NICE, France — The black Peugeot was parked in front of the Hotel Negresco on the French Riviera, just waiting for me to finish the rental paperwork. It’s too late to back out now, I thought. At least they drive on the right side of the road.
I’m not sure what my friend was thinking. My enthusiasm for photography while driving had nearly killed us in Ireland. Princess Grace of Monaco died when her car veered off the Riviera’s famous Moyenne (middle) Corniche. No camera was found.
The idea was to see more of the Cote d’Azur — named for the color of the Mediterranean Sea. We were sunbathing in front of the hotel on its private beach just across the Promenade des Anglais. As the cabana boy delivered lunch, we decided to rent a car, which the staff at the Negresco were happy to facilitate.
The quirky hotel is filled with all manner of original art; modern, contemporary and traditional all share the same space. The Negresco is known for the massive Baccarat crystal chandelier that hangs in the royal lounge. It was commissioned by Tzar Nicholas II, but he was assassinated before it was finished. This luxury hotel is now ruled by the eccentric Madame Jeanne Augier.
“Everything is authentic and nothing is fake,” she told a reporter in 2009. The same is true today. Each room is different. Its location across the street from the pebble beach is perfect. Just be sure to wear flip flops or some kind of water shoe.
Before I left the city I wanted to try socca, a specialty of Nice. It is basically a large chickpea crepe. A local bus will take you from the Promenade des Anglais to the old city, where socca is served in abundance. The narrow streets are lined with shops and restaurants that open to squares with statuary and fountains.
If you are lucky enough to be there on a market day, it’s a technicolor experience of flowers, greenery and red-and-white awnings over the stalls. If not, console yourself at Maison Auer, a 200-year-old, family owned chocolatier at 7 rue Saint-François de Paule.
With socca and chocolate cravings satisfied, it was time to release the clutch and drive to Monte Carlo. The road is narrow and climbs steadily away from the coast. Just a short way out of town, stop and explore Villefranche-sur-Mer with its harbor and old city tucked into the hillside. Be prepared to walk up hill to the shops and restaurants. Some visitors to the Riviera prefer to stay here and visit Nice. It is the kind of place you can spend an hour or several days.
Then it was back in the car to resume the white-knuckle drive. Depending on which of the Corniche drives you choose — upper, middle or lower — it can take anywhere from a half-hour to just under an hour without stops. I took the middle road there and the middle and upper road back. Both highways offer stunning views, sharp turns and heart-stopping drops into the sea below.
There are areas where you can pull over to take vista shots, but you can’t drive fast or you’ll miss them. If you drive too cautiously, you will be harassed by the locals. I recommend keeping pace with traffic.
The next stop was the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the famous five-star hotel where guests who want to be pampered and primped like to perch. You take a glass-covered funicular down from the gardens to the pools and the sea. It’s a nice place to eat lunch and watch guests jumping into the Mediterranean from the rocks. I would have happily joined them but Monte Carlo beckoned.
Finding parking in Monaco is the worst part of driving there. We pulled into the Hotel Hermitage (another five-star property) and let the valet park the car. After a look around the lobby and shops inside, we slipped out to visit the famous casino and do some high-end browsing. I had visited the Royal Palace on a previous visit, but this was just a look and leave tour.
Monte Carlo is not a pretty town. It is a place where money lives and high-rises look down on the yacht-filled harbor. Feeling a little weak from the harrowing drive, I needed gelato and found it at Morelli’s. It’s been there since 1907, next to the casino.
Heading back, we drove through the village of Eze, a medieval town where Fragonard perfume is made. You can take a bus from Nice. Be sure to visit the Jardin Exotique d’Eze for the flowers and marvelous views of titled roofs looking over the Cote d Azur.
The last stops before returning for cocktails and aspirin (the drive was taking a toll) were Musee Marc Chagall and Musee Matisse, just north of the center of Nice. An olive tree garden in front of the Matisse museum is a favorite picnic spot for families. If you love Henri Matisse, this is where you will find the largest collection of his works in the world. The stop was the perfect place to end a grand prix-style race to see many major attractions in a day.
If time allows, take the ferry from Nice to St. Tropez and spend a night or three there as well. You can drive it or take a train, but the ferry is the way to go. It costs about 65 euros and takes 2½ hours.
If you go
There are no direct flights to Nice from Pittsburgh. However, Delta has direct flights to Paris, and there are lots of flights each day from Paris is Nice in season.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org.