France, beyond Paris: Notes from a non-cheesy week in Frejus, Saint Raphael and Monaco
How visit to Frejus, Saint Raphael and Monaco (and not Paris) led to a love affair with France
What's the first thing you do when you land in Paris? Figure out how to get to the Eiffel Tower, of course. (My Instagram account was aching for something, anything).
This was not my first time in Paris, but it was my first time venturing out of the capital city of France. I was far more excited about the latter.
Let's rewind a bit. You see when I first visited Paris, my only perception of the city was filled with clichés: in my head, I thought all Parisians do is chain smoke, eat macaroons and gaze dreamily (or lazily) out their long French windows at the Eiffel Tower. Occasionally they kiss, and indulge in a bit of romance, always wearing berets.
I could not be more wrong. Spending a week in Paris back in 2001, I realised a few things:
Parisians don't care for workoholics and like their space (there goes any sense of romance). They kiss as much as anyone else in the world does.
If all your information about Paris came from Hollywood films, prepare to be disappointed.
Hygiene levels are not directly proportionate to which part of the world you are from (read: you can have body odour even if you own a mansion on Monaco's richest street)
You will meekly smile at the beautiful sights in Paris during the day, but the same sights will make you beam at night. Paris, lit up, is a lot more beautiful.
I didn't see one beret.
And so, cut to 2017. I was travelling to France for a week with three other journalists in December. Warm clothes and a handful of information in tow, we landed in Paris at 9 am, but it looked like it was 4 am (winter days are shorter, merely six-hours-long sometimes). The Delhi girl in me was finally happy with a real winter (I could use a muffler and my breath misted).
This is when I tried telling my new friends that the Eiffel Tower was just a bucket-list thing, and they really wouldn't be missing anything if we conveniently forgot to be tourists. But my pleas fell on deaf ears. We made our way from the Gar d Leon station to the Eiffel Tower, and two cab rides later, I realised Paris was a hotbed of people from different parts of the world who can't speak English.
When we finally reached there, we were taking selfies with at least a million other tourists (my Instagram account was happy, but I wasn't), it was drizzling and at least 5 degrees colder than I could handle.
Paris is beautiful from afar — when you're driving through the city, and it surprises you with lanes and lanes of sepia-tinted archaic buildings; when you see random bursts of golden on top of statues (the names of which I won't even try pronouncing); when you fly over the city in the dead of the night and all you can see is rows and circles of lights. But Paris as a tourist is not that beautiful — you're being judged before you can open your mouth (can you blame the locals?) and you're constantly struggling to hide under all the miscommunication.
However, I'm glad to admit that here end all things negative about France. Beyond this point, everywhere I went in the beautiful country, I was treated with warmth, food, love and beautifully scenic locales (each worthy of a postcard).
Frejus, Saint Raphael and the lovely French Rivieria
Frejus is a small district (commune actually) in southeastern France, and together with Saint Raphael, makes one full town on the Rivieria. About a five-hour train ride away from Paris, the vibe of Frejus is a complete contrast. Even through it felt colder, the people were much warmer here. Filled with Roman architecture, tiny streets with a crepe stall every few metres, colourful boutiques with affordable fashion — the best thing about Frejus was its contradiction: it's a beach town in the summer and a skiing town in the winter. You could see the bright blue sea on one side and snowcapped mountains on the other.
With a population of barely 60,000, the locals in Frejus were far more open-minded and worldly wise than I'd imagined.
On the drive to my hotel, the driver started to play 'Kar Gayi Chull' from Kapoor & Sons, and suffice it to say I was shocked. He later told me an Indian film crew had been shooting for a month in the city, and they had learned many phrases and songs from the unit members. 'Gerua', 'Fevicol Se' and 'Banno Tera Swagger' were some of their favourites; you could often see them bobbing their heads to the beats. We were staying off the coast of Saint-Aygulf, which had a bright and active promenade with cafes, an amusement park, and many locals walking with their tiny dogs.
The locals of Frejus love their chihuahuas and their papillons, and you can literally waltz around with your pet anywhere you want. You can travel with them in France without a care in the world as train stations and airports are extremely animal friendly.
