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WITH MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Milan’s central train station, top, a Mussolini-era monument that gives the Roman builders a run for their money, I realized I had plunged from a gentle pastel resort town into the heart of a big, brusque, muscular business city, with a frantic energy not unlike my hometown of NYC.

But like all European cities, it seems, dense flocks of humanity congregate in just a few places. Wander down an ancient side street and you are by yourself.

Piazza del Duomo on Saturday night, in front of the jaw-dropping cathedral that looks like dripping candle wax and took 450 years to build, had Times Square crowd levels, as did the 1865-67 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the universe’s first shopping mall, an iron and glass wonder of the early Industrial Age. I had to see that pulsing shopping heart of the city straightaway, to get my bearings and know I was really in Milan. Below: chocolate shoes.

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This is a city made for shopping, and I did in fact, buy myself some dangly earrings (in a pharmacy!)  I went briefly into Rinascente, a brightly lit modern department store, which has all the charm of Bloomingdale’s (if you think Bloomingdale’s has any charm; I don’t). The first thing I was drawn to was a skirt with a unique funnel shape; it turned out to be DKNY. I moved on to the top-floor food court, thinking I would forage for supper, but couldn’t handle the mob scene.

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So my first meal in Milan was take-out from Peck, below, a temple of gastronomy since the 19th century: a farro and vegetable salad and chicken with black beans (quite delicious), to be happily eaten later in my hotel room with a glass of red from the little bar in the hotel lobby. See how they wrapped it!

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I love my hotel, the yellow-ochre Gran Duca di York, below, perhaps the most cheering sight in a city of mostly gray edifices. My room is slightly larger than a breadbox, with an airshaft view, but comfortable and pretty, and intensely central — a few blocks from the Duomo, yet, as I said, a tranquil world away.

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Few would say Milan is a beautiful city. I might disagree. The architecture in the historic center, much of which is 500 years old, is forever intriguing and often gasp-worthy. But there is an almost complete lack of greenery and color. It is drab. The sight of an orange tram going by is a vivid shock.

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Sunday was Leonardo day. The city is milking the da Vinci Code phenomenon, which endures in crowds from all over the world. There are several Leonardo-based exhibitions going on, and the sounds of German and Japanese fill the air. Right around the corner from my lodgings is the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, below, and that’s where I headed first. It’s a 16th century cardinal’s library with an exquisite art collection (27 rooms in all). Most of the paintings are religious and sumptuously beautiful, making one realize how many masters there were besides the relatively few well-known names, but there are also landscapes, Dutch paintings of the era, and even a room devoted to Milanese impressionism of the late 19th century. In the final room, a two-story library, 45 pages at a time of da Vinci’s original drawings, called Codex Atlanticus, are mounted under glass; they rotate every three months.

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I had tickets for The Last Supper at 4:15, bought months ago, and time to kill, so I walked toward the Brera section, said to have small shops and cafes — but it being Sunday, everything seemed closed. I had lunch at a dramatic high-ceilinged restaurant called Convivium, below, drawn into it simply because it looked nice. It was quiet when I entered, but soon filled up with Italian families eating pasta for Sunday lunch.

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Followed it with coffee at one of those dowdy old-fashioned cafes you find in Italy, below.

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At Santa Maria delle Grazie, below, where da Vinci painted The Last Supper (unfortunately in quickly fading temperas) in the late 15th century, when the church was new, we were given 15 minutes to view the masterpiece. I was taken with the dynamism of the figures, how each of the 12 apostles reacted to Christ’s news of his impending betrayal with uniquely expressive body language; it seemed very modern in that way. I also loved how a chunk of the painting was removed in later years by monks who wanted to create doorway into the kitchen next doorIMG_0021_2IMG_0013_2

So the transition from bonjour to buon giorno has been made. My time in Milan so far has been gray and drizzly, but I haven’t been chafing against the bad weather as I did in Nice. It seems to suit this city.

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Above, a peek into the courtyard of the archaeological museum.    

