Nice is a classy courtesan of a city – good-looking, cultured, desirable and only as virtuous as she needs to be. You’d have to be a Trappist to resist the capital of the Côte-d’Azur.
Seduction starts on the Promenade des Anglais which curves magnificently round the Bay of Angels. The Med sparkles under a light so clear, it’s apparently come direct from the Creation. Palms sway. Even ugly people look good. (Believe me: I’m an expert.)
The world’s notables have been coming here for 200 years. It’s where seaside tourism started. Palace hotels and fancy villas filled first with international aristos, then artists, movie stars and other louche elements. They brought talent, swagger and degrees of decadence. Matisse and Chagall left some of their finest works here. William Holden ran off with a hotel waitress. A recent mayor legged it for Uruguay when questioned too closely about his finances.
This is to be expected. Nice has long understood that heat and light loosen restraint, that there’s a balance between inspiration and bad behaviour. It tolerates both, as long as they’re well-dressed.
A laundress moons
And its exuberance has deep roots. Long before heat-seeking visitors showed up, the Niçois themselves had a loud life anchored in Southern, essentially Italian, culture. The city became French only in 1860. The influence is still there in the Old Town, a throbbing warren of ochre-coloured streetlets, hanging washing and arm-waving commerce.
These days, visitors and bronzed youth of all nations bob through the night from beach to bar, from restaurant to club – but the Mediterranean essence remains. It’s adapted to tourism but remained vitally itself. For evidence … well, just look around you, not least at the baroque churches. Their explosion-in-a-jewel-box exuberance tells of fierce emotions barely restrained.
From many angles, of course, Nice is bathed in sunlit cool. It has the beaches – pebbly, admittedly – and some of the South’s best shopping, eating, entertainment and art. The new tramway is punctuated with 13 installation works, including a brilliant set of figures on poles in the main square.
But then consider Cathérine Ségurane.
Other cities have virgins as their patron heroines. Nice has laundress Cathérine. During the Turkish siege in 1543, she climbed a ladder, raised her skirts and mooned at the attackers. Undoubtedly, Niçois women would do much the same today. Hot blood still courses through the city’s sophistication.