Sometimes, I just have to get out of Nice. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a natural environment, so Saturday morning I rode the “Train des Merveilles” to the easily accessible small town of Breil sur Roya. Napoleon slept here on one of his military campaigns against Italy (the border is not far away). Another claim to fame is the historical architecture, including two Baroque churches and the medieval ruins of city walls. Set along the Roya river in a mountain valley, it is a popular spot with anglers. Breil’s attraction for me, however, is as the base for numerous hikes.
My favorite is a relatively short one uphill, skirting a babbling stream over beige boulders with views onto country homes. In springtime the yards are bursting with forsythia and various blossoms. Butterflies, bees and hummingbird moths ravenously swirl around the plants and birds chirp away. What a break from traffic, cigarette smoke, apartment noise and those annoying pigeons back home.
At trail’s end you end up at a Romanesque church ruin set amid a large grove of ancient olive trees. Breil rests in the valley down below. It’s a perfect picnic spot.
The backcountry of Nice is known for such locales. Once way stations on trade routes that ran through the mountains, they are well past their heyday and are in serious decline. It is no surprise that in the sparsely populated town square a few Gilets Jaunes protestors were active. Posters on walls throughout town advertise the French communist party and grievances of pensioners and the unemployed.
I made sure to get on an early train back, before the Nice station was closed.
We are going through a weekend of “perturbations.” Chinese President Xi Jinping is meeting with Macron, coinciding with an attempt by the Gilets Jaunes for a massive protest. Large parts of the city center are closed to all vehicle and foot traffic. No trains are stopping in Nice all weekend, nor in the neighboring Riviera towns. The gendarmerie is out in heavy force. The 7-kilometer Promenade des Anglais is closed from end to end. One protestor has been injured and is in a coma, and the protests have just begun.
The story of France’s beautiful villages as the source of national angst is akin to that of the rural/urban divide in the US, Britain, Italy and god knows where else populism is brewing. I wonder if there’s enough money in the world to save these towns, and democracy.