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.
Saturday, March 26th 2016
Yesterday had been pleasantly warm but the sky had been grey much of the time. When we awoke today, we were pleased to find the sun shining as this view from our hotel window shows.
It seems that the circus is in town though we have no plans to visit it.
We set out to look for a cafe where we could have breakfast. The first item of interest we saw was a work of art in the Acropolis Gardens that we missed yesterday.
The work is by Claude Gilli (1938-2015) who was born in Nice and was a member, appropriately enough, of the École de Nice (Nice School) art movement. It was commissioned by the town of Nice in 1985 and is entitled LA COULEUR SE DÉVERSANT SUR LE PAUVRE MONDE (‘Colour pouring out over the poor world’). It took me a while to work out exactly what was represented. It seems to be three black pots or buckets (bearing the name ‘GILLI’ in relief), each pouring out a stream of paint which collects below in a pool. This shows that the stream of red paint has broken off and is absent. The sculpture fits with Gilli’s Pop Art leanings and he made several sculptures on the same theme.
This fine building bears the business name of Costamagna but we can also read the founder’s personal name, Charles Véran, engraved on the façade. The firm was inaugurated with the building of this showroom in 1907 and specialized in building materials. The company has points of sale throughout the region and this showroom specializes in furniture and fittings.
We discovered this small theatre, called Théâtre de l’Eau Vive (‘Theatre of Living Water’). The name sounds vagueloy religious but I can see no sign that its activities are religious. It provides a lively schedule of all kinds of live entertainment for both children and adults. In addition, it cates for ‘events’ such as weddings. I do not know anything about its history or when it was founded.
As I mentioned yesterday day, Nice presents an eclectic collection of building styles. France doesn’t seem to have an equivalent of the English Heritage register of listed buildings (or, if it has, I have yet to find it), and it is therefore not always easy to find out about individual examples that obviously deserve further investigation. I suspect that if the Villa Tyndaris were in the UK, it would be listed, catalogued and described, but all I can find on it are estate agents’ listings and notifications of auctions! This pretty little gem of a building currently provides offices for a group of avocats, roughly equivalent to barristers in the UK. I’m guessing from its style that it was built in the latter part of the 19th century and its name suggests that it was once a private dwelling – whether a permanent home or a rich man’s holiday residence – but that part of its history has so far eluded me.
This splendid almost-palace has revealed a few clues to its history. The clock with its opulent decoration and the pediment bearing the dates 1921-1923 are later additions, put in place when the building was converted to become the Chamber of Commerce. Before that, it rejoiced in the name of Villa Bouttau. Two clues to its history are that in 1893 it was the address of the Comte Emeric du Chastel and that in a year unknown to me, Duchesse Anastasia of Leuchtenberg (also known as Princess Anastasia of Montenegro) came here to celebrate her birthday with a dinner attended by a glittering array of titled persons. At the end of the Belle Époque, the house came up for sale and was converted to its present role.
This house too present a little mystery, though a linguistic one. Its appearance, quite different from the usual style in Nice, suggests something medieval, perhaps a dwelling made within city walls. A peculiarity is that part of the ground floor is actually below ground level, and that is why the door is short and why the window sills are virtually on the ground. Originally comprising only one floor, the house was extended in 1980 by the addition of an upper floor. This is of normal dimensions, creating a strange contrast with the lower part which seems squashed. The house is known locally as the Maison des Nains (‘House of dwarfs’), but its official name, displayed on a metal plate, is Mas du Sablonat, and herein lies my mystery. The name is in Niçois Occitan (Provençal) but while mas is easy to understand – it means ‘house’ or ‘farm’, so presumably ‘house’ in this instance – I have no idea what sablonat means. I expect to find out, however, and when I do, will post an update with the answer.
We were looking forward to photographing the main railway station in Nice, called Nice-Ville (‘Nice Town’) to distinguish it from its second station called Nice-Riquier (Riquier is the district in which it resides). We were disappointed to find that it was largely hidden by builders’ fences because refurbishment work in in progress. The station opened for business in 1864 but the date under the clock – MDCCCLXI – 1861, is presumably the date when building work was completed.
