Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
The labyrinthine streets of Old Nice are where you can discover fine Baroque churches, funky bars and an elegant palace, as well as enjoy lots of foodie treats including the city’s best ice cream.
DISTANCE: 2.5km (1.5 miles)
TIME: A full day
START: Place Masséna
END: Rue Pairolière
POINTS TO NOTE: Most churches and museums in Nice are closed at lunchtime.
Nice’s ornate opera house
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Against a backdrop of pastel-coloured houses and Baroque churches and campaniles, the picturesque Old Town is a harmonious blend of old and new. It is Nice at its most traditional, where you may find elderly residents who still speak Nissart (an Occitane language related to Provençal) and restaurants serving age-old local specialities, alongside trendy cellar clubs, bohemian bars, art galleries and clothes shops which reflect the young cosmopolitan set who have rejuvenated the district. Behind the tourist-thronged main thoroughfares, there are quiet backstreets and the occasional fine doorway, carved lintel or old lavoir (communal wash-house) to discover.
Vieux Nice owes its street plan to the medieval Ville Basse (Lower Town), which grew up at the foot of the Colline du Château (Castle Hill, for more information, click here) in the 13th and 14th centuries. It acquired its present appearance in the 16th and 17th centuries when the population of the Ville Haute (Upper Town) was forced down from the citadel and the town was rebuilt with its Baroque churches and communal buildings.
Old Town façades
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
AROUND THE OPÉRA
Begin by the Fontaine du Soleil in place Masséna and enter Vieux Nice along rue de l’Opéra. If you turn right on rue St-François-de-Paule, at no. 24 you will find the Hôtel Beau Rivage (for more information, click here), whose former guests include Nietzsche, Chekhov and Matisse. However, this route turns left, passing the Hôtel de Ville, which is surprisingly non-flamboyant for Nice. Opposite, at no. 14, Alziari (www.alziari.com) draws connoisseurs for its olive oil. Further up is the pink-columned Opéra de Nice 1 [map] (for more information, click here). A focal point of Nice’s cultural scene, it was rebuilt in 1884 on the site of the earlier Théâtre Royal, which was gutted after a fire. At no. 7, family-run Maison Auer (www.maison-auer.com) has been producing candied fruits and chocolates since 1820.
The street leads into broad cours Saleya 2 [map], home to the busy food and flower market (Tue-Sun am; flowers all day) and flea market (Mon). Frequented by many of the town’s best chefs, the food market’s laden stalls reflect the sheer profusion and vibrant colour of the Riviera’s produce. From his third-floor apartment in the big yellow house at the east end of the cours, Matisse painted those iconic pictures of the blue sea and palm trees. Bar and restaurant terraces stretch along the sides of the square and waiters do the hard sell to lure in customers, but Le Safari, see 1, remains a reliable address, holding out against the chain and theme restaurants.
Place Pierre Gautier
Even better is the part of the market that spills into adjoining place Pierre Gautier. Here you are likely to be buying direct from producers, perhaps selling nothing but lemons or bunches of purple artichokes.
On the western side of the square, the Forum d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture de la Ville de Nice 3 [map] (tel: 04 97 13 31 51; Mon-Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat 9.30am-1.30pm; free) puts on exhibitions about Nice’s architectural heritage and urban projects. Stretching along the square’s northern side is the Palais de la Préfecture, begun in the 17th century for the Dukes of Savoy, and since 1860 the préfecture of the Alpes-Maritimes département. The colonnaded façade was added when Nice was briefly returned to the kings of Sardinia-Piedmont after the Revolution.
A little further along cours Saleya is the Chapelle de la Miséricorde (Tue 2.30-6pm), which belongs to the Black Penitents, a religious lay fraternity, and is generally considered the finest of all Nice’s Baroque interiors.
The distinctive striped awnings of the cours Saleya market
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Rue des Ponchettes
Cross the cours Saleya and head through the arch to rue des Ponchettes, a double alley of low fishermen’s cottages, bordered by quai des États-Unis on the other side, where the Galerie des Ponchettes (during exhibitions Tue-Sun 10am-6pm; free) and Galerie de la Marine (during exhibitions Tue-Sun 10am-6pm; free) are used for exhibitions put on by the municipality.
