Nice & the Mythical Blue Coast
Text & photos by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
We’ve fought off jet lag, gotten up early and made it to Cours Saleya, the heart of Nice’s Vieille Ville (Old Town) and the much-celebrated local market. We have a table facing the ancient square and are sipping an early morning café au lait as the streets come to life.
Flower vendors create an explosion of colors with their extravagant blooms: roses in every shade imaginable, enormous hydrangeas, lilies, daisies, zinnias, violets…you name it, it’s here.
Luscious vegetables are on display a few rows down. We’re amazed by the size and quality of the produce. Cases of beautiful cheeses are shown off like fine jewelry, and appropriately so! We grab a few choice rounds of Reblochon and Morbier, as well as figs and a fresh baguette. We munch on our treats as we walk around, inhaling the air — a heady concoction of aromas from soaps, oils, flowers and produce.
As we stroll along, I imagine Greek residents from the 4th century B.C. enjoying a similar morning. Incredible to imagine that this same market and adjacent port have existed for over 2,400 years! In fact, the name “Nice” is derived from the early Greeks who called the city Nikaia, after Nike, the goddess of victory. And lazour, meaning sky-blue, ultimately became Côte d’Azur.
Later, Celts, Romans and Saracens all had a turn governing the region. However, with each invasion, the markets and port not only survived but continued to grow and thrive. In 1388, the powerful city seceded from the county of Provence entirely and allied itself with Piedmont-Savoy. The Comté de Nice existed for over 500 years and Nice retains a strong Italian feel to this day. Its architecture, cuisine and even the dialect reflect this influence. The Niçois speak French with a lilting Italian accent and many have Italian surnames.
PROMENADE DES ANGLAIS
From the market, we cross over to the Promenade des Anglais. One of Nice’s top attractions, the spectacular walkway stretches over 4.5 miles (7 km) along the appropriately named Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels). With deep blue Mediterranean water and brilliant sunlight, the bay is mesmerizing any time of the day or night. In the early morning, we still have the views to ourselves. Soon, however, the Promenade begins to fill with other pedestrians, cyclists and skateboarders. And while the ocean vistas are magnificent, the beach itself is rocky and jagged. We’re amazed at the number of sunbathers stretched out on the stones and spiny rocks, impervious to the sharp edges and uneven ground.
The Promenade was built by yet another group of “invaders” — English aristocrats eager to escape northern European winters. By 1820, the English community was large enough to finance their very own boulevard, hence the name Promenade des Anglais or English Promenade.
In 2011, a famous lady, from yet another nation, took up residence on the Promenade. A replica of the Statue of Liberty was installed to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The statue is located at the Quai des Etats Unis (USA Quay). The Quay, located directly opposite the Opera House, was renamed in 1917 to mark America’s entry into the war.
More recently, the Promenade was the tragic site of the 2016 Bastille Day attack. Over 200 people were injured and 86 died when a driver ran down spectators during Bastille Day festivities. Large concrete barriers now line the promenade to prevent motorists from driving onto the walkway — a heartbreaking measure necessary to protect locals and tourists these days. Fortunately, Nice rebounded quickly after the attack and the Promenade is filled with beachgoers, enjoying the sun and views.
As proof of Nice’s resilience, take a peak inside the Hotel Negresco. This striking Belle Époque extravagance recently celebrated its 100th birthday. The large rotunda is capped with etched and stained glass. Hanging from the dome is a massive chandelier consisting of 16,800 separate pieces of Baccarat crystal. The piece was originally commissioned by Czar Nicholas II, but was never delivered because of the revolution.
Portraits, landscapes and sculptures abound. The hotel has a collection of over 6,000 pieces of art spanning five centuries. Of course, the Negresco has hosted a long list of celebrities, from dancer Isadora Duncan, Winston Churchill, Picasso, Frank Sinatra to the Beatles. If you have a drink at the bar, be sure to check for lost jewels. Richard Burton once forgot Liz Taylor’s million dollar emeralds. Anything can happen at the Negresco.
From the Negresco, we turn back toward the Vieille Ville and wander off the Promenade through the Jardin Albert I. Filled with exotic flowers and palm trees, the garden is a perfect spot to sit for a few minutes and admire the landscape and nearby ocean.
