Nice from the old fort
La Falabrac Fabrik
Rue Droite - Nice
Villa La Tour terrace
Villa Rivoli superior room
The soulful city of the Riviera - Nice, France
There’s always room in life for opulence. I’m not dismissing the joy of drinking bubbly from a vintage teacup whilst wearing a diamond set turban in the bath. It’s wrong, though, for a place to be incorrectly typecast and, if you think that the French Riviera is all jewels, casinos and high maintenance small dogs, then I would venture that you haven’t been to Nice. The city has its share of art-deco mega hotels but also a diverse cosmopolitanism and pockets of bohemian atmosphere that make for a memorable visit even without an heiress’ budget.
The permanent collection at Nice’s Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC) celebrates free thinking with its focus on two twentieth century art movements - Pop Art and, its European contemporary, New Realism. Olivier Bergesi, Modern Art Curator at the museum, told me how both movements "criticised consumptionism" but "pop art used painting whereas the New Realists used the objects themselves". On display is one of Cesar's sculptures of compressed cars, a body of work donated by Nicki de Saint Phalle (including her 1962 seeming foretelling of a skyline violence, such as we saw on 9/11, in Pirodactyl over New York) and pieces by Yves Klein who died in the area.
One of the ideas of the New Realism movement was "collective individuality" with the artists believing that their differences gave them strength. This spirit of collectivism is honoured at, ethical cafe and store, La Falabrak Fabrik. Run by volunteers and on a not-for-profit basis, Falabrak serves seasonal, local and organic food as you sit at brightly painted tables either in the café or on the small street outside. The lunch menu is 13 Euros when it is vegetarian (which it is four days a week) and 15 Euros when meat is served. I had delicious chestnut soup, homemade lasagna and lemonade made with lemons from Menton. Children are warmly welcomed and the café attracts a local, relaxed crowd with a hint of exotic glamour - I talked to an Italian lady who had studied dance in Varanasi before returning to Nice to raise her children.
Around the edges of the shop, vintage, recycled and fair-trade clothes and gifts are sold (being France the donors have high taste and I picked up a beautiful bottle green pair of vintage shoes for 8 Euros). In the back room there is a library and an association that offers food sold at cost for a small monthly membership fee. Falabrak run shows and workshops, on topics such as recycling, for children. Meanwhile, across town, in the modern streets by the train station (which are set to enjoy large-scale municipal grooming over the next few years) is the Nice branch of French fair-trade emporium Artisans du Monde which stocks gifts, clothes and groceries imported from certified projects around the world as well as carrying out a public education programme that covers development and “international solidarity”.
Nice’s geographical position and history give it a truly international flavour. It was part of Italy until 1860 when it was adjoined to France in an exchange that saw Lombardy unified with Piedmont. This gives an Italian heritage to many of the city’s restaurants. Attimi is a modern eatery, boasting big windows over the Place Massena, that is part of the slow food movement. The owners import Italian specialties to create their menu which includes attimis (thin crust pizzas) – mine came with anchovies, olives, oregano and capers from Salina.
The regional dialects (Nicoise if your family is from the city and Piedmontese if your family is from across the border) are fast dying out. Predominantly spoken by the older generation, few younger people understand and less speak them.
Restaurant Acchiardo, deep in Old Nice, has been run by four generations of the same family and whilst, the oldest son has recently returned (from a stint in London at the FT) to run the restaurant, his Piedmontese speaking father still gets up at five every weekday morning (the restaurant is closed at weekends) to head to the market and preside over the fresh cooking before the lunch service.
Traditional Nicoise dishes, such as Soupe de Poissons and mince stuffed vegetables, are on the menu as well as rich Piedmont gnocchi. The daily special, when I visited, was tender beef tongue served, along with boiled potatoes, in a tarragon and caper sauce for less than 12 Euros.
Nice also has an abundance of North African and Mediterranean restaurants – Pera combines Turkish, Libyan, Armenian and Greek cooking. Their set meals have seemingly been devised for giants. For 13 Euros, a huge portion of Hummus and Falafel is followed by an equally hearty moussaka served with an endless supply of hot pita bread and can be accompanied by a goblet of rose wine for 3 Euros.
