NICE, FRANCE — Following the Rich and Famous.

3 Jul

For much of my life I would never have dreamt of visiting the French Riviera, also known as the Cote D’Azur. It had an air of exclusivity about it, a place reserved as a playground for the world’s rich and famous — the so called “jet-set.”  English aristocratics were the first to discover the attractions of its mild climate and scenic beauty, and started over-wintering there from the late 18th century onwards. They were followed by the Russian nobility, many of them drawn by the health benefits of the area’s warm, dry weather. They even built an ornate Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened by the Czar himself in 1911. It’s still the largest outside the borders of Russia.

  Previously, the south of France had just been a place that wealthy travellers passed through en route from northern Europe to Italy. Now, some of them decided to stay, to escape the harsh winters of the north. The aristocrats were followed by writers such as Andre Gide and D H Lawrence ( Lawrence actually died in Nice.) Also, famous artists such as Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Chagall were attracted by the soft light and vibrant colours of Provence such that they too lived and worked in this area. Later still, in the 1950’s, came the jet set, with French celebrities such as Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday, mixing with international film stars attracted by the red carpets of the Cannes Film Festival. These in turn were followed by rock royalty in the 1970’s when the Rolling Stones and their entourage, trying to escape punitively high taxes in Britain, decamped to a rambling mansion on the French Riviera and recorded the equally rambling album:” Exile on Main Street.”

  All these “illustrious” comings and goings made the Cote D’Azur synonymous with great expense and luxury in my mind, and a far cry from any place I could ever go on holiday to. Then came the advent of budget airlines which opened a variety of destinations to a whole new range of travellers. This has been very controversial of course and many have criticised the environmental impact of such a significant increase in air-travel. However, just being selfish for a while, I think it’s a good thing that foreign travel has at last been democratised. For too long it has been seen as the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. Why should they have all the fun? I have now been to Nice on the French Riviera twice, courtesy of Easyjet flights from Newcastle, my local airport in the UK.  Easyjet, Ryanair, Jet2 and their like are often maligned but they have created a wealth of travel opportunities and experiences for the likes of “ordinary” folk like me. OK., cheap flights, along with budget hotal chains, open places up to the dangers of mass tourism, overcrowding and over-development. However, if managed sensibly, controls can be put into place and the new situation can be a boon for just about everyone. For instance, St Tropez, has introduced a ban on high rise development to try to preserve the beauty that originally attracted Bardot to its beach.

  Nice is an exciting place to visit. It is not only an elegant seaside resort in a beautiful location, but is also a big, bustling city. It’s the 5th largest city in France and is second only to Paris as a French tourist destination. The busy airport is situated on a low-lying peninsula at the end of the beach, so if you’re both a keen sunbather and a keen planespotter, you will be in paradise.

  At the other end of the  beautiful sweep of the Bay of Angels is an attractively wooded hill ( the Colline du Chateau) from which one can get wonderful views of the bay and the city, sandwiched between the azure sea and the Provencal mountains. The hill used to have a castle on it but is now just a lovely park. On the other side of it is the old port, where one can catch ferries to Corsica or Sardinia or go cruise-ship spotting.

  One reason that Nice is so exciting is that it is almost like visiting France and Italy at the same time. The city and its surrounding area: the Comte de Nice was actually part of Italy up to as recently as 1860. In that year it was ceded to France as a thank-you to Emperor Napoleon III who had helped free the northern parts of Italy from Austrian rule in the Second War of Italian Independence. Nice had been linked with Italian Savoy (Savoie) since the 14th century, but now both of them were suddenly transferred to France. The Nice change of nationality was approved by a large majority in a subsequent referendum. However, the Italian influence is still strong. Pizzas, pasta and other Italian dishes are prominant in the restaurants and the evocative old town, Vieux Nice, is an attractive jumble of colourful Italianate houses, Baroque churches and campaniles. The street signs are written both in French and in Nissart, an amalgam of French and Italian which has hung on as the local lingo and is now being officially encouraged. It’s a clear example of a political line on a map not being able to separate 2 closely related cultures on the ground. In reality, the cultures intermingle in many border areas, such that locals and visitors can enjoy the best of both worlds.

