City for all seasons
ON THE MED La Colline and Baie des Anges. Photograph: Jean François Tripelon-Jarry/Atout France
Go Citybreak: Like to laze on the beach or take the culture trail? To holiday in winter or summer? Spend a little or a lot? The French city has something for everyone – and plenty of sunshine, writes Frances O’Rourke
IT WAS Somerset Maugham who dubbed the Côte d’Azur a sunny place for shady people, and Nice – cleaned up and tourist friendly, scrubbed and sparkling in the Mediterranean sun – still has just a hint of its sometimes rackety past. Its soupcon of glamour explains why so many people find it hard to resist.
The French city has something for everyone: older people craving winter sun and a touch of culture, young people who want to raise the roof and dance on the tables in bars in the old town; couples who want a beach holiday but love city life; dog lovers who can spend hours on Promenade des Anglais watching well-behaved French chiens as well groomed as their owners; shoppers who have what seem like hundreds of chic boutiques to choose from. And sun worshippers.
It was Nice winters that drew the Victorians to this city by the sea: in the 19th century, November to April was high season, when well-heeled Britons came to play in their recently discovered refuge from damp, grey skies. And although today high season is from April to October, winter remains a great time to visit Nice.
Take January: it’s windy and wet in Dublin, earth-meets-sky weather, grey gloom seeping into everything. Hop on to a plane to Nice, jump on to the number 98 bus outside the small, sunwashed airport, and within half an hour jump off near Hôtel Negresco, more or less the midpoint of Promenade des Anglais (and, conveniently, just a few blocks from the tourist office).
Step over to the edge of the prom and there it is: the turquoise Mediterranean, Baie des Anges, the sky a vivid painterly blue, fluffy white clouds drifting towards north Africa. It’s around 16 to 20 degrees; before you head off for a coffee and a verre de vin roséyou stop and rest on one of the blue chairs lining the prom to breathe in the air.
Yes, this is the life. Of course, you can visit Nice at any time of the year – spring and autumn are probably best, when the weather is hot enough for swimming but not as overheated as August, and when it’s still temperate enough to take a stroll. But oh, the contrast, and that strong winter sun.
Nice has excellent public transport – buses, trains and a Luas-style tram that costs just €1 to anywhere – but it’s a great place for walking (and cycling, too, since last summer, when Nice got its street-rental bikes, the Vélos Bleus). Take Promenade des Anglais: it’s a main thoroughfare for cars, of course, but its wide pavement by the sea is a pleasure to stroll along by day or night.
It has space for cyclists and skateboarders, joggers, dog walkers, street entertainers. You can walk fast or slow, shuffle or speedwalk, and people-watch to your heart’s content. And when you get tired there are those chairs to flop on to and stare out over the azure sea.
There are private beaches below the prom where you can rent a rather overpriced lounger for the day and eat in a restaurant in comfort; or you could just buy a cheap beach mattress and lie in the public area.
You need the mattress because it’s an all-pebble beach, and you need to be a goodish swimmer to plunge in, as the beach shelves steeply. (It is not great for very small children.) Even in winter you can sit there with a good book (and a good coat) and soak up the fierce noonday sun.
By night the palm trees that line the promenade are wreathed in blue lights, and there always seems to be somebody on the beach – knots of people chatting, youngsters playing guitars.
The prom runs from nearish the airport all the way to the port and is part of Nice’s unique charm. This is a place that has all the attractions of a good-sized city with a life of its own along with seaside holiday promise – it never has the sad out-of-season feeling of dedicated tourist resorts.
You can spend a lot or a little, and enjoy a holiday here, stay in a grand five-star hotel or a charming two-star (and check out self-catering, too: there are plenty of apartments for short rentals in Nice).
Naturally, there are excellent restaurants everywhere, but for €10-€15 you can get a plate of moules fritesand a glass of wine in one of hundreds of brasseries.
What’s to see? Stroll along the prom and swing left past the Albert 1st Gardens with their Victorian carousel and go on up to Place Masséna. Stand there to get your bearings, and you can look towards many of the areas you’ll want to explore.
Masséna is a huge open space with the ochre-coloured exterior of Galeries Lafayette on one side and a huge fountain on the other.
Tall plinths with modern sculptures on top, which glow in primary colours by night, line the square; the new tram runs through it, linking the city’s main street, Avenue Jean Médecin, with the old town.
At a glance you can see up the heart of the city’s retail distrinct right to the snow-capped Alps beyond. Turn and you can glimpse the sea; another turn and you’ll see the entrance to the old town.
