Nice is nice. And I’ve waited a long time just to say that. Now that I have said it though, I can see why nice is not nearly as nice an adjective. Tepid and terse, it doesn’t hold in it the promise of the sea, for instance. Or trace the ridged contours of the first oxheart tomatoes of the season at the Cours Saleya. Its frugal syllables don’t even begin to grasp the restlessness of the river Paillon run aground (and covered up) by Nice’s only alarming concession to ‘prudence’. But is there a word in the English language that can bottle the spirit of a city so alive — so Italian — so French?
Arriving a month after the party hats were flung in the heady, carnival air, however, I’m constantly plied with — over and above the fantastic samples of la cuisine Niçoise — apologies for the fickle weather. Like the rest of Europe, struggling to come to terms with a cold, overcast April, Nice, I’m told, is not quite itself this year. What ought to have been all beach towels and bikinis by now is but a windy, grey tangle of streets. I don’t mind, really. I like the colour grey. Especially, when it adds that grim patina to the Gallo-Roman ruins of the ancient city of Cemenelum in the north and tempers the ochres and reds of the Italianate buildings that frame the central square at Place Masséna. I think it’s pretty. Not in the dreamy, sun-kissed Peter Mayle-Ridley Scott sort of way (remember A Good Year?). But in a pensive, pouty way.
So, blinkered and burrowing in my overcoat, minutes before the sun dives into the open waters of the Med, I scurry past the pebbled beaches towards my hotel — a quirky, art-filled boutique called the Windsor on Rue Dalpozzo — to change into something formal (and dry). I have a dinner engagement tonight. And not just any ho-hum dinner that. But a Michelin-starred, bona fide Provençal concert at the sea-fronted Le Negresco. More an art museum than a hotel with a hundred-year-old pink dome, Negresco is as storied as the windswept palms of the Promenade des Anglais. It’s also decidedly eccentric — with a bistro that looks like a giant carousel and a façade with no balconies (sunbathing gained currency a decade after it was built!). And the meal? Well, they say, it’s the kind you must brave two hundred knots of wind and cobbled streets for, preferably, in a pair of high heels. Even after a day around town.
A town that’s large enough to fit the fifth most populous city of France in it, yet small enough for seasoned tourists, quick to shrink any city into tufts of must-dos on a map. You’ll find the latter arm in arm (or elbow-deep in a seafood platter) somewhere between the sprawling hub of Place Masséna and the promenade that girdles the city and the sea. Some also spend their afternoons on top of an open-top bus, swerving around the old city’s gentle curves and terracotta roofs, hopping off first at the Chagall museum and then at the Musée Matisse in a seventeenth-century villa in Cimiez up north — watching old men play an inscrutable game of pétanque or chasing children up tangerine trees and between rows of gnarled, leafless platanes.
I must-do the city too, and study the joggers and roller-bladers along the waterfront — wondering why they choose Rihanna over the cacophony of gulls and crashing waves. I also stop awhile to admire the rookie salsa dancers at the square Masséna. Led by a young man (in a Che T-shirt, no less), the women twirl and twist in the arms of their partners, unmindful of the shoppers and tourists pouring out of the cafés, souvenir shops and the Galeries Lafayette next door. Their step unbroken by the steady drizzle. Together, they are a jiving, pulsating slice of Amérique latine right here on the indolent shores of Côte d’Azur (or what Anglophones call the French Riviera). Yet, they blend in, like the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s seven oddball resin statues that keep a watch over the Neo-Renaissance buildings here. Not very Provençal? Well, not if you’re looking to find a frozen-in-time postcard printed in the 1950s.
For Nice is no stranger to strangers. It has never been. Even on a rainy day, I can easily think of it as the product of a scandalous affair between a genteel femme française and a dark-haired Italian rake. A saucy sophisticate, who revels in her pied identities, and shocks and demurs by turns. Founded by the Greeks and protected or ruled variably by the Romans, the Saracens, the Counts of Savoy and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the French only acquired Nice (for good) 150-odd years ago in 1860. It was when the Sardinian ruler handed it over to Napoleon III in lieu of military support against Austria. In many ways, the city is still tied to its Italian nonna’s apron strings. And nowhere is that more evident than in the warm embrace of a Niçoise kitchen.
