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Nice, France – Born Again: November 24th, 2007

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The sunny city of Nice, on the southern coast of France, inaugurated its new urban transport channel – a flashy 8.7 km electric tramway line, on Nov 24th, 2007. You can see an evocative video of the opening ceremony (10 MB) on the Nice city hall website.

But there is much more behind this event that justifies such a Hollywood-esque excitement and celebration: Nice has changed its skin; the dark years are over.

A two minute history of Nice and the French Riviera

The preferred sea resort of wealthy British and Russian aristocrats in the 19th century, Nice and the Cote d’Azur region, also known internationally as the French Riviera, opened up to mass tourism in the 50′s and 60′s, thanks to French and international movie stars flocking to its picturesque villages, including St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Villefranche, while famous artists such as Pablo Picasso found their hideouts up in the hills of Vallauris, St Paul de Vence or Mougins.

The microstate of Monaco and princess Grace Kelly also contributed to the glamorous image of the area – in ’70s and ’80s, the masses invaded. Overcrowded beaches, large cement hotels, huge night clubs, casinos and France’s second largest airport after Paris saw the light, and a high-volume tourism economy made many small and big riches.

The 90′s, however, brought on signs of a flattening fame. Celebrities kept finding new hidden and fashionable destinations and only showed up for special events such as the Cannes Film Festival or the Monaco Grand Prix. Cultural tourists escaped the greasy summer beaches; young, hip travelers preferred the stylish Ibiza. Foodies looked for authentic French gastronomic experiences and thus discovered the southwestern regions of Perigord or Gironde, and ventured to various countryside regions in Italy (ok, not so French, but great food is great food after all).

Nevertheless, the fantastic weather (340+ sunny days per year) and scenic landscapes kept attracting an international and wealthy expat community, thanks also to the tech park of Sophia Antipolis, where leading multinationals such as IBM, Texas, Accenture, and Amadeus set up R&D or European headquarters.

But nothing stopped the decline of the city of Nice. Overpriced hotels and restaurants – not restyled since the 60′s – along with crime, prostitution, corruption, a clogged traffic infrastructure…the population saw it all. The new century saw a dark, old, dirty and boring summer destination on the decline. The number of hotel rooms sold fell by 15-20% between 2000 and 2004.

A destination reborn

Following the global travel recession of 2001, the local politicians came to the conclusion that something different had to be done. They managed to agree and invest in a cross-city development plan targeted at improving infrastructure and mobility in the area.

The plan included:

- A new super modern airport terminal and favorable conditions to attract low-cost carriers from all European cities

- The redesign of Nice’s inner city highway enabling easier morning/evening commuting.

- The redesign of the famous “Promenade des Anglais” seafront with less parking spaces and an enlarged pathway, ideal for beach front jogging or inline skating.

- The complete “pedestrianization” of the historical old city center and nearby areas.

- The cleaning up of all beaches with dedicated areas for volleyball, as well as sandboxes for babies (the rest of the beaches are pebbly), and reasonable alternance of free and paid-service beaches.

- And, of course, the grand opening of the high-tech electric tramway, crossing all key areas of the city of Nice, from the rail station to the shopping district, the old town, the bus station and the seafront.

All of these works didn’t come for free. Construction works made the life of the Nicois miserable, created endless traffic jams, opened the door to more political corruption, and took years longer than originally planned.

Paradoxically, this was exactly what was needed, in evolutionary terms, to get rid of the weakest individuals of the population.Many small business owners who made their money without much effort in the previous decades decided to give up and retire, scared by the further loss of business due to all the ongoing works. Small restaurants, shops, hotels and entire shopping centers have been progressively taken over, shut down and refurbished by young and global-savvy teams, importing design trends and ideas from the world’s leading capitals. In particular, a prominent gay community elected Nice as a favorite trendy and fashionable European hotspot.

The city unveiled its new look on Nov 24th, 2007, with a grand ceremony to welcome the new tramway.

This is the first of several post about things to do in Nice, France. I live there (here),as I write.You can easily subscribe to the feed alerts by clicking the big bad orange square button below (or on top of the page), and feel free to ask questions while I’m still a Nicois.

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Oops! We just stumbled across the best Mexican food in London.

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Earlier this week, I was feeling super homesick and so decided I would embark on a quest for the best American Café in London. I know, I know “they’re on every corner,” but I can only go to Starbucks twice a day, alright?

