Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
PROMENADE DES ANGLAIS
With its grand hotels and palm trees lining the beach, the legendary promenade des Anglais epitomises elegant Nice. Behind it, the New Town is laid out in a grid of broad avenues and garden squares and offers smart shops and a panoply of 19th- and 20th-century architecture.
DISTANCE: 6km (3.75 miles)
TIME: A half day
START/END: Place Masséna
POINTS TO NOTE: The promenade des Anglais can get very traffic clogged; all the more reason to explore on foot.
The iconic promenade skirts the Baie des Anges; to the north, modern Nice’s architecture is testament to the era when it was the place to winter in Europe.
The elegant promenade des Anglais
Nice’s grandest square and psychological heart, place Masséna 1 [map] lies at the crossroads of the north-south avenue Jean Médecin and the old east-west rue de France. It symbolised the town-planning ambitions of the Consiglio d’Ornano (Council of Ornament), which was set up under the King of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1832 to mastermind the expansion of the town west of the River Paillon. A beautiful ensemble of arcaded, deep russet façades, it was spruced up for the tramway in 2007, with graphic black-and-white paving and a spectacular sculpture by Jaume Plensa (for more information, click here). The area east of the square, promenade du Paillon, has been redeveloped with grass and walk-through fountains during recent years at a cost of €40 million, opening to the public in 2013 - but not without controversy due to its strict rules and regulations (no indecent clothing or consumption of alcohol, for example).
Promenade des Anglais
The promenade skirts the azure-blue Baie des Anges
Leave the square to the west on pedestrianised rue Masséna; it is tourist central, busy day and night with restaurants and pizzerias. Then take rue Paradis which, along with rue Masséna, avenue de Suède and avenue de Verdun, forms Nice’s retail ‘Carré d’Or’. Smart clothes shops include preppy Nice-born Façonnable, Max Mara, Chanel, delectable children’s clothes at Bonpoint, and designer labels and housewares at Espace Harroch.
Turn right at the end into avenue de Verdun, past jewellers and other high-end stores to the seafront. Here, the modern Hôtel Méridien, whose rooftop bar with panoramic views is the perfect place for an aperitif in summer, and glitzy Casino Ruhl, which replaced the Belle Époque casino - still mourned by many today - in the 1970s, mark the start of the promenade des Anglais.
PROMENADE DES ANGLAIS
Sweeping westwards from Jardin Albert 1er along the Baie des Anges for 5km (3 miles), the promenade des Anglais, with its blue chairs, white pergolas, palm trees and grand hotels, has come to symbolise the elegance of Nice; not bad for something that began in 1822 as an employment exercise. After a harsh winter, local resident Reverend Lewis Way opened a public subscription to construct a footpath linking the Old Town to the growing British colony on the hills further west in a suburb dubbed Newborough. It gained a broad carriageway, pavement and gas lighting in the 1860s, and took on its present appearance in 1931 when the thoroughfare was widened. Despite busy traffic, it still makes a fascinating stroll with its sheer diversity of passers-by.
Palais de la Méditerranée
Just beyond Casino Ruhl, at no. 5, is Nice’s main Tourist Office (for more information, click here). At no. 11, admire the Art Deco façade of the Palais de la Méditerranée 2 [map], built in 1929 by American millionaire Frank Jay Gould. This symbol of 1930s glamour, with its casino, theatre, art gallery, restaurant and cocktail bar, and its architecture by Charles Delmas and his son Marcel, heralded a new age of modernity. The Palais closed in 1978 and was shamelessly gutted, before reopening as a luxury hotel, apartments and casino.
At no. 27, the pink stucco Hôtel Westminster still has its grandiose reception rooms, while Hôtel West End (no. 31) was the first of the promenade’s grand hotels and opened in 1842 as the Hôtel de Rome, welcoming many crowned heads of Europe.
Next door, behind a luscious garden, the restored Villa Masséna 3 [map] (tel: 04 93 91 19 10; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; free) was built in 1898 for the grandson of Maréchal Victor Masséna, one of Napoleon’s generals. On the ground floor of this museum, a grandiose sequence of reception rooms and a winter garden showcase the opulent decorative style of the period, with sumptuous inlaid marquetry, panelling and gilded sphinxes. Upstairs, the collection tells the story of the aristocrats, artists and intellectuals who shaped 19th-century Nice, through an eclectic array of society portraits, paintings, documents, furniture and memorabilia. These include caricatures of Garibaldi, Napoleon’s death mask, the cloak worn by Josephine for Napoleon’s coronation as King of Naples and paintings of Old Nice. Among the curiosities is a poster in French and Italian calling on citizens to vote in the referendum for Nice to rejoin France on 15 and 16 April 1860. The gardens, restored in 2006-7, are worth a stroll and still retain some of their original plants and flowers.
