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The charms of Nice, southern France

The dividing line in Nice between the beach and the luxury hotels in Nice is the Promenade des Anglais, created in the early nineteenth century by English aristocracy who chose to winter in Nice, escaping the harshness of their cold and damp England. In 1820, with the help of beggars who were driven south to Nice by a harsh winter, the city expanded the length of the promenade. Gradually, like the British Royals, more visitors came to appreciate the comfortable walks along the promenade and escape the often-harsh weather back home. Curiously, the promenade was mainly funded, in its early days, by Reverend Lewis Way and members of Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

Promenade des Anglais

The Promenade was first called the Camin deis Anglés (the English Way) by the citizens of Nice. In 1860, it was rechristened La Promenade des Anglais after Nice annexed the city. Today, the Promenade des Anglais has simply become the Promenade or, for short, La Promo. It is popular with bicyclists, baby strollers, and families, especially on Sundays. It is also a favorite place for skateboarders and in-line skaters, bicyclists, joggers, lovers, promenadeurs, flaneurs and others who helped shape and define the Promo as a way of life. I was part of that world as I walked in the cool of morning from my hotel, passing la plage; it was still too early for sunbathers, although the sun was well on its way above the horizon in what promised to be another perfect day.

A few young couples in jeans and dark sweaters strolled through the surf and along the strand, enjoying the privacy while an elderly gentleman walked his bulldog through the shallow surf whispering from the Baie des Anges leading to the Mediterranean Sea. Composed, in most places, of coarse sand or, more typically, small pebbles, the plage required the use of chaise lounges or air mattresses. There were a few hardy souls who used nothing but blankets or flimsy reed mats to attempt to smooth out the harsh layer as they lay there, reading or gazing outward to the Sea, lost in their own worlds of dreams and hopes of better lives, or just enjoying what opened before them.

The Negresco hotel

To my left were the elegant hotels dominated by the stately Negresco, the penultimate address for luxurious living on the Riviera. Opened in 1913, the hotel was identified by its shimmering white Belle Époque exterior and pink dome uniquely visible along the Promenade.  In 2013, the Negresco was recognized by the French government as a National Historic Building, but those are merely statistics; the power and beauty are what defined the palatial hotel for me – its raison d’etre – existing to serve the requirements of the super wealthy. Indeed, its fifth floor was designated as being for VVIP guests: “Very, very important persons!” The hotel was also the location for several films, including my favorite, The Jackal, in which the assassin, played by Edward Fox, learned that his cover was blown. As a consequence, he makes the fatal decision to continue with his contract to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.

There are, of course, other hotels along the Promenade, splendid in their simplicity and elegance, and luxurious in their designs and facilities.

The Flower market of Nice

Beyond the Promo, is Vieux Nice, the Old Quarter. It was engulfed by a wonderful riot of flowers and fresh fruit, candied treats, regional culinary delights, and arts and crafts known as le Marché aux fleurs cours de Salaya. An explosion of colors and fragrances surrounded me and drew me in, enticing and caressing me with the subtle scents of mimosa and hyacinth, bougainvillea and lavender, the scent of Provence. The flowers were all freshly cut and arranged to enhance their beauty and isolate their unique aromas.

I explored and wandered along the tightly packed area, jostling with others in the free sense of camaraderie of those who awoke early to sample the real worlds of Nice. Water was lightly sprayed over the flowers, vegetables and fruits to create highlights and keep them fresh. I paused at one flower stall, fascinated by the freshness of the lavender, then was pleasantly trapped by the gentle words of a lithe young woman, barely past twenty, wearing a loose-fitting linen blouse and tan wrap skirt: simple and elegant, yet also modest. She snipped off a sprig of lavender with red-handle scissors, lightly smelled it, then handed it to me.

C’est pour vous, Monsieur.” She whispered, and gave me a whimsical smile…and I was captivated by her charms. At that moment, I felt like I was the most important person in her life.

For that brief interaction, I knew that I was a captive of Provence and all that it represented and offered.  I had been there before with a friend, but those were quick trips through the country, trying to see and enjoy all we could in a matter of a few days. This time, I felt time had slowed for me. I could enjoy and appreciate all that I saw, knowing that I was experiencing France in a more sensual way, driven not by a clock but by the sights and smells, the seeming innocence of the young woman before me, the simple sprigs of lavender, and all that surrounded me in the marché. I had fallen in love with the world around me! I bought a small bundle of lavender and, when I handed my money to the young woman, I knew she had worked her magic on me…but I didn’t mind: I was in Nice.

There was a small café at the opposite end of the marché. I decided to indulge myself, enjoy the views, and became a passive observer of the wonderful human parade that moved through the marché.

The café was a small room, with four wrought iron tables and chairs set outside, a typical setting found in many cities in France: comfortable, inviting, unobtrusive, a place of refuge in the madness of a busy morning! I ordered un café noisette (an espresso with a dash of cream) and two croissants, enjoying the cool of the shade.

The sun was rising above the flower stands, the heat creating rippling waves of shimmering air distorting the scene before me. Within the hour, the place would be cleared of all the displays; by evening it would be replaced by outdoor cafés and restaurant tables. Between the two bookends was the beach and local sightseeing, things that I slowly indulged in during the remainder of the day.

Nice beach

The beach is a decadent experience, with a lounge chair at the edge of the sand, umbrella and waiter service at the water’s side. Lunch was a salade nicoise, a specialty of the area, washed down by a glass of chilled Chardonnay. Sometime after four o’clock, I decided to stroll along the Promenade. Ahead and to my left, a hill rose above the La Vieille Ville (the Old Town); the name still applied to the Château that once stood there.

Castle hill

You can take the elevator to the top, several hundred feet above the La Vieille Ville section of Nice, or walk up the cement stairs. Rest areas with benches are placed every fifty or so feet, offering a vantage point to view the panoramic images of the city.

Near the top, I paused at an intersection of paved footpaths; one led directly to the top and a café, the other past a spring, then to the top. At the top was a wide, macadamed area, with tables and chairs, before the café. It was cool beneath towering umbrella pines shading the area from the sun. Three young couples were there, at separate tables, finding their own worlds of privacy. A comforting silence covered the top, a contrast to the frantic pace and the whine of car engines and motos down below.

The walkway down led to a waterfall that flowed from near the top of the mountain and over the edge, cascading down the hillside. I decided to descend the hill and explore the side alleys, many too narrow for cars. Walking to my right, I encountered a young park service attendant who, in broken English, with a spattering of French, informed me that the pathway down to the base was closed for the evening; I would have to take the long route through the upper levels of La Vieille Ville, the Old Town.

Arty Nice

I casually strolled through narrow streets, past five and six-story, dark stone buildings, with heavy shadows pressing against them. I moved through a different side to Nice – the artistic side where few tourists visited. The colors of the buildings changed to the warm tones of Provence, with ochre and coral walls and red tile roofs. On several corners were small cafés with one or two tables, artists working on canvases.

At the bottom, I walked past La Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicholas, with its exterior of pink bricks, gray marble, elaborate mosaics, and cold dome. I caught snatches of Russian spoken by many of the people sitting outside their apartments or watching through windows. Continuing on, I passed through la Vieille Ville, with more cafés and boutiques, galleries and patisseries, and fruit and vegetable stands.

In le Salaya, I sat at a table outside a café and ordered `a la provençal, letting the serveur bring a sample of foods from the regions and choose the wine allowing me to unwind in the half-light of approaching night. My expectations of Nice were surpassed as I sat there in the warmth of the evening, sharing a place and time with others on similar journeys of discovery or of being welcomed back to a place they believed they already knew.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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