Part of Joel’s self-prescribed training for the Nice-Cannes marathon in November is a twice- or even thrice-weekly run to Villefranche, one of the prettiest places in the world. Joel figures it’s about 10km by his route, from our house through Nice and along the coastal road. When the weather is perfect, you can see from that road all across the boat-filled bay and through a dip by Cap Ferrat on to Italy. There’s never been a day, when that view appears in front of me, that I don’t breathe in extra deep.
His training doesn’t yet include running back home again. With temperatures in the 30sC (high 80s/mid-90sF), he can’t get going until after 7pm, at least. When he leaves the house, I know I have about an hour to finish what I’m doing, throw the swimsuits in the bag, pack the picnic, lock up, and drive to the far end of the beach to meet him. I love this drive. The road in the village of Villefranche goes right along the water, which is lined with restaurants. The best tables are on the waterside of the road, but the restaurants are on the other. You can only go about 10mph, because of the many obstacles, including waiters, diners’ feet, dogs, children in swimsuits, and so on. This is a two-way street, too (most developed nations wouldn’t allow this…) Often the cars on the other side of the road are being driven by smug voituriers, the car-valets from La Mère Germaine, one of the more expensive restaurants. Our Peugeot is artfully pre-scratched, so I’m more concerned about not hitting the dogs and kids than I am about the centimetre between it and a German-registered Ferrari or Russian Rolls-Royce coming in the other direction. Joel says he especially likes this stretch of his run because he can get a close-up of everyone’s plates.
There’s a ticket machine at the entrance to the beach parking, and our English-born Peugeot is right-hand-drive. Once I accidentally timed my drive so well that I arrived at the ticket machine just as Joel was running past. I called out to him to grab me a ticket, so I didn’t have to get out of the car and go round the other side. People might have thought, hmmm, she’s got balls, importuning a sweaty passing stranger…
My beloved friend Katia was visiting last week with her family, and Joel somehow talked her husband Oliver into accompanying him on his run. He made it! Respect! Katia and the kids and I arrived before them fully laden with food and drink. We arranged our basic beach towels and a picnic blanket, but sunset picnickers at Villefranche must be the world’s best equipped, complete with folding tables and chairs and giant chillers. There are always big family groups, and the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial.
We start with a swim. I usually do about 20 minutes’ crawl. Saying that I enjoy it is huge understatement. Swimming out to a sailboat, then turning right and swimming in a straight line, then turning around and aiming at some umbrella pines in a seafront villa’s garden is, well, different from doing lengths at the Virgin Active 25m pool in Acton.
I recently bought a new pair of goggles, which have made things even better. They stay watertight and thus completely clear, so I have a good, long view of what’s going on both under and above the water. There are plenty of small, glinting fish down there, lots of changing rock formations, swaying seagrass. I’m never totally relaxed, sadly, having seen Jaws at an impressionable age. There is virtually nothing in this part of the Mediterranean that could do me real harm (even those damn jellyfish), except my imagination. One morning last week I tried to swim straight out to sea off the Castel beach at Nice (not suicidally, of course, just imagining a triathlon). I got about 250m out when the underwater shelf must have dropped, because suddenly the water beneath became even more intensely, solidly blue, and much cooler. It was very beautiful, but as I was alone out there, I immediately thought of mermaids reaching for me from below, and skeletons from Atlantis floating up to find me. I turned tail and swam back to shore as fast as I could. If any lifeguards were watching from their box, they were probably keeping an eye on me, thinking I’d been scared by something far more concrete than my own stupidity.
Oliver deserved his post-run swim, and his picnic dinner afterwards. We stayed on the beach, surrounded by candles, until nearly midnight – and then, because it was so perfect, we did the same thing again the following evening (minus the run).