After experiencing Verdon earlier in the year, I thought a long road trip through l’Hexagone would be a good test of whether my rusting French was loitering in the background or if it could be restored to its former sheen simply through daily usage. To my luck, Germany decided this year to observe both the last day of October and the first of November, so I took bridge days on both sides and rolled up my sleeves in preparation for practicing my first foreign language again. Only… like my London photos, I never got around to planning any such road trip, so a couple weeks before I was due to leave I started looking at how else I might get in a dose of French before the calendar flipped to 2018. It turns out flying to Nice on Swiss was cheaper booked on Lufthansa’s website than on Swiss’ own (for the same booking class, even), so I ended up with a road trip through Germanic countries into the German-speaking region of another. But a short flight over cloudy Alps later, I was where I could practice French at long last.
I left Zurich with temperatures in the upper single digits and arrived in Nice with temperatures around 20 °C warmer, so I began wandering by packing away my jacket and my sweater and pulling out sunglasses and shorts. I spent my first day at Nice’s Museum of Modern Art, or Musée d’Art Modern et d’Art Contemporain (for short, simply MAMAC), which had one room showing works of Yves Klein, who created a color: International Klein Blue. It’s hard to describe the luminance of the color — it’s vibrant, and some might say full of hope and inspiration toward the future. Against the surgical white walls, it was certainly bold.
Like the Tate Modern, MAMAC also has a viewing level at its highest level. Despite living in Charleston for over three years, the air here felt lighter — certainly less humid, and maybe even less salty. I spent a while on the roof, taking in the air and looking out over the city. I was impressed with the spread of the city. From its promenade, it might seem like the limits of the city end with the first row of restaurants facing the sea, but from above it’s evident just how far the city stretches toward the Alps.
I made my way down and wandered back toward the Mediterranean, eventually turning uphill and going to the Colline du Château (literally Castle Hill) for even closer views of the turquoise waters of the sea. At the southern end of the hill is a large sundial, and I waited for sunset there.
It was late afternoon already, and I didn’t have my tripod or filters on me or the time to go retrieve them before sunset. I improvised by using the BlackRapid FastenR under my lens hood as a ground tripod. It’s not the first time I’ve wanted a makeshift tripod and probably won’t be the last; maybe it’s time to invest in a “real” pocket tripod. I’d like to think, however, that this day the equipment really didn’t matter: the sky exploded into color, first orange-red and then purple-pink as the temperatures began to drop, giving me about forty minutes of some of the best light I’ve seen. If only this sort of color show would be so kind as to grace that forsaken lake with its presence…
Chilled as the shadows grew, I struck camp as the color faded into black and had dinner. Niçois eat late, and after two trips of doing it wrong I got the hang of it in Nice. I underestimated restaurant prices, but as in London the plethora of choice was close to being a paradox of choice. The food in Nice is incredible.
The next morning was dedicated to the Matisse Museum and its neighboring Archeological Museum and Cimiez Ruins, whose complete French name is the mouthful “Musée d’Archéologie — Site de Cimiez.” I arrived with the second bus out of the city and walked around the ruins of the ancient Roman amphitheater. The blue skies and puffy clouds belie slightly cooler temperatures, but I lucked out again with the weather regardless: it was a good 15 °C cooler in the Germany that I left behind.
I had a harder time grasping all of Matisse’s history than I did with looking at timepieces, certainly a testament to his commemorative museum’s thoroughness. I had purchased a museum pass for Nice and headed next door to the archeological museum around noon, taking time to walk around and marvel at the outdoor ruins.
The museums are next to a park where locals gather for walking, picnic-ing, or, when in France, playing pétanque. I might have spent as much time watching games and subsequent cursing develop as I did in the ruins earlier. Such a community event is not something I am used to either from the US or from Germany. I asked if the players were used to tourists staring and taking pictures. Evidently, they are.
The temperatures had climbed to a pleasant 18 °C or so by midday, and because there was no straightforward way back to the city, I decided simply to walk as much of it as I could. I stopped by a sidewalk cafe for a terrific salade Niçoise, later boarding a bus to get back to the old city and my hotel. As I’m not too fond of lengthy delays between trips and actual photo editing (London was something of a tipping point — I don’t think I’ve ever sat seven months on photos before!), I brought my laptop to get a head-start and start working on photos as I took them. Some photo processing and a nap later, I unpacked my tripod and headed down the sun-drenched Promenade and back to Castle Hill.
This time, despite having my entire filter collection and my tripod at my disposal, the colors never really blossomed like they had the night before. I was okay with this: if my London photos were disorganized and lacked focus, I finally had the chance in Nice to take my time, find a location I liked, compose what was important, and shoot, and I think the results are cleaner as a result. In short, I could relax.
My biggest complication that trip was which restaurant to pick, but no choice was the wrong one in terms of food quality or taste. A plan for the next day had begun to form, one which was a bit counter to the idea of relaxation.
Early (for beach schedules) the next morning, I took the 1 EUR bus ride to Èze, a hilltop village looking down toward the Mediterranean. I was looking for photographic locations, and one of the ideas in the incredibly informative Best of Nice blog was to take the bus from Nice to Èze. I was one of the first in the exotic garden at the very top of the hill, soaking in the abundant sunshine and beginning to wonder whether I really wanted to leave this place.
Èze is perhaps the most prominent hamlet on a hill, but the cliffs to the north were not unclaimed, either. I was impressed at the relatively undeveloped hillsides, where the main focus could easily have been described as preservation of the natural surroundings. For such a beautiful area, this seemed to be almost surprisingly sound land management.
