From Rome we had to get back to Geneva. The train was to take us through what is popularly known as the Riviera. In Europe coastlines are all called Riviera of which three are very famous – the Spanish, Italian and the French, the last, in fact, is the most famous. The overnight train took us past some exotic places of which we had heard so much. Genoa was one where my late brother had docked in 1952 on his way to the University in Frankfurt am Main, then in American Zone of a divided post-War Germany. Another was Portofino a well known scenic get-away and a well-known fishing village and has figured in many English love lyrics. We were woken up close to San Remo for customs check. Till then Schengen visa system had not arrived. The European Union had only five countries each having its visa control system and currency. The Euro was still far away.
Nice has been the playground of the rich and famous for more than a hundred and fifty years. Ever since the Riviera was connected by railways the European monarchs used to descend down there with their huge entourage for the summers. The English were more fond of the Riviera because of the 300 days’ sunshine on the Mediterranean Coast. They would escape from their dark, brooding, murky weather to take in the bright and sunny weather. From the British Royalty to the English poets like Shelly and Byron, all used to haunt the sunny French coast. Later, after the World War II American millionaires, Hollywood actors and actresses would hang around the Riviera, especially in the tiny principality of Monaco to lead that high life where casinos were integral to the evening’s schedule. Monaco’s then reigning monarch, Prince Rainier, even married the popular and famous Hollywood actress Grace Kelly.
Of course, we were not going to be in the Riviera for all that. It happened to be on our way and we had to change trains at Nice for Geneva. That’s how we took half a day at Nice and kept another half for Cannes before leaving for up north. Certainly not doing justice to it as Nice is supposed to be the fifth largest city of France and second largest on the Mediterranean coast after Marseilles where tourism booms. Located on what is known as Cote d’ Azur on the South-East coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea, it has a harbor too where fishing was the main activity besides providing a linkage to the island of Corsica. When we went there was no TGV (Trans Grand Vitesse), the superfast train connecting it with Paris. The TGV has since spread out to most of the European towns.
The Mediterranean climate is the strongest point of Nice which attracted Europeans from the north, mostly English who came in hordes to take in the sun and the mild weather. The influence of the English was so much that the sea-side promenade is known as La Promenade des Anglais. After getting off the train we walked down to the Promenade. Nice has expanded laterally to accommodate its population of a million. From the railway station which is on higher ground the distance to the seaside wouldn’t be more than a kilometer. Having heard and read so much I was quite disappointed by the beach. It was not sandy as you find beaches elsewhere; here it was generally small pebbles which made the coast and men and women were relaxing in the sun on what must have been uncomfortable to sit or to lie on.
A couple of hours was what we had to trudge back to the railway station to reach which we had to negotiate a gentle climb. For want of time we gave a miss to the statue of Apollo and headed for the station. Only half an hour away we reached Cannes in good time. Cannes, pronounced Kaan, though kind of a sister city to Nice, it is more famous for two reasons. One is the annual film festivals that are redolent of glamour and fashion; the other is its association with the stinking rich and high-flying playboys. The city’s riches are exhibited by its marina-full of high-end yachts, Jaguars and Porches on its roads, luxury hotels and haute couture, i.e. high fashion. For us, however, it was more a walk down the city’s promenade. We walked up to the end of it to come up agains Palace of Festivals that was shut. Later, we walked around on a street with a difficult-to-pronounce French name which has the hand imprints of 40-odd celebrities on the pavement – including that of our own Shaibana Azmi. I don’t remember why I didn’t take a shot of the imprints. Perhaps I had run out of raw film.
It was afternoon and the sun was heading down towards the horizon bringing out the best in the Mediterranean. It was bluest of blues, truly azure. Taking in the beautiful Blue Mediterranean we goaded our tired legs towards the railway station. We had to get back to Nice to catch the train for Geneva.