I am talking about authentic American cuisine: huge, diner-style breakfasts, layered club sandwiches, juicy burgers, and real salads, the kind that are loaded with jumbo shrimp (not tiny, frozen ‘prawns’), cheese and fresh veggies….mmm, yummy…

After some crafty Google searches, I was sure that I had found my place: the Chelsea Bun Café, between Fulham Broadway and Sloane Square in SW10. The description was perfect: independently owned, hip, happening, and, most importantly, serving all of my favorite dishes from home. They even had Breakfast for Dinner. Awesome.

I immediately phoned my friend Talina with the news: we had to go to find this little oasis of American glory after work. Certainly she could relate to my enthusiasm: after all, she is from Mexico and has spent much time in north of the border. She agreed. I was pumped.

I cheerfully printed a map and charted a route. Despite the rainy weather and the café’s slightly obscure location in relation to the underground system, we met at Sloane Square, and we were off.

Dearest employees of Chelsea Bun, I hope that you can tell me this: at what time, exactly, does dinner occur in your homes? Because last time I checked, most people in this country dine at 6pm, earliest. Make that as late as 10.30 pm if they’ve had a prolonged, post-work pub jaunt

You’ve advertised yourself as an American/British café that serves dinner. So why, oh why, were you closed at 6pm, after Talina and I trudged for 30 minutes through the rain to find you? And I thought you were American—what a scam.

FINE then, we said, we’ll find someplace EVEN BETTER.

That we can afford…in the poshest neighbourhood in London…right…

After perusing four of the most expensive Italian menus I have seen all year, we were both, officially, starving. “The next place we see, no matter what,” we agreed.

And so we stopped at a brightly lit venue with a yellow awning: Azteca, the window decal read. Talina was elated. Mexican food! But where’s the menu?

Damn, it’s a tequila bar. Tempting, but no way are we throwing back straight Cuervo on empty stomachs.

As we despondently turned away, the door swung open, and a smiling man with a little goatee and a long, shiny ponytail greeted us: “come on, have a drink!”

But we want food. Do you have food?

Talina, take it away…

¿Si? ¿Tienes buena comida? Si…si…pero…pero no hay mucho dinero!

Translation: Really? You do have food? Good food, you say? But listen up dude: we’re cheap.

¡Pero tenemos hambre! But we’re hungry!

And so we braved the menu-less tequila bar in posh Chelsea for dinner. And I satiated my hunger for home with the most American of non-American foods (next to pizza and Chinese takeout): tacos.

Tacos gobernador, to be exact.

Governor’s Tacos. Holy wow, they were awesome. Crispy, handmade flour shells filled with fresh, marinated shrimps, vegetables, salsa and melted cheese.

Talina deemed them exceptional, even in comparison to the tacos back home. She was glowing. At least one of us got to cure a bit of homesickness!

Talina at Azteca Latin Lounge in London

But I’m still a bit confused. Hey, goatee man, the food’s great, but why don’t you have a menu?

“Because we’ve only been serving food for two weeks,” he informed us,“it’s an experiment.”

Well, well…aren’t we privileged to be among the first to grade your taco test.

Azteca, we give you an “A.”

A for Amazing; A for Americans, forget cafés with crappy hours. Go to Azteca!

Don’t you worry, goatee man, we’ll be back for more gobernadores… and maybe even a bit of tequila, too.

Azteca Latin Lounge in Chelsea

¡Que maravilla!

 

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Oxford May Morning 2008: Behind the Scenes

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On the evening of April 30th, there’s no better place to be than inside Oxford’s Magdalen College.

The institution has been leading the surrounding community in May Day tradition for over 500 years. And tomorrow morning, hundreds of locals and tourists will, once again, flock to Magdalen’s picturesque High Street buildings just before dawn to be serenaded from above.

At 6:00 sharp on May 1st, the Magdalen College School Choir will sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from atop the college’s majestic Tower.

Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, UK

In a beautiful, sweeping moment, the buzzing crowds will be silenced. The choir’s hymn will take over, enchanting the entirety of the crowded city block below.

And then the much anticipated performance will end, just like that.

But the festivities will carry on for several hours, with Morris Dancing and impromptu street performances scattered throughout the city centera truly memorable parade of fun for the whole family…

And that’s the fairytale, glossy brochure version of Oxford’s May Morning.

As I mentioned, no better place to be than inside Magdalen College on the eve of May Morning, when the fun really begins…

The party usually starts around 9:00pm in the college’s common rooms and bar, with students dancing, drinking and celebrating the coming of May (and summer!) until the wee hours of the morning.

Why sleep? A champagne breakfast awaits on the rooftop terrace at 5:45am, from which students can listen to the choir in hazy solitude, away from the crowded High Street.

