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As the name would suggest, Nice is quite a nice place to start a trip to Provence. Set on the Mediterranean coast along la Baie des Anges, the “Bay of Angels” on the French Riviera, you can rest up from the debilitating effects of jet lag before picking up a rental car and heading out on the road to Provence. Nice is also a good base for exploring the rest of the Riviera— the French call it Côte d’Azur, the “Blue Coast”— since accommodations are less expensive and more plentiful than in the glitzy beach resorts.
Greek merchants from Massilia (now called Marseille) founded the city of Nikaia in the 4th century BCE. The name honors Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, with whose help they defeated the local Ligurians. The Romans didn’t seem to have much interest in the beaches of what they called Nicaea. They preferred the modern, thoroughly Roman town of Cemenelum up in the hills; it’s now the ritzy neighborhood of Cimiez. The Italian-speaking Duchy of Savoy acquired Nizza in the 14th century. Nice, along with the Duchy of Savoy, became French in 1860.
The main street that runs along the beach front is Promenade des Anglais, the “English Walk.” It’s named for all the upper-crust English who arrived in the 18th century, found Nice a suitable escape from the fog and drizzle back home, and developed the beachfront.
The shore is divided into various named beaches, some public and others private. Some private beaches are reserved for guests of the corresponding fancy hotels across the Promenade. Others are available to anyone who pays the fee for the use of the chairs and umbrellas. You can visit the public beaches for free, but you have to lie on the pebbles as you tan. If you want a sandy Mediterranean beach, you’ll need to go to Cannes or St-Tropez.
Vieux Nice is the very appealing “Old Town.” You can stroll among the colorful old buildings and squares, and sample the local version of pizza (there’s the Italian influence). Or try the Niçois specialty, socca, a thin pancake made from chickpea flour and olive oil, served piping hot and liberally sprinkled with pepper.
Cours Saleya in Vieux Nice is the site of a daily flower market. Each morning, the street fills with booths and tents, from which open-air vendors sell comestibles as well as flowers. Marzipan is a particularly colorful specialty: The trays of “fruits” and “vegetables” are made of sweetened almond paste. You can also find a cornucopia of genuine produce, such as purple garlic cloves from Provence.
If you walk around any city in Provence on a nice day, you’re quite
likely to encounter some kind of performance artists. This pair
impersonate statues, moving slowly between poses to ethereal music
from a boom box and directing viewers’ attention to the hat or box
to which they can contribute coins in appreciation.
Just down the Mediterranean coast from Nice, Cannes is one of those renowned glamour spots you just have to visit— if only to be able to tell your envious friends you’ve been there.
For two weeks every May, movie stars, studio executives, and film producers descend on Cannes for the the world-famous Festival International du Film de Cannes. The movie-folk, along with reporters, paparazzi, and what used to be called the jet set, can all see and be seen at luxurious waterfront hotels, trendy restaurants, astronomically-priced shops, and sandy beaches.
I visited Cannes a week after the Film Festival ended. Even without the glittering galaxy of stars and others who live the glamorous life, the pervasive atmosphere of international celebrity can still be dizzying. But it doesn’t cost anything to visit the attractive (and down-to-earth) Vieux Port , the “Old Marina” where quaint buildings and a genuine castle are a backdrop for the Yachts of the Rich and Famous as well as colorful local fishing boats.
Amidst all the glitz, there are opportunities for reflection about
all the things you’ve seen, done, and experienced.