A NICE SOUVENIR
With the Albert I Gardens as an olfactory reference, stop by Boutique Molinard, 20, rue Saint-François de Paule. In addition to browsing the extraordinary selection of perfumes, soaps, lotions and cosmetics, you can “smell, dream and design your own fragrance.”
Molinard fragrance experts will introduce you to the “architecture of scent.” Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can blend and create a scent entirely your own. The cost is €69 and you may reorder your unique perfume for an unlimited time — the perfect souvenir.
A HIGHER VIEW
Get a fantastic overview of Nice via the Tourist Train that runs every day and departs every 30 minutes. We pick up the train just outside the Jardin Albert 1. The small cars resemble a kiddie ride, but the 45 minute tour is very informative and well worth the €10 ticket price.
En route, we see Massena Square and travel through the narrow, cobblestone streets of the Vieille Ville. The train stops at Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill), which sits at 92 meters and is the highest point in Nice. Used as a strategic lookout and fortress from the 11th through the 18th centuries, the site commands sweeping views of the coastline and surrounding city. Little remains of the medieval fortress, but the magnificent panorama is so stunningly beautiful we can‘t stop taking photographs.
Back on the train, we drive along the Front de Mer (Seafront Esplanade), lined with yachts and brightly-painted buildings. Continuing on just north of the Old Town, we drive through Place Masséna — where it seems we’ve taken a detour to Florence. Imposing 17th century arcaded buildings literally glow in brilliant red and ochre colors. Large black and cream-colored tiles line the promenade, more evidence of Italian influence.
A fountain in one corner of the square depicts events in Greek mythology, with a handsome 22-foot (7-meter) statue of Apollo at the center. The square, is bustling with locals and tourists. Cafés are packed. During holidays, Place Masséna is even livelier. In December, an annual Marché de Noël is held and the square is filled with shoppers, Christmas trees and a Ferris Wheel. In spring, the Carnaval de Nice is an international event that compares with Venice.
THE ORIGINAL SALADE NIÇOISE
It’s lunch time and we’re thinking the obvious choice would be a great Salade Niçoise. Off the Vieille Ville tourist path is L’Instant at 9 rue Clément Roassal. The tiny café serves a classic version (more or less) of a Niçoise.
The original version of the salad was common among the French working class and consisted of a few items easily available in the Southern region: tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, olives and anchovies. Later, tuna, red peppers and artichoke hearts were common additions.
These days, numerous versions of the Niçoise exist around the world. Many incorporate cooked potatoes, green beans and seared, fresh tuna. Traditionalists maintain that cooked vegetables should not be included. I won’t jump into the traditional versus non-traditional versions, but the Niçoise we enjoyed at L’Instant was fantastic.
Also on the menu are Croque Monsieur, with luscious Gruyère & crème. Entrecôte poêle, savory grilled beef with vegetables; Pasta and fresh fish. All plates are generous and priced between 10 to 15 €.
Southern France was the home and inspiration to many well-known artists. But Nice in particular is associated with Matisse, who spent over 37 years in or near the city. “When I realized that every morning I would see this light again,” he wrote, “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”
In 1917, Matisse set up his first studio at 105 Quai des Etas-Unis, very near the Promenade des Anglais. There, he painted views from his windows endlessly experimenting with the brilliant colors that became his legacy.
Later he moved up to Cimiez Hill, taking an apartment in the Hôtel Régina. Before he became less ambulatory, Matisse loved to stroll the nearby Roman ruins and later requested to be buried in an olive grove just outside the Cimiez Cemetery.
During his time in Nice, Matisse maintained close friendships with Renoir, who lived in Cagnes and Picasso who kept a studio and home in Antibes. (See the TCO article on Picasso in Antibes.)
The city of Nice purchased a large Pompeian red, 17th century villa, just across from the Hôtel Régina, to house a number of paintings and personal objects donated by Matisse. Now officially the Musée Matisse, the massive collection includes pieces donated by family members and private donors. The paintings, engravings, book illustrations, sculpture and drawings may not include the most celebrated works from Matisse’s oeuvre, but in totality, the collection represents the evolution of the artist’s life and philosophy.
