Thoughts On Nice – Re-Discovering The French Riviera

A walk towards the Mediterranean

When I “landed” in Nice in my tiny Fiat back in the 70s, I could not avoid being mesmerized by a city so charming and majestic, so full with the colours of its people, of its painted façades. I learned to love the oozing perfumes from the flowers of its gardens, the pungent smell of its spices and the subtle aroma of its herbs: so much different from the Paris I adored.

Nikaia as the Greeks called it when they first set foot on these shores some 2600 years back, is now a blend of gentle climate, African influences, Mediterranean experiences and a trail of an Italian past still engrained in its people, their accent, patois, gestures, warmth.

As, in a more recent past, I ventured out of my hotel in Nice, I looked up at the plane trees lining both sides of Boulevard Victor Hugo: so majestic and maternal in their huge embrace. They reminded me of the same old plane trees that still line the ancient roads of my Po Valley, planted back in the 18th Century when Napoleon colonized it.

I remember climbing them, admiring their patched bark, gathering the fallen twigs to light up our stove on dark winter mornings. I used to play hide and seek behind their huge trunks, climbing them and enjoying them so much in my happy distant youth; in a way it was like coming home.

Waking down towards the sea, past the Negresco Hotel and the Palais de la Mediteranée, I could not refrain from thinking that the breathtakingly splendid Promenade des Anglais used to be, only a couple of hundred years ago, a short, bumpy narrow path built for the enjoyment of the British Aristocracy who swapped the winter chill and the rainy weather of their Northern Isles for the gentle climate and the beautiful surroundings of Nice.

And there it was, the Mediterranean Sea, the centre of the ancient universe, languidly staring at you.

No longer as blue as the French poet Stephan Liegeard described it in 1887 “la Côte d’Azur”, but still warm and inviting, perhaps even now enjoying a Blue Flag status.

Like an ancient pagan ritual, gravity defying breasts and sculpted legs were on proud display to uninterested passers-by, hoping to steal the last precious rays of an already distant sun. Joyous dogs were trying in vain for a good foothold on the round beach pebbles, flattened by the rhythm of tidal waves.

I gazed towards the landing strip of Nice Cote d’Azur Airport; where were the fishermen? “Helas” long gone was the time when Nice’s all embracing bay was known as “la Baie des Anchois” – the bay of anchovies, by “divine” intervention, now known as “la Baie des Anges” – Angels’ Bay, or was it a sound marketing ploy?

My gentle walk was an enjoyable luxury despite my casual clothing. I was now under the spell of a sea of aristocrats, nouveaux riches, playboys parading the promenade in their immaculately tailored outfits. I could smell their joie de vivre, but could it have been a designer perfume? I also heard their indistinguishable proud walk mimicked by their poodles trotting beside them.

They no longer paraded their diamond encrusted jewels, their signature Scarves, their camel leather shoes nor their distinctive Panama hats to shelter their balding heads. It is now cool to show off perfectly bleached teeth, tailored implants, superbly tanned skins, bulging watches, the latest sport shoes and to whizz around in funky gyropodes.

Nice’s Carnival had come and gone, but I could still see faces and aging wrinkles masked by not so skilful surgeons. Like in a circus, properly outfitted youngsters were displaying their skating skill, others, on state of the art bikes, were whizzing in and out of their marked path in a joyous confrontation with the last standing belle époque “heroes”.

It was time to go back to my rugged plane trees and to leave behind the beautifully regimented palm trees, the exuberant exotic flowers and those carefully manicured lawns.