Friday, March 25th 2016
After our happy experience of Marseille (possibly my favourite French city so far), we thought to try something similar but different and Nice, a few miles along the coast to the west, seemed to fill the bill. No small consideration was the climate: we hoped it would be warmer there than in London, something we would enjoy!
Nice is the capital of a département called Alpes Maritimes, and just a few miles away is that curiosity of a country, the Principality of Monaco. Like all major European cities, Nice can trace its history back to the earliest human settlements. Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, of course, all passed this way and made their mark. Despite this – or indeed, perhaps because of it – the inhabitants of Nice are possessed of a spirit of independence and only joined the state that they now form part of – France – in 1860.
In 1388, Nice placed itself under the protection of the Dukes of Savoy and this relationship endured until the 19th century, despite wars, invasions and temporary occupations by other powers. What might be seen as an omen of things to come happened in 1792 when Nice was invaded and occupied by the armies of the First French Republic and became part of post-revolution France until 1814 when it came under the control of the Kingdom of Sardinia. In 1860, it was finally and permanently integrated into the French nation.
Although French is the official language of Nice, there is a local language, Niçard, which is a dialect of Occitan, also called Provençal. In addition there are influences of its Italianate history and of the Ligurian dialects spoken in Northern Italy and down the coast at least as far as Monaco – some claim that Niçard is really a dialect of Ligurian. Some places in the city still bear their Niçard names and some streets have two names, one in French and one in Niçard, respectively.
Whenever possible, we travel by train, partly because this is better for the environment and partly because travelling by train is more comfortable. It is possible to go to Nice by train with a single change in Paris. Unfortunately, by the time we came to book our trip, the best journeys were full and only awkward and lengthy ones remained. We swallowed our prejudices and our consciences and booked with BA. You’ll be glad to know that the experience was every bit as bad as I expected it to be.
Our hotel is in the Boulevard Risso and quite a distance from the airport, so we treated ourselves to a cab. The driver was a lively fellow who, finding I spoke French, was in his element, singing the praises of Nice, covering everything from its history to where you should go for the best ice cream – not to mention a diversion through the pros and cons of Britain leaving the EU. (He wanted us to stay.)
The hotel is pleasant and the staff friendly and helpful. On reaching our room, we made tea and had a rest. (It’s surprising how tiring sitting in an aeroplane for two hours and in a taxi for 30 minutes can be!) Hotels in Europe, unlike those in the UK, usually do not supply a kettle and the makings of tea and coffee. You have to remember to take these things with you.
Suitably rested and refreshed, we set out for our first look at the town. What follows is a selection of things we saw without any attempt to sum up Nice as a whole or even map a walking tour. We had no plan and simply followed our noses.
Just down the road from our hotel is a large and seemingly important enterprise called the Nice Acropolis that describes itself as an events and conference centre. Architecturally, it offered no interest, being a bit of a lump, but it did host a couple of pieces of public art.
The first was this imposing heap of stringed instruments (not all of them violins) rendered in bronze. It is by a sculptor known as Arman (1928-2005). I don’t know when he created this work but he made other similar ones. I at first thought it had started to decay as pieces of the instruments seemed to have slipped or fallen away. Looking more carefully, however, I could see that these components were firmly welded in place and that the instruments were therefore meant to appear broken.
This work, comprising a figure in Classical style, apparently squashed between two blocks of marble, is signed by Sosno. Alexandre Joseph Sosnowsky (1937-2013), known more simply as Sacha Sosno or just as Sosno, completed it, if the artist’s inscription is to be trusted, in 1984-5.
Building styles in Nice are an eclectic mixture, as you would expect for any old city. Modern structures that make no concession to tradition rub shoulders with more human forms dating from a past age. We were intrigued by this house whose shutters had hinged sections who use was not apparent to us.
On reaching a crossroads, we saw ahead of us this massive structure that, but for the obvious chin and neck, we could easily have dismissed as just another building, perhaps an office block. In fact, the latter notion is not such a misconception after all. The Tête Carrée (‘Block Head’) by Sacha Sosno is obviously as sculpture but it is also a building! It is said to be the first inhabitable sculpture. Sosno created it in collaboration with architects Francis Chapus and Yves Bayard to house the administrative offices of the municipal library. It was inaugurated on June 29th 2002. The artist went on to design another inhabitable sculpture, though it was not completed until 2015, two years after this death. In Cagnes sur Mer, it is called Le Guetteur (‘the Lookout’ or, perhaps, ‘Lying in Wait’) and includes 150 shops, 26 restaurants, a casino and a ten-screen cinema.
As we made our way across to the Tête Carrée, we stopped to photograph this sculpture sited in a garden called Esplanade Francis Giordan, in front of the fortress-like end of the Acropolis. It is called Nikaïa and was sculpted by Antoniucci Volti (1915-89). (The youth in the blue hoodie provides local colour and volunteered his services free of charge.)
