in my day.

I walked briskly back to the car to drive to Alba. This turned out to be a folly of potentially large proportions, the car barely made it and I have been watching the snow fall steadily ever since. I may be here some time.

Dinner in Alba – Cincilla, via Giocosa 2. Excellent pizza and a very good tagliatelle ai fungi porcini.

Hotels along the Italian Riviera

The most chic area of the Italian Riviera is the short south facing coastline between Rapallo and Portofino. The latter is of course synonymous with fine living and one fine hotel in particular, the Splendido. At this time of year the hotel is not open and all the rooms are mothballed but still the location has the power to thrill on a sunny cold January morning. The views from this ex-monastery are about as good as they get in mainland Italy and the lovely gardens make the most of the position, the light and shade and the scents that the undergrowth can produce. The hotel, and not just the location, needs to be very good to be worth the prices it charges. The Orient Express company does run some of Europe’s finest properties however and I have no doubt this will be one of them. You will need to get the rich room here though.

Further along the coast there are very good hotels that are much easier to choose for the person of limited means. The names of these hotels seem to be made up randomly from a list of well worn words, Miramare, Royal, Imperial, Grand, Palace, etc. But they do have the advantage of giving a strong clue as to their character. They are known collectively as Grande Dame hotels, places with character and evidence of longevity, places where the walls and floors and ceilings cannot be replaced by modern architects and which breathe the atmosphere of the villas that they were created from.

In Santa Margherita Ligure, perhaps the most complete resort town around here, there are a couple of watering-holes of the old-fashioned  kind. The Imperial Palace, also closed at this time of year, is an imposing building which has another enviable location. Nothing to report on the rooms though as they are well and truly closed. Closer to Portofino is the Grand Hotel Miramare again with a fine position overlooking the sea. This remains open through the year as it has that great blessing of the large hotel, a conference centre. The rooms have been recently and beautifully refurbished here, they are light and elegant, nicely appointed of course, but more than that they are airy and are places that you want to stay. Rooms with a sea view are the best of course but the garden view rooms to the rear have a nice park view and are very quiet. I have not eaten here but the restaurant and private rooms available are all very pleasant. Certainly a strong contender for anyone’s custom at more reasonable rates than some.

The Grande Dame of nearby Rapallo is the Excelsior Palace, a place that is easy to miss as you leave the town towards Santa Margherita Ligure, but once you make the detour up the hotel driveway the position occupied by the Excelsior has nothing to envy among its neighbours. The little promontory on which it stands juts out into the sea allowing the rather ugly hundred year old façade to look across the sea to Portofino in one direction and over the Tigullio Bay and Rapallo in the other. None of the rooms therefore has a bad view (although some are more splendid than others). Unfortunately the rooms themselves are a little worn with the years but still appealing and scrupulously clean. A fantastic location, lovely staff and an easy walk to a lot of restaurants.

Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure have train stations and this can be a great advantage for people who wish to stay in the area as getting around, particularly to the cinque terre, is difficult by road. Portofino, along with Rapallo and Santa Margherita does have a port with a limited boat service to help with getting around. From all of these places access is pretty good to the mountain of Portofino where there are some fine – if rather steep, hiking trails can be found. Good sketch maps are available in the tourist offices and the trails are well marked. But be sure to determine the difficulty level of the walks before you go as some involve steep climbs and descents.

Dinner at Zi Teresa in Rapallo: very good. This little ristorante pizzeria is just opposite the station on the corso Italia. Excellent marinated anchovies, fantastic ravioli. Cheap cheerful and good.

Museums of Nice

Behind the western end of the Promenade des Anglais rises a hill on what once must have been the very edge of Nice. The roads twist through the older villas and newer apartments away from the flatter area of the centre of town. Just before the impassable barrier that is the railway and its associated void rapide stands a noble building with a pleasant garden, home of the Musée des Beaux Arts of Nice.

This kind of state run museum used to be found everywhere, but such are the changes of style in the last ten or fifteen years they are now in a minority, tainted with anachronism. Superannuated staff in ill-fitting black uniforms finish their conversations before attending to the public. They gather around the front desk seeking company. The small talk is made up of complaints and directed at footballers and television programmes. Ten yards away, under lock and key behind glass doors the few items that the museum has on sale would require a much more determined purchaser than they have seen today.

The rooms downstairs are not full of masterpieces but they do attract attention. There is an unusual sculpture of a veiled head, somehow brilliantly achieved in marble; an extraordinary feat made more extraordinary by the fact that the sculptor remains anonymous. In the next corridor a succession of large canvases from the eighteenth century take mythology as their theme. In the adjacent room two small exquisite romantic scenes by Vernet steal the show but they are an exception as, in general, here they like their paintings large and their women naked.

