Nice: Top Picks

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After Paris, Nice is the largest city of art and culture in France. And if you like art as much as I do, then you must make a stop in this culturally rich city, where art finds a home, even around the city streets. There is so much to do and see in the capital of the Côte d’Azur, where does one even begin? By stopping in the Tourism Office you can certainly gather enough information to keep you busy for days. Or you can use this list of my top things to do, see and eat. Some of this advice comes from my Nicoise friend, and who better to trust than a local?

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SLEEP: To wake up surrounded by art and history, and with a view of the sea, stay at Le Negresco. This is the Art Hotel in Nice, and an experience you won’t ever forget. You can read all about my stay, here. If you’re on a budget, another artful option is Hotel Windsor, where each room is designed by a different artist.

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VISIT: With over fifteen museums and dozens of galleries, which are most worth visiting? That remains a matter of opinion depending on interest, but ones that I would not miss are Musée Matisse, exhibiting one of the world’s largest collections of Henri Matisse’s works, Musée Marc Chagall, dedicated to much of the artist’s religious work, and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art, highlighting the work of more recent artists including sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle. I recommend picking up a 48 hour Museum Pass which will gain you affordable access to these and many other museums and galleries. Keep in mind that most are closed on Tuesdays.

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DO: To really get to know a city, stroll its morning markets. This is where you’ll interact with the locals and simply observe the life of the city. On Cours Saleya in the Old Town, there’s a market every morning from 6:30am. The most famous is the Marché aux Fleurs, or Flower Market, from Tuesday to Sunday. This market is the most well known, since it was in Nice that the first wholesale flower market in the world appeared in 1897. Here too you can purchase fruits and vegetables until around 1:30pm, with the flowers being sold until 5:30. If you’d like an expert guided tour of the food market followed by a cooking class, Rosa at Les Petits Farcis is your girl!

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EAT: The specialities of Nice include pissaladière, bread with a topping of caramelised onions, olives, garlic and anchovies, and socca, a sort of fried chickpea cake, much like the farinata I often eat in Cinque Terre. Both of these you can try at many cafes in the Old City. Here are food expert David Lebovitz’s favorite socca spots in Nice. As for where to dine, one local spot serving the best plate of pesto pasta I’ve ever eaten outside of Italy, is La Merenda. It’s a tiny restaurant in the Old Town that doesn’t take reservations, but worth the wait. Also be sure to stop by Maison Auer for the best candied fruit and chocolate covered almonds in France, among other delicacies!

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WALK: Be sure to walk around the Old Town and get lost in the maze of streets lined with pastel colored buildings. The Promenade des Anglais is the famous stretch in front of the sea. Follow it all the way to Castle Hill for the best views of the city and its surroundings. Climb the free elevator at the seaside; look for the ‘Ascenseur de la Chateau‘ sign. From the top you’ll have a view of Nice all the way to Antibes, and from the other side you can see Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

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Le Negresco

My last trip to the Côte d’Azur was in March. I spent a little time in Nice but was eager to become better acquainted with this, the region’s capital. Aside from its Mediterranean climate, it’s a city of art and culture, another reason to fall in love with it. To properly immerse myself in the world of French art, where better to stay than at the historic hotel Le Negresco. Centrally located between Cannes and Monaco, it sits on the famous Promenade de Anglais. It is here in this National Historic Monument, that the French works of art from Louis XIII to modern art, have a home. I knew I would be in good company.

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Upon entering, the grandeur of this hotel is hard to describe. I’ve stayed in many beautiful hotels around the world, but Le Negresco is in a class of its own. The Versailles Lounge alone takes your breath away, with Louis XIV’s portrait, marble floors, hand-painted ceiling, and elegant furnishings. The fireplace too, is original. I could imagine the decadent events having taken place in this salon since Henri Negresco opened the hotel in 1913, now over 100 years old.

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Next I entered the Royal Lounge, centrally situated beneath a large glass dome. This is Negresco’s soul, and you can certainly feel it. Once an elegant ballroom, it’s now an elaborate event space, displaying portraits of French royalty, including Napoleon III. A stunning Baccarat chandelier provides the centerpiece. Fittingly, the hotel’s 93 year old owner Jeanne Augier’s portrait also has a place on the wall. After all, it is she who welcomes each guest to her home, which she has taken great pride in decorating. She lives on the top floor with her cat, and ensures that this private, family run hotel remains at the highest 5-star level in comfort and cuisine.

