Both Nice and Biarritz promise sea, sensuality and the glint of sun on champagne glasses. So which is it to be for the weekend? French Atlantic or Côte-d’Azur? And which hotels should you book?
Round 1: roots
The great, the glam and the filthy rich have been rolling into Nice since the mid-18th-century. They come still, and for similar reasons: to escape the cold probity of northern climes in favour of warmth and that sophistication which deems that, if people look good, morals are negotiable. Loucheness has always lurked beneath the luxury.
As 19th-century British and Russian aristos colonised the place with fancy hotels and fancier villas, the Niçois themselves bagged only walk-on parts (servants, guides) in their own expanding story. They’ve reclaimed swathes since: the old town rings with arm-waving Mediterranean commerce. But, for the visitor at least, Nice may still appear not so much a French city as a brilliantly-dressed cosmopolitan enclave tacked on the bottom of the country.
Which you could never say of Biarritz. The local Basques cede nothing to anyone. Biarritz’s rhythms remained anchored in home, hearth and bloody-mindedness - even as the place became summer capital of France.
In 1854, French Empress Eugénie badgered her husband, Napoleon III, into building a palace on a Biarritz headland. A by-passed fishing village suddenly became European party central. “I don’t want to see old people,” said Eugénie. “One must be able to dance to be well-received here.” The well-bred hedonism brought in crowned heads, politicians and noble mothers with marriageable daughters. But, in Biarritz, this fitted the frame. The Basques always have partied better than anyone else in France.
On balance, the round goes to Biarritz.
Round 2: beaches
The coast at Nice is glorious, with the vast Bay of Angels sparkling under a cobalt sky. But the beaches are mainly pebbled.
Biarritz, by contrast, has sandy stretches to spare. The Grande Plage soaked up all the wealthy and titled that Europe could throw at it. Further south, via a couple of lovely in-town creeks, the equally huge Plage des Basques was birthplace of European surfing in the late 1950s and surfers now abound. There’s a sense of elemental power here that Nice lacks. Biarritz wins.
Round 3: strolling
I know of no more gorgeous city promenade than Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Ambling round the bay, in unambiguous heat and light, you cannot reasonably wish yourself anywhere else. At the eastern end rises Castle Hill. Below, the ochre-hued old town has been tarted up but still throbs with the sound of proper Niçois life, including churches so extravagantly baroque that one can barely hear oneself pray.
Biarritz, too, has a fine coastal walk – along the beaches, around rocky headlands, then down the Basque coast, where every prospect pleases. Inland, though, the strolling is unremarkable. Streets and squares exist for the daily use of Basques, rather than to impress outsiders. The round goes to Nice.
Round 4: culture
Artists are forever seeking light and laxity, both of which Nice has in abundance. Matisse lived here for decades. He’s celebrated in a splendid museum at the top of Blvd de Cimiez (+33 493 810808, www.muse-matisse-nice.org). Marc Chagall’s great fluid Biblical tableaux have a fine setting in his museum on Ave Dr Ménard (+33 493 538720, www.musee-chagall.fr). Meanwhile the Fine Arts Museum (+33 492 152828, www.musee-beaux-arts-nice.org) on Avenue des Baumettes, and the MAMAC arts centre on Promenade des Arts (+33 497 134201, www.nice-mamac.org) cover the range from classical to contemporary in sprightly fashion.
Biarritz hits back with an Oriental Arts Museum on Rue Guy Petit (+33 559 227878, www.musee-asiatica.com), and not much else. We’ll score the round to Nice.
Round 5: shopping
No contest. Nice is 10 times more populous than Biarritz, with consequently enhanced retail opportunities. Posh outlets congregate around Rues Alphonse Karr and Paradis, while the blooming flower market on the Cours Saleya confirms most clichés about Provençal colours and aromas. Nearby, the old-town Rue St Francis de Paule has the sort of shops that show up on postcards: Alziari for olive oil, Molinard for perfume and Auer for confectionery and chocolates.
The best shopping in Biarritz isn’t in Biarritz at all but just up the road in Bayonne, in whose labyrinthine centre chocolate, charcuterie and Basque peasant table linen are omni-present. Even so, Nice wins by a street.
Round 6: food
Nice offers the entire health-filled Provençal larder – plus its own specialities. These run from a pissaladière pizza of onions, anchovies and olives to socca, an unexpectedly toothsome preparation based on chickpea flour. Pick up a slice on the Cours Saleya.
Biarritz responds with lots of fish dishes (notably cod-stuffed Espelette peppers) and heartier stuff down from the Pyrenees. A piperade stew of peppers, onions and tomatoes bound with scrambled egg might precede axoa veal stew or Bayonne ham, before Ossau-Iraty cheese and, of course, a gâteau Basque. It’s a hard one to call – but, as Nice lacks cheese and a decent dessert, I’m awarding the round to Biarritz.
Round 7: nightlife
In mid-morning Nice, you’ll meet bronzed youth of all nations who haven’t slept for a week. They’ve been bobbing around the old town, slipping the leash in Wayne’s English bar (15 Rue de la Préfecture, +33 493 134699, www.waynes.fr) before fanning out to clubs for every conceivable taste, and ending up at dawn on the beach.
Biarritz is more restrained, though lacks neither bars nor contemporary night-spots and, in the Blue Cargo (Ave d’Ilbarritz, +33 559 235487, www.bluecargo.fr), has the most pleasing dancing-under-the-stars club on the Atlantic coast. Nice nevertheless edges this one.
Nice wins 4-3. Then again, Biarritz’s style includes sand, surf and a historical sense of self-sufficiency. It’s your choice.
Hotels and restaurants
Value-for-money isn’t really a Niçois obsession, but the artily comfortable Hotel Windsor (doubles from €90 low season, €120 high) manages it better than most. Best traditional table in town is l’Escalinada (22 Rue Pairolière, +33 493 621171, www.escalinada.fr; menus from €24, no credit cards). Meanwhile Keisuke Matsushima (20 Rue de France, +33 493 822606, www.keisukematsushima.com; dinner menus from €35) has arrived in town to demonstrate how modern Mediterranean cooking should be done.
Over in Biarritz, the recently-renewed Hotel Alcyon (doubles from €80 low season, €95 high) is bang central and should satisfy non-billionaires. Rising star of local dining is Les Rosiers (+33 559 231368, www.restaurant-lesrosiers.fr; mains from €26). It bagged a 2009 Michelin star for its contemporary take on Basque flavours.