My first trip to Nice was from the Italian Riviera. Making my way from Milan, heading towards Genoa and from there, on the rail, hugged the wondrous coastline. The train meandered through villages of summer homes, stacked upon the cliff side, one higher above the other, overlooking the azure blue Mediterranean. Below, their private piers housed an assortment of sea fairing vehicles, fishing boats and jet skis, sailboats and rubber dinghies. The coastline scenery continued even after switching trains at the border. The only noticeable difference were the flags overhanging from balconies; the green Italian stripe, now a deep French blue. Once I reached the grand mooring promenade of Monte Carlo, I knew I was just ½ an hour away from Nice, Robin Leach’s distinct voice had begun warbling in my head. “… champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”
My second excursion to Nice was from across the Spanish border. Starting from Barcelona, sans mountains and cliff hanging coastlines, instead were endless stretches of white sand beaches. A stop over at Montpellier, a university town with a gorgeous theatre seated in a luscious square- the famous Place de la Comédie.
Further along the line we would pass Marseille, the gateway to southern France, before arriving at Toulon, the unofficial start to the Côte d’Azur (literally “the Azure Coast”). Commonly known as the French Riviera, here, flat sand beds of Spain are discarded and in its place, the quaint stubbles of pebble beaches. Past the bay of Toulon, the train cuts inland, the hills make their reappearance, and by the time it returns to the coast at St. Raphael, they are rising out of the crystal blue currents again. The fishing boats have long faded away and have been replaced by luxury yachts. The simple old world quaintness now tainted by a scent of extravagance in the air.
The French Riviera has its own rail line. Almost like a metro system, stops are more frequent, to service the coastal suburbs. The boarding passengers decked in golden skin and summer skivvies, a stark contrast to the luggage-laden travelers of a few hours ago. Passing Cannes, home to the Festival de Cannes, and you’re within touching distance of Nice, under ½ an hour to the mark.
You cannot be in the holiday mood when you’re in Nice. The second largest city on the French Riviera, it has a perpetual laid-back festivity imbued in its breath. Markedly less pompous than its coastline cousins, it exudes more of an easygoing, down to earth atmosphere – younger at heart and fuller of spirit.
Exiting the main doors of Gare de Nice Ville, Nice’s train station, turn left, past the tourist information center and head to the main boulevard – Avenue Jean Médecin. The 750m stretch of road is one of Nice’s main arteries and is simply known to the locals as L’Avenue (the Avenue). The main shops are located here, and quickly you see how the town has adapted to both locals and tourists. Everything from neccessities to the whimsical is sold on L’Avenue. From souvenir shops to commercial banks, cathedrals to gelato shoppes, grocery stores to food bars, art houses to fashion apparels. A cinema; then a History Museum. Trams share the traffic, with tramlines suspended halfway up the wide thoroughfare somehow adding to the energy of the city.
At the end of the route is the Place Masséna with a statue of Apollo crowning the somewhat controversial Fountain Du Soliel. After the unveiling of the statue in 1956, the locals were left rather abashed at the size of the statue’s member. A scandal ensued and the sculptor, Alfred Janniot, had to be called back to chisel down the offending extremity to a more respectable size.
Past Place Masséna, take a left turn and dive into the alleyways of Vieux Nice, Nice’s old town. Here the colors really explode. Narrow streets, walled in by shophouses, break away to flower markets at Cours Selaya. Around the corners, old shops like Bestagno sell parasols since 1850. Try a Salade Niçoise, authentic Nice salad with fish and egg, or the traditional pancake, Socca. Overhead, above La Banane, a colorful smoothie café, neighbors stick their heads out of apartment windows, whiling the hours away in idle afternoon conversation.
A few paces south, and you hit the seafront. The famous Promenade des Anglais is part of the costal route that connects the French Riviera. 7km long, from here to Airport Nice Côte d’Azur, Ferrari’s and Harley Motorcycles hum and roar respectively, on their road trips.
And then, on the opposing side of the road, there’s that beach. Smooth pebbles dipping into the crystal clear azure waters, watching the luxury yachts saunter by, oblivious to the unerring gaze of Castle Hill.
I loiter along the beach, running through ingredients for dinner in my head. I was having a guest over tonight and had to do the groceries. But that can wait, I decided, heading back to the La Banane and its charming waitress. This is Nice afterall…
… and it’s always a holiday in Nice!