At nine in the morning in Nice, there’s no sign of what Matisse called the “intense…soft and tender light” of the Cote d’Azur. It’s drizzly outside the Palais de la Mediterranee hotel, and through its huge windows that look out on to the Promenade des Anglais, all I can see is a palette composed of shades of grey that melt onto an indecisively coloured sea.
The beauty is elsewhere, in front of me actually, making a professional speech. But I’m not really listening, because I’m staring at Myriam Chokhairy of the Nice Tourist Office. Jet lag, pleasantly enough, has made me rhapsodic; and Myriam seems like a youthful folksong composed in brown -- pale honey skin, almond eyes, dark brown demurely plaited hair, tan leather jacket. Even her extreme poise has a colour.
By the time she led us out of the hotel and towards the flower market on the Cours Saleya, I was beginning to come to terms with an essential principle of life on the Côte: that it’s okay to be silly like this about beauty. Incredibly, the sun came out at nearly the very instant that we joined the throng. It shone on the wildly pretty flowers and the perfect vegetables, the candy boxes and bric-a-brac, in the exuberant voices of the stall vendors, off the puddles of water on the cobbled streets. When we could bear to look away from all this, Myriam pointed at a glowing yellow building at the end of the Cours Saleya – Number 1, Place Charles-Felix, Matisse’s home and studio in Nice for 17 years.
The French Riviera is a miracle, constantly creating and shaking off the triteness of its perfection. This is the land of a million images, captured in a hundred films and imagined in many more books and paintings. It’s the land of superlatives: it has 300 days of Mediterranean sunshine, 22,725 feet of beaches, 300 acres of gardens, the largest number of museums in France after Paris, the largest airport in France after Paris, and is the largest port of call for cruise ships in France. It is very nearly the world centre of tourism, hosting more than nine million visitors a year, and housing one of the biggest concentrations of incredibly wealthy people in the world.
I’m exhausted. Maybe it’s the unbearable lightness of being in the Riviera. Also, perfect beauty can be a physical strain; we’ve spent the morning walking down the Promenade, taking in the sights of the Old Town, panting up the Colline du Chateau to gaze at the glittering Baie des Anges, poking our noses in at a cemetery halfway down, and ending at the Nice quay where scores of spiffy sailboats awaited the commands of wealthy playboy-masters. But deep inside, I know I’m grumpy because our programme binds us to lunch at an Italian vegetarian restaurant.
But La Zucca Magica turns out to be a treat; the best meal I’d eaten in France, even after three days of a ‘gourmet food tour’ of Paris. ‘The Magic Pumpkin’ is a tiny little place, crammed with pumpkins (dried and stuffed on the counters, ceramic ones on the tables, on posters, in paintings, in photographs). Owner-chef Marco Folicardi is not unlike the vegetable dear to his heart: large, round, rather sweet. What you eat here depends on what Marco liked the look of at the vegetable market that morning or what he dreamt about cooking the night before. Anyhow, after being very nearly felled by a bear hug from the vast man, I began to eat, but then nearly died from delight. The superb, subtle meal de jour: a starter of orange slices sprinkled with fennel and served with an olive tapenade; an improbably good pumpkin soup with liberal shavings of Parmesan; a main course of basil polenta and artichoke hearts; and another main course of a calzone-like dish filled with ricotta, spinach and the inevitable pumpkin. Naturally, I’ve forgotten what dessert was.
That was not the only good meal that we ate in our three days here, but it was as atypical of traditional Nicois food as the other highlights (cheap, satisfying Vietnamese; surreal but good Indian; comforting Italian). Gastronomical procrastination is always a bitter business for me – and I regret to say that I left without eating socca or pissaladiere or pan-bagnat, though I did manage to squeeze in a Salade Nicoise.