Vieux Ville is tourist central, especially in the summer, but it still retains its souk-style charm: bargain shops rub shoulders with chic ateliers and art galleries, patisseries and confiseriespiled high with jewel-like sweets.
It’s easy to get lost in these warrens of streets, easy too to get away from crowds if you walk just a few minutes from the central thoroughfares. Churches and shops and bars and restaurants rub shoulders here.
Take Place Rossetti, dominated by the 17th-century Cathédrale Ste Réparate. In summer it’s a bustling hub of cafes and gelaterias and bars; by night it’s party central – places like Wayne’s Bar nearby have TV football, happy hours and late-night drinking.
By day the flower and antiques markets of Cours Saleya, at the entrance to the old town, are not to be missed. If you’ve found your way to this corner of town you can’t miss Ma Nolan’s, an Irish pub, good if you’re looking for a rugby match on TV.
A stroll out of the old town through Place Garibaldi can lead you to one entrance to La Colline, the rocky outcrop and park where you can look from a height right over Baie des Anges. It’s a steep but pleasant climb if the weather’s right; you could also get the lift up the hill from the entrance nearer the sea.
Tucked away in one hidden corner of Garibaldi is a small, friendly cinema that’s usually open all day. Like the Rialto, a block from Hôtel Negresco, it shows plenty of English-language films. (Look out for the initials VO, for version originale.) Another exit leads to the Museum of Modern Art, a brilliant gallery with lots of French and American art from the 1960s on.
If museums and galleries and churches are your fancy, Nice has more than enough to explore on repeated visits. Get a bus up to Cimiez, to the Matisse museum, and don’t miss the monastery and gardens on the far side of the park: the gardens offer beautiful views over the red-roofed city and the bay.
Explore the Roman ruins (Cimiez was the site of the first settlement), and look out for the Chagall museum as you walk down the hill. Walking, you get to admire the handsome bourgeois architecture of stately apartment blocks.
Back in the centre, stroll along Rue de France, the road that runs parallel to the promenade, lined with elegant shops, restaurants and bars. (Star Dog, which has leather jackets for biker dogs, sunglasses and two fat pugs reclining on a leopard-skin chaise longue inside the door, is my favourite.) Look out for the Holy Trinity Anglican church (11 Rue de la Buffa, anglican-nice.com), where a small sign points to the grave of Henry Francis Lyte, the Fermanagh-reared composer of Abide with Me.
It illustrates one of the many charms of Nice: strongly influenced by Italy (it belonged to the kingdom of Sardinia in the days before Italy was Italy), by emigre Russians, by sun-seeking Victorians, by Americans in the jazz age and by a large north African population, it’s a fascinating cultural mix with a rich artistic heritage.
And as well as all this, it’s in the middle of the Côte d’Azur, so access from Nice by bus (€1 on the Ligne d’Azur) or by train to most anywhere on the Riviera, from Monaco to Cannes, or up into the Alps to explore inland Provence, is easy. But that’s another article.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Nice all year round and from Cork from April to October. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flights from Dublin resume on March 30th.
Where to stay, where to go, where to eat in Nice
5 places to stay
Palais de la Mediterranée. 13-15 Promenade des Anglais, 00-33-4-92147700, palais.concorde-hotels.com. This five-star hotel (rates from about €280 a night) is a landmark in Nice, with its recently restored 1930s art-deco facade and prime seafront location. On the third floor there’s an outdoor swimming pool, and you can dine on the open-air terrace looking over the sea; downstairs, there’s a casino.
Hôtel la Perouse. 11 Quai Rauba Capeu, 00-33-4-93623463, hotel-la-perouse.com. This four-star hotel is a special treat, one of the prettiest in Nice. At the end of the promenade, on the curve going towards the port, near the Saleya market, it nestles into the Château de la Colline and overlooks the sea. Inner courtyard and swimming pool. Costs from about €175 a night.
Le Beau Rivage. 24Rue St François de Paule, 00-33-4-92478282. nicebeaurivage.com. Four-star hotel in good location beside the flower market and the opera house, next to the old town and across the road from the sea near the end of Promenade des Anglais. From €210 a night.
Clair Hotel. 23 Boulevard Carnot, 00-33-4-93896989. This two-star hotel beside the prehistory Terra Amata museum and the port is a family-run converted schoolhouse, with a Mediterranean garden where breakfast is served. From €55 for a double room.
Villa Saint-Hubert. 26 Rue Michel-Ange, 00-33-4-93846651, villasainthubert.com. This turn-of-the-century villa near a university campus is very quiet and has a private garden. Breakfast is served on a flowery patio. Doubles from about €60 a night.
