Tuesday, October 23, 2012

First Impressions of Nice, in Pictures & Some Words

Nice is filled with flowers, cacti, pebbles and modern art, but you can easily step off the bus and into the ruins of a Roman capital. There are ferries to Corsica and a waterfall tumbling over the side of a medieval keep. 

I still need to think about the city a bit more politically, because obviously a city so built for leisure and luxury only operates that way for some segments of the population. In the case of Nice, the city has -since the 19th century- essentially been hijacked by wealthy travelers in search of sun, and I can't imagine the impact on locals has been wholly positive. 

But I was only there for two days and the sun and the sea (which really is as fantastically and mysteriously colored as one reads in Scott Fitzgerald novels) and all those palatial buildings and gardens filled with flowers can be a bit too immediately seductive... 

On my first morning, I woke up early and walked along the Promenade des Anglais, which was filled with joggers and cyclists and blue chairs designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte in the 1960s. I came across a man playing an accordion (complete with music stand) while his wife swam.

The streets just back from the Promenade des Anglais are an interesting mix of the last century. The Hotel Negresco opened a hundred years ago, the Palais de la Méditerranée dates from 1929 and there's a huge spread of 1950s holiday apartments in the blocks behind them. There's also an amazing vintage shop, Mademoiselle, at 41 Rue de France, though nothing there is cheap. 

Much, much further (almost an hour further on a bus at midday) along the Promenade des Anglais is the Musée des Arts Asiatiques, designed by Kenzo Tange in the 1990s. It's a beautiful, tranquil building which had, when I was there, two amazing exhibitions on Japan, one a series of photographs of gardens and the other an attempt at tracing Basho's poetry with site-specific artworks in nature. I had to leave in the end because I was wishing too desperately that I could fly directly from the airport (conveniently just a block from the museum) to a garden in Kyoto.

Instead, I went to Parc Paradis, the garden next door to the museum. It was almost completely empty when I visited, but totally lovely, with huge fountains and sunflowers and roosters crowing beside waterfalls, everything smelling of lavender.

There were also flamingoes there, which I kind of didn't expect. It was sort of a whole world unto itself... albeit a strange world where animals live with no humans save their personal gardening team. It seems a lot of people don't pay the two euro to go inside, perhaps because from the outside Parc Paradis appears run down and dated.

My favourite suburb of Nice was Cimiez, perched on a hill slightly above the centre of town.

The monastery gardens had an especially spectacular view (down over Nice and the Mediterranean to one side, up toward Gustave Eiffel's observatory and Elton John's holiday house sitting side by side on a hilltop in the other direction) and really lovely flowers. The interiors were all closed when I visited, but the exterior of the monastery buildings were quite dramatic.

Just down the road is an ancient Roman arena. Cimiez was once Cemenelum, a Roman rival to the city of Nice, and many traces of this remain. This site isn't guarded or ticketed or anything and doesn't seem to get that many visitors, except those who stumble upon it on their way to the Matisse Museum next door, and there's something quite amazing about standing in the centre of a Roman arena that once held 5,000 people and having it entirely to yourself.

Cimiez is also home to one of Nice's most interesting modern buildings (which is saying a lot, because this city is filled with interesting modern buildings), Église Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc. This was designed by Jacques Droz in 1926 and sits opposite a carpark on a busy junction. The shape is really unusual and quite cartoonish, all ovoid domes and smaller asymmetrical cupolas.

In addition to that mentioned here, I also went to the Musée Massena, the Musée National Marc Chagall, MAMAC and then to most of the usual places tourists go, like the Parc du Château and the Cours Saleya. I'd recommend all of these, really.

I was in Nice for five days, but spent one of those days in Cannes and Juan-les-Pins, one in Beaulieu and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and then an afternoon in Villefranche. It feels like there's so much more to see in Nice, so many places that are found only by wandering curiously.

(the first image is the cover of this book, which I really want; the rest are my own photographs)

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