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A good friend from Nice had often spoken about the restaurants at Le Negresco, particularly the vibrant and colorful La Rotonde. It’s in fact an 18th century carousel with wooden horses circling the restaurant. My eyes opened wide in amazement as I entered this space and understood immediately why it’s such a warm and welcoming place dedicated to families. The terrace opens up to the sea and this is where I chose to have lunch, accompanied by the sun. Breakfast would be enjoyed in the carousel.

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Le Negresco is also known for its haute cuisine. Le Chantecler is Nice’s finest restaurant, with two stars in the Michelin Guide under the culinary expertise of chef Jean-Denis Rieubland. He defines his cuisine and style as “inspired by Provence, with the respect of its products and traditions”. This is THE place for French gastronomy, boasting a wine cellar of over 15,000 bottles, with woodwork dating back to 1751. After dinner you can unwind at the neighboring bar with live music and a good digestif.

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With each of the 96 rooms and 21 suites uniquely decorated with period furniture, I was eager to take a closer look. Mrs Augier being an art connoisseur and collector, walking through the hotel and up the four floors feels much like being in a museum, with artwork from Salvador Dali and Sonia Delaunay, tapestries from Raymond Moratti and sculptures from Niki de Saint Phalle, to name a few. And the rooms? Timeless perfection.

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I felt very much at home in my room overlooking the Bay of Angels and knew I would return to this Art Hotel called Le Negresco.

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Grand Sud : Part II

The following day it was time to visit the medieval town of Carcassonne, located in the Landuedoc region. I was eager to explore this World Heritage Site. Arriving just in time for lunch, I opted for the speciality of the region. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole traditionally made with white beans and pork. Delicious! Onwards to the main attraction, the medieval citadel La Cité. First built in Gallo-Roman times, various additions were made in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s hard even to describe the grandness of this hilltop fortress.

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Within the walled Cité sits Château Comtal, a 12th-century castle. Led by an expert guide, I discovered this castle and its ramparts, which provided an incredible view of the town. I was blown away (quite literally in fact) by all the history. For a view from afar, I headed to the River Aude, followed by a walk around Carcassonne’s center.

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I also discovered the historic Canal du Midi, excavated in the XVIIth century, which links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I watched as numerous boaters used this main waterway along their route through Carcassonne. In 1996 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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As the sun was preparing to set, it was time to head back to the citadel. Just opposite  the 12th-century Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse, and a 2-minute walk from the Château Comtal, sat Hôtel de la Cité, my home for the night. What a regal setting! I already knew it would be hard to leave in the morning.

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I toured the elegant hotel, where once upon a time Winston Churchill slept, as did Princess Grace and Walt Disney. Now it was my turn to slumber within this Neo-Gothic mansion built in the XIX century. I couldn’t stop staring at the views from my balcony, rightfully so as the light kept changing and dusk settled in, the town illuminated in the distance.

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My next stop was dinner at La Barbacane, their Michelin star restaurant. Yes, I did feel like a princess in a castle. Thankfully, it wasn’t yet midnight and the dream continued.

 

 

Grand Sud : Part I

After returning to Paris for a quick change of clothes, I once again boarded the train, high speed ahead, direction south. Can one ever travel too much? Considering I once spent 13 months on the road, I think not. There is so much more to discover beyond the City of Lights, and along with the France Tourism Board I was well on my way to discovering. In just under 3 hours I arrived to Avignon.

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The first stop was lunch at a riverfront restaurant with quite a history. Guinguette de Vieux Moulin, located at the foot of the tower Philippe le Bel on the Rhone, a few miles from Avignon, opened in 1901. It was here that a bridge once linked the castle of the popes to Villeneuve les Avignon. In 1761, as the name suggests, 6 mills were installed, 3 for water and 3 for wind. In days past this was the place for fishing competitions and nautical games, now a place of relaxation and classic French cuisine.

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Onwards to the highlight of the day, a 2,000 year old aqueduct bridge. Pont du Gard is a 30 minute drive away, and worth every mile. Approaching the bridge from a distance, I was completely taken with the enormity and elegance of this ancient Roman structure. It’s hard to believe that this three level masterpiece, 360 meters long and 50 meters high was built in only 5 years.

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This massive bridge provided those living in Nîmes with running water for close to 5 centuries, making this a highly prestigious city in the south of France. Much of it was used for their bath houses. Water was collected from the Eure river at the foot of Uzès. Led by my expert tour guide I had the opportunity to discover the canalization, walking inside the bridge along the exact path where the water flows. Not to mention the views!