On Nice’s long beach, public sections where anyone can stretch out their towel for free alternate with private, pay beaches that are as much about image as swimming and sunbathing, although the sun loungers (chaises longues) are a boon on the uncomfortable pebbles. Castel Plage on quai des États-Unis at the eastern end calls itself ‘the beautiful beach for beautiful people’ and cultivates its arty reputation with chess matches and art shows; Beau Rivage, belonging to the elegant Vieux Nice hotel, has a vast restaurant serving Med-Asian fusion cuisine; Blue Beach in front of Hôtel West End is a chic dining address by night and child-friendly beach by day, with table tennis, a seawater pool for kids and volleyball; sporty Neptune, opposite the Negresco, has a playground, pedalos, billiards and a pontoon; while trendy Hi Beach is split into lifestyle zones - Play for families, Relax with plants and hammocks, Energy around the bar - plus computers, massages and a restaurant.
The iconic Hôtel Negresco
Next to the museum, at no. 37, a sculpture of a jazz trumpeter by Niki de Saint Phalle keeps the frock-coated doormen company under the pink-and-green cupola of Hôtel Negresco 4 [map] (for more information, click here), Nice’s grandest hotel. Built by architect Edouard Niermans, and boasting a glazed verrière by Gustave Eiffel over the salon, as well as lavish bathrooms and telephones in the rooms, it was one of the most modern hotels in the world when it opened in 1913. This was where F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed, and although you won’t see a “diamond as big as The Ritz”, you can see a crystal chandelier by Baccarat with 16,309 stones and weighing more than a tonne, designed originally for the Tsar of Russia. It is worth visiting for a meal at Le Chantecler (www.hotel-negresco-nice.com), which currently has two Michelin stars and 15,000 bottles in its wine cellar, or La Rotonde, see 1, or simply for ogling its eccentric mix of grandeur and kitsch. Jeanne Auger, owner since 1958, chooses the decoration herself, mixing antique furniture with canopied beds, and an impressive art collection of 6,000 pieces that ranges from 18th-century portraits by Hyacinthe Rigaud to modern sculptures by Botero and de Saint Phalle.
West along the promenade
Another extravagant turreted building echos the Negresco on the next corner before the streamlined 1940s and 50s apartments of nos 43-5. At no. 63, a plaque indicates the site of Marie Bashkirtseff’s Villa Aquaviva. Next door, at no. 65, the neoclassical Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen (www.cum-nice.org) was built in the 1930s as a centre of culture and teaching. Administered by polymath Paul Valéry, whose office has been preserved, it was the precursor of Nice University and today has a busy programme of public lectures, debates and concerts.
MUSÉE DES BEAUX-ARTS
Turn right up rue Paul Valéry and right into rue de France, passing Gloria Mansions - an icon of Art Deco Nice - at no. 125; then cross over and turn left up avenue des Beaumettes. A short cut by the steps on the left brings you out amid the fanciful villas and mock castles of Beaumettes hill, just beneath the Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret 5 [map] (www.musee-beaux-arts-nice.org; Tue-Sun 10am-6pm; free), occupying the palatial villa built for Ukrainian princess Elisabeth Kotschoubey in 1878, modelled on palaces in St Petersburg. The collection, which has works from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century, is interesting if rather idiosyncratic, with an emphasis on artists linked to Nice and the south of France.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts’ grand staircase
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Paintings by the early Nice school include saints from an altarpiece attributed to Louis Bréa. There are fine Flemish Mannerist landscapes and 18th-century French and Italian paintings, notably Fragonard’s Head of an Old Man (undated) and Hubert Robert’s picturesque Gorges d’Ollioules (c.1783). The biggest room is devoted to the Van Loo family and dominated by the massive Theseus Vanquishing the Bull at Marathon by Carle Van Loo, Nice-born court painter to Louis XV, and his nephew Louis Michel Van Loo’s Reason Conquering Force.
The museum is set in a palatial villa
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Up the grand galleried staircase, where group portraits by Nicaise de Keyser depict ancient and modern sages, the first-floor galleries focus on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sculpture on the landing includes a bronze of Carpeaux’s Génie de la Danse (1822) from the Paris Opéra and an original full-scale plaster version of Rodin’s The Kiss (1886), followed by an assemblage of Impressionist works. There are myriad pastels by Jules Chéret, a pioneering poster artist, plus Marie Bashkirtseff’s wonderfully fresh self-portrait, Autoportrait à la Palette (1884), which was painted shortly before she died of tuberculosis in 1884 at the age of 25. A glittering figure of Nice’s Russian colony, she is remembered for her journal recording high society life in Nice, the Ukraine and Paris. A small room is devoted to the strange oils and watercolours by Gustave-Adolphe Mossa, who was the museum’s curator from its opening in 1928 to his death in 1971, revealing a personal, rather macabre, vision that mixes Art Nouveau curves and Symbolist angst. Another highlight is a whole room of paintings by Raoul Dufy, where a thickly painted early Fauve view of L’Estaque contrasts with the light brushstrokes and joie de vivre of later scenes of the Riviera.
