Nice: the cultural connection

by Paul.Wade

Beaches and blue sea, great food and wine: that's Nice. But the cultural capital of the South of France also boasts some of the finest art museums in Europe

Hotel Grimaldi

Matisse and Chagall, Dufy and Giacometti. After a couple of days in Nice, our heads are whirling. “That’s no surprise,” explains a guide at the Matisse Museum. “We have more art galleries in and around Nice than any other city in France… except for Paris, of course,” she adds with a smile. Most visitors go to the French Riviera for the sun, sand and bling, but we are bowled over by paintings and sculpture.
The most famous are in surprisingly intimate settings. Set high on a hill, away from the sea, the Matisse Museum is in a large wine-red villa. Inside are sculptures, drawings and paper cut-outs depicting the naked blue ladies, Creole dancers and plates of pomegranates that have spawned posters for a zillion student rooms. In one corner, we are intrigued by a tiny model: it’s for the chapel Matisse designed for nuns in the nearby hill village of Vence. We add that to our ‘must-see’ list.
Further down the hill is the Chagall Museum. Especially designed to display 17 paintings based on the Old Testament, this feels a bit like a modern church. With sunshine streaming in through the tall windows, the blues and reds, yellows and greens on the canvases seem to dance. We peer at the detail: Noah’s Ark with peacocks and goats, a bride and groom flying through space on a blue-maned winged horse.
The next day we take the one-Euro bus ride up to St Paul-de-Vence. On a busy day, the charm of the village, with its ramparts and alleyways, can be overwhelmed by visitor numbers. As for the fabled views, Matisse would be horrified: olive groves have given way to housing and solitude can be ruptured by the roar of mopeds. So, go in the evening, when the tours have left; and in the day, walk over to the Maeght Foundation, with its fabled collection of sculpture by 20th-century superstars. The striking museum building is surrounded by gardens, with works of art carefully sited under the dark umbrella pines - here an Alexander Calder, there a skeletal Giacometti, it is like an open-air book on modern art. By walking round each piece, we view it differently; silhouetted against the sky or against a backdrop of flowering shrubs. Miró has his own maze, Braque a pool with his own ceramic fish. It’s almost too much to take in during one visit.
Another short bus ride takes us further up into the hills, to Vence. We poke about the old heart of town, then make our way over to the bright white Chapelle du Rosaire.  Matisse designed everything: the building and the stained glass windows, the murals and even the vestments for services. Opened in 1951, some rate this as the finest religious building of the 20th century. It is still a place of worship for the Dominican nuns, so check the website for opening times.
Back in the city centre, the Beaux-Arts museum provides a more traditional experience. In a grand old mansion, gleaming with marble, are 19th-century masters: Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Eugène Boudin, and most cheerful of all, the sunny watercolours by Raoul Dufy. Much more edgy is MAMAC, the hip Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Focusing on the past 50 years or so, this collection is all about revolt. One room is dedicated to local anti-hero Yves Klein, the New Realist;  others feature nude models rolling round in paint and Andy Warhol Pop Art. What shocked the art establishment only 40-50 years ago looks quite tame nowadays, we decide.  
Then, there is the Asian Arts Museum. Close to the airport and awkward to find, this deserves to be better known. Its small but exquisite collection is housed in a temple of modern white marble and glass, surrounded by pools of water. Inside, only the best of the best is on display: a Neolithic jade Disque Bi from China, a cotton and silk embroidered coat from Uzbekistan, statues of Buddha, some over a thousand years old. If we had to pick a favourite, this could be it.
But art is everywhere in Nice. After dinner, we stroll through the central Place Masséna, punctuated by seven steel pillars, each topped by a squatting figure. This installation is the brainchild of Jaume Plensa; as we watch, the sculptures slowly change colour, from purple through red and blue to green. The sea, sand and bling are fine, but there is another side to Nice, perfect for culture vultures.

Where to stay

Le Grimaldi: luxurious and personal, away from the tourist rush.
Nice Garden Hotela quiet nine-room B&B that offers a big bang for your budget.

Where to eat

Côté Marais: complex dishes, bargain menu of the day : rabbit with sour cherries, scallops with ginger. (4 rue Potin)

Luc Salsedo: posh setting, stylish food, French dishes with an Asian twist: chicken with savory, a provencal herb, grilled fish of the day with a millefeuille of the freshest vegetables,

La Zucca Magica: imaginative vegetarian bistro overlooking the Port de Nice marina, wonderful hosts:  risotto with vegetables and pancetta; saffron rice with beet leaves; zucchini with a special wild pesto stuffing, sage frittata

How to get there

Airlines flying in to Nice: Aer Lingus; British Airways; bmi baby; easyJet; Flybe; Jet2; Swiss.
At Nice Airport, buy a seven-day bus pass; use it on the 98 shuttle bus to town, plus trams and other buses. Orient yourself with Nice Le Grand Tour, the 90-min hop-on, hop-off double-decker tour.