The Cote d'Azur capital knows how to work a crowd, irrespective of the season, writes Margaret Turton.
After Paris, Nice is France's second most popular destination. One reason is the mild climate that makes the Cote d'Azur's capital a pleasant location all year round. In winter, as northern Europe shivers, it enjoys both sun and the clarity of light that attracted painters and a winter clientele comprising monarchs and the rich and famous; characters that gave this place its depth. But Nice can be pure theatre. Nice can work a crowd, irrespective of the era or the season. Long-experienced in luring visitors with haute cuisine, Nice turned its attention to the cafe terrasse as swiftly as summer tourism took root in the 1920s.
Head for Promenade des Anglais, the boulevard curving round the Bay of Angels and the beach. It can't be ignored. Jog, swim, stroll or sit and admire big views of the sea and the stream of people. At €30 ($42), breakfast on the terrace of La Rotonde at Hotel Negresco isn't cheap but it's memorable.
Anyone who's anyone has stayed at this exquisitely eccentric Belle Epoque landmark, among them, Rudolf Valentino, Henri Matisse and Isadora Duncan who, stepping out, lost her life here when her scarf became entangled in the wheel of her vehicle. Later guests include Edith Piaf, Orson Wells, Picasso and James Dean. Agatha Christie wrote the Negresco into a Poirot murder mystery. The Beatles, the Stones and Jean-Paul Gaultier arrived. Michael Jackson checked in and turned one room into a kitchen, another into a dance floor to rehearse on.
The best Negresco legend? Film noir actor William Holden checked out and took off on a round-the-world trip with La Rotonde's waitress.
You're beside the Mediterranean. Take a dip or paddle; areas between the private beaches are free to access. If you're not eating or swimming enjoy the scenery, heading east along the Promenade. As the name implies this was a favourite of the English who came to stroll beside the sea. A survivor from those times is the late-winter Nice Carnival held in February. It's still big; the closest Europe ever gets to Rio as flower floats, musicians and dancers parade along the Promenade. July brings the summer Prom Party with bands playing. July 2 saw Tour de France competitors cycling by.
If you're interested in how much things have changed on the Promenade and Nice in general, Negresco's neighbour, Musee Massena, one-time winter residence of a prince, presents a who's who of key players in the city's quirky history, including Nice's role as exclusive winter retreat and Jazz Age summer playground. Interiors are sumptuous and the gardens are a treat. Musee Massena, 35 Promenade des Anglais, opens 10am-6pm, closed Tuesdays.
Near Casino Ruhl, the Promenade becomes Quai des Etats-Unis and Old Nice begins to take form on your left. Watch out for street art on building walls and for landmarks and landscapes you saw suspended in time if you visited Musee Massena. Ponchettes Beach is on your right, creamy-coloured Bellanda Tower and the staircases of Castle Hill are directly ahead. An elevator also ascends to the summit of this old fortified site, since 1828 a public park with romantic ruins, waterfall and terraced viewing points.
From up here you see just how easily Nice is negotiated. The Bay, with its palm-fringed Promenade, curves towards Nice Airport. Laneways in Old Nice merge with boulevards flanked by grand hotels. Avenue Jean Medecin, the main shopping street rolls away towards Nice railway station. Beyond Place Garibaldi the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the Acropolis Convention Centre are clearly visible. Further on is Cimiez Hill. There, hidden from view but less than 3km away, is a Roman amphitheatre, a Franciscan monastery and Musee Matisse. Turning east, you look down on Nice Port, where we descend, making our way along the quayside to Place Ile de Beaute, the heart of Nice Port.
Place Ile de Beaute is just a few minutes' walk from Terra Amata Human Palaeontology Museum at 25 Boulevard Carnot, open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesdays, admission free. When elephants roamed this area 400,000 years ago, big game hunters camped on this spot, once a sheltered beach 26 metres above the present sea level. Prehistoric finds were exposed during construction of apartments. A footprint was also uncovered, hardened like concrete by a fine layer of calcite in the prehistoric dunes. The museum re-creates the hunters' campsite and their toolkits - hand axes, choppers, scrapers - are exhibited.