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HOW DID I END UP IN MENTON, France, of all possible places I could have roosted for two unplanned nights between Nice and Milan? It was a default decision, but I’m not sorry. Candy-colored Menton was a treat.

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My original thoughts were Lyon, France, or Turin, Italy; either could have kept me busy for two days. But friends said they found Turin ‘boring,’ and the weather had finally turned good in the South of France (sunny and 60). I wasn’t ready to leave the coast. And I was curious to see whether Menton still resembles the town in the vintage hand-colored souvenir photo I have on my dining room wall back in Brooklyn. (It does.)

So I made a reservation at the Hotel Napoléon, below (the kind of design-y boutique hotel I wasn’t able to find in Nice), took a half-hour train ride from Nice Thursday morning, and got off in this small city in France’s southeastern-most corner, practically on the Italian border.

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At the corner of the block, next to the hotel, below, a 16th century chapel remains. 

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Menton has a uniquely warm microclimate and therefore an abundance of famous gardens, many open to the public. “Are you doing all the gardens?” a British traveler asked me at the exotic botanical garden Val Rahmeh, part of France’s National Museum of Natural History, as I followed numbered signs from bamboo glade to lemon grove. It was a logical question. The garden-visit options in and around Menton number about a dozen, including Serre de la Madone, an English garden transported to the Cote d’Azur by Lawrence Johnson (of Hidcote fame), and Hanbury, a 22-acre garden in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy, that would have required a day I didn’t have. Anyway, I adored Val Rahmeh. Below, a taste of what there is to see.

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High on my list for Menton was the Jean Cocteau Museum, opened in 2011, and the Salle des Mariages (marriage chamber) at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), below, whose walls and ceilings Cocteau exuberantly decorated in 1958. The multi-disciplinary artist loved the city, and I love the graphics, expressiveness and originality of his drawings and his campy films, on loop at the museum.

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As soon as I got to my room at the Napoléon, below, I decided to linger for two whole nights in Menton. Built in 1962 and renovated to a high standard with a modern-art theme, the hotel had heretofore unimagined luxuries like a rain head walk-in shower, free water and juices in the minibar, a swimming pool I didn’t use, my own miniscule balcony with a sideways sea view, three separate passwords for my three devices, a room safe that actually fit a laptop, a TV with 6 or 8 English-language channels I didn’t watch, and room service (this was the first hotel I’ve been in with a real bar and restaurant downstairs). Although the place looks like it could be in South Beach and should be populated with beautiful young people, most of the hotel’s guests were part of an elderly British tour group.

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My one disappointment in Menton, and the South of France in general, has been the food. I’ve slacked on restaurant research and have just taken my chances. My big meal of the day has been a casual lunch at an outdoor café or creperie. So I’m leaving France with just one great food memory: the late-night fish meal in the bar at Collioure. I can’t believe I didn’t have a good salad Niçoise in Nice!

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Menton was restful, though somehow I clocked 14,000 steps (approximately 7 miles) on my iPhone’s pedometer each day. Today, my feet get a break. I’m on a high-speed train to Milan (just under four hours) as I write this, sharing a 1st class compartment with five Italian women, four of a certain age buried in newspapers or tabloid magazines, and one young thing with closed eyes and earbuds.

The day is gray, the scenery so far uninspiring. It seems that many of Europe’s high-speed trains run on newly-built track that goes through industrial areas; I’ve seen a fair number of warehouses, electrical towers, and smoke-belching factories. I’m planning to do at least one post on European train stations and the experience of rail travel in Europe, but I’ll say just this for now: the efficiency is stupendous, but the romance is gone.

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FROM NICE LAST TUESDAY, when clouds reigned, I took a half-hour bus ride up into the hills above the coast (itself worth it for the views). I was headed to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where the Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, between 1905 and 1912, built a fanciful pink villa overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by a series of thematic gardens. They are spectacularly beautiful, as are the views of the sea.

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I made short work of the villa, full of Sèvres procelain, Gobelins tapestries and Old Master paintings; I was too eager to be outside. But the audioguide filled me in Béatrice’s early marriage to an associate of her father’s, the banker Alphonse de Rothschild; their eventual separation; and how, after the creation of these artful and enduring gardens, she spent the last decades of her life gambling at Monaco.

