In the tiny Cote d’Azur town of Agay, the tired brown brick hut that was once the rail station is shuttered, and the single plastic overhang on the far side of the rails doesn’t offer much shelter as a soft rain begins. Bullet trains race past the platform. My husband and I find cover alongside well-dressed strangers, both of us hoping we haven’t missed the coastal train bound for Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. A little before eleven o’clock in the morning, second class tickets in hand, we embark the #3 TER (Transport Express Regional) train, settle in with a late-morning picnic of baguette and prosciutto, and watch out our window as the red ravine landscapes give way to famous port-filled colonies.
This is our second visit to Nice, and as the train nears the central station, I’m struck by the city’s urbanity: freeways, indistinguishable chain hotels, and gray apartment buildings congregate on the city’s outskirts before the train veers north and enters the downtown station. I know that Nice is France’s fifth largest city, and the country’s second most popular city for tourists, but this second entrance is startling, for I recall a very different arrival back in 1998: we arrived from Venice on a summer night train, with two teenagers– his son, my daughter. That first journey was only one year after I married Bob and our family was just forming, and still fragile.
It was a steamy August night, on an express overnight train chugging through tiny countries that still had kings. I awoke early, exhausted from a sleep interrupted by Italian porters who roused Bob and I repeatedly to check our documents as our children slept. (Predictably, we hadn’t loaded enough lire on our family rail pass, but after handing over all the bills we had, we were allowed back to our sleeping car.) Disheveled and groggy, I snuck out of our compartment, and tiptoed down the corridor to the vestibule window to find one of those transcendental travel sights: an ochre-hued Mediterranean sunrise illuminated sandstone apartment buildings perched between the narrow sea cliffs and the rail tracks. I lingered there alone, as the train crawled slowly toward the edges of Nice, and caught intimate glimpses of lush backyard patios, and men in yellow hard-hats getting ready to start the work day.
On that long-ago trip, Nice welcomed us with butter-pastry mornings, afternoons watching pretty sunbathers while their children negotiated the waves, long evenings trying out exotic gelato flavors, and warm nights at the quirky Hotel Canada, a divey apartment-style hotel, just two blocks from the city’s rocky beach. Nice seemed to me manageable, family-friendly and quite middle class.
I am hoping to recapture the achingly beautiful memories of that summertime “grand tour” when our teens were obedient, and still curious about grown-up beverages like coffee and red wine. All these years later— our young adult children now off on their own exotic travels — Bob and I arrive in the same Nice Ville train depot, but this time the platform looks cavernous and unwelcoming. We each drag our bags through squeaky metal turnstiles, the rooftop rattling as the storm begins to intensify.
It is only noon and already we are arguing about the best way to get to our hotel.
Approaching an empty taxi, we interrupt the driver’s lunch break — he holds a fragrant plate of rice and lamb — asking hesitantly if he can take us the scant mile to our hotel. With the grace of an expert, our driver guides us through a harrowing twenty-minute trip, a scene of streets brimming with rainwater, erratic streetlights, and shopkeepers shuttering their doors. Paul tells us this is a particularly violent September storm. At the hotel, drenched tourists who were huddling in the doorway jump out to grab his cab, but our driver firmly turns them away to go home for the day, “You are my last customers, it’s not safe!” he tells us as I hand him our Euros, and Bob wrestles our still-damp luggage onto the curb.