Something to Declare: Nice dreams nearly destroyed on the road of hell

 

We had a dream: escape Olympic congestion! So we went to Nice, to revisit a favourite city first visited in earnest more than 30 years ago.

Of course, the predictions were wrong. Central London was, by all accounts, sepulchrally quiet and calm. The reason for this, I soon discovered, was that everyone was on the Côte d'Azur. Still …

We decided to go by road. I began driving around Europe just out of university when my car was a Citroë* Dyane 6 "Weekend". (Thus called, I surmised, because it was so slow that any journey took at least two days.) But at that time a European road journey seemed a romantic adventure. Now it has become a harrowing ordeal.

Pulling off the road used to be a guaranteed pleasure; now it is a dispiriting lottery. French motorway services owe very little to the culture of Curnonsky, Point, Bocuse and Olivier Leflaive. In fact, British ones with their Waitrose and Costa coffee are much superior. Degoûtez-ça, grenouillettes!

In Montélimar we took directions to a well-noticed lunch stop called Les Gourmands, a representative of the fabled new "bistronomie" movement.

Thirsty and car-sore, we eagerly ordered "Assiette Fraîcheur", advertised as a market-sourced invention of profound purity by the fussy and petulant and overbearing chef-patron. It was a mess of grated carrot and "Scottish" salmon: unpleasant and dishonest.

Back on the autoroute, the horrors of the traffic mocked memories of Cyril Connolly's elegant accounts of thrumming down the parallel Route Nationale 7 in a roadster with plane trees rushing past and champagne in prospect.

But arrival by road in Nice is always a compensating thrill. Leaving the dreadful A8 Provençale and joining the Promenade des Anglais, the spirits spontaneously rise. I could never tire of the palm-lined four or five miles from the airport to the seaport.

Our specific destination was an apartment rented in the Old Town of Nice, just off the Cours Saleya where you find the famous Flower Market. The apartment was a treat: on the fourth floor of a 16th-century walk-up with vaulted stairwell, it had been incongruously fitted with plasma screens, whirlpool bath and, that rarest of things in rentals, a kitchen with sharp knives.

So in the shuttered gloom of the rue du Jésus, we intermittently monitored a distant Olympics after doing horizontal beach time on "transat" recliners five minutes' stroll away. Returning for market-bought lunch and going out for dinner, it was an easy and seductive routine.

I like the contrasting textures of Nice: you find a classic Ferrari parked outside a restaurant offering the local dish, merda di can (dog shit in Provençal, but actually gnocchi). You find Matisse's joyous landscape populated by unhappy street people. You find me going to Monte Carlo on a bus, at €1 surely the best travel bargain on the planet.

We escaped London's (phantom) congestion and entered a busy world which restored a vision of luxe, calme et volupté which an ugly journey had cruelly battered. It was a dream, but isn't dreaming the purpose and result of successful travel?

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