We would return to the station later, as I shall explain, but in the meantime went to look for food as we had not yet had breakfast. We thought we were more likely to find good cafes near the station. We were wrong. We ended up in a fast food outlet with mediocre coffee and soggy croissants. There was a consolation, however, for…
…we discovered Nice’s main post office. The fact that it is quite unlike any other building in Nice is already enough to make it stand out but, in addition, it is a remarkable piece of avant garde architecture and beautiful in its own right. Built in 1931 by Guillaume Tronchet, it is distinguished by being built of brick, something rare in Nice. In fact, according to one source, it is the only example in the town. This circumstance gave rise to a rather strange urban myth. According to this, someone in the administration mixed up the plans for the post offices in Nice and Lille, as a result of which, Nice ended with the building intended for Lille! There is, of course, no truth in this legend. Tronchet, who spent the rest of his life in Nice, created his landmark post office for the town.
We had been planning to visit Monaco and thought we might as well do so now. We returned to the station and bought train tickets from one of the multi-lingual ticket machines.
The journey from Nice to Monaco’s only railway station, Gare de Monaco Monte-Carlo, lasts 22 minutes. Monaco is bordered on three sides by France and on the fourth by the sea. It has an area of 2.02 square km (0.78 square mile), so it is no surprise that all the trains that call here are run by France’s SNCF.
Finding our way out of the station at Monaco was the first challenge. We followed the exit signs up several levels and eventually emerged into the open air.
Though we did not realize it at the time, this was a mistake. Or perhaps it would be kinder to say that we had been misled by the signage.
We wanted to be down on the seafront, not up here but up here was where the exit signs had led us. (We later found there was another exit lower down.)
We set out to find our way down to the sea. What followed was like one of those bad dreams where you have to get to a destination but just can’t. Every route we tried ended in a cul de sac. We saw quite a lot of Monaco, admittedly, but not the bits we wanted to see.
We found ourselves overshadowed and confined by high walls…
…and lost among terraces of tall buildings. There were moments when we thought we would not reach the sea but would have to give up and return to the station.
We eventually found ourselves at sea level, separated from the harbour only by the Olympic-sized swimming pool of the Stade Nautique Rainier III. We could have gone around this but by now were feeling in need of refreshment.
We wandered up the pedestrian-only Rue Princesse Caroline and found a restaurant where we could have lunch. We know, of course, that Monaco is the haunt of the super-rich and that it provides the services and entertainments that such people want at the sort of prices that they expect to pay but if you thought that this meant you would have to pay over the odds for a simple lunch then you would be wrong. We had a good meal at reasonable cost. (In Monaco, in case you were wondering, French is the official language and the euro the official currency.)
If we had had more time, we would perhaps have explored Monaco more thoroughly though I doubt whether we would have found more to interest us (not being in the super-rich category) than we found in our brief stay.
Taking a deep breath at the thought of the long and steep climb before us, we turned for the station.
It was therefore a happy surprise and welcome relief to discover the lower entrance to the station, the one we should have come out of in order to get to the harbour. There was even a travelator (moving walkway) to speed us along!
We once more conversed with the ticket machines, this time stating our destination as Nice-Riquier, a station nearer our hotel than Nice-Ville. In Monaco, as in France (and other European countries), it is not enough just to buy your train ticket. You also have to engage in a little ceremony called composter (date stamp). Before travelling, you have to poke your ticket into a special machine which stamps the date on it. Without this, the ticket in not valid, so be warned.
We disembarked, as planned, at Nice-Riquier, a suburban station very much like those found all over London and elsewhere in the UK. From here we walked to the hotel where we were glad to make tea and take a good long rest.
In the evening we returned to the Félix Faure, the cafe we discovered yesterday, for supper, and then took a little walk around town, enjoying the different view provided by night time illuminations.
Opposite the Jardin Albert 1er (mentioned yesterday), on the other side of Place Masséna, is a long park called Promenande du Paillon. It includes a water feature called Miroir d’Eau (‘Water Mirror’) with 128 water jets or fountains which are illuminated at night, as you can see in the photo. This water feature is of a type that has become popular in recent years (there is a similar one at Somerset House in London, for example), in which the jets are spaced widely enough to allow people to walk among them without getting too wet. This evening there were people here among the illuminated spouts.