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Surround by 408 acres of a stunning natural landscape, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon swimming, canoeing, enjoying the flight of Bonelli’s Eagles, that is, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

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What makes it even more of a destination is that the Pont du Gard was the first French site to be awarded ‘Grand Site de France’ in 2004. This great honor presented by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, safely combines tourism, local life and the protection of nature. There are now 14 sites in France with this distinguished title. What’s more, this is a Unesco Heritage site since 1985.

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After several hours learning about the structure and admiring its grandeur, I dug deeper into the history of this Roman aqueduct by way of the museum. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon there but it was time now to continue the journey. I vowed to return for the annual music festival in July. What a venue! Now it was time to end the day a short drive away in the village of Castillon-du-Gard.

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As soon as I entered into the world of Le Vieux Castillon, located in the heart of this small Medieval village, I was enchanted. Newly renovated in minimalist elegance, this 32-room boutique hotel resides in a Renaissance building. Its history is felt in every room, within the spacious gourmet restaurant, through the courtyard and to the pool which overlooks the picturesque Provençal landscape. Just in time for sunset, I perched on a lounge chair to enjoy the view, and a moment of zen.

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Needless to say, when morning came, I didn’t want to leave this tranquil paradise. But it was time to discover another famous French destination.

Île de Ré

Is it possible to find the tranquility of the Mediterranean hidden in the Atlantic Ocean? Just west of La Rochelle sits the island of Île de Ré. Having heard much about this natural landscape boasting sandy beaches and 10 charming villages connected by cycling paths, I decided it was time to explore. This French summer hideaway seemed like the ideal weekend away. As is often our preference, we chose to visit off season.

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In just over three hours we arrived via train to La Rochelle. Since 1988 the city is linked to Île de Ré by bridge, providing easy access by car or shuttle bus. We chose the latter, since the main mode of island transport is by bicyle. No car is needed. The afternoon was cloudy and windy, with hints of blue setting the scene for the next few days. We chose to stay in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital and what is considered one of the most picturesque of the villages. We arrived easily by bus and settled into our elegant hotel on the harbor. As it was the weekend, the village was bustling with locals and second home owners taking advantage of the Indian summer. Nineteen miles long and two to three miles long, this small island with a population of 18,000, grows to 130,000 during the summer months. Soon, I would discover its appeal.

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The following day we rented bicycles and began our journey along the coast. Passing marshes and salt farms we made our way to the smallest of the villages, Loix. Thus began our love affair with the island. From there we rode south to Ars-en-Ré, a larger village with an active port. After lunch we met a few friends from Paris (fortunate are those with family homes in such a beautiful natural setting), and joined them at the beach near La Couarde-sur-Mer. On the path home, we rode through countless vineyards, the season’s harvest ripe for picking. The landscapes all so beautifully preserved. As the sun hung low in the sky, we had just enough time to get lost in the tangle of Saint-Martin’s streets.

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The next day we hopped back on the bikes, first stop: oysters. I was in heaven. We sat along the coast during low tide and feasted on tender shrimp and the freshest oysters I’d eaten since our trip to Cap Ferret. A glass of local white wine to compliment. Our next stop was La Flotte, another inviting port village. We were completely smitten by these picture-perfect villages; streets filled with shuttered homes in pastel shades of green, gray and blue; ivy creeping up walls and flowers growing around every corner. The charm was immeasurable. Our journey continued to a long sandy beach close to the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. I could imagine the surfing and kite-boarding during the summer months. But now it was just us, along with a handful of couples and young families, enjoying the off-season serenity. Perfect timing, if you ask me.

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When evening fell and it was time to return to Paris, we were not eager to leave the island and vowed to return. There were more villages to explore, more local pineau to taste and oysters to savor. I could now understand why Île de Ré was considered such an island paradise. A secret the French keep well, and now one I share with you. Here are my recommendations for island life in Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

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SLEEP: Hôtel de Toiras is a five-star Relais & Châteaux property located on the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, providing a luxurious setting for a weekend away, or longer. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with old French charm. The entire setting is regal and elegant. Five years ago, the hotel acquired a beautiful old mansion and created its sister hotel, Villa Clarisse. Set father back in the village, this four-star hotel offers 9 rooms set in a lush garden with a pool. Either location makes a perfect home in the heart of the island.