But that’s neither here nor there. The gardens are very much here (thanks in part to Culturespaces, the French equivalent of Britain’s National Trust), and available to visit year-round. There’s an atmospheric tea room that shares the villa’s decor and vistas, so no worries about lunch.

There’s a Spanish garden, below

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and a Florentine garden, below, both of which instantly evoked those places for me.

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There’s also small Japanese garden; an Exotic or cactus garden, with specimens I had never seen; a Rose garden, barren at this time of year; a wild Provencal garden that was the least structured of them; and the more formal French garden nearest the villa, which contains music fountains that spew water and Mozart every twenty minutes.

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THE SUN CAME OUT on my last full day in Nice, and so did the people. On the streets, in the cafés, on the beach, even, in full-on sunbathing mode — it’s as if a switch was thrown somewhere that changed a sleepy city into a lively one.

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I wasn’t languishing in cafés or on the beach, of course. There was too much I wanted to do. This morning I headed to the Vieux Ville (Old City) again, because I hadn’t really had time to grasp its extent on my Monday visit to the antiques market.

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Today, Wednesday, the flower market was in full swing, above, in the same space, Cours Saleya, as it is several days a week (Saturday is the largest of them, I’m told; on this day, there were about twenty vendors). There were blooms that are hard to come by in New York, at least in the quantity and range of colors found here: mimosa, freesia, anemones. All well-priced, seemed to me.

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Then I let myself get a little lost in the back streets, where they really do hang laundry out to dry from the windows of 500-year-old dwellings.

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Nice was part of Italy until the mid 19th century, and that became apparent to me as I looked into beautiful churches and visited a small gem of a historic house, Palais Lascaris, below. It’s a wide, yellow-painted townhouse on Rue Droite, one of the narrow streets of the old town, a nearly intact example of how a noble urban family lived in the 17th century.

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The vaulted ceilings and frescoes of the central stairwell and the elaborate plasterwork throughout are incredible enough, but even more striking are the painted ceilings, done in the late 1600s by artists of the Genovese school.

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There are furnishings and tapestries of the 17th and 18th centuries, and an important collection of 500 antique musical instruments, above.

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I climbed steep flights of steps in the Vieux Ville and emerged eventually on Place Garibaldi, the city’s oldest square, below. Built in 1773, it’s ringed with yellow-painted arcaded buildings, whose startlingly uniform window moldings turn out to be, on close inspection, trompe l’oeil (and they really do).

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Below, in the Café Turin, a venerable seafood place on Place Garibaldi.

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I forged on, determined to try socca, the thin chickpea pancake that’s a Nicoise specialty. I arrived at Chez Pipobelow, before the place even opened, at about 11:30, so I got to watch the first batch of the day being made. The chick pea flour is pressed into a big round pan and put into an open wood-burning oven, then turned constantly with a long metal tool until it’s done. It’s served in hot slices. Was it good? Yes. Was it worth walking halfway across town for? Well… yes, for the experience.

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And what a day for a walk. My socca search had taken me into the old port area, and as I looked back at the distinguished red and yellow buildings encircling the port, below, an unoriginal thought occurred to me: “This is really a beautiful city.”

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The only thing remarkable about that thought is that I hadn’t had it in the prior three days of gray rainy weather. To revel in itself, Nice needs sun.

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By 2 o’clock, I had walked more than five miles and was exhausted. I went back to my hotel, Villa Victoria, where I’ve been exceptionally comfortable for three nights, to recoup. But at 3PM, I popped up again: I wanted to get to the Musée Matisse, above, in the Cimiez district, a neighborhood of immensely grand apartment buildings perched in the hills above Nice’s downtown. A public bus would take me there, but the stop was several long blocks away, and I decided to splurge on a taxi.

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Twenty minutes and twenty euros later, I was in yet another Genovese-school 17th century villa, next-door to the deteriorated but evocative remains of a Roman arena, above (in which locals were playing petanque), where Matisse spent the last three decades of his life.

