France: Frank, flashy, and alluring

By Anthony Peregrine

Anthony Peregrine sees the best of Nice, a magnet to the rich for centuries

Nice is a city of history, culture and beauty. Photo / Thinkstock
Nice is a city of history, culture and beauty. Photo / Thinkstock

The nobler elements of British life would, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, travel to Nice for autumn and winter. They were rich but not fools. There are few better places to be. Culture, good food and festivity are in the city's genes. The latter two come together for France's noisiest carnival - the next one, themed on gastronomy, runs from February 14 to March 4. Meanwhile, you find culture all over the place, from the Italianate opera house to any number of galleries and museums.

But Nice's aspiration to sunlit sophistication is spiced by a taste for scandal. Its heroine, Catherine Segurane, gained her status by mooning attacking Turks during a 1543 siege. The local population remains similarly feisty.

Here are the top 10 sights we suggest you see in the city.

1. Promenade des Anglais

France's loveliest promenade fulfils the sensuous promise of the Cote d'Azur.

Curving almost five miles around the bay, punctuated by palms and pergolas,La Prom has been the required amble for fashionable folk since the British community funded the initial length in the 1820s. Sadly, leisurewear has dumbed down since the days of frock-coats and parasols. There are also more joggers, very small dogs and traffic than I deem desirable. But the aura remains.

2. Old Town (Vieux Nice)

The tight-packed labyrinth is a warren of wriggling streets no thicker than a fisherman's forearm. The Nicois were traditionally packed in pretty snug. They still are, now jostling to sell Provencal frocks and perfumes, dodgy art and olive oil. "Touristy," cry the purists, wrongly. Nice has always done commotion and boisterous commerce. They're as genuine as the markets, the ochre tones, or the churchesPop into the Eglise de Gesu, 12 Rue Droite, buy an icecream at Fenocchio's on Place Rossetti, then appreciate the turmoil.

3. Cours Saleya

On flower market mornings (every day, bar Mondays), the rectangular Cours is an explosion of colours and aromas. There's something promising about the succession of stalls with their pert blooms, rounded fruit and suggestion of juicy fertility. By late morning, restaurant tables will be edging on to the Cours for alfresco dining. Food lust threatens - but, then, Nice is skilled at both firing appetites and slaking them.

4. Musee Matisse

Nice throbs with excellent galleries, but this is the best. Matisse was based in Nice from 1917 until his death in 1954. On Cimiez Hill, the city pays tribute with a superb collection, from the 1890s to his late-life gouache cut-outs. The museumcelebrated its 50th birthday this month, but the power of the place is undiminished as it kicks off its second half-century.

Open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday. Admission: free. musee-matisse-nice.org.

5. Cimiez Hill

While near the Musee Matisse,make time for the Roman archaeological site. Cimiez was the Roman base here. Then stroll the olive grove to the nearby Franciscan monastery. The gardens are pretty, but the real attraction is the church and three 15th-century masterpieces.Across from the Musee, the Regina building is where Queen Victoria stayed from 1897 to 1899. The crown on the west wing indicates her quarters. And there's a statue of her in front of the gardens.

6. Musee Marc Chagall

Here are tableaux. They are magnificent, throbbing with colour, power and passion. Even so, his animals are a bit wonky. His sheep look like donkeys. ("Of course I draw badly," Chagall once said. "I like drawing badly.") Until October 7, the museum is marking its 40th anniversary with a show of the artist's many self-portraits, and double portraits, starring his wife.

Open 10am-6pm (5pm, Nov-April). Admission €8 ($12.90), free first Sunday of the month, and for EU under-26-year-olds. musee-chagall.fr.

7. Russian Cathedral

With its cupolas, mini-steeples, turrets and polychrome tiles, the cathedral appears to have been wrenched from St Petersburg and shipped south. It was built for Nice's Russian aristos, their numbers boosted by 1917 exiles. Following an ownership dispute (Russian Federation vs the local Orthodox faithful: the Federation won), the loveliest Orthodox church outside Russia is once again open. Thus might we see how the interior "symbolises the universe returned to its initial beauty". It is clearly an initial universe as conceived for Russian tastes - very gold, shiny, studded with jewels and about 300 icons.

Open: 9am-noon, 2pm-6pm, closed Monday. Admission: free. cathedrale-russe-nice.fr.

8. Le Grand Tour

An open-topped bus tour is the most effective way of looping around Nice's greatest hits without undue effort. It's a hop-on, hop-off affair, so you can spin it out all day. The English-language commentary is excellent. Don't miss the Matisse and Chagall museums, and the Russian cathedral.

Daily, from Quai-des-Etats-Unis. Price: one day€21 ($33.80), two days €23 ($37). One or two days children 4-11 €8 ($12.90). nicelegrandtour.com.

9. Colline du Chateau

The 90m hill between the old town and the port was where Nice started. Greek relics have been found up there. Later, it bore the castle that defended Nice until Louis XIV had it razed. Now the hilltop is a rather fine park, with woodland, a waterfall and the very best views over Nice and the bay.

Nietzsche used to love walking up here. Access is by foot from the old town, the Tour Bellanda lift or the dinky little tourist train.

10. Opera de Nice

On the fringes of the old town, the opera house is worth a look even when empty. It's better still when something's going on. The current season includes Weber's Der Freischutz, Die Fledermaus and Handel's Semele. Nice's own philharmonic orchestra takes full part in the C'est Pas Classique festival (November 24-27)This attempt to demystify classical music involves about 100 free concerts and shows across the city. opera-nice.org.


Nice Checklist

GETTING THERE: Emirates flies four times a day to Nice from New Zealand, with direct connections at Dubai. It also flies daily to two other French destinations, Paris and Lyon.

ONLINE: en.nicetourisme.com

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