IN the Nice church bearing her name I pray to St Rita to rescue the city’s famous Carnival – and us – from the ravages of rain. Rita is a patron saint of lost causes (and baseball amazingly, but c’est autre chose, as the French say). Outside squally storms batter the Old Town. It is a temptation to stay put in our Baroque sanctuary. The blessing (or curse?) of text informs us that some floats for the ‘Battle of the Flowers’ have been damaged.
By the time we stagger to our lunch appointment at La Storia in the heart of the Cours Saleya flower market we know the game is up – both for the floral parade along the front and (later confirmed) for the evening ‘Parade of Lights’. A Carnival, running since 1274 (the Battle of the Flowers since 1876), rated third most spectacular in the world, can rarely have got off to such a damp squib start. Nice is never like this, we reflect, as we tuck into the salad that bears the city’s name – Nicoise.
Consolation comes in many forms, but it’s hard to beat a tangle of tuna, anchovy, artichoke, tomato, olives, onion, pepper, broad beans (surely out of season, though?) washed down with some pale, ‘onion skin’ dry Provencal rosé. There is barely room for a main of rabbit ballotine with gnocchi, matched with a large glass of the local Bellet rouge. All that is needed as accompaniment is the sun beating down on our terrace awning. Which is usually the case in this jewel of the Cote d’Azur (see the picture above from a previous visit). Instead, after a small bird hops under cover to help us with the crumbs from our apple tart, we shoulder our parapluies and brave the elements.
Time to banish the clouds, I think. Despite missing the main object of our February visit we had a hell of a good time. It’s hard not to in a city with so much to offer. Nice sprawls, so it’s good to have a central base. The Old Town is undoubtedly picturesque but inevitably cramped and raucous, so a better choice is a 4 star hotel like the Windsor in the quieter streets a few blocks back from the Promenade des Anglais seafront. I say ‘like’, but in truth there is nowhere quite like Odile Payen’s oddball homage to the art she loves.
Each of the its 54 charming rooms – either Chambre des Artistes or Chambre Fresque – is dedicated to an artist. Ours was named after Jean Le Gac, whose name I knew not and whose canvases I’m not enamoured of. The more familiar ‘Glen Baxter’ might have suited better. Ours was also dubbed a ‘seduction room’. Seducers, beware the canvas chairs – achingly cool looking but an ordeal to relax on. Otherwise the Windsor is a perfect weekend bolthole.
Book a room overlooking the Windsor’s gorgeous tropical garden and pool. We obviously couldn’t sit out; the hammam/sauna and the cosy fire in the bar/dining room were more of a magnet! The hotel dinner menu is restricted but the food is fine and typical of the region. There’s more art in the foyer, too. The striking six-work installation Les Fleur des Males (Male Flowers) charts male/female relationships and is in residence until the end of 2015.
Nice, with its glorious light, has always attracted artists. The now august modern masters live up in lofty Cimiez – in the Marc Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum (for PIcasso you have to venture west to lovely Antibes) Matisse spent 37 years in the area, for a time in the Hotel Regina, also frequented by Queen Victoria. This monumental edifice at 71 Boulevard de Cimiez has been apartments since the 1930s
Such Victorian grandeur, testimony to when Nice took off as a winter destination is in sharp contrast to Nice’s anarchic, rambling Old Town where you are likely to spend much of your time. It is squashed between the seafront and the soaring Castel hill (there is no longer much of a castle but it’s great picnic park and vantage point. It’s best just to wander round for an hour or so, then catch you breath in a bar. An ideal place is the atmospheric Distilleries Idéales, complete with working still and staff with attitude, on the Rue de la Préfecture, or try the Snug and Cellar Irish 'gastropub' on the Rue Droite if you fancy a Sunday Roast!
You’d be insular, though, to miss the array of Nicois street food – the unleavened chickpea flour crepes called socca, pissaladiere (a dense onion tart), pan bagnat (salade nicoise in a bun), focaccia-like fougasse, both savoury and – we discovered – as fougassette, baked with orange flower water. Search out modest restaurants certified as ‘Cuisine Nissarde’ for their authenticity
In contrast, you can dine more extravagantly at a clutch of Michelin starred restaurants, culminating in the two-star Chantecler in the legendary Hotel Negresco. Even here the boast is of a cuisine staying true to Provencal roots, albeit at a rarefied level – and price.
