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Nice’s role as a prime vacation spot was sealed by mid-19th-century artists. Even many guidebooks today reproduce those dreamy sketches and soft watercolors depicting the broad sweep of the Promenade des Anglais, well-dressed couples walking arm-in-arm, the azure Mediterranean to the right, the hills of Mont Alban and striking Mont Boron in the distance.
Times have changed. For those with the means, Nice was surely truly delightful in its pre-World War I heyday, when royalty from Russia, England and Germany enjoyed a leisurely winter season in the Riviera city.
The Roaring Twenties
In the early 1920s, Nice changed dramatically and the city was reshaped. Reshaped to accommodate the automobile, and reshaped to accommodate a totally new kind of visitor: Americans. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to drive, not walk, along Promenade des Anglais.
The new Riviera was brasher and louder than its pre-war counterpart. And the thousands of flappers and playboys who cruised over the Atlantic to enjoy an American summer season on the Côte d’Azur created a new kind of Riviera. They drank cocktails (free from Prohibition restraints), explored the Mediterranean coast and revelled in summer rather than winter sun. It was visitors from the US who persuaded Nice hoteliers that they should not bar and shutter their premises from Easter to early October.
The Americans did not stay long. Their love affair with the Riviera was abruptly curtailed by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. But the Roaring Twenties left their mark, creating a Riviera style that still greatly inflects how we perceive the region today.
The Promenade des Anglais is not the gentle walk it was a hundred years ago. Six lanes of traffic speed along Promenade des Anglais, unhappily separating the city from its beach. Critics of the Riviera city argue that the beach was overrated anyway. There is not a speck of sand in sight on this long stony sweep of coast.
Yet Nice still has something going for it, and it’s a great city to explore for a day or two. In the Musée Matisse and the Musée Chagall, both north of the city center, Nice has two world-class art galleries. Its Orthodox cathedral is a very fine example of Russian sacred architecture and contains a treasure trove of Russian religious art.
The old part of town (called Vieux Nice) is a great place just to wander, especially on weekday mornings (not Mondays) when the streets and squares around Cours Saleya host a lively open market. Then climb up to Le Château (which curiously has no château) for fine views of Vieux Nice and the port below.
Where to stay
Nice remains a popular spot for Russian visitors and the city has a good range of restaurants and shops that cater to this Russian clientele. And for somewhere to stay, why not try the hotel favored by both Lenin and Chekhov? They both stayed at the Pension Russe.
Okay, the name has changed and nowadays the old Russian guesthouse styles itself Hotel L’Oasis. The hotel reopened last year after renovation. It is in a lovely leafy courtyard, a calm green retreat off Rue Gounod that offers the perfect antidote to the noise and bustle of Promenade des Anglais. Double or twin rooms run from €65 low season to €79 high season (including breakfast).
How to get there
Nice is easy to reach. It has direct trains from seven European capital cities, among them half a dozen daily trains from Paris. The journey time from Paris is less than six hours.
The local Nice Côte d’Azur Airport receives direct flights from over 100 cities in Europe and further afield. Travelers from North America can fly into Nice on direct daily flights from New York (JFK) with Delta and twice weekly flights from Montréal with Air Transat.
Nice has one of those small and manageable airports that make a great gateway into Europe. But rather than just changing planes, why not stop off for a day or two to explore the French Riviera’s major metropolitan center?