My potted history of Nice

It occurred to me that before writing about my favourite places in Nice I should share with you my potted version of its long, interesting history. So here goes.

Introduction

Superbly set on nothing less than the Bay of Angels, Nice has a gleam and sparkle like no other city in France. No one can resist its lively old town squeezed between promontory and sea, its markets blazing with colour, the glittering tiled domes and creamy patisserie of 19th century hotels and villas, the immaculate exotic gardens, and the famous voluptuous curve of the beach and palm fringed Promenade des Anglais. It’s the one town on the Cote d’Azur that doesn’t seem to need tourists, the one that stays open throughout the winter. You could come here for the food alone, a seductive melange of the best of France and Italy; you haven’t really had ravioli until you tuck into a plate in Nice, where it was invented.

The capital of the department of Alpes-Maritimes and France’s fifth-largest city, Nice is also the most visited French city after Paris. The English have been coming for well over 200 years, back when “Nizza la Bella” still belonged to Savoy, and Russian Tsarinas and Grand Dukes fleeing winter’s blasts weren’t far behind. The presence of so many rich, idle foreigners who stayed for months at a time formed a large part of the city’s character: corruption, reactionary politics and organised crime are part of the famous salade niçois, along with a high density of apricot poodles sporting the same hairstyles as their owners. But Nice also has a football team, a university, many museums, the brilliant light so-beloved of Matisse and a genuine identity as a city: rough, affable and informal.

Its History 

Nice has long been a property hot spot. People have been taking advantage of its prime real estate for many, many years. 400,000 BC, hunters who tracked mammoth and frequented the caves of Terra Amata (now the site of Boulevard Carnot, to the east of the Port) learned how to make fire to BBQ their prey and founded the world’s first take-away – McMammoth’s. Indeed, the first human remains dating from c 1,000,000 BC were found up the road in Menton leading one to conclude that the Cote d’Azur was indeed the Garden of Eden, as only a French woman would have the figure and chutzpah to wear a fig leaf. And, contrary to popular belief, she didn’t want the apple to tempt Adam; she needed it to make a tarte tatin.

Around 1,000 BC, the Ligurians were the first to settle here permanently, constructing their settlement at the mouth of the Paillon River and on the hill overlooking the valley. Greeks from Marseille, (the Massaliotes) founded a commercial colony near the seaside settlement and named it Nikaia, literally “giver of victory”. The beginnings of the new town were established on the slopes of the Colline du Chateau, overlooking and between the present old town and port. At this time, Nice was a small stronghold, with a few hundred inhabitants, mainly merchants, under the authority of magistrates nominated by Marseilles.

Beset by Ligurian pirates, the Nikaians (foolishly) asked the Romans for aid. The Romans duly came, and stayed. But they preferred to set up camp on the hilltop because it was closer to the Via Julia Augusta, which linked Nice to Vintimille. They named this town Cemenelum (modern Cimiez) and made it the capital of the province of Alpes Maritimes. By 3rd century AD, Cemenelum had 20,000 inhabitants and three thermal baths. The city was a military enclave intended to supervise and control this accident-prone and wild country. But the disorganisation of the empire, the barbarian invasions and the absence of fortifications led to a preference for the steep hills of Greek Nikaia. By 6th century AD, Cemenelum had collapsed along with the rest of the Roman Empire and became a mere neighbourhood of what was later to become the city of Nice.

While almost no traces of the Massaliotes remain, the Romans left many reminders. Not just the afore-mentioned Via Julia Augusta, but also the Trophée d’Auguste. It’s a magnificent construction with four well-preserved columns, which offers a great panorama at La Turbie and symbolises the submission of the Alpine peoples to Roman rule in 14 BC. Emperor Auguste can also be credited with setting up the region’s first real administrative organisation. Finally, the most manifest remains of the Roman presence in Nice are the well-preserved Roman amphitheatres and baths around the site of Cimiez’s Archeological Museum.

Meanwhile, Greek Nikaia struggled on, shaken by the family rivalries of its successive nobility, exhausted by the multiple invasions of the Goths, Francs, Saxons and Saracens which ravaged Nice and pillaged the coast for 150 or so years. It was only in 972 AD that Guillaume, the Compte de Provence, managed to rout them. The commercial activity of the lower town intensified around the cathedral on the Colline du Chateau and in 1176 the first town charter was drawn up.

The creation of the port of Villefranche [sur Mer] made the coast safer and encouraged maritime exchanges. Nice became much sought after by the Italian States, notably Genoa and Pisa. By the 1340s, with a population of 13,000, Nice was the third city in Provence after Marseille and Arles. The city’s coat of arms had an eagle’s head on it, looking to the left, to France.

