It has inspired songs, paintings, films and novels, with Matisse, Fitzgerald and Hitchcock all finding creative fodder in its jewelled waters, sun-drenched architecture and glamorous lifestyle. But there’s more ways to see the Côte d’Azur than simply being surrounded by luxury. Hop aboard one of the regular trains that snake along the pristine coastline and you’ll experience the people, villages and food of the famous French Riviera from a delightfully different perspective.
Menton, in French, means chin. Fittingly, it’s also the name of the town that sits at the very south-eastern corner of France – some may say its chin – and is the last stop on the Côte d’Azur before the Italian border.
The sun has lazily made its way over the horizon when I board the train from Nice on my way to Menton, and already the heat is permeating every possible surface. The train carriage clatters along the edge of the coastline, seeming to balance precariously on the cliff edge, looking down into the jewelled sea. Below, solitary figures swim lazily, serenity etched into every inch of their faces. I’ve never seen water this blue – so clear and crystalline, it’s as if its surface is composed of precious jewels. Or that somewhere, far away, the sea walls have been painted a refreshing shade of aquamarine much like the walls of a swimming pool.
The train ambles into Menton after 30 minutes, just in time for brunch. I head straight to the market in the old town to take advantage of the hybrid French-Italian cuisine that comes with a town that toes an international border. Pulling up a stool, I settle in amongst the locals at a coffee bar in the heart of the frenetic market place. The moustachioed barista alternates between singing and whistling as he swiftly manoeuvres a La Marzocco to produce my cappuccino – as if he can’t decide which will adequately express his inner joy. It’s hard to miss the innate happiness of the people of Menton, a positive side effect of their location.
On my way out of the market, I make a quick stop at the boulangerie for a slice of pissaladière – an onion and anchovy tart signature to the Côte d’Azur – and head into the cobblestoned burrows of the old town. The vivid ochres, salmon pinks and lemon yellows of the architecture almost glow in the morning sun, accented by the azure brilliance of the Mediterranean. It’s like centuries of sunlight have been absorbed into the walls, making their colours radiate even more brightly. Up on the hill, the Basilica of Saint Michel Archange looks out over the bay to Italy, while an old woman sits on its steps, staring out into the horizon, lost in thought.
I could linger all day here, but I’m eager to explore more of the French Riviera. Not only is this one of the most visually stunning train trips I’ve ever taken, it’s also the most convenient. For less than ten euros I’m able to jump on and off the train at my own whim, village-hopping along the Côte d’Azur. There’s no method to my trip – I simply gaze out as we pass each coastal village to see which one catches my eye, in a process best described as wanderlust-driven window-shopping.
Heading back in the direction of Nice, I decide to leave the glitz of Monte Carlo for another day, even though it’s literally minutes from Menton. The temperature has evolved from hot to sweltering and the train’s air conditioning is sluggish from enduring a long summer. It’s almost torture as we rattle past small beaches lined with duo-toned beach umbrellas, and bronzed bodies reposed on chaises or frolicking in the water. I long to leap out of the train and into the sea – and then I realise there’s no reason why I can’t. As we ease to a halt at the tiny station in the village of Cap d’Ail, I jump from the carriage on a whim and head straight down the hill to the water. I spend the next hour swimming in a tiny cove, watching sail boats glide by. Refreshed, I’m soon back on the train, sand between my toes and hair still dripping.
When we finally pull into Nice, I stroll down into the city’s old town near the port, in search of my final destination for the day. Chez Pipo, a tiny restaurant tucked in a side street, specialises in the local delicacy known as socca. A chickpea pancake cooked in a wood-fired brick oven, socca is a beloved snack in the region and is best enjoyed with a chilled glass of rosé. I settle in at one of the restaurant’s weathered wooden tables, amongst a cluster of ageing gents who are playfully ribbing each other in the local Niçois dialect. When my meal arrives, the saltiness of the socca flirts with the sweetness of the rosé – and it’s heavenly.
As I stroll along the waterfront back to my apartment, weariness sets in. With so many towns still left to explore, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of the Côte d’Azur. But that’s okay, because tomorrow I’ll do it all again.