Rosa Jackson leads me through the streets of her adopted home and notes the similarities to Vancouver. "People come here because of the climate and the beauty," she says. "They stay because it's a better way of life."
A Canadian expat, Jackson arrived in Paris from Alberta in 1995 and established herself as a culinary expert. A food writer and cookbook author, Jackson launched a tour of the Parisian markets before relocating to the French Riviera, where she could afford to provide cooking classes as well as culinary tours. Her company, Les Petis Farcis, is named after a regional dish made of stuffed vegetables.
Through her tours and classes, Jackson gives visitors to Nice, the fashionable epicentre of the tourism scene in the south of France, the chance to dive into the region's unique flavours. Nicoise cuisine is best known for its namesake salad -- most often served with hard-boiled eggs, olives and tuna -- but it is much more.
A melding of Italian and French ingredients and cooking techniques, Nicoise food is distinct and simple. With an abundance of Mediterranean seafood, it's also delectable. You won't find heavy sauces on the cuisine, nor a lot of fatty dishes.
"What surprises people is how different Nice's flavours are from Paris or other parts of the country," says Jackson, whose most popular tour is of the city's exceptional local market. "It's a much smaller city but the food scene is really incredible and it's getting noticed more and more."
We dined with other expats at Vinivore, a cozy wine bar near the city's gorgeous Port area, and I ordered the duck breast, which was exceptionally succulent and served with vegetables sourced from the farms surrounding the city. As the conversation focused on the importance of food sourcing, it occurred to me a region known for its beaches, gay culture and raucous party scene was also home to a vibrant culinary culture.
Along with the agricultural wealth in the area, the French Riviera, also known as Côte d'Azur, is teeming with octopus, mussels, branzino, gambas (shrimp) and more delicacies from the sea. Restaurants all along the coastline, stretching from Monaco to Marseille, showcase the bounty of the region.
For many visitors to Nice, the high quality of the food is a surprise, while the beaches are a disappointment. That's because the city's main beach on Promenade des Anglais is full of sharp rocks and pebbles, making stepping out in barefoot painful. Beaches to the east of the Port are far more attractive, because they're not as rock-laden or overpopulated with travellers.
Even more appealing is Antibes, an absolutely spectacular little coastal village less than 20 minutes by train from Nice. The walls of Antibes, a fortified city, rise up from the Mediterranean Sea to circle the hill around the town. It makes for a beautiful scenic backdrop against the Alps in the background and the azure waters. The beaches are sandy, warm, inviting.
While it's a touristy spot, the Royal Beach of Antibes does serve excellent food in the best location in town. Set along a long stretch of beach, the club offers beach chairs bathed in light, patio tables and views that will no doubt tempt you to turn that order of a lone beer you sat down to enjoy into two or three. Entree prices range from 29-44 euro ($42-$65 CAD).
Where to Stay in the French Riviera
Villa Otera is a boutique property in Nice's Musicians' Quarter, which features streets named after famous jazz artists. I found the hotel through Booking.com and was pleased with its ambience, amiable staff and comfortable room. The hotel's bright, pleasant lobby resembles a cafe, with beverages and treats served at different hours of the day, while its rooms are nicely appointed with updated decor in the bedroom and modern bathroom fixtures. Typical of many hotel rooms in France, the accommodations at Villa Otero are small, but not so cramped you feel claustrophobic or irritated by a lack of space.
Although conveniently close to the main train station in Nice, Villa Otero is accessed via Avenue Thiers and a there's a two-block stretch of that thoroughfare that includes prostitutes and sex shops. While it didn't seem unsafe, that small area in the vicinity of the hotel may unnerve some travellers.
Despite that shortcoming, Villa Otero was still easily the finest place I stayed during my recent two-week visit to France.
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