NICE SURE IS NICE!
Whilst here on the Côte d’Azur we’re using Nice as our base. This city of 1 million is the capital of the French Riviera; it’s also the sunniest city in France (Nice benefits from 300 days of sunshine per year), and home to the second busiest airport in the country. More than 10 million visitors a year flock here every year to enjoy the sun, surf, and, errr, pebbles*. This is also THE place to come for the summer if you wish to see, and be seen. There’s more to Nice than just strolling down Le Promenade des Anglais, however. The old town is beautiful, with its tangle of narrow alleys and lanes; and the views from Colline du Château are quite stunning.
*There is no sand here on the Côte d’Azur – the beaches are all pebbly. Makes for some wear and tear on your feet, that’s for sure!
We started our day’s explorations of Nice early this morning with a beachside stroll along the Bay of Angels, Nice’s charming central beach. Pebbly it might be, but there’s no denying the allure and beauty of this glorious beach, especially in the early hours of the morning when it’s still quiet and serene.
The curve of the Bay of Angels is fringed by the Promenade des Anglais (i.e. Walkway of the English). This world-famous boulevard stretches for 7 kilometres, between the port of Nice on the Eastern side and Nice airport at its Western tip, and is named after the first tourists to flock to this part of the world seeking sun and relaxation.
It was the British who put the Côte d’Azur on the map as a holiday destination. Up until the end of the 18th century the area was a remote and impoverished region, known mostly for fishing and olive groves; but then the Brits stumbled upon the region’s warm, dry climate and mild winter weather. By the early 1800s the British upper class were flocking here to enjoy the warmth and sunshine; then, with the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century, it quickly became the playground of the rich, aristocratic, and famous (a trend that continues today with many celebrities and royals having holiday homes in the region). There are numerous beautiful old buildings lining the Promenade des Anglais, many of them built 150 years ago, during Nice’s “boom years”.
To add to the region’s mystique and appeal, the Côte d’Azur was also popular with artists, who appreciated the climate, the bright colours, and clear light. Amongst these were the likes of Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.
We got to see some of those beautiful bright colours this morning along the beach, and then at the Sunday morning markets that were running along Cours Saleya in Vieux Nice. As with other markets we’ve been to in France, there were lots of fresh fruit and veggies, cheeses, cured meats, breads, pastries, and flowers. The perfect place for a breakfast on the go!
Wonderfully replete after our breakfast of warm croissants and fresh fruit, we set off to climb La Colline du Château (i.e. Castle Hill). Flanking the Bay of Angels to the East, Castle Hill is steep and craggy, but easily climbable thanks to the stairs cut into the hillside.
Although it is called “Castle Hill” there is no castle remaining. A few walls remain standing and an occasional gate or half tower, but the castle that once loomed over this seaside town is gone. The hill was the original site of a Greek fortified town in 3rd Century BC*. It became Roman in the early Christian times and then the Dukes of Savoy built a citadel on top of the hill to protect the town. When the region came under French control in the 18th century, however, the castle was dismantled. In the 19th century the site became a park, which it still is today.
*Around 350 BC, Greek settlers founded a permanent settlement and called it Nikaia, after Nike, the goddess of victory. Through the ages, the town has changed hands many times however – its strategic location and port significantly contributed to its importance and desirability.
We explored the park for a while, clambering around the hillside to get views of Nice from every angle.
We decided to come back down Castle Hill on the other side, into the Port of Nice. This sheltered bay is one of the busiest ports along the French Riviera, with all manner of ferries and private boats coming and going from there.
We walked all around the port, stopping for lunch at a small café on the far side, where the views of all the boats, yachts, and super-yachts were quite something. Some of the yachts were truly extraordinary – worth more than we will ever earn in our lifetime.
By this stage the sun was high in the sky and things were warming up significantly. Keen to find some shelter from the direct sun, we headed back towards Nice’s old town and its shady, narrow lanes.
Vieux Nice is a beautiful mix of yellow, orange, red, and pink buildings that glow warmly in the midday sun. Some of the buildings are exceptionally well restored, but most are slightly dilapidated and ooze a typically French “shabby chic” kind of charm.
Central to the old town is Nice Cathedral, a beautiful 17th century basilica with a richly decorated interior that we lingered to explore, mainly so we could enjoy the cool and quiet of the church!
After a couple hours exploring Nice’s old town we decided to head back to the coolness of our room for an afternoon sieste. Emerging a few hours later, when the worst of the sun’s burning heat had faded, we spent the last few hours of the day just strolling along the Promenade des Anglais, enjoying the fresh air, marvelling at the colour of the sea, and watching the seemingly endless parade of people walking, roller blading, and riding along the Promenade.
Finally we pulled into one of the many eateries that line the streets around Nice’s old town for dinner and watched as the sun began to set over the Mediterranean. A few days here should do us just fine. Just fine.