Suffering from pneumonia, Henri Matisse left Paris in 1917 and moved to Nice, where he hoped the Mediterranean climate would nurse him back to good health.
Seduced by the sun-kissed city, he ended up living out his life here, smearing canvasses with bright colours and decorative patterns inspired by the city.
The appeal of France’s second tourist attraction isn’t hard to spot. Reclining on the Côte d’Azur, Nice has all the charm of neighbouring Cannes or Montecarlo without the snobbery. In a place where people leave work to sunbathe, then leave the beach to party, joie de vivre doesn’t run short, and if the heat gets too much, escape to the cool alleys of the old town or one of the city’s many museums.
Called the promenade des Anglais after the Englishman who built it, the boulevard that arcs its way along the end of the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) has always been the place to be seen in Nice. Dotted with palm trees and azure blue benches, the Prom, as it’s known, is the perfect place to loiter. Thanks to its immaculate paving, it’s also ideal for rollerbladers, joggers (David Beckham has been spotted running here in the past) and the odd cyclist, so keep your wits about you.
The pebble beach stretching out from the Promenade is divided into public and private sections – you’ll know which you’ve hit within five minutes of putting down your towel. The water is warm and clean so the only thing to fear are near-naked pensioners. It seems you’re never too old to care about strap marks.
A street back from the Promenade des Anglais you’ll find Cours Saleya, a lively marketplace filled with fruit, vegetable and flower stalls every day but Monday, when the antiques take over. North from here is the old town, known as Vieux Nice, a winding maze of narrow streets filled with shops, cafés and the odd tattoo parlour. La Place Rossetti is the heart, overlooked by the colourful dome of Sainte-Réparate Cathedral.
More than salad
Niçoise cuisine encompasses far more than a bit of lettuce and tuna. To test out local specialities head to the old town, where restaurants like Chez Rene and Lou Pilha Leva let you pick and mix dishes. Try socca (a pancake-like dish made with chickpea flour and olive oil), pissaladiére (onion tart) and farcis (stuffed vegetables). For dessert, Fenocchio on La Place Rossetti is a must: ice-cream comes in every flavour imaginable, and a few more like Corona Beer and olive.
The rowdiest bars, and therefore the easiest to stumble across, are those that sound most English: Master Home, Wayne’s, King Pub, all on rue de la Préfecture. For something a little more French, try Le Bar des Oiseaux on rue St-Vincent. The Grand Escurial is Nice’s largest club.
Worth a look
If you heave yourself up La Colline du Château (Castle Hill) in search of a towering fortress you’ll be disappointed – very little remains of the ancient castle. Instead, there are tiered flower gardens, a waterfall and shady undergrowth (ideal for keeping cool in the heat of summer), and a great view of the orange-tiled houses, market stalls and glinting Mediterranean.
After Paris, Nice boasts the highest number of museums in France. Highlights include the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Musée Matisse, surrounded by an olive garden and the Musée National Massage Biblique Marc Chagall, devoted to the Russian-born Surrealist painter.
Bonus points for: Pretty as a picture
Loses marks for: If we’re being picky, the pebbles
Check out: www.nicetourism.com
Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The fifth edition of Lonely Planet France is out now.
– AMY ADAMS