Nice

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Nice

Population 350,000, dépt. Var, situated on the Baie des Anges (Nizza in Italian). This will almost certainly be your base when you are on the French Riviera. It is a schizophrenic sort of a place: a city of historic interest, a pleasure resort, a big city with its own life and identity, a quaint old-fashioned small town, a threatening place, a town that doesn't seem to know whether it's French or Italian. It can appear utterly beautiful and at the same time rather run-down, vulgar and plain ugly. Much depends on the weather, which is generally good, and the quality of your hotel, which is sometimes not. You are generally expected to do a brief city tour by bus (though some groups may not be interested), but for the most part your time here is for relaxation or excursions to some of the various outlying attractions of the Côte d'Azur.

A Bit of History  The following is probably of secondary interest and can be skipped through fairly quickly. Nice began as a trading post of Greek colonists from Marseilles. It was named Nikaia after Athena, goddess of victory, in response to a Greek naval victory over the Phoenicians, their great rivals for control of Mediterranean trade. It first came into prominence, however, with the Romans. The centre of the Roman city was the modern suburb of Cimiez (Latin Cemenelum), built slightly up in the hills away from the heat.

After the Romans, Nice went swiftly into decline, re-emerging in the C14 as one of the main outlets to the Mediterranean for the Kingdom of Savoy. (Nice only became French as a result of a plebiscite in 1860.) From then until the C18 the economy of the place was based entirely on fishing and the trade in citrus fruits. The invention of Nice as a pleasure resort is a C18 phenomenon. The English writer Tobias Smollett lived here in 1763 and wrote invitingly of the pleasant climate. Soon Nice was invaded by the English nobility who came to escape the cold, damp winters back home. In summer Nice emptied as the blue-blooded visitors sought refuge from the hot Mediterranean sun. (The custom of taking seaside holidays in the summer originated with the less well-to-do middle classes taking advantage of off-season rates in the hotels.) In the early years Nice was famous as a winter resort. All the hotels closed in April. The weather here supposedly arrests the wasting process of tuberculosis. The grand hotels first started to appear in the Victorian era and were populated first by English, then by Russian, nobility. The rest of the world followed in their wake, and by the early C20 the French Riviera was in full swing.

The Visit  It may be enough in Nice simply to take the group for a stroll through the old town or the pedestrian district around the rue Masséna or along the Boulevard des Anglais. If you are doing a brief bus tour, however, the following is a suggested itinerary:

Avenue Jean Médecin - Place Masséna - Jardins Albert Ier - Promenade des Anglais- Russian Orthodox Church - Cimiez - Boulevard de Cimiez - Place Garibaldi - Quai Papacino - Rocher du Château - Quai des Etats-Unis

Avenue Jean Médecin: This is Nice's rather unattractive main street, running from the railway bridge to the Place Masséna. It is full of shops, bars and restaurants etc. Jean Médecin was a former Mayor of Nice who was largely responsible for the C20 development of the city. His grandson Jacques was mayor until 1995, when a series of scandals involving organised crime, in the ignoble family tradition, forced him out of office. Graham Greene wrote a polemic on this issue, "J'accuse," describing the Nice underworld.

Place Masséna: This is a very attractive ensemble. The arcaded buildings are pink with green shutters, the colours of the House of Savoy. By law they cannot be changed. (Remember that Nice belonged to the House of Savoy from 1388 to 1860.) This square is the centre of Nice's famous Mardi Gras carnival. The Galeries Lafayete is situated on a corner here.

Masséna himself, born in Nice, was a C18 French general. He was very successful under the Revolution. Napoleon called him the "cherished child of France" and made him a Marshal of France. Wellington considered him the country's best strategist, second only to the Emperor.

Jardins Albert Ier: These gardens are named after the Grimaldi prince whose passion for oceanography led him to found the famous museum in Monaco. The fountain in the middle is of the Three Graces. The gardens and square are built over a river, the Paillon, which snakes through Nice, mostly underground, separating the new town from the old. There are often concerts here in the summer. The public beach is opposite these gardens. All the other beaches belong to the various hotels and cost money.

