Only a two-hour flight from London, Nice is the place to go for a quick taste of the Riviera. From its street life, markets and chic department stores to its new tram system, it is pure French style
A huge amount of work has taken place in Nice over the past few years, in order to install the new tram system – and let me tell you, it was worth the wait. We visited for five days in the summer of 2009 and found the new trams gliding through the Place Massena, the main city square, as if the streets had been built with them in mind. We rode the tram on a full return journey just to experience it; we found it smooth, and comfortable. Tickets (€1 for a single ride, €4 for a day pass) can be bought at any stop – but don’t try and hitch a ride for free, as we saw an inspector get on board and then accompany a student towards the nearest cash machine to pay his €40 fine.
Galleries Lafayette, the main department store in Nice, can be found at the edge of Place Massena. We took a browse around the four floors one evening and found some high-quality clothing there, but prices were quite expensive due to the strength of the euro. The French even manage to make a department store feel chic; it’s difficult to define how, but there is just a sense of style and "cool" that you wouldn’t find in Debenhams.
The new town
During our first evening, we visited the newer part of the town and strolled down the busy main street, the Rue de la Liberté. Restaurant seating spills out on to the street, which gives you a good opportunity to see exactly what food is on offer. Standards such as pizza and pasta abound, together with fresh meat and salads – and don’t forget to try the moules marinière and fries, which are particularly good. Street entertainers pass by while you eat, playing guitars or accordions, or even performing acrobatics; it all adds to the atmosphere and, of course, they are grateful for a token of your appreciation. There is also a selection of "living statues", whose only movement seems to be to tick people off for taking photos without paying for the privilege.
Each evening, after we had finished our meal, we would stroll along the Promenade des Anglais. The sea looks particularly beautiful in the evening, with people swimming in the warm water until late at night. We were very impressed by the roller-bladers on the promenade, who criss, cross and jump with apparent ease. Our favourite, however, was the "drummer-in-a van" – not for pure entertainment value, but because it’s not every day that you see a man with the side door of his cow skin-lined Transit van open, playing drums along to a country and western song, with disco lights flashing away.
The old town
We loved the old part of the town. In the mornings we would visit the traditional market and marvel at the beautiful flowers, then buy a few calorie-laden but delicious pastries. During the evening, some of this area gets cleared away and is used by the many restaurants as their outdoor seating area; the remainder continues to be used as a market, but for more tourist-related goods such as jewellery, paintings and herbs de Provence. The old town is a maze of small lanes and side streets peppered with shops, restaurants, bars and ice-cream parlours; try Fenocchio, in the Place Rossetti, for some fantastic ice cream.
The buildings reflect Nice’s Italian history – three or four storeys high, painted in a wonderful array of pastel colours, with shuttered windows. There are also several churches hidden in the maze. It’s fantastic just to wander round in the evening, without knowing what surprises lie around the next corner, or to stop at one of the two central squares and enjoy a coffee, wine or beer.
All the restaurants have indoor seating for more intimate meals, but the tables on the streets provide a wonderful opportunity to eat al fresco and watch the world go by at the same time. The tourists buzz through the streets like bees, and you’ll need to keep an eye and an ear out for scooters and motorbikes, which seem to have just as much right to use the small streets as pedestrians do!
If you who want to celebrate later into the night, there is a smattering of English and Irish pubs such as Chez Wayne in the Rue de la Prefecture, or the Bliss Bar and the Bulldog Pub in the Rue de l’Abbaye; both have live music. Alternatively, just sit and watch the world go by in one of the many cafés that stay open until a least midnight.
We spent a few hours a day on the pebble beach, along the length of the Promenade des Anglais. We quickly picked up a tip from the locals: the pebbles on the beach get very hot, and it’s difficult to get into and out of the warm, clear turquoise sea without something on your feet. I would recommend wearing sandals. Some people seem to manage it without difficulty, while others stumble and wince their way out of the water!
Where to stay
On our first visit, we stayed at the Hotel Albert Premier on the Avenue des Phoceens – a stone’s throw from both the beach and the town. It was in need of a bit of redecoration and modernisation but the wonderful views over the adjacent park, and of the sea, made us feel in a forgiving mood. Second time round we stayed at Hôtel Le Grimaldi on the Rue Grimaldi, which was a five-minute walk from the new town and just a couple more minutes to the sea. This is a chic little hotel with friendly, helpful staff who speak excellent English and assist you wherever they can. So go ahead and treat yourself to a few days here. Nice is more than just nice!