Travelogue French Riviera 5: Nice

NICE
19-22 June 2019
Deciding upfront that we’d get all our roadtripping done and then homebase the final stage of the journey from Nice gave us the freedom to stay in the Old Town which with it’s windy narrow cobbled streets would be a nightmare to navigate in and out of.
A very wise call.
Strategically, we’d committed to return Noddy Car to the rental place (at Nice Airport) later in the afternoon in order to give us time to check in at our apartment and drop off our suitcase en route. It was quite a harrowing journey, getting the one ways sussed and breathing in to squeeze through the skinny alleys with the odd tourist darting into a doorway or plastering themselves to a wall to avoid our wing mirrors.
We only found out when we arrived that our host doesn’t live in Nice, so we had an hour and a half to kill before collecting our keys and, worried that we wouldn’t get the return journey to the airport done in this slot, put it to good use with a 3 course lunch!
Our apartment was ideally placed, half a block in from a busy piazza with restaurants spilling into the square to provide a sea of checkered tablecloths and umbrellas offering shade and fabulous food to scores of people.
We found a table right on the edge, sat next to each other and people-watched as the waiter brought us plates of delicious local Niçoise specialities. The duck in creamy mushroom sauce stole the show for me!
Our apartment was tiny (by home standards) but immaculate, clearly recently renovated and light and airy with the massive old school shuttered windows that looked down into the cobbled streets below and the Irish Bar across the street.
We didn’t have much time to revel in it though, with our car return deadline looming. Fortunately though, the Nice Airport is close to town and we were there around 15 minutes later, including the nail-biting exit from Old Town and a pretty scenic drive.
It was easy enough to catch a train back and alighting at the central station gave us a chance to see another portion of Nice.
In stark contract to the cobbled charm of the Old Town, new Nice is grand! Beautiful old and elegant buildings line a long, wide shopping high street with all the designer labels you can imagine lining the ground floor of the street fronts and the two or three storeys above them bearing tall, elegant windows, filigree balconies and finely decorated cornices.
At the far end, a massive stage was in process of being set up on the square and the stage was already busy with a collection of musicians doing soundcheck – and entertaining passing shoppers in the process. As we drew closer, we saw this was the annual Fete de la Musique celebration plan, with a free concert scheduled for the night of the 21st June. Looked like it was going to be huge!
Our walk took us back through our old town whose high street counterpart was filled with chairs and tables from restaurants displaying menu boards, seafood showcases or using live music to lure you in.
We resisted for the time being in order to pass through to the promenade to see the beach. A heavenly crescent that looked like the Copa Cabana except without the stripey pavements and with grey smooth pebbles instead of golden beach sand.
6pm but with the sun still holding its place in the sky, the beach was still occupied with sunbathers and the pavements busy with joggers, family strollers and tourists.
The perfect time for a sundowner, so we hit the high street and found ourselves a comfortable spot with live music and crazy happy hour specials that run from 5 to 9!
Having saturated with culture at our extended lunch, we took the opportunity to squeeze in a curry dinner. Consulting The Fork app (that we’d discovered and loved on a previous trip to Italy), we chose a curry den called Bombay Palace around the corner in the Old Port and since it shared its name with our local curry den at home, we figured it kismet and definitely worth the research.
Quite different presentation (and portions!) compared to what we’re used to. And definitely a different view, overlooking the multi-storey yachts moored on the other side of the road as opposed to the parking lot at our All Saints Shopping Centre!
THURSDAY
We’d pre-booked a free walking tour meeting at the square where we’d seen the stage set up.
We had no trouble finding our way back (amazing how much more you take in when you’ve walked a route as opposed to driving it!) and no trouble finding our guide, marked with the red umbrella and surrounded by the easily 50 other tour group members.
We were introduced to our guide, Isabella from Argentina, and thankfully spared the chore of introductions to each and every group member.
Isabella started the tour with some of the vital statistics: Nice is a city of 350000 inhabitants (5th biggest in France) and enjoys more than 5 million tourists (making it the second biggest after Paris) and more than 300 days of sunshine per year which, along with the high concentration of museums, is why it gets so many tourists.
Nice had quite a patchwork history between the major empires. It was founded in 350 BC by Greeks en route home from Marseilles, and originally named after Nike (the Greek word for Victory). It was a thriving port town until a neighbouring city, Saminello, burned to the ground and all the people moved to Nice so it became quite a big city quite quickly.
Nice was part of the Savoy Empire – with its capital in Turin – until the 19th century. It was bounced back and forth between Savoy and France for 500 years until Italy became a country in 1860 and a referendum was held in Nice to see if the people wanted to be French or Italian. They decided to be French. It was a bit of subterfuge though because it was actually already predetermined as an exchange between Italy and Napoleon III who supported Italy against Austrian invasion.
In the middle of our tour we heard a loud bang. Isabella calmed us and recounted the story of one Sir Thomas Coventry, who came to Nice in 1860, travelling with his wife who was a terrible timekeeper. Since this was affecting the serving of his noontime meal, he asked the city’s permission to set off the canon at midday, as was customary in his home town. The city allowed it – and liked the idea so much that they made it law to let off the midday canon each day. It is now a firework rather than a canon, and has been set off by the same chap for the past 27 years. He’s looking to retire now, so possible job vacancy for someone who is punctual, reliable and never leaves the city.
We emerged on the beachfront, where Isabella explained that it’s a pebble beach, apparently, because of the stones that are washed through from the Paillon River. She also revealed that the Promenade des Anglais is so called because the English paid for the construction of the walk for the comfort of the hordes of Brits that flocked to Nice in winter to seek sunshine and wanted a nice place to walk along the seaside.
Just like we were doing.
