Nice’s new normal: Feeling its way back after 2016 attack
Lara Marlowe reports from the Promenade des Anglais, now possibly the world’s safest seafront
The Promenade Des Anglais’s vista is comprised of three harmonious and roughly equal parts: the turquoise and sapphire Mediterranean, the sky it is reflecting, and the bustling, palm-lined avenue against the backdrop of the city and mountains
A glamorous blonde in sunglasses and stilettos waits for her driver on the Promenade des Anglais, surrounded by bags from Chanel and Louis Vuitton. American teenagers straggle by in swimsuits, reeking of tanning oil. On the rocky beach below there are Japanese tourists with distinctive parasols, topless Scandinavian women and Arab mothers from the immigrant banlieues wearing headscarves and watching over the family’s food cooler.
Strolling along “the Prom,” as the Niçois call it, you pause to read the menu posted outside the Hôtel Negresco’s Chantecler restaurant. Caviar as a starter at €180 to €310, or a bottle of La Tâche Grand Cru wine for €4,800. Just metres away you can buy kebabs, ice cream or Belgian waffles for pennies. The Prom caters to every taste and every budget.
Architectural treasures alternate with ugly high-rises. The Promenade is rich and poor, young and old, elegant and seedy. One usually finds such contrasts only in developing countries.
For more than two centuries tourism has been Nice’s raison d’être. The city’s 400,000 residents are outnumbered by six million tourists each year. Those residents who can afford it escape to the mountains in summer, abandoning the Promenade to visitors from elsewhere in France, North and South Americans, British, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Russians, Africans, Arabs and Asians.
English is the lingua franca in this melting pot and tower of Babel. People of every age, race, language and social class rub shoulders with apparent ease.
The Promenade stretches in a perfect arc for 7km along the Bay of Angels. As painted by Matisse and Chagall, the stunning vista is comprised of three harmonious and roughly equal parts: the turquoise and sapphire Mediterranean, the sky it is reflecting, and the bustling, palm-lined avenue against the backdrop of the city and mountains.
The oldest surviving villa on the Promenade was built for Lady Penelope Rivers in 1787, and is now a retirement home for French army officers. Queen Victoria wintered up the hill in Cimiez, but descended to the Promenade each day to breathe the sea air. The crowned heads of Europe imitated her, including the czar of Russia.
Nice’s cosmopolitan character is the city’s main argument in seeking recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site
Large English and Russian communities sprang up in the 19th century. The English built the Promenade, the Russians an Orthodox cathedral. The Moscow-Nice train still makes the 56-hour journey each week.
The walls of the Promenade are lined with plaques commemorating the sojourns of famous people. The composer Berlioz, the painter Matisse and the novelist Chekhov all lived at the Beau Rivage Hotel. In 1887, the nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and St Thérèse de Lisieux stayed in the Beau Rivage at the same time.
A plaque outside the Hôtel Suisse, at the east end of the Promenade, records that James Joyce began writing Finnegans Wake there. In September, Ireland’s Ambassador Patricia O’Brien and Nice’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, are to unveil a plaque at 31 rue d’Angleterre, where the poet John Montague lived until his death in 2016.
‘Mankind on the march’
Nice’s cosmopolitan character is the city’s main argument in seeking recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Promenade is an example of what Olivier-Henri Sambucchi, a city official who has been assigned to the Unesco campaign, calls “mankind on the march”.
Sambucchi’s apartment has a view of the bay. “What impresses me most is the endless parade of humanity beneath my windows, a long procession that never ends, not even at two or three in the morning.”
Patrice Maggio, deputy director of the Nice-Matin newspaper group, also lives on the Prom.
“Early in the morning I see the first joggers, the first cyclists, the first bathers,” Maggio says. He is from the neighbouring Var department, where the beaches are white sand. “I can’t get used to the galets,” Maggio says, referring to the beige and grey stones on the beach. “It hurts to walk on them. It hurts to lie on them. But the true Niçois don’t seem to notice.”
Maggio walks on the Prom in the evening after work, “to absorb the beauty, to disconnect. You forget everything, and find a sort of inner calm in the midst of a noisy city.”
The Hôtel Negresco, a meringue-like structure inaugurated in 1913, fills an entire block of the Promenade and is one of its most famous landmarks. The Baccarat chandelier in the central atrium is said to have accounted for one tenth the price of the hotel. Its owner furnished it with objets d’art and antiques purchased all over Europe.