After that shocker of a meal at La Zucca Magica, I would have liked nothing more than a siesta in my room at the Palais de las Mediterranee. I had been assigned an executive vue mer room in this splendid haven, a luxurious confection of cream and mustard tones, indulgent bathroom and vast balcony that overlooked first the pool and then the sea. When we visited, in October 2004, the Palais had just completed its first ‘season’ of its rebirth: born in 1929 as a spectacular Art Deco-façaded casino, it became famous over the next few decades as a playground for high-profile Riviera-lovers – Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and sundry European royalty. The Jazz Age passed, gambling on the Riviera became more cheesy than cool, and the Palais was remembered only for the white-columned façade that earned it the title of heritage monument. Twelve years and an investment of 120 million euros after it closed, the Palais has been resurrected as a ‘hotel-casino’. The historical façade remains; the interiors are now stunningly high-tech and modernistic.
All this I enjoyed later, after a trip to the Matisse and Chagall museums, both situated near the Roman ruins of Cimiez, towards the north of the city. Obviously, I didn’t expect this to be a chore, but I wasn’t prepared for this scale of fabulousness. I wandered through the Musee Matisse in a delirium of disbelief. Unfortunately this meant that I have no clear recollection of the art works on display, but there were many. (From the brochure: 68 oil paintings and paper cut-outs, 236 drawings, 218 engravings, 57 sculptures, apart from large number of illustrated books, photographs and personal possessions.) The confusing thing about museums here is that the museum itself seems like a work of art; I spent many minutes gazing upon and wandering around the red, incredibly beautiful, 17th-century Genovese villa that houses the Musee Matisse.
The next day’s agenda was to take the coastal road west from Nice, stop at Antibes and then head inland to Grasse. This is the road for tanned women with toned bodies and big sunglasses and wind-swept hair and streaming scarves in red sports cars. Too bad we were joggling along in an SUV and, well, never mind the rest. I pandered to the welling emotions of inadequacy and resentment with bourgeois disapprovingness – hmmph, all these massive mansions along this beautiful coast, all these expatriates in search of the illusory good life, hmmph, all these wretched very, very rich people...
It’s just as well that every tourist stop in these parts is about five minutes’ very fast drive from each other because it’s difficult to keep the I’m-so-lucky-I’m-not-rich thing going after a point. We arrived at distraction in the shape of the Provencal farmers’ market in Antibes. All I knew about Antibes was that Graham Greene lived there for many years; and that, according to one guidebook, he “gave his reason for living there as simply to be with the woman he loved”.
We spent two hours doing two, both excellent, things. The first involved mooching about in a noisy covered market on the Cours Massena gaping at odoriferous cheeses, big fat vegetables, big fat cuts of meat, and other, more useless, things like chamomile-scented foot scrub and pig-shaped wax candles. I got lost but was found through the good offices of a French-only saucisson vendor, a laughing young woman who, impressively, understood that my colleague expected me to show up here and left instructions that I should check out the ane (donkey) sausage, and, more impressively, got the message across to me. I dutifully, joyfully, bought several kinds of sausage– chilli, cheesy, herby, donkey – and walked the three steps or so to the other highpoint of Antibes, the Picasso Museum.
Picasso spent three months at the Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes in 1946, producing a remarkable body of work in this short period. When he left, he donated all of it to the town, which converted the chateau into a gem of a museum. I lingered a few moments at the views of the serene, profoundly blue sea from the sculpture garden, turned my back on them resolutely, and left.
The road to Grasse from Antibes is dreamy – along the coast on the Route du Bord de Mer, and then a right turn off the highway up the low Alpes Maritimes. Unfortunately, there are a few blots on this scenic landscape, chief among which is Cannes. Maybe it was because the day was grey, or maybe it was because the season was ‘off’, or maybe it was the people posing for pictures on a missing red carpet in the stead of absent film stars, or maybe it was simply that rows and rows of concrete buildings add up to ugly. Whatever, my spirits plummeted and then lifted as we drove through and out of the coastal town into the hills towards Grasse.
