If you’ve ever visited Nice in the south of France you’ll probably be wondering why there are three Russian churches in the City, Margo Lestz looks at Nice’s Russian connections to the past…
Nice has had a strong Russian community since the mid 1800s when the Russian nobles would spend their winters here mingling with the rest of Europe’s high society. The Tsars tended to stay home and run the country, but the more delicate Tsarinas would pass their winters in the Riviera sunshine. In Nice, a church, a chapel, and a cathedral remind us of three generations of Tsarinas who made this their winter home.
Tsarina No.1 & the First Russian Church
In 1856, Alexandra Feodorovna, widow of Nicholas I, was the first Russian Tsarina to winter in the French Riviera. She came for her health, but that wasn’t the only reason. Her son, Tsar Alexander II sent her to strengthen Russia’s relationship with the King of Sardinia. (At that time this area was in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia). She was accompanied by her other son, who was commander of the Russian Navy.
While Alexandra charmed the King, her son negotiated an agreement to dock Russian ships in the port of Villefranche. Russia had lost the rights to the Black Sea in the Crimean War and needed a naval base. For Sardinia, the Russian Fleet was protection against invasions from Austria. So a deal was made and a Russian naval presence was established in Villefranche which lasted until 1870.
After Alexandra’s successful meetings with the King in Genoa, she took a ship to Villefranche where she was welcomed with fanfare by the locals. Then she headed to Nice for her winter holiday. Once settled, she was presented with another project: the Russian Orthodox community wanted a church, but the state religion of Piedmont-Sardinia was Roman Catholicism and only Roman Catholic churches could be built. Despite that, two years earlier, the English had been given special permission to build an Anglican Church, so when the Russians made their request, the local authorities, afraid of the community’s reaction, dragged their feet. Finally, the two governments (St. Petersburg and Turin) got involved and permission was granted by royal decree.
The local authorities agreed but demanded certain constraints: the church had to be unobtrusive, blend with the surrounding buildings, and no bells would be allowed. This is why the ground floor of this building doesn’t resemble a church. It houses a library and the sanctuary is discretely tucked away upstairs. The architect did, however, sneak in a little surprise – a dome which wasn’t on the plans. It can only be seen from a distance, but it shocked many locals.
The church was built between 1858-1859 and named the Church of St. Nicholas and St. Alexandra to honour the deceased emperor Nicholas I and his wife. It’s located at 6 Rue Longchamp.
Tsarina No.2 & the Chapel Tzarewitch (Tsarevich)
The second Tsarina, Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Alexander II, continued the tradition of spending winters on the French Riviera, but her legacy to Nice is a sad one. In the winter of 1865 her son, Nicolas Alexandrovitch, came to visit her. The 21 year old Tsarevich, “son of the Tsar” was next in line for the throne but sadly, while he was there, an old injury worsened and he became gravely ill. As he lay dying in Villa Bermond, the people of Nice stood outside in silence, mourning with the Imperial Family.
His parents bought the grounds and villa in which the Tsarevich died. They tore down the villa, and built a chapel in the exact location where his deathbed had been. It’s a memorial chapel, as the body was sent back to Russia for burial. This chapel is located behind the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Avenue Nicolas II, just off Boulevard du Tzarewitch.
Tsarina No.3 & the Russian Cathedral
Maria Feodorovna was originally engaged to Nicolas Alexandrovitch (the young Tsarevich who died), but after his death, she married his brother, who became Alexander III. In 1896, the 49 year-old widow learned of plans to build a new Russian Orthodox Church in Nice, as the one on Longchamp had become too small for the growing community. She took the project to heart and her son, Tsar Nicholas II, paid for most of the church from his private funds.
This time, there were no restrictions to keep the Russians from building a church. Nice had become a part of France and embraced religious freedom, so the Russian community could have their Russian-style cathedral – bells and all. They wanted to represent Russia in her glory with an exuberant traditional design.
At first, they planned to raze the church on Longchamp and replace it with the new one. But the site was too small. Next they chose a site at the corner of rues Verdi and Berlios. Unfortunately, the soil there wasn’t suitable for such a large structure. So Maria asked her son, Tsar Nicholas II, to donate some of the land next to the Tsarevich chapel – it turned out to be the perfect spot.
The architect had designed a beautiful building for the previous site which had two large identical entrances to take advantage of access from the two streets. Even though the new location was not on a street corner, they liked the design and decided to keep it. This is why today you will see two entrances to the Cathedral, only one of which is used.
The first stone was laid in 1903 and it was finished in 1912. Today, it sits like a little jewel, in a green park on Avenue Nicolas II, just off Boulevard du Tzarewitch.
These three monuments, which are tied to the history of these Tsarinas, are still used and enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox community in Nice today. The Cathedral is also open to the public. Of course, it is still a place of worship so you must dress appropriately and be on your best behaviour.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.