Our wine scribe Jim Walker and his long-suffering wife Hélène have developed a deep affection for southern France.
To illustrate the magnitude of their ardor, they have invaded that fair land more than 30 times. Jim imported thousands of cases of wine from the region and Hélène conducted several small, intimate tours to Provence. The following is a compendium of their insights into the ideal base for a visit there: Nice, France.
For years we centered our visits to southern France in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence but have recently switched to Nice. Why? First, there is a lot more to see and do in Nice and the surrounding area. Second, one doesn’t need an auto to get around (public transportation there is superb and inexpensive). And third, it is right by the Mediterranean Sea.
Should you ever find yourself in this enchanted city, and I sincerely hope you do, I offer the following tips and recommendations along with the odd quibble:
- Late September and October are great times to visit Nice. The daily highs range from 21 to 24°C, the night-time lows from 16 to 18°C.
- Nice is an exceedingly beautiful city (sitting on a stretch of the Mediterranean doesn’t hurt) and it is getting even more so every day. Case in point – neatly manicured grass grows between the tram tracks. And, with a population of well over three hundred thousand, it maintains a very human scale – there are no skyscrapers.
- We find it best to rent an apartment if planning an extended stay in Nice (highly recommended). We have found Nice Pebbles, a British rental and property management agency to be excellent. And, one pays in British Pounds which is very attractive these days.
- As mentioned, public transportation is excellent and inexpensive. For little more than a Euro, one can go anywhere from Menton to Cassis. There is even a little red shuttle bus that circulates around the city core that is free. Trains also link the various towns and cities and, while more expensive, tend to be faster (the stations can be in out of the way locations and figuring out how to buy a ticket can be a real bear). There is no need for a car. In fact, it would be a costly liability.
- The little tourist train that beetles around the city is a delight and a great way to discover Nice’s charms.
- Nice is a cosmopolitan city. While French of course is the language heard most often, Russian (Nice has long been a favourite wintering spot for the Russian aristocracy) is not far behind. Then in order come Arabic, Italian and English among a myriad of others. English is spoken in many restaurants and shops.
- Good to very good restaurants can be found just about everywhere. The ones off the beaten track are usually better and less expensive than those in the tourist areas. Our favorite so far is Restaurant Dante. Another gem is Le Séjour Café – their Coquilles Saint-Jacques (large scallops) are divine. If you are looking for hearty fare and a café gourmand to die for, Le Cénac is hard to beat. Le Bocal is another winner.
- As one might expect, there are many, many places in Nice to buy wine. The major grocery stores (Casino, Monoprix and Carrefour) have large wine sections and often offer specials (I once saw a popular brand of Champagne on sale for 22 Euros). However, these tend to be co-op wines and one must select carefully. The smaller versions of these stores, of which there are many, also have decent wine sections. Nicolas wine shops are ubiquitous – around 500 of them just in France. I have not been overwhelmed by their selections. For serious wine, I find it best to seek out a specialty store. Cave Rivoli is very good.
- Roadwork is rife throughout the city. The streets are being beautified with new stone curbs and pavers, serpentine bike lanes and trees planted by the thousands. Mercifully, they don’t seem to know about asphalt! Pipes and electrical conduits are being replaced. However, from time to time one catches a whiff of raw sewage whilst ambling about town. Hopefully, the construction frenzy will address this malodorous issue.
- Speaking of construction, a most remarkable edifice is being built in Nice called Gare Thiers-Est (East Thiers Station). Designed by Studio Libeskind (Daniel Libeskind’s architectural firm) it is a massive, futuristic glass structure adjacent to and in stark contrast to the main train station.
- Street names are difficult to find in Nice (and often change from block to block); street numbers barely exist.
- Lazing in the famous blue chairs by the sea on la Promenade des Anglais is a fine way to while away late afternoons. A thermos with a little rosé in it is a nifty enhancement.
- Old town Nice is a treasure trove of earthly delights from its markets to shops, cafés and restaurants.
- Insects: there are small, pesky house flies here and there and a few tiny mosquitoes in the evening and nighttime. All in all, not a significant problem.
- La rue de France runs roughly a block north and parallel to La Promenade des Anglais (AKA La Prom). Actually, it is a number of streets. La rue begins on the toney Avenue Jean Médecin at the magnificent Place Masséna and meanders on westward for many blocks. It is a fairly wide street lined with restaurants, hotels and a few shops. The restaurants are tourist centric – decent food but nothing special at steep prices. It is a busy, bustling street that features great people-watching. Mainly used by pedestrians, the odd car, delivery van or motor bike rudely intrudes.
