Guide To Nice
Nice is a wonderful town, as sophisticated as any in France with a lively Southern quality that makes it unique. Once known as the Winter capital of the world, it ranks as one of the most important Côte d’Azur beach resorts but it would be wasted on a simple seaside holiday. It’s a nice town with a beach attached and pleases most when the sea and sun simply enhance some of the best art and culture, food and wine the South of France has to offer – and it is concentrated enough to appreciate its flavour in a weekend. It doesn’t feel like a tourist town and yet its development was due largely to foreign visitors, especially the British who spotted its potential for raising Northern spirits two centuries ago. Thus it combines a Provencal heart with a welcoming joie de vivre, a wealth of museums with enough gardens, fountains and palm trees to raise life al fresco to an art form.
Where to Stay
In walking distance of the sea (views are at a premium) within a few blocks of the Promenade des Anglais or the old town.
Where to Sleep
Accommodation ranges from opulent hotels to small apartments and holiday villas, but there are several gems worth sifting out especially for a short stay. Of the grand hotels that line the Promenade des Anglais, grandest of all is the Negresco (04 93 16 64 00) with its famous Baccarat chandelier and 18th century flunkeys, worth a visit for a cocktail at least. Beau Rivage is another classic in a perfect location with its own private beach on the edge of the old town, its view of the sea and palm trees immortalised by one-time resident Matisse.
Other exotic choices include the Château des Ollières (04 92 15 77 99) the sumptuously restored pink and white Belle Epoque palace of a Russian prince in a garden of rare palms, and the Palais Maeterlink on Cap de Nice, an extravaganza of terraces down to the sea with colonnaded swimming pool and tiny private beach.
For seaviews that won’t break the bank there are two hotels on Quai Rauba-Capeu: La Perouse (04 93 62 34 63) has a flowery terrace, swimming pool and garden restaurant. The Primotel (04 93 62 33 00) next door is cheaper but still has sea view balconies. A more recherché choice about three blocks from the Med, is the Hotel Windsor with an overgrown garden amd pool filmed by Truffaut, a Turkish hammam and rooms exuberantly decorated; modern art to Greek frescoes and elegant white minimalism. Cheap and funky (but you’d need a car) is Le Panoramic, (04 93 89 12 46) a two star to the east of the city, with terraced dining room and balconies perched above a stupendous city view.
What to See
Nice is an old city and its history divides it easily:- Cimiez overlooking the city to the north, favoured by the Romans and Queen Victoria; the 19th century city centre behind the Promenade des Anglais and the old town and port. The old town -Vieux Nice- once considered dangerously seedy is now fashionable. The maze of tall, narrow streets, all cracked ochre walls and faded turquoise shutters has sprouted designer bistros, night clubs and galleries. It hasn’t lost its raffish atmosphere though, there’s still an authentic aroma of dried cod and garlic, washing hanging from the iron balconies, and plenty of authentic Nicoise specialities to be had, from socca (chick pea flour) pancakes and pissaladière (onion pizza) to Alziari’s superior local olive oil.
Best of all is the Cours Saleya, the daily outdoor market (except for Mondays when there is a great flea market). Best known for its flowers it’s a feast for all the senses with the finest produce displayed with natural artistry. Check it out before lunch and you’ll know what’s in season. Suddenly the stalls are gone, the cafes have laid their tables in the sun and menus are being studied assiduously. Explore the old town for its tiny squares and lovely small chapels, the huge dim cathedral with a dome of glinting glazed tiles, and some fine old palaces notable for their stone carved doorways. Most treasured is the 17th century Palais Lascaris with its vaulted stairway, frescoed ceilings and rococo silver inlaid doors. On the top floor is a small exhibition of more humble local life, crafts, embroidery and traditional pottery. On the Quai Etats Unis is the Dufy museum, and a lift to the château hill, though there is no château any more, only cathedral ruins and a vast baroque cemetery. But there is a refreshing waterfall, a shady cafe and a wonderful view of Nice and the sea. Round the château hill is the port, accommodating substantial yachts and fine fish restaurants but little else.
The Promenade des Anglais follows the shore all the way to the airport, with grand hotels on one side, beach clubs on the other and a constant passegiata of honking traffic and poodles crossing in between. Dividing Nice is the brave new world of Médecin with its grand modern architectural follies built over the Paillon river. Apart from the peeling marble veneer of the facade, witness to the corruption that caused the erstwhile mayor’s downfall, MAMAC (the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) is rather good. The spectacular glass and marble structure includes a great collection of modern French art from Arman’s sliced violins and Klein’s blue painted nude models.
Beyond the Paillon is 19th century Nice, the elegant arcades of Place Masséna, Italianate apartment buildings and smart shops. There are several museums, as interesting for their architecture as for their contents; the Musée d’Art Naif for example, naive art in a pink chateau built by perfume magnate Coty, the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Musée Massena with its shady public garden and eclectic collection of faience, views of old Nice and primitive religious art. The Russian Cathedral of St Nicolas, the most ostentatious religious building in Nice, its six onion domes glittering with glazed tiles, also has a fine collection of frescoes and icons.