Doubling back, head to Place Garibaldi and take a seat at a terrace cafe if you're already hungry. Otherwise, follow the signs into Old Nice and lose yourself in the laneways as you meander towards my favourite eating spot, Cours Saleya. En route it's worth watching out for Girofle et Cannelle, purveyors of salt, pepper and spices at 4 Rue Pairoliere, where Persian blue diamond salt, fleur salt with truffle, lavender sugar, rose sugar and so on are temptingly displayed. Remember to glance up at the terraces of Castle Hill. Sometimes the waterfall comes into view, framed by the rooftops of some narrow lane.
When you arrive at Cours Saleya, should it be Monday (7.30am-6pm), the flea market will be in full swing. I picked up an art deco crystal ice bucket here; swishier, even, than those I saw in the Gatsby movie. Other days the flower market (6am-5.30pm) and vegetable market (6am-1pm) occupy this space. Cours Saleya is also renowned for delectable seafood and, at lunchtime, restaurant tables spill out from bright-painted Italianate buildings. Among them Le Safari Brasserie at No. 1 is known for Provencal specialties. Expect to pay from around €26 for a two-course lunch, excluding wine.
Before leaving Old Nice take a stroll to 7 Rue Saint Francois de Paule where Maison Auer has sold chocolates, fruits, confits and other delights since 1820. Alziari Moulin a Huile at No. 14 specialises in olive oils and gourmet products. Molinard, perfumers since 1849, are at No. 20. If you're really up for shopping, peel away towards Avenue de Verdum for prestigious labels. Alternatively, trams from Place Massena (solo tram/bus ticket €1.50 from tram stations) run the length of Avenue Jean Medecin where you'll find Galeries Lafayette at No. 6 and Etoile mall at No. 20. Most shops open 10am-7pm, Monday to Saturday. Serious shoppers will be lost here for the afternoon.
Nice has 19 top museums and galleries. Walk or take the tram to Place Garibaldi for Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) on Promenade des Arts, open 10am-6pm, closed Mondays. The €10 Pass Musees includes special Matisse exhibits. In green public spaces between MAMAC and the Acropolis artworks such as the 30 metre-tall Tete Carree are highly visible. Nearby, the Museum of Natural History focuses on earth's habitats and ecosystems at 60 Boulevard Risso, open 10am-6pm, closed Mondays, admission free.
Take a cab (about €6) to Musee Matisse, 164 Avenue des Arenes, open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday. The €10 Pass Musees includes the Museum's 50th birthday exhibition, which adds weight to an excellent permanent collection of the artist's works and personal items. Matisse is buried in the cemetery of the nearby Franciscan monastery, which is also noted for its architecture and gardens. This spot, on Cimiez Hill, offers panoramic views. You are also in striking distance of Roman Cimiez. An archaeology museum is conveniently located at 160 Avenue des Arenes, open 10am-6pm, closed Monday. Admission is free, as is the vista of Roman baths and the amphitheatre. Boulevard de Cimiez leads back down to the city centre. Watch out for the old Regina Hotel, now apartments. Matisse lived there and Queen Victoria, escaping British winters, was a regular guest.
The bars and restaurants of the Old Town are popular evening venues. Arrive early if you want an outdoor table. Many of Nice's nightclubs are also in the Old Town. On the Promenade there are two casinos, the Ruhl and Casino du Palais de la Mediterranee. Alternatively, the Negresco's upmarket bar, Le Relais, is a fine place to start the evening. End it in style at their Michelin-starred Chantecler restaurant. Expect to pay €130 for dinner and wine.
The writer stayed courtesy of Le Negresco, and Scenic Tours. www.scenictours.com.au