Magdalen College Tower on May Morning

And of course, we can’t forget the traditional May Morning daybreak toast on the Cloisters lawn…

Oxford May Morning champagne toast

No point in leaving college grounds prior to the toast/breakfast, as most gates have been locked; the police have also blocked off the Magdalen Bridge from 3:00am and will refuse crossings until 2 hours after the event, so as to prevent drunken crusaders from leaping into the shallow waters of the Cherwell…

The famed jumping tradition used to be quite common, with hundreds impulsively plummeting over the walls each year; however, now, only a few sneaky stragglers are able break through the barricade. Last year, I (sadly) only witnessed one courageous jumper.

But rumor has it that students will actually be leaving the college this year for a VIP party at Club Escape ; we’ll see if they are re-admitted for breakfast in their intoxicated stupors.

Who knows, maybe they will band together in drunken revelry and rekindle an age-old tradition…

Come on, you crazy Magdalenites, let’s start the summer off with a splash!

Happy May Day.

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Nintendo Wii Fit Launch, London’s South Bank

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Has anyone else in this city experienced the thrills and joys of the Nintendo Power Pad?

Europeans may recall its sister product, the colorful, interactive Family Fun Fitness mat, which, like the Power Pad, was wired with (then) cutting-edge movement sensors. Both devices provided competitive, humorous exercise outlets for the whole fam. Born in the late 80’s, these wonderful gadgets were, to my knowledge, the first and only of their kind.

“Power Pad Day” used be the highlight of my week—my friends and I would gather in front of the basement TV, ceremonially unroll the sleek, smooth electronic mat and stomp our ways to virtual Track and Field victories. Indeed, it was the classic Nintendo Entertainment System that provided us with our favorite form of indoor fun. We would scheme for hours on end: how to master the triple jump? The hurdle relay? Can we “trick” the system by sneakily stepping off of the Pad, thus extending our Long Jumps to superhuman distances? Oh, the possibilities…

After its seven year tenure, the Power Pad was (circa ’95) sadly discontinued (in conjunction with its game system counterpart). But I, of course, proudly looked after our NES and beloved PP through my late teens; for, though my brother and I were privy to the graphic wonders of N64, nothing compared to a bit of old-fashioned, World Class Track Meet fun. continue reading »»

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Honouring England’s Patron Saint (a valiant American attempt)

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Yesterday, I decided to take on St. George’s Day in full force. My approach: to immerse myself in the day’s festivities and absorb as much English tradition as possible, all the while remaining in tourist “stealth mode”—i.e. no white sneakers, no camera flashes, and only soft-spoken enquiries, so as to draw minimal attention to the good old American accent.

What better place to go, I thought, than to London’s South Bank, home of lively street performances, history, art, culture and oodles of bustling pubs/cafes?

I started off at what I presumed would be a central hub of activity—a sacred edifice dedicated to the man of the day: St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark.

George, was I wrong! The cathedral was virtually empty when I arrived 15 minutes prior to the “special” guided tour. Where were all of the church-goers? The pride-filled locals? The curious tourists? continue reading »»

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Cultural Adventures, Part II: Spain

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Following my guide to eccentric past times in the UK, I have outlined some of the most intriguing traditions and festivals to experience this year in España.

As I noted before, there is still time to make 2008 a year of cultural adventure! So take a chance, and discover some of Europe’s most bewildering and unconventional pastimes.

A guide to some of Spain’s most unique celebrations.

1. La Diada de Sant Jordi (Lovers’ Day).
What
: Like Valentine’s Day, except boys get books (?)
Where: Barcelona, Spain.
When: 23 April 2008.

Get ready for a little spring sunshine…and lots of Latin love!

This April, hopeless romantics will unite in the streets of Barcelona to honor Saint George, who, like our man Valentine, inspires thousands of young lovers to make their passions public via reciprocal gift giving. Stroll down Las Ramblas, and immerse yourself in the amorous buzz as you delight in street performances, quirky architecture, and, of course, the colorful merchandise of nearly every florist and book seller in Catalonia! Join in on the tradition: gentleman, woo your novias with roses, and ladies, make your men blush with some heartfelt selections of prose. continue reading »»

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UK Cultural Festivals

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Hidden away in the most seemingly ordinary of countryside villages and isolated of coastal towns are some of Britain’s best kept secrets—unique cultural traditions that can be witnessed nowhere else in the world.

My advice for the whimsical and curious traveller in search of new sights: it’s time to think beyond location. Seek to experience. The most fascinating things can happen in the most unexpected of places, many of which are easily accessible, affordable and perhaps even a short car or boat trip away.