5 places to eat
La Réserve de Nice. 60 Boulevard Franck Pilatte, 00-33-4-97081480, lareservedenice.fr. One of the most beautiful restaurants in Nice, La Réserve is in a belle- epoque building around the corner from the port. It used to be the place to go for Niçois in the 1950s; it reopened only about two years ago. Right on the sea, it is one of the most expensive restaurants in Nice – but does have a menu for €30.
La Petite Maison. 11 Rue Saint François de Paule, 00-33-4-93925959, lapetitemaison-nice.com. In the old town, close to the opera house. The food is authentic Niçoise, but diners mostly come to people watch.
Au Moulin Enchanté. Rue Barbéris, 00-33-4-93553314, aumoulinenchante.com. A rustic-style restaurant near the Acropolis exhibition centre and modern art museum, with charming staff and an excellent range of menus.
La Table Alziari. 4 Rue François Zanin, 00-33-4-93803403. Near the fish market in the old town, one of the best restaurants in Nice is owned by the olive-oil family of the same name. Wonderful, excellent-value food in a tiny restaurant on an old side street, with tables on the steps in the summer.
Le Bistrot D’Antoine. 27 Rue de la Préfecture, 00-33-4-93852957. Book ahead if you want to lunch in this old-town restaurant. Good meat and occasional fish dishes.
5 places to go
L’Opéra. 4-6 Rue St François de Paule, 00-33-4-92174000, opera-nice.org. Today’s opera house, built on the site of a theatre destroyed by fire in 1881, was inuagurated in 1885 and is a typical example of Second Empire architecture. It’s worth taking in a concert even if it’s just to see inside.
Hôtel Negresco. 37 Promenade des Anglais , 00-33-4-93166400, hotel-negresco-nice.com. Built in 1912, this museum hotel overlooking Baie des Anges is a French national historic monument. Drop in to look at the art – historic paintings as well as Dalí, Niki de Saint Phalle and its magnificent chandelier. Treat yourself to a glass of wine or a cocktail in the wood-panelled bar – and keep an eye out for the owner’s cat, who has access all areas.
Asian Arts Museum. 405 Promenade des Anglais/ Arénas, 00-33-4-92293700, arts-asiatiques.com. This museum, designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, is housed in a building of white marble, glass and steel. It contains classical and contemporary works and has a very Zen tea pavilion.
Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art. Promenade des Arts, 00-33-4-97134201, mamac-nice.org. Works by sculptors like Barry Flanagan, Keith Haring and Niki de Saint Phalle can be seen in this modern art gallery in a very modern building – four grey marble towers linked by transparent walkways. Permanent collections trace the history of the European and American avant-garde since the early 1960s.
Franciscan Museum. Church and monastery of Cimiez, Place du Monastère, 00-33-4-93810004. In the hills of Cimiez, this museum tells the history of the Franciscan convent from the 13th century to the present, with paintings, illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, reconstructed chapel and monk’s cells. The monastery gardens have excellent views over the bay.
Chez Pipo. 13 Rue Bavastro, 00-33-4-93558882, chezpipo.fr. An old/new hotspot, this restaurant specialises in the local delicacy socca (a crepe-type dish made with chickpea flour). Just behind the church in the port, this 1929 restaurant was revamped and reopened just last summer by the children of the family that owns it.
Head for Rue Alphonse Karr for fashion shops – it’s the most branché (trendy) in Nice. Look out for Desert, for pricey but unusual clothes, and a wonderful selection of shoe shops. Look on Avenue de Verdun and Rue Paradis, the road that leads up to Alphone Karr, for Chanel, Sonia Rykiel, Hermès and so on). For olive-oil products – not just oil but soaps, perfumes, tapenades and more – Alziari (alziari.com) and À L’Olivier (alolivier.com), both on Rue St François de Paule near the opera house, are a treat. If feeling ambitious, head for Cap 3000, the biggest shopping centre on the French Riviera, at Avenue Eugène Donadei in St Laurent du Var (00-33-4-93311035, cap3000.com). This mall near Nice airport, a short bus ride from the city centre, has a wide range of shops, from Galeries Lafayette on.
When to go
The biggest event of the winter on the Riviera is Nice’s flower festival and carnival, from February 12th to 28th, with Mardi Gras-style parades and entertainment day and night. It finishes with a spectacular closing parade, bonfire and fireworks on the sea . There’s Fête de la Mer in June, when the fishermen of Nice celebrate St Peter’s Day with Mass followed by a processsion to a beach where a boat is burned in honour of their patron saint. In July there’s a long-established jazz festival, and in December there’s a colourful Christmas market at Place Masséna.