I got off the train at the train station in Nice and followed Google Maps to the hostel. I had walked over 650 km to get here, but none of those kilometres was as stressful as these last one-and-a-half kilometres through the centre of the city to the hostel. There were people everywhere: couples and walkers and workers and musicians and kids and costumes. I was looking forward to my first hot shower but also feeling very disoriented.
I think I felt exactly like Diana in Wonder Woman, when she comes to London (Nice, in my case) for the first time after a life in the green, magical land of Themyscira (The Alps, in my case). Of course, she overcomes all her initial awkwardness and goes on to save the world while I went on to do pretty much nothing all over the world, but our beginnings in our new lives of superherodom and backpacking were pretty much identical.
The hostel I was staying at was overrun by kids. I was expecting the backpacking crowd to be younger than me, but I hadn’t expected squealing and giggling teenagers; perfectly made up girls and boys with muscles and tight-fitting pants talking mostly in English about drinking and partying and how they didn’t need to sleep. They did look like they were enjoying themselves, but I had absolutely nothing to talk about with them, and they certainly didn’t seem to care about the smelly guy with grey hair.
At the reception once, I was standing in line behind three girls who were asking the guy at the counter where to eat, their words punctuated just as much by “Like”s as by breaths and pauses. They were giggling, talking about how they’re not into shrimp but love paella anyway, and the guy was smiling and telling them all the local spots that he loved.
Once they left, I asked the guy, “Where can I get something nice to eat?”
He looked at me and then pointed somewhere on the map. “All the restaurants are here,” he said and turned to his computer.
This is what backpacking is like, I thought. Brown skin, white hair, no confidence. Maybe even I wouldn’t talk to me. At that moment, the scores of people who told me stories and laughed at my jokes in the mountains didn’t come to mind. As far as I could tell, my backpacking journey was off to a bad start. Maybe I was too old for this?
I spent most of my time in Nice walking along the coast, with small expeditions into the city. The coast is pretty, with a promenade extending as far as my eye could see on both sides. On all three days that I was there, I sat on the stone ledge in the evening and watched the sun sink into the mediterranean sea.
Nice is very walkable. It is, in fact, pleasant and not just easy to get around on your feet. There are street performers of mediocre to good quality everywhere. There are tourists sitting on the street side chairs eating their mussels and fries. I imagine the old ones are talking about how the yacht wasn’t up to the mark on their previous vacation, and the young ones are talking about where they’re going get wasted and laid tonight.
Just walking around aimlessly every day, I saw a natural history museum that was always closed, a hotel that Johnny Depp stayed at, and a nice viewpoint from which you can see the city spread out in shades of brown sand and red roofs below you. I spent a lot of time in the main square (Place Masséna) watching tourists and locals and street performers.
Old Nice is where the city really shines. The architecture and the plan of the place are not fancy or imposing or gaudy. The perfect word for it, I think, is comfortable. There are what seem to be a million restaurants, each with its own beautiful woman hassling you that their restaurant has the best food and so you should eat there. The streets are narrow, the buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, not afraid of making contact, yet confident in their knowledge of their own space. Like the French people.
One night, TripAdvisor led me to a small restaurant called “Chat Noir, Chat Blanc”. The restaurant had two tables inside and two tables outside, and there were people waiting for a table. The dishes looked really pretty. If I had to end up as food, I wouldn’t have minded being killed to be on of those plate; just sayin’.
“Bon Jour! Do you have reservation?”, the waitress asked me as I entered.
I shook my head.
“Where are you from?”, the chef asked. He was in a corner of the restaurant, his space as big as two tables, surrounded by a granite countertop, and one of those wooden tables that rise up to let people pass through.
“India,” I told him.
“There is Indian restaurant next door. Why you don’t go there?”
“I will eat Indian food in India.”
He laughed. “Today you eat there. Tomorrow, you make reservation and come back here, okay?”
I made a reservation for dinner the next night and went to Delhi Belhi, the “Indian restaurant next door”. Eating my way through a North Indian Thali, I couldn’t figure out who their target audience was; the menus were wordy and the food was bland.
When I returned the next night – five minutes early so I wouldn’t miss my spot – the restaurant was empty. “Ah, my Indian friend”, the chef said, laughing.
“Come. Sit, sit. Some days full, some days empty. Funny, eh?”
The first dish was some kind of soup. I remember there was duck involved (foie gras) and octopus, and bread. I remember this because I was wiping the bowl with the bread as the beautiful French waitress said something in beautiful French to the chef. “She say you like it,” he exclaimed.
I bet you’re looking forward to hearing about what else I ate that night. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that as soon as I got home that night, I wrote down my thoughts in my notebook about all the six dishes that he served (including this very literary line, “The octopus and the soup tasted good, but I don’t know why they were together. They were like awkward strangers in an elevator”). I was sure that I would eventually write a blog post about it. And two years later, here I am, writing that very same post!
The bad news? That notebook was stolen from me when I visited Buenos Aires, so I have no record of that night other than my memories and scattered notes I made on my phone after the robbery.
No one else visited the restaurant that night, so I stayed there two hours, eating through six courses and chatting with the chef. He was from Italy and had learned cooking from his grandmother. He talked about his travel to the middle east and how he learned so many new ways to cook meat and vegetables there. I told him that the most complex dish I know how to make is a biryani. I have to say, he was suitably impressed. I tried telling him how to make sambar, but I don’t think I did a very good job.
I had started off in Nice awkward, tired, and disoriented. But I learned a very important lesson that’s always stayed with me during my travels: everything gets better if you just keep walking.
Getting there: Nice has a major airport, so you can fly in from Paris or most places in Europe. You can also take the train; trains are pretty nice in Europe.
Staying and Eating: Hostels everywhere, hotels everywhere. Food and drinks are expensive, as are beds and rooms. Of course, if you’ve read this far, you know you should go eat at Chat Noir, Chat Blanc, but not at Delhi Belly.
Doing: If you’re the kind that likes to stay up all night and drink and dance and party, Nice is right up your alley. If that’s not your thing, or you want something to do during the day, you can do what I did: walk around, go to the farmer’s market, climb up to that viewpoint, sit on the promenade and read, complain about the pebbles on the beach. You can also take the train or bus to adjacent towns like Cannes and Monaco which are even fancier.