Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Côte d'Azur, or the French Riviera

Last weekend I went to the French Riviera, which is basically the southern coast of France. It was absolutely beautiful. Being right next to Italy, however, meant that a lot of the Riviera's influence and culture is derived from the Italians, so I definitely didn't have an authentic French experience, but more of an Italian-French cocktail. Still, it was incredible, and I learned so much about the location.

Our first stop was in Monaco, an independent city-state within the borders of France. It is officially known as the Principality of Monaco, and has its own prince, currently Prince Albert II, son of Princess Grace Kelly.

Having only 2 km of area, Monaco is the second smallest country in the world, larger than only Vatican City. The residents of Monaco do not pay taxes, because the revenue of the country come from casino in Monte Carlo and the industrial sector, where they manufacture cosmetics. However, if you're an American looking to move here to lift your financial burden, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Only European residents are able to enjoy the benefits of this "tax haven."

There are no kings/queens in Monaco, although the government is a monarchy. The reason deals with politics and history. Long ago, the Genoans from Italy established a fortress here, to defend the Italian border. In Genoa, there were two main families (think Montagues and Capulets). One was under papal dominion and the other was essentially the ruling, political family. The political family, having more money and power, managed to expel the papal family from Genoa, giving them absolute control over the city. So in 1297, to take revenge, the head man in the papal family went to the fortress in Monaco and disguised himself as a Franciscan monk and asked to stay the night in the fortress. The guards were not legally allowed to bar monks from entry, so they allowed him to enter. That night, in true homage to the Iliad, he opened the gates and let his family flood in, take over the fortress, and establish dominion over the area. Ironically, monk in Italian is monaco. Ever since, that family has ruled over Monaco. However, since they were not descendant from royalty, they could not assume a title higher than prince, otherwise they would have been open to attack from France and Italy for insolence to the royal crowns. Thus, there will never be a king of Monaco.
The palace, which is still the fortress that was besieged all those years ago, has an extensive set of guards. Monaco has no military, as France takes care of national defense for them, but the guards of the palace of Monaco are a local force. The interior guards have 24-hour shifts, while the guards at the entrance of the palace are changed every hour.

Monaco's official language is French, but they speak Italian just as much, not only because of their proximity to the Italian border, but also because the ruling family of Monaco is Italian (from Genoa, remember?).

Monaco is small, but they have several significant attractions. The first is the casino, where residents of Monaco are actually forbidden to gamble. This brings in the largest revenue for the state. They also have a Formula 1 racetrack in Monte Carlo, the resort sector of Monaco. It is the most difficult track in the world, and is also where they filmed a segment of Iron Man 2. Because there is not enough space to create a large track, drivers have to go around the track 78 times to complete the race. However, it takes an average driver just under an hour and a half to finish, again emphasizing how small the track is.

Monaco is nestled between the Alps and the Mediterranean sea, making access difficult, or at least a long process. If you fly into the Nice airport (the closest airport to Monaco), you can take a taxi for about 90 euros, and it will take over 45 minutes to arrive. Or, you can take a helicopter for the same price, arrive in just under half an hour, and land on the helipad in style.

Speaking of Nice, that was the next stop on our trip. Nice is the second largest city in the French Riviera.

Like Monaco, it was originally an Italian city, but France took over and so while the official language and culture is French, they are heavily influenced by Italian culture. But around the 18th century, Nice became a fashionable place for wealthy English citizens, and so the main street, the Promenade des Anglais (Walkway of the English), is named in honor of the people who made Nice into a great resort area.

The Casino Ruhl was pointed out and significant for a reason that escapes me. But here's a picture of it!

Guiseppe Garibaldi, an Italian nationalist, was born in Nice in 1807 and was a key player in unifying Italy. He pushed very hard to get Nice recognized as a part of Italy, but the French king did not want that to happen, as Nice was a profitable city and well-known throughout Europe. So the king exiled Garibaldi. There is now a plaza dedicated to him in Nice, which goes to show how influential the Italians still are in Nice, since logically, Garibaldi has no reason to be honored in a French city.

We were encouraged to try socca here, which is a type of crepe made with the flour of chickpeas and salt, rather than wheat flour and sugar. I was willing to try it, but didn't know what to expect. What I experienced was a thin pancake that tasted faintly of hummus and was quite delicious.

Nice also tries to pretend that it's not a metropolitan city and thus has gardens and trees all over the city. Each patch of green has at least one fountain, and they are all well-lit at night, creating a very beautiful scene.

After Nice, we visited St. Paul de Vence. It is frequented by the creative types (artists, writers, musicians, actors), and has always had a reputation of being famous. It is certainly picturesque and easily a source of inspiration. Even the streets are artistic.

There were galleries all over the town, filling the streets with art. I wish I could've spent a longer time there, browsing the galleries.

We also went into the cemetery and saw Marc Chagall's tomb. He was a modernist Russian painter and pioneered Surrealism.

We departed from St. Paul and headed to Cannes, where the Cannes Film Festival is held every year. Most of the city is dedicated to hosting the festival, and since celebrities visit during these times, the streets are lined with luxury shops and everything, even the food, is very expensive.

We walked along the street outside the film theaters, and saw the handprints of all the famous people who had been to Cannes. There were so many of them, but a lot of them were international actors, and since I don't have a memory for actors, I didn't recognize the vast majority of them. However, I did photograph the ones that I recognized, which means I photographed recent, American, big-name actors.

I was least impressed with Cannes, because I expected it to be a glamorous area. Perhaps because it was overcast and drizzly, or because there was a lot of construction around the theaters (they were already preparing for next year's festival, in May), I was underwhelmed. It was still a beautiful area, with cool, Lothlorien-esque trees, and so many really amazing nautical vessels in the port, but it was my least favorite area of the French Riviera that we visited.

Our final stop was Eze, where the Fragonard perfumery is located. French perfumes are world-renowned, and Fragonard is the best of the best. They have special workers, known as Noses because of their trained and highly sensitive noses, that are able to recognize over 3,000 scents and are responsible for creating new smells for the perfumes. There are only about 50 professional Noses in the world. They go to school to learn the trade and are forbidden to drink alcohol, smoke, or eat spicy food, otherwise they risk destroying their sensitivity. They only work 2-3 hours a day, because they cannot maintain a sharp sense of smell after much longer.

In the perfumery, we were invited to test our own noses, and sadly, we all struggled to match 8 fairly distinct smells. Then we saw the "perfumer's organ," which is several large shelves lined with thousands of essence oils that look like the pipes of an organ and are the tools of the perfumer.

That was what I experienced in the south of France. I loved it, and can't wait to travel to Paris during Fall Break and see what "real" France is like. But I have to get through midterms first...

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