Flights of fancy

El Al opens non-stop route to Nice, France

THE NICE seafront on a windy day. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE NICE seafront on a windy day.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The sun rose in Tel Aviv on March 31 at 6:31, one minute after El Al inaugurated its non-stop route to Nice, France, with a dozen media types from Israel aboard that maiden flight, myself included.
Would the South of France match the hype? The image of James Bond in Monte Carlo, making a brilliant odds-busting play while winking at a beautiful woman who we next see on the French Riviera with 007, is hard to live up to.
Another question – a result of having seen Atlantic City and Catskill Mountains resorts in ruined abandon, and large surrounding areas dingy and forlorn: Was Nice one of those places we fondly recall from our youth for its beauty and charm, only to find it now ruined by the success of its own reputation or other decay? Long before The Rolling Stones found it in 1971 as a place to make music and debauch – not necessarily in that order – Nice had been the go-to place for those artists and pleasure-seekers who could afford it. This is where Pablo Picasso, Jules Verne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Matisse and Renoir went to create and enjoy. King Leopold II of Belgium, Queen Victoria of England also went – because they could.
Earlier than its village appeared, 22 centuries before our own 21st, Greeks and others more ancient civilizations wanted a city here. Who wouldn’t after sitting at the foot of the Alps, with your back to the mountains north and west, and your face to the ocean southeast? Imagine a miniature city sitting on the palm of your hand as it rests on the shore of a lake, fingertips in the water. Your thumb and the ridge that extends down and across your wrist and up to the base of your pinkie are mountains. The miniature city is Nice. The water touching your skin encompasses the Cote d’Azur.
The azure of this, one of the coastal region’s many names, is defined “like the bright blue of a cloudless sky.”
As intriguing is its shape, so too are the sights and smells of Nice. Walking behind three women from our group, it was impossible to know if the sweet fragrance came from the lavender-scented soaps they bathed in that morning which the region produces (and which the hotel provided us the night before), or the lavender flowers themselves, which were then in full bloom.
Walking is delightful here, but with car rentals during off-season as low as $14/day, driving is a reasonable option. Head south along the coast for about 40 minutes and you’ll be in Antibes. This is where Monet and Renoir, upon the advice of Guy de Maupassant, took up lodgings in a house full of Impressionist painters and pursued their groundbreaking art in the 1880s. It was a strategic location, both artistically and militarily.
To paint pictures of this maritime port, you needed approval from the War Ministry.
Matisse began painting more and more canvases simultaneously here, and Monet’s brilliant output multiplied. “I am painting the town of Antibes, a little fortified town turned golden by the sun, standing out against the beautiful blue and pink mountains and the range of the Alps eternally covered in snow.”
The quality of light captured his imagination. To his friend, Auguste Rodin, “the father of modern sculpture,” Monet exclaimed, “What an amazing sun here! You need to paint here with gold and precious stones.”
And to a lover, “it’s so beautiful here, so clear, so bright! You swim in the blue air, it’s terrifying.”
This is where also you find the Picasso Museum. The region is filled with a devotion to the master that verges on iconography, and while galleries, restaurants, shops and exhibits utilize Picasso’s image, they seem to approach with reverence, an attitude not usually associated with advertising. So it goes against the grain to say that some people will find the building equally intriguing as the works it holds.
The museum is housed, or more accurately fortressed, in what was once Chateau Grimaldi, atop the ancient foundations of a city built by Greeks. The stone walls are thick to the point of seeming impenetrability. Look closely and you’ll find patterns of repair and reconstruction that needed thousands of hands working intermittently, sometimes under great duress, for centuries. The high-placed windows; petrified wood and brass-edged stairs; and foreboding giant doors explain “fortress mentality” in a way that gives the phrase historic depth. What better contrast could there possibly be to the wildly diverse selection of Picasso’s huge efforts, and prodigious appetites? A VISIT TO Cannes barely a dozen kilometers further south is de riguer, though not during the beachside city’s annual film festival in May, unless you like maddening crowds or get all tingly seeing film stars posed on red carpets. Take a walk by the harbor where some of the world’s most ostentatious yachts are docked, and where in September the Cannes Yachting Festival is held. Or focus on the equally expensive, but more elegant sailing ships, and learn the difference between schooners, ketches, windjammers and sloops, to name a few.
From Cannes, take the ferry to Fort Royal St. Marguerite Island and see where Louis XIV imprisoned “The Man in the Iron Mask” – whose miserable fame was greatly enlarged by Alexander Dumas (and Hollywood), and whose still-unknown identity was speculated upon by Voltaire. You will enjoy the view immensely, even if you didn’t spend four years on the island and 34 in custody.
Once back at the Port of Cannes, it’s only a 15-minute drive inland to Mougins. But it’s worth the trip if you have to walk for days. As it does in Antibes and Old Town Nice, the sun fills the narrow streets of Old Mougins with light – as counterintuitive as that sounds – and reflects from gray cobbled stones, red cafe awnings rolled out above sand-colored walls, and that azure sea a few kilometers below.
Mougins is also home to the Classical Art Museum, whose singular distinction is its remarkably variety of one-of-a-kind items – from a magnificently painted Egyptian sarcophagus, to spare and evocative modern line drawings, to a collection of enormously oversized Pompeian and Roman marble phalluses, and seemingly everything in-between. Those phallic items were hidden from view for centuries in the various museums which held them before they came to Mougins, and were said to have offended the delicate sensibilities of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose Italian forces occupied the town during World War II.
Museums are more than plentiful throughout the region, and reasonably priced. A 10-euro day passes gain you 24 hours’ unlimited entry to 60 municipal museums and galleries. Or take a more leisurely seven-day all-access pass to 14 municipal museums, including the Matisse Museum, for 20 euros. The Chagall Museum is a national treasure, not municipal, and isn’t included, but admission there on the first Sunday of each month is an even better bargain: free.
And finally, don’t miss a trip to Vesubia Mountain Park. Among the isolation of mountaintop clouds, there is an enormous sports/spa/swimming/ indoor-mountaineering facility. Its location seems odd, but its success can be explained by the rise of eco-tourism, a desire of travelers who want something earthier than Michelin-star restaurants and fine hotels, and a love of outdoor activities shared by locals a growing number of tourists.
Go slowly on the 90-minute drive, there are numerous blind curves and unexpectedly narrow “main streets,” often consisting of little more than half-adozen shops and one or two restaurants. You will pass through ancient towns where often no more than a few hundred people live on a steep, craggy edge of the glacial plate.
Look for remains of 2,000-year-old roadbeds among these surprisingly verdant heights. Notice the ancient terraced farms. Wonder how people throughout the ages survived such a dizzying landscape, despite the breathless sense of awe that softens its foreboding. I asked a young woman about the hardship and loneliness that surely must accompany such a place. She answered only, “It’s a beautiful life.”
That azure blue of the French Riviera and the sunlight it illuminates are the same today as ever. The ancient town streets are just as intimate, and the food and wines perhaps better than ever. But fortunes are different now. In this we are lucky, because travel to such destinations in reach of the masses has been a historic oddity. There is much more to describe, not the least of which is that casino James Bond still haunts. But space and time are limited for we humans. Go. Travel. See for yourself. Indeed sometimes it is a beautiful life.
El Al flies non-stop from Tel Aviv to Nice three times a week. The flight takes about four hours, 15 minutes. Roundtrip tickets during the off-season start at $288. The writer was a guest of El Al and the French Ministry of Tourism