This is a continuation of an earlier post about Nice.
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Nice was handed back to Savoy until 1860 and 100 years of tourism began that by the end of 19th century had made the city a prime wintering spot for British and Russian royalty as well as many others. In the 1890s, Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor, and Russian royal family members were in regular attendance from the late 1850s until the First World War.
The queen’s visits did a lot for the Cimiez neighborhood overlooking coastal Nice that not too much earlier had been little more than a Franciscan monastery and some Roman ruins. This may be a bit of an overstatement since the present Musee de Matisse, adjacent to the monastery and Roman ruins, is in a 17th century Italian style villa. It was not until 1881, though, when the old road up the hill was joined by the Boulevard de Cimiez that the area was available for extensive development. With this road improvement, the newly opened Grand Hotel would soon be joined by the Excelsior Hotel Regina, a Moorish style Alhambra Hotel, as well as the Hermitage, Majestic, Riviera and Winter Palace. Today, all of these hotels have been turned into residences.
This was the Belle Epoque era in Nice, and for a close-up view of the most elaborate buildings of the period, it is not too long a walk down the Boulevard de Cimiez from the Regina and Matisse Museum to the museum of another painter closely related to Nice, Marc Chagall. Along the way, one passes the hotels noted above, and from the Chagall Museum, almost all of the buses with their one euro fare head to the center city.
The most spectacular, if not largest, of Nice’s Belle Epoque hotels, is the Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais. It was a late arrival, opening its doors in 1913 and would be the last to do so before the First World War. Staying or eating there is quite expensive, but it is worth a walk through the lobby and adjoining rooms to the see the artwork and opulence. The Palais de Justice and Opera House in Old Town were also built during this era.
The Russian contribution to this period is the beautiful Russian Orthodox Cathedral opened in 1912 and funded by Tsar Nicholas II to serve the many Russians living in Nice. It is the largest Russian church outside of Russia, and its minarets and Russian architecture are a sharp contrast to other buildings in the city. It is located just west of main train station.
The reorientation of Nice’s top line hotels from the hills to near the sea that began with the opening of the Negresco at the end of the Belle Epoque era, reached its peak between the wars. The Palais-de-Mediterranee casino that opened on the Promenade des Anglais in 1929 was the architectural crown jewel of this period. It was built by an American millionaire, Frank Jay Gould, and designed by an American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It became a successful competitor to Monaco’s casino and helped maintain Nice’s role as a destination of royalty; albeit a very different royalty that included the likes of Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, the American dancer Isadora Duncan and other celebrities of the Jazz Age.
There are many delightful walks in Nice. The most obvious of these is the Promenade des Anglais that goes along the Bay of Angels from Castle Hill to the airport – a stretch of about three miles – that is not only scenic, but great for people watching and wide enough for bikes to have their own lanes. One can spend hours walking around Old Town without getting bored, and the stroll along Boulevard de Cemiez starting at Roman ruins and Matisse Museum heading down to the Chagall Museum takes one past the most spectacular of the Belle Epoque hotels that have been converted into apartments.
A little less historic is walking around Le Port, but charming in its own way. It does not have the history of other walks as the port was not finished until 1840, but its yachts, restaurants and wide walkway give it an appeal all its own. The port is between Castle Hill and Mont Boron. There are walks beginning at the port that go along the rocky shores, and for the more ambitious, through the woods that go to the top of Mont Boron and over to Fort Mont Alban or along the rocky shores to VilleFranche.
Eating out in Nice is generally done in three areas. These are Old Town; the center city along the traffic free Rue Messina and its extension, Rue de France; and around the port.
Old Town is a fun place to eat, but has a touristy flavor that may be a bit much for most, particularly along the Cours Saleya and its extension beyond the Opera House. Its better restaurants are near, and generally west of, Cathedral St.-Reparate and near St. Francois Place in the north end of the area. If it is pizza, frites and people watching you want, then Cours Saleya is the place, and one of the best of its spots is La Voglia near the opera house. For a little more upscale dining, one might try the Chez Palmyre near St. Francois Place or La Tire Bouchin (out back is better than inside) on Rue de Prefecture.
Rue Messena is not all that different in that like Old Town its restaurants are big on pizza, but it is a little quieter and closer to the hotels. The best in this area – all big on pizza – are Taverne Messena, Le Quebec and La Pizza. The Rue de France extension has a higher quality of restaurant that reflects its location right behind some of the better hotels. My favorites there are 11eme Art and a Japanese restaurant, Ma Yucca. Parking for both Rue Messena and Rue de France extension is best done at underground Palais de Mediterranee parking lot that always has room and is right in the midst of this area.
The port, which is home for me, is ringed by restaurants ranging from pizza joints to Michelin-rated fine dining, and it is a very pleasant place to sit outside and eat on nice days. Its best restaurants include Le Marlin for seafood; In Vino Port; and Gousto. If you want good food at a low cost, L’Escale is a good bet. .
Note: This includes excerpts from my book, A Travelers History of Cote d’Azur.