For my 65th birthday we flew to Nice for a long weekend. Quite possibly, it’s my favourite city, relaxed and unpretentious, its face turned south to the Mediterranean and the broad sweep of the gorgeous Bay of Angels; a city with a beach and a promenade enlivened every hour of the day by a parade of strollers, rollerbladers, joggers, cyclists and bathers.
Scenes along the Promenade
We had the great good fortune to be the guests of Maryse and Camille who provide bed and breakfast accommodation in their apartment on the third floor of a Belle-Epoque villa right on the Promenade. Each morning we had breakfast on their terrace, the bay glistening in the early sun, as we ate croissants and savoured Maryse’s home-made jams. Each afternoon I’d don swimming trunks, cross the boulevard and go for a dip in the Mediterranean. When we left, Liverpool had been grey, chilly, autumnal; here, it was summer still, with cloudless skies and the temperature never less than 25C.
Breakfast on the terrace
Next door was the Hotel Beau Rivage where, on Christmas Day 1917, Henri Matisse, then 48 years old, took a room and began his long association with Nice, drawn here – like countless other artists – by the beauty and light of the Cote d’Azur:
When I realised that Would see this light every morning, I couldn’t believe my luck. … The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom; it is like nothing but itself, its colour is so rich and deep you would think it opaque, and yet it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.
Because this coast has drawn so many artists – such as Renoir and Matisse, Chagall and Picasso – Nice, for me, is an intoxicating combination of sea and sun, elegant city streets and architecture, good food and wine – and terrific art galleries. We arrived just as the city was coming to the end of a A Summer for Matisse, a summer-long tribute to Matisse with exhibitions in all the city’s main museums, so each day of our stay was enriched by superb exhibitions of his work. Then there were visits to the Chagall Museum and, along the coast at Antibes, to the Picasso Museum in the Chateau Grimaldi.
The roofs and glazed-tiled domes of Vieille Ville
I love Nice, too, for its combination of elegant big-city boulevards and the deep, shady canyons of the Old Town’s narrow streets, with their restaurants, cafés, boutiques and Baroque churches. In the evenings we’d wander these alleys looking for a place to eat or relishing one of the one hundred flavours of ice cream from Fenocchio’s on Place Rosetti.
Fenocchio’s ice cream stand in Place Rossetti
On our first morning we wandered through the market in Cours Saleya, marvelling at the quality of life represented by the stalls of local fruit and vegetables and freshly-caught fish. This is truly the good life.
The market in Cours Saleya
Then we climbed the steps from the Old Town up to Le Chateau, the pine-shaded promontory that separates Nice from its port. There’s no château there now: the hill is named after a 12th-century château that was razed by Louis XIV in 1706 and never rebuilt. Today, there is a shady park where we found a group practising T’ai Chi and, later, sat under the trees drinking lemon granita from the buvette.
Lemon granitas under the pines
From this hilltop park the views of the Baie des Anges and the spires and glazed-tiled domes of Vieux Nice are breathtaking.
The view from up on the Chateau
Another aspect of Nice is revealed in the Belle-Epoque villas and old buildings with brightly painted wooden shutters and façades painted in Sardinian red, dark ochre, or old rose. Best of all, to my mind, is the Place Massena: landscaped and pedestrianised with the arrival of the tram, it now has the all the grandeur of a Mediterranean square, with the added bonus of Jaume Plensa’s sculptures collectively entitled Seven Continents: Conversation in Nice, seven figures arranged on metal poles over 12 feet high that light up at night in random colours, symbolizing reciprocal links of trade, learning and culture between the seven continents.
Jaume Plensa’s Seven Continents: Conversation in Nice in Place Massena
When we were last here, five years ago, work was still ongoing on the square; this time, we found a grand project – to create a linear park that will snake through the city following the course of the now-culverted Paillon River – nearing completion. Our accommodation was located on the Promenade at the point where the Paillon emerges from its culvert and enters the sea. What was once the delta of the river is now the Albert 1st Park, which forms the southern end of the new linear park.
Bernar Venet’s steel sculpture now dominates the Promenade des Anglais
A few hundred yards in the other direction along the Promenade des Anglais we found something else new since our last visit: a huge, rusting steel sculpture, over 30 metres high, that erupts from the Promenade and which provoked mixed feelings on our part. Nine twisting steel lines that meet high above passing promenaders, the sculpture is the work of the French artist Bernar Venet, and was installed in 2010 on the 150th anniversary of the annexation of the county of Nice by France. The rusting metal lines represent the nine river valleys of the county, but rather than evoking natural beauty, the sculpture, with its industrial appearance and outsize scale, feels more like an intrusion into the elegance of the Promenade.
