Trevor Claringbold offers a beginners guide to the city of Nice on the French Riviera
A chic, elegant, glamorous retreat, much loved by the rich and famous. That’s the popular impression of Nice, and certainly one the city would prefer those who have never been to continue to believe in. The truth, however, is nowhere near the sparkling image. It’s the fifth largest city in France, and sadly has the traffic congestion, pollution, crime, and other problems that you would associate with any big city. The beach is pebbles, not the swathes of golden sand that you might expect, the swish hotels are somewhat faded from their heyday, and the main promenade has become a fast and dangerous multi-lane road standing as the last obstacle before you reach the Mediterranean. So is it a bad choice for somewhere to visit? Well, actually, no. Nice still has much to offer. You just need to be aware of the pitfalls to enjoy the benefits.
There has been a settlement here since well before the Romans, and the credit for officially founding Nice goes to Greek invaders. But the spread and reputation of modern day Nice really dates to the eighteenth century, when it became the fashionable place to be for the British and Russian aristocracy. It was then that the wealth of exclusive villas, chateau’s, and other assorted rich hideaways, began to spring up.
The natural focus for the tourists – apart from the beach – is the area of the old town, or Vieux Nice as it’s known. The tangled network of tiny narrow streets around the Cathedrale de St Reparate is still wonderfully at odds with the modern city. It’s a district you need to explore by foot – not that there is much choice as it isn’t exactly vehicle-friendly. The small square in front of the cathedral is a perfect place to relax in one of the pavement café’s, or choose one of the seemingly endless flavours of ice cream on offer. There are a multitude of enticing small shops, and an increasing number of art galleries.
Art also features in a different way here, as the many painters who arrive each day – easel and paints in hand – will testify to. Peer over their shoulders and you’ll see their subjects are often more what you would expect of a small rural French village. It’s a great way to get a different perspective on the place you’re visiting. The tiled roofs are all at slightly varying angles, creating strange light patterns in the Mediterranean sunshine, while washing lines are strung across the streets, or from flower hewn high balconies.
In front of the Palais de Justice is the Place Pierre Gautier, which buzzes each morning to the sounds of the daily market. It varies on each day, but for most of the week it’s a brightly coloured mix of fresh flowers and produce, that produces the most amazing aroma when mixed with the breeze from the sea.
From the Rue de Chateau, the old steps lead up to the somewhat misleadingly named Chateau Gardens. There isn’t actually a chateau, although given the choice it would be a great place if you were asked where you would like one. The views in all directions are superb. Out across the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, along the gently curving arc of the Promenade des Anglais, down to the harbour, or over to the panoramic Alpine backdrop, this is the place to soak it all up. The distinct Grecian feel to the park, with mosaics and urns, is homage to the place where the city was first founded by Greek settlers.
The old and new districts are divided by the course of the River Paillon, with the gardens and municipal buildings that line it. In the centre is the Place Massena, which is a pleasant enough, and offers nice views along the palm fringed boulevards to the mountains beyond. The main shopping area heads north along the Avenue Jean-Medecin, with pretty much all the usual major retailers you would expect to find. From here you have a choice of the Nice-Etoile shopping centre, or, for the more trendy and expensive boutiques, head to the aptly named Rue du Paradis.
Between here and the seafront are many of the mid-range hotels, bars and eating-places. A good number of the more expensive places to stay are along what is probably the best known road in Nice – if not by name then certainly by its iconic image. The Rue des Anglais is the seafront promenade lined with palm trees and elegant architecture, created in the 19th century as a place for the English gentry to stroll along and take in the sea airs. The promenade is still a truly atmospheric place to walk, although today you compete with cyclists, roller-bladers, joggers, and tourists from every corner of the globe.
The beach, sadly, is something of a disappointment. The pebbles dip away quite steeply, and although there are places to hire sun-loungers and the like, it is neither comfortable nor especially clean. The constant roar of traffic from the road above also soon becomes annoying. There are some nice coves on the other side of the harbour, as coast wends its way off towards Monaco, which although rocky, are a far more pleasant place to relax or swim.
When you’ve had your fill of wandering and shopping, Nice does have a few other interesting areas and attractions to visit. The harbour area is pleasant, if somewhat functional. The lines of gleaming white boats remind you that this is still a rich man’s retreat, but it’s still nice to wander and dream for the rest of us. To the east of the port is a very neat reconstruction of prehistoric life in the area. The Musee de Terra Amata is located on the site of an excavated fossil beach.
In the north of the city, the posh suburb of Cimiez is home to some slightly more recent historical remnants. This district was the main centre of Nice during its time as the Roman regional capital, and parts of a small amphitheatre, Roman baths, and other remains are still in evidence. There is a small but impressive museum housing many of the finds, which is open from Tuesday to Sunday each week.
On the outskirts of the city, close to the airport, is the largest attraction – the Phoenix Parc Floral de Nice. On the face of it, it’s a botanical gardens and wildlife park, but it’s now incorporated all manner of other facets – some of which are decidedly tacky. But it’s worth sidestepping the automated dinosaurs, reproduction Mayan pyramid, and theme park, to enjoy the bird and insect zoo, the walk through the butterfly house, and recently added Asian Arts Museum. Overall it’s a good day out though, and, like Nice itself, it offers a good variety of very diverse options that will hopefully mean everyone finds something they enjoy.