It wasn’t the easy ride he expected, but was it worth it, and should you try it? Edmund Ingham writes about his trip to the Cote D’Azur in snowy December, and his tips for entrepreneurs and expats. 1st in series.
It’s 6.45am and, stepping off the National Express at Stansted Airport, I am feeling smug. Having woken up at 5am and strolled to the bus stop at Stratford, a few minutes from my Airbnb overlooking the Olympic Park, I have arrived on time and have 70 minutes to clear security, and get to my gate.
Oh dear. Far from being empty as I had anticipated, Stansted is absolutely heaving. I can scarcely believe it as I join the queue (luckily, I have remembered to check in online and used my mobile boarding pass to enter security), checking the time compulsively, and after what seems like an eternity (but is more like 20 minutes) wearily beginning to unpack my laptop from my overloaded hand luggage because I have opted not to pay to put a bag in the hold.
I make the gate – what seems like a half marathon away, along a winding path through endless duty-free stores and up and down escalators – with ten minutes to spare. But my adventure is just beginning.
First, we queue, and the “priority” passengers are ushered into the freezing corridor ready to board the plane. Then we are told the flight is delayed until 10am. 20 minutes later we are told to go to a different gate, which leads to an undignified scramble and a mix up involving 20 or so passengers attempting to go up a down escalator. Same result. Priority passengers stand in a different freezing corridor while the rest of us hover around the entrance to the gate, until the flight is delayed again.
Finally, we are on the plane, in our seats, and…the flight is cancelled! Bad weather in Nice apparently. A sick joke, surely, given that it is -3 degrees outside at Stansted and blizzarding.
An inauspicious start to a trip to the Cote D’azur, then. We queue all day to change our flights, then are told the desk is closed, and I eventually find a spare room at a B&B a £30 taxi ride from Stansted, where I must spend 2 nights – tomorrow’s flight having been sold out, before I can have another go at my winter break.
In the end the delay makes the trip all the sweeter, I tell myself, as I finally make my way through a practically empty, clean as a whistle Nice airport. It’s unfair to make comparisons with Stansted, but what the heck – this airport is a pleasure to visit; Stansted and its staff are doing a wonderful job of dealing with overwhelming numbers of travellers, but at times it feels like a losing battle.
20 minutes later and I am on a tram heading to Place Massena, Nice’s centrepiece. The skies are blue, the big wheel is turning, the fountains are translucent in the sunshine (yes, sunshine), and as I tuck into a rabbit stew and a small glass of remarkably potent red wine at Vin Sur Vin and watch the restaurant empty after the lunch rush, I start to think about how feasible it could be to divide one’s time between London and the C’ote D’azur.
Price wise, travel to and from the South of France is not an issue. At least not at present, but Ryanair staff are threatening to go on strike at Christmas, and, of course, Brexit could put an end to budget travel to exotic parts of Europe altogether. Delighted as I am to be here in Nice, I detect a frisson of carefully masked irritation and genuine surprise at Britain’s absurd decision to defy the EU, go it alone, rediscover our colonial roots, or whatever it is we are trying to do with Brexit.
So long as budget airlines do survive however, you should be able to make the trip to Nice in just a few hours. Yes, Nice airport does occasionally close for bad weather – due to the fact that, for logistical and geographical reasons, it is one of the toughest airstrips to land a plane on in the world. But I was particularly unlucky this week and for those prepared to spend a few more quid, BA also offers flights, or you could aim for Marseille, or even Genoa, airports instead.
So, in general the Cote D’Azur is reachable, and boy, is it beautiful! The skies are impossibly blue, the sea is impossibly turquoise, and the sun is resplendent. It feels good to be alive. There are restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, hairdressers, culture, activities – everything you need to take good care of yourself. The hotel I am staying in is a bit of a disappointment at 50 euros per night – a small room with not much of a view, but breakfast is included and, good news for late risers, it’s on offer until 10am.
Nice has an energetic, upwardly mobile feel to it, and it’s easy to find things to do. I am keen to discover more about the local entrepreneurial culture, and a quick search on Meetup.com reveals that there is a business networking meeting tonight at a newly opened co-working space in the Place du Pin, an elegant square not far from the Place Massena.
NOT to be confused with Chemin des Pins, an upmarket street near the Gare SNCF, in the opposite direction from my hotel, as it turns out. It’s incredible how many stylish, spacious, blocks of flats and apartment buildings above high street stores there are in Nice, and how inviting they look from the cold, semi-deserted (December has a distinctly off-season feel to it) streets below. Perhaps its why every Nicoisian, irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity, or social standing, looks content.
To find out about the entrepreneurs I came across and to learn more about how to be an entrepreneur, or an expat on the Cote D’Azur, please read tomorrow’s post. But since I have mainly focused on travel (and weather!) in this post, I’ve listed 5 places to stay in Nice on a budget below. If you are here on business, you can stay in comfort for 30-60 euros per night, and if you are going to be out and about, why pay more? You will get a better feel for the pace of life here on the Cote D’Azur by living like a local – and that is easy to do if you so wish. It’s an easy lifestyle to slip into if you are prepared to be adventurous.
These days, it is easier than ever to make a well-informed choice about where to stay abroad using the likes of booking.com, and filtering for price, rating, distance from centre etc. But beware the city taxes that hotels do not quote on websites but charge you when you check out. It is not much, maybe an extra £20 over 4 nights but I disapprove – prices should be quoted in full to manage people’s expectations properly. Hmmph!
Notwithstanding, here are our 5 suggestions:
1/ Best Western Plus – Place Massena
Slick, familiar, with a decent standard of service guaranteed, you pay a small premium for the brand, but if you are looking for a no-fuss, pleasant and business like stay this would be a good choice for you. 10 mins from town centre, and beach. £236 for 4 nights.
2/ La Malmaison Boutique Hotel – Boulevard Victor Hugo
We all love a boutique hotel, it makes us feel special and exclusive to be staying in a place that has been designed just for us and a few others! La Boulevard is full of nice touches, 6 minutes from the beach and comes with buffet breakfast. £275 for 4 nights.
3/ Westminster Hotel and Spa – Promenade Des Anglais
A throwback to the days when wealthy brits visited the Cote D’Azur for health treatments, a hotel and spa on the main promenade at this price looks good value. Enjoy good food served on the hotel terrace, and all at a reasonable price.
4/ Studios Floreal, self-catering – Jean Médecin Avenue
My first choice before my plans were scuppered by a cancelled flight, this is cheap as chips self-catering, with a fantastic location and the apartments are more than respectable. For workers, digital nomads, or those who like to take care of their own food and drink, this is a no brainer. Avenue Jean Médecin is as central as it gets. £120 for 4 nights
5/ Hotel Boreal Nice – opposite Nice etoile shopping centre
My eventual choice, this is a fairly Spartan place but ticks all the boxes, and the staff were friendly and rooms cleaned every day. The breakfast filled a hole, and the coffee was like rocket fuel. Would I stay again? Given the choice in Nice, probably not, but I do not have a bad word to say about it at the price. £190 for 4 nights.