The Promenade des Anglais is officially delirious.
Flowered chars roll down the town's prom, marquis swivel down the aisle with white wigs and stuffed horses, over-sized masks or "grosses têtes" hang their giant devilish smiles over the crowds. Confettis fly. Sprays spurt greens and pinks everywhere. Trumpets, Brazilian sambas, and an old accordion song mix in a frenzy of imagination released out in the open street.
2008 marks the 124th edition of the Nice Carnaval, dedicated this year to the "Roi des Ratapignatas, Raminagrobis et autres ramassis de rats masqués."
The rat and bat theme is a wink to the Chinese year of the rat we've just begun.
It's also another side of the city of Nice. In Nice's bestiary, the Ratapignata is a bat. It's the inverted symbol of Nice's heraldic eagle, the hidden side of the town. On Carnival 2008, ratty bats crawl out of the dark to dance into the streets.
And what about Raminagrobis? Who is this year's Carnaval majesty? In his fable "Le chat, la belette, et le petit lapin," writer La Fontaine named the story's fat cat character "Raminagrobis", borrowing the name from Rabelais' earlier writings.
On her grand char, Her Majesty Raminagrobis waves her white paws, each larger than a person. In one paw, she holds a mouse and in the other, a golden paw. She wears a crown of caged bats, her pink tongue tip hangs to the side and her golden slanted eyes shine with a naughty glare. She's so large (14 meters long and 8 large) that she spills over her char.
In the great tradition of Nice's Carnival, Raminogrobis parades on the promenade des Anglais, this year from February 16 until March 2nd, when she will head over to her incinerated death at sea.
Other monsters float up and down the Prom during the Nice Carnival: Neoconzilla who eats the statue of liberty, Soccaman, the Socca delivery character who appears on a couple of sundays for lunch, the Big Bad Wolf and many smoking dragon, escaped from Hollywood.
While most of the Carnival takes place on the Promenade des Anglais, between the Opéra and Hotel Méridien, the Jardin Albert 1er hosts quieter activities for kids. Between 11AM and 5:30PM, famous Guignol puppet puts on a show behind his candy red theater box. In the park, kites conceived by Nasser float above the ground, unafraid of the larger brooding masks next door.
When to see it: In 2008, the Nice Carnaval takes place from February 16 to March 2. For more information, see www.nicecarnaval.com
Driving on the N98/D559 coastal road between St Aygulf and Sainte-Maxime, you would never know there's a walking path that runs parallel down below. The coastal footpath is hidden behind sea-facing villas, down coves, behind cliffs, around gardens with benches and maritime pines.
Even close up, the footpath is hard to spot. With great humility, it takes on the colors of the surrounding rocks and melts in the picture. What's more, while the N98 turns slow and cranky with cars between July and August as St Tropez calls, the coastal footpath stays comfortable.
Therein lies one of the devilish pleasures of hiking the coastal path: you may well travel faster on foot than by car during peak season.
This short hike (5 km or 2 hours round-trip) takes you from Port Ferréol to the Pointe des Issambres between the towns of St Aygulf and Sainte-Maxime.
Time: 2 hours for 5 km round-trip Difficulty: Easy, but plenty of stairs on rocky short. Not ideal for young children. Highlights: Discover an ancient Roman vivarium. Hear the lapping waves as you walk by the sea, with the Estérel Mountains behind you and the St Tropez Peninsula ahead.
From St Aygulf, pass the Pointe du Corsaire and its Hotel Corsaire and then the Port Ferréol barely visible from the N98 road. Just after Ferréol, at the Pointe de la Calle turn left where you spot the sign "Vivier Maritime Gallo-Romain".
From Sainte-Maxime, pass the seaside towns of San Peire, Les Issambres, and be on the look-out for the sign "Vivier Maritime Gallo-Romain" after you pass the Port Tonic (about 2 km after the white restaurant Le Cercle by the sea).
At the sign for the vivarium, head east for the sea and reach the Sentier du Littoral with its yellow signs.
You walk south east, as you hike toward Sainte-Maxime.