Think eccentric; think outlandish. Make 2008 a year of cultural adventure, and discover some of Europe’s most bewildering and unconventional pastimes…

A guide to some of the UK’s greatest cultural secrets. continue reading »»

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Lisbon: a city for everyone!

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The westernmost capital city of continental Europe is more than just a rowdy cluster of nightclubs and beach bars. With its lively summer schedule of cultural festivals, unique, kid-friendly events and oceanfront activities, Lisbon, Portugal is the perfect destination for young singles and extended families alike.

Kick off your summer with a rockin’ getaway.

It’s true—thousands of party-seeking youths will flock to the city in late May for the third annual “Rock in Rio Lisboa—For a Better World” Concert. But come on mom and dad—live a little! The concert is, after all, for charity. With appearances by Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Lenny Kravitz, and Alanis Morrisette, there’s a little bit of rockin’ fun for everyone.

Not convinced? Not to worry—your family will find its niche in this beachfront cultural mecca. Where else in the world can you find sun, sand, nightlife, experimental theatre, international dog shows, fresh seafood and delicious pasties de nata??

Family Adventures

Upon arrival, you may want to slap on your sunscreen and head straight for the shore. Go right ahead—there is much to do and see on the beaches surrounding Lisbon. You might consider a coastal tour, complete with an excursion to Cabo de Roca, Europe’s westernmost point, where you will capture a stunning, kaleidoscopic sunset. Or get active: join in on the Praia Grande Beach games (ongoing, for all ages) or embark on an Atlantic Coast bike adventure.

Be sure to explore the diverse city sights on a guided historical and cultural tour, which will take you to the famous, 15th century BelémTower, along with the burial site of explorer Vasco De Gama. Then, capture the picturesque cityscape and its natural surrounds on a cruise down the Tagus River.

Depending on when you visit, you will encounter a range of family-friendly activities, including the Ericurea Seafood Festival (June), the Equestrian Show at Queluznate Palace (weekly) and the Estoril International Dog Show (August).

Culture, culture, culture.

The arts are booming this summer in Lisbon. With an extensive calendar of music, theatre, dance and film festivals occurring between late May and mid September, there are copious opportunities to experience both local culture and international collaborations through a variety of mediums.

You are bound to encounter something of interest during your stay, from the experimental street “encounters” of the Alkantara Performing Arts Festival (22 May – 8 June) to the classical and contemporary jazz performances of the Estoril Music Festival (2 July – 3 August). Also popular are the FIA Lisboa International Handicrafts Fair (June – July), the Almada International Theatre Festival (July), and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (September).

The city, of course, truly comes alive at night! Get a taste of local culture on an evening tour, complete with a traditional dinner and folkloric show. Then, head to the oh-so-chic Bar do Rio and join the fiery locals on the dance floor at Lux until the wee hours of the morning.

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New Orleans Jazz Fest — April 25th-May 4th, 2008

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Mardi Gras is definitely not for everyone. Though I had am amazing time overall, indulging in King Cakes, beer and colorful revelry (and apparently phoning my mother several times to thank her for the gift of life), I can distinctly remember attending the Endymion parade on Bourbon Street (despite prior warnings not to enter the heart of the downtown area on Saturday night of Mardi Gras) and actually being pinned between 2 people, lifted 3 inches off the ground, and transported for a good solid minute with the whims of the crowd. I had no control over my arms, legs, or personal possessions. There was no space to breathe.

Mardi Gras is one of those memorable, “once in a lifetime” experiences but is definitely not the best way to experience New Orleans. I always recommend to anyone interested in absorbing some of the culture, music, history (and cuisine!) of this amazing city to come in the Fall or late Spring, when they can actually walk through and appreciate the French Quarter…and breathe! Not to worry—the partying never stops—there is always something crazy happening on Bourbon Street. Always a group of middle aged men throwing beads over a balcony, always lots of Hurricane Cocktails to be consumed, always the odd tap dancer or quirky “statue” gracing your path and even, occasionally, a celebrity or two across the bar (Britney Spears, for example, is from nearby Kentwood and has been spotted several times in Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar).

For the adventurous, music-loving, party-going traveler, who wants a well-rounded experience of The Big Easy, I suggest heading down at the end of the month for Jazz Fest. This is arguably the best event that the city has to offer—many locals actually prefer Jazz Fest to Mardi Gras.

The festival takes place over 2 weekends on late April/early May at the Fair Ground Race Course, just 10 minutes outside of the French Quarter. Though there are doubtlessly hundreds of thousands that come to witness the diverse, extensive line up of performers (over 1000—jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass and more), there is also tons of open space, making the experience a lot more bearable than that of claustrophobic Canal Street on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). Some will spend the day lounging on blankets to the tunes of Widespread Panic; other more energetic types may partake in some 3rd row moshing (as I did when L.L. Cool J started throwing $20 bills into the audience during his 2003 performance). This year, the headliners include: Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, The Neville Brothers, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, Santana, Sheryl Crow, and Irma Thomas, among many others.

