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Nice 1994

Oh, the colours of Nice
Published in The Independent Newspaper | Febraury 1994

TOPLESS TORSOS glisten on the beach in the mid-day sun. Doggy-do decorates tree-lined pavements. Gold-bedecked Italian tourists whizz past on fashionably wide streets; the outdoor cafes and restaurants cater to every taste. Kodachrome images flash through in picture postcard Nice, the holiday hotspot of the French Riviera. Below lies the vast turquoise coloured sea and beyond, a few kilometres away, the mountains form a giant amphitheatre. The verdant terrain in between enfolds charming villas, holiday apartments and a plethora of hotels. Not a single skyscraper is to be seen.
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I arrived in Nice one sunny August afternoon by boat from the Corsican port of Bastia. The view that greeted me instantly dispelled the fatigue of a six hour voyage, a panorama that was best described by the French poet, Theodore De Banville, in the mid-1800s. Drifting into the Bay of Angels where the port of Nice has existed for centuries, he wrote “Nothing could be more magical than the spectacle stretching before us.”

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Facing south, sheltered from the cold North Wind by the mountains behind it, Nice is blessed with a salubrious climate all year round. In August, almost all of France is on the move. Everyone is on holiday. I don’t know where the residents of Nice have gone, but the Italians seem to have taken over the town; in fact, the entire Cote D’Azur. Wherever you go, you see cars from Rome, Milano, Torino and Florence; whichever restaurant you visit, you hear the sound of Italian sing-song. As the Italians have in the recent past emerged as Europe’s biggest spenders, they are welcome everywhere. Historically, too, there has been a long love-hate relationship between this part of France and Italy. Nice was originally known as Nikaia, Greek word for victory. A bishopric in the early Christian era, Nikaia was still an independent state in the Middle Ages. By the 12th century BC, thanks to expanding trade through Provencal and Italian ports, Nice had discovered the joys of prosperity. Because of its economic standing it was soon sucked into the sphere of influence of the Genoese. A small battle waged and won by the Anjou royal family against the soldiers of Genoa annexed Nice to Provencal territory. In 1388, Nice was taken over by the House of Savoy, thanks to some clever manipulation by Amadeus VII and Jean Grimaldi, the Governor of Nice. This sparked a bitter feud between the French and the Savoys of Nice which went on for nearly two centuries, causing considerable bloodshed. The power struggle continued right up to 1748, when Nice was granted to the King of Sardinia under a peace treaty. In 1860, the French Republic was awarded Nice as a mark of gratitude for having sided with Sardinia against Austria. Nice, no longer Italian, had finally become French. Its new status began luring Europe’s aristocracy and intellectuals in the late nineteenth century. Berlioz, the famous composer, wrote “Corsaire”, among other pieces, in Nice. Writer Prospero Merimee initially came here to recover from a lung ailment; later, to stay on to enjoy the city’s invigorating climate. Guy de Maupassant, true to character, enjoyed years of visits to Nice while unkindly referring to it as “the flower filled cemetery of European aristocrats.” I did not see any ossified dandies during my week-long sojourn there. Among the very first things that did strike my eye were the large posters everywhere, stating in French: ‘Because art is priceless, in Nice it comes to you free’. Below, were listed 20 museums where art aficionados, amateurs, buffs and connoisseurs could feast their eyes free of charge. The Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art sprawls five minutes away from the apartments of Massimo Vanimi, my gracious host. Five minutes after my arrival, Massimo’s 14-year old son, Vittorio, whose passions include Dire Straits, Latin, table tennis, ice-cream and a budding interest in the fairer sex, is saying to me: “I give you 10 minutes to wash up and have tea then we’re going to the museum.” The Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art forms part of an aesthetically designed architectural ensemble called the gallery theatre, both constructed to face each other. The reception desk is manned by bright and cheerful staff who hand you printed matter in eight languages. Inside, we discover the works of neorealists, of pop artists Arman, Cesor, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Christo and Andy Warhol, to name a few, and American abstractionists Berra, Dolla, Cane. Trained to guide tourists, the staff also offer information on Nice’s other delights. Jacques Medecin, the controversial Mayor of Nice, is a man with a mission. He has, since the ’70s, attempted to turn the French Riviera into Europe’s Silicon Valley. A pied piper, he has succeeded in seducing a throng of international companies to this sunbelt that runs from St Tropez to Monte Carlo. A gruff man, he and his glamorous American wife hold an almost regal status in Nice—close to that of the royal family in Monaco next door. Nice has become an important transit point in international drug traffic. How does Medecin propose to handle this? He advocates that captured drug dealers should be given televised drug overdoses! Nice’s population has grown from two million people in 1966 to nearly five million, a quarter of whom are under 25 years of age. The rapid development is not without its casualties—there is a war on for control of Nice’s gambling halls. The city is becoming the Chicago of Europe. Alexander Dumas wrote in 1841: “There are two Nices. The Italian Nice on the hills, full of buildings with carved and painted facades. The English Nice rot with whitewashed houses, where windows and doors; are left wide open, people sport parasols and say ‘yes’. To the natives of Nice. all tourists seemed English and were addressed as milords.” It was an English minister who was responsible for developing the long marshy strip along the shoreline into a real footpath and, in 1854, giving it the name it still bears — Promenade des Anglais. The mansions and hotels on this thoroughfare that links the two sections of Nice, preserve their olde world elegance. The whole world takes their evening stroll on this celebrated promenade. In summer, the bench alongside is carpeted by scantily-clad sun worshippers roasting to golden perfection, only rousing themselves for a dip in the cool seaor a snack. A few adventurous ones indulge in the heart-stopping sport of being catapulted into the sky by speed boats; plunging into the sea via gaily-coloured parachutes. It looks like great fun, but Vittorio and I decide, on second thoughts, it might be too vertiginous for our liking.
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Promenade des Anglais is the ideal spot for voyeurs and curiosity-seekers.