Cimiez is a wealthy suburb, a cradle of hills sheltering whimsical villas and, increasingly, retirement homes. Here is the Chagall museum, with stained glass windows and mosaics designed by the artist, and a garden of olives and lavender.Most visited is the recently restored Musée Matisse, a magnificent 17th century Genoese villa which cunningly conceals a new gallery wing beneath. It houses Matisse’s personal collection, with works from every period, as well as the vases, shell furniture and Moroccan wall hangings, even the giant cheese plant, which he so often included in his paintings. Cimiez also has an archaeological museum with excavated Roman baths, a marble summer pool, and an amphitheatre and olive grove which is a sublime setting for jazz on a summer night. Matisse and Dufy are buried in the nearby Franciscan cemetery, with its peaceful cloister full of orange trees, Bréa altarpieces in the church and a touching small museum of Franciscan life.
Nice has clean and safe Blue Flag beaches. Half of them are public if uncomfortably pebbly, and the spectacle is a day and night performance. Best though are the beach clubs where you can spend an entire day sea-gazing, only rising from your parasol shaded matelas for an ice bucket of Provencal rosé and moules marinière in the beach restaurant..
Where to Eat
The food is a creative mix of French and Italian, with many authentically Nicoise dishes. Restaurants can be superb and expensive (though the current exchange rate makes them much more accessible) but there are many cheaper places and a great tradition of street food. Local delicacies include pissaladière, a pizza with onions, anchovies and black olives; pistou, vegetable soup with basil; ratatouille; stuffed courgette flowers, and the ubiquitous pan-bagnat, a large roll stuffed with salad Niçoise, served at all the beach cafes. Cours Saleya is good for lunch al fresco, especially Le Safari ( 04 93 80 14 44) with its Mediterranean blue shutters; try deep rich calamari daube or bagna cauda, a hot anchovy dip with raw vegetables. (plats du jour 65F) For a serious fish restaurant head for the port and L’Ane Rouge (93 89 49 63) where they add value to lobster in highly imaginative ways, (try the stuffed cabbage) and serve a superb bourride (a creamy soup of dried cod.) ( menu from 148F) For Nicoise specialities with a sophisticated twist try Les Epicurien (04 93 80 85 00) much favoured for lunch by chic locals. (carte 150F) Acchiardo (93 85 51 16) is an authentic reasonably priced Nicoise bistro in the old town, good for soupe de poisson and pistou. Currently fashionable is Le Comptoir, (93 92 08 80) a 30s style bar and restaurant excellent for late night dining. (Menu from 180F) Never out of fashion is La Merenda, a tiny bistro with the most celebrated Nicoise specialities in town, ( stuffed sardines and stockfish particularly recommended) but opening hours are limited, it’s cash only and there’s no phone so go in person to book. (carte 200F) Caffe des Loges (04 93 85 77 46) just down from the Opera, is an inexpensive, friendly art deco brasserie with oysters displayed outside and delicious bruschetta. check receipt and card) Cafe de Turin on place Garibaldi is a classic place for leisurely coffee and people watching.
Nightlife varies from the old fashioned piano bar of the grand hotels to the funky clubs of the old town (not to mention the indescribably tacky Ruhl casino.) The Hotel Meridien has a good piano bar, Chez Wayne is favoured for rock ‘n’ roll and the inevitable karaoke, Le Studio is a small dance club atttached to Le Comptoir, and Le Zoom on Cours Saleya has live soul and jazz. There are good theatres and a cinematheque with original language films, but best of all sample the opera with the Nicois’ themselves in an opera house plush with velvet and gilt. Check Nice-Matin for current events.
British Midland (0345 554554) and British Airways (0345 222111) fly direct to Nice. Go via Paris with Air Inter Europe (0181 742 6600). The budget option is Easyjet to Luton with prices from £49 single fare. The 20 minute taxi ride from the airport is a rip-off £18- take the bus instead. Like the Blue train of the 1920s rail is an excellent option, changing from Eurostar to TGV in Paris, or by Motorail from Calais.
Package holiday operators include Cresta (0161 927 7000) British Airways Holidays (01293 723100) Travelscene (0181 427 8800) Inghams (0181 780 7700) French Life (0113 2390077) French Expression (0171 431 1312) and VSB (0124 2240340)
Traffic is monstrous but local transport is excellent, (get a bus map from Sunbus on Av. Félix-Faure) so the main threat is getting run down on the Promenade des Anglais. Most of Nice can be seen by walking so hire a car only if you want to get out of town, and avoid over-priced taxis.
Trains are good for travelling all along the coast or take the La Ligne des Pignes (pine cone line) for a spectacular mountain train ride through the Nicois hinterland. Nice is an excellent base for most of the Côte d’Azur and its art museums and archaeological sites as well as beaches. St Paul, Vence, and the dizzily perched villages of Peille and Peillon all make fine day trips. Ferries and superboats can be taken to various resorts along the coast and to Corsica. In winter ski resorts of the Haute Alpes are only half an hour away.
When to Go
Nice must be the the nearest stop for sunshine in a British winter. By February the mimosa is in fragrant golden blossom and Carnival is in the air, the famous flower festival which gets more extravagant every year. July is jazz festival time. (11th-20th July 1997) By August it is hot, hot, hot and prices rise with the temperature, very funky if you like a constant beach party. Even then Nice can be a good base for the rest of the coast and hinterland. The sun stretches languidly on into late autumn. From June-September 1997 Nice and other regional museums have exhibitions on the Côte d’Azur and Modernism.
Need to Know
There is a high crime rate- not least among town officials, but the infamous Médecin is now in jail, and you just have to watch your back and your purse as you do in any major city. Watch out particularly for counterfeit ten franc pieces- they have a rougher surface.
Main tourist office is by the station (04 93 87 07 07) and there are several annexes including one on the Promenade des Anglais.