The name Paillon is that of one of the rivers that runs through Nice and discharges its waters in the sea. Sadly, the Paillon is covered over for most of its passage through the town (and it in fact runs under the park that has taken its name) and makes a brief appearance when it meets the sea at the Promenade des Anglais.
We walked some way along the sea front at Quai des États-Unis, enjoying the contrast between the illuminations in the streets and building and the darkness of the beach and sea before returning to the hotel for a night’s rest. Thus ended our second day in Nice.
Sunday, March 27th 2016
This is the last day of our short visit to Nice and this evening we return to London. Our departure from Nice Airport is scheduled for 19:10, though we of course have to be there an hour or two earlier to allow for checking in and baggage search. A slight further complication is that during the night, France (and the UK) moved the clocks to summer time, meaning that we had (in theory!) to get up an hour earlier. However, once we were up and about, the change in clock time seemed to make very little difference to us. (Neither of us has a watch and the clocks on our mobiles changed to summer time automatically.)
We planned to be at the airport at about 17:00 to allow for the formalities and to avoid hurrying. That left a large part of the day for other things and we did not want to waste this time but to use it to continue exploring Nice. There were some places that Tigger wanted to see and so we planned accordingly. We checked out of the hotel but left our bags in their keeping for the time being.
Tigger reckoned that we could visit the places on her list, take the tram back to the Acropolis district to collect our bags from the hotel, then take the special number 98 bus that runs from the Lycée Masséna to the airport (tickets cost €6). This was perfectly feasible, provided that we didn’t get held up anywhere.
First, as usual, was the hunt for breakfast. This turned out to be more difficult than usual. The problem, it seems, was that today is Easter Sunday, and many cafes and restaurants showed a reluctance to open early. We reached Place Masséna and looked under the arcades.
Here we found L’Iris de Nice open. It had chairs and tables out in the open and one man serving behind the counter. We bought croissants in a paper bag and coffee in paper cups. Not the elegant breakfast we had in mind for our last day but it served its purpose.
We went down to the seafront because we were going to catch a bus there for the next part of our ramble. Here, on the Promenade des Anglais, we saw La Chaise de Sab by Sabine Geraudie. From a distance it looks like a real chair, though larger than normal size. When you reach it, however, you find it is flat. Cleverly done.
The Jardin Albert 1er reaches as far as the Promenade des Anglais and here is sited the sculpture by André-Joseph Allar known as the Monument du Centenaire (‘Centenary Monument’). Its official public role is to commemorate the unification of Savoie (and therefore Nice) with France. It was unveiled on March 4th 1896. This may seem odd when you are told everywhere that Nice joined France only in 1860, 36 years before. The solution of the conundrum is that France dates the unification to 1792 when the forces of Revolutionary France invaded and occupied Savoie, an occupation that ended in 1814 when Savoie reverted to its former status. This seems rather dubious practice to me and I am not alone in thinking that.
The monument is of course, a piece of propaganda. On top is a figure of Victory, whose name in Greek, Niké, alludes to the mythical foundation of Nice. The tableau below shows Nice (on the left), identifiable by her crown made from the walls of the city, giving herself to France. The figure representing France is also female but has been ‘masculinized’ to make the tableau seem the triumphant union in victory of a Romantic hero and heroine. Above their heads, you see the date 1960. This was presumably added at some later point to make the monument also seem to celebrate the centenary of the unification that occurred in 1860. Why add this if the unification was supposed to have happened in 1792? There seems to be some sort of obfuscation being perpetrated here.
What is the Monument du Centenaire (‘Centenary Monument’) to some is the Monument de la Honte (‘Monument of Shame’) to others. There is a body of opinion that Nice/Savoie was annexed illegally by France in both 1792 and 1860 and that its rights, guaranteed under the treaty of 1860, have been systematically suppressed. There is a desire in some quarters to return Savoie to its previous condition as an independent neutral state, like Switzerland, with which it had close links.
Are these complaints justified? Was Nice/Savoie annexed to France fraudulently? I am not an historian nor am I a legal or constitutional expert and I therefore cannot give an authoritative opinion on the matter. However, having read some of the arguments put forward by partisans of separatism, I feel that there could be a case to answer. More than that I am not qualified to say, and anyone wishing more definitive views will need to study the question at first hand.
