I fall in love with the name. Coaraze. I look into some images in Google and just know in my heart that I have to visit the place. The name pops up while I am doing a customary search on ‘Day trips from Cannes’. The usual suspects come first – Nice, St. Tropez, Monaco, St. Paul’s Vence. Then come the unusual ones. Most of which could only be accessed if you have a car at your disposal. I, on the other hand, who can neither afford a car, nor would know how to drive in France, prefer public transport to go around. Yes, I do miss a lot of picturesque country roads and charming villages in the bargain, but have learnt to live with it.
I dig deeper and figure out that Coaraze can be reached by a bus from Nice – the only hindrance being there’s only one bus that leaves Nice and only another bus that passes through Coaraze for Nice in a day. So it is going to be a do or die situation – miss the bus and you are stranded in a remote village up in the mountains, with a handful of houses, an hour away from Nice. But it is doable. And do I will, I decide.
I have to reassure A that I will be back by 4 in the afternoon. I don’t tell him about the one-bus-a-day scenario – it will surely freak him out. I kiss him goodbye and wish him another productive day at the Cannes Congress, where he will get to see the heavy weights of the industry throwing their weights around.
I take the train from Cannes at 09.05 am and reach Nice in 30 minutes. I hop into the Office de Tourisme next to Gare de Nice but figure out that I know more about Coaraze than the lady at the counter. She, however, gives me direction to Nice Gare Routière, from where I need to catch my bus to Coaraze. I pick my breakfast from a boulangerie on the way and walk down to the bus terminal. It takes me around 20 minutes, but when in Europe, I don’t mind walking. It takes me a while to find Bus No. 303, since apart from me, there are only 3 more passengers queuing up for it. None of them look like tourists and they stare at me suspiciously as I look very much like one, with a knapsack and camera slung around my neck.
The bus starts exactly at 10.30 am. The first half of the journey is a bit boring as the bus makes its way through the city, picking up locals, all of whom seem to know everyone else on the bus. Once we leave Contes, however, the scenery takes a dramatic turn. The road starts winding uphill, through the Paillon river valley. Soon we are zigging and zagging through a treacherously narrow mountain road, each turn taking me further and further away from the civilization.
The bus drops me at the entrance of the village precisely in an hour’s time. Yes, I am the only one to get off. I take a moment to survey the scene around. I am some 650 m high up in the mountain, about to enter a tiny village that nestles peacefully among thick woods and deep ravines. It is classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France and I already get a sense why it is called so. I cross the road and start climbing the pebbled pathway that leads to the village.
There is not a soul around, it seems – the only sound I can hear are birds chirping and a stream running somewhere nearby. As I make my way through the terraced cobbled street, I stop every now and then to admire the stone houses that are painted in brilliant hues of blues and oranges. The Office de Tourisme is shut of course and with no help around, I decide to consult my notes and explore on my own.
The vaulted passageways keep me away from the sun. I pass through backyards of houses which are adorned with summer flowers. I catch a dog napping in the shades of the tunneled street and try to make friends with it. It seems completely disinterested in me and rolls back to sleep. I notice the interesting looking sundials at almost every house entrance and start clicking photographs. Coaraze is called the sun village or the village of sundials and is famous for having artists like Jean Cocteau, Georges Douking and Mona Christi leaving their work behind in this petite sun drenched village. There are also a few very curious lizard motifs around the village. I look for someone who will explain them to me, but I find none.
As I make my way through cobbled streets punctuated by flower-decked little squares, I meet a few locals. Ah, so this is not a haunted village or a movie set after all, people do live here. I come across an old lady sitting in her garden, crocheting. As I stop by to admire her little garden, she invites me in. I guess they don’t see much tourists here – that too an Indian one. She starts speaking in French and all I can manage is ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ – thanks to my Lonely Planet ‘useful terms and phrases’ section. Obviously she does not but that does not deter her from carrying on the conversation with me. I give polite-verging-on-stupid smiles to all her questions and thank her for offering me some water. I ask her if I can click her picture which she fervently declines. I ask her for the way to the village church and what I gather from her animated gestures is that there’s only one way that leads to the church and that is straight up ahead.
I get repeatedly lost in the labyrinth of the vaulted passageways but find my way back to the open squares. After a few attempts, I manage to find the village church. Coaraze is also known as the village of fêtes and apparently there is always something or the other happening here. I find almost the entire village gathered around the huge open space in front of the church. No wonder the streets were so deserted. Some celebration must have just got over and the villagers are kissing and shaking hands and bidding each other good bye. I feel like an intruder amidst all this festivity as I can feel the looks I am getting from all around me. Not in a bad way, because all of them seem to be smiling at me.
