Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
Smart, residential Cimiez is imbued with the spirit of the Belle Époque and offers glimpses of Nice’s Roman past too, but a walk here is also a must for art lovers given its superb museums dedicated to Chagall and Matisse.
DISTANCE: 3.25km (2 miles)
TIME: A half day
START: Former Majestic Hôtel, Boulevard de Cimiez
END: Monastère de Cimiez
POINTS TO NOTE: Eating options are limited on this route, so best to start after lunch or bring a picnic. Note that the Chagall, Archaeological and Matisse museums are all closed on Tuesday. The start of the route is reached from place Masséna or avenue Jean Médecin via boulevard Dubouchage and avenue Desambrois. On the way back you can take buses nos. 15, 17 or 22 from Arènes-Musée Matisse.
The winding avenues, stucco façades and lush vegetation of Cimiez still evoke the Belle Époque when European aristocracy wintered on the Riviera.
Olive grove in the Parc des Arènes de Cimiez
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
BOULEVARD DE CIMIEZ
Begin at the bottom of boulevard de Cimiez 1 [map]. Laid out in the 1880s, it threads through the district and is lined with ornate former grand hotels built when this was the most fashionable part of town. Spot the pink-and-cream former Grand Hôtel amid tall palm trees at no. 2, and next door, dating from 1908, the colossal white façade of the Majestic, which was once Nice’s biggest hotel with 400 bedrooms.
Musée National Marc Chagall
Further along, at the corner with avenue Docteur Ménard, is the Musée National Marc Chagall 2 [map] (www.musee-chagall.fr; Wed-Mon May-Oct 10am-6pm, Nov-Apr until 5pm; charge), where paintings by Chagall are enhanced to great effect by the low, modern building. Inaugurated in 1973, the museum was designed in consultation with the artist by André Hermant, a pupil of Le Corbusier, specifically for the artist’s paintings on Old Testament themes. In the main room, 12 paintings illustrating episodes from Genesis and Exodus reveal Chagall’s ability to mix colour and narrative with a personal iconography.
A smaller gallery to the side contains five dreamlike, rose-tinted paintings of the Cantiques (1957-60) on the theme of love, dedicated to his second wife Valentina Brodsky. Other works from the collection are displayed in rotation in temporary exhibitions. Be sure to visit the auditorium, where there are three intensely coloured stained-glass windows and related studies depicting The Creation of the World. The Café du Musée, see 1, is a good place for refreshments.
Cimiez’s Église Franciscaine
Return to boulevard de Cimiez, where across the street, Villa Paradisio, built for Baronne Hélène de Rothschild, now belongs to the town’s education service, but is surrounded by a pretty public garden. Set back in gardens at no. 46, the former Hôtel Alhambra, with its two mosque-like minarets, and neighbouring Villa Ellard are two rare examples of Moorish taste. The former Riviera Palace at no. 39 and Winter Palace at no. 82 were both designed by Charles Delmas, architect of the Carlton in Cannes.
After the Palace Prince de Galles at no. 53, detour left along boulevard Prince de Galles to the fanciful mock medieval gateway 3 [map] of Campus Valrose. The neo-Gothic Château Valrose itself (the main entrance is on avenue de Valrose), built in 1867 for a Russian noble, is now part of Nice University’s Science Faculty and is out of bounds, but you can visit the park which sprawls over the hillside, with a waterfall, lake and an authentic Russian wooden isba (house) transported from Odessa.
While earlier visitors rented or built themselves villas, by the late 19th century, when the winter season meant that being next to the sea was not that important as great views of it, hilly Cimiez’s grand hotels became the place to stay; a reputation confirmed by the arrival of Queen Victoria in the 1890s. The palatial new buildings, many financed by banker Henri Germain, offered modern comforts, such as lifts, private bathrooms and hot running water, as well as the space to keep a retinue of servants. The crash of 1929, the birth of the summer season in the 1930s and the desire to be next to the sea sealed the decline of Cimiez’s grand hotels. They closed one by one to be divided up into apartments; nevertheless, the grand Belle Époque architecture remains.
