An Irishman's Diary
Nice for Christmas; there’ s no better place, as we’ve found on a couple of occasions. The weather in Nice, the capital of the Cote d’Azur, is generally very mild during December, sunny, too.
Arriving at or departing from Nice airport in clear weather is spectacular; the airport is built into the sea at the western end of Nice and the views from your plane are astonishing. The other big plus about Nice is the Promenade des Anglais, that great seaside boulevard, opened in its present form by the Duke of Connaught in 1931 and a great walking treat.
These days, Nice is so packed in summer with tourists that December is a far better time to explore. Mind you, we weren’t particularly turned on by Nice, despite all its museums, parks and gardens, or by the two other big conurbations along the coast here, Cannes and the principality of Monaco.
They are all too glitzy glam, reeking of super-rich perfume. But we found Nice an ideal place from which to explore the whole Cote d’Azur. From the main railway station in Nice, it’s easy to reach the towns along the coast.
The most distant we travelled to was St Tropez, all of 108km away. St Tropez, with its quayside restaurants and legions of big yachts tied up, is quiet and appealing in December, the opposite of what it’s like in August.
Going in the other direction from Nice, eastwards, towards Italy, which once ruled this corner of France, we discovered Menton. The town has preserved much of its 19th- century charm, despite the destructive earthquake of 1887. Menton remains delightful, with its old town rising from the harbour to the 17th-century church of St Michel Archange.
From the end of the 19th century, Menton, whose symbol, a lemon, denotes its mild microclimate, was very popular with English and Russian aristocrats. These days, the new Russian oligarchs find home from home here but the town gives a better insight into the old days of the French Riviera than anywhere else. Menton has also attracted many creative spirits, none more so than William Butler Yeats, who died on January 28th, 1939, in the ironically named Hotel Idéal-Séjour in Roquebrune- Cap-Martin.
He was buried in the town, which is really a western extension of Menton, and wasn’t repatriated to Sligo until 1948. Over the years, it has been suggested from time to time that the man who is buried at Drumcliffe isn’t Yeats at all, but a French dentist.
Out of all the trips we did from Nice, none was so striking as that on the Train de Pigne, from Nice to Digne-les-Bains, an old Provençal lavender town, high up in the mountains of Haute Provence. The train is named after the pine cones that were once used to fire up the old steam locos on the line. The first section of the railway was opened in 1891 and it took 20 years to complete. These days, the 151km journey takes three- and-a-half hours through mountain scenery and along gorges, climbing to a high point of 1, 000 metres above sea level.
I’m glad that when we did the trip, it was from the old station for the line in Nice, just a few blocks from the main SNCF station. The old Gare du Sud was dark and dingy but full of character. In recent years, it has been replaced by a nearby modern station that’s the exact opposite. We were also lucky in taking the trip on the old-style train – seriously deficient in amenities – before it too was upgraded. Yet as the train bumped slowly upwards along an uneven track, we enjoyed the baguettes and grande bouteille of rough red wine we had bought at the station.
At the other end of the line, Digne-les-Bains was high enough up to induce what felt like a touch of altitude sickness after a vinous Sunday lunch at the Hotel Grand Paris.
On this particular trip, we were destined to move on to Paris itself.
From Digne-les- Bains, we took an exceedingly meandering bus trip to Valence, on the main TGV line from Marseilles to Paris. We were whisked by TGV to Paris in just over two hours, but when we arrived at the Gare de Lyon late on New Year’s Eve, we had to wait an hour in a vast queue for a taxi. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!