Upstairs the visitor is greeted by a Rodin plaster of Le Penseur, incongruous in a gallery of C15 Italian and French religious painting. The succession of saints leads to a crucifixion by Bronzino, clearly a highlight of the collection. Dramatically presented it has, more than anything else in the gallery, the air of newness and marks a culmination of the saintly procession.

Nice has more renown for the modern painters who found here movement and colour. After a drab January day outside it was especially nice to walk into a room filled with the scintillating pastels of Jules Chéret, late works inspired by his time in the city at the end of his life.

Opposite in two rooms that gaze out over the sea are the works of Raoul Dufy. More, perhaps, than any other painter Dufy seizes on movement, mass chaotic movement, and expresses it without reserve or restrain, unconcerned by the collisions it produces. His art seeks out moments of abandon: the explosion of fireworks, the mêlée of the circus, the crowds at a bullfight or the erratic trajectories of rowing boats at Henley Regatta. These shifting shapes give us shifting colours, bold and beautiful statements of light and air that find their finest moments in the Riviera. A curtain flapping at an open window, the road toSainte Maxime, his is the Riviera we all love.

Up the hill behind the railway station is the 1970s building that houses the National Museum of Marc Chagall. Low concrete buildings lie in pleasant gardens and house a few dozen of this painter’s work. Chagall was born in Russia in 1887 and died 98 years later in St Paul de Vence after an eventful life, so he certainly had time to produce plenty of work. What is shown here is a relatively small sample.

One large room opposite the entrance is filled with large canvases whose subjects are all taken from the Old Testament. The figures are drawn with wondering smiles of innocence and love. Even Adam, expelled from Paradise, is smiling (although Eve looks less happy). Jacob in his dream state is almost laughing. In these large works figures are outlined in thick black lines and the large blocks of colour do not follow the forms depicted. This has an extraordinary effect of creating spaces within the canvas, in and through which the figures can move. The colours are bold and primary: blue red and yellow predominate. Green is present in some of the pictures and brown intervenes once. In an adjoining hexagonal room are five very red pictures depicting passages from the Song of Solomon. The central elongated  figures of white bride and blue groom are smiling ecstatically. Above each picture is a quotation from this celebration of love.

Much of the building is taken up with images of the circus. After the initial video there is a large room devoted to this theme and much of the rest of the building gives detailed versions of elements from the larger canvases. Chagall’s ethereal figures are shown as clowns, or acrobats, girls doing the splits (a favourite pose) or lion tamers. The impossible feats of the acrobats seem to appeal to the artist who can have his figures hanging or floating in the air. The magician / artist can also create his famous anthropomorphised animals and elongated lovers that defy easy categorisation. Always it is the innocent smiles of the figures that stay with the viewer, along with the slightly more disturbing smiles of the animals. Bosch-like, his oversized beaky birds are the stuff of children’s dreams, good and bad.

Chagall’s attraction to the circus is perhaps as a landscape of joy for its own sake. This is a world of amusement that appealed to many artists of the nineteenth century. For Dickens in Hard Times the world of the circus is an expression of uncontrolled human emotion, a place which has much to teach the smoke-bound inhabitants of Coketown. This novel is an appeal to our emotional intelligence, the work of a man looking back and reflecting on the sense that can be made of this industrialised world and his own place within it. It is a world of outcasts yet honest thinking and feeling people. Sleary’s protestation at the end of the book, delivered in his lisping speech, is a warning to all who are strangers to art, to amusement and to emotion. “You mutht have uth Thquire. Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth, not the wurtht!”. Chagall’s paintings make a smiler appeal.

Further up the boulevard leading north is the hilltop district of Cimiez. This was where the Gauls had their oppidum and the Romans built their city. Next to the Roman amphitheatre is the third major museum of Nice, a collection of works by Henri Matisse. Again coming from the north Matisse started painting in Picardie and then among his fellows in Le Havre. He went south for the first time when he was thirty years old. The early paintings, of which a few are displayed here, are dark although exceptionally well executed for such a novice artist. Colour begins to dominate when he makes the south his home and he was to stay here until his death well into his eighties.

Matisse is often cited alongside Picasso as a definer of early twentieth century art and his obsession with human form has a very Picasso-like quality. His gifts as a draftsman allow him to define a figure in a stroke or two in a similar way to his more famous neighbour in Provence. Blocks of colour were added or not, but the outline was the thing, and his painting developed rapidly into very fluid movements which culminate in dancing figures and swimming-pool friezes. The major works are not present here and there is little enough in the building to form much of a view of such an important artist. Nevertheless this small museum manages to show off the important range of his talents.