Hotel Excelsior Régina
Return to boulevard de Cimiez. At the junction with avenue de la Reine Victoria, a sentimental white marble statue portrays Queen Victoria accepting flowers from figures symbolising towns on the Riviera. Crowning the boulevard behind, the ornate Hôtel Excelsior Régina 4 [map] was designed by architect Sébastien-Marcel Biasini in 1896, in anticipation of a visit by Queen Victoria, who stayed here three times under the name of Lady Balmoral. The royal retinue occupied the entire west wing with a suite of over 70 rooms, commemorated by the crown over the entrance. The hotel was requisitioned as a military hospital during World War I and following the crash of 1929 was converted into apartments, two of which were bought by Matisse, who lived here at the end of his life, sketching on the ceiling from his bed with a brush attached to a long pole.
Cimiez Site Plan
Roman excavations by the Musée d’Archéologie
REMAINS OF ROMAN NICE
Across the boulevard, at the Arènes de Cimiez 5 [map], you suddenly leap back 2,000 years to the Roman city of Cemenelum, founded in the 1st century AD as a military staging post on the Via Aurelia and subsequently capital of the Imperial province of Alpes Maritimae. The amphitheatre itself is disappointing compared to the much larger, better-preserved amphitheatres at Arles, Nîmes and Fréjus, although it makes a pleasant venue for the Nice Jazz Festival in July.
Musée d’Archéologie de Nice - Site de Cimiez
You get a much better idea of the importance of Cemenelum in the adjacent Musée d’Archéologie de Nice - Site de Cimiez 6 [map] (160 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez; tel: 04 93 81 59 57; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; free) and archaeological site. Start with the museum, which has displays of statues, glassware and jewellery and sarcophagi and inscribed stelae, as well as the chance to try out Roman boardgames. Exit the other side to see the extensive remains including imposing walls and bits of hypocaust from three bathing establishments dating from the settlement’s 3rd-century heyday; traces of streets and shops; and a 5th-century paleo-Christian church and baptistry.
Viewing artworks at the Musée Matisse
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Behind the ruins, you can spot the rust-coloured Musée Matisse 7 [map] (164 avenue des Arènes; www.musee-matisse-nice.org; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; free), which is reached via the Parc des Arènes, a lovely grove of olive trees and a good place to picnic. The extensive collection spans the artist’s entire career, and demonstrates how he assimilated such inspirations as Riviera sunlight, patterned textiles, classical sculpture and his voyages to North Africa and Tahiti. Highlights include Fauve portrait, small oil studies for different versions of La Danse, Odalesque au coffret rouge (1926), a series of small bronze heads of Jeannette, virtuoso drawing; and the 8m- (26ft-) long, cut-out Fleurs et fruits (1953), which provides a ripple of colour across the atrium gallery.
CIMETIÈRE DE CIMIEZ
Leave the park by the steps on the eastern side to place du Monastère de Cimiez, opposite the garish façade of the Franciscan church. To the left of the church enter Cimetière de Cimiez 8 [map], burial place for many British and Russian aristocrats, and follow signs to the left to pay further homage to Matisse at the simple tomb that sits on its own terrace in the gardens below. Painter Raoul Dufy is buried on the opposite side of the cemetery.
From Dufy’s tomb, follow the path through a small gate into the rose garden from where you can admire the view, including the domed observatory (designed by Charles Garnier and Gustave Eiffel), before visiting the early-Gothic Église Franciscaine 9 [map] (Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 3-6pm; free). The draw here is the collection of three paintings - a Pièta triptych (c.1475), Crucifixion (1512) and Deposition (c.1520) - by Louis Bréa, the leading figure in a dynasty of Nice artists, which show his development of style.
In the adjoining Monastère Notre-Dame de Cimiez, a small museum (hours as above) presents the history of the Franciscan order in Nice.
Food and Drink
1 CAFÉ DU MUSÉE
Musée National Marc Chagall, avenue Dr Ménard; tel: 04 93 53 87 32; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; €
Light lunches, teas and snacks are served under the shade of parasols in the pretty garden of the Chagall Museum.