You can use binoculars from your room in any of the luxurious hotels and holiday apartments that line the shimmering strip. The most famous hotel here, of course, is Hotel Negresco, declared a French landmark. It has played host to the creme de la creme of society since it opened its portals in 1912. Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Arthur Rubinstein, Charlie Chaplin and Maria Callas were just a few of the hotel’s more prominent guests. Today’s resident is your average millionaire or celebrity. Security guards with unsmiling faces and cold eyes scrutinise you before condescending to allow you entry into their opulent world.

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Nothing, however, can stop you from strolling around this charming city, with its pretty streets. The old section is more than just another picturesque Mediterranean port neighbourhood. In the Cours Saleya, a fascinating flower market, bustling shops, restaurants and outdoors cafes form the focal point of Nice’s animated social life. The flowers and plants that transform the market into an immense perfumed garden constitute a major source of income with exports to many places in Europe. In the Saleya country yard, an antique fair, full of all sorts of intriguing objects, is held every Monday.

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Frederick Nietzsche, compelled by poor health to spend long periods here, wrote ecstatically to his sister Elizabeth in the 1880s. “The colours of Nice. the colours of the sea. What a pity I can’t pack them up and send them to you.” A 100 years later, the writer of this article is beset by the same emotions.

For me, the most delightful aspect of Nice are its zone pietons—vast areas of the city reserved exclusively for pedestrians. During the day, they throng with shoppers eager to pick up stuff from chic boutiques. At night, they take on a theatrical, almost magical air. As early diners take their places at outdoor restaurants and cafes, they are treated to a visual feast served up by a group of out-of-work artistes. Buskers serenade you on guitars; mime artists offer wicked impersonations; breakdancers show off with breathtaking dexterity; and, if you hang around long enough, you just might get to see an entire play enacted. Nothing comes free, of course, but nobody minds the 10 franc tip for entertainment that goes on till the wee hours of the morning.

As I leave Massimo’s house at the crack of dawn to catch the train to Toulouse, some images of Nice are locked in my memory. I see seven young revellers singing while walking home after an all-night binge, their song momentarily drowned by the hip-hop blasting from the stereo of a souped-up car flashing by. The neon sign of Hotel Acropolis is put off. The first boulangerie has already opened its doors to sell freshly-baked ‘bread.

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At the railway station, three young Japanese backpack travellers squat on the platform, nonchalantly putting together a meal of hotdogs with a generous helping of mustard. The elderly lady accompanying them wanders around, taking photographs of the station’s interior. It’s just the right dose of visual humour to foil my regret at leaving Nice.