The Tête Carrée is in a park or garden called Promenade des Arts on account of the fact that it adjoins MAMAC, the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain de Nice. It contains other works of art including the one pictured above. I don’t know the title of this sculpture and although there is a signature engraved in the base, I have not been able to decipher it.
At one end of the Promenade is Nice’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, also known as MAMAC. I cannot say anything about its art collection and exhibitions as we did not visit it this time. That has been left as a pleasure for another visit to Nice.
I said at the beginning that we had been hoping for warm weather in Nice. We were not exactly disappointed in this as the temperature was about 5 degrees higher than it had been in London but, though we had sunshine some of the time, it was often cloudy and grey. There were indications that the climate was systematically warmer than that of London, not least in the fruit-laden orange trees that we saw everywhere. Their presence added a – for us – exotic note to the picture of the Church of St John the Baptist.
Further along, we came upon the massive Lycée Masséna. It is a handsome building and only part of it is readily visible from the street. Even so, its extent is so large that it was impossible to photograph it as a whole. A couple of partial views will have to suffice though they do not do it justice. (For information on the lycée within the French secondary school system, see here.)
There was originally an Augustine convent on the site, dating from 1623. When Nice was occupied by French revolutionary forces in 1792, the building became a school. Under Napoleon, the building was transformed and turned into a lycée. After the restoration of the House of Savoy, the school continued in various forms until the annexation of Nice by France in 1860 when it was transformed into a national lycée. Its present form dates from major rebuilding in 1875-6 and again in 1909.
The name Masséna refers to André Masséna (1758-1817), later Duke of Rivoli and Prince of Essling, a career soldier, born in Nice, who became one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals, though after the restoration of the monarchy he returned to the Bourbon fold.
The famous son of Nice also gives his name to one of the city’s main squares, Place Masséna. The huge open space is divided longitudinally by the tram tracks and crosswise by a busy road called Avenue Félix Faure. If you look carefully at the picture (click for a larger version), you will be able to make out 4 posts, each with a figure at the top. There are in fact 7 of the seated or kneeling figures altogether, forming an installation by Jaume Plensa entitled Conversation à Nice (‘Conversation in Nice’). They are illuminated and continually change colour. (There are some night-time pictures of them here.)
At one side of the Place, is a park, Jardin Albert 1er, named after Albert I, King of Belgium, who inaugurated the park in 1914. We did not explore the whole of the park, which is quite large and has a number of water features, but our attention was caught by the unusual fountains which seemed to be giving off steam rather than water. I haven’t been able to discover the exact mechanism at play but the lack of heat suggests water vapour rather than steam.
However it is done, people find it fascinating and have fun wandering about in the fog discharged from the spouts.
At the southern end of the Place, stands a large and imposing fountain. It is sited, not in Place Masséna, but in its own square with a name in Niçard, Plassa Carlou Aubert. At first sight, with its classical if romantic forms, it looks as though it is a product of the 19th century but it is in fact more recent that that, being dated to 1956.
La Fontaine du Soleil (‘ Fountain of the Sun’) is described as follows:
Dans cette représentation allégorique du système solaire, inspiré de la mythologie gréco-romaine, Apollon “image du soleil” est entouré de cinq groupes en bronze, représantant Mercure, Vénus, La Terre, Mars et Saturne.
(‘In this allegorical representation of the solar system, inspired by Graeco-Roman mythology, Apollo “image of the sun” is surrounded by five groups in bronze, representing Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn.’)
We walked down the Rue de l’Opéra and on its corner with Rue Saint-François de Paule found, set in the wall, this quaint and rather charming installation. It consists of a niche with a basin at the bottom which is kept supplied with fresh water from a specially installed pipe. It bears the name ‘DOGS-BAR’ and an explanatory inscription:
ERIGE EN OCTOBRE 1934 AVEC LE CONCOURS DE LA SPA
ERECTED IN OCTOBER 1934 WITH THE SUPPORT OF THE SPA
‘SPA’ stands for the Société Protectrice des Animaux, the French analogue of the British RSPCA. The fact that this facility is named in English (though without the required apostrophe), suggests that its creation was inspired or encouraged by the high numbers of well-to-do British holidaymakers who patronized Nice in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Rue Saint-François de Paule had some other interesting inhabitants. One of these was the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Looking at this building today, one would not guess that its first incarnation occurred iin 1730-50 when it was built as a seminary. From 1791, it went through many changes, serving as a military barracks, a prison, a gendarmerie, a hospital and then a gendarmerie again. This takes us only up to 1866 when the city administration took it over, greatly altered it and opened it as the Hôtel de Ville in 1868. In 1928, new works were undertaken to improve its appearance and these led eventually to creation of the the present Art Deco façade.
Every self-respecting French town has an opera theatre and Nice, of course, is no exception. Nice’s Opéra is also home to the Ballet Nice Méditerranée and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice. It’s official title is the Opéra Nice Côte d’Azur.