Particularly impressive are the cut-paper collage. After surgery in 1941, at age 72, Matisse was unable to stand, and consequently, unable to paint and sculpt. Looking for a new way to express his artistic talent, he began creating cut-paper collage. The results were incredibly imaginative and Matisse adopted the medium throughout the final decade of his life, saying: “An artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, prisoner of success…”
The artist’s final challenge and ultimate success is the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (Chapel of the Rosary). A 30-minute drive from Nice, the chapel is well worth a visit. At age 73, Matisse spent four years working on the tiny chapel, which is a mere 15 meters long by 6 meters wide — but Matisse was responsible for every square bit of it. He not only served as architect, something he’d never attempted, he was also the designer for the interiors, stained glass windows, murals and furnishings. He even created vestments for the priests. With the chapel, Matisse felt he’d finally achieved his long searched for dream: “an art of balance, of purity and serenity…my masterpiece.”
Picasso once observed of Matisse and Chagall: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” Fortunately, the work of both artists lives on in Nice, so it’s easy to verify Picasso’s theories.
Like so many artists, Chagall too was smitten by the Côte d’Azur. The artist moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, located just outside Nice, after World War II. However, unlike his other contemporaries, the scenery didn’t seem to have an obvious impact on his work. In Nice, Chagall continued to draw inspiration from his village of Vitebsk in Belarus and its folkloric themes. But, perhaps the brilliant Mediterranean colors of Southern France somehow seeped into his work. Undoubtedly, Picasso was onto something.
The Musée Marc Chagall houses 17 paintings illustrating the Biblical Old Testament. Each work is joyfully executed and painted in pure, dazzling colors. The beautifully designed facility also hosts chamber music and a classical concert series. Check the website for additional information.
THE FRENCH ART OF APÉRETIF
It’s been a full day…. time to enjoy an honored French tradition, the evening apéritif. And, since you’re on the Côte d’Azur, why not take advantage of the views and enjoy your cocktail and sunset from a rooftop bar?
In the heart of Nice, the Hôtel Aston la Scala is a perfect option. The hotel’s rooftop terrace offers a wide-ranging wine and cocktail menu. A Spritz with Prosecco and Aperol or Campari are quite popular in Nice, with a nod to the region’s Italian heritage, but the superb staff will have any number of suggestions.
B4 Plaza Nice, managed by Boscolo Hotels, serves up a glamorous seaside experience. The stunning terrace provides breathtaking panoramic views along with delicious tapas platters and creative cocktails. You may want to stay through dinner.
Then again, perhaps you’d like someplace a little more intimate to kick off your evening. Le Grand Balcon, in the Vieille Ville, is all velvet drapes, dim lights and discreet waiters. Interestingly, the restaurant is located on Rue Saint-François de Paule, just down a block from Boutique Molinard and a perfect spot to introduce your new signature scent. As an added bonus, live music is frequently on tap, either a cocktail piano or jazz ensemble. Definitely the start to a perfect evening!
THE BIRD BAR
Once you’ve enjoyed l’apéritif, make your way to Bar des Oiseaux (Bird Bar) on 5 rue Saint Vincent. You’ll find it tucked within the wonderfully narrow winding streets of the Vieille Ville. If the small cozy rooms and inventive decor don’t instantly charm you, the fantastic menu will.
Fine traditional French dishes are served with house-made pastas and distinctively re-invented sauces. Fresh seafood, as you’d expect, is always featured as well. Prices are very reasonable, so order away!
Start with Raviolis & Artichokes in Truffle Oil or the Pea Soup with crusty croutons — velvety smooth and rich. For a main course, try the Pluma de Lomo (neck of a pig) or Magret de Canard with Gnocchi. Seafood Lovers, have Scampi with Risotto — exquisite! Sole with Mango Sauce, a side of Arugula and fresh Parmesan is perfect as well.
Desserts are luscious and not-to-be-missed: Citron Meringuée (Michel’s favorite), Mousse Légère (light) Chocolat (Marla’s favorite) or, go for the Caramel Tiramisu. Do be sure to call for reservations. The staff is wonderful to try to accommodate drop-ins, but why take a chance: +33 4 93 80 27 33
THE WORLD’S BEST STROLL
We decide to end the day the way we began, out on the Promenade. The temperatures are balmy. The night breeze is fresh and sweet-smelling. Lights glitter for miles down the long, long coast.
They say on a clear evening you can see from Monaco to Cannes and Saint-Tropez. All we know is that we’ve spent the past few days walking this stretch of sand and sea…and it just gets better and better…