‘It is hot, the sun is shining, the windows of my bedroom are wide open – and those of my soul,” wrote Anton Chekhov of Nice. I’ve been lured back here after more than two decades, by the spirit of Mrs WB Yeats no less, about whom I’m here to interview her friend, the renowned Irish poet John Montague (Mrs George Yeats buried her husband in nearby Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in 1939 – despite repatriation of his remains, it’s likely some of his bones still repose on the Côte d’Azur).
Nice, famous for its light and creative energy, is a magnet to artists so it is no surprise that Montague has made his home in this luminous, inspiring spot, with his wife, novelist Elizabeth Wassell.
Happily, the world the Montagues inhabit is not the out-of-reach Riviera of Roman Abramovich, F Scott Fitzgerald, or even Bono, but Nice’s vibrant multi-ethnic quarter near the train station, where I book in to one of many perfectly acceptable (and reasonably priced) two-star hotels. Here, around Place Saëtone, (named after Andriot Saëtone who revived Nice Carnival in the 19th century), Armenian restaurant owners rub shoulders with Turks; and North Africans live cheek by jowl with Pied Noirs (French people who lived in former North African colonies). Amid a smattering of Halal butchers, Japanese, Indian, and Vietnamese restaurants, a French husband-and-wife team offer classic French breakfast in brasserie Le Circuit.
Amateur jazz, poetry recitals and art exhibitions thrive at local bar Caves Romagnan, and in case you’re into vintage comics, Nice’s only hipster comic shop, BD Fugue, is right here too. It’s an ideal base from where to soak up all the magic of the Côte d’Azur, while remaining grounded with real people in the warm heart of this special city. It is also just a pleasant stroll down the pedestrianised main shopping thoroughfare, Avenue Jean Médecin, to France’s most famous, and now also its saddest seafront, the Promenade des Anglais.
First things first – à la plage. I make a beeline for Plage Beau Rivage, just beyond the newly restored Place Massena overlooked on high by seven serene Buddha-like statues, where Avenue Jean Médecin meets the Promenade des Anglais. There’s nothing wrong with the public beach, but a private-beach sun lounger does come in handy as the stones of Nice beach are notoriously uncomfortable.
You can’t beat that feeling of floating out in the middle of a bay on the Mediterranean on a steaming hot summer’s day. Out there, I was oblivious to the burkini melodrama unfolding simultaneously on another part of Nice beach. Actually, I was oblivious to everything else except the sound of the stones rattling far beneath me (dip your head underwater, you’ll hear them), and the cool buoyancy of the water in which I floated, drifting around Nice’s Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels). I promised myself to remember this feeling when the winter chill hits.
It was no chore to do our bit to help Nice’s recovery from the recent Bastille day attacks, by making like good tourists. We started by hopping on a rickshaw tour of Nice with happymoov.com from Place Massena (€25 pps for a one-hour tour).
Historically, Nice only became part of France in 1860, our rickshaw tour-guide Timba Harris, a composer and violinist from LA, informed us. Until then, Nice was Italian – hence the great pizza and the fact that the signs in Vieux Nice are bilingual in French and the local dialect, Niçard.
Living the dream, in January Harris and his part-Irish clarinettist wife moved to "Zonnmé", an artists' community in Afrique du Nord, just north of Nice train station which hosts regular gigs and exhibitions. After the Bastille day attacks, he found himself cycling his tourist rickshaw up and down a blood-stained Promenade des Anglais. Nice Jazz Festival was cancelled. Tourist figures slumped, inspiring the headlines in Nice Matin: "Eté Morose" ("Morose Summer"). But making like a Niçois, Harris is getting on with it, doing his part for Nice tourism.
At the spot where the massacre happened on the touristy Promenade des Anglais, there’s an eerie and sad ad hoc memorial to the 84 victims, comprising teddy bears, fading hand-written notes, sun-withered flowers and votive candles. Below, still presided over by the belle époque Negresco hotel, the beaches are open and populated by sun-worshippers. So, everything is as it was, except punctuated by occasional clusters of soldiers in combat gear, brandishing machine guns – patrolling the promenade, Avenue Jean Médecin, the train station, and even Place Saëtone.
We discovered a Nice more wonderful than ever, pedalling through the spectacular neo-classical Place Massena, overlooked now by seven Buddha-like statues, symbolising the seven continents, white during the day, lit multi-coloured at night, then turning into Promenade de Paillon, Nice’s magnificent new greenway, whose underground river spouts extraordinary water features and playgrounds for kids. Navigating through the shaded, narrow streets of old Nice, we encountered bijoux shops, bars, and restaurants, working artists’ studios, and the Matisse House.
We took a pit stop for an ice cream and continued to Cours Saleya’s famous bustling market, which transforms from luscious food market to craft market to flower market throughout the day. Surveying everything from the Opéra de Nice, taking in Nice’s fully functioning port, and the free air walk across the Musée d’Art Contemporain, we finally climbed up from Nice old town for the panoramic view from Parc du Château. In a new layer of tenderness, the locals are sincerely happy to see you and grateful for your custom.
Despite the fact that I spent one of my favourite summers ever here a lifetime ago, after first year in college, this was my first tour of Nice. Way back then, a school friend and I serendipitously landed a dream student job, running 'International House for Young People', a hostel not far from the train station. We even got a mention in the Lonely Planet guide to Nice.
Our hostel may have disappeared without a trace, but I was happy to discover that its spirit lives on, festooned in international flags and an eccentric bright pink Tuk Tuk, further down the same footpath at 32 rue Pertinax. There, Hostel Faubourg Montmartre is run by a radiant 74-year-old who introduces herself as “The Pink Lady”, and fondly recalls her predecessor, Antoine, the Pied Noir ‘patron’ of our erstwhile thriving establishment. She even offers me a job next summer driving her tourist Tuk Tuk around Nice (I’m not ruling it out).
As I learned way back then, another advantage of staying near Nice train station is ease of access to non-stony beaches. Heading half an hour west, we hopped on the train (about €10 return), to the fine sandy beach of Juan Les Pins, a favourite spot of F Scott Fitzgerald, who penned Tender is the Night here. This time around, I hummed "Where do you go to my lovely?" while soaking up the jet-set ambience at Juanita private beach (€18).
Heading in the other direction towards Monaco and Italy (this train is comparable to the Dart), just like in the old days, we were in the magical fishing village of Villefranche Sur Mer in less than 15 minutes (€3.60 return).
We treated ourselves to the exquisite Déli Bo Plage Privée (€22.50) enjoying the tiny pebbles of Villefranche beach. Later, we rambled around the gorgeous 14th-century old town, chilling at the quayside bars and restaurants. Don’t miss the quayside Fisherman’s Chapel, painted by none other than Jean Cocteau, who also replenished his soul here.
How to help Nice and its surrounds recover from the Bastille day attacks? Fully commit to chasing the mysterious light around the Côte d’Azur. What could be easier?
You can hear Deirdre Mulrooney's radio documentary Georgie's Vision online at rte.ie/lyricfm/the-lyric-feature