LIVING IN THE SOUTH
I'm writing this in my shorts, here on the terrace, sipping pastis waiting for the rosé to cool to perfection, disturbed occasionally by the noise of the ice in the glass. Well, of course, that's life on the Côte d'Azur - but today's the second of February and it might have been the thirtieth of November, or mid-July in East Anglia. Yes, that's the magic of life on the Côte d'Azur.
In the old days, the fashionable season was the winter, not the summer, which was considered hot, unseemly and suitable only for the swarthy natives. That has all changed about, even in the skin cancer scare of nowadays, leaving the off-seasons with a sort of sedately bustling calm. Inland, in what is called the arrière-pays, the off-season calm really is calm and only the ice cubes bustle.
One of the reasons for being here, in winter as well as in summer, has always been the weather, of course. Fledgling ex-pats soon discover that there is more talk about weather here than there ever was, even in England; you quickly graduate to having views about and insiders' techniques for gauging micro-climates, a term worn thin here as the sophisticated explanation for the frequent discrepancy between the sky above you and the little diagram on the back page of Nice-Matin.
Weather talk is not just about the sun, it's also of storms, for there is never drizzle here, only absolute down-pours followed, as suddenly as they started, by resplendent, dazzling skies. Yes, check out your property, if you are buying or renting, for its wind- and water-proof qualities. None of the local builders are actually prepared to believe in the fact of rain. Ditto, check out that you insure properly: There are English-speaking brokers in the region, for instance Eric Blair in Monaco and Riviera Insurance in Valbonne, and many estate agents manage some English of the "parley-voo?" sort if they don't have the unfair advantage of actually being British, like Keith Meredith of Coast & Country, a long-established firm based in Mougins.
If, like most of us, you have to run your life to a budget, you should also check out the annual charges of the property you are considering. In Nice, they joke that the municipal water is more expensive than mineral water. The taxe d'habitation and taxe foncière vary considerably from commune to commune. Think also about the sometimes prohibitive swimming pool tax, if that's relevant. (The taxes are higher for secondary residences, of course.) The cost of watering a garden can be high but it is a necessary process. Installation of a rain-water tank and supply system saves vastly in the long run.
Property is easy to find, with agences immobilières seemingly in flocks on almost every street. There are also pages of properties both in the local newspapers like Var-Matin and Nice-Matin (which has special editions for Grasse, Cannes, Monaco and Menton among others), as well as a cheaply produced but efficient free-sheet called "06" after the number of the département Alpes-Maritimes. The joke is that the entire Alpes-Maritimes is for sale, and except in certain pockets where the cachet of the address is overwhelming, it is certainly a buyer's market. Just back from the beaten track on the coast you will see datedly optimistic 'à vendre' signs not with the new ten digit telephone number, nor the old eight digit ones, but the six digit ones from long before that. By the way, this is the Mediterranean - so be prepared to bargain.
The best time to hunt property is in December, January or February, for the sun shines upon every valley in the summer and fools many people into moving into buildings which, out of summer, are out of the sunlight, and therefore cold and damp. Despite the very real fear of summer forest fires, the dryness of the Côte d'Azur is superficial; underneath are the rivers, gorges, valleys and slopes that drain the Alps. Today, 2nd February, here in the hills behind Nice I can sun-bathe between eleven and five, but there's ice on the road in the morning.
Just minutes back from the coast is a landscape as varied as you wish, from the rugged to the gentle, from the grays and violets of the rock to lavenders and greens of the densest vegetation. Some wiggle-some hill roads have no straight stretches for miles, and encourage the local habit of overtaking on blind corners. At places French road engineering is like their waterproofing; optimistic, with hollow spots where pools gather, and signs warning of the inadequacies more often than an effort to remedy them.
Roads are a big issue. The entire stretch from Cannes to Italy is becoming something of the sprawl associated with Los Angeles or London, in which once slumbering country villages have become absorbed into a web of roundabouts. In the region as a whole, though, the effect is slightly different. Instead of one large sprawling city, there is a geographically compressed string of coastal towns, each with proudly separate histories and rivalries. Nevertheless, the ever-expanding motor-way infrastructure and dual carriage-ways produce a sense of their being one mass, especially the roads known as pénétrantes, which offer a slick shortcut from the motor-way to slightly outlying places such as Vence or Grasse. The statistically impressive (or depressing) expansion of the population and economic activity of the region puts an enormous pressure on the towns to expand. Occasionally politicians with a vision voice their dream of a building a great metropolis stretching from Cannes to Menton. Rural romantics should welcome this, since the effort to co-ordinate all this grandeur and greed will surely slow the process down.
Dealing with a physical environment like this is hard enough, but for the new arrival the social scene can be even more challenging. The best way to meet people is in bars or book-shops, and through associations such as the cricket clubs or Monaco Drama Group, some of which are mentioned below and listed in our Yellow Pages. Nice has a real university feel to it and there is a large range of adult classes for those with good French. There are also English churches dotted throughout the area, including Cannes, Nice and Monaco, as well as a Christian Fellowship in Valbonne. A strong Russian Orthodox tradition exists in Nice. New Age groups also lurk, advertising on the ubiquitous Riviera Radio.