Notice the site of a Roman "vivarium", a salt water fish pond. Romans carved the sea pool in the rock to hold captive fish such as congers and mullets alive and fresh for dinner. To keep waters flowing and circulating in the vivarium, they built canals regulated by bronze doors that open and shut. It's hard not to think of how simple and un-polluting the system was, working with the waves and the existing carved shoreline and rocks. With a little imagination and the help of the interpretative panel, you can see fish swimming in the vivarium some 2000 years ago.
Continue over Port Tonic and its handful of boats.
At the Calanque de Bonne Eau, you head up to a shaded garden with picnic tables and down again to the coastal path.
You spot a rounded white restaurant overlooking the sea. It's seafood restaurant Le Cercle with its private beach of fine white raked sand.
After the restaurant, the coastal path presents a slight danger as stairs climb and rocks can be slippery. Be sure not to tread there after a storm or rain pour. The county occasionally posts a recommended a brief detour to the street around this cliff, should the path be unstable. Continue along to the Pointe des Issambres. You can return on the same path or on the much less foot friendly N98.
No flip-flops or sandals - you'll need walking shoes with good traction for walking on a sea-lapped rocky shore.
We don't recommend this hike for young children due to the number of stairs and the occasional hopping over rocks.
Whether from the movies, from Grace Kelly's history or from visits to Nice, the Grande Corniche to many is one thing: a road. It's the majestic road that rides the crest line from Nice to west of Menton. It's the elegant one among the three parallel sisters, the one that dominates both the Moyenne Corniche road right below and the coastal Basse Corniche at the foot of the hills.
But the Grande Corniche is also a park with a maze of footpaths, a Maison de la Nature visitors' office and an observation table that details the sites (to reach the observation table, hike up and left at the beginning of Forna path.)
Take a walk along the Parc de la Grande Corniche's footpaths. Looking inland, you see the mountains of the Mercantour scribble faint wave lines across the sky. The Pre-Alps draw more distinct and rounded hills.
Looking out the other direction to the sea, the coastline from San Remo to the peninsula of St Tropez shine in the distance. On a very clear day, you might even spot the island of Corsica to the south east, a dim shape floating on the horizon's curvature.
To bird observers, the Parc de la Grande Corniche offers a chance to spot an occasional eagle, a great horned owl, or another raptorial bird that hovers overhead.
To nature-lovers, the park may soon turn into more than just a pretty 700 hectares of protected land. The department's Conseil Général and the Nicolas Hulot Foundation announced last fall that the Fort of La Revère in the park would become a center dedicated to the promotion of sustainable development. The center will offer educational seminars and expositions on ecological themes across 7 conference rooms, a library, a restaurant and an outdoors amphitheater seating 300 people. A rain water recycling is also planned, in keeping with the future center's philosophy of sustainable operations. Fourteen million Euros have been promised toward the design and construction of the site which is planned to begin in 2010 and complete in 2011.
We look forward to its development! We'll let you in on it as it evolves.
In the meantime, if you're in Nice for a little while and long for a breath of fresh air and surrounding views, consider a hike in the Parc de la Grande Corniche. Combine it with a visit to nearby Eze-village, to La Turbie and its prominent Trophée des Alpes dating back to Roman times (built by Emperor Augustus).
From Nice, take the A8 highway for approximately 15 km and exit at La Turbie, highway exit toll #57 (oui, there's a toll). From there, take the D2564 to the col d'Eze then turn right into the route de la Revère. ViaMichelin.com can give you exact directions from other locations.
NiceLife reminded me of a better option to reach the park, one that's right in line with the plans to encourage environmental awareness: take the 10:45 bus 116 from Nice's Gare Routière up to La Turbie.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St.James, les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, is not strictly a French path. And no, it's not at all on the French Riviera.
Why talk about it on AzurAlive.com where we scout offbeat crowd-evading spots in Southern France?
To many in France and beyond, le Chemin de Compostelle is mystical. During medieval times, it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages. Since 1140, pilgrims, the curious and the brave have embarked on it by foot, on horseback or more recently by bike to reach a site considered sacred by many, the site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Four main paths cross France and lead pilgrims from all across Europe to Santiago de Compostela: the "via Turonensis" that goes through Tours, "via Lemovicensis" through Vézelay, the "via Podensis", the oldest and most popular route and the one that crosses Puy-en-Velay and finally, the "via Tolosana" going through Arles.
