First Thoughts on France

Photo I took in Paris in 1999
Photo I took in Paris in 1999
I’ve been in France for several days now after my stunning train ride across the Alps from Turin, Italy. It was by far the most beautiful train trip I’ve ever taken and I crossed five national boundaries during the journey: Italy, France, Italy, France, Monaco, France. I have never been in the Alps before so it was quite the experience. Sadly, I didn’t get to take any photos as I was inside a moving train going in and out of tunnels the entire time.

For the forth time on my trip, I am in a country which I have previously visited (the others being Japan, Taiwan and Singapore). I have also been to two French territories at the start of my trip: French Polynesia and New Caledonia. I am hardly a Franco noob, yet I find visiting France a bit more difficult than I did visiting Italy. I think it is primarily due to the language. Italian is very easy to pronounce. If you can read English, you will have little trouble pronouncing most Italian worlds. French, on the other hand, will usually just make you look foolish if you try to pronounce things like you would in English. I feel that I could pick up Italian if I made a concerted effort to try. I’m not sure about French, however. I realize that French and Italian both have similar roots, but for the life of me something about French just doesn’t click with me. As in Italy, the movies and television shows from outside the country are dubbed, not subtitled.

Painting at Chagall Museum
Painting at Chagall Museum

Nice is…..nice. (Sorry, I just had to use that one) The French Riviera isn’t what I thought it would be. I had always heard legends about the beaches here, but honestly, if I were to rank them of all the beaches I’ve seen, it would not rank very high. There is no sand. The coast is very rugged and beaches I’ve seen in Monaco and Nice are mostly gravel. The seashore is very beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily make for great beaches. Likewise, my trip to Monaco was pretty underwhelming. I’ll be writing more on it later, but suffice to say if you don’t have a mega yacht, it isn’t really designed for you.

Once thing I’ve noticed about France compared to other countries is that you don’t see a lot of mom and pop French restaurants on the street. You’ll find brasseries and cafes, but French cuisine seems to be a really high end thing. (haute cuisine?) You wont find many of the classical dishes with sauces at low end establishments, or at least I haven’t seen any. I don’t know if that is a Nice thing or a France thing, however. I would like to have one high end French meal before I leave the country.

Street scene in Nice
Street scene in Nice

While in Nice I’ve visited the Musee Matisse and Musee Chagall which focus on works from both painters. I was only vaguely aware of either artist prior to visiting the museums. I had heard of the names but if you had challenged me to describe what they did or to identify one of their works I couldn’t have done it. I was very impressed with the works of Chagall. I from what I’ve seen (and subsequent searches online) I think there is a good argument to be made for him being one of the 20th Century’s greatest painters. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the Matisse works, save for some of the designs he had made for a chapel, which I don’t know if it was ever built. The Matisse museum is located in his former house which is almost as picturesque as the art inside.

Nice is a much more diverse city than I would have expected. There is a sizable population of Africans, Arabs and Asians who live here. The immediate area around my hotel is mostly Asian restaurants and kebob stands. Nice is the second largest city in France, but you’d never guess it. It just doesn’t seem like a huge city. There is no discernible city center with large office buildings. Even Paris has one off in the suburbs (so not to ruin the classic skyline of the city).

I’m always interested in border communities and how political boundaries make such sharp divisions between cultures. Nice used to be part of Italy (called Nizza) and was lumped into all the politics of the Norther Italian region. It was ceded to France in the 19th Century and now you’d be hard pressed to see any evidence of it once being Italian. There are many communities which have switches hands in Europe I’d love to explore, especially the ones which moved between Germany and France. That however will have to be for another time.

Next stop, Paris!

17 thoughts on “First Thoughts on France”

  1. France is my favorite countries in the world. I never get tired of it – I’ve made dozens of trips and always wonder…will it still have the magic?

    Yes, is the answer. I don’t get to Nice often, I prefer haut Provence where wine, olives apricots are grown.

    I did once go to St Jean-Cap-Ferrat and had a wonderful time. Nice is bit too touristy for me.

    Thanks for you very unusual site! I love it.

  2. While your observations on Nice are spot on, I would urge you to avoid making generalizations on France or the Riviera based on Nice. Yes, the beach at Nice is not great, but did you visit any other beaches on the Riviera? Villefrance, Antibes, Pamplone, Cannes? These are all great beaches on the Riviera. They are sand, and for the most part are surrounded by staggering landscapes. I would try to venture a little more out of the norm while in Europe, you will discover the place as it was meant to be. Nice does not have a lot of mom and pop shops, but this does not have any bearing on France as a whole. The rest of the country for the most part is very mom and pop oriented. And for the record, Nice is actually the 5th largest city in France (nitpicky i know, but this explains the lack of city centre you noticed). It has become a tourist resort centered around pampering those that come to spend a lot of money, which is why it was also unappealing to me. I really like your work, but I felt that this piece was a little off and making too sweeping generalizations on my country.

  3. I’m with you on Nice: I made a similar trek from Northern Italy to the French Riviera last summer and was surprised to find that it didn’t match my dreamy beach expectations. I was also disappointed to find that – unlike Italy – there were no cheap good eats. It was still worth a visit. And I hope you didn’t bother with Marseilles! I wrote an article about my experience: Cote d’Azure – A Cheap Lure?

  4. I always thought the riviera was a very perfect place. Not until I read this blog. Anyway, the place is still as enchanted as it can be.

  5. This post is very useful for those people who are used to for travel world wide and who are always to ready for go abroad, specially for those people who want to go European countries like UK. You blog is not a blog it is a informational guide for us. we appreciate your work. Keep it up

  6. Paris is packed with mom and pop places in every neighborhood, little restaurants where some chef is giving it a go. It’s a lottery though — the quality varies hugely. Here’s a restaurant that’s been around a long time: Brasserie Pont Louis Philippe, near the Ile St. Louis. Not fancy, just a great place to get earthy classics wonderfully prepared, in a setting right by the river that can’t be beat. I’ve been going there for thirty years and it’s always a pleasure. You’ll know you’re in Paris.

  7. Very good observations. Nice is not as what they seem to be, I got disenchanted with the overabundance of dog poop on the streets. Apparently, not picking up after their pets is not unlawful.

  8. I travelled around France a lot as a kid — from what I recall you really need to get out of the big cities to find the kind of “local” restaurants you speak of. Also, I remember Nice being quite different than much of the rest of France, so I wouldn’t assume the South is anything like much of the rest of the country. Definitely be sure to hit Mont Saint Michel while you’re there – if you need more recommendations let me know.

  9. I could be wrong, but I thought Lyon was the second largest in France. It’s beautiful there, too, but a headache to drive through. I hope your time in Paris is better!

    I don’t expect you’ll find many authentic mom-and-pop places in big cities. Venture out into the countryside, however, and things will be different. The prices are staggeringly high for what the meals are, but then again they are catering to tourists. If you do go back to the south, make sure to visit upper Provence: the Vaucluse and the Drome are worth the drive.

    I’ve found that the French are more receptive if you *try* to speak the language first. They’re really friendly people!

  10. Sorry about the empty comment. You can delete that.

    When I was in Tel Aviv Museum of Art, there were a good number of Chagalls there. I’m not sure what his connection with the city was–whether he was Jewish or if he lived in Tel Aviv for sometime. Were you able to visit Tel Aviv Museum of Art when you were there?

  11. Good write up Gary. I second your claim about the train trek from Turin to France! Some of the little mountain villages alongside the tracks are the very definition of picturesque! Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to experience Nice last trip.

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