Friday, 18 February 2011

It's Nicer in Nice

It's Nicer in Nice – as the song from Sandy Wilson's musical The Boyfriend goes. It most certainly feels that way at the moment. After another cold February day in London I fully understand how in the 19th and early 20th centuries many privileged folk spent their winters on the French Riviera.

Back in November we treated ourselves to a weekend in Nice for our fifth wedding anniversary (which coincided with my birthday). Many years beforehand I had passed through Nice with my Inter-rail ticket, staying in the youth hostel and spending most of my time in neighbouring Villefranche as high-season Nice seemed too oppressive. I had just done my A levels and it was late July: too busy and sticky.

Our flight arrived at Nice-Côte d'Azur just after lunch on the Friday, having flown beyond the French coast, over the Mediterranean, before curving back to the airport that's located practically on the beach. In the glinting sunlight our descent offered us stunning views of the Cap d'Antibes to the west and broad views towards Nice and Monte Carlo to the east. Stunning. As we got off the plane, almost blinded by the strength of the light and feeling the unexpected warmth, we couldn't believe we had left cold, dreary London just a couple of hours earlier. Happy birthday Lucy!

I could ramble on at length about how impressed we were by Nice, particularly at this quieter time of year, but I'll try to put it succinctly. It is a surprisingly substantial city – the fifth largest in France (although it only formally became part of France in 1860) – and, consequently, has a lot to offer the visitor. We stayed near the old town, at the bottom of the Baie des Anges and Promenade des Anglais, just around the headland from the harbour. Our views of the coast could not have been better – along the coast, rather than straight out to sea. The picture below shows the view from the hotel's roof terrace.

A couple of minutes' walk from our hotel (La Pérouse) was the Marché aux Fleurs in the Old Town, a glorious, bustling market fringed with bars and restaurants. This is where we had our breakfast each morning – outside watching the world go by – and memorable strolls salivating over glorious Provençal produce (check out the ceps, the figs and even the raw olives in the pics below). Perhaps it was the purity of the light, but everything seemed larger than life – bigger and more intensely coloured. What's more, I have never seen so many varieties of rose, except at New Covent Garden market with my florist mother; Grasse is only a few kilometres inland. It was perfect for picking up a few Christmas presents.

You can dine out very well in Nice, as you can in any large, varied city. On our first evening we ate close to our hotel at Créations Don Camillo on the recommendation of an old colleague from Oddbins, Rod Smith MW, now based on Riviera. We had a remarkable tasting menu with imaginatively selected wines to accompany the seasonal dishes. On the Saturday evening we had a much simpler meal of poulet roti frites in a restaurant in a pedestrianised shopping street in the New Town, a couple of blocks away from the Negresco Hotel where we spent the rest of the evening sipping Champagne, listing to some live jazz and people watching. (And strolling around the bonkers art-filled reception.)

Multi-faceted Nice is well worth exploring. We enjoyed visiting the Italianate old port and arcaded Place Garibaldi, quirky Mont Boron further east with some extraordinary Gothic villas (see pic above). Inland is the 19th century suburb of Cimiez where Queen Victoria and Russian royalty regularly spent their winters; Matisse had a home here which is now a museum dedicated to him. Back down by the seafront Nice gets more Miami Beach-like with sleek Art Deco apartment blocks and, of course, the Promenade des Anglais. I hadn't realised just how satisfying Nice was on so many levels and what an infectious energy it has.

On the Sunday, just before leaving, we had some spare time and popped into the Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain and saw works by Yves Klein whose iconic paintings are so redolent of the Riviera and that unforgettably vivid, uplifting shade of blue. Even while we were there in mid November it took your breath away. People were sunbathing on the beach, topless even, while some were swimming in the sea. It was truly another world and an unexpectedly good out-of-season break. And not just for wintering dowagers.

A practical note
We deliberately travelled to Nice out of season and decided against hiring a car, having been reassured about the quality of the public transport in this part of France. I am sure this enhanced our visit. If we'd been stuck in busy traffic travelling along the coast road and worrying about parking in central Nice, it would have been an entirely different experience. We used local bus services, but the rail network along the Côte d'Azur is excellent, as are the trams serving Nice.

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