Sunny Summers in the Côte d’Azur: Keeping Up Appearances

Philippe returns home a couple mornings ago as an eyewitness reporter to the Côte d’Azur’s biggest news. He just dropped his nephew at the airport and now, back home in Antibes, he waves his arms in front of himself in the form of an explosion.

You know those storm chaser shows on TV? he says, completely animated by the early morning drive. It was just like one of those! We were in Cagnes-sur-Mer and everything was black. I mean, I couldn’t see two cars in front of me – and the windshield wipers were going like crazy! Then this tree – the whole top of a tree – came down in front of us, like right there! he says, sweeping his arms downward from high above his head to point to the floor some paces in front of him. His tale continues: And then Nemo – you know the orange fish Nemo? – this big, blow-up pool toy like Nemo came screaming across the road right in front of me. And there were palm branches – whole palm branches – flying around in the air, horizontal to the ground! And one of them smacked into the car and made a dent!

Toppling trees and flying fish – at this point, I’m needing some confirmation. I pop outside to see the car for myself. Sure enough, there, at the edge of the roof on the passenger’s side, a palm branch hit our rental car with such force that it created a couple-inch dent.

Making the situation even more bizarre, the whole time Philippe was dodging falling trees, airborne fish and the eye of this storm, he had to remain calm inside our pint-sized car. I laugh now at the vision of him reassuring his broad-shouldered, 19-year-old godson while swerving Rambo-style through the knotted streets of the South of France. Yes, everything is under control! he kept insisting to Philippe, who sat beside him, luggage stowed in the trunk. No, you won’t miss your plane to Montreal! Anyway, you think the incoming plane is even going to land in this weather? You’ll get out of here, no problem. And it’ll be sunny by 10:30, I promise! It’s the Côte d’Azur!

Noise travels well here.
Noise travels well here.

Back home at Bellevue, I endured my own dramas this morning. Our eight-year-old daughter Lolo, my 16-year-old cousin Zoe and I were catching a few more winks – until 7:22 a.m. to be precise. That’s when the bliss of Bellevue erupted. Zoe called it a gunshot. The blast exploded into the cylindrical, marble staircase at the core of our home. Immediately the alarm wailed through every crevasse of the house’s stone structure. And if the screeching hadn’t been enough to rouse our (and our neighbours’) slumbering heads, the bedroom doors did, banging open and shut as if old Bellevue was haunted by some cantankerous ghost – or more logically, I realized as I pulled out of my sleep, because of shifts in the air pressure that circulated through the house’s central stairwell.

The top half of a five-foot oval window had blown open on the ground floor of the cylindrical staircase. Backed by the full force of the storm in the bay outside, the top half of the window – wood, glass and all – slapped down on the bottom half in one almighty bang. At least nothing broke.

As thunder and lightening blazed down in the angry bay outside Bellevue, I found a table and chair to help me lift the lumbering half-oval and finally latched its metal (metal!) lock upward, nearly at ceiling height. At this point Bellevue’s garden was inside the house and Lolo was in my bed, sheets pulled over her head.

At last, the house secured and our family reunited, the TV news is confirming this morning’s havoc to the waking world. Winds reached so-many kilometers per hour and this-many homes are without electricity. The storm was a surprise, completely outside the forecast for this area. It is, after all, July in the Côte d’Azur!

The Carlton Hotel isn’t just a film set for crime. Photo: Steve Muntz
The Carlton Hotel isn’t just a film set for crime. Photo: Steve Muntz

The same morning news lays bare another incident – a shocking incident – that (quite incredibly) escaped our attention yesterday. It happened while we sat quietly at church in Cannes, a mere two blocks away from the city’s famous seaside boulevard La Croisette and the legendary Carlton Hotel, a popular destination for film stars. In broad daylight an armed man, his head covered in cloth, entered the hotel and made away with nearly $150 million in jewelry and watches.

$150 million: The figure makes it one of the world’s biggest-ever jewelry heists! It’s certainly the largest France has ever seen. The jewels, we now learn, were part of an exhibition. The thief escaped with a briefcase, evading whatever security was present. Surveillance, reports say, appeared pretty minimal.

But not a single siren broke the calm of our Sunday morning communion up the road. Philippe, Philippe, Zoe, Lolo and I emerged from church at noon and walked toward the sea, passing directly beside the white, art deco-style Carlton Hotel, which – in the vein of it’s-so-good-you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up – was once the location of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller To Catch A Thief. Here, at the scene of the crime, pedestrian and road traffic moved normally. There were no alerts, no blockades. There was no elevated security presence, no questioning of the public. Nothing. Rien de tout. We proceeded across the seaside Croissette boulevard and descended the wooden steps directly across from the Carlton to enjoy Sunday lunch on the beach. It was just like any old, sun-soaked afternoon on the beach in the Côte d’Azur. Absolutely nothing of urgency grabbed our attention.