The doorman at the Negresco wears a red, blue and gold Napoleonic uniform. “Versailles” is emblazoned in gold letters above the salon where a rare Hyacinthe Rigaud portrait of Louis XIV hangs. Marble busts of Marie-Antoinette flank the entry to the bar.
A gaggle of tourists crane their necks at the door, trying to glimpse the Negresco’s splendour, like the mob at the gates of the chateau. The doorman shoos them away.
By attacking the Promenade the assassin attacked Nice’s soul for every Niçois has a memory of the Prom
On July 14th, 2016, a mad Tunisian drove a refrigerated lorry down the Promenade after Bastille Day fireworks, killing 86 people. Events on the Prom were cancelled for a year out of respect for the dead.
Slowly, painfully, Nice is feeling its way back. On the second anniversary of the massacre 86 shafts of light were projected above the waterfront. There will be a fireworks show over the Bay of Angels on August 15th, the first since the atrocity. The Ironman triathlon and Nice Jazz Festival have resumed on the Promenade.
By attacking the Promenade the assassin attacked Nice’s soul for every Niçois has a memory of the Prom.
“When you’re an infant your parents teach you to walk there,” says Rudy Salles, a former deputy in the National Assembly and deputy mayor in charge of tourism. “You learn to ride a bicycle on the Promenade. Boys and girls go to the beach together, so you had your first kiss there. When you get married your wedding photos are taken on the Promenade. And when you’re old you go to the Promenade to look at the sea and warm yourself in the sun.”
Salles claims the Promenade is now the safest seafront in the world. Mayor Estrosi has installed retractable iron posts linked by a cable the entire length of the boulevard to prevent a vehicle mounting the pavement. A new row of palm trees has been planted at the edge of the wide walkway, mirroring the palms down the central reservation.
But visitors remain skittish. A celebratory fire cracker during the French-Uruguay World Cap match started a stampede. No one died, but tables were knocked over, people lost sandals and cut their feet on broken glass.
The memorial to the victims of the Bastille Day massacre has been moved to a discreet corner of the garden of the Villa Massena, next door to the Hôtel Negresco. Eighty-six names are engraved on a granite marker. “In memory of our angels,” it says. Framed photographs of victims, plush toys and and pots of flowers sit on the steps leading up to the marker.
The Palais de la Méditerranée is a further example of the way the Promenade has absorbed tragedy and renewed itself. A masterpiece of art deco architecture, the Palais was inaugurated as a casino in 1929, and immortalised in Jacques Démy’s 1963 film classic La Baie des Anges. Jeanne Moreau played a platinum blonde femme fatale whose gambling addiction dragged her young lover down with her.
The Palais de la Méditerranée was demolished in 1990, the result of the owner’s grief over her daughter’s disappearance and murder. The façade was saved in extremis by a protection order, and the site stood derelict for 14 years.
Today the casino bears no trace of its sophisticated past. Tourists in shorts and T-shirts wander through the shabby interior, filled with flashing neon lights and slot machines. Like everything else on the Prom, the tawdry casino co-exists with luxury in the form of the five-star Hyatt Regency Hotel, behind the same façade but under separate management.
I listened all day for Irish voices in vain. At Ma Nolan’s Irish pub, one block back from the Promenade in Nice’s old town, I found an explanation. “They’re getting good weather at home now,” says David Fitzpatrick, the bar manager from Adare, Co Limerick.
Thady Nolan, a former computer engineer from Portlaoise, Co Laois, who founded Ma Nolan’s in 2005 with his French business partner Christophe Souques, says the Irish community in Nice peaked during the Celtic Tiger years.
Retired Irish people buy or rent apartments in Nice and spend several months there. For their older clientèle, Nolan and Souques recently opened their fourth Irish pub on the Cote d’Azur, The Butler.
Irish youths still take cheap flights to Nice, “to eat, drink and have sex”, Souques says. “It’s definitely cheaper than central Dublin,” Nolan adds.
Some finance their break by waiting tables or drawing pints at Ma Nolan’s. When they’re not working the Irish youths party all night, go for a swim or a last jar on the Prom at dawn, then sleep until afternoon, before recommencing.