Chez Palmyre, a bistro in Nice, France

FOR A LONG TIME, I CONSIDERED A TRIP to the south of France an impossible dream. Even though it ranked at the top of my bucket list of places to see before I die, I doubted that I could afford on my modest budget what seemed like an such an extravagance.

A spiritual counselor heard about my dream and challenged me with the question, “What are you willing to give up?” So, after a period of belt-tightening and saying no to small luxuries, I made the trip.

I took advantage of lower airfares and room rates in the off-season, and weathered the January cold in a comfortably warm woollen coat. I flew from San Francisco to the Mediterranean port city of Nice. My hotel room facing the turquoise sea cost a fraction what it would in summer. I traveled around the city and the surrounding region on city and regional buses; the spectacular ride along the winding coast from Nice to Menton cost a single euro, while the fare for the bus ride to see the Matisse Chapel in Venice was a mere four euros.

One evening in Nice, after days of dining on fresh fruit and artisan cheeses purchased at markets and shops through the city, I embarked on a quest to have a traditional French dining experience. The bistro of my dreams had to be situated off the main square away from the masses, preferably along one of the narrow passageways that date back to the Middle Ages. I wanted a small, quaint place to dine with authentic regional cuisine: gnocchi, perhaps, the potato pasta that was invented in Nice; socca, the city’s signature crepes made from garbanzo meal; or the dish named for Nice, salad Nicoise — mixed greens with tuna, tomatoes, slices of hard-boiled egg and olives.

Chez Palmyre, one of several cafés in Rick Steves’ guide to the French Riviera — conveniently listed under the heading “Cheap Eats” — appeared to fit my goal of high quality at a low price. I pulled out the page with the restaurant address, grabbed my map and stepped out of the hotel into the brisk winter air. I walked along the Bay of Angels and turned away from the sea to enter Old Nice.

I followed Rue Droite, a long, narrow passageway that once served as the fastest route from the sea to the wall when Nice was a medieval fortress. As night fell, fewer and fewer others walked the avenue. Doubt nipped at my comfort level. Was I putting my safety at risk? Where is the restaurant?

No need to worry. Just as I was about to turn back, I noticed the faded sign with chipped red letters spelling Chez Palmyre. Peering through the single steamy window, I saw an eatery just wide enough for three tables on the left side and four on the right. Couples and families chatted away, all looking very French to my American eyes. Perfect.

Stepping inside, I surveyed the menu, handwritten in white Hearer, on the mirror above the tables. It swirled with options for each of the three courses of a fixed-price dinner.

Clueless about the language — in all my careful planning, I simply ignored the central fact that I speak fewer than 10 words of French — I pointed to one of the choices for the first course. The waiter served a plate of pulled duck, boiled potatoes and fresh herbs.

For the main course, I asked for the waiter’s recommendation. Fortunately, he understood my English.

“Alouettes,” he said, pointing to the phrase on the menu: “Alouettes Sans Tetes.”

“Fine! Alouettes,” I agreed, satisfied that a decision had been made, but once again having no idea what I would get.

I carefully copied the term “Alouettes Sans Tetes” into my journal. My French-English dictionary gave me the word-by-word translation: “Birds with their heads cut off.” Poultry?

While I waited for my order, I watched as the waiter delivered individual orange-enameled crock pots to other diners. When my pot arrived I discovered not headless birds but what looked like two small filets mignon swimming in a rich brown sauce.

Looking closer I found tender beef strips wrapped around a filling of spiced ground pork and beef.

After the beef rolls, it was time for tiramisu and coffee. The dessert arrived in a tiny chilled glass cylinder that revealed the layers of cream, mocha powder and cake. I savored each taste of delicate chocolate and sweet milk.

I asked for the bill, as one must in a country where diners and waiters are never in a hurry. The meal cost an astonishingly low 13.5 euros, about $20 at that time.

The dining experience that night was both authentic and inexpensive. Reluctant as I was to leave such a pleasant place, all good things must end. Under the star-peppered night sky, I strolled back to my hotel, satisfied that dreams can come true.

This story was published by the Benicia Herald.

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