I spent a few hours in one earlier in the day; dipping into the fine sauces, aiolis and laughter of Canadian chef Rosa Jackson — now a resident of Nice, and more French as a cook than her not-so-traditional but fantastic chicken bouillabaisse (it’s usually a fish stew). Accustomed to the ‘baggage’ the usual clutch of English-speaking tourists bring to her four-hundred-year-old apartment building near the fruit and flower stalls of Cours Saleya, Rosa often draws attention to Nice’s Italian connections. From the pistou (or pesto) to the abundant spaghetti and tagliatelle, tables in Nice and Naples have a lot in common.
The one dish that Nice owns in name and spirit though, is the famous Salad Niçoise. It’s also the dish that stumps Rosa’s foreign audience. Like the ex-mayor of the city Jacques Médecin, who between embezzling funds, womanizing and supporting groups given to xenophobia, also wrote a landmark book on the local cuisine, Rosa believes in adding nothing boiled (no potatoes, no beans), except eggs in her salad. No pan-seared tuna either. Just a bowl of well-cut summer vegetables — think violet-tipped artichokes and peppers, cucumbers and radishes — with canned tuna and/or anchovies and salad greens. Tossed lovingly. Never in a hurry.
But hurry I must tonight. Only to linger, for the next four hours, over a single, fairly exceptional meal at the Negresco. Now, in the culinary pecking order of things, despite the Riviera’s formidable reputation, Nice — with its fantastic, fresh produce and bottle of vins de Bellet produced in the surrounding hills — has always been trumped by the high tables of Paris and Lyon. But if there’s a toque in this city that gives the temples of la grande cuisine anywhere in France a run for their money (both metaphorically and otherwise), it belongs to Jean-Denis Rieubland at the Negresco. A chef who must replicate on the plate every evening the theatre and glamour of Le Chantecler’s wood-panelled, chandelier-lit, Regency-style vision in pink.
I realise I’m shamelessly star-struck even before the napkin is unfolded and the first glass of champagne poured into the crystal clear flutes. The period furniture, the elegant china and the knowledge that Dali and Picasso (regulars at the hotel once) may have drained their glasses of rosé on this very same table threaten to cloud my critical eye. It doesn’t help that there are waiters (in plural), a dining room manager and a sommelier armed with a doorstopper for a wine list, milling about in that comforting, most old-fashioned of ways — attentive yet unobtrusive.
The pageant of amuse-bouche, the lightly cooked duck foie gras with quail and Jura wine jelly and the confit of cod, served with prawns as the mains, are all quite excellent (where ‘quite’ is a reference to the fish alone, which is a tad under-seasoned for my palate). It’s the caramel soufflé, however, that’s the match point of this grand slam of a meal. Primed to expect fireworks all evening, I think I’m well-prepared for the finale, until the dessert carts roll in. What follows is a performance clearly unmatched by my feeble imagination. First to emerge from under the cloche is the caramel soufflé, coaxed ever so gently out of its still warm ramekin. Pears poached in wine are laid out next. And then the pudding is flambéed, before the blue flames are cooled by a perfect quenelle of ice cream.
As evenings go, this one was all lace and taffeta. Like Grace Kelly on her wedding day; though that was more mid-century. Her wedding to Prince Rainier III, barely eleven miles east of Nice in the tiny principality of Monaco, was, and as I find out soon enough, still is, the most important marketing tool for tourism. There have been more weddings, of course. Most recently of its current heir Prince Albert, whose illegitimate children almost spoilt the party for his new bride, Princess Charlene, a former Olympian from South Africa. But then, the Grimaldis, including the prince’s two sisters, know a thing or two about doublespreads in the Paris Match.
Minutes before we fly in from the airport at Nice, for instance — this time on a whirlybird, which banks recklessly over the spangled waters of the Mediterranean — I find a co-passenger poring over the latest exploits of the royal family in yet another glossy. Gambling, gossip and the Grimaldis (not necessarily in that order) are evidently the cornerstones of the robust economy of this two-square-kilometre country that doesn’t really produce anything. Even recession seems to have left its coffers largely unscathed — although the general disdain reserved for millionaires (as opposed to billionaires), some of whom come from countries the Monégasques can’t be bothered to plot on a map, does seem to have abated somewhat. Words like MICE and corporate events are no longer frowned upon. And new Russian money is just as welcome as Bono.