Nice – the best hotels

Nice can claim one of France’s most famous streets, the Promenade des Anglais, a long curving dual carriageway flanked on one side by belle époque hotels and condominium blocks and on the other by the city’s beach. This famous street also has one of the country’s most famous hotels, the Negresco. Built one hundred years ago (“by the son of a Rumanian immigrant” as is often said) the Negresco is still one of the most exciting hotels in the world. Crammed with modern and traditional art the lovely rooms are all individually created with antique furniture and works of art. Those lucky enough to have a little more space in a suite with a sea view will feel that there is no need to leave the room. The public areas breathe that turn of the century opulence and grandeur that built the great hotels of the world, the Ritz, the Carlton and so many more. The current owner Mme Jeanne Augier has been involved for over half the life of this property and her conscientious and devoted attention to the hotel are still shining through.

Along the rest of the Promenade des Anglais are many of the other top hotels in the city. First among these is clearly the Palais de la Mediterranée, a fine building from the 1920s, completely gutted a few years ago and rebuilt inside in a modern and spacious fashion. This has the advantages of a well-run new hotel with excellent facilities in a superb location behind a very elegant façade. High quality in a very agreeable package.

The Boscolo Exedra is the third five star hotel in Nice, recently elevated to the same status as the two doyens listed above. Behind the coast it stands on a well used street near the heart of the city. It used to be the Atlantic, a standby for tour groups in the eighties, but fell into neglect and was closed. Once again the façade remained while a new and very modern hotel was built behind it. Here we are in the territory of minimalist art, white on white with open plan bathrooms and zebra print rugs. Pink hearts and red billiard tables decorate the lobby. Unfortunately, here it is hard to see the substance behind the froth. The rooms are fine, no more, and the plastic white curved bar and the banquet room (still looking rather like the breakfast room it used to be earlier in the day) are lacking in art, sophistication and style, despite the fact that is what they appear to be all about.

The Meridien is a modern chain with a very unprepossessing entrance and a pair of escalators that look like they are taking you into a train station. The treatment is similarly business-like, large numbers of business people arriving for a succession of conferences, meetings and congresses. Published room rates are astonishing, presumably in the now ubiquitous attempt to make you feel happy that you got such a big discount. No one pays those prices, surely?

There are others, the four star Westminster along the Promenade des Anglais, the rest of the Italian owned Boscolo chain. There is one quirky hotel left to be described however and that is the La Pérouse. Tucked behind a dreary façade that merely acts as a gateway, this member of the Small Luxury Hotels group is actually located in a building that climbs the hillside away from the sea very close to the old chateau. The location is strange and exciting, half way between the port and vieux Nice. It has gardens and terraces, lots of them, with a pool which is backed by the rock face and faces the superb view across the Baie des Anges. It is a shame that the rooms simply don’t make your heart sing. They are more homely, the bathrooms might even have come from someone’s home, but the tiny balconies, rough finished white walls and zip and link beds don’t add up to the price on the back of the door. Fun, but at what cost?

On the Boulevard Victor Hugo is the Holiday Inn and its restaurant, Chez Panisse, which reminds me of the origin of this word. A panisse  is a chick pea cake, fried and eaten hot, and the name takes me straight to Nice although I understand the Italians across the border are equally fond of them.

Nearby, on the opposite side of the rue Alphonse Karr, is a restaurant of undoubted quality and very popular with its knowledgeable niçois clientele. Les Viviers is a double fronted restaurant with an elegant end and a lively bistro end where I headed straight away. Although less formal it was barely less expensive yet packed with men and women of a certain age. The tables are small, the corridors narrow and there are good and bad seats. Yet it is clearly loved and the atmosphere in the brass and wood interior is defined by that happy bistro hum that has been the background noise to so many good meals in the past.

Les Viviers suggests fish and the menu confirms this suspicion. There is fish soup, fish salads and oysters, as well as paté and vegetable dishes as well. In the main courses fish again predominates with turbot, John Dory, bream, scallops, shrimp and lobster all available. They still do those wonderful whole fish dishes too and I would have given a lot to have found a companion who would share the magnificent sole meunière which I saw come out of the kitchen. There is meat too, excellent lamb amongst other dishes, and a good wine list much discussed by my neighbours. Expensive, so go but go with others who can afford to pay their own way.