Return to cours Saleya. At the eastern end is the pedimented building of the Ancien Sénat, founded in the early 17th century to administer justice on behalf of the Dukes of Savoy, who were trying to reassert their power in the quasi-independent city. Go past the adjacent Chapelle du St-Suaire (Chapel of the Holy Shroud) and take rue St-Suaire to the Fashion Gallery, at no. 5, which sells adventurous clothes and costume jewellery by young designers in a boutique carved into the bedrock of Castle Hill.
Route du Baroque
The reconstruction of Vieux Nice in the 1600s coincided with the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which sought a return to the faith after the schism caused by the Reformation. At the forefront was the Jesuit order founded by Ignatius Loyola, whose church of the Gesù in Rome set the model for Nice’s Église du Jésus among other churches. Here, decoration takes a didactic role, and brings a new sense of theatre to church architecture to encourage popular piety, as well as an expression of the power of the church as seen by its profusion of barley-sugar columns, stripy marble, golden sunbursts and cherubs, and the ‘light of God’ pouring in through ceiling drums. The Route du Baroque (www.cg06.fr) pinpoints principal Baroque edifices in the Alpes-Maritimes, including Menton, Èze and Villefranche and towns inland.
Evening dining at the market
Return along cours Saleya and turn right into rue de la Poissonnerie. On the corner, the Maison d’Adam et Eve, one of the oldest buildings in the city, is decorated with a charmingly naïve 16th-century relief of Adam and Eve. Just up the street, the Église de l’Annonciation, more commonly known as Église Ste-Rita 4 [map] (Mon-Sat 7am-noon and 2.30-6.30pm, Sun 8am-noon and 3-6pm; free), has an unobtrusive exterior that belies the riot of decoration inside. Daylight floods in through a half-dome to reveal six side chapels with a profusion of sculpted saints, barley-sugar columns and sunbursts. This intimate gem is much loved by the Niçois, who light candles in front of the chapel of St Rita, patron saint of lost causes, to the left of the entrance.
RUE DE LA PRÉFECTURE
At the junction with rue de la Préfecture, Les Distilleries Idéales, see 2, is a good place for a drink. Take a look also at the Loggia Communale of 1574, with its marble arcade, sheltering fragments of columns and sculpture from old buildings. This street is a characteristically Vieux Nice mix, where typically French restaurants, including the acclaimed Bistrot Antoine, see 3, give way to a stretch of expat bars where you will not hear a word of French. Also of interest are old-fashioned wine merchant Caves Caprioglio (no. 16); Ombrelles Bestagno (no. 17), which has been selling umbrellas and walking sticks since 1850; and Le Palais d’Osier (no. 3), which is crammed high with baskets.
PLACE DU PALAIS
The street borders the northern side of place du Palais, where the pedimented, white 19th-century Palais de Justice (law courts) faces the 1718 clock tower and russet-coloured façade of the Baroque Palais Rusca. Go through the gate to the left to see the impressive three-tiered arcades. The square, once the site of a monastery, has a second-hand book market on the first and third Saturday of each month.
Now head northwards along rue du Marché and rue de la Boucherie. At rue François Gallo, on the left note the Porte Fausse, a small stairway that once led to the River Paillon; it now contains an artwork by Sarkis (b.1938-) that was created for the arrival of the tramway.
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
PLACE DU ROSSETTI
Turn right into rue François Gallo and walk to place du Rossetti, the animated heart of the Old Town with flower-hung houses and café terraces.
Dominating the western side is the sculpted façade of the Cathédrale Ste-Réparate 5 [map] (Mon-Fri 9am-noon and 2-6pm, Sat until 7.30pm, Sun 9am-1pm and 3-6pm; free); you can just spot the multicoloured tiled dome behind the clock tower. Built on a cruciform plan inspired by St Peter’s in Rome in the 1650s, it is dedicated to early Christian virgin martyr, St Réparate, the city’s patron saint. Her body - accompanied by two angels (hence the name ‘Baie des Anges’) - is said to have arrived by boat on the shore at Nice after drifting across the Mediterranean from Palestine, where she had been decapitated at the age of 15. The interior, which has preserved most of its original decor, is a grandiose if rather gloomy affair, despite the impressive painted dome over the transept, stucco decoration and a sequence of richly decorated Baroque side chapels, each of which originally belonged to a different wealthy family or town corporation.