By the time we arrive at the ‘perfume capital of the world’, the grey has deepened and the clouds are dripping. Our guide for the afternoon is Laurent Pouppevile, and the tall gentleman with the foppish name flounces into the café where we’re waiting for him dressed in a black greatcoat and very nearly a cape. We walked through the beautiful medieval village of rain-darkened ochre and russet buildings and I listened as Laurent talked of mysterious and fascinating things: natural floral essences, flower-crushing machines, ‘noses’ who spend years creating a scent to precisely evoke a vague emotion (say, Christian Dior’s memories of summer on the beaches of Brittany when he was four years old)…
The next morning, we were walking up another medieval village, on the other side of Nice, with another very watchable guide. Patrick Le Tiec is short, bundly, and jolly. He bounds about happily, cuddling cats, pointing out things of interest, and telling possibly apocryphal but nice tales -- “Nietzche wrote a chapter of Thus Spake Zarathusthra in Eze”. He apparently ‘discovered’ a path to the sea from the hill, and spent many hours walking up and down, “before he went fool in Tonino”.
Eze is indeed madly pretty. A tiny village of uphill cobbled paths and houses covered in ivy, it boasts two small high-luxury hotels, a 14th-century chapel, a garden of exotic plants, and stunning views as far down the Riviera as St Tropez and in the other direction to Corsica. Plus, Bono has a house in the area.
We soared up and down the coastal hills to St Paul, which also, by the way, likes to show off its medieval village. Ignore that, if you will, although it’s just as pretty as the others, but never make the mistake of giving the Fondation Maeght a miss – surely one of the best ‘small’ museums in the world. Miro directed the sculptures in the ‘garden labyrinth’, Braque made a stained glass window here, Chagall contributed some mural mosaics, Giacometti designed the furniture in the cafeteria – it’s that kind of place. Just another stop in a journey of superlatives. But guess what I thought was nicest?
As the capital of the French Riviera, Nice is an excellent place to base yourself for a holiday in the region. There are short and long trips to be made in either direction, but it’s fully worth a few days’ stay. Our itinerary offered a good combination of sights and places representative of the region (suggestion: do it over a week, not three days!): Nice-Antibes-Cannes-Grasse-Eze-St Paul. If you have the time, throw in St Tropez, the Riviera’s most glamorous attraction to the west, and Monaco and Menton to the east.
If you’re travelling from Paris, Air France has several flights a day between Paris and Nice. Or take the high-speed TGV train, which runs four-five times a day in the summer (5hrs30mins; from 85 euros one-way). Book online at www.voyages-sncf.com.
From India, Air France flies to Nice via Paris for approx; Air France also connects Mumbai with Nice. Alitalia offers Delhi-Nice via Milan
Orientation: The Nice that a tourist needs to know is simple. The palm tree-lined and casino-filled Promenade des Anglais forms the southern border of the city – the road east leads to the harbour, the road west to the airport. Most luxury hotels and places of interest are clustered towards the east -- the Old Town, Cours Saleya, the Place Massena, the quay -- just north of the Promenade. The Roman ruins, and the Matisse and Chagall museums are a half-hour drive further north, in the locality of Cimiez.
Where to stay
This is the French Riviera, and there’s no dearth of glittering hotels. The newly opened Palais de la Mediterranee is located on the Promenade des Anglais overlooking the Bay of Angels, and a few minutes’ walk to the Old Town and Place Massena and seemingly everything else. (Contact 33-0-492-147730, www.lepalaismediterranee.com). The grand old Negresco, also on the Promenade, is the most famous of Nice’s hotels. Staying in this fin-de-siecle building with its domed tower is “like living in a museum”, as one resident of Nice put it: every room is furnished in different periods of French art and history. (www.hotel-negresco-nice.com).
There are also several very charming mid-range hotels: Hotel Durante is a quiet, leafy haven located in the heart of the city near the railway station. 493-888440, www.hotel-durante.com. Hotel Excelsior is similarly situated and offers traditional comfort (493-881805, www.excelsiornice.com). At the higher end of middle, the stylish Le Grimaldi has double rooms and suites (493-160024, www.le-grimaldi.com).
One-star hotels with some character include Hotel Comte de Nice (493-889456, www.hotelcomtedenice.com), Hotel Villa St-Hubert (493-846651), and Au Picardy (493-857551).
