Friday, December 24, 2010

Andrew’s 29th birthday

I knew that Andrew’s 28th birthday was going to be hard to top, so I pulled out all the stops for his 29th. He took the day off, and I had him meet me in Mayfair for a surprise lunch at Corrigan’s Mayfair, which is a newish restaurant run by the same chef as the place I took him for his birthday lunch the previous year. It’s a beautiful place with plush banquettes and lots of pretty mirrors and lovely place settings, and as at Corrigan’s other place, the service was amazing. We each started with a glass of prosecco and ordered our food, then I revealed Andrew’s birthday present, which was a trip to Nice for the two of us that weekend. He was so surprised, and I was pleased that I was able to hold onto the secret for so long. The lunch was excellent, too, although I’m fuzzy on the details. It’s a quintessentially British restaurant with lots of local and seasonal flavors, and everything was absolutely delicious. I do remember there being an amuse-bouche of little cheesy croquettes and delicate fried olives and there were beautiful little nougats and geleed fruit and other bonbons with the coffee. What fell in between was a substantial but fleeting pleasure.

We left for Nice on Friday after work. It was a pretty quick flight, and we caught a cab from the airport to the hotel, feeling very fancy. Unfortunately, fanciness comes with a price, especially in Nice, and we had to get the cab driver to help us find an ATM to pull out extra cash for the ride. Note to self: find a bus to get back to the airport. But no worries. We got to the hotel, right on the Promenade, and checked in. We stayed at the Le Meridien, which was very exciting because we had stayed at one in New York several years back and it was the best hotel experience ever. I wanted Andrew to have a luxurious birthday, so it was an obvious choice. The Nice version, however, was not quite as nice. I mean it was a perfectly fine hotel, but it wasn’t what I expected for the price. But it was fine. So we settled in and went out to find some dinner. Even in the middle of the holiday season, there wasn’t much open late at night, but we found a place to split a pizza and a bottle of rose, and the waiter was very nice to us. It was neat to be in a city I had been to a couple of times before because I already knew my way around pretty well. We walked around for a bit, then back to the hotel, because we were pretty tired after a full day’s work plus a flight.

The next morning we found a little café that was still serving breakfast (I always forget how early you have to get up to get a decent breakfast in France; after about 10:00 you are just out of luck), then suited up for the beach. One of the special features of the hotel was that it had its own private beach with chairs and umbrellas and towels and everything else. Nice is weird, because there are several public beaches, but there are tiny strips of private beaches in between, that charge for access. We had been to the crowded public beaches, so we were excited to have access to a private beach this time. Much to my chagrin, however, it turned out that the astronomical price for staying at the hotel somehow did not include beach access, which was a further 20 euros. Per day. Per person. That’s like 70 dollars for two people to sit on a beach for a few hours. Instead, we took the bath towels from our room (strictly forbidden) and sat on the rocks on the public beach just across the little rope barrier separating us from our hotel’s private beach. I grumbled a lot, but Andrew reminded me to look around and remember that I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, and that things were probably not as bad as all that. After a bit of swimming we went back inside and found out that the rooftop pool did not charge any extra fees, so we went up there and took full advantage. And they had chairs and umbrellas and towels and everything. And there were no rocks. Sweet. We spent a lot of time at the pool over the next few days, and it was just as luxurious as I hoped it would be.

But we didn’t fly all the way to Nice to hang out at a pool, so we went out and explored the city some more. Nice is very walkable, and even though we had explored it before, there are always new things to discover. For instance, this time we walked up the big hill separating the old city from the newer port area. On top, there was a massive cemetery filled with stone and shell monuments with extravagant sculptures. My favorite one was of a coffin with the lid being lifted from inside by a skeletal arm. Charming. Lots of the tombs also had colorful enameled plaques with paintings and photographs of the deceased. It was the craziest cemetery we had ever seen. It was right up on top of the hill, and the sun was beating down on us. The only plants were cactuses. The tombs were literally piled on top of each other. It was not at all peaceful, but it was certainly interesting! There was also a big park on top of the hill, with a petanque court and some fountains. We walked all the way up and over, and then down the other side (just as Bryan had done when we lost him briefly on our previous visit!). On the other side, we found the candy factory we had toured the first time, and bought some candied citrus peel. Yum. Then we wandered around by the port a bit, and found a restaurant I had heard of that sounded like a good birthday weekend dinner spot. We made reservations for that night, then headed back to the hotel for some more pool time.

The rooftop pool was a bit like the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, filled as it was with rich and pretentious people from all over Europe. There seemed to be about a billion Russians in Nice, and they did not disappoint with their impressively bad taste. I have never seen so much sunburned skin and so many gold chains. We had a good time watching people and reading under the umbrellas in between dips in the pool. We also had a fabulous view from the rooftop, out over the city on one side and the sea on the other. It was hazy while we were there because of forest fires nearby, but it was still beautiful.

That night we had a drink at the hotel bar, then made our way over to the restaurant by public transportation; no more cabs for us. Nice has a great public transportation system, though, with lots of buses and fun little trams. We took a tram most of the way, then almost got lost in the narrow, winding streets, but eventually we got there. The restaurant was called La Zucca Magica, or the magic squash, and it’s an Italian-ish vegetarian restaurant with a set menu that changes every day. So we sat down and the waiter asked if we wanted red, white, or rose, and that was the only decision we had to make. We chose rose, of course. The restaurant was very dark and homey; it didn’t seem to fit in Nice at all. There were exposed wooden rafters and tables stuffed into every corner of the uneven room, and every spare space on the walls and shelves was covered with squash paraphernalia. There were paintings of squashes, sculptures of squashes, actual squashes, squash-shaped salt and pepper shakers. It was ridiculous and hilarious. But let me see what I can remember of the meal. It was indeed magical. We started with a simple vegetable soup with lots of fresh zucchini and tomatoes and pesto and parmesan on top. Then they brought out some roasted peppers that had been stuffed with a salad of tomatoes, olives, capers, and bread crumbs. It was cold and silky and delicious. We started looking at other tables to see what we could expect to come out of the kitchen next, which was fun. Next was a cheesy, herby focaccia, then some free-form lasagna with butternut squash and lots of cheese. And for dessert, tiramisu and cappuccino. All served to us by the warmest, heartiest, kindest waiters in all of France. It was just lovely, and we were very happy as we walked off our meal on our way back to the hotel.

The next day our flight wasn’t until the late evening, so we had most of the day to wander. We went to the old city and hunted down some socca, which is a local fried bread made with chick pea flour. It was a delicious little snack, and it tided us over nicely until lunch, which consisted of expertly grilled, lemony sardines at a restaurant overlooking the water. We had some gelato later in a plaza in the old town and cookies at my favorite little bakery, which I discovered with Laura long, long ago. After we checked out of the hotel we wandered a bit more and sat in a square for a while to just soak in the atmosphere, then gathered ingredients for a picnic dinner and caught a bus to the airport for an easy trip home, full of good food and sunshine.

Photos are here:

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