“Don’t go near the taxi drivers!” screamed the guidebook, “they’re rude and aggressive”. Not so, our non-Uber Uber driver, who thought that a popular Barbara Streisand ballad on maximum decibels, would set the scene for our girls weekend away.
What strikes you first when heading along the Promenade des Anglais into the Old Town of Nice, is the sparking Azure sea, amplified by the beautiful light along this most turquoise of famous coastlines. The Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera still trades on it’s faded glamour, experienced on the 07.50 from London Heathrow, when a film producer tried to interest us in his new venture as he was headed to the Cannes Film Festival. It might have been the great missed opportunity, but it was too early to talk investments.
A popular leisure destination since the 1850’s, Nice is one of the coastal pearls that vied for glamour and glitz with Saint-Tropez, Hyères, Toulon, or Cassis to the west. Included on the ‘Grand Tour’, this beautiful coastline is the stuff of legend; plundered by creatives and the creators of films such as ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘GoldenEye’ and ‘Bedtime Story’. Artists flocked here to set up studios and have left a legacy that continues to inspire painters today, including our host and Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse no less.
You can see why this was a favourite bolthole for the Victorians; keen to get away from their damp, dull and dirty northern Europe cities, what a shock this coastline must have been! The terns fishing over the bay, followed by an opportunist fisherman, are swapped for swooping swallows diving over the rooftops inland. Loathsome shrieking gulls, up all night, and one self-proclaimed protector of tombs that following me around the Chateau Cemetery (Cimitiere du Chateau), that overlooks the town, perching on the magnificent terraced tombs, cawing each time I tried unsuccessfully to wave it away. In amongst the 2,500 graves, in the confusing array of memorials, each one vying to outdo the other, I spotted the tomb of Rosa, Garibaldi’s mother, Emil Jenillenk, founder of Mercedes, and Léon Gambetta, an important statesman during the Franco-Prussian war. In the nearby Jewish cemetery rests René Goscinny, creator of Asterix and one of my favourite authors.
From our apartment, we tried to identify the many church spires that dot the skyline, from which their bells mark the hour, and half hour, a reassuring reminder that we are back on the Continent, and did not interrupt my siesta.
Wedding parties blared their way through the streets, car windows down, waving and smiling to anyone who cared to notice, the guests ignoring the guidebooks sensible shoe advice in their foot-aching gold-heeled stilettos, determined to ascend the many stairs to the Castle Hill summit that dominates the town.
The Old Town is a car-free zone; a mixture of markets, apartments, fabulous window boxes stuffed full of bright geraniums, little shops, restaurants, locals and tourists, the latter wander slowly, stopping unexpectedly, unsure of which lane to take, stuck to their iPhones as they consult Google Maps. I prefer to trust my nose and explore the many stairs and alleyways.
Mercifully free of the bucket-list pressure to bag all the cultural sights, Nice had just enough to tempt us to walk up the hill to visit the Matisse Museum. The community picnic on the lawn outside the villa looked more appealing however, as despite the impressive exterior, the sparsely filled interior (with all the best works hanging in galleries across the globe), took no longer than half an hour to conclude.
I did find myself reaching for the ubiquitous pooh bags as we stepped through the dog shit-smeared pavements, testimony to the favoured Chiens à main, handbag-friendly pooches who head out with their well groomed leaders for an early evening promenade. after the heat of the day has passed. Gaggles of middle-aged cruise passengers, identifiable by their purposeful walking, herald the arrival of another cruise ship. There is plenty of fast food, but not of the calorie-laden bringer of strokes variety; amazing seafood, the gastronomic ambassador, the Salade niçoise, and unpretentious chickpea pancakes called socca. At the Bar des Oiseaux, we made our difficult choices from the chalkboard menu that was carried around from table to table; monkfish, calmari, ceviche, crab ravioli and seafood linguini are just some of the wonderful dishes I recall.
We didn’t quite appreciate the subtleties of the local cuisine when entering the Pret A Manger Nature enquiring after breakfast croissants, only to be told (patiently, but politely in English), that this most iconic of French pastries contains butter, and as a vegan establishment, could only offer us a butter-free alternative. Could you imagine anything more unpatriotic?
So Barbara Streisand welcomed us to this most friendly and lovely of cities by declaring she was ‘A woman in Love’. Well, we too, are women in love with Nice!
I expect Nice gets overcrowded as the temperatures rise and Northern Europe heads for summer sunshine along this wonderful coastline, to burn on the packed beaches, filling the bars and drinking endless beers to keep cool. For us, May was the perfect time!