  In fact, if you’re turned on by visiting as many different countries as possible, then you’ll love the eastern end of the Cote D’Azur. The real Italy is only a short journey away by road or rail, and on the way you could pop into Monaco, which is still technically a separate state ruled by a medieval- style Prince in a fairytale castle. Monte Carlo, Monaco’s capital, is worth a look, as we did on our previous visit, with its skyscrapers, flamboyant casino/opera house, exotic gardens, expensive marina and Royal palace. It exists mainly as a tax haven for the super rich ( them again!) So while we were there, I was tensed up with excitement at the prospect of us bumping into: Bjorn Borg, Roger Moore or Lewis Hamilton popping out for a pint of milk. We never did!

  Getting back to Nice, the old town is a fascinating rabbit warren of a place. It’s perfect for pottering  around. Nearby is the Cours Saleya fruit, veg and flower market. Why is it that tomatoes, peaches, garlic and everything else are so much bigger and juicier than their equivalents back in England? Even though Nice has a reputation for being expensive, the local produce is cheap and the fruit tastes like pure nectar.

  The modern city is built on a grid pattern and looks very smart. Long boulevards lead into squares, some grand, some intimate. Pavement cafes show fascinating human life on the streets instead of behind closed doors. The boulevards are lined by impressive 19th century apartments blocks, all with intricate wrought iron balconies and pastel coloured shutters. It reminds me of Paris, except it’s underneath a blue sky and a blazing sun. The sea-front area has been planted out with palms, pine trees and exotic plants such as cacti. Along the actual bay is a wide pavement called The Promenade des Anglais — The Walkway of the English. It was originally financed by English nobility, partly as a work creation scheme in the mid 19th century for the city’s poorer citizens. It has now become the model for beach boulevards around the world.

  Walking the prom is an invigorating and uplifting experience. Not only do you get the ravishing view of the azure sea ( yes, it really is azure blue) twinkling and shimmering in the sunlight, but you also experience a whole wealth of human activities. There is a constant procession of:  walkers, joggers, sunbathers, swimmers, exercisers, cyclists, strollers and roller skaters. There are also dog walkers, but these miniature canines don’t do much walking, as they are usually carried under the arms of their owners or in special little baskets. On one side is the lapping of the waves on to the pebbly shore, while on the other, is the roar of the traffic on a 4 or 6 lane highway.

  Lining the promenade is a parade of grand, opulant buildings. These include the Art Deco: Palais De La Mediterranee, built for an American millionairre in 1929, presumably just before the Wall Street Crash. It symbolised 1930’s glamour with a hotel, casino, theatre, restaurant and cocktail bar included in its many upmarket rooms. Then there is the pink-stuccoed, graceful Hotel Westminster with its extravagent reception rooms. However the metaphorical biscuit is taken by the genuinely iconic Hotel Negresco, opened in 1913. Its pink-green cupola, uniformed doormen and art-nouveau glazed entrance-way by Gustave Eiffel make it THE landmark building of Nice. It was built to attract filthy rich guests by an extremely wealthy Romanian emigre: Henri Negresco, who made his fortune by managing the casino. In 1913 it was one of the most modern hotels on the planet featuring luxurious bathrooms and telephones in every room. The badly timed First World War changed its fortunes though and it was forced into service as a hospital. Negresco was ruined. However, the hotel was later re-opened and expensively refurbished several times. In the 1950’s for instance, it featured an outstanding art collection, staff in 18th century uniforms and mink bedspreads!

  Today the Negresco is still one of the world’s finest and most expensive hotels. It has become a magnet for top politicians and film stars and is charmingly idiosyncratic, with antique furniture, carousel horses and a kitsch souvenir shop. It also has a spectacular 16,309 crystal chandelier, meant for Czar Nicholas II, but never collected because of the 1917 Revolution. Outside is a colourful statue of a black American jazz trumpeter. We should have ventured in for a coffee but were too nervous about the consequences for our bank balances!

