Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Côte d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part four of my recollections and photos of the trip, three nights camping along the edge of the Mediterranean sea, taking in the famous resort destinations of the Côte d’Azur.
The third part, covering 48 hours in Barcelona, can be found here.
Leaving Barcelona with more to see and a strong desire to return one day, we headed north-east, venturing up along the Mediterranean coast to the French border, passing the historic city of Girona on our way. We were heading firstly towards a quick overnight stop, camping in an average municipal camp-site for one night just outside the city of Montpelier, nearly 350kms away from Barcelona, before continuing our drive to our second leg of camping, two nights in the town of Menton – located right on the coast, a kilometre inside the French side of the border with Italy.
The day of driving felt particularly monotonous, a four lane highway pretty much the entire way to Montpelier, with only brief glimpses of both the Pyrenees away to our left, and the Mediterranean, to our right. We felt fortunate to have air-conditioning in the stifling 30c plus heat of the summer sun, but we missed the feeling of hot air gushing through our open windows – not really an option on a fast flowing noisy highway – our black coloured car absorbing the sultriness of the atmosphere as we sped along the coast.
We made good time, arriving in at the campsite mid-afternoon, and I unpacked my recent purchase; a cheap but large three man tent, navy blue in colour with electric neon green guy-ropes, a far bigger and heavier option than I would ideally have if backpacking without the benefit of a car. One thing that had been lacking was a practice assembly prior to our departure, an abortive decision I had justified with our hopefully dry, summer Mediterranean destination, rather than a wet Scotland in November (which I find amazing in its own way). We had time to explore the series of ponds and waters along the coast between the small towns of La Grand-Motte and Sete, a small coastal road separating the lagoons and the seas. After the excess of the previous evening in Barcelona, we decided to call it a quiet night, our priority was to find a spot of food – a pizza takeway in a car park (wasn’t as bad as it sounds!) and retiring for the night before another long drive the following day.
In the morning, we packed up and started the drive east, past the Camargue National Park, a marine wetland World Heritage Site home to flamingos and wild horses. Our aim was to reach the town of Antibes for lunch, in the heart of the French Riviera, nestled on the coast between Nice to the east and Cannes to the west. The Riviera – known to the French as Côte d’Azur – stretches from Toulon, across to the Italian border, near our base for the next two nights, Menton.
At Toulon, we left the main road, deciding to take the smaller coastal road as much as we could until the end of the day. Driving along here, after passing the resort town of St. Tropez, we found the best roads of the trip so, the tarmac weaving around picturesque sandy coloured outcrops of rock, hugging to the coastline with the glistening turquoise glinting in the summer sunshine. It justified our decision, putting fun back into the trip after the highways. The whole purpose of a road trip, in my opinion, is to see and discover; not simply take the quickest route from start to finish.
The town of Cannes, famous for it’s film festival held every May, approached as we turned a corner, the stone outcrops subsiding to reveal a sweeping coastline, houses nestled on the slope, claiming to seemingly every available piece of land.
Further along this delightful road, passing through both the outskirts of Nice and Monaco on the way, saving experiencing them for the following day, we arrived at the municipal campsite just outside Menton. After pitching our tents high on the hill overlooking both the town and the sea beyond, we strolled down down the collection of concrete staircases that descended towards the water, passing through the attractive town centre.
An appendix of green acts jutted out from the promenade, a kidney shape extension of the sea front contains a scenic garden we sat in until nightfall, the evening still warm long after the sun had set to the west. We shared a couple of overpriced, mediocre lagers in a café on the seafront, before moving down to relax on the the pebble beach. Here, to pass the time, we creatively invented an interactive game using the local resources – with one of us throwing a pebble vertically in the air, with the remaining participants each attempting to hit the first pebble with another pebble, creating the first official Menton rock throwing championships (2009). We were all relaxed, pleased to be in each others company and lazing whilst listening to the swish of waves drawing in and across the stone.
The night was hot and uncomfortable under canvas, a broken sleep not only due to the warmth of the region, but also to the nocturnal snoring activities of Myles, directly to my right in the tent. His heavy breathing and uncanny ability to fall asleep straight away as soon as his head reaches a pillow was to the detriment of the rest of our group, even though we were split over two separate tents, but also to the disadvantage of the rest of the camp-site. We heard families on the far side of the site being kept awake by the impossible commotion emanating from my good friend, despite a few shoves and swearwords.
In the morning, after showering and getting the local spirit by visiting the local boulangerie, filling ourselves with warm, fresh crusty bread and soft freshly baked croissants, we headed back into the town to board a train firstly to visit the principality of Monaco, and then finish the afternoon and evening in Nice.
Monaco, by all geographical statistics, should not exist as it does – the microstate is the second smallest country on the planet after the Vatican (which we would visit a few days later), with a ridiculously minute land area of just over 2 square kilometres, roughly the size of only 280 football pitches – one of which being the St Louis II stadium. The small size of the principality is made almost redundant by the international status of the city as an favourable economic destination. The financial statistics of Monaco make for some eye watering reading – the world’s lowest poverty rate, the highest percentage of millionaires per captia, the most expensive land prices in the world to name a few. It is a playground for the rich and famous, drawn by the climate and low taxes that assist Monaco to be the most densely populated country in the world – with a population of over 36,000 seemingly shoehorned into vast blocks of high-end residential accommodation surrounding the harbour, itself filled with yacht after yacht, each one seems bigger and more grand than the last, a nautical one-up-man-ship of wealth, pride and egos.
We had been drawn to the city as a few in the group as big fans of Formula 1 motor racing, with Monaco being the jewel in the crown of the sport and arguably its most prestigious race, first held in 1929. We walked parts of course, including both the famous hairpin corner, and the marina straight; public roads throughout the parts of the year away from the race weekend in late May.
I felt deeply uncomfortable with the sheer levels of wealth openly on display in the city, not really understanding why anyone needs a million dollar car, or a vast yacht, manned by a crew of seven, all standing to attention whilst the owners of the yacht disembarked onto the quayside. I felt deeply uncomfortable with those who move to an area to avoid paying tax and therefore avoid making contributions for the benefits of the entire spectrum of society, particularly those who may not be able to afford or be allowed access to eduction or healthcare without intervention from elsewhere.
Leaving Monaco after a few hours, we jumped on the next train west to Nice, a quick ride alongside the coast, the railway track hugging the shoreline, much like the road in the day beforehand.
By contrast to Monaco, Nice is a sprawling city, situated around two bays. One slightly curving west towards the regions airport, and the other, more enclosed and home to recreational maritime cruisers, the two separated by a small hill, topped with gardens and a small castle. We climbed the hill, rewarded by a sweeping panorama across the bay below, the Promenade des Anglais reaching as far as the eye could see. It is named after the first regular leisure tourists to the region, wealthy English tourists spending their winter months in the area, drawn by the favourable climate.
We ate an evening meal of moule-frites in a slightly too touristy square situated just away from the promenade, the food average, forgotten orders and bad service, typical from my experience as the unfortunate type of establishments in tourist hotspots who seemingly care little for the food they are producing or service they offer, knowing full well that an unhappy customer is unlikely to return, regardless of quality.
Dusk fell on the the final day of our first week of the trip, we were halfway through already as a deep royal shade of blue filling the sky over us before turning to black. We caught the train back to Menton and our tents, resting before leaving the following morning – a long drive into Italy, past Genoa and down into the region of Umbria.