To have a truly spectacular visit to the French Riviera, you need three things: a base to travel from, the favour of the weather gods and the joie de vivre (joy of life!). In mid-June, the forces of the universe combined to give us all three in an amazing three days in Nice and the French Riviera.
Nice is a great base to explore the French Riviera. Often called the ‘Paris of the South’, we flew in to Nice from Dubrovnik to begin our French Riviera experience. Knowing the likes of Hemingway, Picasso and many European royalty had walked the beachside promenade in years past stirred a sense of excitement and anticipation. Adored by artists and writers, Nice was once a creative hotspot. In fact, Henry Matisse moved to Nice in his late 40s, initially to recover from bronchitis, and became so enamoured with the ‘light’, colours and beauty of the town that he decided to stay.
“When I realised I would see that light every morning, I could not believe my happiness.” Matisse, 1917
So it was with some disappointment that Nice was, well… overrated. Sure, it was pretty, with some cool areas and nice-but-unspectacular architecture and with a very Italian feel. But to us, Nice just lacked the character of other French towns. That said, there were many things we DID like about Nice.
Walking and Eating in Nice
Generally, we always start our discovery of a new place with a free walking tour, and Nice was no exception. Meeting at the pretty Place Massena at 11:25am, our guide took us through the winding and charming streets of Nice’s old quarter (known as Vieux Nice). Stopping at the typically French market Cours Saleya, we got a chance to try one of the local specialities: Socca. Made from ground chickpea flour and then fried (think of a salty nahn bread), this is a really delicious little snack while you walk the streets.
After sampling a little market produce (with a special mention to a chocolate brownie Kim-Ling claims she’ll never forget), we meandered through the old town streets visiting the Palais de Justice, soaking in the Belle Epoque era architecture and hearing interesting stories of bank robbers.
On 14 July 1976, Albert Spaggiari and friends spent three months digging through Nice’s covered underwater waterways to enter an impregnable bank vault. After breaking in without weapons or violence, they stole between 30-60 million Francs. Spaggiari was arrested and put on trial by French authorities but jumped out of a courthouse window to a waiting motorcycle, never to be seen again!
Emerging onto the Promenade des Anglais from Vieux Nice, the tour climbs up Castle Hill for the best views in Nice at Parc de la Colline du Chateau. From this vantage point you can get beautiful shots of the Baie des Anges and Nice’s famous (yet pebbly) beach and Port Lympia on the opposite side. If you are to do one thing in Nice, walking (or taking the elevator) up Castle Hill for spectacular views should be it.
Once the tour wraps up on top of Castle Hill, wander back down and head straight for the beach. Nice in summer gets pretty stuffy and with the sun beating on your back, that lovely blue Mediterranean water is a godsend. There are two types of beach along the promenade, private and public beaches. In reality, these private beaches are just sections of the beach which offer deck chairs and umbrellas for between 10-20 euros per day and drinks or food service for extra. The public beaches on the other hand do get pretty crowded and you will be laying on large pebbles which, truth be told, I didn’t mind so much after a while. There are also beach activities such as parasailing and other water sports to keep you entertained if you get bored easily.
While wandering the streets with our tour, we found out some interesting stuff about little ol’ Nice. For one, you can’t help but notice the large statue of Apollo which dominates Place Massena. Now to us, it perfectly complements the surrounding architecture and colour schemes of the nearby buildings, but it hasn’t always been the case. After its initial unveiling by scupltor Alfred Janniot in 1956, the reaction of Nice locals was to claim his package was… too large. The offending marble was “downsized” only to have the hot-blooded women complain that it was now… too small. Poor Apollo was then moved to a football stadium (away from judging female eyes), but a campaign began in the mid 90’s to bring back the statue and today, Apollo stands proud and tall!
Then there are the beautiful illuminated statues in Place Massena, which we affectionately called “the 7 Buddhas”. The 7 statues sit high on tall poles and represent the 7 continents. At night they are illuminated in rotating colours which artistically represent dialogue between societies. Or something like that…
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And the last ‘quirk’ of Nice we found amusing was how many windows were actually painted on (as opposed to actually being a window). Back in the day, the amount of windows a building had would represent the owners status and wealth in society but constructing windows back then was quite expensive. So people just painted windows and facades on their buildings to save money and their pride!
Perfume in Nice
Now if perfume is more your thing, then don’t think you have to travel outside of Nice to create your very own scent. Just back from the beach sits Molinard, and although not publicised particularly well, this is the only place in Nice (to our knowledge) that you can create your very own perfume. For 30 euros, you get an expert and the choice from around 30 base ‘flavours’, (which for Kim-ling was more than enough).
Wine and Dine
After a long hard day, you are going to want to dine out, enjoy the perfect weather and just soak up night time Nice. Apart from a killer pizza place just around the corner from our apartment, we also tried a few different restaurants from the touristy haunts in Cours Saleya. However, the real stand out for us was Restaurant Davia on Rue Grimaldi where one can get good, authentic French cooking in a really nice environment.
Writing this post has made me realise the little things I liked about Nice: the spectacular weather, the casual way of life, and the history of the Old Town. But without a doubt, for us the best parts of the French Riviera lay outside Nice. So in Part 2 we’ll explore two French Riviera beaches that we loved and that made our French adventure memorable!
Check out our video below!
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