Les Viviers, 22, rue Alphonse Karr, Nice

Nice

Nice is different from other towns along the French Riviera. There is a pinch of everything here. Along the Promenade des Anglais there are the luxury hotels, now mixed in with a far greater proportion of condominiums and a few restaurants of variable quality. In the centre of the city the open areas have been remodelled and turned green. Trams slide across these twenty-first century spaces among public art and nervous fountains. Their occupants, the few that there are, are heading for the inevitable retail. In vieux Nice there areonly restaurants, dozens of them, lining the pedestrianized streets, very indifferent eateries facing each other as they fight over an indifferent clientele.

Venture away from all this and there is a lot more to Nice than you could find in the many chic resorts along the coast. Today small is chic on the Riviera and Nice is big, very big. Although the tourist office still clings to the fashions of one hundred years ago there is a new Nice, multi-national, multi-racial, part Italian, part French but mainly Niçois. The night is no longer tender here, if it ever has been, and the backstreets away from the coast remind the traveller of Montpellier and Marseille rather than Cannes.

HotPot has established itself in the station district, an area generally populated by a mixed group of north African and Asian groups mixed with young white French. Hemmed in by the more traditionally ubiquitous standby, neon-fronted French Vietnamese restaurants, Hot Pot is a fun Korean evening out with fresh fish, sizzling hot plates and full-flavoured broth. The servers juggle shrimp and scallops in entertaining demonstrations of their craft, slicing beef and flipping clattering tofu directly into the mouths of more experienced diners. The patrons are chatting, laughing and eating in equal measure, a good sign in any restaurant. You could do worse. At any place in vieux Nice, par exemple. 

Hot Pot, 6 rue Alsace Lorraine, Nice. 04 93 82 33 54

The Borders

The Borders are often overlooked by visitors to Scotland. Arriving in Edinburgh or Glasgow it is natural for the outsider to turn north after spending time in either of these two great cities.. We want to see the highlands, spy the distilleries and the golf courses that make international headlines.

This is a mistake. The history of Scotland, her early formation, the vital role of Christianity and the battles with Northumbria and later the English are all part of the story of the Borders and it is a story told by some of Scotland’s finest writers. This is Scott-land, the home of Sir Walter and the romanticization of the country. Southern Scotland is also the home of Robbie Burns the archetype of Scottish nationalism.

So there is plenty to see. The great abbeys of Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Melrose played a formative part in the construction of what became Alba. Abbotsford is Walter Scotts house just outside Melrose. Floors Castle is just down the road at Kelso and Coldstream still guards the border.

The walking hereabouts is remarkable as well. Saint Cuthbert’s Way leads from the Abbeys to the coast, not so far away, in Northumbria at Lindisfarne. The coast is also fascinating on the way up to North Berwick, passing Saint Abb’s and Dunbar, birthplace of John Muir the great environmentalist, to the dramatic Tantallon Castle. The Southern Upland Way begins at the delightful Saint Abb’s Head and marches across fine scenery all the way to Ayrshire. You can follow the famous Tweed whose banks are lined with fishermen or climb slopes. These are bold, rounded, ancient hills, some forested but many bare and beautiful to walk over. They bring us down to fine towns, like Peebles, or marvellous houses like the famous Traquair, a C12 hunting lodge that is still inhabited today. Near Melrose are the beautiful volcanic Eildon Hills.

The rooms at Burt’s Hotel in Melrose are simple though comfortable but the food there is excellent. There is a good choice between fine dining in the restaurant and truly lovely informal cooking in the lounge bar. I had an interestingly spiced moroccan lamb dish which was warming and hearty as well as being fun and well made. This was followed by an excellent dessert that really belonged in the fine dining section of the hotel. Service was efficient and friendly and the whole hotel just smells of excellent management. Outside Peebles is Cringletie House a fine country house hotel whose grounds in February are carpeted with snowdrops.

The place to stay in the borders though is the Roxburghe, part of the Duke of Roxburghe’s estate just south of Kelso. A fine country house hotel with good food and lovely bedrooms which doesn’t – like so many of these scottish hotels – break the bank. Very good.