Queues leave no doubt, however, as to the square’s biggest attraction: the ice creams and sorbets of Fenocchio, where over 90 flavours include coffee, rose, beer and lavender.
Buzzing place du Rossetti
ÉGLISE DU JÉSUS
Leave the square to the south by rue du Jésus, crossing place du Jésus, the location of the popular budget eatery, Restaurant du Jésus, see 4, and the Église St-Jacques or Église du Jésus 6 [map] (daily 3-6pm). It was founded by the Jesuit order in 1607 (though the present church dates from 1642-50), and with its single nave and side chapels, defined the style of Nice’s Counter-Reformation Baroque churches (the blue-and-white classical façade is a later reworking). Inside, the profusion of carved and painted angels and cherubs is striking.
From the church head northwards up rue Droite, once the town’s main north-south thoroughfare, and today busy with new-agey clothes, trinket shops and art galleries. Vieux Nice first produced a school of primitive painters in the 15th and 16th centuries; it was home to the Van Loos in the 17th and Rodin worked here in the 19th.
Palais Communal (on the right)
At no. 15, a heavily bossed doorway announces the Palais Lascaris 7 [map] (tel: 04 93 62 72 40; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; free), the 17th-century Genoese-style mansion of the Lascaris-Ventimille family and Nice’s grandest secular Baroque building. The sober street façade does not prepare you for the splendour of the interior, with its magnificent vaulted stairway which is decorated with sculptures and frescoed grotesques. On the second floor, state rooms, with Baroque furniture and tapestries, have spectacular painted ceilings of the mythological scenes Venus and Adonis, The Abduction of Psyche and The Fall of Phaeton, where god and horses tumble from the sky amid a mass of swirling clouds. The first floor houses the municipal collection of 18th- and 19th-century musical instruments. Before leaving, take a look at the period pharmacy by the entrance, with its wooden shelves and faïence drug jars.
Rue Droite runs into rue St-François and the place St-François, home to a small fish market (Tue-Sun am) centred around its dolphin fountain. Arcades remain from an earlier cloister, and on one side the 16th-century Palais Communal was the seat of town government until 1860.
Continue north along rue Pairolière, a busy shopping street, where foodie temptations include salts and spices at Girofle et Cannelle (no. 2) and olives at the Maison de l’Olive (no. 18). L’Escalinada, see 5, is a bastion of Niçois specialities, while at no. 1, customers queue up for plastic plates of socca (amongst other Niçois snacks) to be eaten at rustic wooden tables at Chez René Socca. This quintessential Old Town snack is a sort of thin, crispy pancake made from chickpea flour and cooked in a large round iron pan. Cut into small portions, it is best served piping hot and seasoned with freshly ground black pepper.
Food and Drink
1 LE SAFARI
1 cours Saleya; tel: 04 93 80 18 44; daily L and D; €€
This market-side brasserie is a Niçois institution, with a great people-watching terrace. Friendly, high-speed waiters serve up local specialities (salade niçoise, rabbit and artichoke salad), plus grilled meats and wood-fired pizzas.
2 LES DISTILLERIES IDÉALES
24 rue de la Préfecture; tel: 04 93 62 10 66; daily 9am-midnight; €
A casual place for a drink, along the bar or crowded around tiny pavement tables.
3 BISTROT D’ANTOINE
27 rue de la Préfecture; tel: 04 93 85 29 57; Tue-Sat L and D; €€
Set amid traditional Vieux Nice bistros, this new-generation bistro has quickly made its mark. It rejuvenates regional dishes and market-inspired plats du jour with refined light presentation and inventive touches. There are well-chosen French regional wines too.
4 RESTAURANT DU JÉSUS
1 place du Jésus; tel: 04 93 62 26 46; Mon-Sat L and D; €
Marinated red peppers, home-made gnocchi, pizzas and petits farcis are among the rustic fare served at this busy budget joint, although you come here for the raucous atmosphere rather than the cuisine. No credit cards.
22 rue Paroilière; tel: 04 93 62 11 71; daily L and D; €€
This Vieux Nice shrine to traditional Niçois specialities is always packed. Timeless recipes include sardines à l’escabèche, stuffed courgette flowers, gnocchi, ravioli stuffed with daube de boeuf, plus a very good lemon meringue tart. No credit cards.