I walk the spotless streets days before Monaco is besieged by young Nadal-loving nymphs at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters and a month ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix (on the only F1 track laid out on the streets and not a stadium; also the most challenging). Cross-hatched by every stereotype in the Hollywood lexicon, I’m not sure if Monaco is for me and if I am for Monaco. I feel like a fish out of the Mediterranean waters. For if Nice is the French maman who wraps you in her garlicky embrace, Monaco is the strapping lad on the next table, who smiles politely when you meet his gaze, but whisks the blonde away in a batmobile after.
Every brand, every car, every poodle you’d like to meet is right around the corner. All unsurprisingly lah-di-da. And therefore, intimidating — at least if you’re looking at it through a third-world prism. So much so, one almost feels compelled to start every conversation with ‘Do you know of the parties a certain king of good times from India was known to throw on his private yacht?’ (If it’s any consolation, some people do know of them). Locals however — presumably, to break the ice — always fall back on an Indian wedding held here two years ago. One where — in keeping with stereotypes — a tusker was flown into Monaco’s Casino Square.
The trick is to be discreet and pokerfaced (famous people don’t acknowledge other famous people), and to look the part — everyone else may be super-rich, but you must be too, if you’re here! It’s easier still, if you, like me or F. Scott Fitzgerald, have a room key at the Hotel de Paris. A vision in belle époque that hasn’t been missed for 150 years here at the heart of Monte Carlo (one of the five districts of Monaco) — across from the principality’s principal keeper, the Casino and the opera house. My suite alone is a Dr Who TARDIS — albeit with more room than a cramped police box. Step into it and you begin to believe that the billowing tulle and braided coiffure on the wall is your great grand aunt, the dowager duchess of Versailles. And the hotel’s private cellar — with over a kilometre of wine racks and some of the best tipple in the world — a small portion of your large inheritance.
It’s a pity I didn’t get a chance to tell Alain Ducasse exactly what I think of his food at the three-Michelin-starred Le Louis XV (getting a reservation can take months). But I did nurse a mint julep at the Bar Américain to dream up my own Gatsby. And turned up my blue-blooded nose at anything twenty-first century — like the Buddha Bar next door (so what if it’s packed on a weekday) and the Thermes Marins spa (connected to the Hotel de Paris and its sister property, Hotel Hermitage by a private underground corridor).
Walking back at dusk from the Palais du Prince — a curious, gilded display of the Grimaldi aesthetics from the thirteenth century onwards — down the hill, along the backstreets, past the cathedral and the amphitheatre with sweeping views of sea, I wonder what I would have done had at least one of the yachts moored at the harbour below been mine. Would I have gambled the tax-free fortune I made? Or thrown lavish parties for my famous friends? Or would my story have ended as all glorious stories do, with clinking tulips and lovers sailing into sunsets? I’m not sure. But I’ll certainly be back, like a Fitzgeraldian truth foretold, to forget or rejoice, to hide my face or have my fling by the fairy blue seas.
Air France offers convenient connections to Nice via Paris from Delhi (approx. Rs 65,000 return) and Mumbai (approx. Rs 60,000 return). Several other airlines, including Emirates, Lufthansa and KLM, also ply one-stop flights to Nice’s Côte d’Azur airport.
The eleven miles between Nice and Monaco is easily covered by road — a route that skims the Mediterranean coastline. But the best and most flamboyant way to do it, of course, is by a helicopter (€ 125 one-way for a 10-minute ride; heliairmonaco.com).
To apply for a Schengen visa (€ 60) for France, log on to vfs-france.co.in to schedule an appointment and to download the application forms.
Luxe travel operator
If you’re travelling to the south of France and Monaco, you ought to travel in style. For nothing mars a dream holiday on the Riviera more than an average meal or a mothballed hotel. And French Touch Travel (FTT) ensures just that. A new outbound enterprise, the company designs itineraries that offer the insider advantage. From blink-and-you-miss-it check-ins, even at a busy airport like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, to arranging for porters at major train stations (well-heeled Indians, expect no less!) and getting reservations at hotels or events at short notice, FTT is a very efficient, invisible hand. So much so that one begins to take for granted the private access to cellars, exclusive tours of Dali-, Picasso- or Cocteau-lined corridors (on hotel floors, off-limits to outsiders), the English-enabled cookery classes, the special rendezvous with chefs who sport the Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (best craftsman in France) collar and so on. While there’s no upper limit, prices for short tours may start at € 1,000 per night, exclusive of airfare; frenchtouch-travel.com.