On the death of Queen Jeanne of Provence, rivalries worsened, the Black Death and civil wars soon cut it down in size, and in 1388 the city’s leaders voted to hitch their wagon to a brighter star than Louis d’Anjou and pledged allegiance to Armadeus III, Count of Savoy. The eagle was redrawn to look right towards Italy.

In 1543, the Turkish fleet, aided by the French troops of King Francois I, tried in vain to reconquer the city. Local washerwoman turned symbolic figure Catherine Ségurane used a particularly unusual form of defence. Legend has it that she lashed out with a carpet beater to send them running while showing them her very ample, bare derrière!

The Savoys fortified Nice and it grew rich trading with Italy and 17th century saw the expansion of Nice outside its medieval walls, and in 1696 and 1705 came the first of several French interludes that punctuated Savoy rule; interludes which Louis XIV took advantage of to blow up the city’s fortifications. In 1713, the town again retreated to the protection of the King of Savoy, who had also become King of Sardinia.

Apollo Fountain in Place Massena behind which lies the Old Town

The 17th century also witnessed the flourishing of baroque art in Nice. Façades were painted in warm reds and yellows, ochre and burnt sienna; doorways and window sills were given contrasting colours and the woodwork was painted in cold blues and greens. The restoration of the façades over the last few decades has returned Nice to her former baroque glory. Other striking examples of this artistic tradition are the churches of the old town, such as Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate.

Interior of Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate

Between the French Revolution and the Empire (1792-1814), the Alpes-Maritimes region was created and annexed to France. By the same token, Nice was also returned to the French, but this time with the assent of the people.

With the fall of Napoleon, Nice again came under the sway of Sardinia, but her language and culture distanced her further and further from Italy. On the 24th March 1860, Napoleon III and Victor-Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia, agreed that Nice would be handed over to France once and for all, a decision that met with universal approval from its inhabitants. A remarkable economic boom ensued; roads were built, the railway arrived, and the population underwent explosive growth.

At the same time, winter tourism, which had started to develop in the mid-1700s with the arrival of the British aristocracy, gathered ground. Even though it took at least two weeks to reach Nice from Calais, by 1787 there were enough Brits wintering here to support a casino, an English theatre, an estate agent and a newspaper. In 1830, when a frost killed all the orange trees, the English community raised funds to give the unemployed jobs: building a seafront promenade along the Baie des Anges known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais.

Promenade des Anglais during Paris-Nice bike race

The latter part of the 19th century and the run up to the First World War was Nice’s heyday, to which the prolific and luxurious belle époque residences attest. It really was the playground of the rich and famous.

The early 20th century was deeply marked by the First World War and the Rural Exodus. Although southern France saw no action in WWI, soldiers were conscripted from the region and many lives were lost. In the 1920s the region once more became a mecca for artists and writers (including Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann). The luxurious Train Bleu made its first run from Calais, via Paris, to the Côte d’Azur in 1922.

Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon, Paris, decorated with scenes from south of France

Nice was included in the ‘free’ Vichy France zone during the first part of WWII, and became a safe haven from war-torn occupied France. Vichy France was invaded by Nazi Germany in November 1942, and Nice was occupied by the Italians. Allied forces landed on the Côte d’Azur in August 1944, and the region was liberated. It didn’t take Nice long to bounce back, and the bohemian jet set soon returned. The resort is now an all year round holiday spot and tourism is a vital and fundamental part of the local economy, a fact borne out by the airport (the second largest in France), and the vast array of hotels, holiday homes and yachts.

Friday Photo Challenge – Easter

To those of you who celebrate Easter – enjoy! To those of you that don’t, well you’re going to have to find another excuse to eat copious amounts of chocolate. Good luck with that!

Weather permitting, my beloved and I will be out and about on our bikes hoping to offset the ravages of all that chocolate. I just have to find where these two have hidden all the eggs.

Thursday doors #14

Rather than exhaust my stock of newly photographed doors, I thought I’d dip into my photo archive for a few. This also has the advantage of testing the grey matter to remember when and where it was taken. One of these days I will get around to sorting out all my photos, until then…………………………

This one was taken during the Tour du Haut Var a couple of years ago while I was wandering around the Old Town of Draguignan, in the neighbouring Var. The Old Town has a number of handsome, historical buildings but, sadly, I’ve not been able to identify this one.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

The Musette: indulgent fish pie

We don’t get many visitors who stay overnight largely because we work from home. My brother-in-law and his wife recently spent a long week-end with us and I much enjoyed catering for them. My sister-in-law is a very skilled practionner of arts & crafts but not a particularly keen cook. I’m the opposite, barely capable of sewing a button back on but right at home in the kitchen. So it was a real treat to cook for them for a few days.

