Topless torsos glisten on the beach in the mid-day sun. Doggy-do decorates tree-lined pavements. Gold-bedecked Italian tourists whiz past on fashionably wide streets; the outdoor cafes and restaurants cater to every taste. Kodachrome images flash through in postcard Nice — the holiday hotspot of the French Riviera. In front of you lies the vast turquoise coloured sea. Behind, a few kilometres away, the moun-tains form a giant amphitheatre. The verdant terrain in between enfolds charming villas, holiday apartments, and a plethora of hotels.
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 long been a love-hate relationship between this part of France and Italy. Originally known as Nikaia, or ‘victory’ in Greek, Nice was an independent state in the Middle Ages. By the twelfth century BC, it discovered, thanks to expanding trade through Provencal and Italian ports, the joys of prosperity and, because of its economic standing, was soon sucked into the Genoese sphere of influence. In 1860, the French Republic was awarded Nice as a mark of gratitude for having sided with Sardinia against Austria. Nice, no longer Italian, became French.
Its new status began luring Europe’s aristocracy and intellectuals in the late nineteenth century. Hector Berlioz, the famous composer, wrote ‘Le Corsaire, among other pieces, in Nice. Writer Prosper 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 the 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 though was The Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, which forms part of an aesthetically-designed architectural ensemble called the Gallery theatre, both constructed to face each other. Inside, we discover the works of Neo-realists, of pop artists Arman, Cesar, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Christo and Andy Warhol to name a few, and American abstractionists Berra, Dolla, Cane et al.
NecMeFulgura — not even lightning strikes me. This is the proud motto in the vault of the entrance hall of the Palace Lascaris. Built in 1648 by the 55th Grand Master of the Order of Malta, the palace remained in the possession of the Lascaris family until the French Revolution. Sold in 1802, it then belonged to several different owners, eventually being divided up into individual apartments whose inconsiderate occupants inflicted considerable damage. Realising the value of the palace, the City of Nice purchased it in 1942, declared it a historical monument and spent six years restoring it to its former glory.
Inside, I saw ceilings painted with frescoes illustrating scenes from Greek mythology. Among the beautiful objets d’art that enrich this small museum are fine 17th century Flemish tapestries. The private apartments on the second floor include a richly decorated chapel.
Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote in 1841: “There are two Nices. The Italian Nice on the hills, full of buildings with carved and painted facades. The English Nice 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 milord.” 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 worlde elegance. The whole world takes their evening stroll on this celebrated promenade.
In summer, the beach alongside is covered with a carpet of scantily-clad sun worshippers roasting to golden perfection, only rous-ing themselves for a dip in the cool sea or a snack.
Promenade des Anglais is the ideal spot for voyeurs. 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 the pink-domed Hotel Negresco, a French landmark that has overlooked le Baie des Anges (Bay Of Angels) for nearly a century. Its magical name evokes a certain lifestyle and the happy go lucky “Belle Epoque”. It was built in 1912 by a Romanian, Henri Negresco. Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, and Maria Callas were just a few of the hotel’s more promi-nent guests. And for three glorious nights, my football ground-sized suite helps me understand why modern-day royalty still flock here.
Just behind my hotel, the city’s pretty streets reveal their charms on my daily strolls. The old section, Vieux Nice, is more than just another picturesque Mediterranean port neighbourhood. In the Cours Saleya flower market, bustling shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes form the focal point of Nice’s animated public life. The flowers and plants that transform the market into an immense perfumed garden constitute a major source of income with exports going out to many places in Europe. In the Salaya courtyard, an antique fair, full of all sorts of intriguing objects, is held every Monday.
For me, the most delightful aspect of Nice is 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 atmosphere. As early diners take their places at outdoor restaurants and cafes, they are treated to a visual feast put out by groups 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 really, nobody minds the 10 euro tip for entertainment that goes on till the wee hours of the morning.
Musee du Marc Chagall, which was designed and built by the artist in 1973, holds an eclectic collection that shows the vast range of his interests — paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, tapes-tries, preparatory sketches, engravings, and litho-graphs. The Russia-born Jewish artist, known for his brilliant use of colour, even painted a much viewed stained glass window for the museum. Also worth checking out are the 17 large canvasses that depict scenes from the Old Testament, a testimony to Chagall’s deep spiritual roots.
Color by Matisse
Not very far the Chagall museum is the Musee Henri Matisse, built by the other pioneer of modern art. Henri Matisse, the master of colour, lived most of his life in Nice, and built the museum in 1952. It houses more than 150 of his works, as also paintings by another great French painter, Auguste Herbin, and 30 photographs by Henri Cartier- Bresson. Of Matisse, Picasso once said, “All things considered, there is only Matisse.” And of Chagall he said, When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” Two great reasons to visit the two artists’ museums in Nice.