I had a vague sense of the long history of Nice – founded around 350 BC by Greek seafarers who named the colony Nikaia, to commemorate a nearby victory (nike in Greek). In 154 BC the Greeks were followed by the Romans, who settled further inland on the hills of what is now Cimiez, where there are Roman ruins in the park that adjoins the Matisse Museum. I knew that in medieval times Nice was ruled by the Italian House of Savoy, and that the town didn’t become part of France until 1860, when, in the Treaty of Turin, Napoleon III struck a deal with the House of Savoy. I was most familiar with the fact that, in the Victorian period, a sizeable English aristocratic community settled here to enjoy Nice’s mild winter climate. That’s obvious in the name of the Promenade des Anglais, and when you climb the hills of Cimiez where there are avenues named after British monarchs.
What I did not know is that, just above Nice Port, is the site of one of the first human settlements in Europe, dating back some 400,000 years. We found the place by accident: it now lies beneath an apartment building where the discovery was made when the foundations were being excavated in the 1960s. The Prehistoric Museum of Terra Amata now displays the discovered remains: an elephant hunters’ camp located, when sea levels were higher, in huts on a stony beach. In the centre of each hut was a fireplace with ashes: the earliest evidence of the domestication of fire known in Europe.
Come Chez Moi: great food
One place in Nice that I’ve wanted to go since I first read about it is Shapko’s Jazz Bar in the Old Town. We went there on my 65th birthday, after a late afternoon swim and an amble through the streets of the old town where, serendipitously, we found Come Chez Moi, a tiny restaurant that serves excellent food, including superb vegetarian dishes. We were really looking for the restaurant next door rated highly by locals – Acchiardo’s – but mistook Come Chez Moi’s entrance for theirs.
Shapko’s Jazz Bar
Afterwards we went round the corner to Shapko’s, where club owner Dimitri Shapko’s quartet were playing. Dimitri grew up in Moscow where, by the age of ten, he had discovered jazz, listening secretly to Voice of America Radio, a risky action at the time, when jazz behind the Iron Curtain Country was an unwelcome art form. As a saxophonist, Shapko has built a strong reputation, having performed with his band at The Newport Jazz Festival, The North Sea Jazz Festival, Montreaux Jazz, and many others. Now he runs this jazz bar in the Old Town.
Last Saturday, Dimitri was on stage with a quartet that turned out to be a quintet: Dimitri on sax, Kevin Tardevet on bass,Laurent Sarrien on drums and Fred D’Oelsnitz doubling up on trumpet and piano. They were excellent, with a repertoire that leaned heavily on Bebop numbers made famous by the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
The Dimitri Shapko Quartet play ‘Bye Bye, Black Bird’ live at Shapko’s 21 September 2013
Fruit and vegetables in the market on Cours Saleya
Sea and light, art and history; but when in Nice there’s no getting away from food. In the day we bought delicious street food from cafes and market stalls: pissaladerie and salade Nicoise, socca (a savoury pancake made with chickpea flour) from the Chez Theresa stall in the Cours Saleya market place, and pan bagnat, a sort of salade Nicoise in a bread roll. In the evenings, we’d stroll around the Old Town, weighing up one menu after another; the choice we settled on was always good.
On our last evening our hostess Maryse treated us to an aperitif of her home-made tapenade and orange wine. I mentioned that I’d had a salade Nicoise, but preferred one made with green beans, rather than the green pepper which this one had featured. The look of outrage and incomprehension on the faces of our Nicoise hosts was something to be seen! We laughed at our incongruities – even more so when I informed them that, in England, salade Nicoise is made with potatoes!
Good memories. We would drink kir on the beach as the sun set across the bay, and, at night on the terrace, watch mesmerised as planes took off and landed, one after the other, from the airport across the bay, their landing lights like flares launched at sea, soaring swiftly skywards as a plane took off, and sinking languidly earthwards as a plane landed.
I returned from Nice officially a state pensioner, but feeling a whole lot younger. That’s Nice for you: less work, more pleasure!
- Nice: article by Alice Barker
- Articles tagged Nice: Curious Rambler blog
- Travels in Nice: article by Richard Robinson
- Discovering Nice: a short blog post from 2008