  Nice is in a lovely location. It has the beauty of the sea and the hills, which are enhanced by its own elegant buildings. All this, as mentioned earlier, attracted writers and artists to visit, or even base themselves there. The area is littered with first class galleries, museums and works of art. This was an extra incentive for us to visit again. On our previous trip we had visited the Matisse Museum, up a hill in an attractive area ( Cimiez) full of Belle Epoque villas, tree- lined avenues and lush gardens. The museum itself is in a mansion where Matisse actually lived. We had also enjoyed the rich collection of Raoul Dufy’s and other Masters at the Musee des Beaux-Arts. This time we ventured west by train to the Picasso Museum in Antibes. It’s a smart chateau on the seafront containing: paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics produced by Picasso when he lived there in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. We also saw a starkly beautiful chapel just outside Vence designed and decorated by Matisse in 1949. It was a labour of love and he regarded it as his masterpiece. The building is called the Chapelle du Rosaire and still holds a religious service at least once a week. Vence, by the way, has a lovely old town inside medieval ramparts and has glorious views of the Provencal mountains. It’s an easy trip by bus from Nice. St Paul de Vence just down the hill, is another picturesque and historical hill town but has been over-run by swarms of tourists, so I wouldn’t recommend that as it’s no longer an authentic French experience.

  The outstanding art gallery for me though, was Nice’s Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall. Set in a pretty garden, the gallery was purpose- built and the hangings were supervised by Chagall himself. He lived in Nice for the last part of his life. He also contributed a mosaic and 2 stunning stained glass windows. This is the largest collection of Chagall’s under one roof in the world. The centre-piece is a set of 15 large biblical paintings depicting stories from Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs. These are mixed in with scenes from Chagall’s Russian homeland and the saga of the Jewish people and their sufferings through the centuries. You have to like Chagall’s unique style, but in my opinion, the colours and compositions are simply breathtaking. If you ever go, don’t forget to take your passport in order to gain the use of the excellent audio commentary, available in numerous languages. In my view, the Chagall museum is a fantastic experience.

  So, thank-you Easyjet for bringing all this within my financial reach. The beauty of the city, the coast and the mountains, the elegance of the buildings, the affable French/Italian life-style, and the outstanding art. Why should the rich and the famous have  this “paradise” all to themselves?

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4 Responses to “NICE, FRANCE — Following the Rich and Famous.”

  1. Gerry Fenge (@GerryFenge) July 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Nice one Stuart (I wrote that before realising it was a pun). Lots of great info. Retired history teachers do have their uses!

    Back in 1968 (or was it 1970?) I slept on the pebble beach, which involved much shuffling to persuade the pebbles into a feasible layout. When I went for breakfast (loaf, tomatoes, milk – munch or sip each in turn) I returned to find all the beach kippers being arrested. But my rucksack was there! So I went down and collected it. “Get away,” my fellow felons muttered. But the cops never noticed, so I took it and went. Later I found some acquaintances who told tales of a tall lugubrious German slowly taking out his camera and photographing the tiny red-faced and gesticulating cop. I wonder how much of that was true. French cops were no fun in those days. (Don’t know what they’re like now…)

    I also remember being given a lift on the back of a motorbike as I hitched along the coast to Italy (or maybe from Italy). The combination of swivelling rucksack on back, narrow bends below, steep drops beside and maniacal rider in front served to achieve some indelible etching in my brain region. If you’ve ever noticed me twitch oddly and uncontrollably, that’s the reason…

    • scrapstu1949 July 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks Gerry. You and Chris should go there.

    • scrapstu1949 July 3, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      Sorry — I didn’t read the rest of your comment. Sounds as though your visit was more exciting and hair-raising than mine. It’s still worth a re-visit though.

  2. jarvisandbeetle July 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    really enjoyed reading about your break, again making me want to visit as well. You will have to follow up with a flood blog!

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