Where & what to eat
Nicois specialities include socca (very dosa-like: a besan pancake smeared with olive oil); pissaladiere (an onion tart with anchovy fillets and black olives); pan-bagnat (a round sandwich stuffed with tomato, peppers, tuna/anchovies, egg and olives); mesclun (a mixture of various young shoots – chicory, rocket, dandelion stalks, chervil, lettuce, etc), and of course salade Nicoise. Find these at any roadside eatery. The Italian influence is widespread, so pasta is available at every café.
You’ll also find Moroccan, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese and Indian at eateries big and small near the Place Massena and Vieux Nice. For high-class, expensive French gastronomy, head to Le Chantecler at the Negresco (lunch/dinner: 55/90 euros). The casual atmosphere at La Zucca Magica belies the sophistication of its vegetarian food. Cafee de Turin is a lively place, highly regarded for its shellfish.
What to see & do
The first thing to do is talk a walk down the Promenade des Anglais and gaze at the blue blue sea. If you can manage to do this at the crack of dawn, excellent. Because by 9am, you should be on the Cours Saleya, two minutes away. The flower market here opens early and is a wonderfully atmospheric way to be introduced Nice (see box: ‘The Markets’). After strolling through the market, and maybe breaking for coffee and freshly baked goodies at Café des Fleurs, carry on through the inner lanes of Old Nice. The old houses are beautifully preserved; most wear a coat of some deep earth tone and many are enlivened by window-boxes of flowers. Visit the lovely 17th-century Palais Lascaris, now a museum of folk art (10am-6pm; closed Tuesday; admission free) and the Chapelle de la Miséricorde. Stop again to ogle at the candy at Maison Auer, an 1820s chocolaterie. Walk up to Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) for your first views of the city spread our below and the sea beyond.
Other notable must-dos in Nice: visits to the Matisse and Chagall museums, and the Roman ruins of Cimiez. Also visit what’s reputedly the most spectacular Russian Orthodox Church in western Europe (9.30am-12pm and 3.30-5.30pm).
Resources: The Nice Tourist Office is very helpful, and will provide information on conducted tours, in-city transportation, and the like. Offices on the Promenade, at the airport and at the rail station (892-707407). The websites www.nicetourism.com and www.crt-riviera.fr are great for trip planning.
Come to this animated town for two things: the wonderful Musee Picasso housed in the Chateau Grimaldi and the lively Provencal market. If you’d like to stay a few days in the town, try the Mas Djoliba for Provencal-farm-style luxury (493-340248, www.hotel-djoliba.com) or the cheaper and charming Hotel La Jabotte (493-610704, www.jabotte.com). More at www.antibesjuanlespins.com.
If you must come here, come in the summer. And if you must stay, let it be at the super-glamorous Intercontinental Carlton on the Croisette (493-0640-06, cannes.intercontinental.com). Better to make a trip to the still-lovely and quiet Lerins islands (daily ferries from Cannes’ Gare Maritimes).
Located 16km inland from Cannes, Grasse is worth a day’s visit. The main points of interest in the ‘perfume capital of the world’ are, well, the perfume factories. Three big ones among the 30-odd factories – Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard – conduct free guided tours. I visited the Fragonard complex of factory-shop-and-museum of Provencal costumes and jewellery. Be sure to buy some of the high-quality fragrances, soaps, and other cosmetic products, all available for approximately half the cost of fashion houses (brands cost because of the fancy advertising). Open 8.30am-6.30pm; www.fragonard.com. Accommodation options are limited; try La Bellaudiere (35-65 euros; 493-360257). If you’re up to a super-luxury meal, head to La Bastide St-Antoine, which serves sophisticated Provencal food out of a 200-year-old farmhouse (call 493-709494 for reservations).
A 15-minute drive east of Nice on the Moyenne Corniche road takes you to this tiny hamlet. Once you’ve walked up its narrow, winding paths, checked out the garden of exotic plants, visited the little church and gazed your fill at the sea sprawling below, you can do things: have an excellent lunch at the Le Nid d’Aigle for about 20 euros and head elsewhere; or check into one of the two tiny super-luxury hotels in the village. The Chèvre d’Or clings to the hill in a secret way; every room is a different haven of lavishness and privacy looking out onto the glorious Mediterranean (from 360 euros in the summer; 493-410672, www.chevredor.com). Chateau Eza is no less luxurious (493-411224, www.chateaueza.com).