I try to find out in my broken French what is going on, but either my French is too bad or they don’t want to share their little secret – I walk away from the scene without knowing much about what the merriment was all about. From the bits and pieces of French words I pick up, I have a feeling they are celebrating the advent of summer - but then according to my research, these Coaraziens celebrate everything. Today, they might just be celebrating life.
I follow the steps from the corner of the church that lead up to a large square shaded by Acacias, Cypress, Pine and Mimosa trees. The view from here is of deep valleys and high forested hills to the north and south of the village. I am rendered speechless and I just sit down at the edge, appreciating the beauty around me and eating my picnic lunch. I gaze at the vistas in front of me and soak in my solitude. I wish I could share this with A – but I know he is having a nice time back in Cannes, probably consuming lobsters by kilos for lunch, right at this very moment. The thought brings me back to reality – time to head home. The only bus back to Nice is at 01.10 pm and it is already past noon now. I pick up my things and walk back to the village. I cannot hurry even if I want to – the serene ambiance compels one to lose the sense of time. The village of sun dials seems to be time warped in a century when life was hard but straightforward, when machines were a distant dream and people still believed in the art of simple living.
I find my way through the winding street, stop by to capture a few more memories in my camera and soon arrive at the bus stop. I still have 20 minutes to spare. I take a last look at this mountain hideaway as I wait for the bus to arrive. I am joined by a couple of villagers who are all going down to the city. An old man finds me very intriguing and strikes up a conversation with me. He can speak a few words of broken English and we carry on fine. He asks me about India and seems genuinely interested. He has never travelled anywhere – not even to Paris and wonders why a girl would come all the way across the oceans to visit his part of the world. I ask him if the legend about the devil cutting off his tail, in order to get away from the Coaraziens who had caught him, was true. He answers in affirmative. Apparently, the village was called Caude Rase in medieval times, which means ‘cut tail’. The lizard motif becomes clear now - the devil had surrendered his tail like a lizard, hence the lizard motifs to commemorate the legend.
A woman joins our conversation – though she does not speak English. After knowing that I speak English, she starts a long conversation with me in French. She looks a bit distraught as she is trying to make me understand something. I pick up a few words – Michael Jackson, mort, ce matin. I get a sense of what she is saying but I don’t want to believe it. How can it be possible – I watched him giving a press conference a couple of days back on BBC about his upcoming world tour! I keep on asking her for details – but our conversation obviously gets lost in translation.
The bus arrives dot on time and as before, it seems like every passenger is known to the other. They are all, of course, discussing only one thing now – Michael Jackson. I curse myself for not knowing French. I am also amazed by the fact that people who don’t understand a word of English are mourning his death. Music, surely, transcends all boundaries.
By the time I reach Nice, it is past 2. I almost start running towards the station as soon as I reach Nice but decide to take the tram instead. I guess some of that dawdling effect of Coaraze has rubbed off on me. And then, for € 2, which is the cost of the return bus ticket from Nice to Coaraze, I can avail the tram as well, both being part of the TAM network - so why shouldn't I? I swing by the Office de Tourisme to pick up some information about my day trip for the next day. I have to wait for a train to take me back to Cannes for another 20 minutes or so and by the time I reach Cannes, it is almost 04.00 pm. I rush back to the hotel and find A glued to the TV set. Yes, I am back to civilization all right.
As the images flash before my eyes on the TV screen, the contrast hits me. The better part of the day was spent celebrating life and here I am, ending the day with death and disbelief.
I wonder how it would be if we could all live in places like Coaraze – unaffected and untouched by this very distressing time that we survive today. Life has its own rhythm back in Coaraze – unhurried, deliberate - it has its own definition. The Coaraziens still smile at strangers, take the time out to talk to their neighbours or to celebrate nature. I am sure they will once more banish the devil if he ever sets his foot in their terrain. They are happy in their little village, some working in bigger cities like Nice or Contes, but coming back every night to their humble homes – far away from the civilization. They may not have travelled beyond Nice but their little world is fulfilling and has adventures of its own. They don’t just exist like we the city people do – they live life. Yes, MJ would agree with them – ‘Make a little space, to make a better place’.