Before those two months of intense exam prep, I knew I would need something to look forward to. My world-traveling sister happens to be spending the summer in Cambridge, so we booked a trip to the South of France before her summer classes commence.
When two people enjoy globetrotting around the world, it’s difficult to be at the same place at once. This is often the problem I face with most of my friends and now also my sister. Two years ago, we booked a family trip to Taiwan and it looked like this: mom and dad flew to Taipei from St. Louis. Sherry flew to Taipei from Boston via Japan. I flew to Taipei from Cameroon via Paris. Somehow, we managed to all land within only an hour of one another.
The last time I had a quality bonding trip with my sister was when I took her on her college visits. She graduates college this coming year. It’s been a while, and we both were looking forward this vacation.
We took an early flight out of London Gatwick and landed in Nice Côte d’Azur airport. Since we are traveling during high summer season, we opted a self-catering studio apartment for the week. For only a slight premium, we get a private double room (albeit small) that is equipped with a bathroom/shower, and a well-equipped kitchenette – well worth it to not have to sleep in a room with 12 rambunctious backpackers (I must be getting old). The flat is Hotel Petit Louvre. Very centrally located and great value for money!
The lovely thing about Nice, besides the fantastic weather, gorgeous beach, amazing food and lovely people, is that lots of other great villages and towns are just a short train ride away. We took advantage of it and visited Antibes, Monaco, and Villfrance sur Mer during our week there.
According to these two lovely local guys who became our tour guide for an afternoon, Nice is the 5th largest city in France. The city has all that you need for a fantastic vacation – great beach, great food, great weather, great shopping! The nightlife, however, is mediocre. Everything in this city, and in the South of France in general, seems to revolve around food. If you don’t want to lay on the beach or shop, then you can: eat seafood or Italian food at a restaurant (other types of food exist, but not abundant), eat crêpes or gelatos, drink café or wine or other alcoholic beverages. These are the main themes that we extracted from our experience during the week.
A lovely town that has an Old Town, a Picasso Museum, and an interesting rocky beach. The great beach, great food, great weather theme applies here. The shopping is less nice than Nice, but a lot more charming local shops. The Picasso Museum on a hilltop is worth visiting, if nothing else for the great view. If you get hot from the sun as we did, then stop in the Peynet Museum for some AC at the price of €3 (€1.50 if you are student) – it has fun sketches of French cartoon by Peynet (duh).
The beach is gorgeous. Like Nice, it has a wide horizon. But beware of those rocks. It was quite the fight to get out of the ocean without slipping and breaking a bone of some sort or cut in the feet. I liked Antibes a lot because it’s not overly touristy, yet has a good amount of activities to keep you occupied all day.
We visited this Principality just days before its Prince was getting hitched. Red & White flags decorated the town as its people celebrate their own royal wedding. The day that we visited was just a bit too hot to walk around all day. Luckily, the bus system in Monaco stops literally every 3 minutes. The map makes the place looks rather large with its complex bus systems with many stops, but literally, there is a stop at every corner! Bus has AC, so Sherry and I would ride the bus and roam aimlessly to see where it takes us.
Monaco is très glitzy! I’ve never been to a place where the entire city is so wealthy that you can feel it in the air. I’ve never seen so many cars that are worth the price of a house running around in such close proximity. Needless to say, everything was rather out of touch for our student budget. But it was fun to see how the very wealthy live their lives. And like most places in the South of France, you combine the Mediterranean Sea, gorgeous historical buildings and lush landscape, you get gorgeous photos.
Villfranche sur Mer
Our original plan for the last day trip was to Cannes. But from what our local tour guide told us and what we read in guidebooks, Cannes seems like the French version of Monaco. We decided that city would be more fun to return when we have some actual money to spend. Instead, we opted for a tiny villagejust 15 minute trainride from Nice: Villefranche sur Mer.
The village is built on hills. From the beach, you can look up the hills and see layers and layers of colorful houses on top of one another. It’s a quaint place. Very quiet, not much to do. Sherry and I wondered the narrow allies and finished the tour of its Old Town in 15 minutes. We were content to seat by the water, underneath a big umbrella all afternoon while consuming vastly overpriced food items from a mediocre restaurant. When the sun was less severe, we took naps on the pebble beach. Unlike Antibes, the beach has tiny pebbles that were much less deadly than the rocks at Antibes.
As mentioned, there isn’t much to do but to shop and to eat. We didn’t have sufficient amount of money nor luggage space for shopping, so we resorted to eating. Crêpes, gelatos, seafood (a lot of seafood), wine, repeat. That pretty much sums up our entire vacation!
Okay, you are thinking, Wendy, come on, how in the world can you tie Peace Corps into your luxury vacation in the French Riviera?! Well, I was surprised as well how much being in a francophone country reminded me of my time in Cameroon. Before Peace Corps, I wasn’t well versed in the French culture, so I didn’t recognize signs of French colonialism in Cameroon. But during the week, I was reminded of Cameroon when French men would yell “konichiwa” or “hee-haw” (ni-hao) at me and Sherry. They ask if we were Japanese, and were for whatever reason very interested in our ethnicity. It made me wonder whether the bad habit of Cameroonians yelling such things at me actually stem from its colonial masters.
When we went into Supermaché Casino, I was filled with nostalgia. I remembered the excitement each time I had the chance to go to the capital, and to visit Casino to stock up on European goodies. When I saw groups of young people having a great time on the beach, I was reminded of the getaways that PCVs took to Limbé or Kribi.
I spent my last day in Nice alone, after my sister jetted off to Turkey. I spent the day reading The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund. Her stories had me thinking about Cameroon with each page turn. Jacqueline wrote:
The juxtaposition of some of the most wonderful experiences of my life with the everyday realities in Kigali created, at times, a jarring sense of schizophrenia.
Even there in Nice, I somehow was reminded of the two stark contrasts of life in Cameroon – having people calling out racial names all day vs. the freedom to enjoy the ocean and nature at its finest.