We walked to the end of the Promenade but instead of rounding the cape to take us down to the port where we’d been the previous night, we were taken up to the citadel where we had the most spectacular views of the long beautiful stretch of beach, the magnificent azure sea and the infinity of blue sky and sunshine that has made this coastal town so famous for so long.
Isabella also pointed out on the other side, while we were overlooking the port, what lay beyond and how easy it was to get there… Which is when we hatched a plot to go and see the neighbouring village and its sandy beach.
We departed the tour group and made our way back down the hill to the port where we had no trouble finding the bus stop, and no more than a minute or two wait before handing over our €1.50 fare and moving on to Villefranche-sur-Mer.
On arrival we were delighted – and very surprised – to find an OPEN tourist office. The chap at the desk was very helpful, providing us with a one pager easy simple map and circling the things we needed to do and see. He was emphatic that the citadel was the way to start, so that’s what we did.
Villefranche-sur-Mer was founded in 1295 by Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence. It fell into the hands of the Duke of Savoy for 5 centuries and was returned to France in 1860. It has an impressive stone fortress ordered by Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy in 1557 to defend the old town which is open and free to visit, and which houses a number of exhibits and displays telling the story of the citadel, the town and its people.
Obediently following our map, we wound down the hill through the Old Town. It’s built into a hill so the town is a network of staircases with some quite ingenious uses of the space.
After an easy amble we were deposited at the beachfront. Short on real estate and big on appeal, the beach was crammed, so we retired to a cafe across the road and had a lovely cold beer while we rested our weary selves.
Refreshed, we trotted back up the hill to the station to grab a train back to Nice and our homebase, now old hat to us with all our comings and goings, was a doddle to navigate so we were soon back in our ‘Hood.
I had been angling for a rotisserie chicken for days after seeing them served all over the place so we picked one up from the local butchery on the way home and savaged it with lovely fresh baguettes by way of an early supper while we prepared to head out for the evening.
The Nice lifestyle so suits us when we can get the day’s action out of the way, have dinner early and then still have a couple of hours to sundowner after we’ve been fed. We put the sunlight to best use, visiting a few of the pubs in the market strip, enjoying their live entertainment.
As it so happened, it was the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in France over the period we were there and there was much excitement in the Old Town over a few key games that were being played that evening. Big screens were front and centre, and some of the live acts on bricks temporarily while the focus shifted.
We shifted to Paddy’s Pub (in the same road as our apartment, so very much on the way home) to watch the second half of the USA vs Sweden match that was getting a lot of attention.
The pub was lively with American supporters, we logged our Guinness Index and from our vantage point at the bar we kept an eye on the Irish folk dancing troupe that continued business-as-usual in the back room, twisting and twiddling along to the accordion playing their traditional songs.
FRIDAY
We had pre-booked our tour to Monaco for Friday, which left gave us a deadline for getting up and out. So far from what we’d experienced, mornings were a leisurely start on the Cote d’Azur, so getting up and out at 9.30 felt like quite some pressure all considering.
It had been a long time since the rotisserie feast the night before though, which helped with motivation to get fed before a strenuous few hours of walking tour.
See: Travelogue French Riviera 4: Monaco.
We had been watching the set-up of the concert on the Place Massena (the main town square) with eager anticipation as the days had gone by and tonight was the night! … So on our return from Monaco, we went past the Place to see what was going on.
By now fencing had been put up around the entire area to restrict access and implement strict security controls – and there was a bit of a frenzy with people arriving and streaming into the gates.
Quite relaxed about the whole affair, we took the ticket that the poor promotions chap was madly tearing out of his book and that we needed to present to the security heavy to get into the gate, but ended up not going in, thinking a shower and change into flip-flops would make for a far better start to the evening.
We went home, showered and changed, headed to the market and got absorbed into trying some yummy local dishes, with no rush to get to the concert because there were La Fete de la Musique things going on everywhere already.
Good thing too because when we finally headed over – at maybe 9 or 9.30 – things were only then really starting to get going.
It was superbly organised and we had no trouble flashing our tickets to get in, the security was super efficient and there were no queues at either the bars or the portaloos, even though there were easily 20,000 people there (our tickets were numbers 16125 and 16126).
We didn’t recognise any of the artists, but they must have been big names in France because everyone around us knew the words, the moves and sang heartily and danced merrily along to the hip hop chap and his band of neon-tracksuited dancers, the songstrel that belted out her radio tune, the aging rocker who growled his song at us, the McDreamy crooner in his leather jackets, the works!
We didn’t stay until anywhere near the end and were delighted to be able to had our tickets over to 2 very optimistic faces in the sea of optimistic faces at the gates hoping for exactly such an opportunity.
Getting closer to home, Old Town was a chaotic wash of activity. There were serving stations set up outside of pubs and bands set up in the street. We even accidentally collided with a street carnivals drumming squad as we swam upstream of their procession! It was great fun and we saw a lot of great acts (and of course, quite a few less good ones).
By the time we circled around to our road, we feared we’d never get any sleep because there bands were packing up for the night, DJs were setting up. And one such street party was right under our kitchen window! All in the name of a good time though and, kudos to the French, they seem to be far more restrained than most nations. Despite all the festivities, there were very few drunkards ruining anyone else’s experience. Just lots of energy and celebration. A wonderful thing to be a part of.
We’d had such a great (and long) day that even with the party going on right outside our window, when we eventually went home, shut the double glazeds and retired, both of us were asleep before heads hit the pillows.
And again, kudos to the French, when we got up and headed out for our last breakfast the next morning, everything was already cleaned up. Besides the odd bit of bunting still strung between street poles, you’d never tell that the city had hosted a bash at all – let alone of that magnitude – the night before.
What a hero of a town. And what a memorable night. Totally worth planning a repeat visit around.