Turonensis, Lemovicensis, Podensis all meet up at Ostabat in the French side of the Basque country to continue on into Spain as a single thread. Tolosana or the Arles route, rejoins them shortly after at Puente La Reina in Spain. The four then continue west as one to Santiago, as the Camino Francés or French Path.
I've recently talked with Susan Alcorn, hiker and author of "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." Camino Chronicle is a personal account of Susan and Ralph Alcorn's 500-miles 34-day hike across the Spanish side of the Camino to Compostela.
AzurAlive: Not everyone goes out and hikes 500 miles across an ancient pilgrimage trail and then comes home and writes a book about it. What was the spark that triggered the adventure?
Susan: One Sunday several years ago, we read about the pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago in the our local newspaper's travel section. It sounded interesting, but my husband and I were both still working full time. I filed the article with the dozens of other destination pieces I've saved.
A couple of years later, as we were both considering retirement, the idea of walking the Camino resurfaced.
We were already backpackers — in fact our hike on the Camino was just weeks after we completed our final segment of the John Muir Trail, which is a 221-mile trail through the highest mountains of California. I guess we just figured that although it was more miles than we had ever walked, we also had more time than ever to do it. I was very leery about doing the meseta — I took the "Nine months of winter, three months of Hell" (referring to the extremes of weather) to heart. Because I had visions of perishing in the brutal heat, we had talked about our alternatives — one was that Ralph would continue walking and that I would bus ahead.
As it turned out — which is usually the case — my worries were unwarranted. The meseta, though indeed a land with scant vegetation and relatively few people, had its own rewards. I found its "plain-ness" provided the opportunity to meditate — to think about anything that came to mind, or nothing. I liked the way that small things — a single flower alongside the trail or an egret in a nearby field — could be noticed. I was intrigued by the fact that a row of trees lined the trail for miles. The trees, as well as occasional stone benches, had been placed in order to provide shelter and relief for Camino walkers. And finally, enjoyed the way that the miles of the flatter terrain seemed to zip by.
AzurAlive: How did you prepare for the trip?
Susan: We live in a hilly area and have moderate weather so we have the benefit of being able to walk in the hills pretty much year-round. We can be "couch potatoes" during the "off-season," but when hiking season approaches, we definitely start our training hikes. Four to six weeks before a major trip, we start taking hikes of increasing miles and difficulty. Ralph like to take these longer hikes carrying his backpack; I should do this too, but I rarely do! And because we are hiking long-distance trails in the U.S. as well as in Europe each year, we are either training for, or going on, long hikes much of the year.
AzurAlive: Did you write the core of the material during the trip?
Susan: I kept a journal during our 2001 walk on the Spanish Camino and that became the core material for "Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago." However, because I wanted to know more about the trail and its history than I could pick up during our walk, I did a lot of research after we returned home. The book combines my journal entries, cultural information, and legends of the trail. I also included practical information such as how to pack and how to prepare for an extended trip away from home.
AzurAlive: Tell us about your hiking in France. Did you start on the French side of the Pyrenees?
Susan: That sounds like another book -- and someday that may well be! We found our Camino experience so interesting that we wanted more. We decided to walk the French route from LePuy (GR65) across to Spain. We walked the route in three sections from 2004 - 2006.
Although we saw many wonderful sights throughout France, I think that the section from LePuy to Figeac was the most beautiful. Of course that was partly due to time of year — it was springtime and we were blessed with snow (exciting!) and daffodils everywhere! Our 2005 and 2006 trips were in the fall, so it was hotter and drier, but the climb out of St. Jean Pied du Port and over the Pyrenées was stunningly beautiful!
We enjoyed hiking in France so much that we are planning on returning this fall and hiking a portion of another Camino route — the one from Arles to Puente la Reina.
Thank you Susan and Bonne Randonnée, wherever your next hiking adventure may take you!