Retired in Rome Journal: “On assignment in Nice” has a tasty ring to it

Nice is the fifth-largest city in France but the second-most visited.
Nice is the fifth-largest city in France but the second-most visited.
It's not Monaco but the harbor in Nice is nice.
It’s not Monaco but the harbor in Nice is nice.
Mille-feuille at Deli Bo.
Mille-feuille at Deli Bo.
Goat cheese salad at La Flara
Goat cheese salad at La Flara.
Chocolate mousse at Le Vieux Bistro.
Chocolate mousse at Le Vieux Bistro.

The only thing I miss about my old job with The Denver Post was the travel. Not all of it. If you’ve been to Stillborn, er, Stillwater, once, you’ve been there one too many times. Indianapolis is called Indianoplace for a reason. And the drives across Kansas and Nebraska would make any immigrant wonder about American streets paved in gold. But my career has been dotted with a traveler’s dream itinerary. People laughed that I covered figure skating. Ha! It got me to Russia three times. I covered Olympics in Sydney, Turin, Beijing, Vancouver and London. (Notice I left off Salt Lake City? See Indianapolis above.) Six assignments of the Tour de France sent me to every corner of France.

I want to keep my hand in writing because, every once in a while, I’m reminded about what was wonderful about my business and why dwindling travel budgets helped drive me out. I got a choice magazine assignment to cover the end of the Paris-Nice bike race. It’s just the end but the end of this race winds up in the heart of the French Riviera.

Nice is the fifth-largest city in France but the second-most visited. It has a beachfront boardwalk that seems to stretch to Spain. The water is the turquoise I last saw in French Polynesia. Its Old Town is lined with British pubs, cafes boasting the best mussels in the South of France and cafes with pastries that stop you in your tracks. City buildings look like French castles. It’s a gorgeous, compact, bustling city with arguably the best weather in Europe.

And I was working.

My AirBnB was a modest second-floor flat on a quiet street behind the Basilique Notre-Dame, the majestic church that stands guard over Nice’s squeaky-clean harbor. Caroline, the owner, is a blonde, Belgian-born middle-aged account manager for a French gas company. Like every AirBnB owner I’ve met, she seems more interested in promoting her city than making an extra buck. In other words, she’s the perfect BnB host. Every time I walked in, she asked how I liked Nice then her ball of gray fur of a cat, Mr. Gray, greeted me by rolling around on my feet then hugging my arm with her four paws, giving me love bites around my fingers.

This city embraces you the same way. It’s soft — with a little bit of a sharp edge.

The first thing I needed after a 3:45 alarm clock and a 7:10 a.m. flight was food. Come to think of it, that’s my first impulse every time I come to France. After I threw my bag on the big queen-sized bed, Caroline directed me to the best cafe in her neighborhood. Deli Bo looks too high-end to be authentic. Maybe I’m used to Rome where the scruffier the cafe the more authentic the food. Snow-white chairs sat in a polished setting and despite the potential sticker shock, I took one of the stainless steel seats outside. I had a decent caffe and a tiny chocolate croissant but next to me a French couple dug into this multi-layered cake nearly obliterated by a pile of whipped cream. I asked the waiter what it was. I didn’t understand a single syllable he said, mainly because it sounded like, as most French words do, one continuous vowel.

It’s called a mille-feuille. A mille-feuille is a French tradition that dates back to the late 17th century. Also called a Napoleon, mille-feuille means “thousand leaves” in French. It’s vanilla cream in between pastry cream and sandwiched between a sugar-coated crust. Covered in fresh chantilly, France’s orgasmic whipped cream, it was absolute heaven. I never felt so good waddling out of a cafe.

Two hours later, I was hungry again. France does that to you. Nice smells of baked bread, fresh cream and seafood. For lunch, Caroline merely pointed down. Directly below her, La Flara caters to locals on long lunch breaks and lovers cooing on a quiet street with cool drinks. I was dying for a French salad. Italy has two foods it does not do well: steak and salads. The salads are way too much weak lettuce and not enough ingredients. French salads make those at TGI Friday’s look small. My cheure chaud salad was a giant bowl of mixed greens covered with ham crudo, goat cheese toast, tomatoes, olives and pine nuts. With a little oil and vinegar it made me moan for the second time in two hours.

I’d been to Nice once before. When I lived in Rome the first time, my girlfriend and I used Nice as a launch point for a four-day backpacking trip through Provence in 2002. The most lasting impression Nice made was as a site where my ex and I had one of our most vicious fights, over something that became inconsequential two days into the glory of the Provencal countryside.

This time I wandered past the harbor toward Nice’s famed beach. La Promenade des Anglais is the famous promenade that stretches all along Nice’s Cote d’Azur. I can see why Cote d’Azur got its name. The water, even now in mid-March with temperatures in the 50s, was bright blue. But spoiling the image as abruptly as cappuccino stains on Michelangelo’s David was a beach made of nothing but … rocks. Everywhere. As far as the eye could see were rocks. I didn’t see a speck of sand. You needed hiking boots from REI to maneuver halfway to the beach. Yet I saw people sunbathing as if they were on lanais chairs at a five-star hotel’s pool.

But the promenade is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have the backdrop of Rio and the swimwear isn’t as, um, sporty as in Brazil but the people watching was great. Joggers chugged by me in black latex. A haggard blonde in white bobby sox and shabby coat sang French love songs. Lots of mixed race couples holding hands and kissing on the ocean wall. It was a nice scene, made better by a near complete absence of tourists. I went into the spacious tourist bureau and only two other people were there.

Nightlife in Nice is some of the best in France. Picture a rowdy beach town with a little bling and an older crowd and you have Nice. It’s Manhattan Beach meets Paris. On my first night Saturday I met some cycling journalists in the Old Town. Not that Nice is crawling with Irish pubs but one of the top nightspots in town has the prototypical French name of … Wayne’s Bar. It just reeks of pastis and berets, doesn’t it? My friend likes Wayne’s because, he said, “It’s crawling with 22-year-old French babes.” He’s right. I walked in and the outside tables looked like a Pi Phi house meeting. Inside, however, the place could be in downtown Dublin. The wait staff were all Irish. Playing on the TV wasn’t French football but hurling, the crazy Gaelic sport that combines baseball, soccer, rugby and mental illness.

The French like their beer much more than Italians. While the Italians are catching up, I saw a table of two French women with five or six empty bottles of beer in front of them. Two other beauts beat me to the bottom of my Guinness. Meanwhile, apple pie with ice cream and meat pies flew around the room courtesy of a small lift the bartenders pulled up and down from the kitchen above.

Two nights later, I blew off the masses ringing in St. Patrick’s Day (nothing looks more phony than a Frenchman in a leprechaun hat) for Le Vieux Bistro. It’s a small restaurant specializing in the Nicoises cuisine of the Nice region. I had gnocchis au pistou, pignons et copeaux de parmesan. Translated, that’s small potato dumplings covered in pesto, pine nuts and parmesan. I followed that with a giant mousse and the requisite dumping of chantilly.

Rome, you’ve met your match.