The first theatre on the site was built in 1776 and later became known as the Théâtre Royal. Rebuilt in 1826, it was to be visited by notable figures and crowned heads, including Napoleon III in 1860, after which it was renamed Théâtre Impérial. In 1881, the theatre, now known as the Théâtre Municipal, was completely destroyed by a fire that also claimed three lives. Undaunted, Nice set about recreating its theatre and the new incarnation, still bearing the name Théâtre Municipal, opened in February 1885 with a performance of Verdi’s Aida. In 1902 it was renamed L’Opéra de Nice, although the old name, Théâtre Municipal, can still be read in gold upon black on the façade.
We had a look in this small but well-stocked art gallery called Galerie des Dominicains (there is a Dominican monastery in the street). We had an interesting chat with the lady in charge and took the opportunity to ask whether there was much street art in Nice. She confirmed what we suspected: there isn’t much street art in the area and what little there is is of poor quality. I very much liked the figures made by Korean artist Youn Cho which are rather reminiscent of the saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill and others. You can perhaps spot a couple in the forefront in the above photo.
The age we are living in seems inimical to traditional family-run businesses which are disappearing at a troubling rate. It was fascinating, therefore to come across this pâtisserie/confiserie run by the descendant of Henri Auer and apparently still going strong. The shop from must date from no later than the beginning of the 20th century because it incorporates medallions showing that the business was present at international exhibitions in Paris, 1905, and London, 1910, and won a Grand Prix in London in 1910. The business is much older than that, however, claiming its origins in 1820, supported by a brief but convincing history of family succession. One can only hope that the skills developed over 196 years will carry the business forward for many generations to come.
This imposing building, designed to appear noble and impressive, is the Palais de Justice or Law Court. In Neo-Classical style, France’s answer to England’s Victorian Gothic, its construction took place from 1883 to 1892, replacing a Dominican Monastery that hitherto occupied the site.
This was our second old family business of the day and one that is definitely on the endangered list. It sells baskets of all kinds and other products woven of cane such as chair seats. Having taken the photo I went inside to have a word with the owners. There I found mother and son at work. They were happy to be photographed though the son remarked pointedly that ‘More photograph us than buy anything’. They told me that the business was a hundred years old and gave me the impression that times were hard. In the age of factories producing machine-made goods, the maker of hand-made goods finds it ever harder to survive. Will this shop continue beyond the mother and son currently at work in it?
Returning towards our hotel along Boulevard Jean Jaurès, we encountered what at first sight seemed a mystery: a large entrance giving access to steps leading to a street below but bearing the name Fausse Porte (‘False Gate’). It was a public right of way and there was obviously nothing false about it. I had to hunt around for an explanation but I think I have found one, though accounts vary in their details.
It seems that at one time, the city wall ran where today’s buildings stand and at roughly the point where we fid the Fausse Port, there would have been a postern gate opening onto a narrow passageway. When the defensive walls were no longer needed, the building became inhabited and the old postern became the entrance for residents. One of these is recorded as being a luthier, a maker of stringed musical instruments. The street on the other side of the building, called Rue de la Boucherie, was at a much lower level than the street that is now Boulevard Jean Jaurès and difficult therefore of access. People who had the permission of the luthier to do so would enter the building by this door as it gave access to a corridor which in turn led down to Rue de la Boucherie. It was a convenient way from one street to the other – if you had permission to use it. In 1946, the luthier made a gift of the building to the city on condition that the unofficial passage between streets be converted to public access. I suppose the name, Fausse Porte, derives from the fact that anciently this was a gateway but not an official one.
In the days when I went to France frequently, one of the first things I would do on setting foot on French soil would be to go to a French cafe and order a coffee. Perhaps you will know what I mean when I say I would choose a ‘proper French cafe’, one with small tables inside and outside, with busy waiters, often dressed in black waistcoats with white aprons. In such a cafe you could just have coffee or glass or wine, perhaps add croissants or a sandwich or go the whole hog with a complete meal. It has taken me a couple recent visits to France to realize that ‘proper French cafes’ are an endangered species. They are disappearing and being replaced by burger joints, pizza bars and fast food outlets specializing in microwaved pre-packaged food and bad coffee. That not only makes me sad but is also bad for my digestion.
We ran up against this problem in Marseille until the glorious moment when we discovered La Samaritaine (see Marseille 2015 – Day 2). I met the same frustration as we wandered around Nice looking for a place where we could have a late lunch. Where were all the lovely traditional French cafes? It was therefore a moment of relief when we happened upon an establishment called Le Félix Faure. We ordered coffee and then a meal. If this was not the highlight of the day, it was at least one of them. Less happily, our joy was tempered by the discovery that any hope of having breakfast here was vain as they did not open until late morning.
(Félix Faure was a politician and President of France from January 1895 to his sudden death in February 1899.)
I found a nice bookshop and bought a book to read, Rue des Boutiques Oscures by Patrick Modiano (Prix Nobel de la Littérature 2014). Then we returned to the hotel to make tea, sort out our photos and trace out plans for tomorrow. Thus ended Day 1 in Nice.