- Now then, may the saints be praised, some of the restaurants on rue de France offer Happy Hours that run from 16h00 to 18h00. Folks here don’t even think about dining till past 19h30. Hélène and I have been known to select a well-situated establishment and sit ourselves down in ring-side seats. Fifty cl beers are five Euros. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a deal but consider that there are no taxes or tips. Our tab comes to 10 Euros exactly (I will confess that we leave an extra Euro, being the big spenders that we are). Poor Hélène has a nasty time trying to finish her beer. But fear not, I gallantly come to her rescue.
- After a pleasant little dinner of charcuterie accompanied by a nifty, somewhat saucy Rasteau out on our patio, thoughts naturally turn to dessert. So, we sashay down to rue de France to our favourite gelato shop. This is great stuff served the way that only the French can do it (it does take a bit of work to keep the dripping under control – I offer to help Hélène, but she won’t let me – sniff).
- Whilst on the subject of tasty treats, Pâtisserie Maison LAC is a chain of exquisite pastry shops (one is in the old town) that makes sinfully delicious desserts. My favorite is the Opéra. La Pâtisserie Canet is another creator of things most yummy.
- Il était une fois (once upon a time), no matter where one got them, the baguettes in France were of consistently high quality – crispy crusts with delectable soft innards, particularly tasty when still warm. But no longer. Many shops now get them frozen from a central source and merely heat them up them sur place. They simply don’t cut it. One must find bakeries where the delicious little devils are concocted from scratch early in the morning and then baked in ovens on the premises. By the way, baguettes are subsidized by the French government – average cost 1.1 Euro. I like to adorn generous slices with butter from Normandy that has little flecks of sea salt in it.
- Not to be missed is the Colline du Château (Castle Hill), a large mesa-like promontory situated between the old town and the port. This is where the original inhabitants of Nice settled thanks to its marvellous defendable position. At 92 metres high, it is a bear to climb, particularly on a hot day. Mercifully there are a couple of rickety old elevators whose shaft is that of the original well. The views from the top are stunning. There’s even an artificial waterfall.
- The Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall museums high in the hills behind downtown are both of interest. Don’t try to walk to them – there is a bus (thank goodness).
- The Musée Massena by the sea is well worth a visit. The are beautiful grounds, a magnificent mansion and lots of neat stuff from the Napoleonic era (including one of Josephine’s tiaras) on display.
- The Russian orthodox Saint-Nicolas Cathedral commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II and ordered renovated by Vladimir Putin a few years ago is worth a look. The big surprise to me was that there were no guards or other visible security measures.
- If you are expecting a panorama of sartorial splendor, fuhgeddaboudit. Slovenliness pretty much sums things up (tourists or locals, who knows? Likely both). Untucked tee shirts over shorts, pyjama bottoms or garish trousers and Crocs for the men, not much better for the women. The very occasional well-attired individual stands out. Ripped and torn blue jeans were all the rage three years ago, but one seldom sees them now. Dieu merci!
- Curiously, many folks can be seen wearing puffy vests and coats when the temperature isabove 20°C. One can but wonder what they wear when it gets really cold.
- A day trip to Saint-Paul-de-Vence (see my previous Gentleman’s Portion post) is a great pleasure (Restaurant Le Tilleul and La Colombe d’Or are very good restaurants), as is a visit to Menton on the Italian border. Go at least one way by bus (1.5 Euro) – the sea views are magnificent – be sure to sit on the right side of the bus on the way there, left on the way back.
- Another day trip to the villa and gardens of Ephrussi de Rothschild in toney Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is a highlight.
- L’Hotel Le Negresco on Le Prom is a unique and timeless legend. Designed by Henri Negrescu, the hotel opened its doors in 1913 to great acclaim. Jeanne Augier purchased Le Negresco in 1957. The painter Dali, Grace of Monaco, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Elton John and many other luminaries have stayed there. Jeanne personally greeted every celebrity and amassed a collection of valuable and somewhat funky artwork and furniture. It all must be seen to be believed.
I have but lightly touched on the surface of all that is wonderful about Nice and its surrounding attractions. There’s also the Opéra de Nice, Le Ruhl – Casino Barrière de Nice, the Marché de la Libération, soaring churches, splendid Belle Époque architecture and so much more. Did I mention great shopping? If you haven’t been already, I hope you make it sometime. It really is nice.
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This is Jim’s 80th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.
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