Great art from a grumpy genius.
You're going to have to go slightly out of the centre for this, probably Nice's most noteworthy art collection. But it's worth the trip to Cimiez Hill, not only because the works are engrossing but also because there are other things to detain you nearby. First, though, the museum. In the heart of an olive grove stands a splendid 17th-century ochre-red villa, with trompe-l'oeil elements on the façade. Inside is a superb gathering of Matisse works, from 1890 to his post-World War II gouache cut-outs. Born in the north of France, the artist lived in Nice from 1917 to his death, at 84, in 1954.
Here, the city pays him handsome tribute. We see not only the paintings and gouaches, but also bronze sculptures and hundreds of drawings. The whole is like a vertical tasting of his life's work - and will, I promise, impress, even if you didn't think you liked Matisse before. Dotted amid the works are paraphernalia from, and details of, his daily life. We learn that, though unarguably a genius, he was indeed a grumpy sort of genius. And then, quite satisfied, we leave. While up in this part of town, we might also like to take in:
* The Roman archeological site (160 Ave des Arènes, 04 93 81 59 57, www.musee-archeologique-nice.org. Free). It's right by the Matisse museum. In fact, the various elements almost encircle Matisse's place. They include remains of Roman baths, streets, other public buildings and a good-looking amphitheatre ... from the time when this hill-top was called Cemenelum, an important little town in its own right.
To make sense of it all, there's a decent Archeological Museum to hand. Look out for the 1st-century AD bronze of a dancing fawn, found on site. And it's all free. Daily, except Tuesday, 10am-6pm.
* Almost as close to hand is the Franciscan Monastery, (Place du Monastère, 04 93 81 00 04. Free.) The monastery still has a few Franciscans inside. The key interest here is not so much them, the monastery or even the monastery museum but the church. It contains three arresting works by late 15th-century Niçois artist Louis Bréa. The 'Piéta', 'Crucificixion' and 'Deposition' indicate that Bréa had got the hang of the Renaissance rather well.
Then you might take in the nicely-terraced monastery gardens. They have cracking views over Nice. The complex is open Mon-Fri, 10am-12; 3pm-6pm.
* Now, you've taken the bus to come up to Cimiez Hill, so why not consider returning on foot? It's quite a long way back but (obviously) it's all down-hill, and takes you along the Boulevard de Cimiez, which is diverting.
Here, in the 19th-century, the great, the good and the filthy rich vied with one another to put up the frothiest villas from the outer fringes of architecture. Italianate, medieval, oriental, you name it: there was no limit on building fantasy, so long as it was remarkable. The result is a boulevard - Boulevard de Cimiez - like a vast cake-stand of edible-looking confections. It makes contemporary housing look terribly wan. Grandest pile of the lot is not too far from the Matisse Museum, at the top of the boulevard: the huge Hotel Regina – built expressly for the English Queen Victoria.
Royal PR coup
On a previous stay, the queen had been disappointed with her accommodation. So spec. builders thought they would sign her up for their soon-to-be-built Regina. It would be a considerable PR coup - Royal patronage, no less. In return, she demanded electricity, central heating and proper drains. She got them – and for three winters (1897-99), she spent up to six weeks in the hotel’s west wing, the one which still has a wrought iron crown on top. She brought with her 50 staff and her own supplies of Irish stew. The hotel went bust in 1936 – it was too far from the sea for fans of the newly-fashionable sea-bathing – and is now in apartments. But it remains dignified, and fine testimony to the days when winter was the season in Nice. In those times, the city was deserted in summer; it was considered far too hot for fair-skinned northern European aristocrats.