By all accounts, the spectacle of the Côte d’Azur presses on. Neither a massive jewelry stick-up nor a bout of furious weather will stop the summer fun. By 10:30 this morning of the storm – just as Philippe predicted to his nephew Philippe – normality returns. The sun blazes down on our glorious patch of palm- and pine-tree-ridden land that hugs the balmy Mediterranean, this day like any other. I stand on Bellevue’s terrace overlooking our garden and the glimmering bay below. The only remaining traces of this morning’s bombardment are a couple large palm fronds strewn in the garden and the shambolic state of our pool toys. Those, and a kick-up in the wind with its about-face; today it blows from shore to sea.

The wind is doing its best to ruin the Rivieran fun. Shortly Vegaluna restaurant phones. We are due there, back on sandy beaches of Cannes, tonight for the next installment in the city’s festival d’art pyrotechnique – fireworks like you’ve never seen them, set off under the guise of an international competition and choreographed to music from the host country, be it Greece or Spain (both flush with this sort of surplus cash), Argentina or China. This evening’s competitor was due to be none other than France.

The storm hit Cannes’ bay and damaged the barges used to deploy the fireworks. Today’s strong winds wouldn’t help the display either. The show has been moved to tomorrow night.

The change actually suits us. They way I think of it, the fireworks now will coincide with Zoe’s last night here before she heads back to the US. I explain to her that just like with Philippe, we can send her off with a bang, too. She doesn’t seem too impressed by the idea.

The winds die down during the day before the show, just as forecast, and our perfect Côte d’Azur evening starts exactly as planned. Philippe, Zoe, Lolo and I are joined at Vegaluna by our friends Walid and Nada, and together we share a rose petal-strewn table along the sandy shore of Cannes. The set meal of gambas (large shrimps), the daily catch (a delicate John Dory that in this country, unhelpfully, is called Saint Philippe), and a roll of chocolate mousse enrobed in dark chocolate (creatively dubbed Wonka) is creative as well as superb. The air cools, the humidity drops, and the sky softens into blue-grey shades that Monet would’ve adored in this region some 125 years ago. Shortly the first stars appear and the last yachts come to anchor at the far edge of the bay. The stage is set.

The fireworks are celestial...
The fireworks are celestial…

At 10 p.m., the deep, lush voice of a professional announcer cuts through diners’ conversations, their clanking forks, the rush of traffic up on La Croisette and the lapping waves at water’s edge. The fireworks start gently and then erupt into graceful, silver waterfalls and dazzling explosions of colour in the night sky. Their entries and exits punctuate the soulful stanzas of French greats like Charles Aznavour, Édith Piaf and (if we can include the French cousins) Céline Dion.

Except that things aren’t going exactly as planned, it seems. The display is spectacular, no doubt, but more than the occasional firework misfires, erupting low in the bay and in a formation that’s wholly different from the others. And sometimes there’s an unmistakable hole in the middle of the grand, celestial array.

...if not always well timed.
…if not always well timed.

Édith Piaf’s final, belting chorus coincides with a battle-worthy eruption of colour in the nighttime sky. The show is over. We beach dwellers clap – but the yachts scattered in the bay don’t blast their horns, as is the tradition. The central launching barge has caught fire.

It’s rather a large fire actually. Fireworks continue to blast from that barge. A few boats anchored in the bay begin to move away from the heat. The fire seems to be getting bigger. We recognize the Saturn-shaped firework from midway through the program. Then comes the palm-tree-like firework followed by the gem-like, horizontal flares that shoot out into the bay. The show goes on – in part anyway.

A crowd starts to gather on La Croisette above our restaurant – but we must leave. Zoe’s flight is among the first out of Nice Côte d’Azur Airport tomorrow morning. She and Philippe are leaving Bellevue just after 5:00 a.m.

We’ve lived through three headlines in three days! I announce to Zoe as we wind through Cannes’ streets toward the car. I’m proud about sending our guest off with such excitement. Even as we reach our car, eruptions pummel in the night air. They continue until around 11:30 p.m. (The yachts, we will learn, finally blast their horns.)

As it happens, Philippe, Zoe, Lolo and I are still close to the beach at this late hour. We’ve been driving (or queuing in dense traffic) for a good 30 minutes. We’ve gone nowhere.

Midnight. We’re still in the car. In fact, we’re still in Cannes. And now, shortly after midnight on the night of Zoe’s pre-dawn departure, we know why.

The seaside road heading out of Cannes has been shut down to a single lane – a single lane, that is, for both directions of traffic. On the outskirts of town there’s a diminutive stoplight that shines red and green, red and green, a tiny soldier dictating when the flood of cars and motorbikes might actually flow out of town.

But these French roadworks already had been scheduled. No one thinks to change them for this festival night. It’s the Côte d’Azur. The show must go on.

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