When last I left you, Matthew and I were headed from Oslo to the French Riviera to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. So here’s your official notice: I’ll be departing from my central storyline (Norway) for a few blog posts in order to cover our favorite summer vacation spot — France. If you’re a Francophile like me, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the upcoming photo galleries that highlight the beauty of the region. But if you hate France (which seems to be a big theme lately in the U.S.), you can either skip this post and chill for a few days until we return to my regular programming. Or, you can swallow your bile and bravely read along. Who knows? Maybe I’ll make a convert out of you 😉
So why are Matthew and I so crazy about France? Well for one thing, it’s a foodie’s paradise and a Mecca for architecture, archeology, and art buffs like us. And for another, even though we truly enjoy winter in Norway, enduring the long months of cold and darkness means we need to address our Vitamin D deficit come summer. I think you’d find most Norwegians would agree — it seems like each and every one of them has a second home or regular vacation rental in southern France, Italy, Spain, or the Canary Islands.
Matthew and I usually get our warm-weather fix in Provence, but we’ve never spent more than a couple of days along the coastline — until last year. A tremendous workload had worn us thin to the point of breaking. Rather than creating our typical complex itinerary, which usually results in us hopscotching between different cities every other day, we decided to stay put for a change. And although we’re not really beachgoers, we determined that parking our exhausted butts on the hot sand for a week was just what we needed.
Consulting our beloved Rick Steves’ travel guide for a cheap way to do the French Riviera, we settled upon Antibes. The town keeps a fairly low profile, which is surprising considering it’s tucked in between two huge tourist destinations: Nice on one side and Cannes on the other. Unlike its glitzy, glamorous sister cities, Antibes is mellow, less expensive, and low on the celebrity quotient. Intense crowds are pretty much non-existent, even on holidays in high summer, except along the public beaches and in the weekend markets.
So, at the risk of telling you how great the place is and thereby increasing its tourist traffic, I’ll describe our adventures in Antibes last year … which led to it being our 25th anniversary destination this year.
Addressing the Obvious
Lemme just start my series of stories by helping the Francophobes in the group get past their fears. “The French are rude, humorless, inhospitable, plus they smell bad, don’t speak English, and hate Americans” claimed one of our acquaintances when he heard of our travel plans. Since the guy has never been to France, his declaration lets you know the anti-Gallic sentiments circulating around the U.S. right now (despite Trump’s fixation with copying Paris’s Bastille Day parade).
So let’s tackle the first frustration. Realistically, yes, if you visit only Paris in the height of tourist season, you may indeed find that waiters and shop clerks are hurried and brusque — just as they are in any American tourist destination besieged by hordes of sweaty, demanding travelers. Try visiting Michigan Avenue during a sweltering Chicago summer and see how pleasant store staff and tour guides are. Spoiler alert. They’re not. Even when you’re a native English speaker.
That’s why it pays to travel outside the typical tourist zones and hang out where the French vacation. Antibes is just such a place. The pace of life is leisurely, no one’s in a rush to process the next tourist, and people pride themselves on their warm hospitality, which reflects a mixture of French and Italian traditions. The local dialect is a blend of the two languages, so don’t worry about not being a native speaker. Most everyone speaks English quite fluently, although you’ll find that at least attempting a Bonjour or Merci will be appreciated.
About that “hating Americans” thing. Well, unfortunately our president didn’t make himself too popular last year when he visited France during our trip. But we found that his boorishness didn’t result in our being treated badly. We stayed at an incredible B&B called Mas Djoliba, where breakfast each morning frequently included long chats with fellow guests and our hosts, Englishman Mike and his French wife Delphine. Every day brought a new headline highlighting some fresh Trump embarrassment, but we all commiserated together and laughed it off. Gotta keep a sense of humor when you have a president who’s intent on cutting a swath of diplomatic self-destruction worldwide.
And speaking of humor, French wit might be one of my favorites. It’s irreverent, bawdy, and contains a healthy awareness of the absurd. I’ll give you a couple of examples from just our first day in Antibes. At the Nice airport, we boarded the public bus and asked the driver if he was heading towards Antibes. “Oui … in twenty minutes … after refueling. This bus runs on pastis,” he said with a wink. And off he went to park himself at the bar. (Good thing pastis is mixed with lots ‘o water.)
Upon our arrival in Antibes, we hailed a cab to reach our hotel. When the taxi driver stopped to pick us up, the guy in the car behind him honked angrily, then pulled up alongside to treat us with the full pictorial dictionary of rude but vastly amusing Gallic hand gestures. Our driver’s response? He laughingly called out, “Kisses, kisses! I love you, too, my good friend!,” then followed up his love fest by repeatedly smooching his fingertips using the sign language we associate with “delicious.” Quality entertainment, and we hadn’t even reached our hotel yet.
Don’t get me wrong, Norwegians are funny, too, but it can take awhile for them to warm up and share their typically dry wit with you. Only recently have some of the really zany comedic Norwegians made American headlines, like Ylvis, whose video and song “What Does the Fox Say?” became a U.S. hit back in 2013. But while I’ve rarely seen any public displays of tongue-in-cheek humor on the streets of Oslo, the French flaunt their funniness fairly directly so that every passerby can share in the chuckle. Even cautionary street signs strive for a light note. Check out the gallery of curbside comedy below.
And since I’ve already touched on toilet humor above, I’ll just finish off by combatting the rumor that the French smell bad. Perhaps French folks of yesteryear shied away from the shower, but today, most smell better than many Americans. After all, the French have perfected the art of perfume (more about that in an upcoming post). And if you haven’t tried the French deodorant Biotherm, it’s awesome! Super effective without the painful rash-inducing burn. Okay, my unpaid advertisement is over. Let’s move on.
I’ll end by addressing the last little item on the laundry list, the bidet. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the French way of perpetually bypassing a full-body bath. It’s a handy little appliance that takes the place of all those weird flushable wipes that are so prevalent in the U.S. now. Plus, it’s environmentally sensitive (in more ways than one, if you know what I mean, wink wink.) It’s quite refreshing to flush out the old bikini bottom after a long day spent on a sandy beach — those pesky granules work their way in absolutely everywhere.
So now that we’ve got the messy stuff out of the way and assuaged the fears of the Francophobes in our group, let’s move on to the beauty and backstory of Antibes itself … in my next post, with big photo galleries comin’ right up.