After two hours of circling the garden and reading about the differences between agave and aloe, I decided it might be time to move on. The same bus line that brought me to Èze also wound its way toward the coast, its final destination of Monaco one that I didn’t really have any intentions of visiting. I am no fan of extravagance or flash and tend to avoid areas that have this for the sake of having it, but Èze was within spitting distance (okay, within another 1 € bus fare) of the densest soverign nation in the world, so I decided to check it out. And man, is it dense. I had heard Monaco described as a concrete jungle, and from the roof of its oceanographic museum it certainly seemed to grow toward the hillside and continue upward from there, with less of the greenery preservation that I saw from Èze.
My goal was to spend as little money in Monaco as possible, which included turning off my cell phone, since EU network coverage does not apply there. Downloaded maps via the terrific app maps.me helped. En route to the aquarium, I found a giant hexagon laid in a mosaic — Hexa Grace, it was called, with colors depicting the earth, the sea, and the sky. Its artist, Victor Vasarely, was a key figure in creating art with optical illusions, and is considered by many to be one of the movement’s leaders. The work is actually the roof of the Grimaldi Forum, a congress center near the Monte Carlo.
The Salle d’Expositions lies between the giant hexagon and the oceanographic museum, and while I was there had Matthieu Ricard’s photography on display. My attention was initially drawn to a mountainous landscape he had photographed, but I found his most captivating works to be of Himalayans and their lifestyle. His educational background was scientific, earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, but decided to forego his formal training and instead practice Tibetan Buddhism full time and relocate to the Himalayas. I didn’t have the luxury of time that afternoon and would have liked to have read more about his decision and what the motivations behind his decision were.
My last stop in Monaco was its oceanographic museum, which is perhaps a long way of saying aquarium, as that’s where I focused most of my time. It wasn’t just time spent in the aquarium that I was watching, however. I had left myself room to take around 800 photos in Nice (thinking I’d take maybe 400)… the trip ended with 893 photos taken. I had to delete images I hadn’t yet backed up from a previous trip to satisfy my storage needs, largely driven by the many large, high-ISO files from Monaco’s aquarium. The building itself is beautiful, but I was wide-eyed from the colorful and exotic species inside its tanks. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an aquarium, and I was delighted to see, among others, cuttlefish:
… but whose mouths are actually positively terrifying:
Nemo and his frantic cousin (or sister, or brother, or friend, or enemy):
and some larger, slower, version of Nemo. I did not grow up around the sea or ocean and never came to identifying fish as readily as some of my coastal colleagues. Running out of memory space to shoot the signs above each tank didn’t help my erudition. Thankfully the fish were mesmerizing to watch, both in elegance of motion and their behavioral quirks, so I was quickly distracted from my lack of knowledge.
Some hours later, memory card space depleted and my bus departure time for Nice approaching, I headed back to the bus stop to return to my hotel and make space for more pictures for my last day. I started off by wandering my way over to the market. I asked for permission to take a picture of the florist, who seemed surprised at but content with the question. She snipped away while I shot a few frames. Her shirt says, “Je suis polie poutain,” which effectively means, “I’m f*#$ing polite, dammit” — a curious choice at a market!
Some stalls later I exited the market, buying some candy for my mother and noticing a deli stand that reminded me it was time for lunch.
Lunch that day turned out to be one of the biggest debacles yet. Across the street from my hotel was a formerly Michelin-starred restaurant. I had read two articles saying its lunch options were on a set price menu, and their website confirmed this. The problem was that the set price lunch was only for a limited time, and so thrown by the formality of the setting but not willing to swallow my pride and leave I stumbled my way through not being able to choose a wine, asking for a dessert card because I was still somewhat hungry and not ordering anything, and hastily making an exit. In the hour or so I was there, I was the only one who had left; everyone else went through their mains (beware: this is un plat principal en français; the (French) entrée is a starter!) much slower. The owner of the restaurant stopped at every table to check on their meals but mine. Thoroughly embarrassed, I slunk back to the hotel to take a nap and work on photos.
Just before sunset, I headed again to the Colline du Château for another sunset shot, armed again with all my filters. It turns out no sunset was quite so spectacular as that from the first day, but I had more time to scope out a place and to set up. A few people stopped to ask me about my settings and how I was shooting, which I could have answered more effectively if I felt more confident in my work. It’s easy to choose settings; it’s hard to visualize a shot, especially — for me — under prying eyes.
As the sky darkened, a Chinese student studying in France asked me in French how he could shoot the scene as I shot it, and I began explaining the balance between lights and darks, an explanation I’ve given many, many times before. This time, though, I attempted to do it in French, and bits and pieces of German came sputtering to the surface before I could chew on what I was trying to say. As I tried to explain how the graduated filter at the end of my lens helped me balance the sky and foreground, pausing frequently to check my grammar and vocabulary, I think I managed to confuse him slightly, and he set off, thanking me for the help (that, I’m sure, in some odd stuttered French was barely of any). When I went back to that shot, I realized I had captured the initial takeoff of a plan from the Nice airport, a stream of lights that ended abruptly as the shutter closed. If the shutter had been open a little while longer, I could have shown where that plane was going — and I had been been in Nice just a wee bit longer than I had, I probably could have explained to him far more effectively how I was shooting and why.
Alas, I did not, and I could not. Earlier in the year, I thought maybe one week would be sufficient to regain my French. The weeklong road trip was cut to a four day visit, and these four days showed that the duration needed to polish my French might not be so optimistic as I had imagined. This miscalculation, however, took nothing away from the experience; I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I’m not normally a warm-weather seeking, beach-going type, but Nice isn’t a flat city by an ocean. It has a charm and an energetic vibe that isn’t so dissimilar from that of Barcelona, and it’s also not far from the Alps. One day, I might return — but first, I’ll need a little more time to brush up on that French.