The French Riviera, whose capital is Nice, conjures up images of fabulous wealth, yachts, Lamborghinis, villas and private aircraft. Rich Arabs and British inhabit the cream coloured palaces that cling to the steep shores of the Mediterranean. Elton John has a villa in Nice, Princess Grace died on the steep curves of the highways that run along the coast. The Rolling Stones cut records in a rented estate near Cannes fuelling their creativity with 24-hour cocaine and heroin binges. Bono and Tina Turner have digs in Villefranche sur Mer, 4 miles east of Nice. 150 years ago Queen Victoria stayed in the area. Writers like Victor Hugo and artists like Matisse drew creative inspiration from the blue waters and 300 days of sunshine each year that warm the côte d’azur. So it was in Nice where we decided to spend 9 days over the Christmas holidays.
Surprisingly perhaps, one finds that in the midst of all this opulence and spectacular scenery—and it’s all there– it is possible to find reasonably-priced accommodation, great food and the most unbelievable regional public transportation system that can take you from one end of the Riviera all the way to the Italian border. Nice does have an LRT system that opened in 2007. The 5 mile route connects the downtown to suburbs in the north and east. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that Nice’s LRT line was built to ease transit congestion in an already bustling urban core; not in hopes of revitalizing a core. The bulk of the regional transit system, however, is composed of buses, some of them running routes of over over 30 kms. The Lignes d’Azur bus system, as it is called, has two types of coaches. In-city routes are served by buses very much like those we see in Hamilton and Burlington. Regional routes that connect Nice to places like Cannes, Antibes, Monaco, Menton and the rest of the region, are served by almost luxurious touring coaches with reclining seats, and window curtains. Either way, whether it’s a cross town trip or a 15km run along the coast to Monaco the price is ONE EURO; that’s right, approximately $1.32 Canadian.
We decided to take 600 bus to Cannes . Most of Nice’s regional buses converge at the well groomed Albert 1 Gardens,–Nice’s answer to Gore Park, except that Albert 1 Park is filled with palm trees, year round flowers and even a cactus garden. In Nice you need not worry about buying bus tickets in advance or having the exact change—bus drivers there are still allowed to handle cash and make change—very convenient for visitors. In exchange for the Euro one is given a ticket that allows you to transfer to any connecting bus within 74 minutes of purchasing the ticket. Anyone tempted to use the ticket for a return trip faces a 45 Euro fine. The bus drivers are also allowed to play satellite radio on the buses, which makes for a pleasant on board experience. So for two Euros my partner and I were bused in comfort past the artist colony of Cagnes sur Mer, through Antibes to Cannes, home of the famous international film festival. The truth is that when the film festival is not on, which is most of the time, Cannes is not all that interesting. Nonetheless as a reminder of the wealth that lurks in the region we did spot a Bentley convertible ($280,000) and a black Maserati ($150,000)—from our bus. In subsequent days our single Euros got us to the mountain towns of Grasse (the perfume capital of the world) and Vence –a 15th century fortified mountain town.
The most spectacular jaunt of all is the 100 bus route easterly along the winding road that hugs the Mediterranean, past hundreds of villas, to Monaco, where the yachts in the marina look big enough to tackle an Atlantic crossing. Continuing east from Monaco one passes Cap-Martin where Winston Churchill summered and painted regularly and finally end up in Menton—right on the Italian border but still only 28km from Nice. Said to be the warmest place in France Menton is noted for its lemon trees and was another British enclave at the turn of the last century. In every town the 15C weather allowed one to take lunch in a friendly outdoor cafe.
The bus system, while incredibly cheap for the individual rider, comes nonetheless with a stiff price tag. The Lignes d’Azur recover only 34% of their revenue from the farebox—the rest is made up by the taxpayer. Compare that to the HSR, which recovers just under 50% from the farebox. In the case of Nice, with tourism the number one industry, a frequent and cheap transit system is essential, and the locals make good use of the system as well. The only deviation from the one Euro fare structure are the airport express buses which run every 15 minutes from Nice and cost 4 Euros.