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I’d seen the big Matisse paper cut-out show in New York in January and thought perhaps I was Matisse’d out, but this was a different view of his work. Far from comprehensive and lacking many of the great paintings, which are in other museums worldwide, it is a more intimate side of Matisse, spanning his career from his youthful efforts of the 1890s, when he copied classical works, to bronze figural sculptures I’d never seen, to sketches that reminded me how Matisse was the master of expressing gesture and feeling with just a few lines.

My farewell-to-Nice dinner was with new friends at Voyageur Nissart, a low-key place near the train station frequented by locals and tourists alike, and known for its Nicoise specialties like my red mullet with eggplant and tomato, below.

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Onward, now, to Menton, on the Italian border, for a night or two, and then into Italy itself. Must brush up on some new vocabulary.

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THE BRITISH UPPER CLASSES and Russian aristocracy, in search of sun, made the city of Nice, on France’s Mediterranean coast, their winter playground in the late 19th century. Most of the city’s pale or pastel-colored buildings date from that Belle Époque and from the Art Deco era, and there are few contemporary ones, giving its boulevards and squares a historic grandeur that distinguishes Nice from other beach resorts.

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I came to Nice primarily to revisit a city I had fond memories of from thirty years ago. That’s proving a tough act to follow. Nice has 300 days a year of sunshine, so they say, but the past couple have not been among them. I arrived in a downpour late Sunday, by train from Arles, and checked into the two-star B&B-type lodging I’d booked months ago, based on rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Don’t believe them, and don’t go by the pictures, which make it look more charming than it is. The Nice Garden Hotel is dreary, depressing and threadbare. After an uncomfortable night, I spent Monday morning looking for an alternative.

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That took me in and out of several faded grand dames, above, along the Promenade des Anglais, which had rooms available but which were either too expensive (Negresco, Westminster) or too embalmed-feeling (Le Royal, which was great from the outside, stuffy within), or both. I ended up at the New York Times-recommended four-star Villa Victoria, below, on Boulevard Victor Hugo, and made the switch.

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Ensconced now in much greater luxury (still for a reasonable 90 euros — only 15 more per night than the other — including breakfast and every possibly amenity, even female-sized terry cloth slippers and a pencil with a red rhinestone on it), I took in my first Nice museum, the Villa Massena, below, an over-the-top gilded private palace built in 1898, which the city has recently restored.

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The second floor galleries, with costumes and paintings of the city in its Belle Époque heyday (below, an amusement pier that extended into sea but no longer exists) interested me more than the sumptuous decor.

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Monday is the antiques market in Nice’s Vieux Ville (Old City), below. It’s a serious market, akin to Paris’, but I’m so over all that. There isn’t a poster or a piece of costume jewelry or a Quimper plate that I could rouse myself to buy these days. But it was fun to look at objects, people and, of course, buildings.

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Matisse lived in the yellow house, above.

For lunch, of all the many cafes lining both sides of Vieux Ville’s main drag, Cours Saleya, I chose Le Safari, below. It was bustling, warm (outdoor heaters), and smelled pleasantly of mussels and the other seafood for which Nice is known.

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While my first salad Niçoise in Nice, above, was ‘meh’ (unripe tomatoes), the people at the next table more than made up for it. An amusing British couple who come to Nice often and know its environs intimately, from the best patisserie to which buses to take to get to which gardens, I thoroughly enjoyed my first extended conversation in days. It continued when they invited me for drinks at the apartment they’re renting in a classic Niçoise building not far from my hotel. Drinks turned into a dinner spread, below (smoked salmon, quail eggs, exquisite cheeses) and I now have personal travel consultants for the rest of my stay.

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All of Nice’s twenty famous museums, including the Matisse and Chagall Museums in the Cimiez neighborhood, are closed on Tuesday, and the weather, though drier, is still gray. I’m heading to Ephrussi de Rothschild’s quirky garden in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a half-hour bus ride away.

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