Nice is Nice, but Biarritz has ritz

by Anthony.Peregrine

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.

The result

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

Nice
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.

Biarritz
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.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.