Dividing her time between the sun-drenched Mediterranean paradise of Nice and the history and bustle of London gives Ursula Rubery the best of both worlds
It’s a smooth flight back to London Gatwick from Nice International Airport and I haven’t quite left the warmth of the last few weeks behind me. It will be a shock when I land as I know the temperature will have dropped from a balmy 17oC to a sharp 6oC which is sure to make me wonder why I am making the trip at all!
However, this has become the routine for us and one which has become second nature in our lives over recent times. Three years ago we decided to rent an apartment overlooking the sea in Nice. It was to be an adventure, one which might come to an end in time but it was necessary to throw off the constraints of work and say ‘hello’ to the world. We decided to rent long term for the flexibility of the arrangement. With property prices on the Côte d’Azur among the highest in France, buying a comparative apartment in the area was not an option.
Additionally, we did not wish to live in France full-time. We had a fanciful idea that we might move after a while and sample the delights of Provence or Aquitaine or even venture into Spain but we have been so enticed by the beauty of the area that we now holiday there for approximately five months of the year. The rest of the year we spend in London and travel backwards and forwards to both New York and Hong Kong visiting family, including our gorgeous new grandson.
The time for the painful decision of whether we should renew our lease has come and gone. In fact, it seemed to melt into the background without consciously confronting it. We had not given any notice and the agent automatically renewed the contract. Phew! A commitment by default, and the blue waters of the Mediterranean winked at us in collusion.
The thought now of giving up our Riviera retreat is unthinkable. Nice has stolen our hearts with its honey-toned hills, blue skies and the smell of jasmine. We have furnished the apartment and have started collecting all those odds and ends which turn a house into a home.
We have the best of both worlds; Nice la Belle, capital of Alpes-Maritimes with its natural beauty and mild Mediterranean climate, and London, a leading, global, bustling city with its history and a diverse range of people and cultures.
Arriving in Nice after a particularly cold spell, the clear, warm air and soft light hit you immediately. Palms, eucalyptus and citrus fruits bombard the senses as you drive down the Promenade des Anglais, giving Nice a subtropical appearance. Where else would you choose your holiday home?
Transport links are amazing with our journey from l’Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur by car taking only half an hour. The airport bus runs a great service, either to the port or to the main railway station. The advent of the new east-west tramline extension now online for 2017 and costing €650 million, will speed you from the airport to the port of Nice in less than 26 minutes. Pas de problème!
Equally, our journey in the opposite direction has its benefits too. Located as we are not far from London City Airport, from March British Airways resumed its flights to Nice. Just ten minutes on the Docklands Light Railway train and we are in the airport. Gatwick airport takes a little longer but from there we have the choice of British Airways, easyJet or Norwegian Air, all very efficient and reliable. Flying has never excited me but not to do so would starve me of life’s adventures. If only I was like my husband who is usually asleep before we have even taken off!
Our London life is full, and alongside family and friends we enjoy all the cultural activities that the capital city has to offer. We love fringe theatre and cinema and are spoilt by having a sports and leisure complex five minutes’ walk from the apartment. As an author, I write in London. There is something about closing one’s eyes and dreaming of faraway places.
When we are done with long-haul travel, and my imagination hears the steady Mediterranean breeze tempering the climate on the Côte d’Azur, we set off again to renew our relationship with the rosemary, thyme and sage growing in our herb garden in Nice and to admire the profusion of roses and bourgainvillea nurtured by Joseph, our gardien.
GAINED IN TRANSLATION
Joseph is as good as it gets when I want to practise my ‘very bad French’ because he does not judge but smiles. The smile is patient and kind and the pause is one of expectation, almost encouragement. I consider him to be one of my closest allies in overcoming a lack of confidence, having been away from Nice for, say, a couple of months. The ear gets rusty when it comes to a foreign language and there is a need to tune in again.
In exchanging the latest news and pleasantries it gives me a chance to get back into the groove, and therein lies the secret. It’s no good relying upon the odd trip to the shop, café or local market, it’s essential to meet real French people and practise, practise, practise. I have found that once I make the effort, local people are only too willing to help me out and will often reciprocate and try out their English on me. I have a talent for talking to people at bus stops, fertile ground for picking up those little colloquial phrases so essential when wanting to be friendly. In fact, I found one of my closest French friends on the Number 100 one morning on my way into Nice!
Our apartment in London has a balcony but it is situated on such a windy corner of the River Thames that flowers and tender vegetation tend to wither. With a front terrace and courtyard in Nice, I can faire du jardinage to my heart’s content (mosquitoes permitting), and feel a sense of cordon bleu coming on when I dash from the kitchen and cut herbs fresh from the garden. One of my pleasures is shopping in the nearby colourful markets of Cours Saleya and Libération too.
MAKING A SPLASH
Swimming is our thing and we do not like to miss our splashing. It’s pool swimming in London but in Nice there are a number of exquisite spots on the coast where as ‘part-time locals’ we can avoid the plethora of tourists who flock there in the summer. The main pebbly beach along the Promenade des Anglais stretches all the way to Antibes; the facilities are good with beach bars and a number of supervised swimming areas patrolled in season but it does tend to become rather crowded.
Our favourite spot, Paloma Beach, is on St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, between Nice and Monaco. It nestles in its forested peninsula, bordered by the wild and remote southern coastal footpath and a shorter, more regular and tranquil one, the Cap-St-Hospice. Arrive early for a morning dip or later in the day when the sun is going down behind the pine trees. We also sample the public Olympic-size swimming pool in Nice, Palais des Sports Jean Bouin, which can be good in the winter when even a wetsuit would curl up and shiver in the sea!
The clean, warm air along the coast of the Riviera encourages us to walk for miles. One of our favourite short walks is from St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to Beaulieu-sur-Mer. This magical stroll will sweep you along the fringe of the sea with bougainvillea and pine paving the way past David Niven’s former home. It truly is one of the most beautiful and striking houses on the Cap and speaks of glamour of a time gone by.
To promenade in Nice is to see how far you can go! If we are feeling energetic along the ‘prom’ we could reach the airport but more often than not we only get as far as the Hotel Negresco, where in the Rotonde brasserie a special, gourmet lunch menu will entice you into its 18th-century carousel with its wooden horses and its terrace which opens onto the sea and the sun. Quel bonheur!
Its equivalent for us in London would be the River Walk along the Thames on the north bank, past the historic wharves, where The Grapes pub in Narrow Street on Limehouse Reach is an equally mesmerising interruption of one’s exercise, and where a Dickens’ novel was penned within its walls. The history on our doorstep is probably one of the reasons we still love living in London.
However, we need to recharge our batteries every so often and so we fly away to our holiday home on the Côte d’Azur. Nothing can match the excitement we still feel after all this time when we sweep into the port of Nice, and high above on the hill it appears above the arches, keeping watch upon the blue, crystal waters which for centuries have had a reputation for creating dreams.
Ursula Rubery is a writer and author who splits her time between London and Nice