Promenade des Anglais: This is the most famous avenue in Nice, lined with palm trees and facing the Baie des Anges. This is where C19 aristocrats settled to enjoy the therapeutic qualities of the sea air. The buildings are mostly grand and luxurious Victorian hotels like the Négresco, whose dome was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Among the others are the Westminster, the West End and the Royal. The Chantecler restaurant in the Négresco is one of the best in France. The derelict building is the former Palais de la Méditerranée, a big casino, closed because of millions of francs in unpaid taxes. Before tourism, the seashore was lined with orange trees, not palm trees.

Russian Orthodox Church: This lies just off the Boulevard du Tsarévitch. It was built between 1903 and 1912, and was donated by and dedicated to Tsar Nicholas II. It has 6 onion domes and is built in the form of a Greek cross (ie. 4 equal arms). The exterior is richly decorated in mosaic. The style is based on the Laroslavl church in Moscow. Particularly striking is the large representation of the Turin Shroud held aloft by an angel. Before this made its way to Turin it was one of the holiest relics of the Russian Orthodox Church, kept in the city of Odessa on the Black Sea. There is a small charge to go inside. The interior is also richly decorated, with icons in silver gilt cases and jewel-encrusted treasures. There are no chairs for in the Orthodox Church the congregation stands. Note the commemorative chapel to Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovitch who died in Nice in 1865. The east transept is closed off by an ornate screen, separating the 'Holy of Holies' from the rest of the church.

Russians began arriving in Nice in the 1850s. There is still a large Russian population here.

Cimiez: Take the winding Avenue Georges V and then the Boulevard de Cimiez. At the top of the boulevard is another grand hotel, the Régina. In front of it is a statue of Queen Victoria who used to stay here. The hotel is surmounted by a replica of the crown jewels. Park by the Roman ruins. There is a theatre, an arena and some public baths. The ruins are not particularly impressive, especially if you have just come from Rome or Provence, but they are worth a glance. The arena once sat 4,000 spectators. The theatre is still used, especially during the Jazz Festival. The large pink building set among olive trees is the Musée Matisse. In the same area is an old Franciscan Monastery, in whose cemetery Matisse and Raoul Dufy are buried, as is General Estienne, the inventor of the tank in 1916. There is an excellent view from the cemetery gardens on to the valley of the Paillon and the city of Nice below.

As you descend from Cimiez by the Boulevard de Cimiez again, you can point out on the left at the bottom the Musée National Marc Chagall which contains 17 of his paintings on Old Testament themes.

Place Garibaldi: This is the northern end of the old town. It is dedicated to one of Nice's most famous residents, the great hero of the Italian Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Fighting first against the Austrians and then against the Papacy, he was one of the leading figures in the C19 unification of Italy. He was born in Nice in 1807. There is a statue to him here in the middle of the square.

Quai Papacino: You have now reached the port of Nice. Like the Place Masséna, the buildings here are pink with green shutters. This section of the port is a small marina. The main port with its ferries to Corsica is just round the corner to the left. There are pleasant restaurants and an unpleasant sweet factory selling sickly stuff and offering a commission. The whole ensemble is quite attractive. Garibaldi lived on the Quai Papacino.

Rocher du Chateau: This rock rises 300 ft. above the port and the old town. It gets its name from a ruined Savoyard fortress of which nothing remains. There is an impressive war memorial on the quai to the 4,000 Niçois killed in WW I. It was dedicated by Maréchal Foch. In free time, you can have a superb view from the top of the rock, reached on foot or by a lift.

Quai des Etats-Unis: This is the continuation of the waterfront with la vielle Nice behind it. There are numerous very good, old-fashioned seafood restaurants here. This is where the great American dancer Isadora Duncan, who lived in Nice in her last years, had the fatal car accident in which she was strangled by her own scarf.

This brings you back to the Jardins Albert Ier where you can end the tour and leave free time.

Free Time in Nice  Free time in Nice is easy. The obvious choice is the beach, pebbly but good. There is a Galeries Lafayette, the intact old town with its famous marché aux fleurs, the pedestrian area around the rue Masséna, the Chagall and Matisse museums, the Rocher du Château and many other lesser possibilities. The town is not always the safest in the world so you would do well to reiterate any warnings about pickpockets etc.

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