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Trip Report Was it nice in Nice in December 2008 ? YES!

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This was our first major trip since I had my knee replacements, and it was just great to be able to walk all over without pain—and to be able to climb stairs again.

We flew to Nice via Dallas and Heathrow, having snagged free business-class tickets using our AA F/F miles last January. (FYI, getting tickets in the first and part of the second week of December is generally easy, according to the passenger agent.) Our flights were pleasant, and it was nice to fly again on British Airways, even for the short connection. The cabin crew were great, and we even had an “expanded breakfast” on the 1-1/2-hour flight: lovely Wiltshire ham slices, tasty cherry tomatoes (in winter!), and wedges of cheddar and stilton to finish.

We arrived in Nice around 2:00 p.m. and waltzed through Customs (no one was there, as usual) and Immigration (we got our passports stamped for a change) and were met by a driver from the shuttle firm that’s listed on the Nice airport site. We expected a van; we got the equivalent of a Lincoln town car with a uniformed driver, amazing for the price of 14 Euros per person.

Our three days in Nice came with sunny but cold weather. The Mediterranean sparkled in the sun, and we enjoyed looking at the big (comparatively) waves crashing on the pebbly shore. We stayed again at the Mercure Promenade des Anglais, with a sea-view room for 140 Euros, and enjoyed the very comfortable bed and large bathroom. The hotel, just above the Casino Ruhl, shares walls with the pricier Le Meridien and is very well located for visiting Vieux Nice and the shops along the rue Masséna. The rooms on the third floor are being renovated to superior standard, and judging from the photos in the lobby the new rooms should be very nice. The current rooms, however, were renovated in 2005 and are still fresh and attractive, in vivid colors.

That night the Mistral was blowing, but we went out for a walk before dinner and happened on Lou Nissart, an old-Provençal restaurant not far from the Promenade. My husband had fabulous gnocchi in olive oil and basil, while I had a big plate of excellent pissaladière. We fought the wind back to our hotel and collapsed.

Instead of having the Mercure’s buffet breakfast we walked the 3 blocks over to the excellent Le Pain Quotidien (Daily Bread), at the edge of the Cours Saléya, for croissants and other delicious pastries . My husband ordered hot chocolate instead of our usual Earl Grey tea one morning and was served with a mug of steaming milk and a chocolate lollipop to stir into it. He liked it so much that we brought six home. (We are now down to five.)

Our first whole day in Nice was spent wandering through Vieux Nice, making stops at Martinetti’s for some of his posters and beautiful postcards; he’s a great photographer. At a nearby stationery shop I found the first set of metallic stickers to take home for Christmas-card envelopes next year but sadly couldn’t find any non-holiday ones (I am obsessed with those stickers!). We bought a few New Year’s cards—the French send those more than Christmas cards—and were horrified at the prices: 4.6 Euros each. Finocchio’s gelato shop was closed and seemed to be undergoing major renovations; we hope it hasn’t closed for good.

That night the Mistral was blowing, but we went out for a walk before dinner and happened on Lou Nissart, an old-Provençal restaurant not far from the Promenade. My husband had fabulous gnocchi in olive oil and basil, while I had a big plate of excellent pissaladière.

The new tram system is up and running, with the Place Masséna back to normal again. There are 8 tall posts in the Place, each one topped with sculptures of meditating Japanese monks, made of frosted glass in glowing colors. Galeries Lafayette is on one side of the Place, and the big branch of BNP is just across—convenient for hitting the ATM. The exchange rate that we got averaged 1.30, not bad considering how high the Euro had been not all that long ago.

In the largest area of the Place Masséna a Christmas market was going up; we saw the forest of real Christmas trees and the wooden chalets for vendors. Unfortunately the market didn’t open until December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, which was also the day the Nice evening illuminations were to be turned on. We planned to return at a later date to see both, as we had to leave for Grasse that same day.

One day we hopped on a tram (cost is 1 Euro) and stayed to the end of the Pont-Michel line, enjoying people- and store-watching along the route. The trams are very modern and stylish, looking rather like TGV cars. At each stop the front car hooks up to overhead wires for a charge, the only wires to be seen, and the ride is quite silent. When we emerged at the last stop we discovered that we were just across the street from a large René LeClerc supermarket and explored it for a bit, getting a feel for prices—and they have certainly gone up since our last visit to France two years ago.

We had dinner on our second night in Nice at La Pizza, on the rue Masséna, with the daughter of the family who were our neighbors for the 1999/2000 academic year. The pizza there is absolutely fabulous, and the servings are huge. We sat outside in the glow of large heat lamps and thoroughly enjoyed our Pizza Reine (with ham and mushrooms and that wonderfully runny cantal cheese).

Most of the other restaurants in the area appeared to be hurting for business; at one we were offered two meals for the price of one. That was a good deal, but my husband wanted moules frites; so we continued down the street and made our Big Discovery, the O Palermo, which has wonderful French/Italian food at moderate prices. Bob had a huge bowl of fresh, sweet mussels, while I delighted in a salad of warm goat cheese and greens. We liked the restaurant so much we returned for dinner that evening after a hard day of shopping, this time enjoying a creamy lasagna.

Just down the street from the Mercure, on the rue Halévy, is a tiny place called Le Yummie. It’s owned by a guy named Ali, originally from Marseille, and offers assorted fine coffees and teas. Customers can lounge on the small sofas and sip drinks, listen to jazz, and enjoy conversation with Ali, whose English is fluent. Ali’s current special is a Mocha Obama, made with Kenyan coffee and melted white chocolate, a real winner. Clever idea!

The rue Masséna makes for excellent shopping—many boutiques (including a clothing store apparently aimed at large Russian ladies), shops featuring those gorgeous Provençal fabrics, and cafés for resting the feet. At one small boutique I found a long black feathery boa, which was perfect for keeping the cold away from my neck--our French friends pronounce it very chic. I also bought there a very snazzy cell-phone holder for a friend, black velvet with wrist and neck bands and decorated with a huge fake diamond.

Just down the street from the Mercure, on the rue Halévy, is a tiny place called Le Yummie. It’s owned by a guy named Ali, originally from Marseille, and offers assorted fine coffees and teas. Customers can lounge on the small sofas and sip drinks, listen to jazz, and enjoy conversation with Ali, whose English is fluent. Ali’s current special is a Mocha Obama, made with Kenyan coffee and melted white chocolate, a real winner. Clever idea!

The French seem to be really amazed about the election of Barack Obama and excited at the idea of an African-American leading the U.S. after a long period of perceived racism. On several occasions we were congratulated on the election’s outcome, and people wanted to talk about what it might mean for both the U.S. and for Europe. We had interesting moments trying to explain how the Electoral College operates.

This brings us to Friday night, which we spent packing up all the stuff I’d been buying in preparation for moving on to Grasse the next day.

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