For the French, Nice is the most popular city in the country after Paris. They flood the city during August for vacation, and many choose Nice as the city they would most like to retire to. It’s not hard to see why – with its beautiful Belle Epoque buildings, its balmy, sub-tropical climate, and the delightfully independent Nicoise spirit, Nice has long been the liveliest and most individual city along the Riviera, and as testimony to that fact, over a million visitors visit this delightful city each year.
A very individual city
Often called the Queen of the Cote d’Azur or the Paris of the South, Nice has always been something of an enfant terrible amongst the usually placid towns of the Riviera. For two centuries, Nice was under Italian rule (hence the name Riviera) and after reverting to French rule, it has continued to cling fiercely to its unique heritage and independent spirit, often delighting in tweaking Paris’ nose and merrily going its own way. One of the most obvious outlets of Nice’s jaunty spirit is its unique sense of style, which is most evident in buildings of the city itself.
Nice is a thoroughly modern sprawl of building, a frantic and crowded port town squeezed in between the hills and the coast of the Bay of Angels. Despite the development, what could have been a typical urban jungle is saved from concrete ugliness by the delightfully, extravagantly overdone froth of Belle Epoquearchitecture, which coats the buildings with arches and foils and curlicues and a thousand other details. The exaggerations of the Belle Epoque style does, in a way, perfectly suit the Nicoise spirit, and transform the city into a surprisingly charming landscape.
Once a visitor is in the city, the Nice style becomes evidence in the people themselves. Parisian style is spiced with a dash of outrageousness. A young belle might sport a pink fur coat in the middle of summer, or a grande dame might swan out with purple lipstick — and both will do so with unperturbed panache. Like Paris, the streets of Nice are a neverending catwalk, on which both Nicoise and visitors can parade in individual style. No tennis shoes and torn t-shirts in this city, thank you!
A Walk Along the Promenade
The best place to start a tour of Nice is the Promenade des Anglais. With the Bay of Angels on one side and Nice on the other, the Promenade is a lovely spot for a walk and the city’s best place for people watching. Along this stretch of walkway, there are faces from almost every country in the world, particularly in July and August when the world and his dog descends on the city. As the name implies, the Nicoise have the English to thank for the Promenade, as the cousins from across the channel were largely responsible for building the walkway in the eighteenth century. On a warm autumn day, a walk along the Promenade does have a certain ‘Brighton seaside outing’ to it, which probably would have cheered up the homesick Englishmen no end.
The beach at Promenade des Anglais also shares a resemblance to the beach at Brighton; its made largely of stones. Visitors from the United States and Asia, with their golden sand beaches, are routinely bewildered upon seeing this beach, but locals still thumb their noses at the disbelieving tourist, spread out their towels on the pebbles and proceed to get a glorious tan. If lying on rocks isn’t your idea of a good time, there are also deck chairs on wooden platforms for your leisure comfort — but you’ll have to pay for the privilege!
The Promenade is the site for many of Nice’s summer festivals, which generally draw a great crowd of revellers and spectators. For sheer mad excitement however, nothing to beat the Nice Carnival, a 700 year excuse for lively parades, strange costumes and furiously fought mock battles. The highlight of the whole mad event is the Bataille de Fleurs (flower battle), when a cavalcade of bands, fancy-dress, and huge, flower-decorated floats parade down the Promenade des Anglais.
Just along the Promenade is the extraordinary Hotel Negresco, a superior example of Nice’s extravagantly elegant style. You don’t have to be a guest to look around, though you might end up wishing you were! The French Riviera has some of the finest, most luxurious hotels in the world, and the Negresco is arguably the most stylish and most elegant hotel of them all, with its all original, truly splendid designs and breathtaking decorations. Apparently, even the washrooms are fantastically designed, making for a pleasant time therein. The restaurants in the hotel are also renowned for their romantic, if not inexpensive, atmosphere.
At the east end of the Promenade are the twisting lanes and shaded squares of Le Vieux or Nice’s Old Quarter. The area is particularly known for its many cafes, bars and restaurants. The Le Vieux is no tourist recreation, but a real town in itself, with a vibrant, thriving community. The quarter’s focal point is Cours Saleya, a long ‘square’ edged with restaurant tables and filled for much of the day with a lively flower market. In the mornings, the square is given over to a noisy fish market unloading the catch of the day; on Mondays, the square holds an antiques market, appropriately enough.
In the restaurants of Le Vieux, Nice’s history comes to the forefront. Nice’s Italian heritage is still strong and for the visitor, the most evident example is in the cuisine. In Nice as in all of France, food is never just about eating: it’s about history, about culture, and never more so than when you’re sampling such history-laden culinary delights as the Salad Nicoise and the Boullibaise! There is a wide range of restaurants crowded in Le Vieux, from the posh establishments to the informal outdoor cafes, so whatever the budget or desire, there’s a table and a dish waiting for you.
If Nice’s history is less than exciting, then a little deeper into the city, but not too far from the beach, is the Avenue Jean Medecin, the city’s premier shopping boulevard. Most visitors make their first stop the Galleries Lafayette, the biggest department store in town, but there are plenty of boutiques and shopping malls scattered along the Avenue. Most shops will have a 10% discount for tourists, though you have to specifically ask for this. Also remember that, if you spend more than 2,000 francs, you are entitled to shop and get your VAT (value added tax) refunded when you leave!
There are also plenty of other attractions scattered just outside Nice. For quick day trips, the city is within easy travelling distance of Cannes’ glamorous delights and the Monaco’s moneyed charmed. Closer at hand are the many of the little villages surrounding the city, popular for their traditional handicrafts, foods, and spectacular views.
One of the more popular villages near Nice is Saint-Paul de Vence, a peaceful little place a short drive away from the city. In times past, St Paul was an independent republic, with heavily armed and fortified wall to keep out barbarians and other attackers. Fortunately, today the only invaders to this charming city wield cameras, not swords, and Saint-Paul has chosen to throw open its city gates and subdue the ravening hordes in an equally effective, but much more enjoyable fashion: by parting them painlessly from their money. The village is famed for its resident artists and art galleries, in particular the among the best on the Cote d’Azur. Particularly renowned is the Fondation Maeght which has a large collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and other graphic works from the twentieth century. The village’s lovely streetscenes and cosy restaurants of the town are also added attractions.