While Frejus was the more urban part of the area, Saint Raphael was scenic and beautiful, with rivers flowing in the middle of mountains — just like the "paintings" we'd make in art class as kids. We drove around River Agay and Rayran, and with the crisp sun through my tresses, I could see miles and miles of the beautiful Rivieria.
The beaches in both Frejus and Saint Raphael were so inviting with clear, deep blue water, I was tempted to forget about the hard-hitting wind. I even spotted an enthusiastic local in blue trunks sun-bathing on one beach (#enthucutlet), while everyone else around me was bundled up in five layers.
In the evening, the many bars on the promenade offer you a delicious glass of house wine and fresh fried chips without making much of a dent in your pockets. Garden View Cafe was one such place in Frejus, with many souvenir shops beside it to distract the shopaholic in you. You'll be stopped by random locals who will strike up a conversation. It's a slow life in Frejus and St Raphael, but a content one.
Monaco, and the importance of being being earnest
I'll tell you this: if Frejus and St Raphael were warm and friendly, Monaco snapped me back to reality.
Beautiful as the luxurious town is, it is also extremely consumerist and indulgent. Every second shop I saw in Monaco was either Gucci, Prada or Armani, if not some fancy diamond store that looked cleaner than I'd ever been (my fashionable friend corrected me later: 'Gucci is not even that expensive').
Nonetheless, Monaco is a beautiful haven of expensive cars (PPorsche and Jaguar are common), pristine white yachts on an even bluer sea (if that's even possible) and cafes where you could buy a glass of Coke for 300 euros.
You won't even feel like entering an expensive hotel (like the famous Hotel de-Paris Monte Carlo) with your tan uggs and ikat muffler — the fashion sense in Monaco was way above my head. Not only did I feel severely under-dressed, I also realised I could never be at home in a place like.
As a tourist however, walking through the unwinding roads of Monaco, with the steep hills on one hand, and the sea on the other side, made you feel like you were a part of a Godard narrative.
Dispelling myths about France
On a busy evening, walking down the promenade of our hotel in Frejus, one of my co-travel buddies lost her phone. It was peak evening, and all the cafes and walkways were filled with tourists, enthusiastic locals sipping wine smoking their evening cigarettes. She was sufficiently freaking out.
She ended up approaching a random local who was walking his dog. With a plastic bag in one hand, he called from his phone onto her number. After what seemed like a million rings, someone picked up and started rambling in French. The local spoke to him for 10 minutes, and we learnt that he was about 17 km away but was taking a detour to return the phone.
The local waited for half an hour till my friend got her phone. The two strangers laughed at her, and offered to buy her hot chocolate to calm her nerves.
What she said next echoed my sentiments completely: 'Oh my God, I love France.'
Moral of the story: India is not the land of snake charmers and France isn't filled with snobbish intellectuals.
1. Make sure you take not just warm clothes but windcheaters as well. The cold will play mind games with you; try to have the upper hand.
2. Sorry and thank you will take you a long way. Indians don't have a reputation of being polite.
3. Travel light. There will be a lot of walking, especially if you are getting into the smaller cities of France.
4. Since France is four-and-a-half hours behind India, prepare to follow the sun's time table. You will feel sleepy by 10 pm and be up and ready-to-go by 5 am. Make the most of this productivity.
5. Get your visa sorted way before hand. A Schengen visa takes time to come through, but the good news is, it stays valid for a while. You can make another trip into Europe within the next 6 months.
On our last night in Frejus, members of the film crew who were shooting in the area (some of whom could only speak in Tamil) were partying with their local caterers (who had learnt how to make poha and payasam for their patrons).
They invited me to their little soiree and I got chatting with one of the local drivers, Lars. Originally from Paris, Lars decided he preferred the quiet life, and made a permanent move to small town Frejus. He seemed happy.
He asked me enthusiastic questions about my work, and how journalism works in India. It was a long conversation, filled with interesting anecdotes and revelations.
At the end, he asked, "Are you going to quote me?"
I said, "I could."
"Then tell your readers I'd love to visit India," he said.
"Only if you tell your friends I prefer Frejus to Paris."
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