Wandering the streets of Nice

If you're patient enough to avoid the tourist traps, the sunny streets of southern France contain some hidden bistro gems.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, basks in Nice's golden afternoon sun while exploring its markets, boutiques and bistros.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you closed your eyes and pointed your finger on a map. Would your finger land on a depressing city, reasons quite known why it hasn’t appeared on a tourist’s trail or would it reveal a treasure, one that you can’t wait to share with people?

That is along the lines of the trip I was about to take through regional France with Rail Europe, uncovering little treasures hidden slightly from view, some more well known than others. To do this, we would fly into France and then take the train journey with Rail Europe across the country making use of the excellent train system. And to make the trip even sweeter, I would be on this trail on my birthday!

Landing in Nice is like landing in a place that is unlike your typical vision of France, i.e. Paris. It’s expansively gorgeous, lushly blue skyed (at least it is today) with a throw your arms wide coast (yep, that French Riviera) that sparkles for what seems like forever, more than the eye can see. It’s warm and the sun bathes shoulders while tourists carrying cameras amble down the street. Dogs on leashes enjoy the sun as much as anyone and outdoor terraced restaurants catch every corner of your eye.

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We arrive at Htel La Prouse where we will stay the night. It has a fantastic location right next to the most loved area of town, the old town. Set on the foothills of the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) overlooking the Baie Des Anges (Bay of Angels), Htel La Prouse is the only Small Luxury Hotel in Nice.

The lobby is a little underwhelming owing to the construction work. The hotel itself isn’t part of the lobby building and if you go further into the actual hotel itself, the hotel is the golden yellow building. There is an outdoor restaurant called "The Patio” as well as a pool and sauna. Bags were whisked away as soon as our taxi pulled up in front of the hotel (which, slightly confusingly, is located right next to another hotel).

We are shown to our rooms after a cup of tea. We’re staying at one of the patio rooms which has a small, sun drenched patio and table outside. Each room has a sea or a garden view – ours has a bit of a sea as it sits on the lowest level of the patios and I’d imagine higher up rooms would have more views). The room has a king sized bed and is on the compact side. With only two bedside lights, the bedroom is very, very dark but the colour scheme is welcoming and cheery (it is said to be representative of the colours of the South of France).

…After a quick, much desired shower Judith and I are off to have a look and explore Nice while we get news that our travelling companions have been delayed by several hours at Abu Dhabi airport while flying another airline. Poor things won’t get in until very late this evening and I’m glad we flew Swiss International so we had the whole day in Nice.

It’s lunchtime when we get started and we begin with a stroll through the old markets. On the way there are all sorts of cute boutiques on the street parallel to the main drag and there is a great Agnes B. store with a good range of clothes and shoes. Every day but Monday features the famous food and flower markets, otherwise, there is an antiques market.

To go through all of the stalls carefully you would need several hours and there is much treasure to be had. For those that collect flatware, large sets are common. There are plenty of framed paintings, dining table accessories, linens and a large stand selling lithographs.

Many things are immensely covetable and these are genuine antiques so the prices reflect this so really cheap bargains are few and far between. Expect to pay real antique prices for the items and antique collectors, be prepared to spend a lot of time going through everything. Stallholders are very friendly though and don’t pressure sell and you can stop and gaze at all of the stalls without getting a hard sell.

We also walk across to the main shopping area in the newer area which has the more mainstream shops and chain stores. I stop at Galeries Lafayette and buy a Longchamp bag at a very good price (E130 for the largest, convertible Le Pliage). I pop into Zara and Sephora but it’s lunch that is calling!

Judith and I agreed that if we were to have lunch, it had to count. We didn’t want a tourist trap and Nice has plenty of those. Earlier that morning, we did a bit of research and went to look for a bistro so we were headed that way. However, we were both tired, hungry and just wanted to sit down. A peal of laughter behind a sliver of an opened door made us stop and pause. We peered through the crack and several eyes looked up at us.

It was a tiny bistro that was full except for one table. A bistro that seats nothing more than your closest group of friends and for some reason we both looked at each other, then looked at it and said "This looks special.” It was packed full of French people for starters and that perhaps meant that it wasn’t a tourist trap. It was called La Merenda.

It was 2 o’clock so Judith asked what time they were serving lunch and the waiter said, not unkindly but matter of fact, "we finish at 1.30 but if you want to eat, you can sit down now.” Tired legs and hunger made the decision for both of us and we took a place at a table that was so tiny that it required deft manoeuvring of legs to fit them under the table.

My back was flat against the electricity or broom cupboard and the 25x25cms stools required many "pardon mois” with us inevitably backing into other customers. There looks to be a waiter, chef, kitchen-hand and a waitress running the restaurant and above us is a tented ceiling made of calico.

On one wall are framed menus and a picture of chef Alain Chapel and a handwritten menu. He was a 3 Michelin starred chef and was said to be one of the originators of Nouvelle Cuisine. La Merenda’s Chef Dominique le Stanc trained under him. A long share table sits to the right and smaller tables for two are on the left. Large sheets of quilted paper line each table and underneath these are red tablecloths.

They bring us the chalkboard menu and it looks very good. The items we can’t work out are explained to us and we decide to have an entree each and share a main and dessert as dinner is coming up soon. I watch as a woman in a cap and sunglasses sits, sipping a cup of coffee whilst a couple talk animatedly – he looks like Einstein. I count the number of seats in the restaurant – 26. Before we know it, our food arrives along with a basket of bread.

The tarte de menton is an onion tart. The onions are sweet and caramelised and sit on top of a thick, almost pizza like base although the base doesn’t feel like a yeasted bread dough, more like a cake dough but not sweet. It is crunchy and delicious with the sweet onions.

The polenta au gorgonzola is a large serve of polenta which comes as a chunkier grained polenta with texture. It is topped with gorgonzola and an oxtail jus which has hints of orange zest in it. It’s very rich and best shared or had on a cold evening.

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Our waiter was worried when we ordered this and checked several times that we knew what it was. It was a Tte de veau which is a calves head (which we’ve both had before). Even when he brings he double checks and adds "It is a calves head so you eat everything.” That directive is perhaps to people that leave behind the jellied ring on fat on the outside which is soft and melting. Here, it is served hot, the calves head meat is boiled so that it tastes quite mild. The topping, a sauce gribiche made up of chopped boiled eggs, herbs and mustard is delicious and there is a halved, large golden potato to go with it. "We shared it for you already” our waiter said (so the actual serving size is double each plate).

We couldn’t resist dessert as we had enjoyed all of the dishes and one bite into the home made tarte au citron makes me glad that we did. The lemon custard has the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness and the pastry is buttery and crumbly.

Weaving our way through the vintage vendors we make our way back to the hotel past Henri Auer where a range of delectable confections are sold. There candied marron glaces, those wonderful whole, plump candied chestnuts and even entire pineapples in syrup. The chocolates too are divine and they offer us some chocolate almonds to try...

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