The Highlands

It is easy to eulogize about Scotland. The stunning west coast scenery, the awesome mountains that just seem to appear in front of you, even the ever changing weather with its ever changing light. There is simply nothing in Britain and nothing much that I have seen in the world that compares. It is not merely the beauty; Scotland at its best reminds us of our connection with the past and our ever tenuous current relationship with the earth. The elements are keenly felt. Water is infinite in its variety: as solid ice and snow, as torrential rain and broad lochs, as wisps of cloud and sense-depriving fogs. It can even exist in a supercooled form that remains liquid at temperatures where anywhere else would be impossible.
Panoramas are dramatic, huge: they draw us in and stop us dead. If we are confident enough to leave the cocoon of our car or hotel, the landscape can shock and frighten. One moment the air has a clarity that the modern urbanite has never known, the next nothing is to be seen beyond our outstretched arms. The rain that was falling steadily is now running down the hillside in streams with such violence that make them impassable where a few moments before there were simple trickles. Rain turns to treacherous ice on contact with any firm surface. The beauty and fear, even fear conquered, leave us motionless in our summit fever.
It is a commonplace to say that humans lack these experiences in their modern lives. We talk of humbling experiences in the face of grandiose nature. But it is the connection not the disconnection that frightens, it is the knowledge that we are a part of this not apart from it.
Even in February a large percentage of my fellow travellers heading north to Inverness are single males with lithe bodies, little hair and aggressive footwear. These people will be out ‘on the hills’ all week getting their fix of this drug that holds our breath still. There is no guarantee of good weather on even one day this week, and there is a real guarantee of awkward and challenging weather on many days, but they will talk about, and more importantly remember for the rest of their lives, the good day when it comes.
And come it does for me in the Great Glen and again on the west coast. The huge skies that we associate with Wyoming or Zambia are there in our own country and we are made whole and happy for a short time longer.

 

I am flying north to look at hotels for a putative Scotland trip which we hope will see the light of day in 2012. I know from experience that this will not be easy. Put in the simplest terms Scotland does not have the infrastructure that you would expect from a country that is such a joy to behold. The roads can be narrow, poorly maintained and slow. The hotels are few and small and expensive.
I visit a number of these ‘country house hotels’. They are set in extraordinary scenery, in lovely buildings, and give high levels of service. They cost between £200 and £600 per night. ‘Once in a lifetime experience’ is a phrase that comes to many brochure writers’ minds. There seem to be too many places building their business by urging us never to return!
In the Highlands the great hotel is the Inverlochy Castle just outside Fort William. It has gained all the accolades from all the great travel magazines and remains unequalled in Scotland and far beyond. The title of great hotel is not easy to confer and rarely is it employed whole-heartedly outside the large cities which attract a sufficient clientele with deep enough pockets. But Inverlochy Castle is great, from beginning to end and there is an end on it.
Further north is the Torridon, a superb country house in the old style with very comfortable rooms and a welcoming attitude. A place where it is a true pleasure to stay. To the west is the Isle of Eriska, a magnificent estate on a private island with excellent dining, a spa and a golf course. There are the golf hotels, supreme among which is perhaps Gleneagles. And there are urban centres of excellence: the Balmoral in Edinburgh springs to mind.
Many English minds are doubtful of the joys of Scotland. They fear that the Scots will not like them, just because they are English. There are Scots whose embattled sense of historical injustice leads them to mistrust their bigger neighbour, and who can blame them? But that is not the Scottish way and it does not come easily even to those who feel it deeply. For the Scots are a warm-hearted secure nation who like the new and the unexpected and welcome the stranger with all the friendliness of the genuine mountain race.
For a taste of this hospitality try the excellent Culloden House Hotel just outside Inverness. It is well-appointed, well-run and happily located whether your preferred leisure activity is golfing on the Moray firth, sipping whisky on Speyside or strolling the battlefield of Culloden itself. Smaller, less luxurious but equally friendly hotels exist as well. The extraordinary Ceilidh Place in Ullapool is quirky and excellent and cheaper than one would expect. The food is very good indeed.
Food is an awkward subject in Scotland. It has improved immeasurably since I last visited this area and is now comparable to the rest of the United Kingdom. But that is not all good news. There are still too many hotels that smell, on entering, of food that was cooked centuries ago. Throw a bit of chalk dust into the mxture and they would feel uncomfortably like public school. There are still too many restaurants whose odour of fried food announces its presence well before you see it. It is a smell that portends death, appropriately enough, sickly in its sweetness and cloying in its greasiness. It will not disappear, as anyone who has enjoyed a fish and chip supper in a hatchback knows.
Yet there are a number of modernised gastro-units. Brasseries attached to purple and orange hotels, pubs trying to stand out in the high street or bistros appealing to the nouveau gastronome in all of us. They can be good but have an unhappy habit of lapsing into the faults of old. Portion sizes are such that after a week the unwary can feel bloated on a more or less continuous basis. There is too much ‘haggis mash’, too much ‘rich onion gravy’ and too many root vegetables.
The better restaurants have evolved from the past not revolted against it. The sea is a wonderful ally for those who wish to eat less richly. There is of course plenty of fabulous venison beef and lamb here as well and it is possible to eat in moderation. Try the Crinan Hotel at the end of the Crinan canal to see what can be done with skill and local produce and the good sense not to do too much to it.