Where to stay
Nice has a range of accommodation options to suit every pocket. I stayed at the charming boutique Hotel Windsor on Rue Dalpozzo (€ 155–240; hotelwindsornice.com). A veritable gallery for young artists, it’s a quirky, convenient place — a short walk from the main square of Place Masséna — to hole in, if you don’t mind the small-ish rooms and shower. Ask for one overlooking the garden.
If you can afford it though, and if they have rooms to spare in the summer, you must bed at Le Negresco (packages including breakfast and access to their private beach, start at about € 370; hotel-negresco-nice.com).
What to see & do
There’s a lot of Nice to ‘do’, really. But a good place to start is the main square Place Masséna. Cross the bridge and make your way next to the colourful flower and fruit/vegetable morning market of Cours Saleya, which also includes stalls of cheeses, sundried tomatoes, condiments and soaps. Stop en route for a sweet indulgence at the candied fruit and chocolate shop of Maison Auer, established on Rue Saint-Francois de Paule in 1820 — try the candied tangerine (maison-auer.com). If you can’t already smell or see the blue expanse yet from the Saleya, ask for directions to the Promenade des Anglais, a manicured, palm-lined girdle around the coastline. Then find a seat on the L Open Tour hop-on hop-off bus (€ 21 for a day pass; nicelegrandtour.com) and head north to pay homage to Chagall first and then to Matisse. The latter is in Cimiez, an upscale neighbourhood that still has remnants of its Roman past (the settlement of Cemenelum) and a monastery used by Fransican monks since the sixteenth century. The cathedral of Russe Saint Nicolas and the natural history museum are some of the other attractions to make time for. Those with culinary interests will also do well to call on Rosa Jackson. Her cookery classes, after a market tour and followed by a four-course lunch, at Les Petit Farcis are perfect for picking up local recipes and bragging rights (€ 165–195; petitsfarcis.com). She also conducts street food tours.
Where to stay
Hotel de Paris is to Monte Carlo what the Taj Mahal Hotel is to Mumbai — a key character in the Monaco story (the world’s second smallest country after the Vatican). Dripping with opulence, think crystal chandeliers and marble colonnades, it’s as dramatic as one imagines all hotels in Monte Carlo to be. The Fitzgeralds liked to call it ‘a palace in a detective story’ (from approx. € 900; hoteldeparismontecarlo.com).
Its sister property, the relatively more understated, sea-fronted Hotel Hermitage, known for its Michelin-starred seafood restaurant Le Vistamar, is also a good place to bed in (from about € 900; hotelhermitagemontecarlo.com).
If you’re looking for a hideaway at a convenient distance from the centre of town, definitely try the recently redecorated (by India Mahdavi), classic 1930s marvel, the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, which juts into the sea like the prow of a ship (offers start at € 750; monte-carlo-beach.com). Or at least, have lunch at the bright and cheerful Elsa — the chef does a fantastic modern take on the ratatouille every season and takes pride in ‘not messing too much’ with the ingredients.
Also, reserve a table for dinner at the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort’s Blue Bay, if you’re not staying there (from about € 500; montecarlobay.com). Chef Marcel Ravin, a jolly French Caribbean import, has several spicy and quirky tricks in his toque.
What to see & do
When a country is barely under two-square-kilometres in size and sits by the Mediterranean Sea, the only and the best way to explore its nooks and crannies is on foot. And when your feet are tired, hop on and off at any of the twelve stops of the Monaco Le Grand Tour bus (€ 18 one-day pass; monacolegrandtour.com).
Broadly the two key areas to get to are the Rock, a headland with the palace, the cathedral, souvenir shops, the Musée Océanographique and a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the entire principality, and the Casino Square marked by the casino, of course, the opera house, some of Monte Carlo’s oldest hotels (such as the Hotel de Paris and Hotel Hermitage) and the new Buddha Bar (if you’re yearning for a quick taste of Asia after all the European excesses). The harbor — where Monaco’s best-known attractions, the gleaming white yachts, are moored — and the boat and car shows alongside, is sort of mid-way between the Rock and the casino. You can also time your trip to coincide with the Monaco F1 Grand Prix (usually in May) and the Monte Carlo Rolex Tennis Masters (usually in April).