The fish pie is a British classic but all too often the fish ends up completely over cooked, lacking its identity, texture and flavour. In this recipe, I cool the sauce and then add the fish to the cold sauce before baking in a hot oven. This ensures that the fish is not over-cooked. This versatile recipe can be made with whatever fish you prefer. You can be creative with flavouring it, adding your favourite herbs and even some vegetables. You can make and chill the sauce ahead of time, or assemble the pie, minus the topping, and freeze.

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists)

  • 2 large shallots or 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 40g (3 tbs) butter
  • 1 large thyme sprig, leaves only
  • 4 tbsp Noilly Prat, dry vermouth or dry sherry
  • 2 tsp Pernod (optional)
  • 4 tbsp plain flour
  • 250ml (1 cup) fish, chicken or vegetable stock (a stock cube is fine)
  • 200ml (3/4 cup) milk
  • 4 tbsp double (heavy) cream
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 250g (1/2 lb) skinless salmon or cod fillets
  • 180g (6 oz) smoked haddock fillets
  • 200g (7 oz) scallops
  • 150g (5 oz) large prawns, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tbsp fresh organic lemon juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Creamed Potato Topping

  • 750g (1 1/2lbs) potatoes, peeled
  • 75g (5 tbsp) butter, cubed
  • 50ml (1/4 cup) hot milk or single cream
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 75g (2/3 cup) medium Emmental (or similar) cheese, finely grated

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6 (400°F). Grease a shallow (about 2 litre /8 cups capacity) pie dish.

2. Start by making the mashed potato for the topping. Chop the potatoes into chunks and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Drain well and push through a potato ricer, or mash until smooth. Add the butter and hot milk or cream and mix until well incorporated. Allow to cool slightly, then stir in the egg yolks. Season well and put to one side.

3. Sauté the shallots or onion and celery in the oil and butter with the thyme leaves for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the Noilly Prat and Pernod (if using), then cook for 4–5 minutes until reduced right down.

4. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute or so. Heat the stock in a small pan or a jug in the microwave. Gradually stir it into the vegetable mixture with a wooden spoon until smooth, and boil for about 5 minutes until reduced by a third. Mix in the milk, lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes. Season well, then add the cream and parsley and leave to cool.

5. Meanwhile, cut the fish into bite-sized chunks and scatter in the pie dish with the scallops and prawns. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and seasoning. Put the dish on a baking sheet.

6. Pour over the cool sauce and mix well but gently with a fork. Pipe the mashed potato on top or spread and fluff it up with a fork. Scatter with the grated cheese and put the pie immediately in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F), and bake for another 20 minutes, turning the dish if it starts to brown unevenly. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving and receiving plaudits!

7. Serve the fish pie with fresh steamed greens (peas, asparagus, spinach or broccoli are perfect) and a nice glass or two of your favourite white wine.

Days out: Fabre Museum, Montpellier

Having spent the morning strolling around Montpellier in the warm sunshine, I was happy to retreat indoors in the afternoon to explore some more of the city’s hidden gems. But first my beloved and I dined in the museum’s restaurant which came highly recommended. We were not disappointed!

Modern work from Chinese artist

Entering the Fabre Museum, a step or two away from Place de la Comédie, means plunging into a wonderful world that is both far away and close at hand. Because this superb museum, opened in the early 19th century, featuring the collections of François-Xavier Fabre, contains major works from the history of art and the best productions from the past 300 years by artists with special links to Montpellier and the region.

A painting by Corot

Vien, Raoux, Bourdon, Fabre, Cabanel, Bazille, as well as Claude Viallat and Vincent Bioulès, are displayed side by side with Bruegel, Rubens, Veronese, Poussin, Ingres, Corot, Monet, Utrillo, Van Dongen and de Staël. Not forgetting a handful of portraits by David and Delacroix.

Grand scale

Look at the lovely mosaic floor

Fabulous frieze

Through the museum’s three levels, you advance through time, from Flemish and Dutch painting and the Italian Renaissance to the centuries of classicism and flamboyance. I walked through the Columns Gallery, where the large-scale paintings from the 18th century fill the walls, to more intimate rooms, featuring NeoClassicism and Romanticism, Classicism and modern art.

More supersized art

I wandered on through into the contemporary section, its two exposed concrete rooms were specially designed for works by Pierre Soulages, a keen visitor to the Museum.

Plenty of spectacular artworks

The Fabre Museum has one of the most important fine art collections in France. It’s a fascinating and comprehensive collection of artworks spanning the ages and well worth a visit. Surprisingly, I had the place almost to myself!

Friday Photo Challenge – changeable

Spring is in full swing and we’re finally getting some much needed rain. I never thought I’d say that but flora and fauna need rain to flourish. Here, it’ll often rain overnight, start a little overcast before the sun makes a welcome appearance around midday. Sometimes it’ll rain early morning or late afternoon. Othertimes, it just pours. All. Day. It rains so hard I can barely see beyond the terrace. On these days I just stay indoors and get on with my oh so long “To Do List.”