Located northwest of Nice, about 45mins by car, little Saint-Paul – or Saint-Paul-de-Vence -- is a must-visit for the astounding Fondation Maeght. The museum, which looks like none you’ve ever seen before, has a staggering 6,000 works by Modernist masters. To be fair, the town is also very pretty and can offer a pleasant stay for a day or two. To round off the arty experience, stay at La Colombe d’Or, where Matisse, Braque Leger, and other luminaries paid for their rooms and meals by leaving behind art-work! They’re all still on the walls (493-328002, www.la-colombe-dor.com).
The markets on the Riviera all bear a wonderful Provencal flavour. Virtually all of them are daily affairs, typically beginning very early in the morning and wrapping up by the afternoon. Usually held in the main square of a town, stalls are set up from scratch each day and brought down with the sun.
The most famous in the region is Nice’s flower market, held every day of the week except Mondays and Sunday afternoons. Flowers and plants from the hills surrounding Nice perfume the bustling street, but there’s more – until 1pm, there’s also fruit and vegetables, cheeses, sausages, confectionery, snacks, and much bustle. It’s utterly charming.
Between June and September, the flower market gives way to an arts and crafts market – painters line the street with their works to add local colour.
Antibes’ Provencal market held on the town’s Cours Massena is smaller, which makes it even more sharply wonderful – no flowers, but plenty of farm produce plus some cheap clothes and footwear (daily June-Aug; closed Mondays Sept-May).
There are an incredible 150 museums in the Riviera region, many of them outstanding houses of modern art. This is not utterly shocking when one considers that so many big names spent years in the region –Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Leger, Giacometti, Miro, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, the lot...
The Matisse Museum in the Cimiez locality of Nice is special. It features works from all periods of the artist's life. Open 10am-6pm, closed Tuesdays.
The Marc Chagall National Biblical Message Museum, also in Nice, near the Matisse Museum, features 17 large paintings with Biblical themes displayed as Chagall wanted. Open 10am-5pm, October-June/10am-6pm, July-September.
The Fondation Maeght, situated among acres of leafy gardens in Saint-Paul in the hills above Nice, is a must-visit for an art-lover. Set up with the patronage of Aimé and Marguerite Maeght and designed with inputs from various masters, this avant-garde museum has a huge permanent collection. Displays are in the gardens, in courtyards, terraces and several light-filled rooms on split levels. Open 10am-7pm in the summer.
The Musee Picasso in Antibes is housed in the lovely Chateau Grimaldi, and offers a relatively small but stunning collection of the work Picasso did while resident there. Open 10am-6pm between June 15 and Sept 15, otherwise 10am-12pm and 2pm-6pm.
Tip: If you intend to visit several museums (and not just of art), consider buying a museum pass: a seven-day pass gives you admission to all municipal museums; a Riviera museum pass allows you into 65 museums and monuments, depending on the period of validity.
When to go
Summer is the traditional season to visit the Cote d’Azur. It’s so much a tradition with Englishpeople and Americans, however, that there’s often a human traffic jam on the beaches and vehicular traffic can’t do more than crawl on the coastal road between St Tropez and Menton. But the temptations to visit at this time are strong – the weather’s perfect for sun-worshippers and the Mediterranean shines in all shades of blue.
July and August are the most popular months. The Nice Jazz Festival is a grand business set in the gardens around the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre in Cimiez. There are simultaneous performances on three different stages set in the olive groves, which the audience is free to move around between. Programme details will be available at www.nicejazzfest.com from end-April. The other big summer event on the Riviera is the Cannes Film Festival. Event details and trip-planning help at www.festival-cannes.fr. Remember that all bookings must be done well in advance for summer visits.
Riviera veterans now prefer the ‘medium’ season – spring and autumn – when the weather is clear and lovely, if less warm, the hotel rooms cheaper and there’s space to walk without causing injury. The Nice Carnival, usually held in February, is another excellent incentive for a winter/spring visit.