When we last visited Nice – on the occasion, last September, of my 65th birthday – I posted a celebration of the city under the title A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise. We’re just back from another few days in Nice, so here’s another mixture of flavours and colours that recall our short break. There are strong opinions as to what should or should not go into a Salade Nicoise – residents of Nice are horrified at the English tendency to add potatoes, and tinned tuna or anchovies are (surprisingly) acceptable, but both together are not. Furthermore, they don’t use French beans as we tend to: a classic Salade Nicoise should be made with fresh fava beans.
Which is merely a preamble to this eclectic selection of memories of the four days we spent in Nice. We had found an apartment at the top of the Old Town (the very top, in fact: our building was actually located just inside the wall of the Château gardens. From the balcony we had stunning views across the rooftops of the Old Town, and across the bay to the airport.
The roof tops of Nice from our apartment in the Old Town
Up the steps of Montee Menica Rondelly
Our building was located at the top of the Montee Menica Rondelly which we discovered translated as ‘the steps of Menica Rondelly’. And it turned out that Rondelly is a favourite son of Nice.
Up the hill to Montee Menica Rondelly
The monument to Menica Rondelly
Just outside the entrance to our building there was a memorial to Menica Rondelly, who was a poet, musician, and ardent defender of Nice identity and the the langue d’oc. Born François-Dominique Rondelly born in 1854, the name by which he is now known is a sign of how much the people of Nice have taken Rondelly to their hearts: Menica is a diminutive of Dominique in the local language Niçard, an Occitan dialect.
Menica Rondelly wrote many poems and songs in Niçard, including ‘Nissa la bella’, the song that has become the anthem of Nice. In 1911, he founded the Committee for Nice Traditions, a group whose achievements include the monument honouring the heroine of Nice, Catherine Ségurane. Menica Rondelly is buried in the cemetery of the castle.
The Montee Menica Rondelly at night
Place Massena: a tram every four minutes
On this break we came armed with a little pocket book, Walk and Eat around Nice, determined to take advantage of the excellent public transport network (buses, trains and Nice’s ultra-modern tram) to get out of town and follow some of the authors’ recommended walks. I’ve written about Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps from La Turbie to the hilltop town of Eze and then down to the sea here. But we also did a further couple of walks following John and Pat Underwood’s directions.
The Villa Ephrussi
View of the French garden
One walk took us around Cap Ferrat, but we started by exploring the gardens of the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa, built in the style of an Italian palazzo for Béatrice, daughter of the banker and art collector Baron Alphonse de Rothschild a few years before the outbreak of the First World War. At 19 years old, Beatrice had married Maurice Ephrussi, a Parisian banker originally from Russia who was a friend of her parents and 15 years her senior.
The Ephrussis were fabulously rich, having made their fortune controlling grain distribution in the Russian Empire and, later, oil resources in the Crimea and Caucasus. By 1860, the family was the world’s largest grain exporter, and had established banking houses in Vienna, Paris, and Athens. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal, a descendent of the Ephrussi family, tells the story of the Japanese netsuke bought by de Waal’s great-great-uncle, Charles Ephrussi, who was Proust’s patron and the inspiration for Proust’s character, Charles Swann. I haven’t been able to work out what relation Beatrice was, either to Charles Ephrussi or his cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi, to whom Charles presents the netsuke as a gift on his marriage in Vienna in 1899. I imagine, though, that Beatrice and her husband attended the wedding celebrations. De Waal goes on to tell how the Ephrussi family’s bank and properties were seized by the Nazis after the March 1938 German annexation of Austria, and the netsuke were thought lost.
In 1934, Béatrice Ephrussi died and left her property to the Institut de France. Villa and gardens are now open to the public. There’s an elegant and formal French garden which, with its waterfalls and long rectangular pond, reminded me a bit of the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada (though, according to the Villa website this does not appear to have been an inspiration).
The Exotic garden
There’s a Spanish garden, a Japanese garden and an Exotic garden populated by many varieties of cactus.
The Provençal garden
Best of all was the Provençal garden, its winding paths bordered with olive and lavender and pine trees bent by the wind (and the wind was a prominent feature on the day we visited). Leaving the Villa gardens, we continued the walk along the coastal path around Cap Ferrat to St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
The bay of les Fosses
At times, even though the air was warm, the strength of the wind made it feel more like a walk along the cliffs of Cornwall.
Through the pine wood of Pointe St-Hospice
The views from Pointe St-Hospice towards Monte Carlo and Italy
The most beautiful stretch was through a pine wood between the bay of les Fosses and Pointe St-Hospice, from where we could take in breathtaking views across the bay to the walk from Eze to the sea that we had done a couple of days before. The pines hid from the view the villas of the seriously wealthy that dot this coastline, but out in the bay the super yachts belonging to bankers and oligarchs rode at anchor.
The view of the Bay of Nice from Mont Boron
On our last day we took the little 14 bus from Place Garibaldi which drops you off right at the top of Mont Boron, the hill that rises behind the Port of Nice. From the bus stop we followed the paths which circle Mont Boron, shaded by olive trees, holm oaks and pines. There are fine views across the Port to Chateau Hill and the Bay of the Nice.
Tree spurge on Mont Alban
After circling Mont Boron, we set off along the forest track which leads to the old fort on Mont Alban, the second peak which rises behind Nice Port. In early spring, according to John and Pat Underwood’s guide, the hillside here is ablaze of yellow-flowering tree spurge (Euphorbia). We had missed the best of the display, the shrubs now turned a rusty orange.
The Fort du Mont Alban
The track ended at the Fort du Mont Alban, built after the seige of Nice in 1543 by allied French and Turkish forces (the seige in which the legend of Catherine Ségurane was born). The siege demonstrated how vulnerable was Nice to attack from the sea. Aided by Charles V and his Italian engineers, the Duke of Savoy made plans for the defence of Nice and its coastline. The fort on Mont Alban formed part of this defence plan. It was built between 1557 and 1562 and is a square structure with a bastion and watchtower at each corner.
Today, at 722 feet above sea level, the hill where the fort stands offers a stunning 360 degree panorama. In one direction there is a stunning view of Nice itself and the bay; in the other, the view takes in Villefranche and Cap Ferrat.
The view of Villefranche from Fort Mont Alban, with Cap Ferrat beyond
Views towards Nice, Chateau Hill and the Port
Picking up on the title of the Underwoods’ pocket guide – Walk and Eat around Nice – as always, we ate exceptionally well while there. We finally managed to get a seat at the acclaimed Acchiardo’s on Rue Droite and went back there on two evenings, it was so good. It’s a place that is always packed out with locals as well as tourists – a sure sign that something is being done right.
The Acchiardo family arrived in Nice from Piedmont in 1927, opened the restaurant in the Old Town, and their great-grandchildren are still at it, serving local staples to locals and visitors in their busy place. You get a warm welcome from the English-speaking waiters (one of the Acchiardo sons who serves at table spent time in London, working at the Financial Times). A great place – but you really have to book ahead.
Nice: totally blue
Returning to Britain after four days in Nice was a colour shift – from blue to green.