The Fest definitely doesn’t end on the fair ground at dusk. There are countless evening shows lined up at venues across the city—some advertised, some not. My personal favorite was a $5 Counting Crows “performance” that I stumbled across one evening on a French Quarter side street. Picture an intoxicated Adam Duritz belting Madonna covers to 40 drunks in a small room on a Tuesday night. It was fantastic.

Another highlight was the (sold out) 3am G. Love and Special Sauce jam session at Tipitina’s, followed by the ? ? ? . . .

And of course, for the ardent sightseer, there are plenty of interesting excursions, including walking tours, voodoo/ ghost tours, and river cruises.

(To answer the big, burning question on your minds, you can indeed view some of the worst hit sites of Hurricane Katrina on this guided tour.)

For those of you lucky enough to be venturing down to the Big Easy in the coming weeks, please do have some crawfish jambalaya and a drive-thru daiquiri (yes, a drive thru daiquiri) for me.

Enjoy the Fest!

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Salzburg: a destination for the whole family.

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The planning, booking and execution of a family vacation/holiday can often be a complete nightmare. I can remember, as a little girl, only ever wanting to go to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World and not understanding why my fairytale frolicking had to include, by my dad’s rules, some historical or educational component. Why should I care about the life and times of a dead cartoonist? No, I don’t want to go to the museum, and Epcot Center is boor-riiiing…

My mother (like most) played martyr, trying to make everyone happy with stupid road games and chocolate bars. The only thing she required in a destination was a place to shop. And no one was to interrupt mom’s sacred retail ventures (we learned this the hard way!). My big brother, of course, crafted his vacation interests in direct opposition to mine, demanding to ride the rides that I was too short for and refusing to indulge me with “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” sing-a-long. (Cruel, I know).

When selecting a place to haul your family away to for a week, or even just a weekend, you need to ensure a diverse range of convenient tours and activities. You probably want to include an educational component in your itinerary: good luck drumming up enthusiasm for Historic Williamsburg or Auschwitz. You need to find a destination that you can easily sell to your children—a place that, like Disney, has some fantasy or adventure appeal. If, mixed with all the frivolity and merriment of your chosen locale, there is lots of history to be absorbed, even better!

Planning an exciting, yet culturally enriching, family trip is like experimenting with a healthy recipe: if you succeed, then you can delight your children with a tasty batch of Deceptively Delicious brownies. They won’t pick up on the well-masked, pureed vegetable ingredients, and you probably will even savor a few yourself.

Salzburg, Austria is the perfect such destination in which you can create a full proof family “recipe.” Simply mention the Sound of Music Tour, and you’ve got the attention of your youngest. Ask your “Sixteen going on Seventeen”-year-old daughter about Summer Strallen’s recent departure from the hit TV show Hollyoaks to play Maria von Trapp on the West End stage, and she’s all ears. And what movie-loving kid wouldn’t be delighted to visit a real Hollywood film location?

Now that everyone’s on board, you, as a parent, will be delighted to learn that Salzburg is one of the most culturally rich, and easily navigable of European cities. It is much smaller and more manageable than nearby Berlin and Vienna. And it is the birthplace of Mozart, for crying out loud. Walk through the charming Old Town district, and you will be immersed in the historical sights and melodious sounds. Turn a corner, and behold the famous Baroque cathedral (with its Romanesque basilica remains) and perhaps even a Mozart string quartet. And of course, there is the unforgettable, medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress, which towers the city, offering fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.

“The hills are alive…”

Perhaps most significantly, you can let your children’s imaginations run free as they trace the footsteps of the von Trapp family through several of the actual sites used in the making of the Sound of Music on a behind-the-scenes tour. You will visit the Mirabell Gardens, where Julie Andrews (as Maria) can be seen singing “Do-Re-Mi” with the children in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Also included is a trip to Leopoldskron Palace, which was used in the movie as the von Trapp family home. For the more active and restless among us, there are plenty of walking tours and excursions to the surrounding mountains, indeed climbed by Julie Andrews while singing the title song.

And to all the shop-a-holic mothers out there: the historic city center boasts a range of jewelry, high fashion, book, music and souvenir shops.

Oh, and one final thing: Mozart Chocolates = deliciousness. Nothing deceptive lurking in the green colored nougat centers—just 100% sweet marzipan, pistachio and chocolatey goodness!

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