oh, so nice
Ken Hoffman on the joy of jetting off to the French Riviera and why we all need to travel
I am taking a travel vacation for the first time in three years (two COVID shutdown, one I was getting my X-rays touched up). That’s long enough.
I’m vaccinated, got my French Health Pass, a packet of face masks, a quart of hand sanitizer, a pocketful of Euros and I’m leaving for Nice and the French Riviera.
In four hours. The airline told me to be at Bush Intercontinental at 11:45 am for my 3:45 pm flight. I’m here on time. Terminal D is a ghost town. The gates are empty, not a soul around.
I need to see Dr. Rick.
Houston is my favorite place to live. But my favorite place to visit … that’s Nice, France. I can’t wait to get back there.
Nice, pronounced “niece,” is the unofficial capital of the French Riviera. It’s a big city, population almost a million, right on the Mediterranean Sea. The weather is excellent, warm and comfortable year ‘round, the people are a little too good-looking for my self-esteem, and the food is the best. Nice once was part of Italy, so there’s pizza and lasagna everywhere.
I start each morning with two almond croissants and a Coca-Cola Light. They don’t say Diet Coke there. I was told that “diet” is an ugly word in France when it comes to food or drinks. Diet food means you’re sick or weird or something.
I like to hang around Vieux Nice, the Old Town, which was built in the 1200s so the cobblestone streets are narrow, barely wide enough for horses to maneuver side-by-side. The alleys are crowded with cafes and shops, paused by occasional public squares with restaurants where people congregate in the evenings.
Fenocchio is an enormous outdoor gelato stand with 60 flavors, including some oddballs like Vanilla & Pink Pepper or Chewing Gum. Ordering gelato in Nice is no time to gamble. I stick with “two boules” (scoops) of “the most chocolatey gelato you got.” They understand me. You could patch pot holes with this stuff.
Cours Saleya, the large town square of Vieux Nice is a flower and farmer’s market each morning, turning into a restaurant row of international dining at night. The seafood is fresh. You can hear Mediterranean waves lapping onto the pebble beach along the Promenade des Anglais. No Long John Silver’s here.
Everybody has a best “last meal.” Mine is the Baked Rigatoni with Sausage at La Voglia in Vieux Nice. They serve it in a round cast iron pan big enough for a family. Or me on an Italian food bender.
The signature local sandwich is called Pan Bagnat: fresh tomatoes, tuna in olive oil, peppers, cucumbers and anchovies on a large, round crusty roll. I don’t like tuna fish sandwiches, I will have a stroke if anybody slips me an anchovy and I’m trying to cut back on bread. But I love a Pan Bagnat for lunch on the Promenade.
Nice is a leisurely drive to Spain heading west and only 20 minutes to Italy going east. You can drive half the day from Houston and … another country? Heck, you’re still in Texas. Small artist towns like Eze and St. Paul de Vence are in the hills above Nice. I take day trips to the Italian Riviera and fishing villages like Portofino and San Remo.
France is cracking down on COVID, but allows fully vaccinated U.S. visitors in without any quarantine restrictions. Don’t forget to bring your vaccination card. I applied for a French Health Pass in order to board a connecting domestic flight from Paris to Nice. Some restaurants, bars, sports events and tours check for the Health Pass. It’s a $180 fine if you’re caught not wearing a mask on public transportation.
October-November is a good time to visit the French Riviera. I got a 4-star hotel on Boulevard Victor Hugo, one of the prettiest streets in the world, for $80 a night, including free breakfast, which I avoid because I’m focused on authentic almond croissants at a boulangerie down the block. My bff isn't a guy named Will Power for nothing. I travel inexpensively so I can travel a lot.
I’ll echo the advice that Dr. (honorary) Jimmy Buffett gave to students during his commencement address at the University of Miami: “Go see the world. The planet’s never been more connected.” Fares are reasonable, you can find bargains at hotels and food around the world is out of this world.
When I see a cheap airfare, I’m gone. Friends and employers (shhh!) don’t even know I’m gone half the time. One time an editor called me to discuss a headline on my column. The editor thought I was sitting in my home in Houston.
I was sitting at a snack bar at the Great Wall of China. The statute of limitations has passed on that unexcused absence.
Traveling is a wonderful experience. You just don’t have to get to the airport four hours early.