Is there a realistic chance that Savoie could ever be re-detached from France? With the Savoyard parties polling something like 5-6% in elections, it seems unlikely. Then again, who, less than a century ago, would have believed that Scotland would one day have its own Assembly and that a referendum on complete independence would be only narrowly defeated? If you read French, you might like to look at these sites: Consulat de Savoie, Liberà Nissa and its article on the ‘Monument of Shame’. The quotation by Garibaldi (who was born in Nice), ‘Nissa es francesa couma iéu siéu tàrtaro’, means ‘Nice is French like I’m a Tartar’.
We caught a bus to our next destination, the Parc des Arènes de Cimiez. (Cimiez is the name of the district.) In the park is what was once known as the Villa des Arènes, built in 1670-85 for Jean-Baptiste Gubernatis, the then Consul for Nice. In 1963, the onetime house became a museum, Musée Matisse de Nice, dedicated to the work of the artist whose name it bears. We didn’t visit it this time but added it to the ‘Next Time’ list.
The park is also the site of a Roman settlement called Cemenelum. Various archaeological digs have been performed and the objects found placed in the local archaeological museum, Musée Archéologique de Nice-Cimiez.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the complex is what is called Les Arènes de Cimiez, a Roman amphitheatre. It was built in the 2nd century and enlarged in the 3rd. It is one of the smallest Roman amphitheatres in France, designed for 5,000 spectators.
Nearby is the church and monastery of Cimiez. Originally founded in the 9th century by Benedictines, the monastery has been occupied by Franciscans since 1546 and includes a Franciscan museum, Musée Franciscain. No doubt because of Easter, the place was crowded and we viewed it only from a distance.
Walking down the hill, we spied a familiar figure at a crossroads. The sculpture was unveiled in 1912 and was carved by Louis Edouart Maubert (1806-79). It shows everyone’s favourite queen, Victoria, receiving bouquets of flowers from four allegorical maidens, representing the four towns, Nice, Cannes, Grasse and Menton, in which the queen stayed at various times. Victoria frequently wintered in the area between 1877 and 1899, adding to its popularity. The monument is thus a token of gratitude to her though she did not live to see it.
Returning towards the town centre, with our thoughts turning to lunch, we were happy to discover Le Circuit: yes! a proper French café! It was run by a husband and wife team and we received attentive service and a good meal.
There were still a couple more items on Tigger’s list so off we went again. I was beginning to worry about collecting our bags from the hotel and getting to the airport but Tigger, confident as ever in her navigating skills, brushed aside my fears.
The first was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint-Nicholas. In the 19th century, a large Russian population grew in Nice and the need was felt for a church to cater for their religious needs. The Church of Saint Nicholas opened its doors in 1859. By the end of the century, however, this church was no longer large enough for the growing Russian community and a new cathedral was planned. It opened its doors to the faithful in 1912.
The second was in its way even more remarkable because it breaks with traditional styling and is resolutely in the modern idiom, referencing, I think, both Art Nouveau and Art Deco. One might even claim to see Gaudíesque elements in it.
We had had a long walk to reach the church and having to enquire the way from a helpful citizen. Now we needed to think about reclaiming our bags and making for the airport. Happily, Tigger was able to navigate to the tram route and we progressed to Acropolis by this means.
We did, however, find time for coffee before setting out to find bus 98 which would take us to the airport. This cafe is close to our hotel and was very busy with people having long late French lunches, including a family holding a celebration of some kind. Nonetheless, they cheerfully found us a table and attended to our needs. The name, ‘Acropolitain’, seems to be a neologism coined by combining ‘Acropolis’ and ‘metropolitain’.
It took us a while to find exactly where the stop for the 98 bus was. There are several streets at that point with bus and tram stops, several of which, confusingly, display the number 98 despite the fact that the bus doesn’t stop there! In the end, we found the correct stop, paid our €6 each and then sat back and relaxed until we reached the airport. The bus drops you off at Terminal 2 whereas departures are from Terminal 1. Once you have worked that out, there is a free shuttle bus service to Terminal 1.
Nice was a new experience for us. Its Occitan language and traditions give it a special character, more ‘Mediterranean’ than, say, Paris or Lille. We only scratched the surface, though, and a day and two half-days is not a long enough period to gain more than a brief impression of a place. It would take a longer stay to get to know it and to understand how strongly its history impacts on present-day sensibilities.