Nice, France became home base as we rode from Southern Spain to the South coast of France to explore the French Riviera for three days. It was here we would witness the lifestyles of the rich and the famous – where the very wealthy come to play. Though it wasn’t as if we were living the lifestyle ourselves; upon arrival, we literally hiked up to our hotel – five flights of stairs. Admittedly, there was a lift suitable for one person without luggage, only if you backed into it; however the ride itself was more of a thrill ride than an elevator ride and one we both opted to not repeat after the first attempt. After check-in we spent the better part of the afternoon scrubbing our clothes at the local Laundromat. I’ll say this about Laundromats: there are few feelings better than coming out of one with a bag full of freshly washed and dried clothes. The clothes become something of a sacred cow – to take an item from the bag of clean clothes is akin to wrapping yourself in a fluffy white cloud – something clean, soft and comforting, especially after you’ve been wearing the same crunchy jeans for five days.
With clothes freshly laundered, we looked forward to a driving tour of the Riviera region. Our guide, Manuel, picked us up in a lumbering 8-seater passenger van, complaining about his lack of espresso (he’d already had four that morning) and the early hour. He warmed up quickly though, stopping to load up one other elderly couple at a nearby hotel, and rapidly easing into an entertaining commentary about the area’s illustrious history. We made a stop in Eze (Pronounced “ez”), a medieval fortress set upon the high cliffs of the craggy coast between Nice and Monaco, accessible by foot only. Manuel dropped us at the gate, with a promise to meet back at the nearby parking lot within the hour. Situated high above the crashing waves and jagged rocks, it was easy to imagine Eze as a formidable fortress in medieval times, immune to charging troupes with battering rams, incoming galleys of warships, too far up for cannons, arrows, and other forms of aerial assault to penetrate. The city today is likely structurally much as it once was, though every nook and cranny of the towering holdfast is filled with tourist knickknacks, hotels, and tasty grab-n-go snacks. Using our imaginations to visualize the goats and chickens, we grabbed a Nutella-filled breakfast crepe and continued on our way.
Next on the itinerary: a tour of the famous Fragonard Perfumerie. Though the tour itself was brief and lacking in detail of the actual making of perfume, the buying part was fun. Like a group of wannabe wine sommeliers, our guide assembled the four of us around a table, handing over swatches of various scents, having us guess at what essences each perfume was made up of – everything from lavender, to pine, to chocolate. We smelled and sampled for about an hour, learning the difference (in price and quality) between perfume and eau de toilette. Finally we made our purchases and continued on our way, smelling like we were assaulted by the pink-lipsticked perfume counter ladies I normally avoid at The Bay.
“On your marks. Get set. Go!!!!” The tires squealed, Manuel cranked the wheel, and we were off, speeding along the famous race track of Monaco’s Formula 1 Grand Prix in our 8-seater tour van. The track etches a winding route through the country of Monaco – the second smallest country in the world. We shifted involuntarily to the right as he steered hard, rounding the Fairmont hairpin, explaining over the din of screeching tires that tickets to see the event start at 400 euros, with a spot on a yacht setting you back 50,000 euros, at the least. “This is where very bad people come to behave very well,” Manuel explained in his thick French accent as he went on to describe the offshore banking practices and tax benefits established by the royal family to attract wealth to the country. As a result, there are a lot of “anonymously rich” people that hold large sums of tax-free funds in the banks of Monaco – Mafia? Celebrities? Royalty? We could only speculate as we encouraged Manuel to spill the beans on all the royal gossip: Prince Albert’s recent marriage, the pressure to produce a male heir to the throne, and the death and apparent cover-up of the famous actress-turned-princess, Grace Kelly.
The country of Monaco is known to have one of the highest GDP per capita ($150,000+), and lowest unemployment rates (0%) – resulting in the world’s most expensive real estate market, a lot of nice cars, and promenades packed with glittering high-end shops. I’m pretty sure there is nothing in my wardrobe that would allow me to even look like I belonged in these shops. Maybe I could afford a keychain or something. Either way, garbed in sneakers and jeans, window shopping was going to have to suffice. We weren’t dressed well enough to go into the Casino either (men must be in suits, ladies must be semi-formally or formally dressed), however by standing at the entrance and gawking at those entering and exiting, it was pretty easy to get the gist of it. We read later that if you want to actually play at any of the tables (ie. Enter the blackjack room), you have to pay to enter each room. Not being a gambler myself, I was happy with gawking.
The tour came to a close with a subdued drive along the French Riviera, the sun setting in the distance, and turquoise waves lapping at golden shores far below. It was wonderful to see these sites, and fascinating to observe how the other half live in utmost luxury and extravagance. We said goodbye to Manuel and hiked back up to our hotel room to get ready for dinner, tired from a day of sightseeing but eager for our last meal in France. As we dressed for dinner, I must have gotten caught up in all the indulgences we had witnessed that day. I threw caution to the wind, took a deep breath and decided to live a little, changing out of my once-worn, not-yet-crunchy jeans, and plucking a fresh pair of jeans, a clean shirt, and new socks from the sacred bag of freshly laundered clothes. Clean clothes, good company, and an excellent glass of French wine. Nothing, for our last evening in France, could make me feel richer.