EAT LOCAL: Le Bistro du Marin is THE local spot, located on the port. They don’t take reservations so prepare to wait by the bar, especially if you’d like to dine outside, or en terrace. Their hearty meat dishes served with delicious home fries and fresh fish specials are certainly worth waiting for! Not to mention their homemade profiteroles. Both lunch and dinner are served daily, closed Thursdays.

EAT GOURMET: Les Embruns is just behind the port and well worth a dinner reservation (you must book ahead as they get full very quickly). This is the place for seafood, with lobster salad that looked heavenly, and a variety of fish dishes on the menu. For 30€ you can try the tasting menu. It’s hard to go wrong in this charmingly kitschy restaurant. Open only for dinner during the high season, closed Tuesdays.

EAT OYSTERSRé Ostréa is a casual lunch spot along the bike path from Saint-Martin-de-Ré heading west. It’s hard to miss with its colorful chairs, always full in the high season. Here you can dine on an assortment of seafood, including of course, local oysters. The fresh shrimps too, are heavenly! All dishes are accompanied by a glass of local wine. This is a must stop while on the island.

EAT SWEETSLa Martinière is a family run ice-cream and pastry shop. It’s a MUST stop while on the island, though we missed out on this sweet experience since it was closed for renovations. Next time!

DRINK: Ile de Ré is not so much known for their wines as for the French apéritif Pineau, a blend of wine and cognac. As it’s a sweet drink, I quickly became a fan. You can taste it at any bar or wine shop.

CYCLE: With quite a few bike rental companies to choose from, I found Cycland to be one of the best, with a great assortment of bikes and locations in 9 of the 10 villages. Definitely use bicycles to get around the island!

VISIT: Ernest Cognacq Museum is a Renaissance style mansion highlighting the historical, artistic and military heritages of the island. Worth a stop for a quick history lesson!

 

24 hours in Kraków

Last week I flew to Kraków after a long overdue visit with my family in the south-eastern town of Sanok, a three hour drive from this medieval city. With little time to explore a place I already knew and loved, I headed to favorite haunts and discovered a few new ones. So how did I spend my 24 hours? Here are my recommendations for those new to the city or for anyone stopping over for a quick visit. The heart of Kraków is the main square where you’ll hear the clanking of hooves as tourists make their way around the city via horse and carriage. Stop at one of the many outdoor cafes for a local beer, and visit Kościół Mariacki, St. Mary’s Basilica.

NOTE: There’s now a train that will take you directly to the city center from the airport, only 20 minutes at 8 zlotys. Take care not to get ripped off by the taxi drivers! Negotiate ahead of time, especially to and from the airport.

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SLEEP: Minutes away from both the Rynek Glówny (market square) and the Wawel Castle sits the Radisson Blu. This modern 5-star hotel was constructed 13 years ago (and designed by an architect friend of mine). All 196 of its spacious rooms have recently been refurbished. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the castle, and take advantage of their spa and fitness center.

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EAT: My absolute favorite restaurant is one of Kraków’s historic haunts, Pod Aniołami. Translated to Under the Angels, it’s located in an 18th century building at The Royal Route, leading to the Wawel Castle. Once upon a time the the building housed Krakow’s goldsmiths as well as their workshops. You can feel the history when you enter it’s cellar. And the food? Classic Polish dishes ranging from pierogi to an assortment of grilled meats. Smacznego!

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DRINK: After asking a few local friends what was new in the city, they led me to Zakłady Tytoniowe, a 19th century tobacco factory. Intrigued, I headed there with my cousin for a drink and discovered an entire world in the making. Opened this past July, there were just under a dozen bars and restaurants taking over the industrial space, many more to follow in the months ahead. Shared office spaces looked over the cafes and terraces. I enjoyed a drink at Międzymiastowa while my cousin met her friends at an outdoor bar. I returned the following day for coffee and cake at Bonjour Cava.

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SEE: I can’t count the number of times I’ve visited the Wawel Castle, set on the banks of the Vistula river, its director a close friend of my moms. With each visit I become more enchanted by the castle’s history. (Read more about it here.) For centuries the residence of Poland’s kings, the Wawel is the symbol of Polish statehood, and now houses one of the country’s most recognized collections of art. A must see while in Kraków!

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SHOP: For souvenirs, amber jewelry and wooden chess boards being among the best gift ideas, I recommend the Sukiennice in the main market square in Kraków’s Old Town. Dating to the Renaissance, it’s also known as the Cloth Hall. With dozens of stalls your options are plenty and you certainly won’t leave empty handed.

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