Nice’s artistic history is well known; its unique light attracted painters including Henri Matisse. The tradition continues and you can see artists plying their trade amongst the stalls at the Flower Market or in the galleries along the Rue Droite (the gallery of Jean-Claude Leclair at number 29 is a must see. His almost photographic paintings span Africa and the French Riviera and he captures the magical way that the bright light slices into Nice’s dark streets). Wander slowly as the buildings on the Rue Droite are tightly packed and it is easy to miss a treasure like the Palais Lascaris. The palace was built in the 17th Century, in the baroque style, and its interior courtyards have glimpses of that Nice blue sky. It houses a collection of historic musical instruments (including a mellophone from 1840) and also has a replica of a 17th century pharmacist’s store, complete with drawers of herbs.
Nice takes its art seriously with a large selection of museums, including the renowned Matisse Museum in the Cimiez district, that are all free (with the exception of the Chagall Musem). The first Nice carnival was in 1873 and next year’s theme, in honour of the London Olympics, will be “The King of Sport”. The history of the fifteen days of revelry, crowned by a procession and firework display, is shown in one of the rooms of the Massena Museum and carnival programmes and posters from the first carnivals are on display.
Although the much filmed coastline between Nice and Monte Carlo is arguably best seen from a To Catch a Thief style sports car, the number 100 express bus runs the same route for 1 Euro. Stop off at, seaside artist’s enclave, Villefranche Sur Mer and, when you arrive in Monte Carlo, climb the hill (or jump on the bus) to les Jardins Exotiques to catch a billion euro view. If Monaco has tickled your expensive taste buds, have a nightcap back in Nice in Le Relais piano bar of Belle Epoque grand dame Hotel Negresco (be warned though: the large baroque puppet guarding the ladies toilet is very alarming).
Hotelier Barbara Kimmig has taken her interior design eye (and her husband’s artisan skills) to create two boutique hotels in Nice. A quick test to choose between them is whether you are feeling more “princess” or “artist”. If you are a princess choose the Hotel Villa Rivoli, two blocks back from the Hotel Negresco. This converted Belle Epoque townhouse has individually decorated rooms – mine had deep pink wallpaper, an antique double bed piled high with pillows and a tiny balcony. There’s a garden area and a delicious continental breakfast. Alternatively, the Hotel du Tour is in the Old Town and was part of an 18th century convent. It is a chambre d’hote (a very specific accommodation category in France denoting family run rooms) and, again, each bedroom is unique. Breakfast is taken around a communal table downstairs and I loved the little rooftop terrace which seemed the perfect place to write your letters home from Nice.
- I travelled to Nice with bmi, British Midland International, who fly directly between London Heathrow and Nice. Flights are twice daily for Monday to Saturday flights, and a daily service on a Sunday. Economy fares are available from £89 return, and business class fares are available from £159 return including all taxes and charges (A great option for treating yourself before Nice; flying in business class allows the glamour to begin at Heathrow. Relax in Terminal One’s newest lounge and once on board enjoy a guaranteed aisle or window seat, a three-course meal and your choice of drinks.)
- Hotel Villa Rivoli villa-rivoli.com
- Hotel Villa La Tour villa-la-tour.com
- MAMAC www.mamac-nice.org
- La Falabrac Fabrik falabrac.fabrik.free.fr
- The Nice branch of Artisans du Monde nice.artisansdumonde.org
- Attimi www.attimi.fr
- Restaurant Acchiardo (38 Rue Droite)
- Pera (2 Descente Marche)
- Jean Claude Leclaire Gallery www.galerieleclaire.com
- Palais Lascaris www.palais-lascaris-nice.org
- Matisse Museum www.musee-matisse-nice.org
- Massena Museum www.musee-massena-nice.org
- For more information about the 2012 Nice Carnival: www.nicecarnaval.com
- Hotel Negresco www.hotel-negresco-nice.com
- Les jardins-exotiques in Monaco www.jardin-exotique.mc