Language classes advertise here and there, and usually have a social dimension focussed on post-practice pastis. Don't be afraid to pin up a little announce in your local bar or book-shop if you have a quaint passion you long to share. Remember, also, the perennial and valuable Community Chest on Riviera Radio. Among 06-ex-pats, not everybody knows everybody but you know you've settled in when you note that you half-expect them to.
There are good international schools in the region too. The Centre International de Valbonne (see Education) enjoys an excellent reputation for its facilities, and the Mougins school in the suburbs of Nice is also popular. It takes children of all nationalities, age three to 18, and pupils sit A- and AS-levels. If your children aren't ready for school, there are a number of nanny and au pair agencies. Try Monte-Carlo Nannies on 03.77.93.50.23.77.
Many ex-pats will cite the proximity of Italy "without-actually-having-to-live-there" as one of the greatest advantages of life on the Côte d'Azur. The motor-way east, an unsung engineering triumph, crosses valley after valley in a bewildering, and often alarming two-lane sequence of tunnels and bridges, plunges you directly towards Genoa - thence to Pisa, Florence or Rome - or towards Turin, and on to Milan or Venice. Just over the border are more amble-some Ventimiglia, San Remo and Bordigherra, where market days are especially popular with ex-pats. The excursion to the Italian "bottle shops" just over the frontier, has become a tradition among ex-pats. Spirits especially are fantastically cheaper and more plentiful in Italy than in France.
Ex-pat life on the Côte d'Azur includes, as it does everywhere, an effort to keep the local culture at arm's length. This is not only true of such staunchly anglo-saxon institutions as Marks & Spencer's in Nice and the collection of English book-shops, like Scruples in Monaco, or Heidi's in Antibes, and more in Cannes, Valbonne and Fayence. Despite the rarity of flat, open land, cricket thrives on the Côte d'Azur. There are at least three clubs - Cabris at the head of the list, Antibes and Monte Carlo - and rumours of a fourth in the Var. There is also a (field) Hockey Club that plays in Sophia Antipolis.
And there are plenty of more or less British and Irish pubs, especially within staggering distance of the sea-fronts in Antibes and Fontvieille. At Monte Carlo, the second harbour, (a controversial seaside in-fill at Cap d'Ail), faces the palace rock and inspired the name of the pub, the Ship and Castle. There are bars in Monaco itself (Flashman's), Menton (The King's Head), and Scarlett O'Hara's, in the old town, has an appropriate speak-easy snugness. Thanks to the invention of the widget in beer cans, bitter drinkers can resist the flood of weedy French and lethal Belgian lagers and bask in over-chilled but soothing ale. In Nice the quasi-Dutch bar de Klomp has an impressive range of beers, a very happy 'happy hour' and good live music.
Monaco also has a range of American drinking places. The Stars'n'Bars attracts a young and lively crowd with music, food and drinks, and the Texan offers Tex-Mex style food. Every year, when the Formula One Grand Prix comes to Monaco, diners can watch the cars zoom past at the Rascasse restaurant and bar, right in the middle of the last hairpin bend before the pits. Former Beatle, Ringo Starr, is a regular here.
Surprisingly there is no proper fish and chip shop, however, even in an area more noted for its junk food than its Michelin stars. The fish situation is one of caveat-diner. At the Café de Turin in Nice, crustacean specialists famous throughout France, I asked where to find a good bouillabaisse, and from under the roars of laughter I heard the advice, "not this side of Marseille." True, the best salade niçoise I ever had was made by a Yorkshireman, in California, and the best Mexican food on the coast was made by a characterful Dutchman called Herman at Calexico in old Nice. So, all ex-pats quickly become pizzeria connoisseurs. There are excellent pizzas cooked on feu de bois and sold in little vans on street corners, usually those old corrugated Citroën ones but with a chimney stack on top. The Côte d'Azur pizza is characteristically on thin bases, and usually ordered by names ever more hopefully poetic or plain ludicrous as the list lengthens. The system of ordering as you wish, by ingredient, has eluded the industry here. Still, the waiter will always note your requests of avec-this and sans-that and the chef will often follow them.
The Côte d'Azur, be it noted, is not Provence, and the cooking here reflects an identity crisis related both to that common misunderstanding as well as to the area's historical ties with Italy. After all, the Napoleonic France, that lies between Italy and the river at Nice airport, has not yet been French for a total of two hundred of the two thousand or more years since the Romans made the roads. To make it worse, the prosperity of the region has always depended on invasions of more or less wealthy foreign tourists, yes, paying customers, be they royalty such as Queen Victoria and a Tzar or two, glamour-pusses like Scott Fitzgerald or back-packers such as D. H. Lawrence. Only Nice has a cuisine to call its own, centred on beignets, stuffed grilled slices of vegetables such as aubergines and tomatoes, as in Provence, true, but it is a cuisine with understandably more emphasis on fish. There is also an old niçois workers' dish called socca, an out-sized thin frisbee made of flour, chickpea and olive oil that is best burnt a little underneath, dry in its fresh heat with lashings of black pepper. At its worst, it is soggy and warm.
The wine from the slopes just out of Nice to the north-west, centred on an area called Bellet, is robust in texture (and unfortunately in price) and keeps well. There is also some characterful but equally robust wine from an area centred on Ramatuelle, behind St.Tropez.
Which reminds me: on with the rosé. Cin-cin.