Dazzlingly fresh fish, much of it caught offshore, is a big draw, especially around the Port, the other side of the Castel Hill. We ate delightfully well at the Bistrot du Port, 28 Quai Lunel. For shellfish lovers (in the raw, the only cooked dish is mussels) a must is the teeming Cafe de Turin http://www.cafedeturin.fr
Plump yourself down in the colonnade, order a seafood platter and watch the world go by on the Place Garibaldi.
Garibaldi, the great Italian liberator, was actually born in the city in 1807, half a century before Nice voted to secede from Italy and become French. The Italian food influence is obvious. Fenocchio in the Place Rossetti is the big name for ice cream; more modest but excellent value is Andrea Sandri’s little shop on the Rue de la Boucherie. Pasta and pizza are everywhere, but it is hard to look further than a relative newcomer we dined at twice – Attimi. It’s right on Place Masséna, subscribes to the Slow Food Movement and sources its raw materials scrupulously, using organic flour and mineral water to craft amazing crisp pizzas.
A major joy in all Mediterranean city is food market shopping (mostly ‘window-shopping unless you are self-catering). The Cours Saleya’s flower and veg market, open every morning save Monday, is more picturesque than most, the colourful urban backdrop matching the riotous palette of the stalls.
Walk west from Saleya, behind the OperaHpuse, along the Rue St Francois de Paule and you’ll find Alziari, the last working olive oil mill in the city. The brand has spawned any number of olive-related products, but the extra virgin oil is he true taste of Nice, gentler, less assertive than most of its Italian cousins, thanks to its use of the tiny local olives called Cailletier, and so ideal for making mayonnaise and for cooking. I love the distinctive azure blue and yellow tins it comes in, but remember it counts as “liquids” for hand luggage purposes.
So does wine obviously, though I’m happy to drin those in situ. A hideaway to savour the local wines with exceptional cheese and cold meats is Les Compagnons de la Grappe, just off the Place Garibaldi. Upstairs genial caviste Renato Reno offers a canny selection of French wines, in particular from Provence, all eminently affordable, best enjoyed at his wine-tasting evenings; descend to the basement and you’ll be staggered by the assorted rare vintages of Yquem, Ausone, Pétrus, Domaines de la Romanée Conti and the like plus bottles of Dom Perignon, customised by favourite artists, to treat the oligarch in your life to.
One minute away from this Aladdin’s Cave, on a Sunday where the rain was unrelenting, we found a second sanctuary in a church, this time in the Eglise St Martin Dite St Augustin. For a time after the Revolution it was a Foreign Legion Barracks, but much of the 17th century interior remains – a perfect setting for a glorious concert by the Vieux Nice Baroque en Musique ensemble and a soprano soloist for the Le Sommeil d’Ulisse (The Sleep of Ulysses – rare for the time by a female composer).
That’s Nice – a surprising amalgam of earthly, spiritual and cultural pleasures. Whatever the weather.
Read how on the same trip to the South of France Neil squeezed the lemon in Magical Menton.
Neil Sowerby flew to Nice from Liverpool with easyJet.
To get around once he was there and for access to attractions he used a French Riviera Pass. For rates, daily and beyond, visit www.frenchrivierapass.com.
His accommodation was provided by the Hotel Windsor (right), 11 Rue Dalpozzo, +33 04 93 88 59 35. According to season, room rates range between 81 and 260 euros.
His trip to Nice and Menton was organised by the French Riviera Tourist Board. For tourist information visit this link.
He would also like to thank the lovely folk at Nice Convention and Visitors Bureau. For Nice information visit this link.
For full details of the Nice Carnival (there’s always next year!) visit www.nicecarnaval.com.
The theme for this year’s Carnival was ‘King of Music’. Appropriate since this is a city with strong music traditions. Visit in the sumer and you can check out the Festival of Sacred Music across the Old Town in June and the famous Nice Jazz Festival from July 7-12.
In order to catch the 7am easyJet service from Liverpool John Lennon Neil stayed seven miles away at the Widnes Travelodge, one of the budget chain’s freshly upgraded hotels, featuring the king-sized Travelodge Dreamer Bed. To book at any of their 500 hotels visit this link.
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