With over 300 days a year of sunshine, we don’t have too many rainy or grey days. However, I love the monochrome outlook on grey days or mornings. There’s something magical in the way the diffused light hits the water which, by the way, looks like liquid mercury.

Thursday doors #13

I love spotting businesses, generally shops and restaurants, that have been around for decades. Usually they’re family businesses which have been handed down the generations.  As I was wandering around Castres in the January sunshine this door caught my eye.

If you’re wondering, the P stands for Pierre!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Missing Itzulia

This week sees the 59th running of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and we’re not there, again! We’ve watched this stage race continuously from 2011 but were forced to miss the last two years’ because of issues with my beloved’s hip. It’s now happily mended but sadly pressure of work has prevented the resumption of our visits. To console myself, I thought I’d write a bit about this year’s race which started today.

La Concha beach San Sebastian regularly voted best in class

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scatter across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soar high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines share the waves. The dazzling architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastian draw enthusiastic crowds, while traditional small towns, such as Lekeitio and Hondarribia, are also thriving, making the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

The race route (in red above) typically covers a significant part of the Spanish Basque Country visiting some old favourites, such as its capital Vitoria-Gasteiz and the climb to Arrate from Eibar. But none of it’s ever too far away so it’s possible to base yourself in one hotel and travel daily to each of the start and finish lines.

To watch the race, we’ve peviously stayed in some lovely locations such as Getaria, a small fishing resort on the coast not far from San Sebastian.

Getaria

And we’ve stayed inland among those dark satanic hills.

Home from home

But, wherever we’ve stayed, Basque hospitality has been delightful, plentiful and very reasonably priced!

This year’s race kicks off in Zumarraga, as it did back in 2011, so it’s a place we’ve visited a few times. In the town centre, there’s the charming arcaded square in the middle of which is a bronze statue dedicated to Miguel López de Legazpi, conqueror of the Philippines. Those Basques sailed everywhere! Plus, there’s a 19th century neo-classical town hall, the Itarte and Uzkanga houses, and a16th century Gothic church, Santa María de la Asunción. 

Interestingly, this year’s race begins (rather than concludes) with an individual time-trial which will be short (11.3km) but intense because the final  2.3km has an average gradient of 9.7%, reaching a maximum of 21% in the final 100 meters. This is pretty typical of climbs in the Basque Country, short but rarely sweet!

As is customary, the second stage starts where the first one leaves off in Zumarraga, finishing 150km or so later in Gorraiz after 4,800 metres of climbing. There are hardly any flat roads in the Basque Country – I speak from bitter experience. Gorraiz is in Navarra, not too far from its main town of Pamplona.

Typically, the parcours visits all the autonomous community of the Basque Country plus the Foral one of Navarra. We’ve never visited Gorraiz but I suspect it has been included on the parcours to showcase its its recently rebuilt 16th century palace and church of San Esteban (pictured above right).

Day three starts at one of yesterday’s sprint points, the ancient town of Sarrigurenat which is now home to an EcoCity dedicated to preserving the ecological habitat of its surrounding plains. It’s the longest stage of the race with an undulating 191km finishing at 12th century Romanesque Estibaliz Sanctuary (above), dedicated to the patron saint of Álava. We’ve not previously visited either of these towns, although we’ve cycled around Navarra, watched the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Pamplona and seen the GP Miguel Indurrain in Estella several times.

The fourth stage starts in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz which has a simply lovely Old Town with some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region, plus two cathedrals. The stage, another undulating one, finishes in Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao, which has a parish church dating back to 9th century. While, we’re very familiar with Vitoria-Gasteiz, I don’t recollect ever visiting the finish town.

The event now starts to hot up with what is often its race defining penultimate stage, finishing in Arrate. Just look at the snaggle-toothed race profile, those boys are going to have weary legs! We’re back on very familiar  territory [to us]. The entire final climb will be lined with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, most of whom will have ridden up the ascent. I have to hold my hand up here and admit we always drive up!

I can still remember Samu Sanchez winning here in 2012, his third consecutive win on this climb, before going on to lift the overall.

Though possibly the most entertaining victor at Arrate was Diego Rosa who in 2016 lifted his bike aloft before soloing across the line on foot!

The final day has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

So, there you have it: 784kms over six stages which include an individual time-trial and tackle 22 summits. I’ve no idea who’s going to win this year’s race. It’ll have its usual sprinkling of mountain goats and Basque riders. The locals will be hoping that one of the latter manages to climb atop the podium, preferably onto the top step. It’s a race much prized for its tough parcours and ability to get riders to peak for the Ardennes Classics or in form for the Giro d’Italia. I have friends riding so I’ll be watching the race every day on the television and cheering them on – aupa!