In the Fabron district further west, the former villa of perfumier François Coty houses the Musée International d’Art Naïf Anatole Jakovsky (avenue de Fabron; tel: 04 93 71 78 33; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm; free) donated by Romanian art critic Anatole Jakovsky. He was one of the first to admire the colourful, obsessively meticulous works of self-taught, sometimes mentally ill, artists including Le Douanier Rousseau, Jules Lefranc and Séraphine.
BEHIND THE PROMENADE
Return down avenue des Baumettes, crossing boulevard François Grosso into rue de France. This is the workaday end of the street, with small shops and local bars; note the rare Art Nouveau façade at no. 111. At boulevard Gambetta, you can detour to the Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas (boulevard Tzarewitch; closed for restoration at the time of writing; charge), instantly recognisable by its onion domes, which was commissioned in 1912 by Tzarina Maria Feodorovna, mother of Tzar Nicolas II, when Nice’s Russian community grew too big for an earlier church on rue Longchamp. Or turn right into boulevard Victor Hugo, a busy east-west thoroughfare with some fine architecture ranging from classical villas with wrought-iron balconies and a neo-Gothic church, to the incredibly ornate friezes of the Palais Meyerbeer (no. 45) and Art Deco mansion blocks.
The museum’s exquisite sculptures
Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications
Quartier des Musiciens
Turn left up avenue Auber in the Quartier des Musiciens, with its streets named after composers, which grew following the arrival of the railway in 1861. At place Mozart, a garden square, turn right along rue Rossini. At the end is Le Bistrot des Viviers, see 2. Two blocks north along rue Alphonse Karr is the circular façade of the Grand Escurial on the left; the former cinema here is now subject of controversial plans to turn it into a supermarket. Walk back down the street, past a breezy 1940s U-shaped apartment complex, to check out some adventurous fashion shops.
Rue de la Buffa
Turn right on rue de la Liberté, crossing place Grimaldi to rue de la Buffa for the 1860s, neo-Gothic Église Anglicane (Holy Trinity Anglican Church) at no. 11. Nearby, to the west, is restaurant L’École de Nice, see 3.
Turn left down rue Dalpozzo, before heading back along rue de France to place Masséna. On the way, look out for the Croix de Marbre 6 [map]; this discreet little shrine, with its cross under a tiled dome, commemorates the meeting in 1538 between François 1er of France, Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III. It was erected in 1568 on the site of a monastery where the Pope stayed when he was refused accommodation by the inhabitants of Vieux Nice.
Food and Drink
1 LA ROTONDE
Hôtel Negresco, 37 promenade des Anglais; tel: 04 93 16 64 00; www.hotel-negresco-nice.com; daily 7am-10pm (until 11.30pm in July and Aug); €€
The Negresco’s second restaurant is less formal than Le Chantecler but nevertheless offers elegant cuisine niçoise overseen by the same chef Jean-Denis Rieubland. There’s a convenient all-day service in a cheerful fairground setting of merry-go-round horses and musical automatons.
2 LE BISTROT DES VIVIERS
22 rue Alphonse Karr; tel: 04 93 16 00 48; www.les-viviers-nice.fr; Sept-July daily L and D; €€
With its classic bistro setting of mirrors and banquettes, and little brass plaques engraved with some of the showbiz names who have dined here, the convivial annex of the elegant Les Viviers fish restaurant next door offers one of the best lunch bargains in town. Chef Jacques Rolancy, among the elite who have been recognised as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, serves up a remarkably good-value daily lunch menu: a meat or fish choice, plus dessert. Expect a grander price à la carte, and accommodating service to all.
3 L’ÉCOLE DE NICE
16 rue de la Buffa; tel: 04 8381 39 30; www.lecoledenice.com; Tue-Wed L, Mon-Fri D Tue-Sat; €€
This hip bistro is a partnership between Michelin-starred chef Keisuke Matsushima (for more information, click here) and composer/DJ Marc Panther. As well as a specially created soundtrack and artworks, the good-value menu (€25 for three courses) specialises in local dishes such as rabbit with pistou or ricotta ravioli.