We arrived on Saturday and got acquainted with Cannes. It's not a big city like Nice, about 75,000 people compared to 350,000, but it's said to be the most sophisticated of the towns on the Riviera. The shops along La Croisette, the boulevard along the beach, looked like Rodeo Drive, and there were many glamorous people patronizing them. Betty Lou kept pointing out someone who was carrying a $700 handbag and wearing a $1500 jacket; one hotel which has both a Michelin two-star and a one-star restaurant had several Jaguars, Rolls Royces, Mercedes, and a few Ferraris out front. (Of some 8500 restaurants throughout France listed in the Michelin Red Guide, only 20 are awarded three-star ratings by Michelin, 80 have two stars, and 450 have one star.)
After seeing that the weather forecast for the next several days promised sun for Sunday (appropriately enough) but clouds for Monday and Tuesday (the maximum extent of their forecast), we decided we'd better go the next day to a place recommended by a guy I'd corresponded with on the Internet who had lived in the area for several months. The town is Ste. Agnès, a small hill town high above Monaco which has a restaurant with a great view of the Mediterranean. He recommended a winding route to get there that I would not have thought of myself (we did have a detailed map that showed all the roads). The other road into town was also winding, but shorter; however it was a longer drive from Cannes to get to it. The distance was important since Daylight Savings Time began Sunday morning (a week earlier than here) but we didn't realize it until we were ready to leave – we thought at around 10:45, but actually an hour later; and we had planned on being there for lunch.
The route was pretty exciting – several times we or an oncoming vehicle had to back up to a wider spot for the other to squeeze by. Fortunately none of those occurred to us when we were on the outer (several hundred foot drop) side. (The best car rental deal we had found was through Auto Europe; although we normally just need a compact – Ford Escort type – nobody had one really cheap this time.
However, Auto Europe offered a free upgrade to the next class, a Renault Laguna. We had rented a Laguna the previous summer (it was the smallest car we could get with air conditioning) and were quite impressed with it. However, the Nice airport had no Lagunas so they gave us the next larger car. Called a Renault Safraene, it was quite plush, and even had air conditioning (but manual transmission). It effortlessly cruised the autoroutes, but something a little more svelte would have been appreciated on the mountain roads (and even the narrow streets in the old towns). (Also, although I'm used to a manual transmission, the clutch was smoking by the time I finished negotiating the really narrow, and steep, access from the parking garage under our hotel the one time I parked there. The engine was a diesel – economical but without much low-end power – requiring much slipping of the clutch. Fortunately there was free parking on the street; and it turned out to be safe.*)
Arriving in Ste. Agnès about 12:45, we found the road clogged with cars and motorcycle trailers – there was some kind of off-road motorcycle competition that day, although we never did find out exactly where they were running. We found the restaurant mentioned, Le Righi, but it was closed, with no indication of when they might reopen. It's probably a seasonal thing; it was still too cool and windy to eat on the outside terrace. We also noticed apertures carved in the mountain through which guns from the Fort de Ste. Agnès, the southernmost fort in the Maginot Line, could fire towards the border. It was a site with a magnificent view! We walked back into the village and stopped at the first restaurant we found. It had an impressive view itself, although not in the direction of the Mediterranean. (Post cards bragged that, at 2500', Ste. Agnès was the highest "coastal" village in Europe.)
For the FF105 (about $20) lunch, the first course included several types of sausage and slices of jambon (like Parma ham), next was a vegetable tart (about 4" square and an inch thick), then the fish course: a whole trout Amadine (each). The main course was rabbit – a whole one between the two of us. (Interestingly, the alternative was "faux filet;" one of Betty Lou's cookbooks shows this to be from a similar part of the cow as our porterhouse, but when we've had it, it didn't seem to be very tender. Although we normally order different items, and share, we rarely get rabbit in the US so we both settled on it. We noticed everybody else also ordered rabbit – it wasn't until later that we realized that "mad cow disease" was changing the eating habits of lots of French.) Then, of course, cheese, finishing with pear and blackberry tarts.
Afterwards we had to walk off some of the effects of the meal so we toured the town. Picturesque narrow, winding (pedestrian) streets with shops and galleries in many of the several-hundred-year-old stone houses; in one cobbled street, they meet overhead to form arcades. We skipped the several-hundred-foot climb to the ruined chateau on the very top of the hill. It turned out that the highly publicized hill towns we later saw offered very little additional. We took the other road out of town, and found it almost a boulevard in comparison to the way we came. However, during that drive, I realized that maybe a "coastal" town is one for which the road to the sea is downhill all the way!
In the week we were there, there was one rainy day and another partly rainy one. There were only a few totally cloudless days – the TV weather maps seemed to show that the Mistral kept better weather to the West from getting to us. The temperatures were pleasant, though – usually in the mid-to-upper 60s. And we had some great meals (2 Michelin two-star restaurants and 2 one-stars; usually at lunch when they had special menus substantially cheaper than dinner), and we enjoyed museums in Nice, Cannes, and St. Paul de Vence. Also, we walked through the old town areas of Nice, Cannes, and Menton, and climbed many hills where most towns previously had constructed fortresses for defense.
The Rothschild villa in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, filled with antique furniture and art and situated on 20 acres having 9 different types of gardens, was particularly stunning. We even saw some bathing beauties, topless and otherwise, although the beaches didn't officially open until Easter. (When I commented that we didn't see any barricades keeping people off the beach, we learned that meant lifeguards would be present; I think the water was still a little too cool for swimming though.)
We still didn't see it all (e.g., we didn't get into Monaco, although we did view it from the corniche road that Grace Kelly drove off, and there are lots of other interesting sites in nearby Provence) so maybe we'll come back next year. (Maybe I forgot to mention the FF195 hotel room, about $39 – off season rates of FF390, half that because we had a French Entertainment '96 card!)
* The "safe" comment refers to a later experience that happened in Nice. We had made reservations at the Michelin two-star Chantecler Restaurant in the elegant Negresco hotel, which had valet parking. The direction from which we arrived necessitated our going around the block to get to where the valet was. While waiting at a traffic light on one of the narrow streets I noticed some jockeying of a motorbike behind us. I didn't think anything of it – they're always weaving in and out of traffic – until I noticed the driver had parked his bike on the sidewalk and tried to open our back door! Evidently he'd spotted my bag on the floor in the back and was trying to steal it.
Fortunately this was several days after we'd gotten the car and I'd had a chance to read (translate) the manual and find out where the switch was that locked all the doors; and since the car was air conditioned, the windows were closed. Then the prospective thief had the nerve to follow us around the block to where the valet had just gone inside. I asked Betty Lou to go inside and tell the valet we were there, but she was so incensed she stalked back to where the guy had stopped his bike on the sidewalk. She said he looked like one of her bad little students; she pulled out a pencil and was looking for some identifying marks on the bike as she approached it. She said she was so mad she was thinking of hitting it. He got so frightened he zoomed away – there was no identification anywhere, of course. The valet kept a good eye on the car during lunch.